Remain with the Creed

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“Remain with the Creed,” is a good maxim that has stood the Church well as she has navigated through the centuries with all of its upheavals and turmoil.  Faced with continual challenges throughout history, the Church has faithfully looked to the Creed for guidance and direction in meeting those challenges.  Today’s world is no exception and the beginning and the ending of the Creed are worthy of note for helping us as Church in answering today’s challenges. 

Both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creed proclaim God as Creator.  I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth… (The Apostles’ Creed).  The Nicene Creed further professes each person of the Holy Trinity’s involvement in creation.  I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.  I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ … through him all things were made … I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…

This is a core aspect of our Christian faith – that God is the Creator of all, ex nihilo.  Creation reveals the love of God as well as revealing the omnipotence of God.  Scripture tells us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and love by its very nature pours itself out and this is what God did in the act of creating and continues to do in sustaining all creation and transforming it through the resurrection of his Son – the firstborn from the dead.  Creation is therefore a revelation of both God’s love as well as God’s power.  The Judeo-Christian tradition, distinct from the pagan religions it was initially surrounded and overshadowed by, proclaims creation not to be the result of a primordial conflict between competing gods and divine forces but the deliberate choice by the one and true God – a choice which was a willed act of love.  It is love and not violence and conflict that comprises the foundation of all creation. 

Why is this important?  We live in turbulent times and, increasingly, there seems to be worldviews creeping into our social landscape that emphasize violence and conflict as core and even foundational aspects of life and society.  These worldviews maintain that violence is just the way of the world.  Only through conflict can things be changed.  Only through exclusion and suppression of the other can peace be maintained.  That something is a crime only if the perpetrator gets caught.    

We, as Christians, must be determined to say “no” to these sad trends.  Remembering and recognizing that all of creation is founded on a divine act of love grants us the fortitude that is necessary for the times in which we find ourselves and the wisdom needed to recognize the dignity in all people.   

The term “love” is manhandled quite easily in our world today and can even be used to mask manipulative actions and conflict itself but even as the word can be misused and misinterpreted that does not mean that the truth of what authentic love is comprised of is lost.  Love that wills the good of the other (credit to St. Thomas Aquinas) is what we know and have been entrusted with as Christians and it is what we bring to these turbulent times with its tendency to view everything solely through the paradigm of conflict and division.  There is a different way and we fool ourselves when we buy into the assumption that there is no other way than that of conflict and that Christian love has no true power to effect change.  We fool ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that it is love and not conflict that, in fact, undergirds all creation.  Creation’s foundation in love is a truth that our Creed boldly proclaims from the very beginning. 

The ending of the Creed also has something important to say to our society’s current context.  …I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come (Nicene Creed).   I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting (Apostles’ Creed). 

There is a danger of over spiritualizing (to the detriment of the material) our notions of what happens after death.  The profession of our belief in the resurrection of the body is an important stop and corrective to this tendency.  After death we do not become pure spirits for all eternity in heaven – spirits who have finally shaken off their material bondage.  This is not our belief as Christians.  Our belief in what comes after death is grounded in the truth of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, who is the firstborn from the dead.  Jesus appeared in his risen and glorified body to his disciples and he went to some pains in those resurrection appearances to show that he was neither a ghost nor a shade but rather was fully and physically present in their midst. 

Our bodies matter and our bodies are a core component (along with mind and soul) of the fullness of our person.  The thought of only being resurrected in spirit is not an exaltation in our Christian understanding but rather a diminution because, if such were the case, then we would be less than what we are now.  All of our person, all of that which authentically comprises who we are is to be brought into the Kingdom of God. 

Why is this important?  Body and gender, in Christian understanding, are not accidentals that can be changed at will but rather core constitutive components of who we are.  There is much confusion in our society regarding this and great pastoral sensitivity, courage and prudence is called for while navigating these issues when ministering to people who are themselves trying to deal with all of the conflicting views that we are awash in within our society today.   

Can traditional gender roles evolve and be changed?  Certainly.  Men can be nurturing and women can be competitive.  (Yes, two simplistic examples, I know.)  While these “changing and evolving” roles in no way deny a person’s masculinity or femininity, they also do not say that there is no value to gender at all.  A wholesale tossing out of gender and body as if they have no real, inherent value in favor of viewing them solely as societal constructs reflects an extremely shallow and sad understanding of what makes a person a person.  It also demonstrates a very limited understanding of human reality that is cut off from both the wider context of all creation and of time. 

