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Posted by on Feb 11, 2024

Touched by a Healing Hand

Touched by a Healing Hand

How many times have we heard, “Don’t touch that, it’s dirty!” “Don’t eat that. It fell on the floor!” “Ten second rule…” In our society, we distinguish between things that are physically dirty and therefore unsafe to touch or eat and those that are physically clean and safe. We don’t tend to think about things as dirty or unsafe by the very nature of their being, though some foods such as grubs are shunned in our typical American diets. But this has not always been the reality of how peoples classify the things with which they come in contact.

The discovery of microbes such as bacteria and viruses changed our understanding of what causes illness or the infections that can follow injuries. Before their discovery and our growth in understanding of how microbes work, when people got sick or had an infected wound, it was not unusual for the blame to be assigned to an angry deity or a sorcerer/witch or the sin of the person or the parent of the person who was born with a handicap. Bad things didn’t happen to good people. People broke the rules of the gods and bad things happened.

Anthropologist, Mary Douglas, in Purity and Danger, wrote a study of the ways in which peoples classify things as safe (pure or clean) or dangerous (unclean). She noted, for example, in the Book of Leviticus (Lv 13:1-2, 44-46) that skin conditions that caused visible differences in the health or appearance of the skin were considered to be leprosy. Since some of these conditions are contagious, those who contracted them were banished from the community. They were classed as “unclean.” Interestingly, however, once the entire body was covered by the sores, the person could again be seen as whole and readmitted to the community. She suggested that the critical issue was whether the condition was whole or affected only a part of the body. Mixing healthy and non-healthy skin on one body was unclean.

The rules set up in the time of Moses were still in force during Jesus’ life. People with skin lesions were required to stay away from others and warn others not to approach them. When a man with leprosy approached Jesus, begging, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” Jesus broke the social and religious rules. He reached out and touched the man, saying, “I will do it. Be made clean.”

The man was healed immediately, we are told. Jesus then sent him to the priest to be examined for any sign of disease. He told the man who was healed to offer the necessary sacrifice of thanksgiving and return to his regular life. Despite Jesus’ order not to tell anyone how he had been healed, the man told everyone he met about it. He was so happy; he couldn’t contain or hide it! Needless to say, people in ever greater numbers hurried to Jesus, asking for healing. (Mk 1:40-45)

We too are called to be channels of healing. Perhaps not the same kinds of physical healing that people received from Jesus’ words or touch. But through our lives and the way we interact with those we meet, healing can and does occur. We don’t always know it has happened. That’s all to the good. Keeps us from getting all puffed up about our good works. But as we reach out in care and respect for others and meet them in their daily joys and struggles, we imitate Christ and bring the Good News to our world. (1 Cor 10:31-11:1)

So, who are the kinds of people we are afraid to touch, whether actually or figuratively? Who do we exclude or require to hide from polite society? Do we welcome children and older people on the autistic spectrum into our gatherings and lives? Do we care for, welcome, and respect children and adults who are not binary in their sexuality, members of the LGBTQ+ community? Do we help new neighbors from other countries to get the services they need and help them get started rebuilding their lives in our communities or do we exclude them? Do we comfort and help those whose loved ones have rejected them? Do we support those whose marriages and families have fallen apart or do we exclude them and their children from our church communities? How do we deal with people who have mental health conditions that affect their daily lives?

There are so many times and places where we meet God’s dearly loved children (ages newborn to the very old). Let’s pray that we have the courage and wisdom to see each as a sister or brother, dearly loved by God our Father and our brother Jesus. In God’s sight, all are worthy of being touched by the healing hand of love. Will our hands be the ones that begin that loving healing?

Readings for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Jan 21, 2024

Diversity – Broader Than We Expect?

Diversity – Broader Than We Expect?

Each month, Pope Francis asks people around the world to join him in prayer for a particular intention. This month, January 2024, he is asking us to pray for the gift of diversity in the Church. Specifically, his prayer is,

“We pray that the Holy Spirit may help us to recognize the gift of different charisms within the Christian community and to discover the richness of different traditions and rituals in the Catholic Church.”

This prayer is focused on diversity within the Christian community, with its varied history, traditions, and rituals. As a worldwide community, people from multiple traditions, cultural understandings, and expectations all share in the same fundamental set of beliefs and practices. However, the ways those beliefs and practices are expressed can vary dramatically.

When my husband and I were first married, for example, we often found that we were divided by the bonds of a common religion. We were both Catholic from birth and grew up in actively Catholic families and communities. But the specifics of which customs, which saints, and which fundamental requirements and expectations of Catholic life were most important differed in many ways. Northern European Irish/German traditions were different from Mexican-American traditions. It took many years to recognize and anticipate the expected practices from our childhood experience and know which ones were going to be more important to each of us. With experience and many years of practice, we mostly have this worked out, but we still trip up from time to time.

As a Church, we have a long way to go, but the reforms of Vatican II have given a great foundation and permission for us to recognize and value the incarnation of our God within the many cultures of our world. We can now pray for diversity and acceptance of the many charisms, the gifts of the Spirit in our daily lives. We no longer need to demand that all peoples around the world understand or celebrate God’s presence in human history in exactly the same way, nor that they live their lives in the same way.

This struck me as an apt insight when I read the story of Jonah and his arrival in the ancient city of Nineveh with a message from God. (Jon 3:1-5, 10) Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was very large – a three day walk to cross from one side of it to the other. The Assyrians were long-time enemies of the Israelites. They had battled more than once. Assyrians had actually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in battle. Many of the people of northern Israel had been killed, many driven into exile. Jonah and others in his community hated the Assyrians. No love was lost between the people of Assyria and the people of Israel.

Imagine Jonah’s surprise and horror when the Lord told him to go and warn the people of the enemy capital that their city was to be destroyed because of their evil behavior. That was exactly what he would have cheered! Destruction of an enemy’s capital, a warning not to mess with one’s own God – who could ask for more? And for this to happen without any loss of life among one’s own people? Fantabulous!

But no. God wanted the people of Nineveh to be warned, to have a chance to escape this horror. So, he called Jonah. Jonah tried to escape his task, boarding a ship to cross the Mediterranean, but that didn’t work out. He ended up in the belly of a whale for a bit, after having been tossed overboard by the crew and then being deposited back on the shore where he started. At that point, he gave up and headed to Nineveh. Entering the city, he began to proclaim its coming destruction. In only one day, the city and its leaders took heed. They proclaimed a fast, put on simple, uncomfortable, penitential clothing (sackcloth), and changed their behavior. With this quick response, there was no longer any reason to punish the city, so God relented and all was well.

Was Jonah happy? Not at all! He had hoped the city would be destroyed. He went away and pouted for a while. But again, how he got over it is another story for another day.

What strikes me about this story is that God did not pay attention only to the people of one culture, with one set of traditions. God cared about the people of Nineveh too, enough to send an unwilling prophet to call them to repentance. Though not members of the Chosen People, they were also a people about whom God cared enough to call them to reform and live.

The city of Nineveh still exists. It has a different name now. We call it Mosul. And God still cares for the people of Mosul and the rest of the Middle East, with all of their different traditions.

How about Jesus? Were his followers all from the same background or occupation? Not really. Some were fishermen. One was a tax collector. One was involved in politics – on the more revolutionary side. Saul/Paul was called after the resurrection. He was a Pharisee, an educated man, a student of the Law, who was active in persecution of the early followers of Jesus.

Mark tells us about the call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. (Mk 1:14-20) They were fishermen from two different families who were working with their families along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when they met Jesus. Jesus himself was a carpenter, a tradesman. All were men who were accustomed to working and supporting themselves and their families. When Jesus walked by the boats as they were cleaning up after fishing – repairing nets, getting everything ready for the next day’s work – he called them to follow him. Amazingly, without hesitation, they left their nets and followed him. They didn’t reject their families or communities, but they left the nets and fishing to follow and learn from him. His other followers also left their jobs immediately when he called them. There was something compelling about the man and his invitation. He was open to them, just as they were and with their own particular backgrounds and family stories. Others who followed him but weren’t in the inner circle were also a diverse group. Women, men, well-to-do, middle-class, and poor. All were represented among Jesus’ followers. He was also recognized as a special person by non-Jews. Remember the Roman centurion whose son was healed by Jesus?

The followers of Jesus were a diverse lot. Jesus may initially have thought he was sent only for the Hebrew people, but his encounters with the Samaritan woman at the well and the Syrophoenician woman who begged for healing for her child opened his eyes to the fact that God cares for all people, not just those who worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem. God cares for humans in all our diversity.

That being the case, when do we need to start welcoming and treasuring our diversity? Right now.

