A lesson from St. John Paul II: Acknowledge the Good

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John-Paul-II-MarriageIt is not just what we say but it is also how we say it that is important.  This is one of the many lessons I have learned from St. John Paul II.  Like so many others I have found great insight and wisdom in the writings of Pope John Paul II.  I first began to read the writings of this holy man during my time of seminary studies and his writings continue to inspire and challenge me to this day.  John Paul II certainly pointed out and challenged the errors and falsehoods of his time but he never fell into nor immersed himself in negativity and I believe that this is an important point.  St. John Paul II was always willing to point out the good in culture and in the world.  He did this time and again in his writings just as much as he challenged falsehoods.  This ability to recognize the good gives his writings and teachings an authenticity that others are often not able to achieve. 

It also witnesses, I believe, to an enormous depth of spiritual awareness.  St. John Paul II knew the horror of evil and sin.  He witnessed it first hand in many ways throughout the twentieth century – from the brutality of Nazism and a Europe at war to the life-denying oppression of communism to the crassness of an over-arching materialism.  The Polish pontiff knew the face of evil but he knew something else even more.  He knew Jesus as Lord and Savior, risen from the dead, he knew (despite all the trials of the world) that God reigned in heaven and that God is bringing about his Kingdom and that the Holy Spirit leads us into new life.  Because of this, St. John Paul II could rejoice just as much in the good and triumph of his age as he could challenge its falsehoods and evils.  He did not allow the evil to eclipse the reality of the good that he recognized as he pondered in his heart and because of this he was a witness to hope in his time and will always remain so.

Christians of today ought to learn this great lesson that St. John Paul II has to teach us.  Yes, there is great evil, error and sin in our world.  Our Lord does not want us to be naïve to this.  We must name evil for what it is when we see it but we must not allow ourselves to fall into negativity in so doing.  We must avoid the temptation of becoming prophets of doom in our day and time.  The world is deeply wounded and scarred by sin but the world is God’s creation and Scripture tells us that God loves what he has created.  We ought to never despise which God looks upon with love. 

Yes, there is a litany of horror in history but there is also a litany of the good.  Here are some aspects of the litany of the good more recent to our day.  An end to colonialism and the subjugation of native peoples, women gaining the right to vote and the ability to speak and achieve for themselves in society, the abolishment of widespread slavery and segregation, amazing developments in technology and understanding in all areas of science and medicine and the wonder that these advancements call forth, ecumenical advancements among Christians and greater understanding and respect among the world’s religions, greater (but not complete) healthcare access for people all around the world, a deeper and growing awareness of the beauty of creation and our call to be good stewards of the world entrusted to us and how everything is so interconnected, a greater awareness and respect for the dignity of every man, woman and child regardless of race, color, gender, language, sexual orientation, economic status and religion, a growing awareness of the dignity of all human life from the womb to a natural death and the list can go on…

Are there betrayals of each aspect of the above list?  Yes, people are still brutally denied their dignity in a variety of forms, science and medicine are often un-ethically manipulated in many ways, life is denied.  There remains war and violence.  But can it not be recognized that progress has been made and continues to be made in all of these areas and is there anything wrong in this recognition?  From my reading of St. John Paul II (limited as it is), I believe that he was very comfortable in recognizing and celebrating the achievement of the good.  He never allowed himself to get mired in negativity and the temptation of being a prophet of doom even as he certainly knew the struggles ahead. 

St. John Paul II was the originator of World Youth Day – a wonderful world-wide gathering of young adults which the Church just celebrated this year in John Paul’s native Poland.  I wonder if he saw this gathering of the world’s young people as a regular inoculation (if you would) for the Church against the ever present danger and virus of negativism.  Negativism tramples down life and dreams, especially those of the young.  In some regards, saying “the world is falling apart and all is bad” while not recognizing the good which is happening is a back-handed way of saying to our young people, “you and your hopes and dreams and possibility don’t really matter.”  This is not true.  Just because the world as I may see it seems to be changing that does not mean that the “World” (capital “W”) is falling apart and frankly maybe my “world” does need to fall apart so that God can bring about more fully his vision for the World.  It is possible that my “world” was not really that great for all people.  Maybe our job is to trust in God rather than sit in judgment of history and do what we can today to love God and to love neighbor. 

There is evil and there is great sin in our world.  We must not be naïve and we must pray for discerning minds and hearts and boldness of speech and action and we must also guard against becoming immersed in negativism.  At heart, a Christian cannot be a prophet of doom – God’s amazing grace will not allow it.  The first verse and refrain of the hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing” captures this truth.  My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation.  I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.  No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging.  Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? 

