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Posted by on Jan 16, 2015

The Magi and the Gift of Holy Discontent

The Magi and the Gift of Holy Discontent

 


Fr. Geoffrey Plant of Sydney, Australia has prepared a multimedia homily for the feast of the Epiphany. In his homily, Fr. Plant presents the main points of the feast.

The term “epiphany” comes from the Greek meaning to “shine forth”. We tend to assume that there were three kings because there were three gifts named: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Fr. Plant notes that they were not called kings but “magi” in Greek, with stands for wise men or sages.

The gifts are symbolic of the nature and meaning of Jesus. Gold is a symbol of royalty, frankincense is a sign of the divine, and myrrh is for burial, indicating that Jesus will triumph through suffering and death.

Fr. Plant suggests the wise men also brought the gift of Holy Discontent. Examples of holy discontent may be seen in the character of Popeye. An example of unholy indifference is seen in the the character of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Fr. Plant sees the magi as showing a holy discontent: a willingness to search, to be changed, and not to feel comfortable again. He compares them to Herod’s wise men who despite being so close to Bethlehem fail to see the signs in the heavens though others have seen them from afar.  Quoting W. H. Auden, Fr. Plant compares the hardness of heart of Herod’s wise men to our own post-modern era:

We would rather be ruined than changed

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

This gift of Holy Discontent — the gift of prophecy and activism — is what the wise men bring to the Christ child and to us according to Fr. Plant. It is the divine call to the kingdom through suffering, death, and resurrection.

 

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Posted by on Jul 20, 2014

Theology As the Everyday Awareness of God in Our Lives

Theology As the Everyday Awareness of God in Our Lives

Anthony F. Krisak writes in “Theological Reflection: Unfolding the Mystery” that theology “is not an abstract musing ..but it is a challenging and thoughtful reflection on the way God’s hand is involved in the day to day experiences of men and women…Rather, theology is about God-with-Us (Emmanuel).”

The window of theology

Krisak makes it clear that reflecting on this divine encounter leads the observer to face “concrete, historical, and passionate movements and experiences.” Our experience becomes the “window of theology”. This window is useless if we understand mystery to be “unknowable ideas and complicated theories”. According to Krisak, if we understand  mystery as a continual unfolding event in and around us, theology can be that window to observe and interpret our own experience.

Theology as a window goes against the claims that God is unknowable and that we should just accept secondhand understandings of God provided to us by an intellectual elite. Theology as a window of observing and interpreting experience is a fundamental assumption in the primary project of Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Gospels, Jesus tells us to observe the signs of the times and everyday experience — a person who sells everything for a fine pearl, the  rapid growth of the mustard tree from a tiny seed, the one who goes out to harvest a crop. It is faith that allows the sun to shine through the window of theology. “Through theological reflection, our intertwined lives with God become conscious and faithfully deliberate; in other words, we begin to take in more profoundly the sights and sounds and smell of our life with God and each other.”

Without theological reflection, the pressures of everyday living can cause us to lose sight of what we are all about. Krisak particularly warns ministers of this hazard, since his article appears in the Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers. However, it is easy to see how everyday lay people can also fail to pay attention to the action of God in their lives. Unfortunately, many are not even aware that they are called to reflect upon and deepen their experience of God by reflecting on and noticing God’s actions.

This is especially ironic since we live in a culture that focuses very heavily on relationships. We have large psychological, educational, and popular movements to help us find the right partners, to save our marriages, to raise our children properly, to organize our businesses, corporations, and churches. How do we improve our love life with God? How do we even relate to God? When we think about it, we know we do or at least we think we do. We are called to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, to proclaim it, and to bring it about in God’s grace. It is unfolding within us and around us.

What does theological reflection require?

Krisak wisely points out that the backdrop or context for our theological reflection is our shared faith in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions. To engage in fruitful theological reflection according to Krisak, we need to:

(1) understand the tools necessary for “cleaning up the window of theology”,

(2) consider the process of reflection in relationship to human experience, and

(3) take a look at the “major themes of our theological tradition” such as the incarnation and redemption,  among others.

In subsequent posts, I will review these three areas of focus that Krisak recommends for doing theological reflection and understanding the ways in which we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Image: “Simultaneous Windows” by Robert Delaunay,
1912, Public Domain

 

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Posted by on Dec 17, 2012

Rejoicing When our Hearts are Breaking

Rejoicing When our Hearts are Breaking

Gaudete!

During the third week of Advent, we are called to rejoice because the Lord’s coming is imminent. The very name of the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete, comes from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon for the day’s Mass, “Rejoice.” The prayer continues, quoting St. Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4). That little word, “always,” is not to be ignored.

Sometimes terrible things happen in our world. This past week we’ve seen the killing of many innocent children and adults at a school in the United States. In other parts of the world civil wars are raging, religious persecution is taking the lives of people as they gather for worship, girls and women are beaten or shot for daring to seek an education, and more mundanely, people die as a result of accidents, miscarriages, illness, or old age — holiday season or not! We find ourselves asking how a loving God can do that to us. How can God take the lives of innocent people? Where is God when we are hurting?