St. Paul reminded the folks in Corinth that time is passing quickly. (1 Cor 7:29-31) It is still passing quickly. We don’t know the day or the hour when our time will end. We don’t know when the Lord will come again. We must live the calling of our life now, welcoming the diverse members of the human community whom we meet along the way.

We don’t have time to hold on to old ways or restrictions. The freedom of the children of God allows us to step beyond our regular restrictions and expectations. We can be open to see God’s hand in the lives of others who are not part of our immediate family or community. We can see God’s face in the immigrant, the undocumented, the hungry, the little ones in our churches and schools who are still learning the social rules, the neighbor across the back fence, the person who cuts ahead of us in line at the grocery store, the addict begging on the street. God is present in each one. God loves the diversity of humanity and hopes we are free enough to enjoy it too.

It’s going to take time for all of us to feel comfortable with the myriad forms of diversity among our fellow human sisters and brothers. Our own cultural traditions and explanations of how-things-are will continue to jump to the forefront when we encounter other ways of being and of doing things. I pray that we can become open to listen deeply to those we meet and hear the goodness within each, which is reaching out to meet the goodness within us. When cultural practices diminish the freedom and well-being of others, it’s important to question them. The same is as true for practices in our culture as for those in other cultures. However, we must always remember that God is the creator of all and through all shines forth in marvelous beauty and colorful light.

May the Holy Spirit, still at work in the Church and in the larger Christian community, lead us to newly recognize, cherish, and support the many gifts, talents, and richness of our many world traditions and varied rituals. May we be unafraid to see our expectations of roles and expression of our deepest selves be broadened by exposure to other ways of life. The diversity is greater than we might imagine. The Holy Spirit will lead us as we explore the marvels of God’s human creation. We just need to be willing to open our hearts and see.

Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B

 

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Posted by on Nov 19, 2023

Worthy Wife, Worthy Husband & Talents

Worthy Wife, Worthy Husband & Talents

Literature written thousands of years ago sometimes presents us with images that seem unnecessarily limited in our times. This is particularly true when we look at gender roles and expectations.

The Book of Proverbs includes many sayings and images that can be taken individually and used to guide one’s actions. It also presents a picture of Lady Wisdom, an ever-present manifestation of God’s powerful presence in our world. One section is written as an acrostic poem. Each line begins with a word from the Hebrew alphabet. The lines begin with the first letter, alef, and the poem’s last line begins with the letter tav, the last letter of that alphabet. (As an aside, the alphabet can be known as the Alef-Bet – the A, B – and as we would add – Cs.)

This poem speaks of the qualities of the ideal wife in the world of that day. (Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31) Women in those days were primarily responsible for management of the home, raising of the children, and support of their husbands in their activities. They did not have careers outside the home. It was a full-time job to handle the household.

Many years ago, the teacher of a class dedicated to study of Wisdom literature assigned his students the task of writing a “newly discovered” extra chapter for each book studied. It was a way of seeing what the student understood about the book being studied. One student decided to write a parallel chapter for the book of Proverbs, describing the husband, also in an acrostic poem.

The section about the wife begins, “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.” Her skills are praised, her outreach and compassion to the poor are noted, her dedication to the Lord is admired, and she is described as meriting praise for her labors at the city gates. It is truly a work of praise and love.

Here’s the missing chapter about the worthy husband, as imagined by a woman in the late 20th century.

A Modern Parallel to Proverbs 31:10-31

A worthy husband, who might find him? He is more precious than gold.
Bountiful is the harvest of his labors.
Confidence in his abilities guides his actions.
Defending the poor, he dares oppose oppression.
Eager for life, he embraces it joyfully, yet
Fails not to recognize physical death as its goal.
Gentle concern endears him to his family and friends.
Humbly he acknowledges his strengths and weaknesses.
Innocently he walks in the midst of intrigues.
Joyfully he provides physical and spiritual support for his wife and children.
Kites he flies with his children and he kisses them freely each day,
Loving them and their mother as himself.
Manager of his earnings, he generously shares whatever he has.
Nature is his ally, she abundantly rewards his good deeds.
Optimistically he faces the future with assurance as he
Prayerfully begins, lives, and ends his day.
Queen of his heart, the wife he has chosen he makes his partner.
Respectfully dealing with all he meets, he is loved in return.
Smiles are his trademark, even during times of trouble.
Truthfully he expresses his thoughts.
Unusually curious, he is continuously questioning,
Vigorously seeking truth.
Wisely guarding his inner privacy, his
“X” or unknown qualities continually surprise his friends.
Youthfully he goes about his work,
Zestfully living each day, he wins praise from all.

We each have talents received from God, who hopes we will use them wisely to spread the kingdom of love and mercy, just as the master Jesus described did when he gave his servants huge sums of money to invest on his behalf. Two of the servants took the money and used it to earn an equal amount. One was afraid that he might lose it and the master would be angry, so that servant buried the money to protect it until the return of the master. Only those who took and used the money were pleasing to the master when he returned. (Mt 25:14-30)

The parable ends with the statement that those who use their gifts, who spend them freely, will be rewarded with more of the gifts they need. Those who hold on tightly to what they have will lose them instead.

The gifts we receive from our Father are to be put to work. Just as the worthy wife buys flax and wool to spin thread and weave fabric for making clothing for her family in the poem, we are to take the talents we have and share them freely. This may be something as simple as sharing a smile with a passing stranger, or patiently waiting in line while a checker helps the customer ahead of us sort out which card to use to pay for the groceries. Sometimes we are asked to share a bit more. A child needs a new coat for the winter. Will we help fund that for a low income family? A family doesn’t have extra money to buy a doll for a child for Christmas. Will we be the ones who help that child receive a precious gift? An older person waits hopefully for a visit from a neighbor. Will we be the ones who stop by to say hello and share a few minutes of friendship? Our church community needs helpers to share our faith with the children and youth. Will we take the time to be with them as they learn of God’s love? Will we share what we have seen?

We all have received many gifts and talents. Men and women, husbands and wives, adults and children – all have something received and something to give. As we approach the end of our Church year in another week, may we be open to hearing the voice of the Lord and growing into the role we are to play in the community of faith.

Readings for the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

 

 

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Posted by on Nov 5, 2023

Covenants and Family

Covenants and Family

The time spent nursing a child is some of the most precious time ever in the lives of mothers and children. Not all children nurse easily from the beginning of their lives, but once they and their mothers figure out how they can do it, the time together and the sharing become unforgettable – a deep, pre-verbal connection is formed that can last for decades. As a mother myself, who was nursed as a child and watched my siblings nursing as well, I was delighted to have the chance to do so too. Those years with my children were very special, filled with funny happenings, some frustrating times, and many simply peaceful, routine times.

St. Paul speaks of his time with the community in Thessalonika as one in which he and his companions were “gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.” (1 Thes 2: 7b-9, 13) They shared the amazing, wonderfully good news of God’s coming among us and loving each of us as parents love their children. The response of the people among whom they toiled was a source of great joy to them. He speaks of his gratitude to God for their openness and acceptance of the teaching, which shows forth in their lives. Though Paul doesn’t say it in so many words, in their lives they are examples of the contentment of the weaned child on it’s mother’s lap, happily experiencing the presence of a parent’s love and protection in life of which the Psalmist speaks. (Ps 131: 1, 2, 3)

Both the prophet Malachi and Jesus speak of family ties too when addressing the challenges of their times.

Malachi speaks at a time after the Babylonian Exile. (Mal 1:14b-2:2b-8, 10) He proclaims that the Lord is a great King, with power feared among the nations. Yet the priests who are responsible to lead the people in worship have not lived up to their calling. They have turned away from the covenant, the agreement God made with Levi, their ancestor. Malachi cries out, “Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us?” The covenant of the ancient fathers of the community with their God has been broken. This is a great tragedy. Israel is a family, the children of God, yet the priests have not lived up to their part in the relationship. As a result, their family connection as a community with God has been broken and so has their relationship as sisters and brothers in one family. When this happens, community strength is lost and mutual respect is gone.

How and when will the covenant be renewed? Only when the people turn again to God, their father, the one father of all.