Our God is a God of the living and not the dead.  To honor life and the good wherever it is found is to honor God.  St. John Paul II knew this. 

St. John Paul II, pray for us!  Help us to learn not just what to say but also how to say it to a world so desperately in need yet also so loved by God.               

Being the Body of Christ: Remembering Who We Are

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Jesus - way, truth, lifeIn the parish in which I currently serve there is a husband and wife who work in therapeutic massage and they share how the healing arts influence their view of theology and how faith, in turn, influences their work.  I have had some interesting discussions with them and a recent conversation has had me thinking in a new way about parish and even the Body of Christ.

After an injury, the couple notes, part of the healing process is helping the injured person to remember and reconnect with his or her body.  On the surface this sounds strange because one would think that if there is a part of the body in pain that it would be a primary focus.  Initially it is but if the pain persists then the person begins to compensate and “work around” the injured part.  A disconnect then occurs, sets in and can even become deeply ingrained.  If the healing process is to be effective, this disconnect must be addressed and overcome.  The injured person must be helped, encouraged and even challenged sometimes to reconnect and remember his or her body.  Once this occurs, then healing and full functioning can advance in earnest.

There are injuries and pains which occur through life which can lead a person to “forget” or disconnect in differing ways from his or her body.  Pains and injuries also occur within the Christian community (sometimes minor and annoying, sometimes large and scandalous).  Can these injuries lead us to disconnect maybe even subconsciously (even as we sincerely profess our love of Christ and his Church) and forget what it truly means to be the Body of Christ?  Is part of the healing process needed in our day to be found in assisting the Church community to remember and re-connect with what it really means to be the Body of Christ?

Before a parish being a series of activities, projects or meetings, before it being a collection of groups and guilds, before it being good and charitable work done in our world, before it being a collection of Masses and prayer offered in this or that liturgical style – a parish is part of the Body of Christ and a manifestation of that Body.  A parish may have a lot of things going on but does that necessarily mean it is fully connected to and remembering its core and essential reality – which is being part of the Body of Christ?

Pope Francis has spoken famously of wanting a Church that is a field hospital.  The world can certainly bang up a person.  The world can also certainly bang up the Church.  Can part of the healing offered through the field hospital be healing needed by the Church herself, assisting her in remembering and re-connecting with her own body which is, in fact, the Body of Christ?

Below are some questions (not exhaustive) that I think might help a community reflect on where it is in its own remembering of being part of the Body of Christ.  (I approach this reflection in terms of the parish because that is the context in which I am currently ministering and in which the majority of Catholics exercise their faith.  At first blush, I do think these thoughts could be applied to other forms of church community.)

Does the parish have room to breathe?  In the United States we live in an activity driven society.  There is always someplace to be and something that needs to get done!  These may be good and honest realities that need to be addressed but can a different rhythm to life be found and maintained?  Can a parish witness to this different rhythm to life or is it so chock-full of activities that a person’s breath is taken away by just looking at a calendar of events!  Activities and schedules are certainly good but a body needs room and space to breathe.  Can a parish be allowed this room and can parishioners be allowed, first and foremost, to just be and know one another as fellow disciples and friends in Christ before anything else?

Does the church have the ability to welcome?  If a person is in pain and disconnected from his or her body it is more difficult for that person to welcome and focus on the needs of another person.  Energy cannot be spared even if desired.  Welcoming the other person runs deep within our faith tradition (think of Abraham welcoming the three strangers) and welcoming another person in faith is a means to new life and new awareness but if energy cannot be spared then this wellspring is cut off.

Can a church maintain a sense of wonder and be able to abide in mystery?  We so often want black and white answers and we want everything figured out and settled but often life is not this way.  At least this side of heaven, we will never have the full picture nor full understanding.  Church ought to be the place that welcomes wonder and mystery over pat phrases and tidy answers but, once again, when there is pain energy and focus can be lacking and it is all the easier to sidestep mystery in favor of what is seen as tried, true and comfortable.

Physically, the pains and traumas of life can lead us to disconnect from our bodies and even “forget” our bodies even as we live within our own skin.  In this scenario, we might be able to get by but this is far from the full experience and joy of life.  When pain and trauma lead us to forget who we are and disconnect from the reality of being the Body of Christ, we – as Church – might also be able to “get by” in the world but this also is far from the fullness of life that God intends for his people and through his people (his Body) in witness for the world.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jew or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of the one Spirit … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27)

A tremendous joy is to be found in re-connecting and simply remembering our body.  Yes, we are the Body of Christ!

