Sunday, October 12, 2014

First-World Problems: Twenty Eighth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 6:5–10a; Ps. 23:1–6; Phil. 4"12–14, 19–20; Matt. 22:1–14

            How many of you have heard of the term "first-world problem?" It's the kind of problem that people in many other cultures couldn't even dream of having: like having more of your favorite TV shows running simultaneously than you can record on TIVO, or being bored because your smart phone has a lousy signal and you can't post a picture of your dinner on Instagram. These are problems that are not really problems. They're really signs of our own sense of privilege: we have to live pretty luxurious lives to encounter these minor irritants.
            My number one first-world problem is my yard. I detest yard work. I don't think I realized just how much I hated it until we bought our current house, and I had to rehabilitate a lot that had been neglected for some time. So now I dutifully put in time on it every week just to keep up with the weeds and to put it into some semblance of order. I rarely find any satisfaction in it.
            But I have to own a yard to have the burden of yard work. I have to own a house to have a yard. I have to be employed to pay the mortgage. I have to possess skills to be employed. I have to possess talents to become skilled. And somewhere along the line, I had to depend on someone else to make it possible for me to learn and grow in a secure environment. I didn't give any of that to myself. Sure, I played my part, but so much of it was just given to me because of the cultural context into which I was born.
            I don't always appreciate that privilege, and I must confess that it stems from a lack of gratitude and humility. That doesn't mean that I habitually turn up my nose at the great gifts I am given, or that I don't thank people when they do kind things for me. I try my best to recognize when people treat me with kindness, but I often forget the obvious—that everything I have is a gift.
            I think that's the message from today's readings: everything is a gift. This theme runs through all of our readings and the Psalm today. God provides us with everything we need. We often have a hard time recognizing this, but it's true practically, theologically, and spiritually.
            In the first reading, Isaiah foresees a time when the people of Israel will once again receive the favor of the Lord. Remember that the Israelites were constantly lapsing into indulgence once the pressure from the surrounding enemy nations was gone. The Lord blessed them with peace and abundance, but instead of recognizing these gifts, they took them for granted and eventually, abused the gifts—turned up their nose at them. Remember in the desert when the tribes of Israel turned up their noses at the manna from Heaven? You'd think they'd have learned after they finally entered the promised land, after God gave them a good king in David, or after Solomon built the temple. None of these good things happened because Israel deserved them. Nonetheless, God made it so. They later lost those gifts and were exiled to Babylon, but Isaiah promises in this passage that God will restore everything when they turn back to him.
            The gospel presents an allegory of Israel's unfaithfulness in the parable of the wedding feast. The king throws a feast for his son, and all whom he invites, just like the People of Israel, turn their backs on him and find excuses not to attend. Their gratitude to their king, their protector, doesn't extend far enough to attend a party with him. So he invites everyone else: that means, all those people you wouldn't expect to find at a fancy shindig—the outcasts, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the Gentiles. No one deserves the king's invitation to the banquet, yet there it is. He invites everyone.
            But the message is twofold. God gives these gifts to us, but we can lose them. We can misuse and misappropriate them. We can abuse them until they are no longer of any worth. The people of Israel wanted to be like the pagan nations around them, so they turned their backs on God's gifts and adopted pagan ways. We sometimes act that way as well. We can show our ingratitude by acting without respect or reverence for everything God has done for us.
            At the wedding feast, one man attends without a wedding garment. Now how are we to understand this? Is the king truly so picky that he expects outcasts to show up in formal dinner wear? I don't think that's the point here. But there are expectations about how we should respond when we accept a gift or an honor. The man knew he was being invited to a wedding, and certainly he knew what would be expected at such an event. Yet he presented himself in an inappropriate manner. He took the invitation for granted.
            When we take our own gifts for granted, we forget their appropriate use. God has to remind us. Sometimes he does that by depriving us of those gifts or by allowing us to deprive ourselves of them. I remember back before I was ordained, and I had just completed my master's thesis and a graduate degree in theology. One of the first things I did was this: I went outside, and I cleared the weeds from the flower beds in front of our house. I actually had the time to spend on yard work without worrying about writing my thesis or taking a test. I detest yard work, but here I was joyfully weeding the yard. I was actually happy about it—excited even! I said to my wife, Gina, "I get to do yard work!"
            That time of intense focus and study had deprived me of the free time I needed to enjoy the gift of a home. In a way, I was able to see more clearly that this time-consuming chore was part of the gift to me. In the first reading, Isaiah says, "he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations." God will remove from us that which prevents us from seeing the abundance around us. St. Paul seemed to have grasped this as well, as he explains in Galatians, "In any circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need."
            He recognized that both having and needing are gifts of a different fashion. Now how can hunger be a gift? Well, hunger in its own right or in isolation is no gift, but hunger that is met with the charity of others is a gift—both to the one who receives and the one who gives. Paul was content with deprivation, but he truly appreciated his dependence on God and on others. His dependence was a gift to the Galatians because they could then act with mercy. His own spiritual abundance was a gift that he could share with others. It's a gift to have what we need, but it's also a gift to be in need and feel the joy of receiving. God lifted the veil from Paul's eyes so that he could see God's hand in all of it. It's all a gift.
            We must not lose sight of this truth. Everything is a gift to us. What we have, we were given, even if we don't always see that reality. But everything we possess is given to us in stewardship—to manage, not just to horde. We have to put these gifts to their proper use. So what do we do with those gifts? Are we using these gifts as God intended or simply as we please?
            Do we use our gifts of skill to glorify God or to glorify ourselves?
            Do we use the gift of our possessions to satisfy only our needs and wants or to help others satisfy theirs?
            Our Church has a doctrine called the universal destination of material goods. What does this mean? Well, it means that God gave us everything, and any possessions we have are His first. So they are meant to satisfy not just our needs but also the needs of others. If I have what my family needs and more, and my neighbor is starving, those goods I have in abundance by right should be shared with a neighbor who does not have enough. This is a challenging teaching for many of us, but it's because we live with a veiled understanding of our own self sufficiency. None of us gets where we are on our own, and everything we have comes to us through God's generosity.

