This is a blog that I post to several times a week although not necessarily daily. These reflections are triggered by the scripture found in the lectionary used by many Christian denominations. While I am part of the Catholic tradition, these posts are not --or rarely--sectarian. I try to put myself in the space of a of Jesus Christ and listen to words that come to me as I read and pray the scriptures. Each post also includes a photograph. These rarely have any connection to the content of the post but are simply pleasing images that I capture as I make my pilgrimage through life.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Which comes first: forgiveness or acceptance?

Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah GA
Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus heard this and said to them,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." 
Mark 2:16-17
This little story about the earliest stage in the ministry of Jesus holds particular meaning for those of us who are Christians in 21st century America.  These few lines are significant because they present to different, even contradictory, approaches to living a life of faithfulness.  The scholars who question the disciples are members of a sect of Jews we have come to know as Pharisees.  We don't know a lot about this sect.  It was not a large group.  It did not have all that much influence.  Its power was based on its approach to a righteous life which focused on detailed compliance with the rules and regulations of religious practice.  Jesus once criticized them for laying heavy burdens of observance on ordinary people.  They were particularly concerned with the laws of purity and the necessity of living within a community of believers and excluding non-believers.

They were scandalized by Jesus' insistence on fellowship with a diverse set of people, especially non-Jews, publicly recognized sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and others concerned unclean, and the poor and imprisoned.  This was made even worse by his failure to abide by rules of ritual purity and the sabbath.  His very existence and life was an affront to the central self identity of the Pharisees.  While the Pharisees sought to influence people through their detailed and rule-based religious observance, Jesus was generating a large following by seemingly living in direct opposition to their rules and judgments.  His popularity was an indictment of their core principles.  This dynamic helps me understand the intensity of their opposition to Jesus, culminating in his death.  He was a threat to their existence.

So there are two approaches to living a righteous life.  The first focuses on rules and regulations and a life enclosed within a community of "true believers."  The other focuses on relationships with all kinds of people and does not make "righteousness" a requirement of fellowship and acceptance.  It was not the case that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with former sinners and tax collectors.  He clearly intended to all include all especially those who were "sick" and just those who were well.  The love of his father was not exclusive and he was intent on living a life that reflected that all inclusive love.

During my lifetime, Catholicism in the United States has grown from a "ghetto" religion into one squarely in the mainstream of American culture.  That transition is a challenge and is on-going.  It is easier to maintain your identity within a community of like-minded true believers but that is not the world into which we are called to be disciples.  How to maintain our identity and spontaneity in a world whose values are inimical to ours is our central challenge.  The message of Jesus, to me at least, is not to turn our backs on the world and retreat into closed communities but rather to trust the inclusive love of the Divine One.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Don't just stand there. Do something!

Discovery Cube, Orange County Science Center
By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said,
"This is a deserted place and it is already very late. 
Dismiss them so that they can go 
to the surrounding farms and villages
and buy themselves something to eat." 
He said to them in reply,
"Give them some food yourselves."   Mark 6:35-37
 As Jesus and his disciples sought to get away by themselves, people from the region figured out where they were headed and they found a huge crowd waiting for them.  Jesus looked at these people and " had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things."  The content of his teaching is not included but we surely know that he taught the message described in 1 John 3:23-24.
"[They]...should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us."
 And further that Spirit is love as John makes clear in today's first reading.

This passage describes one of the miracles or wonders performed by Jesus.  This miracle tends to obscure the fundamental message of the story and the reason why we can still read it today with some sense of relevance to our own lives.  Admittedly the miracles of Jesus have always been a problem for me.  It seems so unlikely that Jesus, living as a fully human person, could cause all these physical miracles and cures.  Yet Christians believe that he is fully divine.  Stories such as this one are often cited as proof of the divinity of Jesus the Christ.  If they are all true, it seems hard to deny that there was something supernatural about this person.  Multiplying a few loaves and fish to feed a crowd of more than 5,000 seems pretty strong evidence.  Yet, it did not convince Jesus' contemporaries.  There were still plenty of people, arguably the vast majority, who did not recognize him as Messiah, let alone as the Son of God, whatever that might have meant to them. 

There are two questions here.  Do I have to believe these stories as historically accurate in order to be a Christian.  Second, what is the message of this passage for me today?  I have been reading Dynamics of Faith (1957) by Paul Tillich, one of the major Christian theologians of the 20th Century.  According to Tillich, "faith is the state of being ultimately concerned:  the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of humanity's ultimate concern."  The language of faith deal with symbols, images that express the ultimate concern of human beings.  The language of faith is not historically accurate narrative, scientific analysis, or philosophical reasoning.  Faith is about stories and images that convey the ultimate concerns, concerns that take precedence over other concerns.  As others have pointed out, the historicity of biblical stories is, respectfully, beside the point.  The stories tells us what our predecessors in the faith have believed, what they have held as ultimate concerns.  So I can have my doubts about the miracles and still be a committed Christian.  I can also fully accept the historicity of the biblical narratives and be a committed Christian but not because I believe the stories.  Faith comes from a different place.

