WWJP? What Would Jesus Post? The Feast of the Transfiguration as corrective to the reductionism of social media.

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Transfiguration_of_Christ_Icon_Sinai_12th_centuryIn our social media driven world I sometimes find myself wondering “WWJP?” or “What would Jesus post?”  I do believe that the positives of social media outweigh the negatives but there are negatives and these negatives do have effects.  I recently heard a news story on how Facebook is having an impact on the number of people attending high school reunions – actually lessening the number.  One reason that some people are giving is that they no longer feel the need for a reunion in order to catch up on things because they have already seen it all on Facebook!  The more primary reason though (and this is more on the side of negative effects of social media, I think) is that via Facebook people have come to realize how much they actually disagree with old classmates on certain things and how they can’t seem to get beyond that.

Here is a danger of social media.  Because I am looking at a screen while on social media and not actually sitting across a table from a live person having a discussion, I can – all the more easily – fall into the temptation of reducing a person made in God’s image to just one issue.  Full relationship and interaction is lost in favor of a focus on whatever that one particular issue might be.  Social media is a paradox – it connects yet it also separates and isolates.  In the focus on that one issue presented on a flat, one-dimensional screen I forget the full humanity of the person on the other side – a human person who can never be reduced to a one dimensional, cut-out reality – a person who might be a parent or a spouse, someone who has had his or her own experiences in life, someone who might be selflessly serving his or her community in some particular way, maybe even a person who is just having a bad day.  These are but a few examples.  A human person can never be reduced to a one-dimensional reality yet this illusion can be given through social media. 

The Transfiguration is neither flat nor one dimensional.  Jesus invites Peter, James and John up the mountain and even within his encounter and relationship with the Father.  Time itself seems to bend as Jesus is seen conversing with Moses and Elijah.  Peter – as any of us would – wants so desperately to remain in this moment and space!  Yes, because the glory of the Son is revealed and the voice of the Father is heard but also because the depth of true relationship is experienced in the Transfiguration!  Jesus is fully human just as he is fully divine and now, through Christ, we are adopted sons and daughters of God.  The relationship revealed in the moment of Transfiguration is also a relationship we are meant for in Christ.  We are meant for full relationship with God and one another and are not meant to be reduced and constricted to a one dimensional reality.

In the vision of Daniel, the “one like a son of man” only receives dominion in and through his relationship with the “Ancient One” sitting on the throne.  He also receives it within a gathering of “the court”, within a community.  Peter, in his letter, remarks how “we” do not follow concocted myths because “we” have been eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ and “we” possess the prophetic message that is true.  None of this is one-dimensional.  All of this is within true relationship and true community! 

So much in our world wants us to separate, to isolate and to reduce one another to one dimensional realities.  To this the voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Listen to the voice of Christ – a voice that always sought out, a voice that never reduced the other person.  Peter, who entered that moment of Transfiguration, writes, “Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.  You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  Even as we live in a world that reduces, we hold on in hope for that day when we live in full relationship with God and one another and we set our lives by that hope.

“Pastor”

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Artist Unknown.  Snapped a picture of this print when I was staying as a guest at St. William Catholic Church in Gardiner, Montana. 

 

Of all the titles that can be weighed upon a priest or bishop, I think “pastor” is the one closest to the heart of our Lord. And the one to which every priest and bishop must give the fullest account of when he stands before the Good Shepherd.

Church Clutter

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safe_imageIt is interesting how some things stay with us and even become operating principles in our lives.

During my junior and senior years in high school and into college I worked in the maintenance department of Appco (Appalachian Oil Company) which owned a number of convenience stores scattered throughout the Tri-Cities and beyond. What I and my fellow workers heard over and over again from our supervisor was that every store had to be clean and well maintained both within and without.  In that job I spent countless hours at these stores pulling weeds, planting shrubs, mowing lawns, painting doors and helping with some mechanical and plumbing repairs.  I must say that the Appco stores were always well maintained and clean and to this day I cringe whenever I walk into a dirty convenience store and, if it is too dirty and unkempt, I will not return.