            It's all a gift, and so we need to remember Our Father, the giver of all good gifts, and respond accordingly.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Prayer Request and Reflection on Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit

I should probably post these separately, but I'm not.

So there.

I've been struggling a bit since my father's pending death and in the aftermath. It's been a bit over three months now, and it's as if the gradual deflation of estate business finally allows me just to face matters. I started actually noticing about a month ago, but the last couple of weeks it has been more apparent. Anyway, my father is gone. We're sorting things out and sending bits and pieces of his belongings away, or keeping them when it matters. I have his USAF uniforms and his diplomas, and I'm not sure what I want to keep and what I want to donate. And what to do with those things that don't matter when we're gone.

Let that settle for a moment. My father's framed credentials. His class A uniform and hat (with its "farts and darts"). The multiple copies of the boy scout field handbook.

Essentially so much that mattered to him.

Anyway, this is the external struggle. The internal struggle is greater, and much of it is so submerged that I gather I will struggle with it for the rest of my life.

So, please pray for me. I am struggling with my father's death right now, even if I don't say much about it.

================================

I had an insight, probably wrong, about what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. If you recall, this is the one unpardonable sin referenced in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10).

Among Catholic scripture scholars, it is commonly accepted that this sin is of final unrepentance. All other sins can be forgiven but the sin of refusing to repent from ones sins. Now, this explanation is probably unsatisfying to most non-Catholics as it doesn't seem quite so clearly an offense against the Holy Spirit. So in what way could this claim be true?

I think it goes back to the identification of the Holy Spirit with the love between the Father and the Son. One of Augustine's analogies of the Holy Trinity describes the procession of the Holy Spirit as an act of will from the Father toward the Son (the first act being an act if intellect that images the Son). The act of will of Father toward Son is love, and it is reciprocated (which is why the Holy Spirit in Catholic theology proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father through the Son, both formulation being acceptable, but of course, inadequate to explain the reality).

So the Holy Spirit is identified with love. All three Persons possess love fully, but because of the character of the Holy Spirit's procession, the attribute of love is given to Him.

How, then, is unrepentance considered a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Here's a possible answer. Unrepentance springs from two different attitudes. The first is that of rejection: one doesn't want to be forgiven. This is out and out rejection of the love of God. I want what I want, and I care not a whit whether God approves. That attitude is rare, but real. It's the rejection of Lucifer: "Non serviam!" It is a rejection of God's love because of the obligations that love imposes.

The other attitude is one of final despair*—the attitude that God's love cannot possibly extend far enough to excuse someone like me who is so unworthy. So how can being in despair be blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Because it imposes limits on God's love. It says that His love goes no further than here. It offends both in that it imposes limits on God (rejecting God's infinite goodness), but it also indulges in the same pride that compels the first case to say, "I will not serve."

So both attitudes limit the love of the Holy Spirit: the first by rejecting it outright, and the second by limiting its magnitude.

I'm sure this explanation is insufficient, and I would welcome correctives. The thought just came to me the other days as I was listening to a preacher on Air 1.

*Now, I'm not speaking of the kind of despair that arises out of grief or mental illness but of habitual attitudes of despair. The former are transient and situational, while the latter are cultivated.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Exaltation of the Cross

