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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Perseverance for the sake of the joy that lies before us.

January contrast
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to usand persevere in running the race that lies before uswhile keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,the leader and perfecter of faith.For the sake of the joy that lay before himJesus endured the cross, despising its shame,and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.Consider how he endured such opposition...in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.  Hebrews 12:1-4
Every Christian strives to be like Christ and thus every Christian knows from experience the challenges of that mission.  In our private and public lives we are called to the two commandments which Jesus said encompass the entire law:  love of the Divine One and love of our neighbor.  He made clear on several occasions that everyone was our neighbor even our enemies.

Jesus certainly exemplified both of those in his own life.  His love of the Divine One--his Abba Father--was evident in his constant move into periods of prayer.  These were not the public, ritual prayers of religion but the personal, quiet experience of the Divine One deep within.  What today we might call contemplation or meditation.  These periods of prayer were essential to his ability to live out the second injunction of love even in the face of opposition, often violent opposition.  The very end he was able to forgive those who were murdering him because his life was an indictment of their own failure to live up to the demands of faith.

The author of Hebrews asks us to confront the inevitable opposition we will face with a faithful and constant consideration of the story of Jesus.  In short, today we might say that the author urges an evangelical approach, a return to the gospels and epistles of the New Testament.  In this way we can experience the touch of Jesus who was both fully human and fully divine and in that touch we can experience the enduring love of the Divine One for us and all creation.  The joy that was before Jesus and that can be ahead of us is not, I think, the joy of completion and fulfillment but rather the joy of process and movement.  There can be a joy in our striving to lead a Christian life even if difficult, even if misunderstood, even if opposed and rejected.

Today in America we face great divisions.  Regardless of election results and government policy, these divisions are not going to go away any time soon.  These are difficult times for all of us; more difficult for some than for others.  These are not happy times and it will be a long time, if ever, before these divisions subside.  Good faithful Christians disagree about many things and it is tempting to think about resolving those by dividing ourselves into "real" Christians and "misguided" Christians.  That would be a mistake.

If we follow the advice of the author of Hebrews and return to Jesus, to deep prayer, and unconditional love of others including those who oppose us, we will be able to persevere and "not grow weary and lose heart."

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Parabolic Kingdom of the Divine One

Snowy backyard in January
Jesus said to the crowds:"This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come."  Mark 4:26-29
It is interesting that "parable" and parabola" come from the same Greek word, παραβολή (parabolē.)  The root word means placing two things side by side.  So in the first sense it is a metaphor or simile and in the second, " a two-dimensional, mirror-symmetrical curve."  The difference is that a parable presents two things that are in contrast or even conflict, the better to stimulate thought and reflection.  In a parabola the two images are the same or at least mirror images.

Here is a classic description of a parable from C. H. Dodd as quoted by C. Clifton Black in the Abingdon New Testament Commentaries:  Mark:
At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.
The passage from Mark is a great example of this.  Chapter Four of Mark contains several parables, one after another.  Today's reading actually contains another parable about the mustard seed.  But the one I have quoted above was surely a shock to those who heard it.  After all, Jesus begins by saying he wants to talk to them about the Kingdom of God and what it is (will be) like.  His audience would be expecting the long promised Messiah to speak about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel and establishing its preeminent position among the nations.  Instead he draws from the everyday world of peasants of his day.  We scratch our heads as surely they must have and wonder exactly what the point is.  Recognizing the inadvisability of trying to immediately "understand" a parable and after some prayerful reflection, I offer the following tentative understand, at least for the time being.

Imagine field lying fallow with no plants.  It is desolate and forlorn, much like the winter landscape in the Finger Lakes Region of New York where I live.  Nothing is growing other than a few volunteer weeds or left over crops.  Further imagine you are a peasant farmer in First Century Galilee.  When spring arrives, you sow seeds in the field and then go about your daily life, sleeping and rising in a continuous cycle of life.  Without any care on your part, the seeds sprout, grow into plants, set fruit and become ready for harvest.  It is almost as though there is a reality of which we are unaware that brings life to an otherwise dead field.