Likewise, part of me grieves within whenever I encounter an unkempt and cluttered church both within and without. Old bulletins and papers stacked on the table beside the presider’s chair along with a plethora of missals drives me nuts as do parish hallways strung with outdated posters and fliers.  Scattered and poorly maintained landscaping does little to bring a sense of beauty and prayer to a house of worship I believe.

De-cluttering does not have to cost a lot nor take a lot of time. “Start small and do what you can when you can,” is a good motto I believe.  Our diocese is in the midst of building a new cathedral and it is neat seeing the artwork that is currently going within that sacred space but it is not just cathedrals that should witness to the beauty of God and our faith.  Every church, chapel and mission is “God’s house” and can have a simple and noble beauty that helps to set the soul at rest.

Here are a few thoughts to reflect upon. Most regard the outside landscape of a church (maybe because that was the area I worked in mostly at Appco.  I still cannot walk past a weed without feeling the need to pull it up!) but the principle of de-cluttering certainly applies within churches and chapels also.

Know the geography and terrain. The parish I am currently at has a very thin top layer of soil.  As soon as it does not rain for a day or two in summer, plants and grass begin to dry up and turn brown.  We recently received a bequest which allowed us to redo the landscaping in the parking lot and in front of the church and parish office.  It would have been foolish (and poor stewardship I believe) to put in plants that would require heavy amounts of water and care.  Rather, we made use of river rock and specifically chose plants that were hardy, drought resistant and low maintenance.  The end result looks quite good and fits the terrain.

What is manageable to your community? What does the Gospel ask of us?  I am all for parish landscape crews if it fits your community but it does not fit every community and it also seems that life is getting busier and busier for most people and families.  Parishioners should take pride in their church but at the end of the day what is more important – that the lawn was perfectly mowed every Sunday or that parishioners and their families grow in their discipleship and strive to live that discipleship out in the world?  I do not pretend to know the answer but it is a balance worth reflecting upon.

IMG_5745What is best for the environment? This is a question I find myself continually returning to after reading Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” as well as my own growing interest in protecting and safe-guarding creation.  Do the plants and shrubs we favor around churches help benefit the environment or do they just look nice from our human perspective?  Can our parish grounds themselves become places that benefit and support creation?  A couple of years ago now I planted two butterfly bushes in front of our Parish Life Center because they fit and enhance the space, they are low maintenance and hardy and, in regards to this question, they are a benefit to bees and butterflies.  A simple choice in a planting can have ripples of effect.

Time can become cluttered also. Last fall, our parish went through the process of changing our Mass schedule – no small feat.  In the old schedule there was only thirty minutes between each of our four Sunday Masses.  There were a variety of factors necessitating the change but one that I saw as pastor was the limiting effect of such a small window of time between Masses.  People came in for their Mass and then they hurried out in order to let the next group in.  The opportunity for community and fellowship was stunted.  Now that we have more time between Masses (as well as making space by clearing out clutter from our vestibule) people are actually spending more time talking and enjoying each other’s company after Mass.  Sometimes schedules in the life of a church community can get cluttered also.  It is worthwhile to step back and evaluate our schedules every now and then.

A church, chapel or mission should strive as much as it can to be an oasis for the soul in a busy and distracted world. Often times in the church world we focus on the “big architecture and art work” to facilitate this and we overlook the more simple, daily and nuanced realities.  Clutter “clutters” and it distracts.  Seeking to move aside the clutter that can accumulate both within and without the church should be seen as an act of hospitality.  It is the discipline of keeping God’s house open and clean as a place of welcome, a home where the soul can find rest and respite.