Jesus spoke of the Pharisees, who were students and teachers of the Law, and the Scribes, who were advisors, leaders, and teachers entrusted with reading and writing the traditions and teachings that guided the community. He criticized them because they did not live what they taught. To follow all the details of the Law as they taught it was very difficult. They themselves did not follow the rules they made for ordinary people to follow. Yet Jesus did not tell people to ignore the teachings. Instead, he told people to follow the Law, but not to follow the examples of these teachers who were more interested in being seen and honored for their pretended observance of the Law than in actually living according to the Law. The fundamentals of living humbly, serving others, and recognizing all others as brothers and sisters of the one Father in heaven are the critical, essential actions. (Mt 23:1-12)

In a community and culture in which corporate families were the norm, one statement in particular is striking: “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” In corporate families, the leadership of the family is vested in one parent. In Israel of that time, the parent was the father of the extended family. Children and grandchildren and their families were all under the leadership and authority of that one parent. Individual families did not really exist in the sense we experience them. Family identity passes through the male or female line in corporate families. In patriarchal Israel, the line went through the males – from father to son. Women married into the family, leaving their own family behind. The “Father” in this large extended family made the decisions about who would do what and who would marry whom. Jesus says, only God is the Father. The earthly parents of each person are not the ultimate authority.

The bottom line for Jesus was the importance of humble service. “The greatest among you must be your servant.” Only those who serve humbly will ultimately be recognized for their greatness.

The nursing mother, the humble servant, the God who is Father. The ones who make life easier and better for others, especially the others who are poor, or of lower social status, or strangers/newcomers in the land, or who suffer illness or injury are the ones who will be exalted. These are the ones pleasing to the Father. It was thus in the time of Malachi. It was thus in the time of Jesus. It was thus in the time of St. Paul. Nothing has changed. It is still thus in our days.

May we this week be aware of the needs of others and quietly offer a hand where needed. Maybe we pick up a bit of litter in a parking lot. Maybe we smile at a neighbor. Maybe we are patient in line at the grocery store. Maybe we read a story for the umpteenth time to a small child. Maybe we sit down with a nursing child and simply allow the child to eat and rest, basking in our love. Whatever we do, when we do it in love, we do it for and with our Father in Heaven. And the Father is pleased…

Readings for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Oct 29, 2023

Just Two Fundamental Principles

Just Two Fundamental Principles

Differences of opinion among groups of people are nothing new, though sometimes we despair of the possibility of ever reaching agreement on how to move forward and address common challenges. Disputes can take the form of physical violence. They can remain in the realm of words, though words can cause great pain and harm. They may even remain unspoken yet provoke ongoing stress and anger in relationships.

Another way to deal with differences of opinion about how to move forward is to talk calmly about the options. It’s not uncommon for individuals moving from childhood to adulthood to become very argumentative with the adults in their lives. The approval of their peers becomes very important as they grow towards adulthood. The study of rhetoric, logic, and reasoning is quite appropriate during this time of transition. In Language Arts classes, students may learn how to write essays presenting an opinion and backing it up. Sometimes these are described simply as Five Paragraph Essays.

While these essays may not be the best approach for very complex topics, the basic format is helpful to understand. An essay begins with the statement of an issue about which there may be some difference of opinion. The author takes a stand and states their position on the topic. The next paragraphs each have one point in support of the author’s position. Explanations and examples in support of the author’s position are presented here. After the points in favor of the stated position are presented, the contrary position may also be stated, along with points made in its support. Finally, the author restates the original position, along with a brief restatement of the reasons for its validity in contrast to the opinion of those who disagree.

This basic outline is not limited to five paragraph essays. It can be expanded to entire books, theses, and dissertations. It is used in speeches as well. It also helps in the everyday interactions of people with differing opinions. Learning to state clearly what the issues are opens the door to improved communication for all.

This same basic structure is useful in conversations between people who disagree with each other about how to dealt with fundamental differences of opinion. It can help make clear what the most important issues are and how they are perceived by each side.

When Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, two groups of powerful teachers were listening with concern. What he was saying had implications for the future of their society and their security under Roman rule.

One group, the Sadducees, were quite conservative and did not believe in life after death. Furthermore, they had come to an arrangement with the Roman rulers and did not want to lose their power or position. The other group, the Pharisees, were students and teachers of the Law. They focused on strict  adherence to the teachings and traditions of the Law handed down on Mt. Sinai to Moses and developed in the years following to deal with the multitude of possible situations that might arise in everyday life.

Both Pharisees and Sadducees had questions for Jesus. One day, a Pharisee came to Jesus and asked a tricky question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” We tend to think of the commandments as being a collection of just ten rules. However, there were many, many more commandments and rules as part of the law. If Jesus chose any specific one as being the most important, they could come down on him like a ton of bricks. Why this one and not this other one? Who are you to decide what rule God would say is more important? How dare you teach this falsehood? All of the laws are equally important!

Jesus recognized their intention and answered directly, though not in the way they expected. He didn’t select one specific law – “Thou shalt not kill” – for example. Instead, he summarized the underlying meaning of the law. First, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart…soul…and mind.” Secondly, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:34-40)

He went on to explain that the entire Law and all the teachings of the Prophets – the entire foundation of Jewish life and tradition – boiled down to these two principles. Love God above all things. Love other people as you love yourself.

Was this something new with Jesus? Not at all. It was spelled out in great detail in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Leviticus. Case by case, example by example, the behavior desired by God was described, as well as the consequences for disobedience. You must not harm a stranger or a person from another nation. You were strangers in another country at one time yourselves. Do not harm widows and orphans. I the Lord will hear their cries for help. Aliens in the land, as well as widows, orphans, and others who did not have a man or a tribal family to protect them were the most vulnerable persons in society. Anyone could treat them badly and they had no legal recourse. But the Lord cared: “I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up… your own wives will be widows…”

Similarly, if someone needs a loan, the terms of the loan must not put the person’s very survival at risk. No charging high interest is allowed. If a person gives something as security for the loan, that security item must be returned in a timely fashion. If it happens to be a person’s cloak, the cloak must be returned before sunset, so the person is not left to suffer or die in the cold of the night. Again, the Lord cares what happens to the poor – “If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.” (Ex 22:20-26)

The basic principles are the same. The Lord is to be loved and obeyed. The neighbor is to be treated with fairness and compassion. The most vulnerable are to receive unconditional support and care, so they have a chance to live in dignity and safety.

When people live by these principles – love of God and love of neighbors – we see their example and find it attractive. St. Paul remarked on this in his letter to the Thessalonians – “you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” because of the way they lived the Good News they were proclaiming. More people come to a life of faith as believers model a life of faithful love. (1 Thes 1:5c-10)

What, you may ask, does this have to do with anything in our lives today? Jesus’ insight and the words from the Book of Exodus are pointed reminders that our actions matter. It doesn’t have to be something great, or public, or even of particular importance. What matters is that our actions reflect the reality that for us, love of God is central to our lives and from that flows our love and care for the vulnerable among us.

Today, caring for the vulnerable among us means looking out for refugees, documented and undocumented immigrants, children born into poverty, non-binary folks who are not accepted by family or friends, working class men and women who aren’t earning enough to support their families, individuals who get sick and miss the paycheck needed to pay the rent, and many others. So many, many people in our world need to experience God’s love through the actions of God’s people.

This week let’s pray that through our loving kindness and openness to help those among us who are most in need of a hand, they will experience the presence and love of God too. And as we meet those whose paths cross our own, may we see God’s presence as well.

And while we’re at it, let’s remember to pray for peace and justice in war-torn areas of our world.

Readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Sep 3, 2023

You Duped Me, O Lord

You Duped Me, O Lord

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped!” With these words, the prophet Jeremiah expresses a feeling and frustration felt by many at some point in their journey of faith. The word we translate as duped also conveys a sense of seduction, of being betrayed by the one who has coaxed us to love him. A call has been heard. A fire lit within the heart. Words spoken foretelling danger or destruction. And rejection by those who refuse to hear or believe the truth of the call and the warning that burst forth.

In the long-ago times when I was a high school student, there was a war going on in Vietnam. It was one of those proxy wars that pitted great powers against each other, but on the surface had nothing to do with their rivalry and was carried out in a small country far from both. Our country was divided between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. The flag and the Pledge of Allegiance had taken on a meaning far beyond that of commitment to the ideals of freedom and democracy. They had come to symbolize for many a complete acceptance of and commitment to the battle against Communism, regardless of the reasons a conflict had originally begun.

In the midst of this discord, my senior class was preparing for graduation. We were taking our last classes, preparing for further education, or for getting a job, or getting married, or for military service. The young men who were not going on to college were quite likely to find themselves drafted into the army and sent to the war. Those who refused to enter the military might find their options limited to leaving the country or going to jail if they couldn’t claim conscientious objector status or arrange alternative service options. It was not an easy, carefree time.

One of my homeroom classmates took a stand against the war. He refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag at the beginning of a Student Council meeting. This might not have been a big deal, except he was our representative to the Student Council. Our homeroom teacher explained to all of us what had happened. Our classmate was given a chance to explain why he had refused. Then we were to decide whether to keep him as our representative.