Num. 21:4b-9; Phil. 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

This weekend, we celebrate the instrument of our redemption—the cross on which Christ gave up His life. This feast commemorates the recovery of the cross from the Persians, who had taken it as a trophy in the early 7th century. In our day and in our contemporary culture, the cross is considered something a bit weak and watery—an adornment for little old ladies or children—or even a symbol of fear and intolerance for people who can’t bear to be challenged or sullied by a post-Christian culture that no longer operates by Christian values. We live in an age of stunning historical blindness, where few people seem to remember what happened two years ago or 50 years ago, much less two thousand years ago.
Occasionally, though, you get the observant atheist or someone from another faith tradition like Buddhism who looks at the symbol of our faith and considers it scandalous. Appalling. Disgusting.
Why? Well, in one sense, the cross is scandalous, appalling, and disgusting. The cross is, to us, a sign of our redemption, but the cross was first and foremost an instrument of execution—one of the worst ways imaginable to die. To the non-Christian, what else could it be but appalling to celebrate the barbarity of the cross, of the instrument of torture that Ancient Rome used for the ultimate demonstration of its power and authority over those whom it ruled. To put this in perspective, think of someone wearing a hangman’s noose or a small electric chair as a pendant, and you’ll understand. To the outsider, the cross is barbaric. The cross represents pain, suffering, and a horrible death. It behooves us to remember this simple fact about the symbol of our redemption.
But that perspective only sees part of the picture. To the Christian, the cross is all of those things! But it is also a symbol of reconciliation, of healing, and salvation. Our scripture readings tell us a different story and one that actually precedes Western Civilization.
Our first reading comes from the earliest part of the Jewish scripture—the Torah—which recounts the time from creation until the death of Moses. God chose a tiny tribe of people—Aramean nomads who had been enslaved by the Egyptians—to set an example of His love for us. He used Moses to guide them out of bondage, across the waters of the Red Sea, to freedom and to a land He promised would be flowing with milk and honey. He promised to make them a great nation and to care for them. But at every turn, they kvetched and grumbled that they had been led out to die of hunger and thirst. They had been given manna—this miraculous bread from heaven—yet they turned up their noses at it and considered it “wretched food.”
Imagine that: being given bread from heaven and turning up your nose at it.
Quite rightly, God is offended and sends seraphs among the people, who bite and poison them. When they realize their folly, they beg for God’s mercy, and God responds by having Moses mount a bronze serpent on a staff—the Nehushtan—and anyone who is bitten can look at the mounted serpent and be saved from the poison. That’s an odd way for God to deliver His mercy, but who are the Israelites to complain? They take what mercy He gives happily, yes? Maybe they don’t fully understand how their ingratitude is offensive, but they repent nonetheless. It would be better to repent out of love for God, but God takes what we offer.
What I find interesting is that the agent that God sends to the Israelites to punish for their sinful attitude is the same agent who caused the fall in Genesis: the serpent. I’m going to make a bit of hay with this fact in a minute, but for now, just hold onto that coincidence.
In our gospel reading, Jesus points back to the image from Numbers and compares Himself to the serpent on the staff. Just as Moses raised the serpent, the Son of Man would also be lifted up. The serpent is often depicted on a staff with a cross bar, essentially, a miniature cross. So in the gospel allusion, we see both the serpent and Jesus on the cross—the serpent as a sign of healing for the Israelites, and the crucified Son of Man as a sign of healing for all mankind.
But he unpacks the theology of his future action right here—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Moses raised up a bronze serpent—a human creation—so that God could work through it. But in Jesus, a Divine being is raised up. How much more, then, could the effect be? In Numbers, the Israelites are cured of poison. In Christ, we’re cured of death and sin!
But that sign was not easy for Jesus’ contemporaries to recognize. To them, the first scripture they would remember is from Deuteronomy—that anyone who hangs on a tree is under God’s curse. Jesus could have gone anyway He chose, but He allowed Himself to be made the most heinous of signs—a sign condemned by His own people—a cursed man hung on a tree. How do they get beyond this contradiction that Jesus poses to them: that He declares his own prefigurement in Numbers but that Deuteronomy says He will be cursed if He is raised up?
You see, He was as much of an enigma to his contemporaries as the cross is today. Christ said He would be a sign of contradiction, and I can’t think of any more contradictory approach to saving a people than to allow oneself to be executed by them. And yet, that’s just what He did. He took a hideous torture device and turned it in to the sweetest bridge from this broken world to a kingdom in which we dwell in God’s presence. “Dying, He destroyed our death. Rising, He restored our life.” That language comes right out of our Eucharistic liturgy.
That death there is linked to our offering here, and through them our distance—that gap between our unworthiness and God’s mercy—are bridged. We look at the Son of Man lifted up on the cross; we recognize our own sinfulness, our own failings, our own complaints against God’s gift to us—and we are free at last. We look on that cross and are healed, just as the Israelites looked upon the serpent—the sign of their sinfulness and were healed.
I told you that I would bring back this matter of the serpent. First we have a serpent in Genesis, who tricks our ancestors into disobeying God. Then we have the serpents in the desert who torment the Israelites in their disobedience. I don’t think that parallel is by accident. While we think of serpents as snakes in both cases, the same word can mean something more like what we would call a dragon. So our first text in scripture begins with the victory over God’s created image by a serpent (which could be a dragon) and we have the last text in scripture, the Revelation, which shows the victory of Christ over the dragon (who is most certainly the serpent from Genesis). And in between, we see the inversion of the symbols of healing. We can have an earthly, temporary healing by looking on the reminder of our sinfulness (the serpent), or we can have a divine and eternal healing by the one who comes to undo the work of the serpent.

That’s what he came to do. The new Adam came to undo the disobedience of the first Adam. Through his obedience, he healed the rift between us and our Creator. So when you look on that crucifix there, don’t be appalled by its brutality. Don’t be disgusted by its brute reality as an instrument of torture. Be astounded that someone Divine, Jesus, thought so much of you personally and me—personally—that He allowed Himself to be put to that degradation to take you back and reclaim you for His Father. When you come to this altar today, remember that someone went through a great deal of trouble to make it possible.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Binding and Loosing

I gave this homily during a Eucharistic Exposition and Solemn Benediction this evening.
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Matthew 18:15–20