The Creed reminds us that we are part of something much bigger than just ourselves (… all things visible and invisible …) and that we experience salvation within this overall context and not apart from it.  An attitude that too easily dismisses the reality of the corporal is not Christian in outlook and rather reflects modern humanity’s disconnect from the rest of creation.  It is also a worldview essentially locked into a narrow understanding of the present with no remembrance of the past (creation) nor a hope for the future (the promise of the fullness of God’s Kingdom).  It is a sad imprisonment within an extremely limited temporal scope of reality, yet the truth of the resurrection continually liberates us from all of the sad imprisonments encountered in the world.  I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting (Apostles’ Creed).

What can we as Christian community do in the context in which we find ourselves?  How can we best minister and witness?  By remaining with the Creed and finding ways to keep sharing the truth of what we profess in inviting and life giving ways. 

Here are some thoughts:

  • Offer a faith study series on the Christian understanding of love drawing from the Catechism, the liturgical texts for Christian weddings and writings such as “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis
  • Have time within marriage preparation specifically devoted to truly discussing and reflecting on the Christian understanding of love.  We can no longer just assume that persons coming for marriage preparation already possess that understanding themselves. 
  • Offer Scripture Study sessions on the Book of Genesis reflecting on creation as a revelation of both God’s love and power
  • As a Christian community seek to always grow in a theological understanding that holds together both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of the Incarnation.  Jesus is indeed Lord and Savior and he is also brother – a man like us in all things but sin. 
  • Encourage participation in the faith that is lived in the context of real community and not primarily online. 
  • Offer study groups on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia.
  • As parishes, participate in the seven-year Laudato Si’ Action Plan.
  • Offer day hikes and outdoor retreats as opportunities to get people to re-engage with creation and overcome the disconnect we’ve inherited.
  • Offer Scripture Study sessions on the resurrection appearances found in the Gospels.
  • Make use of liturgical moments to proclaim our belief in the resurrection of the body (i.e. in the funeral rite, take a moment right before the incensing of the casket to share that we use incense to mark that which is holy and that through baptism the deceased loves ones’ very body became a temple of the Holy Spirit and that we believe and we have that hope that all of who we are will be raised on the great day of resurrection).

These are some ideas and there certainly can be more.  Are these big moments?  No, but they do not have to be in order to be effective.  These moments are more about planting seeds and nurturing them to grow.  These moments are also about providing space for a different message than what we are so often bombarded with in our confusing times. 

If the message is true – and we as Christians believe it to be so – then it will speak to people’s hearts and will help awaken them to the journey of coming to fuller understanding.

“Remain with the Creed.”  It is a good maxim that has stood the Church well throughout the centuries and it is just as true for us today.  The beginning and the ending of our ancient Creed indeed have important words to speak to us now.   

The Story of Robin Redbreast

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(This story is adapted from “Robin Redbreast” by Selma Lagerlof found in the book, “Easter Stories” by Plough Publishing House.)

There is a story about how the robin redbreast bird received its distinctive red color.  The story begins on the day of creation when God created all of the birds.  After God formed the bird, he would paint it a beautiful mix of colors and give it life and the bird would fly forth from the hand of God singing!  God arrived at the last bird but all the colors God had in his paint pot were used up except for a dull gray color.  God painted the bird all in gray, told the bird that it would be called “Robin Redbreast” and it flew forth from his hand. 

At first the bird flew and sang and looked upon all the world from the sky.  The bird saw all of the other birds in their amazing colors and became curious as to what he looked like.  The bird landed by a pond and looked at himself in the reflection of the water.  He was all gray!  There was not a speck of red to be found on him! 

The little bird flew back to our Lord.  Landing in our Lord’s hand, the bird asked, “Why should I be called Redbreast, when I am all gray from my beak to the very end of my tail?”  The Lord smiled at the little bird and said, “I have called you Robin Redbreast, and Robin Redbreast shall your name be, but you must look to it that you, yourself earn your red breast feathers.”  The Lord opened his hand and the little gray bird flew forth deeply thoughtful. 

What could a little bird do to earn red feathers?  The only thing that the bird could think to do was to make his nest in a briar bush, among the thorns, hoping that a petal from the red rose would cling to his breast and give it color.  But this never happened.  Generations of birds came and went; generations build their nests among the briars but the bird remained gray.  Every generation would pass on the words of the Lord hoping that one day they would gain their red feathers. 