The vote was taken with heads down on the desk, so no one would know who had voted for him to remain and who had voted against him. Only the teacher and the classroom president, yours truly, were to see and count the votes. I don’t remember whether anyone actually voted against his remaining as our representative. I don’t think so. I just remember how proud I was of our class as we voted to support his right to express his beliefs. Not all agreed with him, but we were not willing to deny him that right.

I don’t know what ever happened to him after graduation. I know that the day we graduated, up on the stage, in front of the entire school community, including parents, grandparents, families, and friends, he did not stand up to pledge allegiance to the flag. He was a person of great integrity and I was proud to be his classmate.

The journey of faith is filled with surprise moments. When we first experience the unbounded love of our Father, we swim in the sea of love that envelopes and enfolds us. A love which we breathe in and out as freely as we breathe the air around us. We may notice that some people look askance at us as we speak of God’s love and the wonder of it. But that doesn’t deter us, at least not at first. It’s all so new and amazing and fantastically wonderful.

When the time comes that we find we must make choices that are not popular, we begin to experience the cost of faithfulness to the one who has claimed us and invited us to be his own. Sometimes we can’t have things both ways. We have to make a choice.

Jeremiah had to speak the words of warning to the leaders of his nation and his faith. They were angry with him and repeatedly threatened and punished him. Yet, in his own words, “it becomes like a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” And then he speaks the word of the Lord again. (Jer 20:7-9)

St. Paul advised the Christians of Rome to consider themselves to be “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” (Rom 12:1-2) They were not to change themselves to match what was popular in the city at the time. They were to be focused on God’s will and seek to find “what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Life is never perfect. Growth in faith takes place over time.  The life of a Christian is to be one of patient, persistent seeking of the good and the will of God.

Jesus also recognized that teaching about God’s mercy and love for all, along with the coming of the kingdom, would not always be accepted or welcomed by the authorities. He explained to his disciples that he needed to go to Jerusalem, not stay out in the countryside preaching and healing folks there. He also warned them that in Jerusalem he would suffer, die, and be raised “on the third day.”

Peter, who just a bit earlier had proclaimed his belief that Jesus was the Christ, took Jesus aside to urge him not to go, not to let such a terrible fate befall him. But Jesus strongly rejected Peter’s advice. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Jesus went on to explain that those who follow the way he would lead must not think first of their own safety. The most important thing is to accept suffering (the cross) and follow faithfully. “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” The life in question here is not physical life. It is the deeper life that continues, the life that matters when the Son of Man comes “with his angels in his Father’s glory” to repay all according to the way they lived. (Mt 16:21-17)

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped!”

My friend stood up for his beliefs by remaining seated and risked losing his leadership position and the respect of his classmates. Other brave people have taken unpopular stands and paid a high price for it. Paul was beheaded. Peter was crucified. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Dorothy Day went to jail. Archbishop Romero was shot as he celebrated Eucharist.

Most of us will never be asked to pay such a price for faithfulness to the Gospel. But each of us will experience times when it’s not comfortable to witness to the truth that we have experienced: the love and mercy of God for all and at all times. We pray that in those moments, we too will speak the word we hear burning in our hearts, boldly and with a courage that admits our fear but speaks and acts in faith.

May we always have the courage to let ourselves be duped and seduced by the love of our God.

Readings for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

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Posted by on Jul 2, 2023

What Goes Around Comes Around?

What Goes Around Comes Around?

A very human urge is to try to understand why something happens. If that something was something negative, we want even more to know why and then we ask what the consequences of that something might be. Think of children in the school yard. Some are very good at sports. Others are not. If those who are good at sports begin to pick on those who are not, there is every expectation that the teachers or other adults in charge will step in and stop the bullying. There is an expectation, or at the very least, a hope, that justice will prevail. In the eyes of those on the receiving end of the bullying, the hope may well be that the guilty ones will be punished. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, the guilty ones overstep and pick on someone who is stronger. In such instances, the originally bullied ones may take glee in the notion that “what goes around comes around” and the former bullies have gotten their comeuppance!

Now this is not necessarily the way we want to approach the world. If we all keep cheering for bad things to happen to the “bad guys,” things aren’t going to get a lot better. In fact, they will just keep getting worse. We might even discover to our dismay that we are starting to be seen as “bad guys.”

So, what to do?

The Scriptures point to another option. What if we assume that love is a stream of energy that flows continuously through all of creation and through each of us? That love doesn’t try to get even with those who behave badly and hurt others. Instead, that love aims to bring out the best in all it touches.

Elisha experienced that gift of love through the generous hospitality of a woman in Shunem who first invited him to dinner one day. As time went on, she and her husband hosted him often. Eventually, she arranged for a room to be prepared for him to use whenever he was in the area. Elisha was grateful for her hospitality and asked what gift might be given her in thanksgiving. His servant suggested that a son would be the best gift for her, because she had never had a son and so the gift was promised. The story continues beyond the short bit in today’s reading to tell of the birth of a son to her. It’s worth reading, especially remembering that women typically had no say in such matters as to who would be invited to dinner or to stay in a family home. Men made all such decisions. But this woman’s generosity was rewarded abundantly. The gift of loving welcome and hospitality was returned and amplified with the gift of a son. (2 Kings 4:8-11, 14 – 16a)

St. Paul speaks of baptism as an entry into the death and resurrection of Jesus. In entering into the water, a person enters into death. Upon rising out of the water, new life springs forth. The love of God flows like a stream of life, deeper than our physical world would lead us to imagine. With Jesus’ death, the power of sin was broken and the cycle of tit-for-tat was broken. Followers of Jesus live for God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:3-4, 8-11)

Jesus spoke strongly about what living in accordance with his teaching would require. The words are as jarring today as they were when he first uttered them. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” Aren’t we supposed to love our families? Yes, but there’s more to what Jesus said than just the literal meaning of the sentence.

Jesus lived in a culture very different from our Western industrial culture of nuclear families with the expectation each will make their own way in life. In Jesus’ culture, the extended, corporate family was the basic unit of society. One was known in terms of the larger family. The head of the family was the oldest man, from whom the rest were descended. Women left their own family upon marriage and became part of their husband’s family. If they did not produce male heirs, they were considered worthless and might even be returned to their original extended family.

In this type of culture, the honor of the family is everything. One’s responsibility is to behave in a way that will not embarrass or otherwise harm the reputation of the family. If one’s family has a dispute with another family, there is no expectation that individuals will step outside their own family and do anything good for a person of the other family. Think of family feuds like that of the Hatfields and McCoys. Or the families of Romeo and Juliet, for that matter. When Jesus speaks of loving father or mother more than loving him, this is what he means. Loyalty to one’s family over loyalty to Jesus and the way he taught is not acceptable for his followers.

Do families take that kind of independent thinking and acting happily? Not usually. Even in our own nuclear families, it’s hard to take a stand that is contrary to the beliefs of parents or even siblings. Yet this is what Jesus expects of his followers – a willingness to take the risk of being misunderstood and even condemned for the refusal to conform to the expectations or the decisions of family or social group. This is taking up the cross, accepting the disapproval, the scolding, the mocking, even the rejection by those one has held dear, rather than conform to expectations that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

So what is expected of Jesus’ followers? What will come to them along the way? How will the stream of love show up? “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” The rewards for passing love along will correspond to those received by others. If one is receiving a righteous person because that person is righteous, then the reward will be the same as the one received by the righteous person. (Mt 10:37-42)

The actions that flow along in this stream of love may be grand and noteworthy. They may also be small and commonplace. A cup of cold water given to one of God’s little ones will be rewarded abundantly.

We are called to be channels of love and peace in our world. What goes around in a channel of peace may also come around, but it comes around in an ongoing, ever-increasing stream of loving action that will remake our world in God’s image. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves. We just need to be open and generous in sharing the gift of love we have received. As we share in love, both the love and the basic requirements of life, we are carried along in the stream ourselves.

May we notice this week the times and ways in which the stream of divine love touches us. May we then open our hearts and hands to let it pour forward to others as well.

Readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

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Posted by on Jun 25, 2023

We are Never Forgotten

We are Never Forgotten

Isolation is one of the most damaging factors that impacts our mental and physical health and well-being. It doesn’t need to be as extreme as solitary confinement in a prison or torture center. Isolation socially creates lasting scars. A child who is rejected and teased by peers grows up feeling unworthy of love and respect. An adult whose ideas are regularly mocked begins to think they are just foolish whims, not accurate perceptions of reality. An older person with no family or friends is more likely to die early than one surrounded by both. A people whose customs are different from those of the other people among whom they live can easily become hesitant to continue those customary activities. This is especially true for younger members of the community. Isolation sets in and fears of being forgotten.