“Rejoice … Always”

Yet St. Paul is there to remind us with that little word, “always,” that there’s much more going on than we might actually see or recognize. Perhaps we’re not even noticing that it isn’t God who’s doing these terrible things to us. In our pain, with our hearts breaking, we don’t always see God present in the ones who step forward to help, in the ones who risk and sometimes give their own lives to protect the lives of others, in the ones who must help individuals and families pick up the pieces of their lives and continue onward despite the great hole left in their hearts. Yet that is exactly where God is. God is there with each grieving person, present in the friends and family who gather to be with those who have suffered a loss. God is there in the doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers who care for the sick or injured. God is there in those who send flowers because they can’t come in person. God is there. God is here. God is present in the silence of hearts that cannot speak because the pain is too great. God is present — crying with them and holding them close.

So we struggle to trust in God and find ways to give thanks through our tears for God’s presence. We try to rejoice that God notices each life born, each life lived, and each life that reaches its point of transition to new birth into eternity. We sing through our tears at funerals. We gather in family and religious communities to remember those who have passed on and to support and encourage each other in faith. We rejoice for the gift of life, however short, that each person has brought to our world. And we remember another one who died too young, taken in His prime, subjected to terrible torture, and publicly executed on trumped up charges. One whose birth we soon will celebrate. One who was raised up and will never die again — the Firstborn of the dead. And because we remember, we can begin to rejoice even when our hearts are breaking.

May peace and joy return to each of our hearts as we remember God’s great love. May we recognize God present in each other and work to help bring about the changes necessary to reduce the numbers of new people who will have to experience tragic deaths of loved ones and somehow find their way to seeing and rejoicing in God present, Emmanuel, among the ashes of their dreams and hopes.

Photo (Three Candles) by Alice Birkin – public domain

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

Driftwood Flowers

Writing about LOVE is daunting. What can one say about it that has not already been said? How many songs and poems, plays and stories have been written about it?

But the hesitation about this is based on a false premise. The false premise is that our lives and thoughts are set and not constantly changing. Change scares us but change also frees us and gives us hope.  So, LOVE is always new in us. Everyday we grow and greet life with new thoughts and feelings. These may be negative, but even if they are, we are exploring new ways to reach for love, to know love, to experience love, to be angry at love.

Recently I was wrestling with the tremendous variety in love. From the Greeks forward we know the ancient spectrum of types of love: from pleasure to sacrificial spiritual love — pure altruism.  I have always considered the “ideal love” — the purely altruistic love — the standard against which I judge my feelings and actions. I put myself down for having “Mixed Motives.” I see that I often pursue people for double motives. I may want to help that person or validate that person, but he or she also makes me feel good or important or useful. Does that nullify my help to them? From the point of view of suffering, especially suffering from things such as depression or trauma, the love of things we enjoy, including relationships and sexuality, is rare and to be sought. Many people enjoy very little. If they could get pleasure out of a painting or a meal, it would be a good thing, possibly a very holy thing. So, love should not be interpreted as something free of my concerns or enjoyment. It is possible both to please God and others and also please myself.

Teilhard de Chardin, in The Divine Milieu, speaks of being both attached and detached at the same time. We should love what we do or enjoy but we at the same time must surrender control over the processes or outcomes. Love involves the risk of caring, of getting involved. But if an affinity or pursuit is taking us away from God, we have to detach ourselves from it. So, love includes the maturity of wisdom, of surrendering to what is best, not just to what I want.

Love is said to be generous. Paul in I Corinthians 13 presents a description of extraordinary generosity and lack of ego, patience and kindness. How can love be so generous and still please me? There is a double answer to this. First, we believe that everything is grace. The very ability to love without counting the cost to us, is a sign of God’s work in us. So, being able to do loving actions is a sign that God is close. Secondly, it is a very good thing to see ourselves as loving. We don’t need to feel like failures at life. It is not a prideful thing to know ourselves as happy, as someone who is doing well, or as someone who enjoys giving in appropriate ways.

Love requires discernment. When love is expressed as giving, it can be beneficial but it can also be harmful. Actions that seem to help people may actually be robbing people of their independence or need to do things on their own. Loving actions may be good in themselves, such as cooking a meal for the homeless, but not actually be loving because I may really need to use that time to do something else, such as study for an exam.  As we all know, sometimes the most loving thing is not to do something or not to say something. I cringe at the thought of letting my children make mistakes; but, not trying to control them or lecture them, now that they are grown, is a very loving thing.

Love is often a decision, not a feeling. Putting my mother in a skilled nursing facility was a very painful thing for me. It was the very best thing to do given her level of medical difficulty and my need to work full time. It was a loving thing to do especially since I had visited and researched all the possible facilities and knew my mother’s likes and dislikes. Every step of the way I had to be supportive and creative with my mother’s reactions to her new home, which turned out to be multiple. As she aged and grew more ill, I tried to find the best fit for her in residences. I met a number of people in the same situation who also were making hard decisions that nevertheless were out of love. For the last nine months of her life I drove 40 miles from work to where my mother lived just about every day. She was in pain and often unhappy. I could not fix her or her situation with my love for her. I decided to be there, listen to her and solve whatever problems I could. I wanted to take her off her cross. Oddly enough, that would not have been loving.

Real love always involves some suffering. By its very nature it involves attachment to who or what is loved and when that person or thing leaves, dies or deteriorates we suffer. That is not wrong, but it does hurt.

Love also involves longing. Built into our spirit is the desire to be united to what we love. We feel separation all the time. In developing our own identities we do so in relation to others who are separate from us. It is necessary and good to be our unique selves, but it is also taxing. We sometimes feel that we want to fall back into union with our mothers, or mother images of infancy so that we can get out from under all the responsibilities and worries of life. We also long to be truly known as we really are. We want unconditional love.  These feelings are in all of us and good in themselves. In this life our task is to become our true selves. We travel through a series of experiences which challenge and teach us. One of the things that draws us forward is the desire to be known and loved. God is in the midst of all these experiences — knowing and loving us. The more we see how God loves us into growth, the more we can love this way in our lives. This love can be both sensitive and harsh. If we mediate on the Gospels we can see these two expressions of love in the way that Jesus lived and how he related to people. We can see how he relates to us, to me.

