Sunday, November 17, 2013

White Knight

A small tribute stamped in leather
I played down as sentimental.

When I tooled those letters
I held in my mind that image
of you in a white lab coat
bustling through the clinic
giving the care I wished to have:
saving the world when I wanted saving.

But you did what you could do
you worked with what you had
and here I am
a testament of what
you’ve given to the world.

Thank you, father,
for what you have given to me
for these gifts you have passed to me.
Thank you, father,
for making me who I am.

You are that white knight
I wished for after all.


That silly rubber face
reminds me of kewpies
but I’ve never heard
of a kewpie bunny.
Could be the first
one-eared varmint
who ever weaseled its way
into our toy chest.
But it’s your story
of a loved toy
its lobe lost among shoppers
that warms us
when Joy came through
and stitched on that remaining ear
a kewpie curl to replace
one missing ear.


Sometimes the echo
rings all night
and I wonder
should I shout again?

If I sing a verse
will a voice join in
or will I be left
to harmonize alone?

This wide expanse
I want to bridge
to reach across
with an unsteady hand.

I fear the fall
but fear more that
which follows

So I reach into the void
and pray you will reach back.


“The depth and breadth and height” she wrote.
How, I wonder, she fathomed
a love as deep as that one
and timeless as any Truth.

Beyond that league is this love, I know
and sound it daily to be sure.
Does it shrink? Is it constant? No.

It grows with every day
and soundings affirm
it strains the bounds
of my paltry soul
and swells to bursting.

I welcome the break
to release this grace to you
and let it flow like a river
and wash over as the tides
endless, timeless, beyond measure.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

‘Stang Heaven

My eyes follow as
your white blur streaks by
I hear you singing Molly Hatchett
and flirt with disaster again.

A silver sliver of a dream
and you hold it tight
a bright place
to call your own.

In Van Morrison’s head you’d live
in gardens wet with rain
on cobblestone streets
a blue-eyed brown-eyed girl.

But for now you have
’stang heaven
your twenty-minute refuge
a fence to give shelter in the storm.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Long Arms of God (32nd Sunday—Cycle C)

2 Maccabees 7: 1–14
2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5
Luke 20:27–38
Our first reading is about seven sons who die unspeakable deaths. Our third reading is about seven brothers who all have the same wife. Wow! Who says scripture doesn’t make for good reading?
2 Maccabees 7 relates the story of a mother and her seven sons. This book is in the Greek Old Testament for Catholics and Orthodox, what is formally known as the Septuagint, but Protestants in general do not consider it to be scripture because it’s not from the Hebrew canon. That’s a shame because they miss the allusion that the Sadducees make in Luke’s gospel to what would have been a well-known story to many of the Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ time—a story about Jewish patriots.
The woman and her seven sons are being impelled to violate the tenets of their faith for no other reason than to allow the King to demonstrate his power. They refuse to acquiesce despite the force of the King’s authority because they follow God’s law, and they willingly accept the consequences because they believe that God will raise them from the dead and reward them. The sixth son, whose words are not part of this reading today, proclaims as his end nears,
“Do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!”
These seven sons and their mother have been celebrated as martyrs for their faith since the early days of the Church.
Their courage contrasts dramatically with my own. Paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor, I’ll just say that I could be a martyr… if they killed me quickly.
Let’s leave aside that we might consider the restriction on eating pork as an unimportant law. The word in Hebrew for such laws is mitzvah for one or mitzvot for more than one. This word means commandment, and the Torah details 613 of them, like the ones we acknowledge in the Decalogue (that’s a fancy word we have for the 10 commandments). To a Jew, holding each of these 613 mitzvot is a way to express gratitude and love to God. They live the law as a way of giving God their assent, their “yes.” By saying “no” to an easy temptation, they were saying “yes” to the God of the universe.
We don’t really think of the moral commands in that way: that saying “no” to sex outside of marriage, to contraception within marriage, to lying, or to any other sin is really a “yes” to God, or that saying “yes” to sin is saying “no” to God. But our bodies and our mouths tell the truth. What we agree to do and what we refuse to do, these choices are our response to God. Virtue is a way of saying “yes” to God. Sin is a way of saying “no” to God. It’s as simple as that.
We do have Divine help in our choices, if we only accept it. The grace we receive in baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist can strengthen us,
if we let it.
Paul tells us in the second letter to the Thessalonians that “the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” We have the grace to rely on God’s strength, but we have to allow it to work in us.
I will be the first to acknowledge that I try to go it alone way too often, and that route so frequently ends in frustration. Have you ever had one of those conversations with God where you are trying to explain your thought process to God…
To God, who knows you better than you know yourself?
And then you catch yourself and have one of those facepalm moments?
I was going to say, “Neither do I,” but I would be fibbing.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to the Sadducees, the priestly caste of Jerusalem, who were attempting to trap Jesus in this controversy about eternal life. The Sadducees only accepted the five books of the Torah and rejected the other Old Testament texts, including 2 Maccabees, which we read first today. That book and many of the books of the Old Testament indicated that God would raise up the faithful in the last days.
The Sadducees rejected the belief in eternal life,
which made them sad, you see?
I swiped that joke from Jeff Cavins, so I have to give him credit for it.
There are two ironies in this gospel story. First, as Jesus points out, the Sadducees don’t even know their own scripture. Jewish Rabbis were very particular in how they handled every word, every letter of scripture. When Jesus said in Matthew 5 that not a jot or tittle of the Law would pass away, he was emphasizing that every mark, every word, and every letter mattered. So when he says that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the Living because the words from Exodus are in present tense, he is not splitting hairs. He’s arguing the way rabbis always argued about the Word of God. The Sadducees who were very literal in their reading of scripture didn’t understand the obvious implications of the very literal words.
The second irony is that the Sadducees are unknowingly arguing with God. They’re trying to convince God that they’re right about the truth. They’re telling the Word Incarnate what the word of God means. They’re ridiculing the Author of Life while the Author of Life wrote the rules by which the Sadducees claimed to live. Of course, the Sadducees didn’t know who Jesus was, so we have to give them a bit of a break.
But what’s our excuse? How often do we do the very same thing? Argue with God about what’s true? About whether what we’re doing is according to His plan or according to our own?
We tend to read our preferences into scripture, to impose our understanding on the readings from mass, and to split hairs where the Church doesn’t give us much hair to split. But understand that Jesus was not joking when He told Peter and the Apostles that they had the power to bind and loose. Jesus was not misspeaking when He said to the Apostles in the Gospel of John, “He who accepts you, accepts me.” He left us a Church to guide us in our lives, and in our understanding of Scripture and of God’s will, but we too often treat the Church’s teachings as if they are one big “No”—
a “no” to all those things that seem like fun,
a “no” to all those things that our culture tells us to put first,
and a “no” to the so-called good life—living for myself, living the dream, living to find my destiny.
In reality, the Church’s teachings are one big “Yes”—a “yes” to God, a “yes” to abundant life, and a “yes” to life everlasting. Accepting God’s will is accepting to be who God made you to be.
When we choose to live by our own rules rather than God’s plan, things turn out about the way we should expect. I can personally attest to that. We can fight God all we like and protest about our freedom, but God made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
Our arms are too short to box with God,*
and His arms are long enough to wrap us up and embrace us until we stop fighting Him.