As humans, we are social beings. We share this quality with other primates and many, many other types of creatures. We need each other for support, for development of necessary skills, for the basics of survival, and for physical and mental health. Those who are isolated do not survive as long.

In the recent past, we have all had a taste of isolation from family and friends when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our freedom to venture out without worry into the world outside our homes. The difficulties of being with the same people all the time or of being alone all the time was somewhat mitigated by our access to social media and the internet. Zoom parties, meetings, school classes, and even wedding receptions filled some of the holes in our social lives. Our parish stepped up with Zoom gatherings in which we played actively as household teams in trivia contests and scavenger hunts. We’re still laughing here about the time my daughter-in-law grabbed me and put me in front of the camera as “something in the house older than you are!”  We won that point!

Prophets often find themselves in situations of isolation. Speaking truth to power does not typically go over well. Jeremiah, for example, didn’t want to be a prophet. He often complained to God about what a raw deal he had gotten in being called to prophesy. He tried hard not to speak, but the words burned within him until he simply had no choice but to let them out. And then, “I hear whisperings of many … all those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine.” (Jer 20:10-13) He was nearly killed for his telling of the truth he heard from the Lord about the coming conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Yet he remained faithful. “The Lord is with me, like a mighty champion.” He trusted that he was not forgotten and that he would experience vindication. The Lord “has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!” The Lord is to be praised for supporting those who depend only on him. They will not be on their own to get by. They are not forgotten.

St. Paul reminded the people of Rome that human imperfection (aka sin) has been part of our experience from the very beginning. The story of the sin of Adam is a way of explaining both this imperfection and the death in all its forms that accompanies imperfection. Paul spoke as a teacher of the Law, from within the Jewish tradition, as he proclaimed the wonder of “the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ” whose willingness to die rather than deny the truth overcame death for all. When one human being chose not to obey God’s command, all who followed were also separated from God. But when one human being chose to obey and give himself for the truth, all who followed were freed of that separation from God, that death. It was the grace of God, given as a gift from Jesus, that overflows to all. (Rom 5:12-15) No one is forgotten or excluded. No isolation anymore!

Does this mean no one will be in danger anymore? Or that no one will feel alone? Or that everyone will welcome the prophet who comes speaking truth to power? Unfortunately, the answer must be “No.” However, when Jesus was sending out his disciples to witness to what they had seen in their time with him, he reassured them. “Fear no one.” Speak boldly of what you have heard whispered or in the dark. All is to be proclaimed to the world now. It may not be well-received, but don’t worry. Those who can kill the body can’t kill the soul. (Mt 10:26-33)

Jesus used a beautiful image to express the loving care of the Father. “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin! Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.” For the poor, a sacrifice of small birds rather than of a larger animal allowed for compliance with the requirement to offer sacrifice at such times as the birth of a first son. The sparrows are of little monetary value, but even they are treasured by the Father.

In another homely image, Jesus reminded his hearers that the Father even knows how many hairs are on each person’s head. I’ll guess that most of us have no idea how many that might be, even as our hair gets sparser with age.

“So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows,” he says. Speak the truth you hear from me. Admit that you are my friend and follower of my teachings. I will support you and acknowledge you when you meet my Father.

Jesus ends these instructions with a rather disturbing image. “Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” That would be pretty awful. However, it might be seen as a reminder that we all have a choice to be in union with God and others or to turn away. The Father never forces anyone to come for a hug of divine love. Neither does Jesus. It is always our choice to join with him or remain in isolation. When and if we turn back and acknowledge the Lord’s love, we will be welcomed. We won’t have been forgotten!

Today and this week, let’s pray that we will be open to see the Lord’s presence in our daily lives – through those we meet and the activities in which we are engaged. We are not alone. Even when we are by ourselves, the Lord is with us. May we always know the love of our family and friends. And may those who have been hurt or abused or otherwise traumatized and those who are suffering isolation and abuse right now, find a bit of healing and relief each day through the love and care of their friends.

Peace be with you. You are never alone or forgotten.

Readings for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

 

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Posted by on Jun 18, 2023

Without Cost You Have Received

Without Cost You Have Received

“Money can’t buy love.” God’s interaction with humanity might be summed up in this simple phrase.  It seems self-evident and we assume our interactions with family, friends, and strangers will start with this premise. However, all too often we forget. We start worrying if the person we are will be attractive enough, if the clothes we wear are of the “right” style, if the things we like to do are “cool” enough, if our economic or social situation will work against us. So many things to burden our hearts and minds.

For better or for worse, God doesn’t work that way. God met Moses on the mountain and reminded him of the way He had treated the Egyptians when He led the Israelites out of slavery. The Lord promises to love and care for this specific people above all others. In return, the Lord asks only that they live in covenant with Him. (Ex 19:2-6a)

Jesus too, in looking around at the people among whom he was living, teaching, and ministering, took pity on them because “they were troubled and abandoned,” like sheep without a shepherd. He envisioned an abundant harvest of hearts waiting for love, but not enough people willing to reach out and work in the harvest. He sent his followers to proclaim the coming of the kingdom by healing the sick, driving out demons, raising the dead. All this was and is to be done without charge, because all has been freely given to them. (Mt 9:36-10:8)

Jesus himself gave everything, including his life, as a free gift of reconciliation between humanity and the Father. The shepherd laid down his life for the sheep. It cost the sheep nothing. (Rom 5:6-11)

Today we too are called to love freely and share love with all we meet. We don’t typically cure illnesses or raise the dead to life again literally. However, a smile, a kind word, a patient willingness to wait our turn in line even when someone else is moving slowly ahead of us, all are gifts of healing we can bring.

The other day, an older man at the grocery store was trying to complete a purchase. At first, he couldn’t find his wallet, so he walked away from the checkout stand. The checker knew him and simply put the goods aside, ready to start on my purchases. Then the man called out the checker’s name and returned in great joy. He had found the wallet, in a different pocket than where he usually kept it. I told the checker I would wait for the man to complete his purchase. It should have been very simple, but it wasn’t. When the final total was reached, the man tried to use his debit card to make the payment. He tried two different PINs, neither of which worked. He didn’t want to try too many times and lock the card, but decided to try one more time. Very carefully, he entered the number, and it worked! He was amazed and delighted. I smiled at him and said simply. “See, third time was a charm,” echoing what he had said just before trying the third PIN. He had been feeling upset and ashamed that it had taken so long to do a simple task, but now his spirits were lifted and his embarrassment ended. As he picked up his purchase to leave, he tipped his hat and bowed to me, with a happy smile. I responded in kind and he went on his way, with a spring in his step. For a short while anyway, something within him was healed.

We are all called to serve our world, our sisters and brothers, in simple, everyday, ordinary ways. When we do, the Kingdom of God is here. We have received without cost. Now we give freely of what we have received.

Readings for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

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Posted by on Apr 30, 2023

The Good Shepherd – Here and Now

The Good Shepherd – Here and Now

Shepherd with dog and sheep

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with sheep or the role of shepherds when I was growing up. We lived in town and more cattle were raised in our area than sheep. Farmers in the area surrounding us raised wheat and other grains. Some raised grass for seed. There were orchards too. When I was in high school, some folks began planting grape vines as well, realizing that the climate was much like that in areas of Germany famous for fine wines. But we didn’t see a lot of sheep.

My first real introduction to the realities of raising sheep came on a trip to southern Idaho to visit friends there. We drove through a great treeless area with high mountains that looked somewhat like piles of sand that God might have stacked up in a sandbox while playing during the time of creation. As we came down from the pass into the valley, there was a large flock of sheep grazing in the scrub lands there. The shepherd had his wagon and lived in it as he traveled with the sheep and protected them. His dogs were busy monitoring the movements of the flock, so none of the sheep wandered off and all were safe from predators. It was a very solitary life and he seemed very happy in his work.

More recently, a couple members of my family have raised sheep and other ruminants. It takes a lot of time and care to keep them healthy and to harvest and process the wool. It’s fun to visit and feed them, but I’m not planning to get any myself!

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd knows the sheep and is recognized by his or her sheep. Though they don’t realize it, they depend on the shepherd for protection and for knowing where they should go and when. They travel together as a group. The sheep don’t always go in the same direction at the same time. Sometimes they try to wander away, to taste the grass just over there… The shepherd brings them back to the group, so they aren’t lost (or eaten by somebody else).