This sense of God’s personal love for me is sustaining. Its gentle and challenging aspects make sense to me. In The Living Flame of  Love, John of the Cross, speaks of God wounding us to get our attention in order to purify and heal us. Love is not always pretty but it is the most important thing in life.

Public Domain image by Christina Spiegeland

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Posted by on Sep 11, 2012

Opening and Being Opened

On this anniversary of the tragedy known as 9/11, it’s all too tempting to circle the wagons, draw in our hearts and hands, refuse to risk reaching out to the stranger among us, set up barriers of Us vs Them, and otherwise behave in closed, angry, hostile ways. But that is not the way of Christ.

This past Sunday, September 9, Fr.Ron Shirley’s homily was on the reading from Mark’s Gospel 7:31-37: the healing of the deaf mute. His insights on opening and being opened by Christ are worth pondering.

Be Opened 9-9-2012

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest Gospel we have. There are many special things about it. One of the most special things is that it contains several original words of Jesus. Words in Jesus own language – Aramaic – that he must have spoken himself.

We have one of these words today, a very powerful word: Ephatha, which means “Be Opened.” Say it with me: EPHATHA!
Being opened is the opposite of being shut, of being clenched.

Do me a favor, will you. Clench your hands. Clench your hands as hard as you can and make fists. Keep it like that for just a few minutes, until I tell you.

A clenched fist gives a person a sense of power. We clench our fists when we get really mad, really frustrated, really full of hate.

A clenched fist is an ugly thing.

But not nearly as ugly as a clenched face. We clench our faces when we criticize too harshly, when we judge harshly, when we look down on someone or put out an arrogant attitude.

A clenched face is an ugly thing … but not nearly as ugly as a clenched heart. Our hearts get clenched when we are full of hatred and vengeance. Other things that can clench the heart are greed, envy, jealousy, or rage when we don’t get our own way.

(Keep your fist clenched a little bit longer)

Sometimes whole families can be clenched, whole parishes, whole communities.

And to the clenched community, the clenched family, the clenched heart, the clenched face, the clenched hand, the clenched ears, the clenched tongue, Jesus comes and says EPHATHA! BE OPENED!

I hope those of you who have clenched your hands are getting really tired. You should be. Now I’ll ask you to slowly, slowly unclench your hands: EPHATHA! BE OPENED!

Isn’t that better?

One day you will be completely unclenched. On the day when we rise to glory, it will be wonderful. We will be holding on to God completely and fully … because we won’t be holding anything else.

In the meantime, we Christians try to let go, little by little, of pains and wounds and regrets and resentment and anger. And Jesus is here helping us.

I close with this:

Jesus came to me. He saw that my mind was clenched. I can’t stand them. Those groups. Those people. That person. EPHATHA, he said BE OPENED! But I replied, Lord they hurt me. They threaten me. They violate me.

“I know, he said. Like the people who were cruel to me on Good Friday. My mind wanted to clench shut. The thought of them was like a crown of thorns tightening around my temples. But I opened myself up and God raised me, making me the Savior.”

Jesus came. He saw my hands were clenched. I’m not going to help another person. I’m not going to help the church anymore. I’m not going to reach out to my neighbor again. No one appreciates it.

“I know, Jesus said. Like the people who didn’t appreciate me. Sometimes when I opened my hands it felt like they were hammering nails through it. But I opened myself, and God raised me, making me the Savior of the world.”

Jesus came. He saw that my heart was clenched. So full of anger, so bitter, so jealous. Ephatha, he said. Be opened! I’m so tired of loving people. Often they don’t love me back. And when I opened my heart it feels sometimes like a great spear pierces me to my very soul.

“I know, said Jesus. Believe me, I understand. But when the spear pierced my heart, I opened myself to it, to the world, to the father … and God has raised me up.”

Ephatha! Be Opened! God will raise you up also!

Close your eyes; clench your fists – what else in your life is clenched?

EPHATHA! I am going to help you, says Jesus!

Fr. Ron Shirley, September 9, 2012

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Posted by on Jul 3, 2012

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

Baby Galaxies in the Night Sky

When I stare at the night sky, especially if I am out in the country, I get almost overwhelmed at the immensity of the universe.  I am in awe of the beauty of the stars and then amazed at a God who can create and manage such an enormous and complex reality and yet be with me personally.  One billion galaxies!  Possibly two billion.

Even if a person does not believe in God as the reality defined in traditional religious terms, the beauty of the night sky, the roar of water down a canyon, the amazing chatter of birds and animals can take the breath away — almost bring one to tears.

The gift of AWE AND WONDER helps us to know and to feel that God is the fulfillment of everything we desire.  That there exists  perfect love — perfect knowledge, goodness, power, action, discretion, justice, healing.  With this gift we perceive the mystery that God is.  We realize that there is an aspect of the Sacred, the transcendent, that we cannot know on this side of death, but that we get glimpses of such majesty and glory.  We see that God can know, interact with, and sustain billions of people.   It’s amazing.  You either believe it or you don’t.  If you believe in such a possibility then it is mind blowing.  My particularities matter.  I am fully known.  Nothing is impossible.