*I've heard this statement from a number of sources, so I'm not sure whom to credit with it. However, apparently it's now the title of a Broadway musical.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Contracepted Marriage

A few days ago, I posted a link to a post on some advice that a father gave to a son about marriage that he eventually found compelling. The point is that marriage is not for you, or more precisely, about you. It's about your commitment to your future spouse and your children.  The way that the message was conveyed perhaps made it sound a bit too self-sacrificial, but the idea intended was that you don't go into marriage with the attitude that it's about meeting your needs.

I'll double-down on this young man's point and say that there is only one way to go into a successful and that is by giving yourself completely to it. If you are not ready to give yourself completely to your spouse, then don't get married.


I think that was the young man's point. I read a post of a friend of mine (a fine person, but with whom I disagree on a number of opinions politically and spiritually) who took issue with the idea that one must put yourself completely at the service of the other. He (and some others who responded to him) took it to mean that one essentially would stop having any concerns for his or her own needs. They considered it to be a detriment, even destructive to a marriage.

Frankly, such a criticism misses the point. Naturally, people need to have their needs met, and a one-sided relationship where one partner gives and the other only takes is certainly doomed. And it is precisely the kind of relationships that develop when people enter marriage concerned only about what they get out of it. Putting yourself at the service of your spouse is not in and of itself codependent behavior, because ultimately, codependency is itself an attempt to get your needs met, whether you're the problem child who demands all the attention or martyr who suffers not so silently. Nobody gets sucked into a codependent relationship who feels ther needs are being met.

I shared the post with the understanding that there are differences in how my Church and the church of the young man who wrote the article see the marriage covenant, the notion of sacramental marriage, and of self sacrifice. Even in the Catholic Church, many married Catholics don't have a proper understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, its permanence, and its self-sacrificial essence.

Now, that sounds really idealistic, but the Catholic view is that marriage is not merely a human reality but the reflection of a Divine reality—the complete self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In Genesis 1, God creates man in His own image: "in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (1:27). How do we get the threeness of the Trinity with man and woman in holy matrimony? Simply this. A marriage is not simply between the man and the woman but man, woman, and God. Marriage, like the Trinity, is a communion of persons in love. Moreover, it reflects the complete gift that God makes to man in His Son.