We are much like the sheep. We don’t always know what we should do or where we should go. We don’t always go in the same direction as the rest of our community, our flock. But we are stronger when we work together and help each other. Our Good Shepherd is there to guide us along the way, with a nudge here and an opportunity there. People come into our lives whom we might never have expected to meet and we learn from their journey through life as we share a time together.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, we traditionally pray for vocations. That used to mean vocations to priesthood or religious life. Today the concept has broadened. Deacons serve our community once again, as they did in the early church. Lay men and women fill various roles within the community. Beyond the bounds of our religious communities, we also recognize that each person has a calling in life. Some will be parents. Some will not. Some will be teachers, healers, students, explorers, engineers, scientists, anthropologists, software developers, and so forth. Each role we are called to live out in our lives is our individual vocation. All are called to serve. And so we pray not only for vocations to service in clerical and religious life, but also for vocations to the many roles we all play in our families and communities. In all of these, we follow our Lord, the Good Shepherd who knows and calls us each by name.

As we move through this week, let’s keep our eyes open to see our shepherd in the day-to-day events of our lives. He’s not always very obviously marching in front of the group of us, but we can be sure he’s there among us, keeping an eye out for danger and guiding us into good pastures with plenty to nourish us.

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday

 

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Posted by on Feb 5, 2023

Light and Salt – Justice for the Poor

Light and Salt – Justice for the Poor

Salt of the earth, light for the world – the essential calling of the disciple is to live a life that shines with the goodness of the Lord, a light that shines in the darkness, so those who see it understand the glory of the Father in heaven. (Mt 5:13-16) Jesus is very clear on this point. It’s useless to live in a way that hides the light of love from others or that does not season interactions with love and care for others, because then God’s glory can’t shine forth into the world of human social life.

This insight of Jesus was not unique to him. We often think that Jesus thought up most of what he taught, but actually, there is a long tradition in Judeo-Christian thinking that focuses on the interaction between those who have the necessities of life and the power that goes with it and those who do not.

The prophet Isaiah spoke very clearly of this (58:7-10), in words that many of us first heard spoken by Jesus about the final judgement in which the “sheep” would be separated from the “goats.” “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked when you see them…” These words of Isaiah were spoken to a people returning from exile in Babylon. To the extent that they created a new society in which justice and care for the poor and oppressed were foundational, the light of that society and its people would break forth like the dawn into the world. The Lord would be present among them and be a source of protection and healing for them. “Light shall rise for you in the darkness…”

This kind of life is not to be a source of pride for Jesus’ followers. It’s certainly not a message that is easily accepted in a world in which those with power don’t easily share resources with those who have nothing to give them in return. But as St. Paul points out (1 Cor 2L1-5), the persuasiveness of the message of the Gospel is the result of the demonstration of Spirit and power that flow from the positive change that the foolishness of the message and lifestyle produces. Doing hurtful things leads to anger and revenge – an intensification of the evil that provokes them. Doing good things for others leads to more goodness being shared.

How does this play out for us today? We have a lot of social safety nets that are intended to help protect and support those who for one reason or another are unable to earn the money needed for food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and education for themselves and their families. These programs provide essential support to a lot of people that we might not ordinarily realize are struggling.

As an insurance professional specializing in health insurance, I hear a lot of stories from people struggling to keep food on the table and a roof overhead for themselves and their children. I often work with middle-class people who suddenly find their income crashing and discover that what they always took for granted is not guaranteed for all in this country. I explain how the social safety net works, based on my own experience with it, and encourage them that it’s not the end of the world if they need to move to Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California) for a period of time. I encourage them to look at the supplemental nutrition programs for their families (aka, food stamps) and to take advantage of the help, so that they have a chance of getting back on their feet. Sometimes I work with people who will never be able to support themselves, due to illness or injury, including mental illness or addiction. It is a great joy to me to be able to offer help to those who are despairing of ever living a “normal life” again. On more than one occasion, I have had people react with tears of joy to know that their prayers have been answered and help is available. Not a common experience in the insurance field.

And yet, there are still folks who have even less and don’t qualify for this governmental help. We think of refugees and asylum seekers in this category. It’s not easy for them to get along and figure out how the very different legal and socio-economic systems here work. Lots of people are involved in helping and offering a welcoming hand to these new arrivals.

Once they have been here for a while, there are still obstacles. I worked with a young person the other day who is a DACA recipient. They can’t get a policy through the Affordable Care Act marketplace because we as a nation have not yet come to terms with the fact that these young people are ours just as surely as if they had been born here. We have raised them and educated them and shared our dreams, visions, and expectations with them. They have jobs and businesses and are giving back to the country which raised them. And yet some of us still want to throw them out because their parents brought them here so they could be safe from the violence or oppression in their native communities. Fortunately, my young client was able to afford insurance outside of the subsidized plans. Not all are so fortunate.

How do we react to the discrepancies in income and opportunity in our country. Do we work to make sure the hungry have enough healthful food to live a decent life? Do we complain that a homeless person has been given a cell phone so they can get medical care and other essential services? Have you tried to find a pay-phone in a telephone booth lately? Without a cell phone, it’s next to impossible to access basic services if one does not have a home.

As you may have guessed by now, these are questions and issues about which I am rather passionate! I see too many folks on a daily basis who are struggling and I know the great blessing that having folks who are willing to share their bread with the hungry, to clothe the naked, and find homes for the homeless can be.

If you ever wonder about the wisdom of the Gospels and of efforts to help those who struggle, I encourage you to volunteer with others from your Church community or other social service programs. Get to know some of the folks who serve and some who are served. There’s a tremendous richness in the encounter and a deep, deep faith among those who have nothing but faith to hold onto.

“Light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday,” says Isaiah. “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father,” says Jesus.

Here we go on the journey together.

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A

Sunday Mass at Resurrection Catholic Community, Aptos, CA

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Posted by on Dec 30, 2022

Family In Its Many Facets

Family In Its Many Facets

Families come in many shapes and sizes. It’s something of a cliché to say that, but it’s true. We are each part of a family. Some are born into the family in which they grow up. Others are chosen and adopted into a family. Some are sheltered and loved by a family into which they were not originally born. But families are an essential part of the healthy development of any human being.

And about that many shapes and sizes part – there’s a lot of variation there too.

In some cultures, only one’s father’s side of the family are considered to be relatives. In others, it’s mother’s side. In a few (our own included), both sides of the family are relatives.

Then there are the “fictive kin” – the folks with whom relationships are established by choice of adults in the life of a child, or later by the individuals themselves. Godparents are fictive kin, for example, considered to be sharers in the responsibility of raising the child.

There are folks to whom we give kinship titles simply because they are older adults in our community or the network of friends of our relatives. We had several older women whom we called Grandma when I was growing up. One was the mother of an uncle by marriage. Another was the mother of friends who generously shared her love with us too. In some cultures, adult men and women are addressed as Uncle or Aunt.

And then there are the families that grow together in close friendship through many years spent together. We shared our lives with another family as children. Our parents became very close friends over the years. We traveled to see each other often and spent Thanksgiving together nearly every year. (The roads were too dangerous for regular travel again until February or March after that weekend.) When they moved to our community, we shared meals and time together at least a couple of times a week. We are still fond of each other and enjoy our time together.

These thoughts come to mind as we celebrate the Holy Family. Jesus was born into a family. When Joseph accepted Mary as his wife, he became the legal and social father of Jesus. How the conception of Jesus occurred didn’t matter. Joseph became Jesus’ father, responsible for loving him, teaching him, raising him to be a good man. Joseph did a fantastic job of being a father, just as Mary did a marvelous job of being a mother.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were not an isolated family. They lived, loved, and grew together within a community of other people in their village. This foundation prepared Jesus to go out when the time came and share the news that each of us is loved as a child by the Creator of all. We are so loved that we are to call that creator Dad/Daddy/Papa/Father. The term he used is Abba and is used by children to this day to speak to their fathers.

On this Feast of the Holy Family, let us rejoice in the gift of family and pray that in our lives we too will grow in wisdom, age, and grace through our days spent in ordinary activities and the special times that we share. May we each become part of a Holy Family too, dancing our way into eternity.

Readings for the Feast of the Holy Family

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Posted by on Nov 6, 2022

Playing the Long-Game on God’s Team

Playing the Long-Game on God’s Team

Several things have been on my mind this week. We have just celebrated All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls. The weather is changing. In the Northern Hemisphere we are settling into our school and colder weather routines. It’s getting darker. We’re beginning to get rain on the Central Coast of California. Other areas are seeing snow already.