Creation and our concern for it

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On Sunday, July 9th I drove to the roadside picnic area in Ice Box Canyon in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. It was the last day of an eight day visit to Yellowstone that consisted of wildlife watching and numerous day hikes. I wanted to make one more drive through Lamar Valley and I wanted to go to this picnic area specifically because it was there in January on the last day of a three day visit that I had spotted the four members of Lamar River wolf pack in the snow. This first visit had whetted my appetite to return to Yellowstone.

During my most recent visit, I had the opportunity to view wolves on three separate occasions. One evening I watched in Hayden Valley as a mother wolf led her five pups (four gray and one black) out from their den in the tree line to explore for a few minutes much to the delight of the crowd of people gathered on Grizzly Overlook with their binoculars and scopes. Another time was at the same location just as the sun was going down when a gray yearling wolf came out of the same spot in the tree line to explore a bit before disappearing into the tall sage and darkness. The highlight of my visit was being able to follow the Junction Butte pack for four hours as they made their way along Lamar Valley.

IMG_5640Wolves (for which I have always had an interest in since I was a child) were my main interest in visiting Yellowstone but during these days I was also thrilled to view numerous black bears (a few with cubs), bison, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, an osprey nest inhabited by mother, father and two chicks, foxes, coyotes, badgers, a bald eagle flying and numerous smaller animals and birds.

All in all, I went on seven day hikes throughout the northern region of the park. These hikes allowed me grand vistas to stare out at as well as meadows of flowers to walk through. I sat before a towering waterfall as well as by a small quiet stream.

IMG_5641[3392]For a week, I was “unplugged” – to some degree. Other than sharing some pictures on Facebook and Instagram and talking with the people I met or was around during the day I had no idea what was going on in the world. I would rise early to get into the park before the heat of the day became too oppressive, return to Gardner for lunch and a short siesta and then return into the park not to leave until late in the evening.

I am not “Mr. Outdoors” – I don’t feel the need to hike cross country or scale cliffs with my bare hands. If I were ever on a survivor show I am sure that I would be among the first eliminated. I don’t own a tent and I don’t seek out camping because (some truth in jest) I like air-conditioning. But I am more me when I allow some room for nature.

Pope Francis is correct in “Laudato Si” as has been Pope Benedict XVI in his writings and St. John Paul II. We find and know ourselves within the context of creation and when we lose creation we lose ourselves. On my day hikes I found myself naturally drawn to sing hymns as I walked along – partly because I was walking through bear country and needed to make noise – but mostly because my heart wanted to. I wanted to (had to – really) give praise to the Creator for all that I was seeing and for being reminded of my place within it.

IMG_5276Although I have an interest in wolves and have now spotted three packs during my two visits to Yellowstone I do not think I have some “mystical” connection with them because the wolves are unconcerned about me and that is the way it should be. The wolves are just out there being wolves and if something were to happen and all of sudden humanity disappeared from the face of the earth the wolves, bears, bison, elk and all animals would just continue continuing on. But the wolves and other animals are of concern to me and that is what makes me human.

This concern, I believe, is part of our “Imago Dei” – our being made in the Image of God. Scriptures tells us that God looked upon his creation and said it was good. Jesus tells us that not one single bird falls to the ground without the Father being aware of it. Creation is of concern to God and for us to share in this concern is to live within a reflection of the Image of God in which we are all made and, conversely, to believe there is no connection, to live withdrawn and cut off from creation nor concerned when creation is wounded is to be reduced, to lose part of who we are and to forget in whose image we are ultimately made.

Even though I went to Ice Box Canyon and I drove through Lamar Valley I did not see any wolves on my last day in Yellowstone. I will be honest and say there was some disappointment in this but then the better angel in my nature said it was okay. The wolves are not beholding to me nor anyone else. It is enough to know that they are out there being wolves and that there is a place where these animals can just be and by that give glory to their Creator. And it is good that I have concern because that also gives glory to the Creator … and makes me more human.