The little ones would ask their parents if the birds had never tried to do anything to earn the red mark.  “We have done what we could,” they would say, “but we have yet to earn the color.  The first little robin redbreast met another bird exactly like himself, he loved her with such a mighty love that he could feel his heart glow.  He thought that surely that would change his feathers red but even though the love was strong it did not bring the red color.  Another redbreast thought song would turn her chest red.  She sang the most beautiful songs but even though it filled her with great joy to sing and all the other animals would stop to listen her feathers remained gray.  Another robin thought courage and valor would earn the red color.  He was courageous in defending his nest and little ones and other birds but that did not do it either.”  The little birds would peep sadly, thinking they would never earn the red mark. 

Now, it happened once that there was a small robin redbreast nest in a briar bush on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  In the nest was three young ones and their father who was feeding them.  Suddenly, the father cried out “Be quiet!” and he covered the little ones with the span of his wings.  A great crowd of people marched past them.  There were soldiers, and priests in long robes, a howling mob of people and in the midst of them all were three men carrying crosses.

The Robin Redbreast father watched the whole horrible scene even as he shielded his little ones.  “This is horrible,” he said, “why are the humans so cruel to their own?  There is even one who has to wear a crown of thorns that is piercing his forehead!  I see blood flowing from his wounds!  And this man is so peaceful and looks on everyone with such love.  I feel like an arrow is piercing my heart when I look on him.” 

“Even if I am just a little bird, I can still do something for this poor man.”  The bird flew toward the man on the cross, he circled around him a few times and when he gained the courage he softly landed and pulled out a thorn that was imbedded in the forehead of the man.  It was a little gesture but the man looked on the bird with gratitude.  Some blood from the man’s forehead fell on the breast of the little gray bird and colored the feathers a crimson red. 

As soon as the bird returned to his nest his young ones cried out to him, “Your breast is red!  Your feathers are redder than the roses!”  “It is only a drop of blood from the poor man’s forehead,” replied the bird.  It will vanish when I bathe in the spring.  But no matter how much the little bird bathed, the red color did not vanish and when his young ones grew up the red mark showed up on their feathers also.  There it remains on all Robin Redbreast’s until this very day – red from the wounds of Christ.   

The little bird received mercy from our Lord and he also lived that mercy as he brought comfort to our Lord on the cross.  On this Divine Mercy Sunday, may we learn from this little story of the Robin Redbreast.     

“God saw”, the dignity of life and the challenge of Jonah

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In this Sunday’s first reading (Jonah 3:1-5, 10) we are told that God saw how the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways and therefore God spared them.  In the Gospel reading (Mk. 1:14-20) we hear that Jesus saw Simon and Andrew about their ordinary and daily work of casting the nets and then later that Jesus saw James and John again about the very ordinary work of mending their nets.  The scriptures help to teach us that how God sees is different than how humans see.  God sees the human heart.  We do not. 

We know the story of Jonah.  Jonah is sent to Nineveh to call the people to repentance lest they be destroyed for their evil ways.  The people hear Jonah, they repent and they are spared.  The Book of Jonah is about the overflowing and abundant mercy of God for all peoples.  The people of Nineveh experience conversion … but there is more to the story.  The story is also about the conversion required of Jonah.  Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.  The people of Nineveh were the sworn enemies of the people of Israel at this time.  Jonah would have been happy to see the city of Nineveh wiped off the face of the map!  Jonah’s heart was hardened towards these people, so after the conversion of the city of Nineveh, God needs to come to the sulking prophet for his own personal conversion.  God tells Jonah that all people are his children and that he has a fatherly care for all.  Who is Jonah to judge?  Who is Jonah to decide who lives and who dies?  Who are we to judge?  God alone sees the human heart and for God, all persons are his children. 

The Book of Jonah offers an important lesson for us living in these polarized times.  It is all too easy for us to judge the “other” whoever our own personal “other” may be.  It has even become quite easy to wish ill on the “other”.  But who are we?  Did we form that person or persons in the womb?  Did we call them to life?  The Book of Jonah cautions us to avoid the pitfall of allowing our hearts to become hardened and embittered against the “other”. 

