Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Give Generously to TOUCO

I have a couple of links to some programs Gina and I like to support: Catholic Cross International Outreach and Salesian Missions. Both of these organizations are excellent, and we trust them to use our donations wisely. However, a new link will be going up shortly for a project that is near to our hearts.

First, let me tell you about my spiritual director, Fr. Bruno Denyutali Mgaya. He came here from Tanzania to complete his doctoral studies in sociology. While he worked on his dissertation, he took a position at a parish in our diocese. He very quickly became a much-sought confessor, and it is not unusual to see long lines of people waiting outside his confessional on Saturday afternoons. (Fortunately, spiritual direction also provides ample time for confession.)

Fr. Bruno was orphaned when he was 13 and had to work to finish school and seminary.  His experience formed his sense of mission, and he has since been looking at how to develop homes for orphans that allow for children to grow in an atmosphere of dignity, mutual support, and self respect. And so the concept of TOUCO was born.

Currently, the project consists of three homes with 10 to 12 children each and a Mama Mkubwa (typically a widow or single mother recruited by the local villages). Support currently comes from outside, but the aim is to help each home become self sustaining. Fr. Bruno believes strongly that it is not just to ask people (meaning those of us here) to simply take on the support of others who are not willing to work and grow to support themselves. Consequently, the children learn how to do things that most of us don't (like digging their own wells for water or terrace the landscape for farming). They will be learning how to expand their own homes, plant and harvest their crops, market their produce, and more.

If you'd like to know more about the project, or perhaps to help support it financially, please go read more at Tanzania Orphans' Upendo Community.

Fr. Bruno (now Rev. Dr. Bruno) is returning to get some new building projects started, and eventually he will leave us permanently to return and continue his work there. I hope someday I can travel there and contribute whatever talents I have. Until then, I'll be here asking for your support for TOUCO.

And please pass a link to this post along to anyone who might be interested.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Are you ready for the Way?—Fifth Sunday of Easter (Cycle A)