(Pictures from top are view of Ice Box Canyon roadside picnic area in summer, two photos of wolves of the Lamar River pack at picnic area in winter and wolves of the Junction Butte pack in Lamar Valley.)

Knowing the Trinity

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the-holy-trinityReflecting on the reality of baptism, Diadochus – a theologian of the early church – writes, “Before a person comes to be baptized, grace is at work, from without, encouraging the soul toward the good, while Satan is at work, from within. After baptism, the contrary is the case. Grace works from within and the demons from without. These continue their work, and work even more evilly than before, but not as present together with grace. The only way they can work is through the promptings of the flesh.”

Today, we as church, reflect on that most profound of mysteries – the Trinity. As Christians we believe and we profess that God is one and that God is three. We are not Unitarians and neither are we Jehovah Witnesses – both of which deny the Trinity. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have been brought to the realization that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God.

I believe that the quote by Diadochus concerning baptism can help bring us to the only point by which we can begin to contemplate this mystery – from within.  “After baptism, the contrary is the case. Grace works from within and the demons from without.”  The mystery of the Trinity is not a problem to be objectively solved or a riddle that can be puzzled through by our wits alone. The Trinity is a mystery to be lived. This mystery demands the involvement and engagement of the whole person – mind, body and spirit.

God initiated the invitation to this mystery. In John’s gospel we are reminded that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) Through God’s love and God’s initiative (as known in baptism) we are brought into communion with God and into the relationship that is the Trinity.

It is here, in this reality of lived relationship, that we begin our awareness of God as three. Paul – in his second Letter to the Corinthians – writes, “Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor. 13:12) Paul firmly connects how we live our lives with the presence of God: “Mend your ways … and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Awareness and knowledge of God can only begin from within. Paul is calling for a sincere examination of conscience here. Are we living our lives in such way that Father, Son and Spirit are welcome to come, reside and be present?

In God’s great revelation to Moses the Lord defines himself by proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” (Ex. 34:6) Again, awareness and knowledge of God can only begin from within. If God defines himself as “merciful” and “slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” then why would he make himself present and known in a heart that lacks these qualities?

God has taken the initiative and invites us into relationship with himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit but this mystery, to be authentically known, must first be lived.

It has to begin from within; from how we choose to live our lives.

The film “A Man Called Ove” and its pro-life/pro-community witness.

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a-man-called-ove-us-posterOn the recommendation of a parishioner, I recently watched the Swedish movie, “A Man Called Ove” – based on the 2013 novel by the same name written by Fredrik Backman.  It is a very thoughtful and uplifting film and probably one of the most pro-life films I have ever seen.  

The film tells the story of the widower Ove who daily visits his beloved wife’s grave and who is lost in grief.  Ove has become the grouchy, old man of his neighborhood – barking at people and living an isolated existence.  Wanting to end it all and be with his wife again he comedically attempts suicide in different ways but keeps getting interrupted in the act.  The movie poster has the short quip, “Misery hates company” and this is at the heart of the story.  Uninvited, community keeps knocking at Ove’s door and community is what saves him and heals his pain ultimately.  Community comes in the form of a new and loud young family moving in next door, a young man who was a student of Ove’s late wife and his gay friend, a stray cat and a now-paralyzed old friend of Ove’s to whom he must make amends. 

As the movie unfolds we learn Ove’s story and learn that he is much more than just an angry, old man.  He was a beloved son who experienced great tragedy.  He was a young man who met and fell in love with a girl.  The young couple had the hope of a child which was tragically taken away in an accident leaving the wife in a wheelchair, yet they persevered.  Ove is a man with an amazing life and story.  Bit by bit, we learn his story and see him for who he really is – a good man with a big and courageous heart.  