In the gospel, God also sees into the human heart.  Jesus sees Simon, Andrew, James and John all about the very ordinary work of life.  They had probably cast their nets hundreds if not thousands of times before.  They had probably mended their nets just as many times.  Life can be tedious and we can fall into the rut of thinking that things can never change, that this is all there is.  But underneath the tedious ordinariness of it all; Christ saw the yearning these men had in their hearts.  A yearning placed there by God himself.  Things can be different!  We are meant for more!  The Kingdom of God is possible!  We can set our lives by the newness of life that Christ alone brings! 

How God sees is different that how we see.  God sees into the human heart.  Yet now, in Christ, God calls us to begin to see how he sees.  How can we do this?  How can we avoid the pitfall of a hardened heart against the other and the rut of thinking nothing can change? 

I want to share a prayer because I think from its language, we can learn some lessons. 

Last Friday, our nation celebrated a tragic anniversary – the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade and since that tragic ruling sixty million lives have been lost.  The Church has asked that a Mass be offered on this anniversary each year for the Dignity of Life.  Here is the opening prayer for this Mass. 

God our Creator, we give thanks to you,

who alone have the power to impart the breath of life

as you form each of us in our mother’s womb;

grant, we pray,

that we, whom you have made stewards of creation,

may remain faithful to this sacred trust

and constant in safeguarding the dignity

of every human life.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. 

There are beautiful lessons for the human heart to be learned from this prayer and, in learning these lessons, we can work to ensure that our hearts remain human and not hardened.    

We have a Creator – each and every person!  We are not merely the result of random chance or fate.  We are each and every one willed into existence by God. 

We give thanks.  The most authentic gift we can give back to God, really the only gift we can give back, is gratitude.  The discipline of gratitude in one’s life helps to keep the heart human and open to the possibility of new life. 

God alone has the power to impart life.  Who are we to try to claim that which belongs to God alone?  Our hearts are hardened when we try to lay claim to that which is beyond us.  Our hearts are hardened in this sinful pride. 

We are formed in our mother’s womb.  Not only is each and every person willed by God, each and every person is lovingly willed by God!  Each person is valued by God.  Each person is formed in the womb in love. 

And we are called to be constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life.  The preeminent dignity of the child in the womb – the most innocent of life – the life of the poor, the life of the elderly, the life of the handicapped person, the life of the refugee and the immigrant, the life of the person in jail and on death row and … here is where the challenge of Jonah comes in … even the life of the person who disagrees with me.  The life of the person whom I am tempted to see as the “other” and the enemy.  Even the person who may mock me and my beliefs and who may see me as the “other” and the enemy – even that person we, as Christians, must strive to safeguard the dignity of.  This is the challenge of Jonah and God does indeed call each of us to this conversion just as God calls each of us to do the work of promoting and defending the dignity of all human life. 

God does not see as we see.  God sees into the human heart yet God calls us – now graced in Christ – to begin to see as he sees.  All persons are his children.  Every life has dignity and worth.  Avoid the pitfall of the hardened and embittered heart.  Don’t succumb to the despair that nothing new is possible, that there can be no conversion. 

In Christ, all things are possible!   

It is time to stop tearing down and time to start building.

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In the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we are told that our Lord goes to his home synagogue at Nazareth and there he reads the following passage from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. 

Then, Jesus says, Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.

It is quite easy to tear down.  Tearing down does not take much courage nor intelligence nor faith.  Within this past year we have witnessed many instances of tearing down in our nation … and add on to this all that Covid has torn down in our lives and in our society.  Yes, some things must be torn down, yet, it remains all too easy to just tear down.  It is not easy to build.  To build takes intelligence.  To build takes courage.  To build takes cooperation.  To build takes perseverance and faith in God, faith in oneself and faith in one’s neighbor. 

During his public ministry, our Lord dismantled the structures of sin in our world by building the Kingdom of God.  This is important to realize.  … bring glad tidings … proclaim liberty … let the oppressed go free … proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  These are all actions of building.  These are actions of moving forward in trust, hope and true liberation.  Yes, our Lord certainly called sinners to repentance and he cleansed the temple but this was all within that primary mission which our Lord was about – to usher in and build the Kingdom of God. 

Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing. 

