Sunday, July 31, 2016

Year C Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-6. 12-14.17; Col 3:1-5.9-11; Lk 12:13-21

Summed up in one word, today’s readings are about detachment, detaching ourselves from things that do not matter. This is a challenge because we live in a culture obsessed with things that do not matter. In a world in which wars are being fought, in which injustice breeds violence, in which people starve daily and preventable diseases kill tens of thousands, a world in which human activity is having a deleterious effect on earth, our common home, we remain content to concern ourselves with the ups-and-downs in the lives of celebrities and so many other meaningless things. While we must be careful not to let our awareness of vexing realities render us hopeless and take care not to assume an undue burden, even if it is only an emotional or psychological one, we must also avoid the constant distraction of pointless diversions. Very often we remain content, to paraphrase the title of Neil Postman’s 1985 book, to amuse ourselves to death. Even our presidential election is marred by our insatiable desire to be entertained instead of informed. We look for anything to take our minds off what St. Paul directs us to, namely “what is above” (Col. 3:1).

In the first verse of our first reading from Ecclesiastes the word for vanity is used five times. In Hebrew this frequent usage stands out more boldly because the verse consists of only eight words, as opposed to the twelve words in our English translation. The Hebrew word translated as vanity, hebel, is a noun meaning literally breath or vapor. Therefore, it refers to that which is transitory, lacks substance, or, to put it as bluntly as it is meant by the inspired author, that which is meaningless, or even absurd. In our three-year lectionary cycle we read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, or, to use its Hebrew designation, Qoheleth, meaning one who teaches and preaches to the assembly, only once.

Among those things the preacher tells us are meaningless are some things that we usually consider meaningful, like working hard and enjoying the fruits of our labor. The man in the example used by Qoheleth “labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill” (Eccl 2:21). For the preacher, however, this is precisely where the transitory nature of life is found, which understanding in echoed by Jesus in our Gospel. We die and another, perhaps less deserving person, reaps the rewards of our hard work! So, if these seemingly meritorious activities ultimately prove meaningless, how much more is this true of those things that not only don't matter ultimately, but do not even matter right now?

Such thoughts might be enough to drive us to despair. Paradoxically, nothing could be further from the truth or the intent of this observation. Our psalm today summarizes well the point Qoheleth sought to make: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90:12). In order to gain wisdom of heart we must realize two things. First, we must acknowledge the reality from which we most seek to distract ourselves: that we will die. This realization enables us to understand the second thing- how to better discern how to live a life that matters; what matters is not the measurable success of our endeavors. When it comes to what matters, we need to transform what into who. In other words, people matter, be they our spouse, our child, our parent, our sibling, our co-worker, our fellow parishioner, our friend, or, as Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard just a few weeks ago, the stranger we encounter who needs our help. Wisdom of heart consists in devoting ourselves to others without worrying about achieving pre-determined outcomes, or, put more traditionally, serving others without counting the cost or calculating the return. Satisfaction is to be found in the labor itself, not in the rewards of our labor.

This past week we witnessed the martyrdom in France of Fr. Jacques Hamel. He was brutally murdered while saying daily Mass in a Church under the patronage of the first Christian martyr, the deacon St. Stephen. Fr. Hamel, who was 85, could have retired 10 years ago, but chose to continue serving. In the wake of his murder, a fellow priest shared the following about Fr. Hamel: “Despite his advanced age he was still invested in the life of the parish. I often told him, jokingly, ‘Jacques, you are getting on a bit, it's time to take your pension.’ To which he replied, laughing, ‘Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath’” (BBC News, "Father Jacques Hamel: Tributes paid to priest who dedicated life to church" 26 July 2016). Because his work was serving others, it wasn’t the work, it was the people.

We see this in our second reading from St. Paul. When the apostle discusses “what is above,” contrary to some opinions, he is not saying that seeking what is above distracts us from our everyday lives. We seek what is above precisely in and through the circumstances in which we find ourselves all day every day. Specifically, he is talking about the necessity of living the life we received in baptism, which life is restored in the Sacrament of Penance and nourished by the Eucharist. In baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to eternal life. In the Our Father we pray together week after week, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.” What Paul is talking about is not remaining content to conceive of the reign of God as a future dream, but striving to make it a present reality.

From Paul’s letter to the Colossians we glean very practical advice about how to live for others by dying to self. We bring about God’s will by forsaking lust, greed (which Paul equates with idolatry), dishonesty, indeed, all evil desires. Just in case there is any doubt that what matters in life is not centered on ourselves, Paul tells us that in baptism our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).

In today’s Gospel, taken again from Luke’s Journey Narrative, God asks the man in Jesus’ parable, who worked so hard to store up treasure on earth, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Luke 12:20) After this parable our Lord gives anyone who would claim to be his follower a stern warning: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:21).

My friends in Christ, today we have heard God’s voice, do not harden your hearts. As Qoheleth shows us, paradox is an inescapable reality of the well-lived life. The ultimate paradox, taught us by our Lord himself who, a few chapters earlier in St. Luke’s Gospel taught: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:24-25).

The true master of death, the wise Albus Dumbledore said to Harry Potter, “does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying” (Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 721). Writing about the martyrdom of Jacques Hamel, Fr. Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest, noted that Christ’s sacrifice on “the cross is the non-violent absorption of human violence.” He went on to observe that Christ’s death is “the offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death.” As Jesus’ disciples we must recognize that “This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay.” I quite agreed with Fraser when he noted, that offering love in return for hate is “what makes the eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult” (The Guardian, “Father Jacques Hamel died as a priest, doing what priests do” 28 July 2016).

The true master of death is the one who defeated death, Jesus Christ. He doesn’t just tell us; he shows us what it means that it is only by dying that we live forever. How do you avoid living a vain life? By living a life that proclaims Christ’s death and professes his resurrection until he comes again, that is, a selfless life lived in service of others out of love.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Voting's vexation

This may be my only post explicitly on this year's presidential election.

Recently I've read many arguments on various social media arguing that the only moral choice a voter can make in voting for president this year is voting for Clinton. I've read similar arguments that the only moral choice for president is Trump. I've even read something written by a person who I would expect better from arguing that voting for one or the other is unavoidable. To which the only response can be, Not true. There will more than likely be more than two candidates for president on your ballot.

It seems to me the mistake we're urged to make by many is that because Trump is a morally unacceptable candidate we must therefore vote for Clinton. I agree with the premise, but the conclusion does not necessarily follow from it. In addition to supporting abortion she now wants to overturn the Hyde Amendment and make us all pay for them. She has also been shown time and again to lack both honesty and integrity, operating in a grossly unethical manner, which she seems to believe is her privilege. She is also an intransigent war hawk and not a very dependable supporter of religious liberty.

Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you have more choices than Clinton or Trump. All you have is one vote. It is only your vote for which you bear moral responsibility.

On another thread today someone was trying to tell me that a conscientious decision not to vote was akin to watching a mugging and doing nothing, which is just shows how poor is the logic we're applying to this election. I also tire of this is being "an election of the lifetime," which is nonsense. Look, in our country, either every election matters or no election matters.

I don't mind saying that when it comes to voting, not just for president, but other offices, I agree with what Ted Cruz urged at the Republican National Convention: vote your conscience. I would also urge you to inform your conscience. Don't know where to begin? Try the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship.

