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Mustard Seed Faith

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The summer before I turned two, my grandmother inadvertently gifted me with my most valuable piece of jewelry. We were visiting her house in Pennsylvania, and my wee toddler self needed entertaining, so she pulled out a decorative box filled with costume jewelry and I was in heaven. Colorful flower pins, long strands of beads, chunky bracelets, and clip-on earrings preoccupied me for at least ten minutes, I’m sure, along with Grammy’s signature phrase as I rummaged through the box pulling everything out.

“Now wait.”

She was always saying that. When I was impatient to go uptown to Uncle Russell’s 5 & 10. When I wanted to go down in the basement to get her box of crayons. When I wanted to explore the attic.

She’s been gone almost 6 years, but I can still hear her voice when I’m feeling impatient. I’ve even heard it coming out of my own mouth when my kids are running around.

“Now wait.”

Ultimately she gave that big jewelry box and its contents to my mom, who still has it. My girls have played with the same costume jewelry. Among its contents was an unusual pendant to which I was always drawn. I always thought it looked like a lightbulb. Inside a tiny glass ball about half the size of a marble there is a hole, and inside the hole, a seed.

A mustard seed.

I’m sure the monetary value of this odd pendant is minimal, but I consider this talisman my most valuable because of what it represents to me – faith and possibility.

Most of us know the biblical parable of the mustard seed. The tiniest of seeds produces the mightiest of bushes that can shelter all the birds of the air. Christ said that faith the size of a mustard seed was all that was needed to move mountains.

Grammy was the paragon of faith in my family. She was widowed as a young mom of three teen and preteen children, and making ends meet in their small town was a daily act of faith. But she never doubted that The Lord would provide, and He always did, up until the time she died at almost 92 years old. A woman of few financial resources, it was nothing short of miraculous that she got to live out the best of her final years in a lovely assisted living apartment community, after achieving her dream of traveling to Russia at age 70. Her post script to every mealtime prayer we shared was, “Thank you Lord for many blessings.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been wearing her pendant regularly, especially on the days when I struggle to let go of a person or situation that is causing me to worry. I just hold the pendant in my fingers, close my eyes, and remember that God has the person I love in His more-than-capable hands. Having a tangible object on which to focus is helpful.

The pendant broke last week. The ball fell off and the mustard seed came out. It was a miracle that I found the glass globe part; I’m pretty sure the seed is not going to turn up. But it’s not the seed that magically soothes my mind when I get all worked up. It’s my conscious act of letting go and trusting that all the people I love are exactly where they need to be, right here right now. If I’m uncomfortable about where they are, that’s my problem, not theirs. I can take my discomfort, and my accompanying desire to “fix them” and share it with a girlfriend or write it in a journal or say a prayer. I can accept and love unconditionally. I can remember that no act of faith on my part has ever resulted in anything but my ultimate good.

A friend of mine recently described faith this way – being in free fall and deciding not to panic until you hit the ground, only you never hit bottom. That’s not to say that faith is a remedy for all pain, sadness, or natural consequences – it isn’t. Faith is all about having an attitude of trust instead of an attitude of fear, anger, defensiveness, justification, and selfishness. Faith may not prevent pain, but it eases self-inflicted suffering.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Tiny. Inconsequential. Yet within it is the potential to shelter “all the birds of the sky.” Not just the blue birds. Not just the robins. Not just the cardinals or doves or hawks. Faith isn’t limited, and neither is the kingdom.

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Good Ground

14 Jul

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel has never sat well with me. It’s the parable of the sower. The sower (presumably God) casts out seed (the Word of God) which falls in a variety of hostile places and fails to grow to maturity or bear fruit. Except when it falls on the “good” soil. Then it flourishes. Even today’s psalm selection hammers home the point – the seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

How nice for the “good ground.”

This parable smacks of the kind of predestination-minded theology that makes my stomach turn. What about free will? What about “blessed are the poor?” What about hope?

I’ve always related to the “good soil.” I liked going to church from the time I was a little child. I thrived in my Catholic school. I loved pondering the scriptures, and I took the Word to heart, literally. When life gets hard, I turn to God, not away (usually). So why should I even care about the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground?

For one, I’ve always had a special place in that “good” soil of mine for atheists and agnostics – the seekers, the questioners, the doubters, the deniers. When you love someone who wants to have faith but is too worried about their life circumstances to truly let go and let God, that parable brings little comfort. When you love someone who is a fair-weather follower who falls off the faith wagon after a beautiful conversion, that parable stings to the core. When you love someone who flat out rejects the one thing that brings you peace, that parable breaks your heart. And when that person is a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse, it’s almost more than one can bear.

If you’re someone with “good soil” reading this, you know the feeling. No amount of self-righteousness can ease that pain.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in a God of hope. I don’t believe in lost causes, nor do I believe in writing someone off. I believe the words of the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

I also find comfort in today’s epistle from Paul to the Romans. “Creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Yes, comfort. Some people might see that phrase “subject to futility” and throw up their fatalistic hands. Sometimes it seems as if nothing we do can change the overpowering tide of pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) that plagues the world. I can think if several news stories just in the last three days illustrating some of the worst that humanity can throw at itself. Human justice is an uphill, losing, futile battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, “Power is the ability to effect change.” In a world subject to futility, there is but one who has all power to change the soil, the soul. May we find Him now.

God throws the seed, and it does not return to him void. Even when it falls on the path to be eaten by birds. Even when it sprouts in shallow soil and withers. Even when it is choked out by weeds.