In light of all that has occurred within our country this past year and what has occurred now even in the capitol of our nation; it is time to forswear the easy work of tearing down and time to begin the hard and mature work of building.  Build true civic engagement and responsibility.  Build systems of justice and mercy that strive to right injustices for all persons who are oppressed.  Build and fortify true community.  Build forums of dialogue that do not isolate people in their own opinion but rather bring people into real encounter.  Bring the glad tidings of education and the awareness of the dignity of every man, woman and child.  Proclaim a true liberty founded not on bias, fear and baseless conspiracy theories but on truth, humility and honesty.   

It is so easy to tear down.  It takes work to build. 

The Gospel of Mark ends with these words; So, then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.  Amen.  (Mk. 16:19-20)

Strengthened by Christ and gifted with the Holy Spirit, the disciples go forth into the whole world to do the work of building the Kingdom and in this work the structures of sin are dismantled and triumphed over.  This is what we do as Church, we build. 

May God bless our nation and, in this particular moment of our history, call us all back – each and every one – to the continuing work of building a more perfect union and may God bless us as Church in the most sacred work of building his Kingdom. 

The witness of St. Joseph as helpful antidote to escapism

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Not far into his new book, Let Us Dream, Pope Francis, with the skill of someone trained in the Ignatian method of discernment of spirits, cautions the reader to a prevalent temptation of our times – escapism, the desire to seek distraction from reality, especially if reality is unpleasant or demanding.  The pope later lists this need to escape reality as one of the contributing causes to the virus of indifference effecting our world – the other virus starkly revealed by our world and society’s response to the Covid-19 virus.   Escaping reality can certainly be achieved through such means as materialism, alcohol and drug use and forms of sexual addiction but the Holy Father focuses rather on attitudes and mindsets that any of us can easily fall into and even choose to cultivate in our hearts. Here I want to look at the three ways of escaping reality that the Holy Father lays out in his book – narcissism, discouragement and pessimism – and, since our current liturgical year has been dedicated to St. Joseph, suggest the witness of the foster father of our Lord and chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary as an antidote to this desire to escape reality. 

St. Joseph speaks no words in any of the gospels but from his actions and his life we quickly learn that he is a man who was able to face reality head on with faith and conviction.  How was he able to do this?  Maybe we will be able to gain some insight when we look at what he did not do. 

Narcissism takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you so that’s all you see.  You end up so in love with the image you created that you end up drowning in it.  Then news is only good if it’s good for you personally; and if the news is bad, it’s because you are its chief victim.  (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis)

St. Joseph was not a narcissist.  In Matthew’s gospel we are told that immediately after it was found that Mary was with child, Joseph, her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.  There must have been confusion, hurt and possibly even anger stirring in the heart of Joseph in the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy but – even with all that – Joseph is “unwilling to expose (Mary) to shame”.  Joseph did not allow himself to be carried off by narcissism to the mirror to fixate only upon himself in this situation.  Joseph did not get lost in himself – did not play the role of the chief victim – but rather accepted the reality of the situation as he knew it to be and then made the choice to act out of the principles he chose to live by rather than reacting out of hurt and anger.  Scripture says that he “was a righteous man” and here is where the virtues that he had acquired, the virtues that comprised his righteousness showed forth – a faith stronger than the hurts and disappointments of life and a care and compassion for the other person even in a difficult moment. 

Discouragement leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you, only what you think you’ve lost.  Discouragement leads to sadness in the spiritual life, which is a worm that gnaws away at you from the inside.  Eventually it closes you in on yourself and you can’t see anything beyond yourself.  (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis)

If Joseph was a man prone to loud lamenting and complaining, would he have been someone open to the different instructions of the angels in his dreams?  Would he have even heard the messages or even paid them any heed?  I don’t think so.  Our actions and choices have consequences and Pope Francis is reminding us of this truth.  Loud lamenting and complaining – in addition to being annoying to those persons around who have to endure it – blinds and deafens the lamenter and complainer to all that is around them, even spiritual realities that offer hope, guidance and endurance.  If we have fallen into the fallacy of thinking that God doesn’t care or that life is always unfair maybe it seems that way because we are actually whining too much to notice how God is indeed present and how there are good things in life.  St. Joseph did not complain nor give into discouragement and therefore his heart was free and open to the instruction of the angel. 