Friday, July 29, 2016

"The flowers often bloom at night"

Grace and nature, that old theological saw. How easy it is to disconnect them completely or squish them together. Perhaps the most concise way to state it is they are distinct but not separate, which explains why this same relationship pertains to things like love of God and love of neighbor. Was nature not brought about by grace? Likewise, weren't human beings, women and men, created in the image and, at least initially, in God's likeness? Don't these realities, these facts, if you're so inclined, indicate that we we're made for communion, that all things were made for communion?

Very often Christians divide over this and the division deepens when we caricature one another's understandings of the relationship between nature and grace. On the one extreme there is the idea that, due to the fall, the two orders are so distinct as to be nearly separate, if not completely so. On the other is the idea that they so enmeshed that you can't distinguish one from the other. Grace tends toward re-unification and sin towards separation. It stands to reason that this can color our perception of things. Just as even the most inert-appearing matter (think of a rock) is not static neither is the relationship between nature and grace. Nature is infused with grace.

In his wonderful book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Bishop N.T. Wright observed,
It is a matter of glimpsing that in God's new creation, of which Jesus's resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it--including many things which are woven so tightly in to the fabric of the world as we know it that we can't imagine being without them--will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption
Aren't there times when you see things, or seem to see them, in a way that all the dross is burned away and sense the unity of yourself with all that is? Then at other times things seem separate, hopelessly torn apart and, in a word, irreparable. That's how live between the already and the not yet.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us. For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly (Rom 5:1-6)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of one of my all-time favorite albums by one of my favorite groups: "Life's Rich Pageant" by REM. Our traditio. While very elliptical, this a song about people disappearing in Guatemala in the 1980s. Rather than try to paraphrase, here's an excellent, very short, post on the song- "The Flowers of Guatemala."

If I had wanted to address the U.S. presidential election in the wake of the propaganda extravaganzas known as party conventions, I would've chosen "Begin the Begin" off the "Pageant."

Monday, July 25, 2016

National NFP Awareness Week 2016

On this day forty-eight years ago, Bl. Pope Paul VI promulgated what would turn out to be the last encyclical letter of his pontificate, Humanae vitae. In observance of the promulgation of what is perhaps the best known papal encyclical in the Church's history, each year during the week that includes 25 July, is designated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as National NFP Awareness Week. As you might imagine, that such a week is observed annually is probably unknown to most Catholics and is not promoted in parishes and dioceses. These facts tell you most of what you need to know about how the Church largely avoids the whole uncomfortable issue of marital sexuality, even during marriage preparation.

Each year National NFP week has a theme. The theme for this year is Love, Mercy, Life: Natural Family Planning, Opening the Heart of Marriage. I like the theme and wish it was more developed and more widely disseminated.

The Church's principled and unwavering opposition to contraception is viewed by many Catholics, including clergy, as embarrassingly retrograde and reactive. In fact, Humanae Vitae is a very progressive document. It is progressive in a number of related ways. The encyclical addresses responsible parenthood and makes clear that Catholic couples are under no obligation to have as many children as possible par. 10). The number and spacing of children is left to the discretion of the couple. While insisting that a couple have "serious reasons," a list of which is given, for not wanting to conceive at a given time, Humanae Vitae permitted the employment of Natural Family Planning (par. 10; par. 16). Permitting the use of various methods of NFP is still frowned upon by many self-described "traditional" Catholics. The fact that key aspects of Humanae Vitae has dissenters on both sides is a pretty good indication Pope Paul was correct. It is progressive in that recognizes what is called the "unitive" aspect of sexual relations in marriage. While the unitive dimension, properly understood, cannot be separated from the procreative dimension, it is important to a healthy, happy marriage.

It's strange to me that what is really liberating is often viewed as oppressive and vice-versa. In no area of human life is this more true than human sexuality. Nearly 50 years of sexual "liberation' have taken quite a toll on innumerable lives and on our society as whole. Nearly 50 years of sexual "liberation' have taken quite a toll on innumerable lives and on our society as whole. The most difficult aspect of NFP is that if a couple, for serious reasons, determines that they are not desirous of conceiving a child for either a determinate or indeterminate period of time is that they must abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile period of the woman's menstrual cycle. In some instances this can be quite a sacrifice, but in most cases it is not. Not only do we live at a time and in a culture when the exercise of sexual self-control is considered unhealthy repression, but sexual gratification and self-expression is seen as the highest good and the most cherished human right.

I have posted extensively on Humanae Vitae. Instead of a comprehensive list of posts, below you will find some of the highlights:

"The predictable provocations of the Pope of Rome"

"Natural Family Planning Awareness Week"

"Amos was a prophet and so was Pope Paul"

HHS mandate: Why the kerfuffle?

"The joy of NFP"

"NFP: a faithful reality check"

"The reality of the human person"

"'Not everyone can receive this saying'"

"Humane Vitae turns 40: Updated and expanded 26 July 2008"

"Humane Vitae turns 40, part II"

Above all, I encourage you to read, or re-read, as the case may be, Humanae Vitae. It isn't very long.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Learning how to pray

St. Teresa Of Avila once commented, "How often I failed in my duty to God, because I was not leaning on the strong pillar of prayer." This is one of those judgments that we can only ever really apply to ourselves and never to other people. I readily admit that I do not lean on God nearly as often as I should. This is even true over the course of almost any given day. On the other hand, there are times when I have experienced quite concretely what it means to lean on the strong pillar of prayer, both during good times and in difficult times, as well as when it comes to praying for other people.

We are currently on the fifth of 20 Sundays during which, in Year C of the lectionary, we read through that part of St. Luke's Gospel known as "The Journey Narrative." This section comprises slightly less than half of Luke’s Gospel, running from 9:51 to 19:27. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus only makes one trip to Jerusalem. During these weeks covering the summer and fall, we are invited to follow Jesus, as his disciples, as he makes his way to the Holy City.

In last week's Gospel reading we heard about Jesus' visit to the home of the sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus commended Mary for sitting at his feet and invited Martha, using what I can only imagine was a gentle rebuke, to do the same. Jesus' visit to the home of the sisters comprises the last five verses of the tenth chapter of Luke. Just as the Lord's visit shows us Jesus modeling what he instructed all who would be his disciples, as well as the seventy-two he sent out, to do (i.e., rely solely on God and bring peace to all who welcomed them) in the preceding two passages, it also points ahead to what follows: his teaching about about prayer.

Jesus' teaching on prayer, which constitutes roughly the first quarter of the thirteenth chapter of Luke, begins with St. Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer. Presumably after watching Jesus praying, his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, just as John taught his followers. Perhaps the most notable thing about this shorter version of the Lord's Prayer is that Jesus taught his disciples to call God "Father". This was quite a revolution because it was quite a revelation. Of course, we can only call God "our Father" because of Jesus Christ. St. Paul, in our second reading from his Letter to the Colossians, wrote that through baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life. It is through this rebirth to life eternal that we become God's children and so, like Jesus, we can address him as Father.

The next thing Jesus taught his disciples about prayer, which is also exemplified by Abraham in our first reading from Genesis, in which our father in faith petitioned God repeatedly to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, is the need to persist in prayer. Each time Abraham asked God to lower the number of righteous people that needed to be found for the cities to be saved, God acceded, which might cause us to ask whether Abraham stopped petitioning too soon. Of course, that prompts a lot of fraught theological questions. I will not attempt to address those questions, I just offer it for consideration. I will say that these are the kinds of questions I am always interested in reading my Reformed friends' answers.