The gospel reading this evening is easy to misinterpret because of the translation we use. So it’s always helpful in such circumstances to go back to the early Church Fathers and see how they read these passages. I want to focus on two themes that appear in this passage. The first is the matter of fraternal correction. The second is the apostolic authority granted here to bind and loose sin.
            In the first instance, we have the opening sentence of the passage: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Now, because of the translation, most of us take this to mean that someone has actually committed an offense against us individually, but many of the early Church Fathers read it differently. They interpret “sin against” as sinning in the presence of someone. So rather than having someone who sins against us, we are talking about someone who sins in front of us—someone who causes scandal. It has become very popular for us to talk of tolerance, which really these days means endorsement. If we don’t endorse someone else’s sinful behavior, we’re considered intolerant, and we can come under all kinds of abuse from the tyranny of toleration. But the Fathers and the Church have always believed in fraternal correction. We get our first instance of it with St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, correcting St. Peter, of all people. So we should not fear to provide fraternal correction when we can do so charitably and to good effect. Giving fraternal correction when it is likely to do damage doesn’t help, so we must always do so judiciously.
            The second point has to do with the power of binding and loosing. In Matthew 16: 17–18, Jesus grants Peter the keys to the gates of the Kingdom and the authority to bind and loose. In our reading tonight, he expands that authority to all of the Twelve. Peter holds the keys, but the Twelve have the power to bind and loose.
What is this power, and how does it relate to us now? This question is debated among non-Catholics, who would like to think that somehow all Christians have this authority. But this is because they again are interpreting the passage solely on the English translation they are given, without considering the context. We have to go back to Jesus’ time to understand it properly. And in that time, priests in the temple and rabbis in the synagogue had the power to bind and loose—to include or exclude people from membership in the community. This power did not devolve to just anyone but to those in whom authority was vested. So it makes perfect sense for Jesus to invest His priests with the same authority.
Because of this decree in today’s gospel, we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or the Sacrament of Penance, or just simply Confession. These passages are the scriptural foundation for this sacrament.
That’s your sacramental theology lesson for this evening, but I want to take this a bit further and talk about why this sacrament is so important.
We human beings have an extraordinary ability to fool ourselves, to plaster over our errors, to minimize our responsibility, and to ignore the negative impact of our actions, if we never have to confront our failures. This problem is multiplied when it accompanies a cultural mindset that downplays or ignores the reality of sin. We forget that sin wounds us all—not just me when I commit sin; not just you when you are on the receiving end of my sin. Sin by its very nature wounds the body of Christ and wounds society.
So if I commit sin and am able to remain blissfully unaware, I have that festering wound on my soul. Those whom I offend are walking wounded in our world. And our wounds fester and kill the soul. We need to be healed. We need to be reconnected to the source of life. We need to be reconciled, and the first step of reconciliation is to recognize that we’re wounded.
            Christ knew what he was about when He gave us sacraments—these visible signs He instituted to affect invisible grace. He knew that we had to be taught to recognize our wounds. Heck, he went so far to be wounded for our sins in the hope that we would see them and open our eyes. So he gave us visible, sensible means for our sacraments. In the sacrament of reconciliation, part of the sensible means is our own voice, our own words, acknowledging our sins. We are no longer carrying them around inside as a hidden festering mass, but pulling that out between ourselves and our confessor. We’re looking at sin in its ugliness and saying, “That’s it right there. That was what I did.” We are owning our wounds.
            And then we get to hear some of the most beautiful words in the sacramental language of our faith:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins.
There are times when I want to weep at the beauty of those words: “May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you.”

            My job as a deacon is to encourage you to take the gospel out. Don’t be afraid to mention how wonderful this sacrament is, and what a blessing it is. So many people need to hear that message, and it’s your job as Catholics to spread the word. Take the message out to your friends. Tell them that this sacrament is not about shame but about healing. Glorify the Lord with your life in this one simple way.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Faith Can Take Us Deeper—Sunday: Nineteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

1 Kings 19:9a, 11–13a; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:22–33

            How much do we really want to see God face to face? How much do we really trust God to take care of us? And if we did see God face to face, would we recognize Him? These questions are at the root of our Old Testament and Gospel readings today.
Elijah has just completed the longest marathon on record—a forty-day run fueled by some heart cakes and a jug of water given to him by an angel. Wouldn’t you just love to be able to drop into 7-11 for a 960-hour energy hearth cake when you need to get through a difficult month?
Elijah is hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, and God asks him why he’s there. We don’t get the whole story in our reading today, but Elijah is a bit put out because he’s done everything that God has asked, and now the rulers and the people of Israel want to kill him for it. He was expecting a bit more gratitude from them for ridding them of false prophets.
There’s no clear explanation of why he runs to Mt. Horeb, but it’s not hard to guess why. He fled to this place to hide. He knew that God had revealed himself to Moses here. He wants God to protect him, but he didn’t so much come seeking God as much as to hide until God came to seek him.
That can be our dilemma as Christians. We don’t as much trust God to walk with us but to come and rescue us. And the when he does, we cower. He lower our heads and grovel. Now, sometimes we should grovel. Sometimes we make mistakes, and our only reasonable response is to bow our heads and say, “Oh Lord, that was such a stupid thing I did. Please prevent my bad decisions from hurting other people.”
Does that prayer sound familiar? It sounds really familiar to me, because I’ve prayed it more times in my life than I’d like to admit.
But Elijah hasn’t done anything wrong, and yet he still feels defeated, and he cowers in this cave—waiting for God to come to him. And when God does come to Him, he cowers and hides his face.
We can’t really blame Elijah for cowering. The Jewish understanding was that no one could look God in the face and live. But Judaism also always had a notion of God who is merciful and loving—and most of all, generous.
What is it about God’s generosity that makes us want to cower? When you give your children or grandchildren a gift, do they shrink from you… or do they run, wrap their arms around you, and bury their faces in your belly? Why don’t we run and launch ourselves into God’s arms? We’re afraid of something—maybe afraid of what it will cost us to abandon ourselves completely to God. Maybe that fear isn’t unfounded. Our faith can cost us everything in this life.
But maybe that’s the point.
Faith should cost us something. Faith does cost us something. But we forget why we have faith. We don’t have faith simply so we’ll be grateful for what we already have. We wouldn’t be here experiencing anything without God’s gift of life to us. We need faith to help us weather the waves and storms. We need faith so that we will trust to go to those dangerous places where God sometimes calls us.
In our gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus to call him out on the water, and Jesus does so. Peter asks Jesus to prove himself, but even as Peter walks on the waves, the tumult of the sea causes him to doubt.
“Why did you doubt?” Jesus asks Peter.
How many times do we ask God to prove Himself, only to doubt and lose faith when things don’t go exactly as we planned? What is faith for if we always lose it when we need it? We don’t need faith when everything is hunky dory. We don’t need faith when we’ve got that great job, the nice car, and the cozy north-end bungalow. We need faith when our health fails us; when the job prospects have evaporated and our savings are gone; when our children decide that this religion stuff just isn’t for them; when it looks like we are going to lose everything.
We need faith in our worst times, but it’s so often in those worst times when we let our faith falter, like Peter sinking in the waves.
But what happens when your faith has carried you through those storms? When you look back and see in those moments the hand of God holding you up? When you look back on the messy, twisted road that has led you to this point? Our faith is borne not in triumph but in those moments of adversity and struggle. When our faith is exercised and challenged, that is when it and we have the most potential for spiritual growth.
There’s a song titled “Oceans” that is very popular on Christian music charts right now, and it takes its imagery from this gospel reading. There’s a line in it that goes like this:
“Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my savior.”
Our faith is made stronger when we are taken deeper than we could ever go on our own. When we’ve been thrown into the deep end and have to thrash our way out. Our faith can take us deeper, or when we’re in too deep, it can be that lifeline that pulls us back out.
Many of us have had very interesting spiritual journeys with all kinds of twists and turns, on rocky roads and barren paths that have nonetheless led them here back to the Church. My own life path took me away from the Church for twenty years, and then led me right back here, much to my surprise and joy: right back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which we will celebrate shortly. Like the Prodigal Son, many of us prodigal sons and daughters stand here now and marvel how God brought us back to this table. But here we are, with our faith not only intact, but far stronger than if we had never faced the barren path. We have faith because we have encountered God’s generosity deeply. We come here to the Eucharist like children racing to bury themselves in the arms of their Father, as we all should every Sunday.
There’s a Spanish proverb, sometimes attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola. The origin isn’t important, but the sentiment is: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