For where your treasure is…

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ProclamationoftheKingdomofGodHere are a few lines from the song “Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons.

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes I struggle to find any truth in your lies. And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know. This weakness I feel I must finally show.  Lend me your hand and we’ll conquer them all But lend me your heart and I’ll just let you fall. Lend me your eyes I can change what you see. But your soul you must keep, totally free…

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love, you invest your life …

Awake my soul, awake my soul Awake my soul!  For you were made to meet your maker. You were made to meet your maker!

In this Sunday’s gospel (Lk. 12:32-48) our Lord cautions his disciples to not have fear and to not set one’s life by the tempests of the world but rather by the expectation of God’s coming Kingdom.  “Set your heart in God’s Kingdom,” our Lord is saying.  “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”  Our “treasure” – the hope we have as Christians – is not ultimately in this world and its struggles (although we are certainly called to live our faith and work to build up what is good and right) but in the Kingdom of God.

I think that Mumford and Sons, in their own way, are getting at this truth in their song.  “Where you invest your love, you invest your life … Awake my soul.  For you were made to meet your maker.”  Christian existence always stands within an expectation.  We are made for a purpose.  We are made to meet our maker and this expectation ought to guide our lives right here and right now.

When we have fear, we look past them to Christ.  When we experience discouragement, we find hope in God.  When trials come our way, we persevere in the promise of the Kingdom.  Our treasure has been set in heaven and so our hearts yearn for that.  But we live this concretely.  This, I think, is another truth brought out by the song.  “In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.  Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”  Christian existence stands within an expectation yet it also is lived in the now concretely.

As Christians, we are meant to invest our lives.  Some have said that in the incarnation, God, in essence, put skin in the game.  The Son of the Father took flesh and suffered and died that we might have life and salvation.  God invested his life for us because that is where his love is.  We, too, must invest our lives.  The wounds of the world are our wounds, therefore we do not seek to flee these wounds, rather we try to bandage and heal them.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is powerful because the Samaritan chose to invest his life – he took the time that was necessary, he paid for the man’s lodging, he gave of himself – for the good of the stranger.  He was able to invest his life because his love was already there.  He saw the neighbor as brother and friend and not as stranger.

It is a bit of a paradox.  The Christian seeks to do the right thing because we are challenged to do the right thing but on a deeper level we strive to do what is right because our love is already there.  Soon to be canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta knew she was caring for Christ himself whenever she cared for the poor, sick, despised and ill.  Christ (our love) is in our brothers and our sisters.

Where you invest your love, you invest your life.

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Going to the Heart and Pope Francis at Auschwitz

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Pope Francis at auschwitz2You may be aware that World Youth Day is occurring in Krakow, Poland.  World Youth Day is a gathering of the Church’s youth and young adults for days of catechesis, worship and prayer.  The event culminates on Sunday with a Papal Mass.  Pope Francis is in Krakow with the world’s young people.  I have been viewing different images via social media from the gathering but what has struck me most is a six minute video of Pope Francis visiting the concentration camp at Auschwitz and taking some private moments of prayer in the cell which housed St. Maximillian Kolbe before his death.  St. Maximillian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who volunteered his own life in order to let another prisoner live who was a husband and father.  The video, which is all in silence, is almost surreal.  (I have posted the video on our parish Facebook page.)

pope francis at auschwitzPope Francis arrives simply at the cell as is his wont.  He first peers into the darkened cell then steps in.  A chair is brought in and the Holy Father sits and we are given this amazing image of the successor to St. Peter clad in white sitting in a darkened cell with his head bowed in prayer in this place of unimaginable horror.

In visiting this cell and the concentration camp, Pope Francis has once again gone to the wounded heart of our world.  He has visited this place before.  He went there when he first visited the small island of Lampedusa to pray for migrants who had died trying to cross the Mediterranean and he goes there whenever he visits with the poor and forgotten and those who live on the periphery of our world.  In all of his travels, Pope Francis is intent on going to the heart of our world.

He goes there because that is where our Lord went.  In today’s gospel (Lk. 12:13-21) a man approaches Jesus and asks him to arbitrate between he and his brother about an inheritance.  Our Lord brushes the request aside because he knows that is not the real heart of the matter.  The heart of the matter is the wound of greed and pride which lies within every human heart.  It is from this wound that unimaginable horrors can spring.  Our Lord will ultimately answer this wound as only he can – from the cross and the empty tomb.

“Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”  Life is not found nor is it gained through things.  Life is found and life is gained through relationships and friendship, especially those based in humility and honest care.

The first relationship is ours with God.  The man in the parable is thinking about many things and some of those may be very good such as providing for his family and loved ones but in the parable we see that he really gives no attention to God.  God says to the man, “You fool, your life will be demanded of you and to whom will go all these things (your worries, your plans) that you have prepared?”  God has no concern for our worries or our plans.  God only has concern for us.  God only wants relationship with us – not friendship with our plans or our imaginings.  Living in that honest relationship with God is where true life is found and gained.

The second relationship is ours with all of our brothers and sisters.  Pope Francis knows this.  Whenever he visits the wounded heart of our world he is visiting his brothers and sisters and there he encounters Christ.  It seems to me that outside of the Blessed Sacrament itself, the place where we most find and encounter our Lord is within our wounded brothers and sisters.  They are the presence of God to us and we, in our own woundedness, are the very same presence to them.  Do we live this truth in the way we interact with one another or will God also call us fools for missing what was right in front of us for so long?

Christ always goes to the true heart of the matter because that is where life is found.

He invites us to do the same.

A God of small encounters and lessons from a dog

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Tissot_Abraham_and_the_Three_AngelsOne truth to today’s readings is that we have a God who does not disdain small encounters.  Three strangers appear outside the tent of Abraham. (Gen. 18:1-10a)  Abraham rushes from his tent, “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.  Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree.”  God could have gone on, but he doesn’t.  God welcomes Abraham’s invitation and the Creator of all rests with Abraham under the cool of the tree.  God receives Abraham’s hospitality.  It is not a “big thing”.  To any casual passerby the scene would seem very ordinary and even unremarkable. 

But God is present in this small encounter and Abraham has welcomed God in his three quests and where God is present there is life.  One of the guests says that next year Abraham and Sarah, without children for so long, will have a son.  This small encounter will produce a small seed from which the nation of Israel will flourish and through that people the Savior will come who will gather all nations and peoples into God’s Kingdom.  Our God does not disdain small encounters and from such encounters comes life and history itself is transformed.

God does not disdain small encounters but we do and the value of small encounters is one of the lessons our Lord comes to teach us.  In the gospel (Lk. 10:38-42), our Lord enters into the small home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  He neither disdains that home nor their hospitality and friendship rather, he welcomes all of it.  Mary elects to sit with the Lord and just be with him.  Martha is running about busy and even though in the same house, she is not really with the Lord.  How often we are like Martha!  Christ is here but we are not.  We run around, we remain distracted and anxious, we act busy.  Truth be told, we often avoid. 

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”  Our Lord knows the value and blessing of small encounters and how life can be found in these moments and he wants us to know this also.  Christian discipleship is made up of small encounters, choosing the better part and meeting Christ in the moment in which we find ourselves.  

Some of you may know that last Saturday I had to put to sleep one of my dogs – Bailey who was fourteen years old and had developed a tumor in his esophagus.  Last Saturday was not a good day for me.  I believe that one of the ways we can honor the departed, and I think this includes pets, is to learn from them.  There are three lessons I learned from Bailey.  I think one of the reasons people love dogs so much is that they do what we often wish we could do and not have others look at us like we are crazy.  I think we all have a part that would like to stick our heads out of the window of a moving car and just feel the rush of air!  I think there is a part of all of us that would often like to drop in the grass and roll around just for the fun of it!  Dogs teach us the value of these simple moments.  This is the first lesson.  They also teach us the value of encounter and this is the second lesson.  Dogs often just want to be best friends with everyone they meet, Bailey was this way.  I sometimes felt sorry for him because I think I often held him back.  It is pretty sad when your dog is more extroverted than you are!  Bailey was very patient with me in this but for him none of the things we think are important were important.  Dogs welcome everyone as they are and they just do not get worked up about things in the end that just really don’t matter that much.  Finally, dogs can teach us the lesson of now.  I saw a cartoon recently where a man is sitting on a bench facing a beautiful sunset with a dog sitting on the ground beside him.  There are thought bubbles all around the man’s head.  One is a flying plane.  Another is a fancy car.  The third is a large home and the fourth is a corner office.  All of these thoughts swirling around the man … all of them distracting him.  The dog has one thought bubble – it is he and the man sitting and watching the sunset. 

