Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why, Lord?—26th Wednesday of Ordinary Time (Cycle II)

Job 9:1–12, 14–16; Luke 9:57–62

            Why do bad things happen to good people? That question seems to be at the forefront of Job's story. There's a whole branch of theology that we refer to as theodicy dedicated to this question and the question of God's divine attributes. Job seems to be an early student of this mystery.
            Job's story is one that doesn't really fit with the rest of the Hebrew canon. And that makes sense because it's not originally a Hebrew story. It seems to be pre-Mosaic: it originated prior to the Exodus and contains early and late Hebrew vocabulary, makes no mention of a priesthood, and doesn't refer to God as Adonai or Elohim, nor does it use the Tetragrammaton typical of the other Hebrew books—what many people pronounce incorrectly as Yahweh or Jehovah.[i] The story takes place before the days of the Abrahamic patriarchs.
            It seems a bit cruel that El—which is the word for God—allows Satan to try Job in this way, but notice what God says and what He doesn't say. He doesn't say, "Do your worst." He says, "All he has is in your power, only do not touch him." So let me suggest this reading. He is not tempting Satan to test Job but reminding Satan that he's the power on earth because of mankind's fall, and He, the Lord, forbids him to hurt Job directly. He permits the evil that Satan plans, but does not allow Satan to attack Job physically.
            Job seems to understand that the trial is not tied to his worthiness, but he admits his inability to understand why he is allowed to suffer, and that is our own dilemma, isn't it? Why do faithful people suffer? Why do those who love and serve God suffer? So our question and Job's is as old as recorded history. How do we understand suffering in the face of God's justice and goodness?
            So why do we suffer? Notice that Job's suffering is induced by his loss of family and possessions, but we do realize that these things are transient, right? We will always lose these things for the simple reason that people die and material gains decrease. Is it worse to lose them at once or incrementally? Well, I think most of us would agree that sudden loss is worse than a slow, incremental loss because we think and experience our world in the manner of time. But the ultimate end is a loss of all material possessions and all of our loved ones in this temporal world. As Qoheleth wrote in Ecclesiastes, "All things are vanity."
            In the Gospel of Luke, we're given no reprieve. Jesus is telling us to let it go now. So you want to follow me? You know that I own less than the beasts in the field, don't you?" He was countering those who sought to follow out of a desire to gain power. You need to bury your past? The past belongs to the past. You want to do my work but need to turn your attention to home? How can you do your work if you are constantly looking over shoulder?
            Is Jesus really saying, don't bury your dead and don't say good bye to your family? Of course not. Simple charity requires such things. Our Catholic tradition requires such corporal works. But what He is saying is what He said to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John: "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father." He is talking about clinging to what is here and now. Do not cling to security. Do not cling to the past. Do not cling to the things of the present. All of this will pass away.
            And that includes our pain and suffering. We may not understand its purpose, but if we cling to the pain, we will never discover its purpose. If we cling, we cannot be healed, and we cannot be redeemed. It was only through death that Christ brought about our redemption, and death to ourselves and our clinging is what allows us to be joined with Christ, to be Divinized and made one with Him.

[i] "Book of Job." Theopedia. Accessed Sept. 27, 2016.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

We are our scars.

I've had an interesting week. I've been praying for discernment for direction in my vocation for a number of months now, and this week has brought a number of changes and new assignments that will really give me an opportunity to see if what I think I want is really what I want or what would be good for me. This weekend's challenge was that I was coordinating a spirituality session for Servant School (our diocesan program for deacon and lay ministry formation), and the priest who was teaching had no one to cover a scheduled Mass at a station church. So in addition to setting up recording equipment at the location for the lesson (which turned out to be fruitless), I also had to go out to Oreana, a tiny community in Owyhee County, to preside at a communion service at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church.

The people appreciated that I came on short notice, and I made note of the fact that I scrambled to get a homily together, with some obvious issues of comedic (or literary) quality. But it was a good experience, and I saw some vistas of Southern Idaho that I'd never seen before. It's amazing how you can  live in a state and be completely oblivious to the majestic vistas it holds. The Owyhees are a perfect example.