Blessed John Paul II wrote that the "analogy of the love of spouses (or spousal love) seems to emphasize above all the aspect of God's gift of himself to man who is chosen 'from ages' in Christ.... a gift that is in its essential character, or as a gift, total... and irrevocable" (Man and Woman He Created Them, 95b:4).

Scripture uses the image repeatedly of God as spouse to Israel, and Christ as spouse to the Church. St. Paul doesn't admonish men to keep their wives in line and demand their respect and service. He admonishes men to give their lives for their wives, as Christ did for the Church. He says "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). So this is not codependency. It is mutual self donation.

One of the evils of artificial contraception is that it allows couples to tell a lie with their bodies. The sexual act is supposedly one of complete self giving to the other (which, again, is why the Church reserves it to married couples). By contracepting, the couple refuses part of themselves to the other. There might be very pragmatic reasons for it, but it turns an act of self giving into a partial gift. But literal contraception is merely a symptom of a larger problem in marriage—the withholding of the self from the other.

A marriage in which a man and woman withhold themselves from complete self-donation is in this sense contracepted. It removes part of the mutual gift from marriage. When two people enter into marriage concerned more about what they get in return than they do for the welfare of their spouse, they are entering marriage with a contraceptive attitude.

If nothing else, Christian marriage must be about helping your spouse get to Heaven and doing whatever it takes to aid them. Is it easy? No, but it's also not impossible. You can find such marriages in surprising places— for example, between an Austrian emperor and his wife. I have no doubt these two are standing in God's presence now.

Marriage is not about you. We have lost sight of this fact in our modern age, which is why we have the crisis in our families. We need to look again at God's plan for marriage—modeled on His own image. Man and woman he made them, and they became one flesh.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Don't sell yourself short. (Reflection for 31st Sunday—Cycle C)

Wisdom 11:22–12:2
2 Thessalonians 1:11–2:2
Luke 19:1–10

When I was sitting in the deacons' space at the parish office yesterday, I was thinking that I'd better prepare some notion of a reflection on the readings for this Sunday in case Fr. Henry wanted me to preach. (We usually know well in advance, but he had an awful lot on his plate this weekend.) However, he did preach, so no need for me to wing it. Having thunk up this stuff (or more precisely, let the Holy Spirit inspire me), I thought I should not let it go to waste.

The Book of Wisdom has always been one of my favorite books, and it's a shame that this wonderful text is not part of the Protestant canon. The passage from today's reading has this beautiful, prayerful reflection on God's mercy: "But you spare all this, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!" (Wis. 11:26–12:1)

What a beautiful reminder this passage is—perhaps something we should call to mind when we feel puny, unlovable, worthless. God holds us in being by His will and loathes nothing He has made. And of course, we have to remember that this applies not only to us but even to those whom we struggle to accept.

It ties in very well with the passage from Luke and the story of Zaccheaus. Here, the reviled chief tax collector goes to great lengths just so that he can get a glimpse of Jesus—climbing a sycamore tree because he is too short to see over the crowds. (By the way, this tree is actually a type of fig tree rather than the European Maple that we in the U.S. call a sycamore, but still quite expansive.)

When Jesus calls him down from the tree and says that He will stay at the tax collectors' house, the other grumble that Zacchaeus is a sinner. Now, remember that in last Sunday's reading, we have a Pharisee and a tax collector in the temple, one self-righteous, and the other begging for mercy. And now we have a group of people walking with Jesus, very likely some Pharises and others who are disciples, and this tax collector whom they scorn. Luke has this fantastic way of setting up these moments. First, Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Plain about judgment, then he tells a parable about the same subject, and here He gives His disciples and example of mercy to follow. This is a common pattern in Luke: first, Jesus teaches, and then he gives an example of practice.

No doubt Zacchaeus knows he is reviled by the crowd, but he is so happy to be accepted by Jesus that he promises to give half of his belongings to the poor and to compensate anyone he has defrauded. If he's half as bad as the crowds think, he would no doubt find himself penniless! We don't get to hear the rest of the story, so we'll never know what actually happened. However, we do know that Jesus' call to him brings about repentence and conversion.

The passage speaks to me because at times I have felt like that public sinner, the one reviled by the crowd (imaginary or not), someone unredeemable.

But that's not how God sees us. He looks beyond our sin to the person whom he created, loving all that are, and sparing us because we are His. He loves us this much.

In fact, He loves us this much.

He came for the lost, and He found us.