God can take the most broken road—your worst mistakes and all of your bad decisions—and lead you back to him; and that broken road may be just what you needed to recognize your need for God and your need for faith. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tare or Wheat? Sixteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Wisdom 12:12, 16–19; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 13:24–43

I think Jesus is talking about my yard in this week’s readings, because regardless of how much I water and tend it, I constantly have weeds in my flower beds, and I have stopped even trying to sort them out. Clearly, if I’m following scripture correctly, I’m supposed to let the angels sort them out at the end of time. That means my yard will look awful for the time being but will look fantastic at the final judgment.

I wish I had the patience to wait that long.

 In last week’s readings, the disciples questioned Jesus about his use of parables, and this week, we really get a good dose of Jesus’ parabolic teachings. I want to focus on the first one because I think it highlights a particular bit of spiritual nearsightedness that many of us have, yours truly included. We see the master sowing good seed in the field, but as everyone sleeps, the enemy comes and sows weeds. Our English translation uses the word weeds, but the actual word, tzitzania, refers to cheat grass or tares—a plant that looks a lot like wheat when it’s growing, but when mature is a lot easier to identify.

So the servants are able to see that something is not right in the fields, but the master knows that uprooting the weeds will also cause some, perhaps many good plants to be uprooted and destroyed as well. This decision on the master’s part no doubt rankles a few of his servants, who probably believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If they take care of the weeds now, they won’t have to work as hard separating them during the harvest. The danger is that they will accidentally destroy the good with the bad. The master recognizes this and stays their hand, instructing them to wait until they can clearly see the fruits that have been sown. In the master’s wisdom, judgment has been reserved until the fruits are obvious to everyone.

Now, the master in this parable is obviously God, and clearly He knows the outcome before we can see it. So why does He wait to sweep the field? Why does he let the unclean mix with the clean? It seems counterproductive to us at least, but even dangerous if the weeds somehow stunt the growth of the healthy plants or even choke them out altogether.

Does this line of thought sound familiar? I hear it pretty frequently from various parties in our Church concerning the people on “the other side.” Those people who can’t really be Catholic because they don’t hold the right opinions. I recently read about a proabortion and procontraception politician back east who was touting her credentials as a devout Catholic and decrying how her faith had been hijacked by extremists who didn’t believe in abortion or contraception. I have to wonder just what faith she was actually practicing since the teachings of the Church have always since the first century condemned both.

On the reverse side of the coin are those who insist that Catholic teaching is equivalent to US policy or capitalist ideology. Anyone who suggests that US policy might be errant or that capitalism might need constraint are branded as Godless communists. But the Church has never declared capitalism as sacrosanct, and US policy is made by very fallible human beings.

And very recently we’re hearing a whole lot in the news and elsewhere about the problems down on the border. Now here’s a perfect example of our moral blindness at times, when we can look at the wheat and see nothing but weeds. When we look at children coming across the border and all we can see is an illegal alien. There’s a problem with our perception. In most other countries, when a child is sent away from home because of violence and danger, we don’t call them “illegals.”

We call them refugees.

So who of us are being truly Catholic and truly Christian in our perceptions? Now I like to apply the original meaning of the word Catholic in such instances. Katolikos means universal in Greek, so whatever is truly Catholic should universally offend and rankle those on all points of the political spectrum. To be Catholic is to be universally irritating and challenging. I say that with tongue in cheek, and hopefully not with foot in mouth, but there is some truth to this as well. Our faith isn’t meant to reconcile us to our culture. Our faith is meant to help us to see through God’s perspective. We are supposed to be leaven in the mix and cause the dough to rise, to start as a small bush but give everyone a place to perch. Our Church is a broad net that catches all kinds of fish, and it needs to accommodate that diversity without being undermined and distorted. I frequently tell people that Catholic social teaching has something to tick off both progressives and conservatives. That is not a sign of falsity but of truth, because our culture and its biases tend to obscure our vision.

The problem here is that we ideologues don’t see the world by the infinite wisdom of God. We look at the world through our own culturally conditioned lenses, through our own rose-colored glasses. And that means we never see what is true. We see what we expect to see and judge accordingly. We lack mercy, wisdom, and a true notion of justice.