While much of the hemisphere settles in for a long winter sleep of the vegetation, here the grass is sprouting after a long, dry summer and early fall. By Christmas, all will be green and beautiful. Wildflowers will be in bloom and it will feel to someone from farther north to be spring already. I must admit, it took me a while to get used to this.

But despite the appearance of spring outside, it is dark earlier and colder. Rain gear is needed and with the humidity, warm coats are a must.

We play the long-game in our lives in the natural world. Nothing happens overnight. Things just begin, grow, and reach their term over an extended period. Sometimes what develops is objectively good. Sometimes not so much.

On the grand stage of international relations and the history of peoples, the long-game of God becomes even more important. We are all called to play our part in it.

In the second century before Jesus was born, Greek warriors, led by Alexander the Great, conquered much of the known world. Palestine was one of the conquered lands. The Greeks were not a people who encouraged the peoples of conquered lands to continue their own religious beliefs and traditions. Conquered people were expected to worship the Greek gods instead of their own. This applied to the people of Israel as well. Some of the Jewish leaders encouraged the people to go along with their new rulers. But not all agreed to that and resistance arose, led initially by Mattathias, son of John, and later by his own son, Judas Maccabeus. It was a time of great turmoil and struggle. Eventually, the Greeks were conquered by the Romans, who allowed Jews to worship as they pleased, as long as they did not contest Roman rule. But that’s a story for another time.

As we near the end of our liturgical year, we listen to the witness of a group of Jewish martyrs during the years of Greek rule of their land. Their story is told in the second book of Maccabees. (2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14) Seven brothers and their mother had been ordered to eat pork, in direct opposition to Jewish law. All refused. One by one, they were tortured and killed, with their mother being the last to die. Each brother got a turn to speak and each testified of his willingness to die rather than to break God’s law. They spoke of their trust in “the King of the world (who) will raise us up to live again forever.” The Sunday reading only includes the stories of the first, third, and fourth brother, but the story of all is found in the complete text.

The brothers and their mother recognized their place in God’s long-game. They knew that whatever happened to them, God was still in charge and would not abandon them. They might not/would not survive this time of witness/martyrdom, but God would raise them back to life – a life that would not end.

St. Paul recognized by the last months and years of his life that the return of the Lord was going to be part of God’s long-game too. Originally, Christians thought and taught that Jesus would return during their lifetimes. The end of the world was coming soon. But as time went on, it became clear that it was going to take longer.

Paul writes to the people of Thessalonica (2 Thess 2:16-3:5) to encourage them to keep up their hopes and good work, encouraged by the grace and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. He asks God to bless them and strengthen them to live in faith through good deeds and words. They are to carry on Christ’s work in their families and communities. He also asks them to pray for him, for protection from those who have lost faith or never believed. Finally, he prays that the Lord will continue to guard them and guide them in their lives of faith, helping them to carry on their lives of faith with the strength of Christ.

Jesus too speaks today of the reality of life after death. (Lk 20:27-38) A group of students of the Law, the Sadducees, did not believe in life after death. The concept was one that had developed slowly in Jewish thinking and was not accepted by all. Trying to trap Jesus into falling into either the camp that believed or the camp that didn’t, and thereby enter into the religious politics of the day on one side or the other, they presented a case study.

A man was married, but his wife had no children before he died. According to the Law, the man’s brother was to marry his brother’s widow. (It was allowed to have more than one wife at that time.) He too died without her bearing a son. The son would have been considered the child and heir of the first brother. This continued through a total of seven sons and marriages. The woman never had a child. Eventually, all had died. They asked Jesus, “Now at the resurrection, whose wife will that woman be?”

Jesus answered, but from a totally different perspective than consideration of inheritance of family position or heritage. Those who die no longer are bound by traditions such as marriage. They are free like angels. They are children of God and cannot die again.

Jesus knows that God’s approach is to act over time, touching the hearts and minds of people, so that gradually humans come to live as members of the Kingdom of Heaven in their daily lives. It’s a long-game strategy, but it is consistent with the reality that God created us to be free to make up our own minds about what to do and how to act. God doesn’t force anyone to act justly or lovingly. No one is forced to forgive or to accept suffering or criticism rather than act evilly or curse the opponent. Each person must decide personally how to react in good and hard times.

It’s a bit like the struggle sometimes waged in households over what kind of language is acceptable for children and adults to use. If everyone is using foul language at school or at work, is it OK to use it oneself? What alternatives are there? How can one be part of the group and not behave exactly like everyone else? Does it really make any difference in the long run?

Pope Francis, speaking to the Catholic community of Bahrain recently, encouraged them and all of us to do what is good “even when evil is done to us.” He continued, “There will be cases of friction, moments of tension, conflicts and opposing viewpoints, but those who follow the Prince of Peace must always strive for peace. And peace cannot be restored if a harsh word is answered with an even harsher one. No, we need to ‘disarm,’ to shatter the chains of evil, to break the spiral of violence, and to put an end to resentment, complaints, and self-pity.”

This is long-game language and strategy. We are all called to play the long-game on God’s team.

I pray that you and I will have the courage and strength to make decisions that lead to reconciliation and peace in our families, our communities, and our world in the days and weeks to come. We are going into the holidays soon. A new year will begin for our Church community in just a couple of weeks. 2023 will be upon us before we know it. Now is the time to commit ourselves to the long-game of God’s kingdom, to build a world of peace, forgiveness, and mutual care and support.

Go team!

Readings for the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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Posted by on Oct 16, 2022

For the Glory of God, or the Good of my Soul

For the Glory of God, or the Good of my Soul

God answers all prayers:
Sometimes He says Yes,
Sometimes He says No,
And sometimes He says …
You’ve got to be kidding!

These words graced a placard in my mother’s kitchen for many years.  I’ve always liked it, though it arrived in the kitchen long after I had grown up, so was by no means a constant presence during my childhood and adolescence.

We hear often that we are to pray in good times and in bad. We are to ask God confidently for what we need. We are to believe with mustard-seed hope and move mountains through our faith.

Many examples of prayer and faith are before us in Scripture. One memorable case occurred not too long after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and begun their travels through the Arabian Peninsula. (Ex 17:8-13) Amalek, king of one of the peoples living there, led his soldiers in battle against the Israelites. Moses sent a younger man, Joshua, to lead a group of men out to battle against the Amalekites. He himself went up to the top of the hill, taking the staff of God with him. This was the staff which had been used before the Exodus to show God’s might to Pharaoh and convince him to let the people leave Egypt. It was the staff used to part the Red Sea as well. It was a sign of the presence of God with the people long before the tablets of the Law and the Ark of the Covenant came on the scene.

Moses took two men with him up to the hilltop, Aaron and Hur. He raised his hands in prayer to the Lord on behalf of the Israelite defenders. As long as his hands were raised in prayer, the Israelites were winning. When he tired and lowered his arms, the battle went against them.

As the hours dragged on, Moses got very tired and finally sat on a rock, with Aaron and Hur helping him hold up his arms in prayer. This made it possible for the physical manifestation of the prayer to continue. With this backing of faith and God’s help, Joshua and his men defeated Amalek and his people by sundown.

In this example of Moses in the desert, the physical action of raising hands in prayer is presented as essential to its efficacy. Does this mean that unless prayer is accompanied by physical action it will not work? Not at all. Prayer is any communication with God. It can be silent, still, and very personal. It can also be expressed physically and in groups through lifting up one’s hands, kneeling, dancing, singing, or other forms of movement.

Jesus was well aware that not all prayers are answered immediately or necessarily in the way the petitioner hopes or expects. Yet he encouraged his followers to continue praying and not give up or get tired of doing so. He told the story of a widow who had to deal with an unjust judge.  (Lk 18:1-8) Widows had no real social standing and no one to support or advocate for them. Women had to have a man to protect and speak for them. This woman had no one.

The judge to whom she appealed for help in a case was not interested in anything but his own benefit. He had no interest in helping the powerless widow. After all, it could put him at a disadvantage in dealing with the powerful adversary she was facing. This would not be the first time something like this had happened, nor would it be the last.

But Jesus put a new twist to the story. The woman did not give up. She kept going before the judge and demanding justice. Finally, the judge got tired of her constant demands and appearances before him. He gave her what she wanted.

Jesus noted that God is not like that unjust judge. God cares about people and will pay attention to those who seek help. God will answer their prayers.

Then Jesus wonders, will the Son of Man actually find faith on earth when he returns? Son of Man is a title referring to the Chosen One of God. He used it in reference to himself and wonders if there will still be people who are following his teaching and work for justice when he returns again. Will people like you and me still be filled with faith and trying to live as he taught?