“…you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.”  

Our God neither disdains small moments nor small encounters.  There is great wisdom and life to be found when we also learn not to disdain small moments and small encounters. 

“Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”                 

“Who do you say I am?”: Orlando and silos of thought

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Jesus - way, truth, life“Who do the crowds say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?”  These questions of our Lord have continued down through history ever since he first asked them to that small group of followers.  Every age has to pick up the question and find the answer.  Every disciple has to answer the question and, I think, even in the life of disciple the answer shifts as we come to know more and more who Jesus is.  (I know that it has for me.)

Like all of us, I am sure, my thoughts and prayers this last week have been on the tragedy that occurred in Orlando and the victims.  The violent attack that killed forty-nine people, this time of the LGBT community, and wounded many more was simply evil.  It was a perfect storm of terror, hate and mental illness and it touches on so many hot-button issues in our society today – sexual orientation and identification, terrorism and Muslim extremism, access to weapons, even immigration and the growing Latino community.

As many know, I make use of social media and Facebook. I think social media is a good thing that has many positives but there are also downsides and one of those is the temptation to fall into one’s own particular “silo of thought”.  Social commentaries, in a variety of forms, have been noting this.  One of the unexpected consequences of the massive amount of information available to the average person in our modern day is the temptation to fall back into one’s own silo of thought and remain there with like-minded individuals and become even more extreme in one’s own thought and viewpoint.  Radicalization can occur over the internet and it does not just affect terrorists.

Not twenty-four hours after this tragedy; social media, at least on my feed, shifted from shock, grief, prayers and support to people (on all sides) staking out their positions on the hot-button issues of the day.

It turned that quickly.

I have my own opinion on these issues – some of you may agree with them, some of you may not and I may agree with your opinions or I may not. Let’s all get over it.  Social media may allow people to exist in silos of thought but real life does not and reality (not virtual reality) is where true life is found, lived and where real people meet one another.

The question our Lord asks, “Who do you say I am?” is the question for all of us no matter what side of any hot-button issue we find ourselves on. I have made much of the film “Risen” recently because I think it is an important film for our time and where we find ourselves.  I want to draw one image from the film for use here.

As the Roman tribune Clavius (who is fundamentally a good and honorable man) encounters the risen Lord and follows the disciples there is a scene where he strips off his tribune uniform. It is the desert and it is hot but the action is symbolic and it culminates at the end of the movie when Clavius, asked if he believes all about Christ, takes off his tribune ring and gives it to an inn-keeper and says, “Yes, I do believe.”  As Clavius encountered the risen Lord and as he had to find an answer for that question, “Who do you say I am?” he both had to let go and he was empowered to let go of the false identities he had clothed himself in over a life time.

The same is true for us. Whether we are Republican or Democrat, straight or gay, black, white, brown, yellow or red, male or female, pro-gun legislation or anti-gun legislation, rich or poor – we all have false identities.  No one is exempt!  To truly answer our Lord’s question we each must be willing to let go of that which we carry around within us which is not true.  Christ came to bring about God’s Kingdom, not our own particular silo of thought.

The gospel today, our Lord himself, invites us to turn away from our own silos of thought because true life is not found in virtual reality and to rather turn toward the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

“Who do you say that I am?”

A day without death: the movie “Risen” and our world’s violence

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risen1There are two scenes in the movie “Risen” that build upon one another. Both scenes involve the Roman tribune Clavius who has been assigned to investigate the empty tomb of Christ.

The first scene takes place right after the crucifixion at which Clavius was present. On the evening of that day, the tribune encounters Pontius Pilate in the baths.  Pilate, I believe, can be viewed as an embodiment of worldly and pragmatic cunning throughout this film.  After confirming that the Nazarene had been executed and buried, Pilate waxes, “One does what one must.”  “I don’t wish the mantle you wear,” responds Clavius.  “Spare me,” says Pilate, “it is your path too.  Your ambition is noticed.  Where do you hope it will lead?”  “Rome,” replies the tribune looking off into his own thoughts.  Pilate’s eyes arch, “And?”  “Position, power …” reflects Clavius.  Pilate presses, “Which brings?”  “…wealth, a good family, someday a place in the country.”  “What will you find?” asks Pilate.  “An end of travail … a day without death …  peace.” asserts the tribune.  “All that for peace,” muses Pilate, “Is there no other way?”