In 1974 When Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it made two inaccessible worlds available to an entirely new audience.  The first world was the natural world known in a scientific way.  All of a sudden cells and their biochemistry, ecosystems, the interdependence of species, and the rhythms of nature were explained in lay terms and could be understood and celebrated.  Secondly, this joy and excitement was not just intellectual but also solidly spiritual.  There was no separation of the secular from the sacred.  The world was whole and we felt whole in it.  How nice!  My body and the whole physical realm was God’s love and creativity writ big in the awesome processes of life in mitochondria,  chloroplasts, T cells, blood, genes, the periodic table, and atomic particles.

Dillard took all the lovely words, images and sounds of a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkinsand showed us the genius of God, down to the most minute details.  Hopkins’ dramatic words: grandeur, greatness, ooze, dearest freshness, dappled, brinded, original, spare, and strange now showed the grandeur of God as Dillard explained the incredible scientific reality of ooze and freshness, dappled and brinded.  She also opened up very wide the whole subject of suffering and death and gave the reader a new perspective on the meaning and purposes of both.  As a spiritually anemic graduate student, I soaked up the theology of Dillard’s book and saw for the first time the consistency of God in the natural and supernatural realms.  How could God have a cycle of growth, disintegration and integration in the natural realm and not have one in the spiritual realm?  What was all that talk of planting, pruning, cultivating and harvesting in the Bible all about if God was not also doing it in society and in my soul? And was God a genius in nature and then mindless and distant in the spiritual world?  No, we can and do find God in the wonder of the universe and in the many parallel things we know in our lives.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of awe when she says, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”  Having Awe and Wonder is not automatic.  It is a gift.  We can be so over-indulged or over-stimulated that we miss beauty or grandeur.  Last Sunday morning I saw a small fox trot by a glass door of a building where I was in a meeting.  It was very close.  The sun was shining through its translucent tail all colorful and fluffy.  What a pointy nose and whiskers!  Wonderful round dark  eyes.  Such a lovely animal.  So light on its feet.  I couldn’t dismiss it.  It made my day.  God is near.

 

Red Fox

The fox looked back at us as he or she trotted on.  I wanted to go with it as it ran into the woods.  In Psalm 139 it says that we are wonderfully made.  Yes, we are.  Sometimes squirrely and difficult;  other times sleek and dolphin-like.  But we are all wonderfully made, “The work of his hands.”   And, awe, wonder and gratitude are our best response.  Hopefully we can at times “Take off our shoes” at the thought of all this splendor.  Maybe we can shake off the darkness of this world a little as we drink in “all this juice and all this joy”!

 

Image of the fox from wpclipart.com – public domain.
Image of Baby Galaxies from NASA – public domain.

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Posted by on May 26, 2012

A Canada Lynx as an Image of God

Instructed to select a picture that catches my eye, gaze on it for a while and see what the Holy Spirit might have for me to see in it, I am drawn to a picture of a Canada lynx and her kitten lying relaxed in a meadow of wildflowers, both with their paws resting on a log. The mother’s eyes are half-closed and the kittens’ eyes are wide open. The mother’s expression at first glance is threatening. If she were a human, I’d say she had a scowl on her face. I wouldn’t want to cross her. The tufts on her ears are pointed up and alert. The kitten, on the other hand, seems relaxed and curious.

After looking at the picture for a while, I realize the mother’s expression is that of a cat who is more relaxed than anxious or threatening. The eyes half-closed are awake and alert, but not concerned that anything threatens her kitten. The two are at peace amid the wildflowers in the spring meadow.

I look at the picture a bit longer, then close my eyes and see something more. Whereas at first glance I identified more with the mother, vigilant for the safety of her kitten, I now see myself as the wide-eyed, unsuspecting kitten, taking each day’s adventure as it comes, feeling safe and peacefully surveying my world from my secure position — resting side-by-side with my protective mother. This image of the protective mother becomes an image of my relationship with God — a God who rests beside me, peaceful and secure yet ever vigilant for my safety.

Check here to see the picture yourself.

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Posted by on Apr 4, 2012

Celebrations and Heartbreaks – There’s Always a “Day After”

Celebrations and Heartbreaks – There’s Always a “Day After”

Sun Shining Through Clouds

As part of our family’s domestic church experience, we celebrate feasts of major saints and feast days such as the Annunciation or Holy Thursday by eating favorite foods and having special desserts. We also used nicer dishes than our everyday ones – though the “good china” is reserved for Easter and other major celebrations. This “pink plate” celebration tradition developed over a period of time, as our children were born over a fourteen year period. With the coming of our grandson into our household, we have continued to expand the number of feasts celebrated with the pink plates, as well as the types of foods.

Recently we celebrated the Annunciation – with waffles for dinner (a Swedish tradition) and angel food cake (for the coming of Gabriel) with blueberry topping (blue for Our Lady’s cloak). The next day, as I warmed left-over waffles for a little boy’s breakfast, I was struck by the reality that there’s always a “day after” a feast or other celebration.

A “day after” is often a lower energy day. Sometimes we find ourselves feeling tired or cranky, especially after a major celebration like Christmas with its late nights and early mornings. Sometimes, however, we are pleasantly relaxed and peaceful on the “day after.”