And then there’s pessimism, which is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold; a door you refuse to open in case one day there’ll be something new on the doorstep.  (Let Us Dream, Pope Francis)

St. Joseph was not pessimistic.  If he was, he would never have taken the first step in his journey to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and then to Nazareth.  These journeys in faith and the fact that he was able to make them, demonstrate that Joseph was not paralyzed by pessimism – that he was able to open the door to the new and to the possible even as there were real risks involved.  Rather than pessimism, Joseph chose faith and that gave him the hope and courage necessary to move forward into life.    

The desire to escape reality is a besetting temptation and sin of our time and it manifests itself in multiple forms including attitudes and mindsets we can each carry within our own hearts.  Pope Francis has given the Church a wonderful gift in this year dedicated to St. Joseph.  The humble carpenter and foster father of our Lord had the strength of character to face reality with faith and conviction and he was blessed in this.  God chose the foster father of his son very well. Hopefully we can learn from this quiet saint and realize that the lessons he has to give can truly be an antidote to the temptation to escape reality and the virus of indifference in our world.    

The answer is in your hands – Feast of Christ the King

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There is a story told in the Lakota tribe of the Man who Spoke Softly.  (Taken from The Lakota Way by Joseph M. Marshall III.) 

In a certain village there was a leader, a headman, who was respected for his quiet ways and good decisions.  He never sought to become a leader but as a young man he proved that he could think clearly and act calmly on the battlefield.  He was a good provider for his family and he took care of the helpless ones.  For these reasons the people asked him to be their leader and he reluctantly agreed.  As leader, he made good decisions and always spoke the truth in council meetings and under his leadership the village prospered and grew strong.

Two generations grew up under his leadership and the man was getting on in years.  There were a few young men in the village who yearned for a new leader.  They wanted someone with more daring and flair – more fitting to their prosperous village, they thought.  They had forgotten it was the headman’s leadership that grew their village. 

The young men formed a plan.  They would catch a small bird and one of them – in front of the whole village – would question the headman.  “Grandfather, I have a bird in my hand.  You are wise.  Is the bird dead or alive?”  If the headman answered “alive” then the young man would crush the bird and kill it before opening his hand.  If the headman said “dead” then the young man would open his hand and the bird would fly free.  Either way, they thought, the headman would be shown to be weak and uncertain. 

So, on the morning of an important tribal gathering when all the people were gathered, one of the young men called out in a loud voice to the headman. “Grandfather, I have an important question.  I have a bird in my hand.  Since you are wise, is the bird dead or alive?’

A hush fell over the people.  They knew that some of the young men were wanting new leadership and some wondered if the young men were right.  They waited for the headman’s answer. 

The old headman approached the young man with the question.  He stood quietly, seeming to study the ground as the people whispered.  Finally, the headman turned to the young man and smiled patiently and spoke firmly and gently as he always did when something important was to be said.

“Grandson,” he said, “the answer is in your hands.” 

In a sense, the same answer is given to us on this Feast of Christ the King.  Yes, Christ is King.  Jesus is the Son of the Father.  He is risen from the dead – the firstborn.  Jesus is king of all creation.  This is truth and whether people like it or not, whether people or nations acknowledge it or ignore it does not really matter.  Jesus Christ is King!

But what resides in our hands, what we can either crush or let live, is whether we choose to live our lives in such a way as to acknowledge Christ as King.  This is what is within our power.  Grandson/Granddaughter, the answer is in your hands. 

Jesus, himself, gives us the criteria by which we will show forth our answer to this most fundamental of questions before all of creation when he returns as King of all nations and just judge. 

When I was hungry, did you feed me?  When I was thirsty, did you give me drink?  When I was a stranger, did you welcome me?  When I was naked, did you clothe me?  When I was ill, did you care for me?  When I was in prison did you visit me?

Jesus Christ is King!  This is truth and no power in earth or heaven can alter it.  God has willed it.  What is within our power is how we choose to live our life in relation to this truth. 

Grandson/Granddaughter, the answer is in your hands. 

Contemplation in Lamar Valley

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

It was the evening of the last day of my sabbatical and I was sitting in my truck at a roadside pullout gazing across Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.  Lamar Valley was formed by the weight of towering glaciers acting over centuries that pressed down, hollowed and smoothed out the terrain underneath.  The valley itself is wide and open with a river coursing in the middle and a stand of trees seeming to reside almost in the center of the expanse.  Some days prior, the Junction Butte wolf pack had wandered out of the valley toward the Slough Creek area of the park so there was not the energy and noise of wolf watchers spotting through scopes and tourists hoping to catch a picture of one of the park’s famous apex predators.   