The second scene occurs at the Lake of Galilee. It is night.  The disciples are all asleep.  Clavius notices the risen Lord apart and watching the night sky.  Clavius approaches and sits down beside Jesus.  “I don’t even know what to ask,” he finally admits.  The Lord, now intent on his visitor, says, “Speak your heart.”  “How can I reconcile all this with the world I know?”  “With your own eyes you have seen,” responds the Lord, “yet still you doubt?  Imagine the doubt of those who have never seen.  That’s what they face.  What frightens you?”  “Being wrong,” answers Clavius, “wagering eternity.”  “Well then, know him,” invites the Lord.  Clavius is troubled and goes on to confess, “When you died.  I was present.  I helped.”  “I know,” forgives the Lord placing his hand on the tribune’s shoulder.  “What is it you seek Clavius?” inquires the risen Lord as he then goes on to say, “Certainty … peace … a day without death?”  Clavius gasps, his eyes widen and he is met by the full gaze of Christ and our Lord smiles. The tribune weeps; his heart and his pain have been recognized … and answered.

Clavius was a man fully versed in war and its politics. He was a man of action and hard fought experience.  Yet, he was war and violence weary and this becomes more and more apparent as the film progresses.  The question asked by Pilate, “All that for peace?  Is there no other way?” settles in the heart of the tribune just as the mystery about the Nazarene and his empty tomb begins to grow.  Clavius meets the risen Lord whom he, with his own eyes, had seen executed.  All is thrown upside down as Clavius is met head on with the answer to his question, “How can I reconcile all this with the world I know?”  He cannot.  The risen Lord is the truth and therefore the world as he had known it is not.  The resurrection of the Nazarene changes everything.

In Clavius, we see our world and our society. We are war and violence weary.  We yearn for a day without death.  How many more wars and battles?  How many more acts of random and senseless violence?  How much more political and social media posturing that goes nowhere and does nothing?  How much more division and an unwillingness to listen?  How much more fear?  How much more death?  I think it safe to say that along with the beleaguered tribune we also are done.  Enough!  We just want a day without death.

Our Lord is looking at us. He asks us the same question, “What is it you seek?”  We need to be honest.  It is the answer we have known all along.  The world as we know it, the world we have constructed, the world with its answers that we so often choose to go by even as Christians is not working.  The wars, violence and posturing – and even those given in rebuttal – are not leading to answers.  They are not leading to peace.

The risen Lord is looking at us. “What is it you seek?”  Lord, have mercy and forgive our unbelief!  Help us to be honest and help us to find and live the only true answer – which is you.  Give us the strength of conviction and courage to let go of all we think is true (the world as we know it) but, in fact, is not.  As Clavius followed the joy-filled disciples to Galilee, he stripped off his garments of the tribune.  He let go of that false identity.  Help us to also let go of those “truths as we know them” that are in fact not truth and that only deaden and divide.  You alone are truth; please clean us of all that is not true.

Our Lord is looking at us. We are so violence and war weary.

“What is it you seek?” We want a day without death.

God, grant us the courage to live the answer.

Of Gorillas, Wolves, Us and Creation

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wolf2For close to a year now I have been volunteering at the wolf habitat in Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport, TN. The wolf habitat has been around for a few decades and currently is home to ten wolves.  When my schedule allows, I go to assist with the feeding of the wolves which occurs twice a week.  We do not go inside the enclosure but rather toss the food in.  It is only the naturalists who can go in with the wolves and even then only under the strictest guidelines.

Why do I do this? Partly, I think, because I have always been intrigued by wolves.  Wolves are fascinating animals and this awareness is only deepened the more one learns about them.  Their communal/pack instinct and identity is amazing and offers much for us to learn and even learn from.  Yet, wolves are often misunderstood and maligned throughout their history with the human race.  This needs to be corrected.  Also, helping out at the habitat is a small way to carry about the task of being a good steward of the creation that God has entrusted us with.  Our faith tradition tells us that we have been entrusted with the responsibility of stewardship to this planet and all of its inhabitants.  Each Christian should find some way in his or her life to live this responsibility.