The spiritual life is reflected in these experiences. We have highs and lows — times when God seems very near and times (the harder ones) when God seems far away and totally uncaring. Wonderful celebrations such as Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, or a wedding, ripple through our lives — sometimes for a few days, weeks or months. Then the glow begins to fade and ordinary life concerns move again to the center of our attention. It’s a normal pattern and not unhealthy. The highs can’t be sustained — they take too much energy. More importantly, we meet God equally profoundly, if not more profoundly, in the rough times. Jesus, after all, went through His passion and death before He was raised up. In the hard times, we meet and experience the love of a God who has experienced rejection personally. God cries with us and kisses away our tears. Then in the “days after,” we know in the depths of our being that we are loved and all will be well. Maybe not what we expected it to be, but right and well. Not a bad result.

Image by Robert and Mihaela Vicol – Released to the Public Domain

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Posted by on Apr 2, 2012

Providence/Grace and Free Will

We live in a world where we often feel pressured to prove that God exists and then we can be at a loss in explaining where God is.  Out in the world of work, everyone is supposed to pretend that they are very objective and scientific.  But, as we have said, empirical data is only one modality of space-time reality.  Experience is a valid category by which we learn and make decisions.  Following my gut feeling about how to approach a worry or a situation with a person can be very useful.  Trying things like prayer and finding out that something new, unexpected and helpful outside my usual “bag of tricks” is happening, can send me down a good path towards surrender to the ways of God.   No one can define exactly how this universe is set up in terms of cause and effect.  No one philosophy or great intellect can tell us definitively a way to control outcomes.  I can be as intelligent, mature, ethical and unselfish as possible and that will not guarantee certain results.

Why is that?  From the secular point of view, we come into our lives with many predetermined factors.  Our physical lives, ethnicity, time in history, birth order, family system, religion, and socio-economic situation dictate a great deal of how we will develop.  There will also be many influences along the way.  The choices parents make, teachers we have, opportunities, illnesses, choices we make, etc. will be part of the mix of who we become.  But, from the spiritual point of view, there are other factors that intervene and open up possibilities.  If one has the perspective of faith, one will see the action of God in his life in varying ways.

Why in “varying ways?”  Therese of Lisieux said that “Everything is a grace.”  Ignatius of Loyola said that we can and should “Find God in all things.”  Everyone will observe and interpret the action of God in the external world and the motions of God within ourselves in different ways.  Many people will be very conservative in believing that God is active at all in their lives.  Others will see God and God’s care in many events big and small throughout the day or week.  The most challenging context in which to affirm the presence of God will be in the experience of suffering.  It can be challenging to see God or any value in any experience of pain or difficulty.   Hurt, inconvenience, failure, addiction, and loss can all seem pointless and to be avoided.

How can suffering be okay or how can God allow it?  How could failure be a grace?  Why aren’t resources that I discover just something I did on my part?  And, further, why see God in my circumstances at all?  If my sister dies at a young age, how can that be okay?  If I spill breakfast cereal on my pants, how can that be a good thing?  Didn’t I figure out which graduate school to go to on my own?  Does God do my tax return?  Isn’t it important to take control of my life?  These questions are at the heart of the daily grind of our lives.  If God is here, what is he doing and why or how is this mess of a world okay?

The theology or meaning of Christ on the cross is at the center of this question.  What Christians believe is really strange but poses a answer that confounds all other interpretations of reality.  How can surrender in obedience and helplessness to a divine Father who loves him, be the apex of salvation — THE solution to the problem of evil and suffering?!  Look at the other solutions.   First, if we believe in God, that is a reality which encompasses and surpasses the immensity of the universe by definition.  So, scientific laws are included within the reality of God who is intelligent and complex beyond anything we can understand.  Second, things we think are bad because they feel painful may not be bad in an objective sense.  If my overall desire is to realize my potential fully, I may not even see what that is.  If I have desires to be happy in a certain way, I may not know  how to get there.  I may not see what is in the way.

With faith, one believes in a Sacred Reality that is close but also beyond my limitations.  I believe that this Reality is loving and personal.   At some point I may take a chance on this God and let him guide me.  My life may take me through suffering.  It may be at the hands of crude, misguided people.  I may get beaten up one way or the other.  I may make bad choices too.  With guidance I could learn to discern better decisions.  From the hurt of the past I can gain several things.  I may see that I am compassionate because I know what hurt is.  I may be an exquisitely good at setting limits and yet being generous.  I may know how to express myself clearly because I have had to protect myself.  I may see through the games of others. The suffering was in no way a waste or distraction — it was all good.

This learning, maturity, holiness is not something I can insert into myself.  It is part of a great mystery.  Something greater has made itself available to me.  The key resources are beyond the components of daily life.  I can go to yoga, the chiropractor, analysis, the health food store, school, have a great job and body, and be rich, and still not be on my true path.    If one is a person of religious faith, the only way to real happiness is surrender to God.  It is that blunt and simple.  This is so totally uncool that saying it is like marketing cat poop.   Okay, so we could say “Higher Power” and it might sound less “Churchy.”  The bottom line is that dependence on any authority figure is totally  unacceptable.  We are supposed to grow into greater and greater independence.  God is a weird old guy wearing white gowns who is out of touch and judges people.  So, that’s for later — when we die.  Admitting that I have a relationship with God, experience his presence on a daily basis and make decisions in relation to the inner motions of the heart is unusual for most people.