The valley was quiet with bison scattered here and there grazing, one lone coyote mousing for dinner and a little remaining snow left in the shadowed areas of hillsides and low ravines.  Neither a person nor a car could be seen and as I watched the sun set with the sky turning a phenomenal range of colors I sat in my truck and prayed evening prayer and then listened to Symphony No. 3 by Aaron Copland.  I cannot imagine a more appropriate setting for the sweep and expanse of Copland’s final symphony than Lamar Valley. 

In the ninth chapter of the book Happiness and Contemplation, Josef Pieper lays out the three elements of contemplation.  The first element is that contemplation is the silent perception of reality.  It is an understatement to say that this is fundamental.  Contemplation, by its very nature, points to objective reality and it proclaims that this reality can be perceived.  Judeo-Christian thought goes further and says that it wants to be perceived.  The second element is that contemplation is a form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing, intuition.  Drawing from the thought of Thomas Aquinas, Pieper reminds the reader that intuition – properly understood – is the higher form of knowing, above reason.  In intuition the object is already present where in rational thinking the object is being striven for. 

 Contemplation, then, is intuition; that is to say, it is a type of knowing which does not merely move toward its object, but already rests in it … In intuition there is no ‘future tension,’ no desire directed toward the future, which desire corresponds with the nature of thinking.  The person who knows by intuition has already found what the thinker is seeking; what he knows is present ‘before his eyes.’

The third element is that contemplation can be characterized as a knowing accompanied by amazement.  Amazement is born from our perceiving a reality that yet remains beyond our full comprehension.  This amazement also carries with it a bit of an unease because – at gut level – we know that we are in the presence of that which is so much more and, through that, we are being summoned to be more.  Quoting Paul Claudel, Pieper writes, the call of perfection to the imperfect, which call we name love. 

It was a moment of contemplation for me.  Sitting in my Toyota Tacoma, gazing on the expanse of Lamar Valley, caught up in the sweep of Copland’s symphony and enriched by the prayer of the psalms.  Amazement and gratitude were born and I remain richer for it. 

Eventually another car arrived at the pullout.  That is the nature of Yellowstone – a parked car attracts other cars.  Everyone looking to spot something … anything.  A man got out of the passenger side while his companion remained in the car.  I nodded my head to him but did not want to speak, did not want to break the moment.  The man looked through his binoculars upon the valley for a few minutes.  Eventually he returned to his car and as he opened the door, I heard him say, “There is nothing here.  Let’s go.” 

“No,” I thought, “there is so much here.  So, so much.” 

May we have eyes to see. 

Moses and the Shepherd: Truth and Charity (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – A)

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In his book “Beginning to Pray” Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom shares a little story about Moses from Hebrew folklore:

Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has into a bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies, “This is God’s milk.” Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says, “I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as an offering to God.”

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, “And does God drink it?”

“Yes,” replies the shepherd, “he does.”

Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that he does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk.

Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight toward the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. “What’s the matter?” he asks.

The shepherd says “You were right. God is pure spirit, and he doesn’t want my milk.” Moses is surprised. He says, “You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.”

“Yes, I do,” says the shepherd, “but the only thing I could do to express my love for him has been taken away from me.”

Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard. In the night, in a vision, God speaks to him and says, “Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless, I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.”

In his new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”, Pope Francis dedicates a few sentences to the relationship between truth and charity (#184).  Charity needs the light of truth (both the light of reason and the light of faith) in order to not be boxed-in and stymied to mere personal feeling and inclination.  Truth, we learn from the Hebrew folk story, needs charity in order to avoid the danger of a cold calculation and manipulation that often wounds the little and the most vulnerable. 

In this Sunday’s gospel (Mt. 22:1-14) we have the strange scene of the king at a wedding feast for his son – a feast where all sorts of people were brought in because the originally invited guests refused to come – casting out a guest found not wearing a wedding garment.  In light of the little folk story and in light of Pope Francis’ reflection on truth and charity could the wedding garment found lacking be charity?