St. Teresa of Avila

It is not just the case that we have needs, but the very fact of our human existence makes us needy. As Fr. Julián Carrón noted, we are a need. Stated perhaps less emphatically, need is constitutive of being human. I have discovered personally that persistence in prayer over time changes not so much what I ask for, but how I ask, even why I ask. It emboldens me to ask in more specific, not more general, terms. It certainly doesn't stop me from asking for the outcome I deem best, like healing for someone who is sick, comfort for a person in grief, relief for a friend experiencing financial problems, a job for someone who is unemployed, a better job for someone who is underemployed, etc. While it should go without saying, it bears noting that I need to stand willing to assist those who have an urgent need. Like faith and works, prayer often requires some kind of action.

Finally, Jesus assured his disciples of our Father's goodness. He told them that their prayers do not go unheeded or unanswered. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is no. I've heard it said that God answers our prayers in one of three ways: No, Go, or Slow. While this is an oversimplification, I think it is spiritually useful. Sometimes we don't receive that for which we ask. Sometimes we do. Not infrequently, we don't receive it right away and, even then, not necessarily in the way we envisioned.

Even good parents sometimes say no their children, not arbitrarily or out of a desire to deny their children what they think will make them happy, but out of love and because, typically, being adults, parents hold a broader, deeper view than their children. It is often the case that what a child or an adolescent sees as harmless, or even good, a parent knows is harmful and/or bad. If that is true of human parents, how much more is it true of God, our Father? We must always hold in mind that God is about accomplishing what is good for us in the ultimate sense. I know for many this does not always seem like it's the case.

Jesus' teaching about God being a good father who answers the prayers of his children is a teaching that goes down much easier when you live a comfortable material existence, enjoy good health, have a family, friends, and a decent job. It is much more difficult to grasp for a person who is struggling and certainly for people whose entire life seems to be nothing but a struggle. Let's be honest, for some people, and perhaps for us sometimes, this teaching can seem like a cruel lie. Hence, it's important not be too sentimental about what Jesus taught, which really means being honest about our own experience, even as we remain committed to praying. Remember, later in St. Luke's Gospel (22:41-42), after he'd reached the Holy City, Jesus uttered a prayer, which was no doubt heard by the Father, that seemed to go answered. He resigned himself to doing the Father's will. The answer to his prayer was his glorious resurrection.

Certainly experiences of that Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, demonstrate the importance of persevering in prayer and how prayer teaches us to do God's will and even teaches us something of what we might call the personality of God. Because Teresa visited the convents she founded, she frequently traveled Spain's rugged by-ways. During one journey the saddle on her donkey slipped and she discovered herself upside down under the donkey's belly as she crossed a creek. As she took her complaint to the Lord, she heard him say, "Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends." She famously replied, "No wonder you have so few!"

I will end this post on prayer with a prayer of petition: "Lord, teach us how to pray."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"A Republic, if you can keep it"

Recently I have found myself moving in a different direction politically, but hopefully doing so more wisely than when I was younger. Like many people, I was raised to believe that the United States of America is exceptional, meaning that I believed our country was divinely founded and given a divine mission in history directly from God. I even believed that our constitution was divinely inspired. To state what I believe now in equally simple terms, while I don't believe our constitution is a divinely inspired document, or that the founding of the United States was in any way the equivalent of God choosing Israel- think of the ecclesiological implications of such a belief!- I think the United States was founded on fairly sound principles and, in the context of the times, the founding of our country was quite exceptional.

According to the diary of Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ben Franklin was asked upon leaving Independence Hall on the last day of deliberations, "Well, Doctor, what have we got - a Republic or Monarchy?" To which Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it." Franklin's words are the title of Eric Metaxas latest book: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. It's a book I haven't read and one that I am not sure I will read. I do plan to read Dr. Joseph Loconte's God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.

The form of liberal democracy that constitutes the United States of America is not without its downsides and weaknesses, many of which, along with certain strengths, were well-chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century in his Democracy in America. There is a lot involved with keeping our Republic. I agree, however, with those who assert that losing it is a very real possibility, which is one more proof against attributing to the establishment of our nation more providence than it is due.

Liberal democracy is the result of historical developments in the West from which it is difficult, probably impossible, to turn back. As unrealistic as turning back is, some think it is desirable to do so. I have flirted with some of those notions, but I don't think it's even desirable to turn back, especially not to monarchy, which seems to be the rage among a certain subset of Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Christ is King, I grasp that reality. Of the two strands of thought pertaining to the monarchy in the Old Testament, which contrast can be most clearly seen by reading 1-2 Kings along with 1-2 Samuel in contrast to 1-2 Chronicles, I go with the Israelites being lambasted by the prophet Saul for wanting a king other than God, after the order of the surrounding nations (see 1 Samuel 8). It's the clear that the United States, which was the result of the historical developments previously invoked, was not established after the manner of post-conquest/pre-monarchic, tribal Israel.

So, for better and worse, it's the system we have and, as a citizen, making it work is something to which I feel I need to commit myself. The first way I commit myself to it is by adhering to what St. Paul encouraged members of the early Church to do, which was echoed by St. Justin in his First Apology, namely being a good citizen by striving to be a good Christian. This by no means requires me to water down what it means to follow Christ. I know it is almost always problematic to assert a consensus among a diverse group of people, but I think I am safe in asserting that the consensus among the founders of the United States of America was that keeping our republic requires a virtuous, educated, actively involved, not to mention religious citizenry.

Ben Franklin

Given how our government in the United States is formed and how it has evolved, being involved in politics in a meaningful way likely means party involvement, which is not to say that everyone must join a party. For example, as a member of the clergy, while I may lean one way or the other, avoiding partisan politics is something I am bound to do and for good reason, namely the unity of the Church. But even if you're going to vote, you'll likely vote for a member of one party or another, even if it's a third party. I think our republic would be enhanced by having a multi-party, instead of our current two-party, system.

I also believe we need engage more in local politics: municipal, county, state, even our neighborhood associations. We have a lot more discretion over our affairs than most people realize. These can perhaps be best described as liberties we're usually content to leave on the table. Instead, we choose to focus almost exclusively on national and international politics. I believe there is a very non-revolutionary way for citizens to take our country back. Right now, the most urgent matter for the Church is ensuring the full guarantee of religious liberty in the face of what I can only describe as a major assault across several fronts.

One of the keys to Christian involvement in political parties is by keeping the main thing the main thing. To state the matter inelegantly, in politics, the main thing is people. Hence, when party politics begin to depart from the fundamental basis of any political engagement for a Catholic: the inherent and ineradicable dignity of every human being, the Christian must challenge this. This allows us to have principled discussions about the common good, essentially seeking most, if not all, the same ends but perhaps differing when it comes to means, which can lead to principled compromise. I think both major parties need serious Catholic involvement, not the half-hearted, vote-seeking pandering we usually see from politicians. This election year is no different and both parties do it. How do we defend against this? By being wise as serpents and gentle as lambs. This is why, rather than telling us for whom we should vote, our Catholic bishops in the U.S. seek to form our consciences so that we can make good judgments for ourselves when voting. While it may pain me to say it, Ted Cruz was correct, you should vote your conscience. You should also seek to form your conscience. One book I would suggest that I've found useful is Daniel Schwindt's The Papist's Guide to America.