The reading from the Book of Wisdom brings to the foreground how we should understand God’s perspective. First, He has care over all:

  • not just those who are properly documented 
  • not just those who are pacifists and proponents of gun control
  • not just those who are straight
  • not just those who support nationalized health care 

and not just those who conform to whatever we with our personal preferences consider righteous. He knows who is truly righteous. Might is the source of his justice, as the reading from Wisdom asserts. His power is what allows him to be just. He isn’t worried about anyone’s opinion, so He applies true justice untempered by external bias.

We underestimate just how different we are from God. We forget that our notions of justice, of mercy, of might, and of wisdom are all limited and fragmentary. For us, these are all separate qualities, but God is infinitely simple. That means that there is no difference for these qualities in Him. His justice is His mercy is His might is His wisdom. When we read that there is no partiality in God, that is meant both in how He judges us and in how He knows our world. This isn’t to say that we don’t need to discern objective moral right and wrong, but we do need to recognize that we do not see the big picture, and we never will until we meet God face to face.

Our Catholic faith is one of few hold outs for objective truth. Our faith insists that there is an objective truth by which all will be judged, but it also insists that we not judge the hearts of our fellow travelers in this world. We have to seek communion rather than division. And that means that we have to forgive. And sometimes we need to recognize our own need for forgiveness because all of us fall short of the kingdom.

In a few minutes, we’re going to celebrate the paschal sacrifice of our Lord. This celebration has always had two realities as both a sacrifice and as a meal—one shared with friends and family. Just like a family is one even though it is made up of very different personalities and opinions, our family in faith is also diverse.

But in a greater sense we are one. We are one Body of Christ, and we need to hang together. We’re seeing signs of new pressures in our country that will be coming down on us, and we need to recognize that if we’re for Christ, we also have to be for each other—one bread and one Body, to quote the hymn.

Our Catholic faith is counter cultural and it challenges all of us. If you want to be a rebel, be Catholic. If you want to resist the inexorable drumbeat of so-called progress and seek instead the kingdom of God, be Catholic. You will be walking in the footsteps of Christ if you reject the popular road and stick with the Lamb of God. You might be crucified for it… but you will be raised in the end.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Daddy's Caddy

My father bought his first Cadillac in 1973, perhaps a bit after he was promoted to Lt. Col. in the US Air Force and when we were still living on Fairchild Air Force Base.

It was a black Coupe de Ville, and it was fancier than anything we'd ever owned (although Doc had owned an Austin-Healey in his bachelor days). At the time, we still lived in base housing, and I suspect that Mom wasn't fully on board with the purchase. But I think Dad needed to have some physical representation of his accomplishments. We named the car "the Black Torpedo," and I think Tim and I loved every moment in it.

In three years, Doc traded up for a Sedan de Ville, a very nice four door that looked a bit more like a stately family car, just shy of a limousine. He made the trade during the summer while Tim and I were back and forth for summer camps, so it was a few weeks after he made the purchase that I finally noticed. And I wasn't impressed. I liked the Black Torpedo. Of course, by that time, brother Patrick had arrived on the scene, so a four door made much more sense. I suspect that Mom had something to do with that decision, but we were going to miss the Black Torpedo.

Doc dubbed the new sedan the Blue Sapphire. We accepted the new name, but I don't think we ever bought into it. Despite many happy adventures (some 30 years of them), I think Tim and I would have preferred the coupe. I don't recall that Doc ever named another Caddy after that.

That's not to say we didn't have great times in that boat. We drove that beast to Alaska, up the Trans Alaska Highway and back. I don't recall if we lost our muffler on the way up or the way back, but it happened on once of those trips. I remember that we ate a whole canned chicken in White Horse, a metropolis in the Yukon which was smaller than the small town (Medical Lake) just outside of the air base where I'd spent most of my life. Doc thought it pretty funny to talk about talk about the Al-Can Super Highway on which we were driving: It was a dirt road from the US Canadian Border north of Skagway to the Alaskan border.

Three years later, we made the same trek back in the same car. If you want to know why my dad bought Cadillacs, that's why. We hauled a trailer up and a boat back. Or vice versa. Doc probably liked the status symbol of owing a Cadillac, but ultimately, the reliability of the car kept him from buying a Lincoln.

That car remained with the family until Doc completed his  residency for Child Psychiatry and moved back to Boise in the 90s. He purchase another 70s era Eldorado that Patrick drove for a while, but the sedan was his primary vehicle for many years. Eventually, the Blue Sapphire became a utility vehicle. That Caddy hauled camping and boat trailers all over all kinds of roads you wouldn't believe.

Doc later made a point of buying used Caddys every few years. After the first two, I don't think he ever bought another new one off of the lot. He never again bought a black or blue sedan (and they were always sedans), but I recall one red sedan and mostly silver.

My mom preferred smaller, less ostentatious cars, but even when Doc was ill and she drove back and forth to visit him in the hospital, she drove his car (maybe because he didn't want to be seen carted around in a subcompact—not really sure).

I got used to seeing the silver sedan parked by St. John's Cathedral, and occasionally I would catch him as I drove by and wave. Or I'd see him driving down State Street heading toward the cathedral. I equated seeing a later model silver Caddy as seeing Doc on his way to or from his late vocation.

Doc passed away a little over a month ago. The car is still at the house, but it will be sold soon. It's another in a long line of Caddys, so none of us are attached to it, but we're attached to the memory of Dad's love for his Caddys.

Yesterday, I rode out in my Honda Odessey to pick up an order of beef from a packing company in Nampa. I didn't want to listen to the chatter of DJs, so I plugged in my phone to hear my Pandora channels as I made the return trip.The first song that came on for my return trip was "Finally Home" by Mercy Me. It's a beautiful song, even though it's not theologically accurate. The first verse is this:
I'm gonna wrap my arms around my daddy's neck, and tell him that I've missed him. And tell him All about the man that I became, and hope that it pleased him. There's so much I want to say,There's so much I want you to know.
Doc battled cancer for a good eight years or longer. I had prayed that he would be able to see me finish my master's in theology and see me ordained. I had even hoped for him to see me finish a Ph.D. But I'll take two out of three.