Yet somehow, a sizable segment of the Catholic/Christian population does have this experience.  They are middle of the road believers who know that they are being guided by God and still have their free will intact.  They surrender their inclination to demand that God explain it all.  They trust the mystery of how providence and freedom work, but they know the balance is real.  They base this trust on experience.  The care and challenge they feel from this divine reality is consistent, rational, reliable, helpful to them, and beyond their own abilities.  They would have abandoned their faith in God a long time ago if the results had been destructive.    They know when they “bump” into someone they need to see, that it is a gift.  They realize that the thought to travel down a certain road helped them avoid a pileup on the freeway.  When they lose a job they eventually see that it moved them out of a situation which was undermining their health.

Mystery, yes.  Surrender, yes.

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Posted by on Feb 25, 2012

The Eternal Present –  Living in the Now

The Eternal Present – Living in the Now

Blooming daffodils

Summer-like weather had kissed the coastal city in mid-winter. The warm sun shone brightly, not a cloud in the sky. Birds sang happily, chattering away noisily with their peers while enjoying their southern sojourn. Flowers bloomed merrily in every garden and by the wayside paths. It was the kind of day when no one should be stuck inside. But that was where she had been all day. There were dishes to wash, groceries to purchase, documents to proof-read, checkbooks to be balanced. That was all on top of caring for a small child and keeping him safe as he explored the many nooks and crannies of his world. By the time all was done and they could go outside, it was already time for her to begin dinner preparations, so someone else got to go out with him!

By late evening, as bedtime approached, dinner now having been completed, dishes done, beds ready for their occupants, the little guy decided he didn’t want to stop playing and get ready for bed. She was frustrated and tired — not at all in a mood to be patient and gentle. Fortunately, she recognized the need for a quick break and walked into another room long enough to regain a bit of peace. When she came out, the child ran towards her, his face one big smile from ear to ear. All memory of the battle waged a few moments earlier long gone from his mind. He had a story for bedtime. Could they read it?  Of course, they could, and the rest of the evening ritual proceeded pleasantly. She even got a few minutes of quiet before retiring herself.

The experience of our “heroine” is, I think, all too common for many of us today. There is so much to be done. So many expectations of how quickly we must respond, so many opportunities to be “busy about many things,” that we end up over-stressed and missing the wonders of the present moment. Yet we would be well advised to notice the child’s way of living in each moment. After all, Jesus told his followers that the Kingdom is made of child-like people — people who can be present in the moment.

God exists in the Eternal Present. Every moment is new in that Eternal Present. Nothing carries over except God’s ever outpouring love. God does not hold on to the past — all is new and everything is possible. “Your sins I remember no more.” (Isaiah 43:25)

We, on the other hand, get stuck in the upsets, angers, resentments and disappointments of the past. Our ability to see and respond to love gets paralyzed. We become separated from our loving, ever present God and the wonder of ever new life flowing out as the present moment.

Jesus comes to lead us from that separation, that paralysis of living and re-living the past (aka, our sinfulness). Once we accept that healing, we can once again rise from our mats as did  the paralyzed man in the Gospel (Mark 2:1-12), dancing in the joy of new life in God’s NOW.

Daffodils Bloom – from public-domain-image.com

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Posted by on Feb 22, 2012

Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting – Lenten Practices in Our Lives Today

Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting – Lenten Practices in Our Lives Today

Praying Hands - Albrecht Durer

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, brings with it a reminder from Jesus of the importance of 1) caring for each other, especially those in need, 2) staying in close communication with God, and 3) strengthening our physical, mental, and spiritual lives through actions that help us develop more control over the urges that don’t lead us to God. The traditional names for such activities are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

Catholics who grew up before and during the years of Vatican II often think first of fasting or giving up something as the activity of choice for Lent. This practice was generally phrased in terms of “What are you giving up for Lent?” There were (and still are) days in which fasting from normal amounts of food was required of adults between the ages of 21 and 59. However, there were other days in the year which were also set aside for fasting, so that was not unique to Lent. What was unique to Lent was giving up something: candy, television, movies, cigarettes, drinking, etc.

Ash Wednesday’s reading from Matthew 6:1-18 is a reminder that all three practices are important and even interdependent. They are also to be done quietly, without great fanfare, and without even congratulating ourselves on how well we’re managing to do them! So, how can we — citizens of a busy, busy world — find time to pray, identify and organize resources to share with others, and make fasting somehow different than dieting?

A few thoughts come to mind.

1) Almsgiving: The sharing of worldly treasures has been a mark of the Christian community since its earliest years. Christians recognized from at least the time of St. John’s Gospel, and before, that Jesus is present in the community.  To the extent that anyone is suffering from lack of basic necessities, those who do not lack them have failed to meet the needs of Jesus. This is a hard teaching sometimes, especially when times are tough and there is little left over to share. Remember: we are called to share our time, talents, and treasures. If what you have is time, then give of that. If what you have is talent (maybe for telephoning or organizing a bake sale), offer that talent to help provide for those who need food or shelter. If you have enough money (treasure) to support yourself and your family, then share from what you have; maybe eating more simply for a few meals or waiting an extra month before buying that new pair of jeans, and giving the savings to feed those who don’t have enough.

The important thing is to be open to sharing what you have and creatively listening for the opportunities to do so.

2) Prayer: Time for prayer is not easy to find —  if you think you have to set aside an hour a day to pray. On the other hand, if you remember to intersperse prayer into your entire day, then it becomes easier. A quick thank you for the morning as you open your eyes, a blessing over breakfast, a smiled expression of gratitude for a pretty sight on the way to work or the joy of a child exploring her world, a few moments of reflection on how the day is going at lunchtime, a quick prayer for the right words to say in conversation with a friend or co-worker, a blessing at the end of the day, a few moments of reading scripture while supervising a child’s bathing — all are ways to pray in a busy life. God is present in all of these moments and in the unpleasant, difficult moments as well. But God generally doesn’t burst into our lives and shout, “Do This Now!” God is much more subtle, inviting us to notice the presence of the divine in the everyday creation in which we live, and always leaving us free to respond to that presence as we choose.