This also means presupposing that politics are provisional, not ultimate. As Christians, our home is the Church, from which we're sent out at the beginning of each week to glorify the Lord by our lives. At end of the day the most convincing evidence that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ is how much it transforms those of us who partake of it into the Body of Christ as made manifest by how we live. People of good faith can debate whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I tend to think not, at least not in any explicit sense. I do think our constitutional order depends on holding a transcendent view of human person, even if it is nebulously conceived. If Christians in the early centuries could live and thrive in an often hostile empire, how much more can we do so in our milieu?

I'll count this as my missing Fourth of July post.

Friday, July 22, 2016

"In this desert that I call my soul/I always play the starring role"

I don't know about where you live, but here along the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains in Northern Utah, we have reached the dog days of summer with daily highs over 100 degrees and overnight lows in the mid-to-high 70s. I don't mind admitting that I find stifling heat almost as bad as below zero temperatures. We don't have too many of the former here, but we have plenty of latter. By the time it cools off it's 9:30 to 10:00 PM. What to post as a traditio for this first post marking the beginning of my second decade of blogging? One thing I've learned is not to overthink these things.

When I consider the music that really sustained me when I was a teenager, The Police would rate very high on the list, as would a number of rather more obscure bands. So, "I Feel So Lonely" off their 1978 album Outlandos d' Amour is our Friday traditio. I often feel quite lonely, which is no indictment against my family or the people who really care for me, it's just the way I am built and goes to spending an awful lot of time alone from my mid-teens to my mid-twenties. Maybe that's why I have so many children. If so, I think that's a good reason

Or, as one commentor on YouTube wrote:


In case you're wondering, the video was filmed in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Καθολικός διάκονος anniversary: 10 years & counting

Ten years ago, after my blog, named Scott Dodge for Nobody, had lain dormant for nearly a year after only 6 posts, I posted this under the title "How Occasional?":
I'm back almost a year later posting again. I have re-named my weblog from its original. Now that I have decided to take up blogging with fervor, I am making a few changes. One change will be that comments will be moderated. So, please don't spam me with your comments. If I were interested in antique cars or other stuff, I am capable of finding what I want on my own. Constructive, even critical, comments are welcome as long they foster genuine dialogue, are temperate and not profane.

The focus on my blog will not change, but within the realm of theology, pastoral practice, preaching, history, philosophy, politics I will range more widely. One feature of my blog will be my homilies, which I will post here. I also want to put up some notes for classes I teach and comment on what I am reading. I am looking forward to this endeavor made easier by my acquisition of a laptop computer and home DSL
I would be lying to say that I had any plan at all, let alone a master plan, for what was to follow. If you had told me then I would be writing this 10 years and some 3,160 posts later I don't think I would've laughed or demured, I probably would've said, "We'll see how it goes." For better or for worse it has gone. It was quite a big deal when I purchased my first laptop computer and obtained what was then high-speed home internet service.

Just yesterday I was chatting on-line with a friend, someone I only know on-line, my fellow Catholic blogger Frank Weathers, who has resumed blogging, albeit at a reduced pace, over at Why I Am Catholic. We briefly discussed blogging. I wrote this: "The few years I blogged, when pretty much nobody read anything I wrote, which is probably a good thing, I figured out that if my writing didn't help me it wouldn't help anybody." A time or two I've caught myself moving away from that, thinking I was making some important contribution. I wasn't and that is not the point and purpose of my endeavor here. Maybe it's self-flattery, but at a time when things come and go so quickly, especially on the interwebs, I like to think of my little cyberspace as reliable and reliably Catholic in the best sense of the word.

In all honesty, I probably blogged for 4-5 years before finding what an actual writer might call "my voice." I don't feel like I began hitting my stride and feeling comfortable (i.e., less insecure) about blogging until 2011, at which time I began blogging less. In 2012 I composed 280 posts, 91 fewer than in 2011. With the exception of 2013, during which I posted 297 times, the trend has been even less. While I am likely not the best judge of my own writing, especially since very often the posts of which I am most proud are routinely among my less read offerings, I think the quality has improved. I certainly hope it has. At least for me, learning how to write well is an ongoing endeavor. I can say that the best writing, whether mine or anyone else's, happens when it comes from experience.

Whether a reader drops by to read one post, or reads my blog regularly, my prayer is that you find it encouraging, reassuring, enlightening, or perhaps provocative, maybe even a little infuriating. In a word, worthwhile.

Last year was the first full year since I began blogging in earnest that I put up fewer than 200 posts. I doubt I'll reach 200 this year, which is fine by me. I am sure it will still be too many for some people, which is also fine by me. Why write about blog stats? Being concerned about stats is the sign of being a card-carrying member of the so-called blogosphere. Whenever I conceive of the "blogoswhatchacallit geometrically it strikes me as being trapezoidal, a bit pointy in places. As for how much longer, as with my likely answer 10 years ago, "We'll see how it goes."

Thanks for dropping by. Here's some virtual cake for you:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Year C Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Readings: Gen 18:1-10; Ps 15:2-5-28; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

It would impossible to preach today without making reference to what has happened over the past several weeks: we have witnessed policemen killing two black men under very suspicious circumstances; during a peaceful protest in Dallas over excessive police violence against black people, five police officers were senselessly gunned down while protecting the protestors; this past Thursday, a man ran over people as they watched the conclusion of a Bastille Day fireworks show in Nice, France; to top it all off we witnessed Friday’s bloody coup attempt in Turkey. Given all of this, it’s easy to conclude that the world has gone crazy and begin to draw apocalyptic conclusions. But, my friends, it’s always the end of the world until the end of the world.

As followers of Jesus Christ, in addition to wondering why all of these things happen (“Why?” being the most human of questions), it’s important to ask, what should I do? Today’s Gospel gives us a concrete answer. Bombarded as we are by both round the clock news and with access to so many social media platforms, we are exposed to horrific events much more quickly and incessantly than ever before. Our exposure is often unfiltered, sparing us no details of the horror. In times like these it is easy to feel overwhelmed and a more than a bit traumatized. But we are not called to give in to worry, fear, or resign ourselves to apathy.

Over the past several Sundays we have begun the section of St. Luke’s Gospel known as “The Journey Narrative.” This section comprises slightly less than half of Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke and the other synoptics (i.e., Matthew and Mark), Jesus makes only one trip to Jerusalem. So, for twenty Sundays in this cycle of readings, we journey with Jesus, as his disciples, towards the Holy City. We are invited to pay attention and learn along the way.

It has been observed that the meal in the home of Martha and Mary “is a story of both eucharist and ministry” (LaVerdiere, Dining in the Kingdom of God 76). This story “shows how those in ministry can be distracted by secondary considerations and diverted from what is absolutely necessary and critical to the meaning of everything else they do” (76). In the Eucharist Christ not only communicates himself to us, but desires and invites us to make ourselves fully present to him (76). We make ourselves fully present “by listening and attending to his word” (76). Listening to and heeding the Lord’s word is the only guarantee that what we do is in the service of ushering in God’s reign.