There is an inevitability about this process that takes place reliably without our intervention.  There is a principle of life that is hidden from us and at the same time impacts our world.  It is not magic although it might seem that way to some.  When we look at the field above and the field to the right, we see what we see but we don't really understand that the reality is not what we see but the principle of life that transforms one into the other.  Jesus says that this is how it is with the Kingdom of God.

The Reign of the Divine One has already come.  Remember that Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is already here, within us.  And yet, we know that the justice and mercy that are integral to this kingdom are not uniformly and often not at all present in the world we see and experience.  And yet the Kingdom is here and working is inevitably way toward fruition at the end of time:  the field ready for harvest.

We have nothing to do with this process.  It is set in motion and sustained by the Divine One whether or not we recognize it, facilitate it or try to frustrate it.  It is the Divine One's work and it will be brought to completion.  All we can do is recognize it and accept it.  Even that is not our work but somehow made possible by the action of the Divine One in and through us.  This was not what his audience was expecting to hear from the Messiah.  And it is not what we expect to hear.  It leaves us with no where to go, or so it seems.

Jesus is clear about the implications for us.  We are to do the will of the Divine One, who sent Jesus into the world.  In the midst of injustice, evil, hardness of heart and all the other characteristics of "the world," we are to love the Divine One which means that we enter into prayerful union and try to be part of that underlying and almost invisible life that is working its way to fruition.  And we are to love one another and all that the Divine One has created.  And we are to do in the way that Jesus did:  without reservation and with any return.  He even loved those who murdered him.  We can live our lives that way because we have the assurance of faith that the field is greening and maturing and that all will be well.  Our efforts to manage human affairs--political, social and economic--in ways consistent with our call to love each other are important and need to be ongoing.  The ultimate success is not ours but the Divine One's.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Have I come to do the will of the Divine One?

Sunset at Lock 33 on the Erie Canal
And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,"Here are my mother and my brothers.For whoever does the will of Godis my brother and sister and mother."  Mark 3:34-35
Today's Lectionary readings all have to do with the "will of God."  Hebrews 10:1-10, the Response based on Psalm 40, and the quoted verses from Mark's account of the life and ministry of Jesus.   How to understand the will of the Divine One is obviously central to being a faithful follower of Jesus.  He made it clear that his life was based on that and called us to do the same.

I think there are basically two ways to understand the term "the will of God."  The first is based on a belief that the Divine One has specific plans for each of us and for the institutions of this world.  Our  task as humans and especially as Christians is to understand those plans as they impact us and to accede willingly to them and in this way we do the will of the Divine One.  Specifically I am to discern the specific plan the Divine One has for my life and then obediently follow that plan wherever it might lead.  In this way, I am be confident that I will be saved and will thus become a member of God's family.

This approach has been problematic for me in two ways.  It is hard to know what that specific will is and life does not seem to wait for my discernment.  Reality continues at the speed of life and I am constantly confronted with what is happening to me and around me.  It then becomes all to easy to substitute what is happening for the will of the Divine One.  How often have I heard the words "It is God's will" in response to death, loss or other tragedies.  When a child dies, is it really the desire of the Divine One?  If it is, perhaps it only means that the Divine One wills all that happens--good and bad--because the Divine One is the source of all life.  If that is true, then accepting or doing the will of the Divine One is tantamount to accepting whatever happens in my life and around me as the will of the Divine One.  It was this line of thinking that led both Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift in the Eighteenth Century to declare that "whatever is, is right."  And this thinking certainly must have contributed to the inability of England to recognize the validity of revolutions taking place at the same time in France and the American colonies led by people who felt strongly that they were doing God's will.

My second problem with that approach is the all too easy way in which authorities of all sorts become interpreters of what God's will is.  Those authorities who led the Christian Church into the bloody and brutal crusades against muslims did so in the name of God.  In fact, the motto of the Crusades as "Deus Vult."  "God wishes" this or some other adventure that has utility for those in charge.  It is God's will that we go to war.  It is God's will that some politicians are elected.  It is God's will that bombs are thrown and innocent people killed.  On and on it goes.  The fact that both sides in a conflict re convinced that it is God's will that they prevail doesn't seem to give us pause and perhaps rethink what we mean by God's will.