3) Fasting: Limiting the amount of food eaten, or not eating at all, is the generally understood meaning of fasting. Going hungry on occasion is a good thing to do. It helps develop a greater appreciation of the gift of food. It also helps strengthen the will, so when other things must be declined, the will is strong enough to do so. However, fasting from food is only one way to fast. The practice of “giving up something” was a form of fasting. When we turned off the television on weekdays during Lent during my childhood, we broke its spell and no longer felt we had to watch any programs. We had time to do things together as a family that we didn’t do when the television was on: board games, music, conversation, outdoor play, cooking together, etc.

Fasting today may mean limiting our consumption of: consumer goods, recreational activities, social media including Facebook, television, text messages, tweets, online games, lunches or dinners out, or (insert your own time-consuming activity).  It creates a space for other things – for God to be noticed and heard.

Perhaps, out of fasting in this broader sense will come opportunities for prayer and resources for almsgiving as well. Then the circle of activities that quietly draw us closer to God will have become complete.

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer – Public domain image

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Posted by on Feb 2, 2012

Recognizing the Light through our Daily Lives

Recognizing the Light through our Daily Lives

Three Candles

Stepping carefully as she crossed the intersection, the older woman, wearing a warm coat and knitted hat despite the unseasonably warm weather and carrying a shopping bag of groceries, stopped suddenly, a look of delight on her face. She stepped back and slightly to the side, shifted her purse and bag, and bent to pick up a coin from the street. From my vantage point in the car waiting for the light to change, it appeared to be a quarter — just  twenty-five cents. Yet the delight I saw in her face could not have been greater if it had been a thousand times more valuable. She had found something of value, just laying there on the ground in plain sight, waiting for someone to notice it. She picked it up carefully and placed it into her purse. Then she continued to make her way across the intersection on her way home to her apartment down the street.

As she walked on her way and I went on mine, I reflected on what I had seen. A very ordinary item, found in the course of a very ordinary activity, brought great delight to a seemingly very ordinary person. Yet she was a person who was alert and aware of her surroundings. She noticed what was going on, despite the ordinariness of the day and its activities. She saw more than many saw who crossed that intersection on that afternoon, and when she saw, she acted on what she had seen.

Perhaps this anonymous woman has something to teach us as we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a feast also known as Candlemas and/or as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just as Anna and Simeon recognized Jesus when his parents brought him to the Temple to offer the traditional sacrifice required for a first born son, so we are called to be alert and aware so we will recognize Jesus when he comes into our lives. No one was expecting the Christ to come as the infant son of a normal, non-wealthy, non-royal family from Nazareth. Just a carpenter’s son!  The Christ was to be a military hero who would drive out the Roman conquerors and establish a new kingdom like that of David. Yet, Anna and Simeon recognized him and blessed God for the gift of seeing him before their deaths. Indeed, Anna went around happily telling everyone she met that the Messiah had been born and had been presented at the Temple … and she herself had seen him!

The challenge each of us faces, I believe, is to see the Christ in the people with whom we share our lives, as well as in the people who formally represent the Christian community, and to celebrate that coming  into our lives. The fellow who sits begging on the street downtown, the woman who stops joyfully to pick up a coin in the middle of the crosswalk, the guy who laughingly dances down the street, flirting with all the ladies as he goes to round up some buddies and head off to dinner before the cold night catches up with them, the frightened teen who finds she’s pregnant and is certain her parents will beat her and throw her out on the street if they find out, the doctor who cares for a child without charge when the parents don’t have insurance and can’t pay for the care, the little boy who delightedly strips off all his clothes because he’s learned how to do it and revels in the freedom of being alive and unfettered. Each of these is Christ coming to someone. How do we respond?

Image by Alice Birkin – Public domain

 

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Posted by on Dec 23, 2011

Requiem for Christopher Hitchens the Anti-Theist

Requiem for Christopher Hitchens the Anti-Theist

Christopher Hitchens went to his reward on December 15, 2011. The question of the eternal fate of such a vitriolic foe of faith and religion has received two responses. Douglas Wilson – Hitchens’ theist debating partner – in Christianity Today said that since we cannot assume that Hitchens called on God, we must assume that he is lost forever.

Eric Reitan, philosopher and author of Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers focuses on Hitchens’ search for truth. Reitan sees Hitchens’ motto “religion poisons everything” as an exaggerated reaction to the truth that there “is much that is poisonous in the religions of the world.” As such, Hitchens’ wasn’t necessarily anti-God as much as he was repulsed by the evil practice of religion. Reitan sees salvation for Hitchens because of his dedication to truth. Reitan cites Simone Weil’s famous statement:

I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before failing into his arms. – Waiting for God, Simone Weil 1951 page 69

Reitan’s view is much more Christian in the sense of Jesus own concern with truth and sincerity over the sham invocation of doctrine or religious law.

The words of the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer come to mind: “…  remember now all for whom we make this sacrifice: … those who take part in this offering, those gathered here before you, your entire people, and all who seek you with a sincere heart.”