Rublev Trinity icon, Aquinas Hall chapel, Mt. Angel Monastery, Oregon

Today’s Gospel begins: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.” By welcoming Jesus, which was almost unheard of for a woman in that time and culture, Martha followed a very ancient Middle Eastern custom of extending hospitality to the traveler. It is precisely here that the Gospel story touches the story from Genesis we heard in our first reading. In that story a similar incident occurs when Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to the three strangers, who appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Notice the rush that occurs upon the strangers’ arrival. After allowing them to wash their feet and having made them comfortable in the shade, and no doubt scrambling to provide hors d’ouvres for his guests, Abraham “hastened” to tell Sarah: “Quick . . . make some rolls!” He then “ran” to pick out a choice steer for a servant to prepare “quickly.” In short, like Martha, Abraham and Sarah are “distracted with much serving” in order to provide hospitality for their guests. Yet, Abraham and Sarah are not chastised. On the contrary, after having offered their guests hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are blessed upon their departure with the promise of a son. Both stories share the common element of welcoming the holy one who may appear as a friend or a stranger. As the famous icon by Andrei Rublev intimates, Abraham and Sarah hosted the Holy Trinity. What earned Martha Jesus’ gentle rebuke was her anxiety-driven complaint. The Lord’s gentle rebuke was really an invitation for her to sit at his feet and listen to his word so that, like Abraham and Sarah, she, too, would be left with a blessing.

In Luke’s narrative, our reading for this Sunday is closely connected to what immediately precedes it and what immediately follows. In what might easily be dismissed as a quaint domestic story from which we draw the neat little moral lesson, namely that perhaps we should slow down a bit sometimes, we need to see how this meal in the home of Martha and Mary connects what came before and what follows. In this short vignette, Jesus modeled the challenge he gave to those who would be his disciples (9:57-62), as well as what he told the seventy-two, who were sent out to proclaim the Good News (10:1-12), namely to rely solely on God and bring peace to all who welcomed them. In the home of Martha and Mary Jesus also paves the way for what is to follow: learning how to pray. What follows begins with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, followed by several parables about prayer.

Like Martha, we can easily be distracted and/or become “anxious and worried about many things” and so neglect the one thing necessary, which is to be present to the Lord in order to attend and listen to his word. Our understanding of his word should be the basis of our action. Let’s note that just because Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet does not mean she wasn’t doing anything. “It does mean that she was not distracted by the ministry [the service] or worried and excited about many things” (Dining 85).

This brings me to how we should respond during this distressing summer and beyond. We respond by listening to the Lord and acting accordingly. Hence, we should make time to attend to his word daily. We do this primarily by reading the Scriptures. One way to effectively do this is by practicing the ancient Christian art of lectio divina, which is Latin for “divine reading.” The four steps involved in practicing lectio divina – reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating - are easy enough to learn. You can practice lectio divina using the Gospel from the daily readings, or, perhaps more usefully, by praying with readings for the upcoming Sunday each week in preparation for that privileged time when we gather on Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Doing this will facilitate our communication with the Lord and with one another. It will enable us to communicate the saving news of Jesus Christ to a world so badly in need of him.

"Christ in the House of Martha and Mary," by Johannes Vermeer, between ca. 1654 & ca. 1656- Google Art Project

New Testament scholar Eugene LaVerdiere noted that a number of features found in the story of the meal at the house of Martha and Mary indicate that it was written “to mirror” the Eucharist as it was experienced by early Christians: it is the first time in one of St. Luke’s meal stories that Jesus is referred to as Lord, Mary at Jesus feet puts her in the position of a disciple, a learner, Martha’s service is referred to using a term denoting Christian ministry, diakonia (from which the word “deacon” is derived) let’s not forget the sisters welcoming Jesus into their home (Dining 85-86).

We welcome Jesus into our home, into our very selves, not only when, just before receiving communion, we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only the say the word and my soul shall be healed,” but also when, after hearing, “A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke,” we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, over our lips, and hearts, as we say, “Glory to you, O Lord.” Our making the sign of the cross is our way of asking God to put his word in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. But let’s not forget that the effectiveness of Jesus’ healing word is at least partly dependent on our listening and responding to it. This response we call faith, which bids us to love, which brings about hope in a world that often leaves so many feeling hopeless. This is how we make known the mystery about which St. Paul wrote so beautifully in his Letter the Colossians.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A string of thoughts on perplexing matters

I am always thinking and re-thinking matters. Like everyone else, trying, in my own limited way, to make sense of the world in order to live in it in a constructive way and, if I many be so bold, attempt to be happy while doing what I understand to be God's will. I feel that what I wrote about mercy (see "Let Mercy Lead"), while I reaffirm all of it, needs something else to balance it. It seems to me that one of the things our society clearly lacks is the ability to appropriately respond to evil. For one thing, as with the Orlando shootings, instead of pinning blame on the murderer, who was apparently about as messed up as a person can be, "conservative' Christians, of which he was not one by a long shot, bore the brunt of the blame in the aftermath. It's often the case that we simply fail to recognize evil, or refuse to call it what is (i.e., "jihadist Islam"- a form of violent Islamism that cannot be equated with the whole of Islam, but must be identified in order to be combated), lest we label anyone as being evil in the belief that evil is as evil does.

All of this hinders the proclamation of the Gospel. Increasingly it is difficult to denounce sin and invite people to repent. This ties back to something I wrote in my post on mercy: When people come realize how messed up they are and realize that they can't fix themselves, even if a person is resolved to be better, to do better, to live better, due to their skepticism about there being a merciful Savior who bore the weight of their sins and took away the eternal punishment due their sin, they still feel the guilt for past offenses, which often hinders their ability to turn over a new leaf. Due to this, they're skeptical that they can cooperate with what God is doing through Christ in setting world aright through penance, reparations, and seeking indulgences, etc.

It’s also easy to take to some form of activism. Let’s be honest, for most of us, our activism usually consists of several posts on social media, or some over-the-top, frustration-driven comments to family, friends, or co-workers and/or a blog post. If you follow the logic that doing anything is better than doing nothing, then activism of some kind is bound to follow. Is this to say we shouldn’t be concerned about justice? No! We should be very concerned with justice and with peace, as well as liberty. These concerns may lead us to speak up and speak out. We should do so in a calm, clear, and charitable way. But activism in and of itself usually proves futile and can still leave us feeling powerless and exposed, if not much more angry. Anger, while sometimes justified, is not a solution to anything at the end of day. All too easily, anger leads to hate and hate, as we see far too often, can lead to violence. We need avoid the risk of perpetuating the cycle.

One of the reasons I dedicated so many blog posts last year on universalism (see "Seeking clarity about heaven and hell", "What does the Church teach about hell?", and "One More Thought on Universalism") is that presumption-driven universalism is contrary to the Gospel. When the Church fails to properly form consciences there will be judgment, which is why James says everyone should not aspire to be a teacher (James 3:1). While I think they overdo God's judgment sometimes, I continue to read a number of Reformed blogs, like Erik Raymond's Ordinary Pastor. It's interesting to note that Raymond was raised Catholic in Massachusetts. After converting to Reformed Protestantism while serving in the Air Force, he now pastors a Reformed church he helped to plant in Omaha, Emmaus Bible Church. I am apply a lot of what Erik writes.