There is a second meaning which I think is more authentically Christian and more in keeping with our human nature.  The Divine One may not have a "plan" for us but there is certainly a mission which the Divine One has given us.  Jesus constantly made reference to the two desires that encapsulated all the laws that Yahweh had ever given.  First, love the Divine One will your whole heart, soul and being.  Second, love your fellow humans and all creation with the love that Jesus showered on all, even his enemies, his mortal enemies.  Each of us as Christians are called to live out that mission in whatever circumstances we live out our lives.  We can be poor or rich; sick or healthy, young or old; vital or lethargic; weak or powerful.  None of that makes any difference.

The will of the Divine One calls us to see a reality in the world that Jesus called the reign of heaven and to treat each other with a self sacrificing love.  These are deeper, much deeper, than any political or economic agenda.  If we are to be judged, it will be on the ways in which we lived out that mission in our day to day lives.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Your law is within my heart

Storage buildings at Port of Pittsford
Sacrifice or oblation you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me.  Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not; then said I, "Behold I come."  In the written scroll it is prescribed for me, to do your will, O my God, is my delight, and your law is within my heart!  Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.  Response Psalm for Thursday, Second Week of Ordinary Time drawn from Psalm 40:7-10
 This is a familiar theme that bears constant repeating.  The Divine One does not need or want religious practices or rituals.  The relationship of grace that I seek is not to be found in these practices, words, or actions.  The relationship is based on an obedient heart that responds to the law of the Divine One which is within me.

This is living from the inside out rather than from the outside in.  There is a difference between following a set of rules--no matter how relevant or correct--and following a heart that overflows into those very same actions.  From the outside it might look the same but the dynamic is completely different.  Do I engage in "right" behavior because I will be rewarded with eternal life with the Divine as a result.  Or do I engage in "right" behavior because the already existing relationship with the Divine One naturally overflows into that behavior.  Of course, that life would continue eternally but it would do so because it is already present in me right now today.

There is some scriptural language that describes this process for me in a powerful way.  Virtuous acts appear in my life as fruit appears in an orchard or as dew falls in the morning.  Those acts exist because of the nature of my relations and they occur naturally, almost organically.  So my focus should be on deepening my relationship with the Divine One rather than focusing on specific acts.  The acts are important because they flow from my willingness to "do the will" of the Divine One:  love the source of all being with all my heart and soul and love other human beings as myself.

Following a set of rules would be easier but ultimately useless.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A new, old, new wineskin story

Tucson Horticultural Garden
"Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins,and both the wine and the skins are ruined.Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins." Mark:2:22
Jesus speaks this parable as part of his response to those who ask him why he and his disciples do not fast the way that John and his disciples did.  Indeed, even the Pharisees and their disciples fasted regularly.  Why not Jesus and his followers.  After telling them that the guests at a wedding don't fast during the celebration, he then speaks of inadvisability of patching old clothes with new cloth or putting new wine in old wineskins.

Along with most of you, I have heard this saying every year--it is in all three synoptic gospels--of my life.  The meaning at the time was pretty clear.  Jesus had come to proclaim the Good News that the Reign of the Divine One was not what everyone expected.  It was not a change in the external circumstances of Israel in which the kingship would be re-established with power and glory.  It was a change in the interior life of those who believed.  As a result, external practices were not the essential elements of belief.  It was a conversion of heart and a willingness to do the will of the Divine One.

If one relied solely on the external practices of Judaism or on the belief system and tradition that created and sustained those practices, it was almost impossible for one to enter the Reign of the Divine One.  The metaphor of the wineskins made immediate sense to those who heard Jesus.  Goatskins were used to store wine but especially used to hold the grape juice as it fermented into wine.  A wineskin was made from the skin of a goat because it would expand as the juice fermented with the resulting gases expanding the skin.  Once fermented the wine would be kept in the wineskin until it was ready for consumption and would then serve as a serving vessel.  Once used the skin would not retain its original shape and flexibility.  If it were used again for fermenting wine, it would not be able to expand as the wine fermented and would burst.  The wine would be lost.  Thus the new wine of the Good News could not be carried in the old wineskin of law based spirituality.  A new spirituality was needed.