Anyway, I pulled on to Ten-Mile Road and headed for the interstate. When I got to Victory road, I pulld up behind a silver Cadillac Sedan de Ville, and for a split second, I thought, "Hey, maybe that's Doc."

And then I realized that it wasn't, and that I'd never drive by him in his Caddy again.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Proclaim the Gospel to the World!—Fifteenth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 55:10–11; Romans 8:18–23; Matthew 13:1–23

Each of the readings in this week’s liturgy relate in some way to fertility or birth—to the fecundity and creativity of God’s word in the world and in the lives of those who hear it. God’s word goes out and it moves our world, it moves our hearts and our souls.  I think these passages are evocative because they touch on our experience, and probably did so even more for the people of the times who were more familiar with the agrarian contexts.
First, there is the fertility of earth and seed compared to the word of God in the writings of Isaiah. The word doesn’t simply fall and return to God but is fruitful like the rain and snow that falls. St. Paul describes the coming of the kingdom—the redemption of creation—in terms of labor. Finally, Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower” describes how the word of the kingdom falls like seed onto different types of ground and then responds accordingly. Each passage presents the Word of God or Revelation as something that is sown and which then grows into a new creation, if the conditions favor its growth.
All three passages, then, have a theme that has been very common in the writings and homilies of the last three popes. Pope St. John Paul II introduced the phrase “the New Evangelization” during his pontificate, and both Pope emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have each contributed to this conversation in word and in deed. Our pastors, from the popes down to our parish priests, have been encouraging and exhorting us to take the gospel out into the world. They are trying to remind us of the core mission of the Church—and the mission of all baptized people. We are not just to come in here on Sunday or the Saturday vigil and fill up the tank with high-octane grace and then go out to cruise for the rest of the week.
We’re supposed to take what we get here through the sacrament and through the preaching of the word, and we’re supposed to take it out to the world and offer it to everyone we can: that means people in our own families, in our workplaces, sometimes even in our own parish. That’s what is meant by the New Evangelization, but the mission is as old as the foundation of the Church. In Matthew 28, Jesus tells the Apostles to go out and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So we are sent by Jesus and by our pastors to proclaim the good news to the world.
“But why is that necessary?” you might ask. “Don’t most Americans know about Jesus? Aren’t we a Christian nation? Isn’t 1.2 billion Catholics in the world enough?”
As it so happens, 1.2 billion Catholics are not enough. Would it be enough if only half of the people in the world knew who Jesus was and knew that he came to give them salvation? Would it be enough if only half of your family knew? Of course not. We want everyone to hear the good news, but our effort has not been enough.
In fact, it hasn’t been enough for a while. Europe can barely be called Christian these days, where church attendance across all denominations is at record lows, where a secularist mindset dominates, and where an implicit atheism spreads and festers. And if you think things are much better here, well, they’re only marginally so. Even among believers in Christ, a true understanding of Christian doctrine is weak, and among Catholics, basic doctrines are completely misunderstood.
But what’s more is the simple good news is often unknown. Doctrine is important, but doctrine is not the good news. The good news is not a something. The good news is somebody: Jesus Christ. The good news is that Jesus Christ came to repair what mankind broke. He came to heal the rift between us and God. He came to make us adopted sons and daughters of the Father. And He came to show us what real love is. That’s the good news. That God loved us so much that He came to live with us, to suffer with us, and to die for us so that we could join Him in heaven. But would you believe that more and more generations are growing up in our post-Christian nation without that very basic belief?
They need to be told. They need to hear of God’s love. They need to see God’s love in the way we live our lives.
They hear more about what we supposedly believe from the distorted reports the news media gives on TV. We have to take back our story and tell it the way it should be told.
People are searching for what is good. No one intentionally seeks what is bad for them. They want what is good, but they can’t see past the things our culture puts in front of their faces day in and day out. They wallow in excess, in sex, in drugs, in material things and distractions until they are drained. I’m sure I don’t have to point you to examples of this self-destructiveness in our popular culture. You might even have family members and friends whom you see trapped in these lifestyles. They want what is good, but they don’t know what it is or where to find it.
As one Catholic speaker put it recently, these people are dying to hear the good news. They just don’t know it.
Well, people, that’s our mission, and we all have a part to play. We can be those who sow the seed and plant the words of truth in people’s minds. That’s when you tell your friends, family, and acquaintances about your faith and tell them why you have accepted Jesus as your savior. You don’t have to be pushy. Just be honest. In fact, sometimes it’s more effective just to live in such a way—to live with such Christian joy—that they can’t help but ask. As Peter said in his first epistle, we need to be ready to give an account of our faith. So be ready. You are planting a seed in their minds. The Holy Spirit will do the heavy lifting.
You might also be one of those who prepares the soil. In Jesus’ parable, the seed falls on different types of ground. If the seed falls on the beaten path, it can be taken away by any opinion or cultural prejudice. If the seed falls on rocky ground, it might sprout, but it doesn’t grow deep enough to take root. If the seed falls among thorns, the plants are choked by other concerns. So someone has to prepare the soil, to till it, to remove the thorns and rocks. We have ministries like Returning Catholics that operate in the parish. We also have groups like St. Paul’s Street Evangelization that go out to public places; give away rosaries, prayer cards, and medals; and tell people about the teachings of the Church. They help to prepare the soil so that the seed of another’s faith can be planted.
Or you might be one of those who tends the growing faith of those who have been drawn in by God’s Word or by another’s faith. You might be assisting in a bible study or in RCIA. All of these ministries work together to help God’s Word take root and thrive. Ultimately it’s up to the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those who hear the good news, but there needs to be the seed. They need to hear the news before the Holy Spirit can help it to take root.