I know that in my heart, there is good soil. But there is also a well-paved path of self-will that doesn’t receive the Word. There is a fair-weather garden that isn’t suited for deep roots. And there are thorns of worry and doubt, in the darkest shadows, where the Word is all but lost. And if there can be such places in me, then there can be rich soil, if only a tiny patch, in the stoniest, weediest, shallowest heart of another. If only one seed sprouts and bears one small fruit there, that is enough to make angels rejoice.

The focal point of any parable has to be God. What kind of farmer sows seed anywhere but a well-tilled field? The kind of farmer that loves it all – the roads, the rocks, and the weeds. He showers every one of us with His Word, and His word is nothing more or less than hope itself. He litters every imperfect part of our hearts with it, because He knows hope isn’t wasted. And He challenges us to love like that when our harvest is ripe, whether we yield a bounty of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold, or just one humble apple. Our soil is “good” only by God’s grace, and our harvest is in spite of our own futility.

God alone has the power to change the landscape of our hearts. I know that seed will only yield a harvest in “good soil;” why then do I insist on repaving the same well-travelled roads? Why not turn over the shallow, fallow fields? Why not allow the Master Gardener to remove the weeds and thorns? God doesn’t just want our “good” soil. He wants the whole damned package. He has the ability to effect change there. This is what the psalmist understood when he wrote this poetry of praise:

You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

And it’s all good ground.

United In the Body and Blood

22 Jun

I was all set to write a different reflection today. It was already half-finished this morning. Then I went to church at St. Elizabeth’s.

My regular parish is St. Michael’s in Richmond’s well-heeled, mostly upper middle class West End. It’s a parish that boasts more than 2,000 families, including our former Republican state governor.

St. Mike’s shares a pastor and parochial vicar with St. Elizabeth’s – a tiny African American Catholic parish in Richmond’s northeast community of Highland Park, which couldn’t be more different from the West End, demographically, economically, or otherwise. St. E’s boasts a fantastic gospel choir, and one of Virginia’s most recent Democrat governor’s has been a member there since his days on city council 20 years ago.

Today both parishes celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. I was not familiar with the gospel music at St. E’s, and that made me feel a bit out of place. But then we got to the part where we all recited the Creed, and suddenly I was united with strangers and it struck me: this is what it means to be the Body of Christ.

In today’s brief reading from his epistle to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Two politicians who have both held the highest executive office in the state of Virginia hear the same homilies from the same priests and are fed at the same table along with the rest of us. Wealthy and humble. Black and white. Conservative and progressive. United in the Sacrament.

It was a powerful reminder of why I am Catholic when there are so many reasons why I could seek religious expression elsewhere. I certainly am not in lock step with the faith I profess by any stretch. But as I was taught in Catholic grade school, the word “catholic” means “universal.” It means that whatever it is that makes us diverse is not nearly as powerful as what makes us the same – the need for community, and the need for a Savior.

At communion, we sang “I Am The Bread of Life.” It’s my generation’s version of the quintessential Catholic hymn. To unite in song with strangers who welcomed me was deeply moving. I can’t wait to return.

Reflecting on Pentecost

13 Jun

Almost as soon as I got married I came to a heartbreaking realization: the man to whom I had pledged my entire future did not speak my “language,” figuratively speaking. I constantly felt misunderstood. I felt totally let down, and at times I even felt betrayed – not by my my husband, but by God. Hadn’t He called me into this marriage? Hadn’t we said the vows in a church blessed by a priest and witnessed by a supportive community? Was this not a Sacrament? Where was the magic that was supposed to turn two into one? Where was the unity?

God is just. He has seen to it that I have a diverse cadre of male friends, and because of them I have learned a great truth: men and women rarely speak each other’s language, and when we do, it’s only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a foregone conclusion that women understand each other, either. All of us are walking around doing the best we can to translate our native tongue into something others can understand.

In fact, this inability to communicate seems to go beyond our individual relationships. Whole groups of people seem incapable of finding common ground. People throw out words like “compromise” from their respective corners, demonizing each other while we dig ever deeper trenches of defensive self-justification, focused entirely on what makes us different instead of what makes us the same – our human dignity and the feelings we share.

What if, instead of demanding that each other compromise, we put our energy into the goals we have in common? Is it too much to ask?

I can’t help but think of the communication deficits we all have when I meditate on this past Sunday of Pentecost. The scripture from Acts detailing the coming of the Holy Spirit talks about wind and tongues of fire and the apostles speaking about God in many languages so that all the foreigners in Jerusalem could understand the story of Jesus in their native tongue. I’m pretty sure it was literal linguistic language to which the evangelist was referring. But what if it was applied to emotional language?

There are many “languages” we speak – poetry, ritual, mythology, theology, analogy, sport, music, art, humor. Self-expression comes in so many forms, and experience teaches us to interpret and appreciate all those forms. We may even become “multilingual,” but each of us has a native tongue, and when we meet someone who speaks it back to us, magic happens. We no longer have to translate ourselves into a common language. We don’t have to compromise to fit with the person on the other side of the street. Instead, we feel understood, and united.

That’s Pentecost. It was about God’s story being shared in a way that each person could intimately understand, in his or her own language. Pentecost wasn’t just about talking and being understood. It was about hearing and understanding. It was a demonstration of the powerful uniting force of love. As in the words of the St. Francis prayer:

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climax of the story of salvation, Pentecost is its conclusion. It’s the summation of all the Old Testament tales and New Testament parables that preceded it. It’s our marching orders as believers in a God who raised His Son from the dead. Speak in ways that others will understand. Share our experience of God’s love in ways that unite rather than divide. Let the foreigners know they are not so foreign after all.

Pentecost is the feast of unity.

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!

20140115-083004.jpg

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.

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