Another passage from Simone Weil comes to mind regarding death:

I always believed that the instant of death is the center and object of life. I used to think that, for those who live as they should, it is the instant when, for an infinitesimal fraction of time, pure truth, naked, certain, and eternal enters the soul. I may say that I never desired any other good for myself. I thought that the life leading to this good is not only defined by a code of morals common to all, but that for each one it consists of a succession of acts and events strictly personal to him, and so essential that he who leaves them on one side never reaches the goal.

Perhaps, those of us who feel comforted in faith and the promise of Heaven should not rely so much on dogma but on a life of truth – a life of authenticity.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. – Matthew 21:31-32

Image: Orion Nebula Galaxy – Courtesy of NASA In the Public Domain

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Posted by on Dec 22, 2011

Fidelius and Diabolus: Tim Tebow, Jesus, and Saturday Night Live

Christians have only themselves and their sub-media-culture to blame when it comes to a cavalier approach to Jesus. Not that we should behave violently to a light portrayal. But when Christians started replacing the Air-Jordan logo with Air-Jesus, they are asking for massive satire. I actually think SNL’s portrayal was fun and generous..where Jesus shows patience with a highly zealous Tebow. No one…especially Jesus, was ridiculed. The point of the sketch is how American culture wastes prayers, attention and ‘God’s intervention’ on matters as trivial as a football game.

Matt Mewhorter

Saturday Night Live’s parody of the stellar NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and Christ has drawn criticism and condemnation in many quarters. Our friends Fidelius and Diabolus talk it out.

Diabolus: Did you catch Saturday Night Live with Tebow and Jesus?

Fidelius: I didn’t need to see it. It was a travesty. Pat Robertson blasted it.The atheists are just picking on him because he is a missionary and is very open about his faith.

Diabolus: Maybe you aren’t giving the Devil his due. The Jesus portrayed on SNL was very limited, very human.

Fidelius: How can you say that? Jesus is always with us. He hears our prayers.

Diabolus: Okay, but what happens when things don’t work out? What do you say when you fail or bad things happen to you?

Fidelius: Tebow is having a great season. He gives the praise to God and doesn’t keep it for himself. He openly witnesses to his faith in Jesus, his Lord and Savior.

Diabolus: Maybe that was the point of the parody. In our love and our enthusiasm we can simplify and distort a very complex relationship – our relationship with the Risen Christ.

Fidelius: You sound like a secular humanist or relativist playing down the reality of God in our lives.

Diabolus: Do you remember Fr. O’Flaherty’s old joke about praying to win the lottery? The one he used to tell from the pulpit.

Fidelius: You mean the one about the guy who kept begging God to win the lottery until an exasperated Voice from heaven told him that it might help if the guy bought a lottery ticket?

Diabolus: In the SNL parody, Jesus tells Tebow and his team mates to study the play book and to work harder on the first part of the game. He sounded more like a therapist than a puppet master. That’s the problem with God. He allows too much freedom.

Fidelius: So you are trying to say that there is no Providence. We just muddle through as best we can without any Divine help?

Diabolus: No. If one team wins the other must lose. Is the losing team less pleasing to God?

Fidelius: That’s what it says in many places of the Old Testament.

Diabolus: The Bible is not talking about major league sports. It is talking about submitting to God and what happens when we don’t order our lives properly. Things go better if you are right with God but that is not what happened to Jesus or to the millions killed in the holocaust.

Fidelius: So you are calling Tebow and the rest of us religious simpletons?

Diabolus: No, just humans caught up in enthusiasm in your faith. What happens when things don’t work out? Where is God then?

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Posted by on Oct 29, 2011

Where is God on This Page of My Life?

For over twenty-five years I’ve been reading Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to the children in my life. There have been periods during those years when the children were too old or too young for the story, of course, but the book remained on the shelf and visiting children also enjoyed it.

Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is the story of a family (of pigs in this case) who go for a drive to picnic at the beach and then return home by another route. Unlike many children’s books, however, the storyline is just a narrative that ties together page after detailed page of illustrations of cars, trucks and other types of transportation or work vehicles – some fanciful, others actual varieties one might see on the road. All are in use by animals dressed and living as humans would.

One of the characters is a small golden insect, with human type arms and legs, dressed all in golden clothing, whose name is Goldbug. Goldbug, in the words of the story, “shows up just about everywhere,” cleverly hidden on many pages, but always present. Looking for Goldbug is an enduring feature and part of the charm of reading the story. In the process of looking for Goldbug (“Hi there, Goldbug … wherever you are!”), the reader – whether adult or child – scans each bit of every page, looking carefully for the golden head, eyes and antennae that betray his presence. On some pages he’s easy to find – driving a car or bulldozer. But on others …

Yesterday I found him on a page where I don’t remember having seen Goldbug in all the many times I’ve read the story. He looks remarkably like a bit of gold trim on one of the vehicles, but he is definitely there.  I found myself delighted like a little girl at my discovery and I returned to some of the other pages on which he is well hidden. As a result of this exercise, I can assure all that Goldbug is indeed present in every illustration.

The adult me now asks, how many times do I not notice other things or individuals (like maybe God) in the scenes of my life? In ways not unlike little Goldbug’s creativity in finding hiding places, our God peeks out at us through a smile, a flower, a sunrise or sunset, a song, a story, a helping hand, a stranger who takes our part when we are wronged …

In the days and weeks to come, as we move into the busyness and excitement of the holidays, may we keep our eyes open, actively looking  for God’s presence in the pages of our lives. When we look, we’ll find him.

 

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