Anyhoo, after I watched my grandson Nathyn's team trounce their opponents (with Nathyn carrying the ball for 5 yards, and playing on both offensive and defensive lines), and then watching BSU slog through a messy win over OSU (second PAC-12 win this season), I went to wash dishes. AS I usualy do, I put on Pandora to listen as I worked. One of the artists in my mix is a Christian singer who, for some reason I don't know, just tugs on my heart. Sometimes her songs strike me as sappy, but some of her early songs really capture the sense of lostness, brokenness, and darkness that we encounter. I recall reading an interview with Bono about Christian pop music, and one of the things he noted was the fact that so many of these popular artists don't grapple with the challenges of being a Christian, essentially the essence of the Christian mission itself—to pick up our cross and follow Him.

I apparently listen to a lot of Christian music that doesn't fall into that category, but I can see Bono's point. And the song from this one artist I really like falls precisely into the category he mentions.

The line in the song is, "And you wear your scars like they're who you are." The implication is, of course, that your scars don't define you.

And I was listening to that, I thought, "No, my scars ARE who I am." In a way, I thought the statement to be profoundly un-Catholic, and I should certainly expect that since the artist in question isn't Catholic...

...because while our scars don't delimit us our chain us to our past, they most certainly define us—not totally but in part.

I think of where I am in my spiritual life (and I'm by no means advanced), and I consider where I have grown the most and learned to rely on God the most. I'm sure it's no surprise to many of you that those moments of pain and wounding that have caused me to grow most. I've been a practioner of a number of martial arts over the years, and one of the points they impressed on us was that when we feel satisfied with out progress, we are not progressing. When we feel troubled, challenged,, and blocked, then we are progressing.

Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said in the Gospels of Matthew (16:24) and Luke (9:23) that we must pick up our crosses daily.

Anyway, as Catholics, we believe that our actions motivated by faith have an impact on our redemption. We are certainly saved by God's grace in faith through Jesus Christ, but we also have to assent to it, to collaborate with it, to cooperate with it. And in our assent, we are healed from those sins that have wounded us.

In the reformed economy of salvation, our sins are covered--disguised, hidden, ignored. That means that we aren't really changed in any ontological sense. We're still depraved sinners, but Jesus graciously overlooks that. I'm simplifying because reformed communities take slightly different positions here. But what they all come down to is that our choices and our growth in faith and grace isn't really a part of our salvation. Our actions have no "merit" for no better term.

In the Catholic economy, the cooperation of the faithful is critical. Our sins are not hidden at baptism but banished. If you look at all mentions of baptism in the New Testament, there is no notion of a symbolic cleansing. It replaces circumcision. It is what Peter notes as the requirement for repentance in Acts 2:38. Jesus Himself commands the Apostles to baptize all nations (28:19), and the 1st letter of Peter says "baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21).

So if our sins are covered over and ignored, any progress we have made by learning from our failings is likewise unimportant. Our scars are not who we are.

But if we are both the impact of grace in our lives, our faith, and the results of our cooperation with that grace and faith, then our scars are who we are. Our scars are the reminder of our woundedness and our decision to embark on a path of healing rather than our decision to choose a path that leads to more wounds and our destruction. Scars are a symbol of healing, not a symbol of sin. They are the sign that we have chosen the cross. The wide path is littered with those who have bled out because they never recognized their wound and sought healing. A scar is the very sign of repentance. So we are our scars. They signify our repentance, our change, and our reconciliation. They are not our totality, but if they have not shaped and formed us, then we are not truly repentant, and we have not grown spiritually. We haven't truly taken up our cross.