A truth that I walked away with from this film is that to truly be pro-life means one must also be pro-community because it is in community where life is found and experienced in all its beauty.  The film is chock full of pro-life moments and they are all wrapped in community – the promise of new life found in pregnancy as well as the pain of that life being taken away, the dignity of the disabled person as well as the dignity of the immigrant, the elderly and the person who is different from us, the danger of social isolation which can be going on right in front of our eyes and we don’t even notice, the possibility of youth and the need to encourage the dreams of the young as well as the life-changing gift of the teacher.  Gratitude for the sheer gift of life.  All of these find expression in the story and they are all poignantly nuanced within community. 

The film “A Man Called Ove” is a story full of life and it is a story that challenges us (just as life does) to move out of self and isolation into community.  The story gets beyond all the pat phrases, slogans and often hollow clamor of the culture wars and takes the viewer into the real stuff of life and because of its willingness to “go there”, it rings authentic. 

Misery does hate company.  There is truth in this.  True community heals, even as it challenges and unsettles.  To be pro-life and be authentic about it means we also must be willing to risk being pro-community even in all of community’s sometimes messiness and imperfection. 

There is something very incarnational, very true and very Christian about the pro-community connection to being pro-life.    

“Father, I thank you for hearing me.”

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Jesus-Raises-Lazarus-from-the-Dead-540x300There is almost an ordinariness to the way our Lord goes about his mission of proclaiming and living God’s Kingdom.  Even his miracles and the raising of his friend Lazarus are not exceptions.  Our Lord takes his time in getting to the scene of Lazarus’ illness and death.  He takes time in speaking with both Martha and Mary.  Arriving at the tomb he asks that the stone be rolled back.  He addresses the Father and then, with a loud voice, cries, “Lazarus, come out!”  The once-dead man walks out. 

There are no flashes of light or rolling thunder.  Our Lord does not need to make strange incantations or weave any sort of spell.  He does not even seem to have to fast in preparation for such an extraordinary thing.  There is no burning of incense or sacrifices offered.  Jesus simply gives honor to the Father, calls Lazarus forth and his friend is restored to life.  

This is not a feat of our Lord’s own will at work.  Jesus is not a comic book superhero saving the world through his own strength and determination nor is he a wizard overcoming by his own intellect and perseverance (a.k.a., “will to power”).  Scripture tells us that Christ let go of his own glory and power and took on the form of a slave.  The salvation won through Christ is through the “letting-go” of the divinity which allows the humanity to live in full relationship of love and trust with the Father.  Jesus tells us that he can do nothing apart from the Father.  Jesus does not heal, or feed the multitude, or cast out demons or walk on water or raise the dead through his own, independent and isolated exercise of will but through his relationship with the Father.  Therefore he does not need the trappings of the superhero or of esoteric magic.  It is all through relationship and relationship is often one of the most ordinary of things. 

St. Paul in his letter to the Romans reminds us that we also have been invited into this relationship.  “But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”  (Rom. 8:8-11) 

How often and how easily we overlook the grace we have been given, that is indeed active within us!  We easily we get lost in the noise and distractions of our world.  The Spirit of the One who raised Christ from the dead has been given us and dwells within us – giving life and transforming us.  God does not need the trappings of the extraordinary to accomplish his purpose.  The sacraments are a prime example of this.  Water, bread, wine, oil, the words of the priest, the love of a couple – yet underneath the ordinary divine grace, relationship and life is found and given.  

We should not disdain the ordinary and the grace and new life found there.  Just as Christ emptied himself of glory and held to his relationship with the Father so should we.  Life is not found in our control, our ego, our own little “wills to power”, living within our own little bubbles.  Life, salvation, healing, grace is found through relationship – recognizing God’s presence given and within and seeking to live always in the amazing ordinariness of that relationship. 

“Father, I thank you for hearing me.  I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”

 

The Transfiguration and the voice of the Father

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transfiguration-of-JesusIn the gospel (Mt. 17:1-9), our Lord takes Peter, James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured before them.  Our Lord’s face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.  Moses and Elijah appear and converse with our Lord.  Peter wants to build three tents on the spot but while he is speaking we are told that a bright cloud cast a shadow over them.  This immediately gets our attention, something utterly unique is occurring.  How can a cloud be “bright” and what does it mean that it casts a shadow over them?