The wedding guest had the truth that he was invited to the banquet.  “Go out,” said the king to his servants, “into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.”   So, the man had this going for him; yet, it seems the man lacked the charity born of an honest and humble relationship with God.  Paul alludes to his own wedding garment of charity when, in the second reading (Phil. 4:12-14, 19-20) he writes, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.  Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.”  Paul is not boasting in his own truth here but humbly expressing his gratitude both for God’s grace and for the love and care of his brothers and sisters.  Truth without charity will often boast that its isolation is a sign of its rightness and strength and because of this it cannot honestly enter a banquet with others.  The king knew this.  Truth and charity can celebrate in the banquet because – when the two are humbly held together – it is recognized that all is pure gift.  That both Moses and the humble shepherd are welcome and have a place in the banquet. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines…” 

We live in the graced truth of being invited to the banquet.  May our wedding garment of charity always be found worthy. 

My conscience bears me witness.

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st-paul-in-prison-rembrandt-1627-fe2971c3We all know of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and how that encounter radically changed his life.  The man who was so zealous in his persecution of the early church became the apostle proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles.  But do we truly realize how much that conversion cost Paul himself?  The second reading for today (Romans 9:1-5 – one of Paul’s later writings) gives us, I believe, a glimpse into the lifelong deep pain that Paul endured.  “…I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”  Paul carries both the pain of seeing so many of his people – the Jewish people – not wanting to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and he also carries the pain of himself (by his conversion) being cut off from the very people he loves and so identifies with!  The man carried heartbreak just as he proclaimed Christ as Savior to the world.

What gave Paul the strength and the endurance to do this?  I think the answer is given in the first part of the reading.  “I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie; my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness…”  A conscience that is grounded in Christ gives a strength of endurance that no worldly pain or struggle can overcome.  Paul witnesses to this.

Do we recognize the strength, endurance and hope that can only come from a conscience that is grounded in God?  In the first reading (1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a), God reveals himself to Elijah not in the heavy wind, the earthquake or the roaring fire but in the “tiny whispering sound.”  It is in that tiny sound that God reveals himself and that the prophet covers his face in reverence and awe.  The tiny whispering sound of a conscience grounded in Christ is a holy reality that must be held in reverence and awe.  The prophets and saints teach this.  Throughout history the might and roar of all forms of oppression have themselves been shattered on the quiet strength and endurance of consciences grounded in Christ.  The saints witness this time and time again.

In the storms of life when all seems uncertain and nothing appears stable, it is Christ who is shown to be the true still point and even the roar and tumult of the storm cannot overcome the conscience that is fixed on him.  Peter walked on water, even as the storm thrashed around him and the boat with those within was tossed about, as long as he kept his eyes fixed on Christ.  (Mt. 14:22-33)

The readings are clear – do not dismiss the strength, the endurance, the hope that is found in the conscience grounded in Christ.

“I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie; my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness…”

The Weeds and the Wheat: Strive for Justice … and be Kind.

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Weeds and WheatIn the Common Lectionary readings for Sunday, July 19th we are given the teaching of the weeds and the wheat (Mt. 13:24-30) as well as a reading from the Book of Wisdom (Ws. 12:13, 16-19).

In Wisdom, God teaches us that those who are just must also be kind.  How easily we overlook the strength of kindness.  Yet, God – the source of all that is – does not.    But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you.  And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.

This kindness and patience of God is given further evidence in our Lord’s parable on the weeds and the wheat in the field.  The master of the field will not rip up the weeds and thus the good wheat but will wait.  God’s patience is God’s and not ours.  God will allow the weeds to grow along with the wheat and God alone will decide the appropriate time to harvest.  But the teaching comes to us too; for (as Wisdom says) God has determined that those who are just must be kind.

In our day we are witnessing a strong desire to address injustice.  This is a good thing but there is also, I would say, a harsh tenor to our times and I wonder if this harshness finds its root in a fallacy of thought that we may have all bought into.  The presumption that we do not have any weeds in our own field.  A basic truth of the parable of the weeds and wheat is that weeds have been sown, that everyone’s field has weeds.  No one individual, no society, no culture, no church, no group is exempt.  At the end of the day, we all fall back on the mercy of God.  When this truth is forgotten, a harshness of heart and soul quickly sets in.

But God has given us good ground for hope in the overlooked strength of kindness.  Kindness springs from empathy and empathy from humility and humility alone has the courage to see and acknowledge the weeds amidst the wheat, even in our own field.  Yes, strive mightily for what is just and right but do not lose kindness.  We lose our soul when we lose kindness.  We lose that which is best in us when we lose kindness.

Strive for justice … and be kind to one another.