I also like Rosaria Butterfield, who was also raised rather devoutly Catholic. Sadly, according to her autobiographical The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, she bailed on the Church as a teenager when, shortly after her confirmation, she learned one of her best friends was having sex with one of the priests at their parish. After a number of years as a well-respected post-modern, feminist academic and living openly as lesbian, she, too, converted to Reformed Protestantism. It was Rosaria who reminded me of the importance of remaining immersed in Scripture. While the so-called young, reformed, and restless come in for a lot of criticism on a number of things, when it comes to politics, while not remaining silent on important, fundamental matters, like most life issues and even race relations, they don't let themselves bog down, they seem to grasp that politics are provisional. Instead, they tend to stick with preaching the Gospel as they understand it.

In all honesty, if I was a slightly less well-educated Catholic and not so suspicious about serious Calvinism's narrow conception of God's election, I sometimes think I could easily slip over to that side. In the end, I am more Lutheran than Calvinist. I don't find whatever Lutheran tendencies I have at odds with being Catholic. Like Giussani, being Catholic for me is the way I maintain the tension between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. My Lutheranism begins with a healthy assessment of my status before God and a recognition of the evil in my own heart, even after baptism I remain simul justus et peccator. But I reject forensic justification and, as a result, I have a different view of how God sanctifies us.

While it is never my place to judge the state of another person's soul, it is important for us all to remember that we will answer for ourselves someday. What we do with our lives matters. But fear of judgment should not be what drives us. Rather, we should be driven by love of God and neighbor. While God is mercy, he is also justice. We're not sinners in the hand of an angry God, we're sinners in the hand of a merciful and wholly just God. These days I find myself wondering what saints, what signs and wonders, God will send to remind us of this. All of this reminds me of how well C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with these matters in their imaginative writings. But this is likely due to the fact I am currently reading Joseph Loconte's A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War, a book I recommend highly.

Oddly enough, Lonconte, too, is another person who slowly rejected the Catholicism in which he was born and raised and has become a committed Protestant. He also wrote a book on John Locke, God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West, I'd like to read. One of the points Loconte makes over and again, a point that did not originate with him and he is not the only one who makes it, is that liberal democracy, such as we have throughout the Western world, requires an underlying conservatism, which I take to be an understanding of what it is required for liberal democracy to work and for people flourish living in liberal democratic societies. Of course, critics of the liberal democratic state often and rather convincingly point out that there is nothing inherent in liberal democratic constructs that guarantee the required underlying conservatism. Chief among the features of this underlying conservatism is the very often neglected, when not ignored, principle of subsidiarity. This brings us to the rather uncomfortable reality of the importance of faith, perhaps a unique form of Christian faith and the values that arise directly from it, for such a form of government to succeed. Articulating the relationship between the Church and the state is another complex and highly contested matter. Separation of Church and state can easily lead to the Church being wholly subordinated to the state, which is why, as Pope St. John Paul II noted, after the right to life the next most important human right is religious liberty. Such an arrangement, at least one in which the importance of religious liberty is recognized, can also free the Church to exercise its prophetic role in society.

In light of this many worry about the collapse of Christianity in the United States. It is a valid concern. According Ed Stetzer, a Christian researcher (see "Churches in America- Part 3"), the Christian demographics that are collapsing are cultural and congregational Christians. The former don't typically go church, at least not regularly and consistently, and the latter have done so, not as a matter of faith and conviction but out of a kind of inertia.

According to Stetzer, convictional Christians today make up as much of the population, roughly 25%, as they ever have. That's nearly 81 million people. As anyone cognizant of these matters would be quick to point out, 81 million convicted Christians by no means comprise a political monolith. This is as true among Evangelicals and among Catholics as it is between Catholics and Evangelicals. By now it goes without saying that Western civilization is in crisis. By crisis I mean a time when difficult and important decisions must be made. It seems clear with the Brexit, with the Republicans choice of Trump and Sanders fairly successful insurgent campaign, as well as with similar challenges to long standing parties in Europe, that in many quarters people are ready for serious change, not necessarily revolutionary change, but comprehensive and radical (in the true sense of the word, returning to the root) reform.

Like many, I am torn between the left and the right. When it comes to economic matters, international affairs, and what we typically refer to as social issues I think there needs to be some rapprochement, or a popular electoral uprising that insists on one. In the U.S. we seem content, in light of our on-going failures, to remain bellicose. Instead of learning the lessons of Iraq, we seem to keep making the same mistakes in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Nobody will ever convince me that the phenomenon of ISIS would've happened without us making these blunders. But then ISIS helps us to remain perpetually at war, something Orwell warned about. There can be little doubt we have a rigged economy that results from our elected officials being in the pocket of big business and international corporations by-and-large having their way in the world. On the other hand, our intent to undermine marriage, to deny our femininity and masculinity, and to consider sexual liberty the highest echelon of human rights, also takes its toll, not least of which because it attempts to force all of us live a lie. Then there is our increasing indifference to human life from abortion, to the death penalty, to assisted suicide (the word "assisted" being key, its an effort to make others complicit in something intrinsically evil), to euthanasia. If you truly believe that human beings are created in the image of God, then I cannot see how you can glibly reverse the fundamental axiom that essence precedes existence without reaping the whirlwind.

We need to become far more familiar with the common good and what constitutes it. But we should not confuse it with the utilitarian concept that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As we read in the Catechism: "In keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person" (par. 1905). If you want to know more about the common good, I encourage you to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1905-1912.

Friday, July 15, 2016

"Will you search through the lonely earth for me"?

Late last week I came across a current BBC 4's television series, Detectorists. I've more or less binge watched my way through both series (i.e., seasons). Mackenzie Crook, who so brilliantly played Gareth in the original and, for my money, the only show The Office, is the show's creator, writer, director. He also plays one of the two main characters: Andy Stone. The show is about two friends who are dedicated "detectorists," that is, people who spend as much time as possible walking with their metal detectors through the fields of rural northern Essex. While the setting, characters, and situations are somewhat different, the vibe of "Detectorists" puts me very much in mind of the Irish RTE series Trivia. I suppose the most succinct way I can think of describe this "vibe" is funny in a wonderfully understated way and often poignant.

Life, much like the scriptural commentaries of Origen, ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime, making stops at all points in between. As I ease into middle age, I am learning to enjoy the ride. One effort I have made over the last year is not living my life in reverse, or mentally thinking what I would do in situations in which I can't see ever finding myself. I've found it a useful mental strategy.

Detectorists: Lance & Andy

Last Saturday I used the Scripture reading from Morning Prayer to practice lectio divina. It was rather spontaneous, as opposed to a deliberate choice. The text was Romans 12:14-16a: "Bless your persecutors; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same attitude toward all. Put away ambitious thoughts and associate with those who are lowly" (Morning Prayer for Saturday, Week II). What leapt out at me was the final sentence. As I mulled that whole sentence, it quickly shrunk down to the phrase, "Put away ambitious thoughts." But then, the twelfth chapter of Romans has long been one of my favorite passages in the whole of Scripture. If one were to translate Paul's Greek literally, it would read something like: "Being disposed to no the high," made more sensible in English- not being disposed to what is high. What is it we are not be disposed to? The transliterated word is hupséla, the correct variant of the word hupsélos. What is hupsélos? That which is high, or lofty.

What have my previous two paragraphs to do with my first paragraph, what is the link? I think it's simple and, at least to me, quite obvious: Detectorists and Trivia are both shows about everyday, rather humble, people, who are trying, in their often self-subverting way, to be happy and fulfilled. The characters, again in their own, often screwed ways, also strive to be good in the awareness that their own happiness is not disconnected from the happiness of others. I also like the relative calmness of both programs. Being calm is something I am working on. This requires daily working on being kind, patient, and understanding. I don't know about you, sisters and brothers, but for me this requires a lot prayer, which is a great thing.