From the cloud comes a voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Immediately upon hearing this voice the apostles fall prostrate and we are told that they were very much afraid.  The “falling prostrate” was automatic.  There was no question.  It had to be done.  The fear also was automatic.  It too was the most appropriate and really only true response that could be given.  The fear given was not our so common little fear of saving our own skin and preserving our little self and ego.  No, it was the visceral fear of the sinful creature suddenly brought into the presence of the One with no sin, the One who alone is holy.

In the very beginning we are told that humanity (in Adam and Eve) walked in the garden in the company of God and freely talked with Him.  Through sin, we were cast out of the garden, we lost that free and intimate relationship with God not because God is wrathful as we so often are but because God is truth and cannot abide the un-truth of sin, because God is good and cannot abide the un-good of sin, because God is beauty and cannot abide the un-beauty of sin.

Humanity’s deepest yearning is to once again abide in the garden with God and to live in that free relationship.  The history of the people of Israel can be read, in part, as a striving to regain that intimate friendship.  Moses (the one person so highly favored by God) begged to see the glory of God and God only granted him the briefest view “of his back” because God knows that no creature wounded by sin can look on his face and live (Ex. 33:18-23).

Jesus Christ is that greatest and most sacred mystery of the Word of God enfleshed (who emptied himself of glory and took the form of a slave) who has come to take upon himself the weight of our sin and be that bridge, that sheep gate and shepherd to return us to intimate relationship with the Father.

It is no coincidence that in our Lord’s discourse of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46) it is the Son who returns in glory to judge humanity.  Even the sinner can look on Jesus Christ who is the Word enfleshed.  The one we looked upon and who was pierced for our offences.  But only those found righteous through Christ, who have been thoroughly washed clean of sin will enter the presence of the Father who can abide no sin.

Our deepest yearning for full friendship with God is so entwined with our deepest fear of knowing how far we have indeed fallen.  But God is merciful.  Christ comes over to the three disciples locked in fear.  He touches them and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid … Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

We walk toward Jerusalem with our Lord…

Learning to worship God alone

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tempationsIn Adam and Eve, the devil trips humanity up not just through the temptation to exalt ourselves by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the sin of pride) but also through the temptation to reduce God to our limits.  The serpent plants the seed for this second sin in his reply to Eve, You certainly will not die!  No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.

The devil introduces a doubt about God and God’s goodness.  There is some reason God does not want them to eat of this tree…  There is something God is holding back…  There is something that even God is fearful of…

If God is fearful then God is not God because there is then something beyond God which causes fear within God.  Scriptures tells us that God is love (1 Jn. 4:16) and also that perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn. 4:18).  In God there is no fear, only love.  God is not bound by our limits.

During his trial in the desert, our Lord overcomes the temptations of the devil and the doubts the serpent seeks to plant by holding to the truth of a God beyond our limits.  When the devil took our Lord to the parapet of the temple and seeks to plant doubt by saying, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and then even quotes scripture; our Lord quotes scripture back, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. 

We do not put God to the test in the way that we can test one another by trying each other’s patience and resolve.  God cannot be tested this way.  We put God to the test when we seek to bind God by our limits.  When, in this sense, we put God to the test we, in fact, show our limits, we do nothing to God.  God remains God whether we fully understand Him or not.  Christ will not put God to the test.  He will not limit God but will live rather in full trust of the love of the Father and full obedience to the Father’s will.