Whom do you trust?—25th Saturday of Ordinary Time (Cycle II)

            We have an interesting, if not particularly uplifting, selection for our readings today. It's actually rather fitting to have these reminders of the final temporal end of human life given that we have just officially passed into autumn. If you've ever read Moby Dick, you might recall the narrator, Ishmael, reflecting on "the damp, drizzly November in my soul." And we've had just a little of that dampness and drizzle as autumn officially begins.
            Our first reading from Ecclesiastes delivers a message that I wish I had heard when I was an adolescent. Now, I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Many of us blew off the teachings of our parents and the Church, assuming all of those consequences would never come to call, that our chickens wouldn't come home to roost. And of course, if there was ever an egg of the Catholic faith laid in the nest of our hearts, we did experience the consequences. And thank God for that, because that egg hatched and brought many of us back to the practice of the faith.
            I would now like to sincerely apologize for that awful metaphor. I put this homily together in a hurry last night after I learned that Fr. Vogel needed me to preside at this communion service.
            Jesus' message to us in the Gospel of Luke makes the same point, but He personalizes it. Rather than some generic youth coming to suffer in his later years, Jesus says, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men." I am going into bondage and suffering. The Twelve and the disciples don't get it. They still think that the coming of the Messiah is going to be all Skittles and ponies. In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth is warning the young that they too will experience this dwindling, this failing of the body, this diminishment. We who are full of our own power, full of our own strength, full of our own ability—our powers will fade. We come into our adult life full of the false promises of the world. And Qoheleth reminds us that our time is coming.
            Notice how different that is from our Lord. He has no illusions about whether He will suffer. The disciples can't fathom it. The idea that the Messiah would fall doesn't fit into their concept of the Messiah. Even now, that is what you'll hear from Jews about Jesus: He isn't the Messiah they were looking for. And that's because they didn't and don't understand what is at stake. But Jesus understands that His temporal defeat will be an eternal victory. That is the good news. That is the very heart of the gospel.
            But the difference here is in the matter of trust. Who do you trust? Do you trust your own faculties? Do you trust someone else to rescue you? Our Lord knew that He would die, but He also knew that His death would conquer death. He knew that His temporal suffering would be an eternal end to suffering for those who believed. Qoheleth's warning goes out to those who put their trust in vanities. Jesus' warning goes out to those who think that we will glide through life unscathed. Jesus said in Matthew and Luke, if you want to be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me—not "Hop in your Jaguar and follow me," but the way of suffering. Jesus was not on board with the prosperity gospel. He preached the way of suffering and self giving, because the only way to get out of this constant bustle for more—for mine, for my own... is through self sacrifice.