But what about me today?  Is this being said not just to the Jews of first century Palestine but to me in twenty first century America?  If so, what does it mean?

My spirituality is the mental and emotional framework in which my spirit joined to the spirit of the Divine One is present in the world.  It includes how I think about the ultimate meaning of life, how I pray, how I feel about my life and its direction, and the ways in which I practice my faith.  My spirituality has changed throughout my life because I have changed and the world in which I live has changed.  My spirituality as a child was far different from my spirituality as a young adult, as a spouse, as a parent, as a grandparent, as a professional, and as a retired person.  If that spirituality had not changed, if I had tried to fit my changing and developing understanding of my self and the world within a child's understanding of the Divine One, it would have burst the wineskin and I would have abandoned my faith as irrelevant to me.

At each stage of my life, I am tempted to think that I have got it this time.  My spirituality is in sync with who I am and with my relationship with the Divine One.  But that is never true.  As long as I am alive, I am changing and my spirituality needs to change as well.  Old understandings and practices need to fall away to be replaced by new, better adapted ones.  This is hard, often very hard.  But if I do not go through this creating a new wineskin, things can fall apart.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What stands in the way in my life?

One of the tapestries in Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.  Hebrews 4:12-13  Translation from The Message
The author of Hebrews has a clear message.  Jesus, the Word of the Divine One, can break through anything to change us at the very base of our being.  Nothing can stand in the way except our openness to the Word and our willingness to accept that offer of life.  He mentions two categories of obstacles that we can place before this offer:  doubt and defens[iveness].  I know I have experienced both of these.

When I reflect on the message that Jesus preached, I often catch myself thinking, "Can this really be true?"  Is there really a Divine One who is a person and who loves me as me just  as the Divine One loves everyone as individuals?  It seems too fantastic to be true.  I can also find no end of excuses or explanations why I am doing all I can to respond.  I easily get defensive about my own need to change and that defensiveness keeps me from being present to Christ's nudges, from really hearing the Word and its offer of life.

But I need to face the reality that it is my need and desire to have a sense of control over my life that keeps me from hearing the Word and responding.  It is precisely the sense of control that is key.  I know, if I think about it, that I have little or no control over my life.  I desperately want to control it, to be in control because that provides me the illusion of power and autonomy.  Yet I also know that I cannot be open to the life giving action of the Word unless I can let go of that relentless demand for control.

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we have a high priest in Jesus who knows our life because he experienced it fully, save for sin.  When you encountered the reality of what was about to happen to you that night in the Garden at Gethsemane, you were shaken to your core.  Here is part of a reflection I wrote over 20 years ago on that scene.

You were the magic one. For three years you traveled the land, amazing everyone with your teaching. You were the miracle man, the wonder worker. You outwitted the Scribes. You were the clever one and yet you were the loving one. All who came in contact with you came under your spell, your charisma. With gentleness, you disarmed enemies and told them to do the same.
You talked about your death and what it would mean, but you were the Teflon rabbi. You slipped every punch. Without seeming to, you controlled all situations. Now, you were about to lose control.
You knew that you had to die but it began to dawn on you exactly how that would happen. You would be arrested and from that point on, you would have no control. Your power, your gentleness, your cleverness would count for nothing because others would have control over you, for the first time in your life. Once you lost control, you knew or feared what would happen: condemnation, beatings, humiliation, and finally execution.  http://williampickett.com/prayers/gethsemane-prayers/thoughts-in-the-garden/
 This fear of losing control blocks my full openness to the Word.  How to live through that fear and be open to the life of the Divine One is the greatest challenge of my life.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Return to the beginning

Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania
If we can only keep our grip on the sure thing we started out with, we’re in this with Christ for the long haul.
These words keep ringing in our ears:
Today, please listen;    don’t turn a deaf ear as in the bitter uprising.  Hebrews 3:14
It has been said that every great reform movement in Christianity has been and always will be evangelical, i.e., a return to the gospels.  When Christians have found themselves challenged by the prevailing culture, when they begin to lose the zest of their early spiritual life, they have recovered that vitality by returning to the gospels and the other books of the New Testament with a commitment to understand them anew in their new life circumstances.