At least for me, cultivating a calm disposition depends on eschewing caffeine and alcohol. Unexpectedly, I've found giving up the latter more beneficial than the former. In the year since I gave up both I've experimented with introducing them back into my life here and there. Those experiments only verified that I made the correct choice in giving them up.

Our Friday traditio for this hot summer week is Johnny Flynn singing his folk song, "Detectorists," in an episode from the show's first series-

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mercy revisited

I received a note today from a friend, a very good man, who, like we all should, is grappling with mercy. What prompted his note to me was this from last Friday's traditio:
I am always puzzled when Christians insist that mercy is only for the repentant. Mercy is for everyone. I don't know about you, but I want mercy even for the unrepentant. Pope Francis is insistent that The Name of God is Mercy. In other words, God does not withhold mercy from anyone. I suppose it is possible to reject God's mercy. I suspect that for many it's not so much an outright rejection of God's mercy given us in Christ as much as thinking it too good to be true. Hence, those of us who have accepted God's mercy, out of love and in a loving manner, need to demonstrate the reality of this very Good News
While I will keep private what he wrote to me, I will share an edited and expanded version of the substantive part of my reply.

Mercy can be a tricky concept, which makes it all the more important to be clear about what we mean when we use it. This is often the case with simple concepts - the simpler it is, the more complex we're prone to make it. I think this is especially true in matters pertaining to theology, especially for those of us who take it seriously. In the fourth volume of the theological encyclopedia Sacramentum Mundi, theologian Adolf Darlap began his short article on mercy thus: "the readiness of God to come to the aid of his distressed creature out of free grace" (10).

No one can earn or ever "make" himself worthy of God's mercy. All I can do is acknowledge my need for it and then receive it. Only by God's grace are we ever worthy. It is God who makes us worthy. In Christ, the Father has deemed everyone worthy of Divine Mercy. Isn't this St. Faustina's message?

God never withholds mercy. We remain free to deny or refuse it, however. It cannot be stated enough: God does not withhold mercy! God is merciful because God is love (1 John 4:8.16). It is never a question as to whether or not God loves you. The only relevant question is, Do you love God? It makes all the difference in the world to get these things the right way around. If we don't we run the risk of reinforcing the widely held view of "the Christian God," which is that of an angry and demanding tyrant, who demands our acquiescence and remains angry if we refuse to give in. In other words, like the father in Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), God is not vindictive, but patient and actively looking for his child to come home. Of course, the prodigal son could've stayed far away and unreconciled. I think it was Henri Nouwen who suggested that the title of the parable could easily be "The Parable of the Profligate Father."

Divine mercy isn't that different, if it differs at all, from "ordinary" mercy. It's a distinction that makes no sense in Christian terms. It may well be the case that something other than mercy is being invoked, but to play God's mercy off against "ordinary" mercy strikes me as a false move. If there was such a vast difference then the very point of Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son would be rendered moot because we would be incapable of being merciful. But over and again Christ bids us to act mercifully, even telling us "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Matt 5:7). If we're going to compare mercy to a worldly mindset, then let's just say that according to such a mindset mercy makes no sense at all.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Being moved with compassion

Readings: Deut. 30:10-14; Ps. 69:14.17.30-31.33-34.36-37; Col 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37

Having Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan as our Gospel reading for this Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time could not have come at a better time. In our Gospel today Jesus delivers the parable in response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" In reply to the question that precipitated the dialogue, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?," Jesus responded in rabbinical fashion with a question of his own: "What is written in the law?" To which the "scholar of the law" questioning him, responded with what we, as Christians, recognize as the Two Great Commandments: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." After telling him he answered correctly, the Lord says to his interlocutor, "do this and you will live."

It is important to point out that both of these commandments, indeed, arise directly from the law, from the Torah. The commandment to love God with one's entire being is set forth in the book of Deuteronomy, in the verse immediately following the Shema Yisrael, Deuteronomy 6:5. The second commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself is given in Leviticus 19:18. So, these were really nothing new to Jesus' questioner, or, presumably, to anyone listening to him in this pericope.

If read Leviticus 19:18 in its entirety, as well as the two verses immediately preceding, a good argument can be made that the neighbor to be loved "as yourself" is an Israelite's fellow Israelite: "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD." This is the crux of the matter in this exchange between Jesus and a scholar of the law. The inspired author of St. Luke's Gospel noted that the scholar "wished to justify himself" (always a dangerous proposition) and so he asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" It is this question that provided the Lord with the segue he needed, as it were, to lay down something radically new.

In order to grasp how truly radical Jesus' call is, it is necessary to understand how loathsome Samaritans were to Jews and vice-versa. One gets a sense of this mutual animosity in the narrative in St. John's Gospel about the Samaritan woman's encounter with Jesus at the well, which is one of the longest encounters Jesus has with anyone throughout the four canonical Gospels (John 4:4-42). Pick the group of people you are most inclined to despise and look down upon, then put a member of that group in the role of the Samaritan in Jesus' parable, then see that person become what theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino called the Good Samaritan: "an ideal, total human being" ("The Samaritan Church and the Principle of Mercy"). In this time of great violence and unrest that comes complete with no shortage of racial and religious divisions, not just in the U.S., but the world over, the importance of this parable for Christians, who fancy ourselves Jesus' disciples, cannot be exaggerated.

Let's not forget that in this parable the man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead was seen and ignored in his misery by two observant Jews, who were apparently more concerned about maintaining their ritual purity than with helping a fellow human being in dire distress and need.

In the words of Sobrino, "The ideal human being, the complete human being" according to Jesus' Parable of the Good Samartian, "is the one who interiorizes, absorbs in her innards, the suffering of another— in the case of the parable, unjustly afflicted suffering— in such a way that this interiorized suffering becomes a part of her, is transformed into an internal principle, the first and the last, of her activity" ("The Samaritan Church and the Principle of Mercy"). In this parable we see love become mercy and, in turn, mercy become justice.

The Greek word translated as the phrase "moved with compassion" is transliterated splagchnizomai. It means to be moved in one's inward parts, one's bowels, deep within one's body. It's this same word that is translated as "moved with pity," or "moved with compassion," when applied to Jesus himself. In other words, upon seeing the man beaten and left for dead, the Samaritan had a visceral, or a gut, reaction and felt compelled to help the beaten and stranded man. This is what Sobrino means by interiorizing the suffering of others.

In short, the scholar's neighbor was not limited to his fellow Jews. Your neighbor is not your fellow Catholic, or even your fellow Christian, but the suffering person you encounter. As is suggested in our first reading, this is not highfalutin theology. Turning again to Sobrino's theological commentary on the Parable of the Good Samaritan - "This love is the particular praxic love that swells within a person at the sight of another person's unjustly inflicted suffering, driving its subject to eradicate that suffering for no other reason than that it exists, and precluding any excuse for not so doing" ("The Samaritan Church and the Principle of Mercy"). This is how we recognize Christ's preeminence and how God makes "peace by the blood of his cross."

Friday, July 8, 2016

"Let mercy lead"

It's been one hell of a summer so far, not just in the U.S., but the world over. I use the word "hell" quite deliberately. In the face of all the suffering and death, which makes us feel so powerless, and because we're human beings, we cannot avoid the most human of questions: Why? This question can lead us down a lot initially promising alleys, but sooner or later life has a way of bringing us to an insurmountable wall indicating they are dead ends.