So what does this story tell me about the ultimate concern of Jesus, what is he trying to tell me today about my ultimate concern?  It is pretty straightforward.  When I see people in need, I need to do more than just point out the problem and hope that someone will respond.  I need to do something about it.  I may be and feel inadequate to the task but that doesn't get me off the hook.  Doing something, anything, gives shape and reality to my compassion.  And that is what Jesus is trying to point out in this story.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Compassion, not anger

First light in the Grand Canyon

This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.  1 John 3:16-17  Translation from The Message Bible  Daily Lectionary Readings
 At its core, the Christian message is simple.  If I have means and advantages and I see others in need because they do not have those, I am called to compassion and appropriate action.  If I do not, then the love of God disappears from my life because I have closed my self to the Divine's One unending offer of love and life.  This seems straightforward enough when it comes to those caught in poverty or discrimination.  But what about those who are called "the left behind?"

These are the people whose education, skills, and opportunities have not prepared them for the economic realities of the 21st century in America.  They are the ones who assumed that manufacturing jobs would be there for them as they were for their parents and grandparents and now find that the global economy has shifted those jobs beyond their reach.  They have consolidated their isolation and desperation into a political voice that has elected a President who promises a return to the way things used to be and who has demonized migrants and those who are not "real Americans" as the scapegoats for these difficulties.

As someone who came from a lower middle class working family, I find anger rising in me.  My father made clear to me and my siblings that we were going to college so we would be better off than he was.  He harbored no illusions that we, especially his sons, should follow his steps into a well paying job as a mechanic in the local electric utility.  H and my mother sacrificed to send us to excellent high schools and then on to college.  It was not easy for them but they understood what they wanted for their children.  I honestly feel resentment toward those who had the same opportunities open to them but who failed to take advantage of them and I specifically mean white males.  (Being female or African American meant that you did not have the same opportunities.)  I feel resentment when they and their children now demand special accommodations because the world didn't turn out the way they anticipated or hoped it would.  I get particularly upset when they blame the very people who did not these same opportunities:  African-Americans, women, and more recently Latinos.

And yet, my Christian faith calls me to compassion not anger or resentment.  I continue to struggle with this.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My body, my life

Hike in Abraham Lincoln Park, Rochester NY

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this agebut be transformed by the renewal of your mind,that you may discern what is the will of God,what is good and pleasing and perfect. Rom 12:1-2

These two verses from Romans encapsulate the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately this translation used by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the lectionary used in the U.S. uses a literal rather than an idiomatic translation for "your bodies."  Most translations use "your lives" as a more accurate rendering of the underlying meaning.  For the Jews of the first century, there was no distinction between "you" and "your body."  An alive body was the reality of an alive person.  When the early Christians professed a belief in the "resurrection of the body," they were professing a belief in the resurrection of the person into eternal life.  This confusion over "body" and "life" has led to a great deal of angst about what our bodies would look like, where in the universe would we be embodied, etc.  The fact is that Jesus talked about life, not bodies, and promised eternal life.

Unfortunately this use of "body" in this passage can send us into a state of inattention.  We have heard all this before about how we have to sacrifice our body because the body with its ever present danger of uncontrolled sexual desire and behavior is what keeps us from the Holy One and a life of discipleship.  How different it is to consider offering our life to the Holy One so that we are transformed by a new way of thinking that does not force us into the mold of our contemporary culture.  With this new way of thinking, we can, perhaps for the first time, think about what the Divine One desires for us and our lives.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The kingdom of heaven is like....


The kingdom of heaven is like....  Mt 13:44
The 13th chapter of Matthew's gospel is known as the Parable Discourse.  It is a series of parables that all begin with the words quoted above:  "The kingdom of heaven is like" a sower, pearl of great price, a field with a treasure, a field with both wheat and weeds, yeast, mustard seed, etc.  Although the early parables are spoken to crowds that contain both disciples and those who are not, especially the Jewish authorities of various sorts, the later ones are spoken only to the disciples and the great explanation of the parable of the sower is only for the disciples, i.e. those who believe.

Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see will understand the message.  But those who are insulated from new understandings by their engagement with the old will not understand no matter if they hear and they see.  If one comes to Jesus without preconceptions and without unchangeable notions of how things are, one will understand his message.  One will understand what he means by the Kingdom of Heaven.