In my experience as a confessor as well as through my own stumblings in life, I have learned that one of the most corrosive aspects of sin in our lives is the seed of doubt in the goodness and true nature of God that can be planted by the evil one in our hearts.  God is like us.  God is fearful.  God needs to control.  God is jealous as we are often jealous.  God is a God of wrath.  God is somehow opposed to my freedom and fulfillment.  God is angry with me.  God is somehow “put off” by my weakness and failures.  Ultimately, God is not truly love…

The season of Lent and its disciplines offers us a time of both repentance and renewal.  As we begin this season I think it would be most beneficial to begin where our Lord begins – by not limiting God to our limits, by not putting God to the test.  To trust that God is love and that perfect love has no fear.

At the last temptation our Lord is taken to a high mountain and promised all the kingdoms of the world if he would but serve the devil.  Our Lord responds, Get away Satan!  It is written: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”  Only God shall we worship and serve.  Lent is an invitation to follow our Lord and let go of any god we might be carrying around in our wounded hearts made in our limits in favor of the true God we are called to worship.

God is love and in love there is no fear.

The Law of Generosity: Be holy as God is holy.

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Jesus - way, truth, lifeThe “eye for an eye” teaching that our Lord refers to in today’s gospel (Mt. 5:38-48) was actually an attempt to restrict violence in a time when revenge was indiscriminate and excessive.

In the revenge culture of the time not only was it the perpetrator of a violent act who became a possible target for reprisal but any member of the same family, clan, ethnic group or even someone “thought” to be responsible or connected.  The culture of revenge was excessive.  An “eye for an eye” therefore was an attempt to limit the continuous cycle of revenge and violence.  With this understanding it would almost be better to read the injunction as “one eye for one eye and no more”.

For our Lord though it was not enough.  His desire is not just to limit the cycles and structures of violence but to actually heal the human heart from which all evil desires spring.  Evil and violence can never overcome evil and violence, even when co-opted for a good.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had an astute awareness of this truth.  In his writings and speeches we certainly find the call to end the massive injustices that the African-American community faced but we also find Dr. King reflecting on how the path of non-violence was also meant as a means to help heal those white brothers and sisters whose hearts were hardened by racism and prejudice.

God says to Moses, Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.  You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.  Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him.  Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Lv. 19:1-2, 17-18)

In contrast to the law of co-opted violence, our Lord calls us to the law of abundant generosity – to be holy as God is holy, who makes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good.  God is love; he is abundant in his mercy.  Our Lord is not naïve; he knows the full weight of evil and violence.  On the cross, Jesus took on the full weight of sin and its structures.

In the law of abundant generosity, Jesus is calling us to a pragmatism of generosity.  Evil and violence cannot heal the human heart (even when co-opted in an attempt for the good).  Evil and violence cannot end the cycles of revenge and violence … only love can.  When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other one.  When someone wants your tunic, give your cloak as well.  When someone presses you into service for one mile, go for two.  Our Lord proposes to us the pragmatism of generosity.  It is through this pragmatism that is found true healing for hearts that are wounded and hardened.

There is a story told of a painter who arrived one day in a small town and set himself up in the town square offering portrait paintings. For a few days he sat in the square with no one purchasing a portrait.  On the fourth day the artist approached the town drunk (whom he had noticed earlier) and said, “Listen, come and let me paint your portrait.  I need to keep my skills up and at the end you will have a free portrait.”  The man agreed.  He sat in the portrait chair and straightened himself up as best he could.  The painter looked at him silently, reflected for a few moments, smiled and began to paint.  The painting continued for a few days but the painter would never allow the man to view the painting while it was in progress.  Finally, the portrait was completed.  The painter handed the portrait to the man and the man’s mouth fell open.  Pictured in the painting was not a town drunk but an accomplished man – there was a gleam in his eyes, he held a steady gaze.  Instead of scruffy clothes and a disheveled appearance, the man was clean shaven and wore a nice suit.  “What is this?” demanded the man, “You have not painted me.”  “You are right,” replied the painter calmly, “I have not painted you as you now are but as the man whom you might become.”

The pragmatism of generosity sees and responds to the other person in terms of who he or she is meant to be.  Jesus calls us to live this law of generosity – to be holy as God is holy.