The wolf enclosure is quite large and quite protected for safety – both for the animals and the human onlookers. There is a high fence with electric wiring top and bottom and even a larger timber frame meant to protect the fence from falling trees.  The regulating agency is always inspecting and there seems to be continual discussions about improving safety.

cincinnati-zoo2Like the whole nation I gasped when I saw the video of the little boy in the enclosure with the gorilla. Sadly, I have also watched as the ensuing social media debate has seemed to devolve to either “team human” or “team animal” as if those are the only two options and that they have to be opposing by nature. Can we just be okay with acknowledging the tragedy all around and leave it at that?  It is tragic that the child fell into the enclosure and could have been seriously harmed.  It is tragic that the zookeepers (the very people who knew, cared for and protected the gorilla) had to make a gut-wrenching and quick decision that I know I would not want to have to make.  It is tragic that the gorilla was shot and killed.  It is easy for everyone else not there – now after a continuous loop of the video has been played and scrutinized by the media for days – to be an arm-chair quarterback.  The reality of the situation was not easy; it was tragic.  Sadly, life is sometimes tragic.

Tragedy, for the Christian, has roots but it also points out hope. The story of our faith tells us that God created the universe, the world and all of its wonders and that God looked upon it all and said that it was good.  Our faith also tells us that in the beginning humanity walked in the garden of creation together with God and in harmony with all living creatures whom humanity even helped to name.  In pride, humanity sinned and our relationship with God and with all of creation was fractured and broken.  Yet, just as there is a part of us which yearns for restored relationship with God and knows that we are meant for that there is a part that knows we are meant for restored relationship with all of creation.  This is not the naïve, secular pantheism touted in movies but rather that which lies at the heart of the gasp of wonder we experience when we catch sight of a deer bounding through the forest or a whale breaching the surface of the water or a hawk cutting the air or the simple beauty of a butterfly or a bird.  We are connected yet, tragically, the connection breaks.  We go to animals whether in enclosures or out in the wild partly because we know in our hearts we are meant for that connection, that it was there once, even if it broken now.

But it will not be broken forever. This is the hope.  The twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation tells us that there will be a “new heaven and a new earth.”  The hope of the Christian is not in some spirit-only realm where the shackles of the body and creation are finally left behind – a thought akin more to some schools of Greek philosophical thought and Gnosticism than the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ.  Jesus Christ rose bodily!  The Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven!  In the creed we profess our belief in a bodily resurrection!  God looked upon all that he made and said it was good.  God does not disdain his creation and for us to disdain creation means to disdain the Creator.  God is pure spirit but we are not.  To think we become pure spirit after death and in the resurrection would mean to question the wisdom of the Creator.  We will not become what we are not in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.  We will not become angels.  We will become as Christ and his mother (the first fruits of the future resurrection) risen in the glorified body.

I think that part of the “new heaven and new earth” foreseen in the Book of Revelation is our restored relationship both with the Creator and with all of his creation. What exactly this means and how it will look I do not know but I do believe that God is both creator and redeemer and that the two are not opposed.  The Creator does not disdain his creation.  This deep and abiding hope is within us and it pulls us forward.

I have been told that I have now been around enough that the wolves on Bays Mountain recognize me both visually and by my scent. A few times now my eyes have locked with a wolf’s eyes.  It is a neat moment.  There is wonder there and in that wonder is both a remembrance and a hope.  God’s Kingdom will be established, the tragedy of sin and suffering will be overcome and right relationship will be restored.

“Give them some food yourselves”: The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

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feeding the multitudeAfter twenty-one years of priesthood, I had a stunning theological realization as I reflected on this Sunday’s gospel (Lk. 9:11b-17) of our Lord’s feeding of the multitude with some fish and some bread. This was the Church’s first potluck meal!  We bring a little bit of this, we bring a little bit of that and somehow we feed the multitude!  If a person wants a scriptural warrant for the potluck, here it is!

All that being said; the gospel given to us today does lead us into some profound truths about this solemnity of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ. The context of need and our Lord’s response sheds light on the living mystery of the Eucharist.  Immediately prior to this passage we are told that the crowds came to know where Jesus was and that he “… made them welcome …” (Lk. 11a).  Our Lord recognized the peoples’ desire for the Kingdom of God as well as their spiritual hunger and need.  His eyes and his heart were open in the broadness of welcome, care and love.  The disciples, well, not so much.  They want the Lord to dismiss the crowd.  On the surface it seems an appropriate and even caring response, “Lord, dismiss them so that they can find lodging and provisions.”  But surface concern can often mask over an underlying attitude of disregard.  “It’s not my problem.  They can fend for themselves.”  But Jesus’ response of “Give them some food yourselves,” challenges all such disregard.  Not only is the need and hunger of the crowd to be the disciple’s concern, the feeding and meeting of that need is to become the joy of the disciple.

