Sunday, June 14, 2015

Be a Sower of Good Seed—Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Ezekiel 17:22–24; 2 Corinthians 5:6–10; Mark 4:26–34
When I was in fifth grade, I had a rather unpleasant teacher. She was on any given day harsh for one reason or another. I remember one day in particular when she had had enough from all of us and proceeded to go desk by desk to dress each of us down. When she got to me, she asked, "What do you want to do when you grow up?"
At the time, I was still very much identifying with my father, who was a pediatrician, and so I said, "I want to be a pediatrician."
She sneered at that and responded, "Heh. I would never take my children to you."
Now whether her comment truly dissuaded me from pursuing medicine, I don't know. But I don't think I ever considered medicine again after that day. The seed had been planted.
I had other teachers—far better teachers—who planted in me a love for music and literature. My father, too, encouraged me, especially in music. They planted seeds that later became important elements in my life and shaped my education and direction for many years. They might not have caused the gifts in me to take root and grow, but they planted the seeds, and God supplied the rest. God made the ground fertile for the reception. God created the process by which a seed receives what it needs from the soil, the sun, the air, and the water.
And God determines the purpose for each. In Ezekiel, the purpose of the tree is not the tree itself. The tree doesn't exist for its own sake but for the purpose God has ordained for it. If it does not grow toward that purpose, it withers and dies. But even the weakest cutting, if it grows toward the end ordained for it, can attain its purpose. It can grow into a large bush or shrub or tree that gives shade, that bears fruit, or that gives a place for the birds and animals to seek shelter. Jesus uses the same image to show how something as small and insignificant as a mustard seed can grow into something much larger. The kingdom of God starts not as some grandiose project but by planting one seed.
The farmer sows his fields and tends them, but he doesn't know how God makes the field sprout and grow. He simply does what he can until the harvest. And when the harvest comes, he works to bring in the yield, a yield he helped to produce but can't explain and certainly cannot claim as his doing alone.
That's the way it is with the kingdom of God. We don't understand everything that our actions here do, what seeds they plant, what shoots they water. We just muddle through and hope that we plant something that is good and useful.
Some of us are challenged in that area. I seem to raise a new crop of broadleaves and puncture vine every other week. I hope that's not a reflection of my pastoral efforts.
But seriously, we have so little notion of how our actions affect the lives around us, how our example as Catholic Christians plants seeds in the lives of other people, or how they stir others to action. And sometimes the people in whom we plant these seeds go on to do things so far beyond what we have done that it puts us to shame.
How many of you parents and educators out there have encouraged a young person and watched them grow into an amazing human being (raise hand)? Sometimes those very same kids struggled with challenges that might have taken them the wrong direction. But people fostered them, planted seeds of hope in them, and gave them courage to overcome and excel.
It is the same with faith. We plant seeds in the hearts of others that take root, and with the grace of the Holy Spirit, bring conversion, faith, and virtue. We may never know what we said or did to cause this to happen, but I think everyone of us can remember someone in their lives who planted a seed of faith in them that led them to a deeper understanding of and relationship in Christ. It may have been through something they said or through a very specific act. Or it may simply be how they lived their lives in Christian joy. We often don't know what we did or said, but God can take everything we do and multiply it like Christ did with loaves and fishes. God can take the smallest, most insignificant seed and raise up from it a tree. We just have to be there to plant the seed. That's the way it is with all of our efforts, as small as they may be. They would be nothing except for God's ability to magnify them and do great things with them.
But we don't always plant seeds of faith, or hope, or love. We don't always show the joy we should as children of God. Sometimes we show our disdain for others, our pettiness, our selfishness, our worldliness. Sometimes we self-righteously proclaim our seed to be good because "Jesus never said anything against it." Or maybe it's good seed that we ourselves poison because of our bitterness. Sometimes we toss that seed around with no consideration of where it lands or what damage it does. My 5th-grade teacher probably didn't know how here words cut and thought she was just redirecting me to be more responsible. Maybe the anger I vented at the driver who cut me off made an impression on the child in the back seat—especially when he sees the Salt & Light Radio bumper sticker on my car. Maybe the children who live with the ultra-conservative or ultra-progressive parents see that their parents' words don't match their actions. Maybe we need to be careful about the seed that we plant.
St. Anthony of Padua, a 13th century doctor of the Church, said this in a homily over 800 years ago: "It is useless for a man to flaunt his knowledge of the law if he undermines its teaching by his actions."
Our actions are the seed we have to plant.
The quality of the seed matters and how it is handled matters. No doubt, God can make great things happen out of the most awful circumstances, but that is in spite of the bad seed, not because of it.
Be a sower of good seed and tend your seedlings well so that we can hasten the coming of the kingdom.