We have a job to do. There are a lot of people in this supposedly Christian country who have never heard this good news. They've heard things proposed as good news that sounded like nice ideas, or something that sounded like a get-rich scheme, or they've heard something called the gospel that didn't sound like very good news at all. So we have to take the message out to them in a new way. This is what Blessed John Paul II, Pope emeritus Benedict, and now Pope Francis have been telling us and calling us to—a new evangelization. There are people who still don't know that there is good news, and we need to tell it to them.

He came for the lost, and now we need to help find them.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Blessed Children of God (All Saints Day—Cycle C )

Revelation 7:2–4, 9–14
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12a

The gospel reading from Matthew for today is commonly called the Beatitudes, and it occurs at the beginning of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” I was pleased when Fr. Henry asked me at our monthly clergy meeting to preach for this holy day because I wrote my thesis on Luke’s version of the sermon. But then he added, “Bill, please… please don’t read your dissertation to them.”

So at Fr. Henry’s request, you’ll be spared the pain of listening to a reading of my thesis this evening. But I am going to talk about the Beatitudes and the sermon, and what they mean for Christian living. Matthew’s sermon is often considered the basis of Christian moral teaching. Properly understood, it contains everything you need to know how to live a moral Christian life. But the beatitudes really go beyond just the basics. They teach us how to live as saints—how, in our day to day lives, we are sanctified.

The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for “bless,” and this word “blessed” is repeated nine times during this passage. We use the word “beatitude” for the highest form of blessedness—the form of blessedness of being in God’s presence. That’s why the Church calls a saint a beatus, refers to a saint’s beatification, or talks about being in Heaven as the Beatific vision. A beatitude, then, is simply a heavenly blessing. It’s a six-dollar word for something basic to our faith, a belief in sanctifying grace, Heaven, and eternal life.

That little vocabulary lesson is all fine and good, but look again at what Jesus says causes us to be blessed in this way. We’re blessed
  • when we’re poor in spirit
  • when we mourn
  • when we are meek
  • when we hunger and thirst
  • when we’re merciful, pure of heart, persecuted, reviled
That doesn’t sound like a good time to me. That sounds painful… even downright inconvenient. It sounds a bit like a burden. Yet Jesus says that we are blessed right now when these things happen to us. Not only when we are in God’s presence at the end of our lives, but right now when we experience these things…

And when we rejoice because of them. That part is important.

You see, experiencing poverty, mourning, revilement, and persecution are not our reward. We don’t give mercy just so that we can get it. These trials are the means of our sanctification—the way that we become saints in our own right. If we walk this path and fight this fight, we too will see the face of God. Today, All Saints’ Day, we’re celebrating those who fought the fight and won, and are now standing in God’s presence.

It’s easy in our American culture to get the idea that grace is cheap, that salvation doesn’t require sacrifice, that prosperity is God’s demonstration to the world that we are His chosen people. But scripture doesn’t give us that option, and our Catholic tradition has never told us that the road is easy.

Jesus did not tell us to pick up our gold-plated golf clubs and follow Him. That’s not a burden. Jesus told us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross.


Not when it’s convenient or fits into our schedule but every day. Pick up that burdensome cross of mourning, persecution, meekness, hunger, and thirst; and you are blessed.

That is how we are sanctified. That is how we become holy. That is how we become saints! That is how we are beatified! Lives of challenge lead us to a life of glory. That’s what this feast day is all about.

John repeats this point in his letter. He wanted to encourage the faithful not to give up in the face of persecution and heresy. “We are God’s children now,” he says. We have not seen what it will be like in God’s presence, but we are already His children, here and now.

See? We’re blessed not because everything is perfect, but because we are God’s children.

Revelation speaks of those who survive the time of great distress, or the time of “Great Tribulation.” Revelation is talking about the Communion of Saints—those whom we celebrate with this feast today, the saints with whom we join our prayers daily and at every celebration of the Eucharist. These saints used to be just like us—right here, who experience joys, sorrows, sadness and pain. Saints don’t become saints because they are somehow impervious to suffering or shielded from temptation. They come through the path of sanctification just like you and me—through a trial of fire. But the reason the Church calls them saints is because their lives are a testimony to us of how to accept difficulty and suffering with grace—even joy—and to recognize ourselves as blessed and as God’s children.

For every saint we celebrate by name today, there are millions more who have lived silent lives glorifying God in their everyday tasks. And that is how every one of us is sanctified—not only by writing a great treatise like St. Thomas Aquinas, or by extraordinary service like Blessed Mother Teresa, but by offering our everyday lives to the glory of God.

That is the path to sanctification.

Today we celebrate this Eucharist in honor of the Communion of Saints: those great ones we know by name and the millions we don’t know who are also in God’s presence. And we pray for their intercession to aid us and the hundreds of millions of saints-in-the-making who share this earth with us now that we will all persevere, run the race to the end, and enter into God’s presence as they have done.