Acts 6:1–7; 1 Peter 2: 4–9; John 14: 1–12
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Last week, Jesus called himself the sheepfold, the gate through which the true shepherds and their sheep could be saved. Today, in a completely different context, he says that he is the way. What does this mean?
The Gospel of John is the most theological of the gospels, so we can expect to grapple with Jesus’ words here. And much of it simply has to be accepted as a matter of faith. When Jesus says that he is the Truth, we have to accept that this is a mystery. John calls Jesus the Logos—that’s a Greek word that indicates that he is the word or thought of God the Father. Everything that the Father conceives in His intellect is passed to the Son because the Son is the one complete and perfect image that God the Father has of himself. When Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father in me,” he speaks the truth because he is the fullness of truth with and in the Father from the beginning. That’s understandably difficult for us to grasp.
When He says that he is the life, we again have to accept on faith that He created us and gave life to us. He continues to give us this life through his body and blood. The baptism he proclaimed raises us from death to life. His own death destroyed death forever to bring us eternal life. In chapter 6 of this gospel, after Jesus has made the scandalous suggestion that people must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he turns to the twelve apostles and asks if they too will leave him, and Peter says, “To where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This they have to accept on faith, even though they don’t know where it will lead them. So, too, do we accept all of this on faith.
He is life. And he is truth. As difficult as these claims are, the apostles don’t question him but simply accept them on faith.
It’s strange, then, what causes the confusion. Jesus says that they can follow him because they know the way. Thomas asks point blank, “How can we know the way?” And the response is baffling.
I am the way.”
What does this mean? What is Jesus claiming to be? To a Jew in first century Palestine, this approaches blasphemy. “The way” is how they spoke of the Torah and the Law of Moses, but here’s Jesus among a bunch of Jews saying, “I am the way.” Not the Law of Moses. Not temple sacrifice and observance. But He himself. That was the scandal of Christianity for early Jews—that Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That claim was appalling to them.
In our own time, I think we have become a bit complacent—a bit too sure of the gospel, even if we as Catholics aren’t the best at proclaiming it. But the truth is becoming a scandal again. To claim that Christ is the exclusive way to the Father—to God—is these days scandalous. To suggest that God’s commandments are real and that there are real consequences for ignoring them—that is scandalous.
The age of a lukewarm Christianity and Catholic faith is coming to an end. We have to face the scandal of a man who claimed to be the only way to the Father, who claimed to be the way, and the truth, and the life. It won’t do anymore to claim to be a Christian but not to recognize the claims Christ makes on us. It won’t do anymore to only be committed to the benefits of the Christian faith. We will soon have to commit ourselves to the liabilities.
That, of course, was the case from the beginning. To truly embrace Christ and take him as savior has always been costly. Jesus didn’t tell us to pick up our golf clubs and follow him. He didn’t tell us to hop in our Lexus and follow him. He didn’t say, “Follow me downtown to my great condo in the Royal Plaza.” He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have earthly goods in this life, but understand that when God blesses us, he also obligates us. Those of us who have done well, we are obligated to provide for others. And no, we don’t get to let Uncle Sam do that work for us. The government is not our proxy in loving our neighbor. We have to do that ourselves. And that obligation extends to every aspect of our lives. We can’t put our faith in a box with our Sunday best and take it out for only one hour on the weekends. It must be lived, and it must be lived on God’s terms, not on our own.
So Jesus shows us a way, and whether it’s a way that looks attractive, it is the way that leads to the Father. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering. But it is also the way of glory. Jesus is the way, and we follow the way by doing as he did: by loving our enemies, by praying for those who persecute us, by giving away all we have to follow him. That’s what it means to accept and follow the way.
Our reading from Acts points us to two exemplars of those who embrace the way. The Twelve chose the seven, and the seven were ordained with the laying on of hands, which is the traditional form of ordination. Two of these ordained are the subject of stories almost immediately, and both of their stories tell us what our response to Jesus should be. First we have Stephen, considered by the Church to be the first deacon martyr. In chapter 7 of Acts, Stephen witnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection and then is himself martyred. He imitates Christ by testifying regardless of the cost, and he follows Jesus in his death by asking God to forgive those who murder him. Just after that event, we hear of Phillip traveling to Samaria, where he preaches, heals, and baptizes. He does precisely what Jesus did and what Jesus commanded.
So both of these men follow the way of Jesus by doing what he did and what he commanded the Apostles to do: to preach the gospel and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St. Stephen was ready to pay up in full. We know the stories of the other Apostles. Eleven out of the 12 were martyred for their faith, and Christians existed under the threat of persecution for hundreds of years. And so history repeats itself. Christians right now are the number one persecuted population throughout the world.
The message in today’s readings is clear. If you accept Jesus as your savior, there are demands that faith makes on your life. The gift of grace is free, but the commitment of faith will cost you, and it may cost you everything.

Are we ready to pay that price? Do we recognize Jesus—the way, the truth and the life? Are we ready to pick up our cross and follow him?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Our Shepherd and King: Fourth Sunday of Easter (Cycle A)