St. Paul touches on the same theme in the letter he sent from prison to Timothy. (2 Tim 3:14-4:2) He reminds Timothy and all of us of the examples and stories of faith and prayer passed down to us through the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as through the teachings of the apostles. We turn to Scripture for understanding of God’s presence in our lives and world and what that means for each of us. We learn from the stories of our ancestors in faith so we are ready to carry on the good work begun by those who came before us. Their example also helps us to persist in our beliefs and behavior, so that the kingdom will continue to grow and spread in our world. The work does not/did not end with the death of the apostles or even of the rest of the first believers. It continued through centuries and millennia, reaching even to our times.

So how do we deal with the reality that it doesn’t always seem that God hears or answers our prayers? A child might say, “I asked God to help me on the test, but I still couldn’t remember the answer!” An adult might pray for a child to return to church again. A person might pray for a better job or for the healing of the illness of a loved one. Many prayers are not answered the way we who offer them are hoping and/or expecting.

Yet there are times when after a great disappointment, and the seeming refusal of God to answer a prayer, something much better happens – something that is totally unexpected.  A window opens when a door has slammed shut in our faces.

I go back to a key experience of my growing up years. We always attended a novena to St. Francis Xavier in March. My grandparents had shared this tradition with my parents when they were children and my own parents’ first date was to attend the Novena of Grace. Nearly every year we spent nine days celebrating the Novena. There were two prayers that were offered each day. The first is a prayer that includes mention (silently) of whatever the individual’s petition/request is. In the prayer, petitioners ask St. Francis to go to God and request a particular favor on their behalf. This is not a request for the saint to grant the request. It’s more like asking a big brother or sister to go talk to Mom or Dad on my behalf!

The prayer ends with a statement that I try to remember and encourage you to remember too. “But if what I ask is not for the glory of God, or the good of my soul, obtain for me what is most conducive for both.”

God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is “You’ve got to be kidding!” And to this I would add, sometimes it’s, “Try this instead, I think it will work out better for all.”

I think this is the mustard-seed faith we must have. We don’t always know what is best. God does. And even when we mess things up, God is still there, loving us and bringing something good to birth. And eventually, mountains move. We can count on it.

Readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

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Posted by on Sep 18, 2022

God’s Got Friends in Low Places

God’s Got Friends in Low Places

Country music has never been one of my go-to forms of entertainment. It’s not that I don’t like it. No, it can be quite entertaining. It’s just that there are a lot of other genres I find more enjoyable. I like to sing along and the sadness of so many of the country music stories just doesn’t often fit my mood.

So, it struck me as funny at the wedding reception of one of my children to hear the song, “Friends in Low Places,” by Garth Brooks. I’m not sure I had ever heard it before that day, but I really enjoyed dancing to it as I thought of some of my friends in low places – places where most of the guests at the wedding might never have had the chance to find friendships.

Two of these friends lived in the cemetery behind one of our local churches. It was a cemetery that had fallen out of use and was not being tended well. Graves dated back to the mid-1800s and the records of who all were buried there had been lost in a fire in the 1930s. John and Mary, not their real names, camped at the bottom of a small hill beside the cemetery. They took care of it.

Both were alcoholics. Both were chain smokers. I think John may have used other drugs as well. I don’t think Mary did, but she had/has a bipolar condition that doesn’t respond to medication. So, she self-medicates with alcohol and tobacco – not a totally socially acceptable way to handle life, especially for someone who really can’t work a steady job.

John had a family in another state, but he had long since left. His alcoholism and other problems got in the way of maintaining healthy family relationships. He died of a heart attack on the levee beside the river in his late 40s or early 50s. His father had died early of a heart attack too, I learned from Mary.

Where to bury his ashes became the big question. Mary was able to arrange for the parish priest to conduct a prayer service for him in the cemetery where they had been living. I was there with my young daughter. One of the men kindly shared his coat with her because she was cold. Their friends were surprised to learn that I was familiar with the Okanogan Valley in Washington, having grown up with close family friends there and having thinned apples at an orchard there one summer. They had worked in the same area as migrant workers, thinning and picking apples. There wasn’t a place to bury John, but at least we had a service for him and I made memorial cards to share with all.

A while later, it was arranged for John to have a burial spot on the edge of the cemetery, where he and Mary had lived for so long. I hope when the day comes to bury Mary, that she will receive a spot next to him. She still very much loves him.

One day, about a year after he died, Mary saw me as I walked across the cemetery after Mass. She has a very insistent manner of planting herself in front of the person to whom she wants to speak and there’s no doubt but what the conversation will occur! She had had a dream and it was worrying her. John had appeared in the dream. He was in a mobile home, on the bed, and was smiling at her. Was he OK? What did it mean? They had always dreamed of maybe one day having enough money to buy a mobile home and have a roof over their heads. Why this dream now?

I assured her that it was wonderful news. He had come in the dream to let her know that he is OK. He’s with God. He has a home now. I wish you could have seen the smile of joy dawning on Mary’s face. The one she loved is OK. He’s with God. God has friends in low places. At least one of them has a mobile home now!

Mary is still alive. I saw her again just this week. Her alcoholism has once again resulted in her having to leave the housing that had been arranged for her. She managed to remain sober for over 10 years, but the alcoholism and bipolar syndrome got the best of her again. She’s probably in her mid-60s now and plans to move to a larger city where she lived while she was in college. I don’t think it’s a wise idea. She has friends here who watch out for her and no one in the big city. But I can’t snap my fingers and make things right for her. She told me good night and settled in to sleep on the bench outside the church hall.

I have friends in low places too. Please keep her in your prayers.

The story of friends in low places and of John and Mary came to my mind as I read the selections from Amos, St. Paul, and St. Luke this week.

The prophet Amos warns those who complain about religious limitations on commerce and routinely cheat their clients, especially the poor. The Lord has noticed their actions their bragging about taking advantage of the poor. “Never will I forget a thing they have done!” (Amos 8:4-7)

In Psalm 113, we hear it said of the Lord: “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.” Like my friend John, the Lord gives them the mobile home they had always wished they could afford… “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”

St. Paul approaches the question of the Lord’s care for all from a different perspective. (1Tim 2:1-8) The Christian community is very small and has little influence on public policy or the rulers of the land. Paul calls on the community to pray for everyone, “for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” Paul is not hoping just for a lack of persecution of the Christians, he is speaking of the importance of quiet and tranquility in the lives of the entire community of people living in the area the leaders govern. The common good, with justice for all, is the responsibility of leaders. We are saved as we come to know the truth of God’s care and concern for all of us. Jesus, coming as mediator between God and us, is a prime example of one who has “friends in low places.” We must pray for our leaders and for each other – that we all work together for the common good, with tranquil lives for all as its fruit.

Jesus himself told a story that illustrates the point in a rather surprising way. (Lk 16:1-13) It seems there was a rich man who had a steward. The steward was a business manager, responsible for handling the man’s affairs. The steward had not done a good job of it. Things were a mess and the rich man was not happy. He called the steward to his office and demanded a report of all the accounts and their status. He told the steward that he intended to fire him. Now today, the steward would probably just have been fired on the spot and someone else would have to take on the job of sorting out the accounts. But the rich man gave the steward notice. A mercy towards the steward – one we may hope the Lord will extend to each of us too.

The steward, knowing that he was not going to be able to do manual labor and being too proud to become a beggar, had to figure out what he would do with his life from that point onwards. He was certainly not going to be getting a favorable letter of recommendation from his employer that would allow him to find another administrative job! There was no social safety net either!

He was a pragmatic man. So he found a solution. He called in the folks who owed his employer money. In each case, he arranged a credit for the debtor. For one person he cut the total owed in half. For another it was cut by 20%. He did this for all of the debtors. When the employer discovered what his steward had done, he was not angry. Instead, he praised the steward for having acted prudently. I suspect he might even have chuckled a bit when he received the report of what had happened, given his praise of the steward’s solution to his personal challenge. The steward now had friends who would help him in the transition time.

Jesus himself does not condemn the steward’s actions either. He tells those who are listening to learn from the example of the steward. Make friends for yourselves in your lives now. Jesus speaks of “dishonest wealth.” The word that is translated as dishonest wealth is one that refers to wealth or property in general. Jesus is telling us to be careful with the riches we have in our lives today, whatever their form. Be trustworthy with the gifts God has given you. These gifts you have today are very much less important than the great wealth of the kingdom of God and all the gifts of that eternal kingdom. Use them carefully. Share them generously. Treasure God’s “friends in low places” with whom you come into contact.

Remember these instructions from Jesus with me this week. In many ways, you and I are also God’s friends in low places sometimes. We walk together through our journey.

Friends together.

Find the readings for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C.

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