Thursday, June 04, 2015

Why I came back to the Catholic Church

Elizabeth Scalia is asking bloggers to tell why they're Catholic.

Long story short—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

That explanation is rarely sufficient for nonbelievers, and I don't blame them. I was a nonbeliever for 23 years and a cradle Catholic. I received wholly inadequate catechetical instruction from age 8 on, but my early formation was close enough to the end of VII that some of that traditional doctrine got into my head and lay dormant. My parents were very active in the charismatic movement, which was high on emotion but not particularly useful for formation. And so I took the whole thing less and less seriously. By junior high school, my moral formation was pretty much undermined (having no solid foundation and some experiences that left me in a dubious state). I chose not to be confirmed, and I drifted little by little into agnosticism. My course work at a regional Catholic university pretty much sealed the deal. (While historical-critical method might be useful for scholars, it's not something you spring on poorly formed Catholic freshmen.)

When I started my way back, I had spent a a good deal of time in progressive academic circles and thought of myself as being educated and rational. I knew I needed to have some kind of spiritual community but wasn't sure which. I started attending Mass with my then wife and next-door neighbors. I wouldn't recite the Credo or receive communion because I knew that I didn't accept Christ as Son of God, although I hadn't really analyzed arguments for His Divinity. I'm not sure why I didn't receive communion at the time, but I suspect something remained of my early formation. I knew it wouldn't be right.

I piddled around with a Unitarian Universalist congregation for a while, but that never seemed to work. Half of them were agnostic, and others were more pantheistic or panentheistic with a tendency toward New Age cafeteria-style spirituality. And I found more than a few of them to be rather mean spirited (although there were certainly also some very kind people there). (My own dalliance with New Age nonsense can be found here in the post following my ordination.)

My neighbor (the one who went to Mass with us) actually helped me to open myself again to the possibility of the Catholic faith. He loaned me some short apologetic books he had, and I started to digging more deeply. I scheduled a meeting with the pastor of the local parish to discuss my re-entry. What I recall is his openness to my questions (and I came loaded for bear), his lack of sanctimoniousness, and his sense of humor. I told him, "I can't just turn my brain off at the door and accept these teachings."

He said, "Good, because the Church teaches that we should have faith, but not blind faith." He explained that we are supposed to engage reason and faith in our search for truth. Now, I have to admit that while my father had introduced me to some of St. Thomas's arguments for the existence of God, my mother tended to eschew rationality in regards faith. Since she had had more influence on my faith formation, I assumed that the Church was also anti-reason. To hear that the Church actually encouraged us to grapple with Truth was stunning. I decided to give it another try.

And what I found was a system of belief that began in reason and then applied it to revealed truth to construct a system that was rational, consistent, and beautiful. And I came to believe that Truth is not something but somebody. I saw reverberations in Greek thought. I saw the same notions in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. But here was a historical figure who claimed to be the Son of God... to be the thought (conception) of God, and who altered human history by His incarnation.

My search was not for faith that felt good but for faith in the Truth. If I came to learn that the Church did not have the fullness of the Truth, I would be gone immediately, but I don't believe that will ever happen.