It seems to me that the Kingdom of Heaven is the reality that is hidden in the "world" and yet provides the ultimate meaning of my life in the world.  It is difficult, though not impossible, to arrive at such a conclusion or one very much like it by focusing on the world and my experience in it.  But the great wisdom men and women of the human tradition have always tried to share their insights with us.  Erich Fromm summarized that wisdom in his conclusion that each of us have to make a fundamental choice or our stance toward life.  His question was simple:  What is most important to us:  to have or to be?  His review of those he called the Great Masters of Living concluded that a full and satisfying human life came from a "being" rather than a "having" orientation.  He included Jesus in this group along with Moses, Marx, Mohamed, Buddha, Freud and others.

The good news of Jesus goes well beyond this important understanding, however.  Jesus was not just concerned with the quality of human life as it unfolds but with life everlasting to which he invited us all.  Most the parables end with a description of the "end of the age" when the angels will sort out the righteous from the evil people with the latter consigned to everlasting fire and the former to everlasting life.

Jesus invites us to consider that there is something of vital importance hidden in our lives as they unfold in the world.  It is everlasting life.  Do we hear and understand?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Healing miracles...what to make of them?

Sumac blooms along the Erie Canal

While Jesus was speaking, an official came forward,knelt down before him, and said,"My daughter has just died.But come, lay your hand on her, and she will live."Jesus rose and followed him, and so did his disciples.A woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind himand touched the tassel on his cloak.She said to herself, "If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured."Jesus turned around and saw her, and said,"Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you."And from that hour the woman was cured.  Mt 9:18-22
The readings from Matthew this past week have been filled with stories of Jesus healing people including bringing them back from the dead and with stories of his casting out devils and demons.  These stories are well attested in the canonical gospels as well as other gospels and contemporaneous accounts.  Clearly the early Christian communities knew of and believed in the ability of Jesus to cure and give life.  That these were expected signs of the Messiah does not undercut the accuracy of these accounts.  In fact, today's gospel in Matthew 10 says that Jesus bestowed this power on the apostles as well.

What am I to make of these stories?  How do they fit into my own faith and spiritual life?  When I was younger, it was easy enough to find "natural explanations" for these healings but that misses the point.  The primary miracle, if you will, is the incarnation.  If I believe that the Divine One was incarnated as the human Jesus and that he was fully human and fully divine, what's a few healings and exorcisms.  It is the incarnation that is important for me and my life.

If the Divine One became accessible as a human being, it was to show us how to live a life that would lead to eternal union with the source of all life.  The path he called us to follow is not one that has no difficulties, pain, suffering and ultimately death.  No amount of righteous living can result in a life devoid of these human realities.  The simple rule of Jesus was that we are to love others--even our enemies--as ourselves.  His life demonstrates that such way of living does not eliminate pain and suffering but rather the opposite.  Such a life will bring us into a radical conflict with the world and its values and will result in our crucifixtion in small or large ways depending on our life and the extent to which our life threatens the world and the "powers that be."  This is what happened to Jesus and surely the same fate awaits us if we have courage enough to live out our values in the midst of a culture that encourages just the opposite.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Cognitive dissonance is the fountain of learning.

Wetlands in Tinker Park, Henrietta NY

Blessed are all who fear the LORD,and who walk in his ways.
What your hands provide you will enjoy; you will be blessed and prosper:
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your home,Your children like young olive plants around your table.
Just so will the man be blessed who fears the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you see Jerusalem’s prosperity all the days of your life,
and live to see your children’s children.  Peace upon Israel!  Psalm 128
Sometimes the comforting words of scripture come into a profound conflict with our life experience.  Most of the time I, at least, just try not to think about it because it is uncomfortable.  "Cognitive dissonance" is a term used to describe this situation.  "In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values."  (Wikipedia)  It is uncomfortable because something has to give.  Either one belief is accepted and the other rejected or both are changed to eliminate the contradiction.

Psalm 128 is the responsorial psalm in today's liturgy.  It presents a comforting thought:  If I fear the Lord and walk in his ways, I will prosper.  It is a scene of domestic tranquility and peace that is very appealing.  There is, however, another truth.  During the 20th century about 2 billion human beings lost their lives to wars, infectious diseases and famine.  It is reasonable to assume that these victims had nothing to do with these disasters that befell them.  They were victims in the truest sense of the word.  Their faithfulness to their religious traditions could hardly have had anything to do with their fate.

How can one hold both of these realities at the same time?  How can one resolve what appears to be fundamental contradiction?  One thing is certain:  to ignore this and pretend that there is no contradiction does not help very much.  This presents an opportunity of coming to a deeper understanding of my relationship with the Divine One and my role in the world.