            And He lived it. That there is our reminder of His self giving. And that is the way of our own redemption.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Prodigal Life: 24th Sunday for Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32
            I have a rosary that was given to me by a friend. He took up making rosaries after he came into the Church, and when I came back and was confirmed, he made this one for me. I treasure it because of the love with which he made it and simply because it's beautiful. It wasn't until about the time I was in diaconal formation that I recognized the image on the center medal here just above the crucifix. Many rosaries have an image of the Blessed Mother or Jesus, or both in the Pieta, or the Holy Family. There are many to choose from depending on the theme rosary makers have in mind.
            But I walked into the parish office one day, back when it was in what is now the Riffle Center, and I came face to face with a print in the reception area. I thought, "Wait, that looks familiar." It was a print of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. And that is the same image on the center medal of my rosary. Many of you probably remember the story of my ordination day, so you probably see how fitting it is for this to be the image on my rosary. The story of the Prodigal Son is the story of my life. And if I asked you to raise your hands if it's your life story as well, I bet we would see a lot of hands.
            The reading today from St. Paul's first letter to Timothy is a recognition of his own prodigality. He plays both parts here. First, he is the older brother judging the younger—the one who would persecute the guilty rather than exercise mercy. Then he recognizes his own deep need for God's mercy and becomes, in the same passage, the younger brother.
            I too can see myself in both brothers: the one who took his inheritance and squandered it, and the older son who judged the younger. I've looked at others and deemed them unworthy of my mercy. Thank God I am not their judge, and thank God I have repented from that perspective.
            As I prepared for this homily, I mentioned to Deb Chester, our RCIA Coordinator and Deacon Mac's long-suffering wife, that the Prodigal Son's story is mine. She said, "I have been each character." And I guess that goes for me, too. I've been both sons, and I am the father in waiting for the return of the prodigal. And I know that many of you are waiting for prodigals to return. We like to think that it's a product of our times, but this gospel reading suggests otherwise. We are not the first generation to worry about our children's salvation.
            Ultimately, of course, this gospel reading is about God's unrelenting mercy, His unwillingness to stop seeking us—because that's really what's happening in our conversion. God is pursuing us. We might think we're chasing Him and seeking Him, but our effort is always a fraction of the effort of God's as He tries to break though to us. If you consider the first two parables from the gospel today—how the shepherd and the woman in the house both go rather overboard in response to finding the sheep or finding the coin. That's what Jesus is saying to us: God's joy at bringing us back is so completely different than how we expect Him to respond.
            Let's talk about the lost son here a bit more. He asks his father to give him what will come to him—his inheritance, which would usually only come to him after the father's death. What is he saying to his father? He's essentially saying, "You are dead to me." The wealth of his father is more important to him than his relationship to his father. Now, according to Mosaic law, the parents in such a situation would be completely within their rights to demand the son's execution. The father could simply refuse and then turn the son over to the religious authorities. But that's not what he does. Instead, he gives the son what he desires.
            And when his son returns and repents, the father welcomes him back joyously and generously, holding nothing back. His son was lost but now he is found—dead but now alive.
            When I think of the younger brother's recognition of his state and his decision to repent, I remember a song by one of my favorite bands, the Classic Crime. The first verse is this: "I'm like a lost boy looking for my father in the wilderness, days in the wrong direction, wondering if I'll ever see his face again."
            The younger son has been looking in the wrong direction and he has come to the recognition that he is lost. That was me. That might've been you at some point. And that is probably many of our children right now. They've listened to the directives of the world, and it has pointed them in the wrong direction. And at some point they may come to that realization that they are lost, but they don't wonder about the Father's face. They often don't remember it. They can't seem to see God's face. They can't find Jesus in the world around them.
            Again, this is nothing new. Look at the Israelites in the first reading. God has just led them out of Egypt—out of bondage. But no sooner than He has freed them and given them a sure guide to stay free in the Law of Moses than they dive headfirst back into bondage. What's more, they credit an inanimate object for their freedom: :This thing, this golden calf that was just now created in our midst has freed us from bondage." That seems so bizarre. They follow a pillar of flame and smoke across the desert and through the Red Sea and turn around to give credit to a lump of metal.
            Sort of like us.
            Don't we do this as well? Look at all the intangible gifts we have: life, love, our own unique talents and abilities. From where do these immaterial things come but from an immaterial God? But what do we use as the measure of our worthiness or success? The lump of metal parked in our driveway! That chunk of land and the house that's built on it! We're so focused on the material gifts that we forget the immaterial gift giver, our Father. It's no wonder, then, that our children don't see him and don't remember His face.
            And part of that responsibility lies in us as well. We are God's hands and feet in this world. Do our wayward children see us being Christ in the world? A recent Pew study suggested that one of the reasons children leave their faith is because Christians don't seem to act any better than anyone else. I will admit that this was one of my excuses as well when I was away from the Church—mostly because I didn't really know what a Christian looked like or acted.
            We have to remember justice and mercy together. We have to remember that God's justice is His mercy. They go together. St. Paul understood this. Moses understood this. Do we?
            God uses every attempt He can to reach us, and very often He uses others to reach us—people who will disrupt our patterns, defy our expectations, and derail our plans. Many times He uses means that put discordance into our lives. And sometimes by shocking us with His beauty. St. Augustine captured this in his Confessions when he spoke of us own conversion in one of my favorite passages in western literature:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
We create these walls—the ones that trap us in lives of dissolution, the ones that land us in sties hungering for the slop of pigs, the ones that cause us to cling to hunks of metal rather than real relationship. And God still tries to break through to us. That is that unrelenting mercy and generosity of the Father to His children.

            Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Fifteen years later, we are no closer to stopping terrorism. Whatever unity we had has long faded. While aggression of that kind cannot go unanswered, we need to remember that the ultimate solution to the conflict in our world is not in our actions and works but in our trust and faith in the generous Father who calls us ever back to Him. If all Catholics truly turned to Him and sought His will, the world would be a much different place. Our hearts will be restless until we rest in Him.