Christ on the Cross is the only remotely satisfactory theodicy ("the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil") I have ever found. But this, too, prompts questions, even deeper ones, but such is- to steal from Von Balthasar - Theo-Logic (God's logic). There are both cultural/contextual as well as trans-cultural reasons Paul insisted that Christ crucified was "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor. 1:23).

I am always puzzled when Christians insist that mercy is only for the repentant. Mercy is for everyone. I don't know about you, but I want mercy even for the unrepentant. Pope Francis is insistent that The Name of God is Mercy. In other words, God does not withhold mercy from anyone. I suppose it is possible to reject God's mercy. I suspect that for many it's not so much an outright rejection of God's mercy given us in Christ as much as thinking it too good to be true. Hence, those of us who have accepted God's mercy, out of love and in a loving manner, need to demonstrate the reality of this very Good News.

In his magisterial Letter to the Romans Paul noted it is "only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Think about it. It is the greatest act of mercy imaginable. Therefore, it bears up under our heaviest questions. More importantly, the Cross of Christ bears up under our greatest fears, disappointments, and sorrows. Christ crucified is the best proof for the existence of God.

Our traditio for this week, after a two week break, is the late and still dearly missed Rich Mullins: "Let Mercy Lead"

If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save
Those who believe
Although their foolish hearts may break
They will find peace
And I'll meet you in that place
Where mercy leads

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Criticizing the critics, going to bat for the Pope, and citing Nietzsche

I kid you not (I know usually that is an introduction for a big lie- I am trying to buck the trend), yesterday I saw an article that was a critique of a critique someone wrote about Catholics who criticize Pope Francis (here it is: "10 things Michael Cook gets wrong in his criticism of papal critics"). I will say up-front, I have not read either the "10 things" article or the article it sought to criticize. It could be spot on, woefully wrong, or anywhere in between. Seeing the headline prompted this thought: "People criticize Pope Francis - people criticize the people who criticize Pope Francis - people criticize the people who criticize those who criticize Pope Francis." Can't we see where this leads? Besides, how does that square with, "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35)?

This reflection prompted yet another thought: Do you read, watch, and listen only to have your preconceptions confirmed? If so, what is the point? It's not a rhetorical question. It seems to me a shame when Catholics publicly proceed to teach sound doctrine, set everyone straight, with the smug assurance that they possess all truth and the proper point-of-view. How is that catholic? Do I mean that the Church doesn't teach truth and speak clearly on certain matters? Not at all. But how you perceive the truth depends a lot on where you're standing. I see a lot of attempts by Catholics convinced of their own infallible grasp and application of the truth, argue like what they believe, which purports to be the totality of what the Church teaches on many matters, is self-evidently true and that the truth is obvious to the disinterested casual observer.

In my view, the best medium for truth is beauty. Encountering true beauty can only make you better, which is the path to becoming good. It's like discerning who to marry: marry the person who makes you want to be a better, whose companionship gracefully commands you to be a better person, which is very different from the person demanding that you change (run far away from a person like that!).

In his memoir of faith, Lapsed Agnostic, John Waters asked the Church hierarchs of Ireland what comes after don't? I think that's a question we need to ask ourselves often, especially if you're intent on engaging publicly from the standpoint of our Christian faith.

What comes after don't is not a discourse. It is a witness. A witness that is not joyful, joy-filled, is not a Christian witness. As Nietzesche, who was very devout as a young man, wrote in "Zarathustra's Prologue" in his magnum opus Thus Spake Zarathustra:
They called God that which opposed and afflicted them: and verily, there was much hero-spirit in their worship!

And they knew not how to love their God otherwise than by nailing men to the cross!

As corpses they thought to live; in black draped they their corpses; even in their talk do I still feel the evil flavour of charnel-houses.

And he who liveth nigh unto them liveth nigh unto black pools, wherein the toad singeth his song with sweet gravity.

Better songs would they have to sing, for me to believe in their Saviour: more! like saved ones would his disciples have to appear unto me!

Back and blogging

It is safe to say that last month was the lightest blogging month since I began blogging in earnest 10 years ago this month. My primary reason for not writing much was that I spent most of the month at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. From Sunday, 12 June until Friday, 1 July, I completed my first (of three) residencies in pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degree. My experience there was wonderful. Since I went with high expectations, it is amazing to me that my experience measured up to my expectation.

If you're considering bailing out on this post, don't be alarmed I am not going to bore you with a day-by-day account of my residency. I do, however, intend to give an overview. One of the reasons I like pursuing theological and ministerial education and formation is that it stretches me. I like having my preconceptions challenged, my lazy assumptions called into question, and learning things I barely know or don't know at all. At the end of the day, I am quite ignorant. I also enjoy looking at familiar things from a new vantage point as well as broadening and deepening my knowledge. In particular, during this residency I came to see quite clearly that my passion in life is serving Christ by serving his Bride and, in his name, the world. In other words, it did a lot to confirm my calling as a deacon. Hopefully, what I learned and experienced will make me more effective in ministry.

Academically, what interests me is pastoral, or applied, theology. For this, the first ever residency for the Mt. Angel D.Min program, we completed a semester long class each week. Each day consisted of three lectures and a seminar, except our last week, which was pastoral psychology, during which we had four lectures. Outside of class we read and prepared for seminar discussions, researched and began writing our term papers for each class. In the end, each weekday was about a 14-hour day for me and on weekends I put in about eight hours of research, reading, and writing each day. Being free from all outside distractions, I was amazed at how quickly and pleasantly the days passed. Our classes were: Ecclesiology, Scripture (Gospel of Matthew), and Pastoral Counseling.

Mount Angel Seminary

It was nice to step out of the busy stream of family, work, ministry, social media (for the most part), news, etc. It helped me regain my equilibrium. I often live life with my face pressed to the windscreen. Getting away almost always helps me put things into perspective. I can't say that my time at the seminary was particularly prayerful. But then, while I certainly did pray every day- I would suffocate if I didn't- I wasn't there on retreat, but to go to school. It was precisely in and through my studies that I experienced the presence of the Lord. Sometimes growth requires soul-searching, deep thought, a few long walks, and a little sleeplessness. At least in my experience, the Spirit often works deeply and uncomfortably, but discernibly. As St. Paul put it:
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will (Rom. 8:24-27)
Am I a "holy one"? If so, only because of the merits of Jesus Christ. I cannot claim any holiness of my own. Far from a depressing admission, acknowledging that I lack holiness is a source of great joy for me. It frees me from the need to pretend. In any case, growing becomes harder as I grow older. I don't know about you, but for me age does not equal wisdom. I am not nearly as wise as I imagined I would be at my age. I am not as wise as I should be at my age. Even so, I think to ever consider myself wise would be great folly and the surest indication that I possess no wisdom at all. I am glad I have room to grow. It is a great grace. I think being conformed to the image of Christ means always having room to grow and remaining willing to endure the pain of growth. One of the unique features of being Christian is that you can be right, but, oh so wrong.

Now that I back home, after a short post-residency family vacation in Oregon, which is an amazingly beautiful state, I hope to get back into the swing of things and start blogging again with regularity. In time, I may share here some of the fruits of my labors.

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...