I know that it can be uncomfortable to share your faith, and some people can challenge you and intimidate you. Pray for courage from the Holy Spirit, and ask our patron St. John the Evangelist to intercede for you. There’s a world out there that needs to be saved, and like the Blue Brothers, we’re all on a mission from God. Take up that mission. Take up that cross, and proclaim the gospel to the world.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A reductio ad absurdum

Let's try a little thought experiment.

Imagine some time in the future that the Supreme Court has ruled that all citizens have the right at all times to carry a sidearm for self defense. You can't fire or refuse to hire a person who chooses to carry. They can't be barred from businesses, but of course, they are "responsible" for whatever they do with their firearms.

Now, imagine that some employers, wanting to attract and keep employees, decide to start providing related employment benefits: holsters, shoulder straps, firearm lessons, and so on. The practice becomes so ubiquitous that everyone expects it when they're employed. Some people even perhaps lobby for legislation to have mandatory firearm benefits from large public corporations (maybe those employing 50 or more employees).

Maybe someday in the future, the government says, "Okay, since these programs are practically ubiquitous, and people with useless firearms are in danger because they can't defend themselves, all employers must now supply ammunition to their employees. If they don't want to supply it themselves, they have to pay for someone else to supply it."

Maybe you own a small business—an LLC or an s-corp. Maybe you have a family-run business, a c-corp, of 100 employees, and your family has always believed that personal ownership of firearms for self defense is immoral. Is it an infringement on your rights to free exercise of conscience to do be forced to supply someone's ammunition or be forced to pay for it to be supplied?

If you took the issue to the Supreme Court and found that it infringed on your rights, would you be guilty of pursuing a war on gun owners?

Reasonable arguments for or against are welcome in the combox. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Vigil

It was after they changed him from home care to hospice that we got serious about the business of waiting. Of course, we had been waiting for eight years, since the first time the word "cancer" hung in the air during tense conversation.

For the last few months, he spent less time in the front room when we gathered. In the last few weeks, he came out mostly for his meal and retreated quickly again, and so we ate on the back porch with the French doors to the bedroom open.

We had planned an evening to have the grand kids in the back yard playing so he could see them one last time. He wasn't able to get out of bed anymore, so we each took our turns talking to him, telling him how much he meant to us, making sure we didn't leave anything unsaid. I told him I would bring communion to him in the mornings.

"You know, you will get to meet someone there we've never met ourselves. You'll get to meet our unborn child."

His face changed and lightened, and he smiled.

I brought communion each morning, except for Sunday since I had a long day of service at our parish. I sprinkled him with holy water, blessed him and my brother, and offered whatever I could to my mother. Tim sat with him for long hours, just as he had done for my grandmother and Uncle Bob when they had passed.

By the middle of the next week, he became less communicative, less engaged. He could still respond, but he was letting everything go. The caregiver told Mom that he was waiting for someone—waiting to be told that it was okay to go, waiting to see someone for the last time—waiting... for something.

On Thursday before noon, they called and said, "It looks like it's getting close." I called my daughter and her mother, and everyone began to gather to wait with him. He could still respond to us, but spoke very little. He had started morphine that day, and there was a moment when there was no one who could respond to his request for more relief. While we waited, I began to pray the evening hour from my iPhone. The pain agitated him, and he didn't seem welcome the noise. I chanted the Our Father, and that seemed to calm him. I resolved to talk less and chant more.

Finally we were able to get his medication, and he relaxed a bit. I called my daughter's brother in Brazil by Skype and carried the laptop into the room so he could say goodbye. We told him we loved him, that we would take care of each other, of Mom, of her sister, and that he could go when he was ready. I asked if he would like Fr. -- to come and bring him viaticum, and he nodded.

That was the last lucid moment that I had with him.

We continued to gather in the evenings, but after the last anointing, he began to let go. The nurse gave him days. He fell deeper into sleep. His breathing became very regular, and it gradually began to slow. Tim sat by his bed and waited. Mom stood at the foot of his bed and held his feet, or she kissed him and caressed his head. I sat and prayed.

Our Father who art in heaven...

O salutaris hostia...

Pangue lingua generosi...

On Sunday, Father's Day, we gathered again, aware that this would be his last and wanting just to celebrate fatherhood. His favorite meal was prepared, and we milled about and chatted as usual. As everyone sat outside, I went to sit and pray the evening hour. And I went to give him one last song.

During the Easter Vigil this year, my first as a deacon, I was given the gift to sing the Exultet. Doc was not able to attend these long services anymore, and we mistakenly believed that it would be carried on the local Catholic radio station. He had not heard me that night. He would hear me this night.

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of Heaven. Let angel ministers of God exult. Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud the mighty King's triumph...

I told him that he'd soon hear the best choir ever and that he shouldn't keep them waiting.

We said grace that night and thanked God for the gift of each other and even the gift of grief that we shared. When we parted, I think we all knew it was the last night.

He passed the next morning at 6:00 AM.
============================

The grace of these last few days is that all of us came and did what we knew how to do for each other. Tim was present, which is a greatly undervalued gift. My mom lavished affection on my dad. My brother Pat cooked and fed us. I offered what I could through music and prayer. Everyone offered something up.

I know I will miss my father, but right now what stays with me is the grace of family and of a good death. I told my daughter this, in part to console her, but in part simply to verbalize my own desire for a good death: with family at my side, with the sacraments, with prayer, and with the knowledge that this end is not the end.