Acts 2:14a–36–41; Psalm: 23; 1 Peter 2:20b–25; John 10:1–10

We have a common image in our readings this week: the image of the shepherd. First, we see the first shepherd of the Church appointed by Jesus, Peter, speaking during Pentecost. Then we have the famous Psalm 23, which likens God to a shepherd in whose care the sheep want or lack nothing. In 1 Peter, we hear that we should follow in the footsteps of the shepherd, who is Jesus. And then in the gospel, Jesus calls himself the gate of the sheepfold, through which only true shepherds can go in and out.
Middle- and near-eastern history gives us two contradictory impressions of the shepherd. First, there is the image of king as shepherd. If you’ve ever seen an image of a pharaoh’s sarcophagus or statue, you might have noticed that he holds a crook and a flail. That crook represented to the ancient Egyptians the pharaoh’s role as their leader and protector, and the flail represented him as the provider of grain and flour for his flock. And of course, the Israelites followed suit, taking David, a shepherd, as their hero and king. The notion of king as shepherd was common in the near east in the first few millennia BC, and you can see how at very least it was captured in the trappings of the Egyptian king. And David’s Psalm 23 depicts God as a shepherd who cares for His flock and guides them to where they are safe and can graze and live abundantly.
Oddly, during the time of Christ, shepherds were among the lowest of the low. They were outcastes—perhaps considered only slightly above prostitutes and tax collectors in the reckoning of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were unwashed, smelly, and coarse in habit, certainly not keeping the purification rituals out there in the fields. They left their wives home unprotected, and they were considered guilty of any number of sins of impurity.
The shepherds, of course, would be exactly the people Jesus was trying to reach. He always sought the outcaste, the lost. Interestingly, the shepherds were counted among the lost sheep of Israel. And Jesus mixed with these sheep. To the religious Jews, he no doubt smelled like those sheep. The image Jesus uses here in John turns the tables on the relationships between the outcastes and the religious Jews and Pharisees.
In the gospel reading, Jesus is addressing a group of Pharisees who have just seen a blind man healed by Jesus, and they challenge Jesus to say whether they too are blind, in a figurative sense. They have just called him out for healing on the Sabbath. So first he calls them blind, and then he suggests that they are thieves and robbers. Jesus wasn’t exactly diplomatic. After he tells them they’re blind and likens them to thieves, he puts the outcastes above them. He says that the shepherds—the real shepherds—will lead the flocks through Him to salvation. Jesus is the gate to the sheepfold, and he knows the true shepherds because he chooses them himself.
Now, of course, we don’t look down so much on shepherds in our culture, simply because we’re not very aware of them. But sheep don’t have such a great image in our society. If you’ve ever dealt with sheep, you know that they’re not the brightest creatures. They don’t smell very good, and when they get lost or confused, they plop down and bleat until someone comes to rescue them. They need guidance, and they need protection—protection often from their own inclinations.
This week’s readings encourage us to trust our shepherds: whether it’s Jesus himself or those to whom his authority has been entrusted—our bishops and pastors. The Latin word for shepherd—pastor—literally means “feeder,” so it works really well with our ecclesiology—or our notion of Church, since we are a sacramental and Eucharistic Church. Not all denominations have pastors who are so clearly tied to feeding. Our Lord was born in Bethlehem, a name that means “the house of bread.” As a newborn, He was laid in a manger—feeding trough where livestock eat. He is called for us the Bread of Life. So I find it a wonderful coincidence that the word for shepherd—an image he uses so frequently—stands for someone who is in our midst to feed us, as Fr. Henry will do in just a few minutes right here.
Sadly, we usually don’t look at our pastors with that level of respect or entrust them with that level of trust. We in the U.S. are so averse to authority. We don’t like any person telling us what we should do. As a culture, we’ve rejected the entire notion of collective moral values. We see them as binding and enslaving. No one can tell us what to do! They can’t make us do what the Church says!
Which sounds a whole lot like, “You’re not the boss of me” when we get right down to it. We sound a bit more like goats than sheep. We view guidance as oppression, never recognizing the slavery that comes from having no guidance, no boundaries, and no discipline. But this stems from our dysfunctional understanding authority.
Think of Psalm 23. It says, “Your rod and staff comfort me.” What does a shepherd do with his rod and staff? He prods the sheep when needed. He moves them from side to side and guides them. He drags them back with the crook. The tools that the shepherd uses for the sheep are tools of discipline. But they also bring comfort because they bring safety. They can keep the sheep together, but they can also be used to keep predators at bay. Legitimate authority, legitimate discipline brings comfort. This fact is clear enough if you study family dynamics. A household without discipline is chaotic, and the children fearful and out of control. With legitimate discipline, the sheep have freedom to wander where they can and have all that they need. Without it, they are at the mercy of wolves; they are in danger from thieves and robbers.
There is a reason why our bishops’ crosiers are shaped like shepherds’ crooks. It is a reminder to us of their authority—an authority they use to guide and protect. In First Peter, our first Vicar of Christ encourages Christians throughout Asia to return “to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” Peter, acting as Christ vicariously, exercises that same authority—hence the letter itself, perhaps the first Papal encyclical to the whole Christian world. Our bishops derive their authority through the centuries from the Apostles. Their apostolic ministry, then, derives from the same source as Peter’s. They too act vicariously as the shepherd and guardian of souls, when they do their jobs well.
Pope Francis recently said that a shepherd should smell like his flock. He encourages priests and bishops to lead from the front, to mix with their sheep, to stand with them in the midst of the trials and dangers of life. That’s what it means to be a good shepherd. May we all be blessed with such guidance and submit willingly to their Apostolic authority so that we too can say, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” We too can have life and have it more abundantly.