I think we would be safe in saying that because Jesus is God incarnate, he could have fed the crowd on his own in some form or another but he does not do that, rather he specifically tells his disciples to give the people some food themselves! He chooses to involve them in both the situation and the solution.  Our Lord wants to open the hearts of his disciples to the very same broadness of welcome, care and love that he carries in his own heart.  So, in essence, he tells his disciples, “Look up.  Look away from yourselves.  See the crowd, see their hunger, see their need.  Now, give them some food yourselves.”

How does this relate to today’s solemnity? When we authentically receive the Body and Blood of Christ given as bread and wine then our very lives must, in essence, be transformed into bread given and wine poured out for other people! “Give them some food yourselves.”   This is the call of the Christian and it is critical for all ages.  The Eucharist opens our eyes and our hearts to the broadness of Christ’s own welcome, care and love.

For our times, as it was for all previous times, this is truly needed. In his most recent apostolic exhortation on love and the family, Pope Francis makes this observation, “The individualism so prevalent today can lead to creating small nests of security, where others are perceived as bothersome or a threat.  Such isolation, however, cannot offer greater peace or happiness; rather, it straitens the heart of a family and makes its life all the more narrow.”  (AL #187)

Christ does not want his disciples to have narrow lives and narrow hearts. He did not want it for his first disciples that day of the feeding of the multitude.  Even as the disciples, themselves, seemed very content to send away the crowds who were pressing in on their narrow reality.  He does not want it for his disciples today.  Christ does not want us to live in our own bubbles because he knows that true life and true joy is not found that way.  Our Lord wants nothing less than the abundance of joy for us and for every other person.  “Look up,” says our Lord, “give them some food yourselves, don’t fall into a narrow and sad life!”

The Eucharist is the very body and blood of our Lord and by its very nature and grace it transforms all who receive it authentically and honestly in faith, hope and love. “Give them some food yourselves,” says our Lord.  I feel truly sorry for those who turn away from the Eucharist as if it is mere superstition or just not that important.  By so doing, they are inviting a sad poverty into their lives.

The Eucharist is the very body and blood of our Lord given that we might have life and it transforms those who receive it. The Eucharist opens our own eyes and hearts to the very broadness of Christ’s own welcome, care and love.

Trinity Sunday: the way of love

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Trinity-Rublev.jpg2Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday and as Church we reflect for a moment on the greatest of mysteries – God is a communion of persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here it is most helpful to remember the Christian understanding of mystery: mystery is not a puzzle to be figured out and then set aside but rather a reality to be lived and as we live the reality we, ourselves, are brought to deeper understanding.  On our own accord we cannot reason our way to the Trinity.  The Trinity is the ultimate truth both revealed and given and it is in living in this truth that we come to be grasped by it.  Our faith affirms that the best way to live within the truth of the Trinity (to be grasped and moved by the mystery) is the way of love.

In the first Letter of John we read that “God is love”. St. Augustine takes this biblical truth, enters within it and then concludes, “if God is love then God must be Trinity.”  The very dynamism and nature of love, he writes, “…presupposes one who loves, the one who is loved, and their love itself.”  Love links us into the reality of God and therefore the truest way to know God in the reality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to live authentic love.  As Christians it is not enough to just receive love and run the risk of getting trapped in a false sense of love which is only about self and ego, we must give love and give self if we are indeed to grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be and the fullness of understanding.

A lesson can be learned here from the two seas that are formed by the Jordan River; the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee receives the Jordan’s waters but then it lets it flow out again and the sea is full of life.  The Dead Sea receives the Jordan’s waters and keeps it, no streams flow out of it – it is in fact “dead” – no life in its waters or on its shores – a salty waste.  These two seas are a symbol to us.  Love has been given to us in our baptisms in the abundance of God’s generosity – God’s very triune life – but in order for it to fully bring life; this love must flow through us.  For Christians it is not enough to just receive love, we must give love.  It is in our triune DNA.  Further, this very giving of love is a pathway into knowledge of God.

God does the same for us. We ask God to give us a little love and God then asks us to first give Him and our neighbor all the little love we have.  Even if it just begins as the smallest of streams what little love we know must begin to flow out from us if our own hearts are to give life and know God.

The Christian knows, because of the Trinity, that true life and true joy is found not just in consuming and receiving but in the giving of self for other people. Authentic love that is freely given diminishes no one, rather it fulfills and brings life and understanding.  To give true love is a pathway into knowledge of God and the very mystery of the Trinity.

St. Augustine is correct. Because God is love it follows that God is Trinity.

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