Contemporary Americans live in the most affluent culture ever known in human history.  To many this affluence, while enjoyable in many ways, seems to compromise their ability to live the kind of life that Jesus described.  Is it even possible for us to conceive of "losing our lives so that we can gain eternal life" or "taking up your cross daily and following me?"  Jesus regularly spent time praying in "deserted places" away from the trappings of his much simpler culture.  We can easily despair of ever being able to do the same.  Our culture is all consuming and omnipresent in a way that frustrates our desire to be with the Divine One and pray.  It is all too easy to just give up and settle for the easy, expected Christian life of regular religious observance and public rectitude.  But when we do, we still know that something is not right.  It doesn't feel right.  We often deal with that nagging doubt by simply not listening "if today we hear the Divine One's voice."

I think the only way to deal with this is by returning to the gospels and the life of the early Christians described in the Acts of the Apostles.  What would that look like today?  If I reduce the Christian message to the basics as Jesus taught them, what would that look like?  When I do that, I learn what Christians have always learned:  Christian faith is radically counter cultural.  It does not and really cannot exist comfortably with this contemporary culture or any culture.  The failed ideal of "Christendom" was an attempt to create a human culture which would not only be compatible with Christian faith but would incorporate that faith into its very essence.  There would be no separation between civil and religious and somehow everything would be as the Divine One intended.

But as Christ and St. Paul constantly pointed out, there is enmity between the "flesh and the spirit" or between "the world and the reign of the Divine One."  We cannot serve both.  We only fool ourselves into thinking we can.  The result is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace."  We think that we can avoid the hard reality of the incompatibility of the world of faith with the world of human affairs but we end up degrading our faith to the point of non-existence.

A regular reading of the scriptures and reflection on them keeps that conflict alive in our spirit so that we are more likely to hear the voice of the Divine One who constantly speaks to us in multiple ways if only we tune in.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is telling his readers exactly that:  hold on to those first insights, those first stirrings of your spirit in response to the gestures from Jesus.  Constantly return to them and your remembered experience of them in order that you keep your bearings today and be open to the path of Jesus that opens in the future.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

As one with authority, not like the scribes

Anemone-plant in Morgantown WV
Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers, and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.The people were astonished at his teaching,for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  Mark 1:21-22

These are the opening lines from Mark's description of a day in the early ministry of Jesus.  It begins on the sabbath with his teaching in the synagogue.  His style and/or content was different enough that people responded to him with astonishment.  All we know is that he taught them differently than did the scribes.  He taught "as one having authority."

I often wondered exactly what it meant not to teach as the scribes did.  I did some research on exactly what the scribes did and who they were.  In all ancient societies with a written language but low levels of literacy, scribes provided a service of creating private and public written documents.  They also copied existing documents which was an essential service before printing was invented.  Scribes in these societies and in first century Israel also served in functions which we would describes now as "public servants, journalists, accountants, typists, and lawyers."  In a religious context of Judaism, they would be the teachers of the law and the judges who applied the law in specific circumstances.

One gets an idea of the culture of being a scribe by reading the rules under which the copying function had to be carried out.  The following are examples of some of the rules:

  1. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
  2. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
  3. They must say each word aloud while they were writing.
  4. They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the most Holy Name of God, YHVH, every time they wrote it.
  5. There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
  6. The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.  From Wikipedia entry on scribes.

It is easy to see the emphasis on details so that the copy would be an exact copy.  Since the copy would itself be copied, it was clearly importance that accuracy be maintain.  Unfortunately this culture could influence the way the scribes carried out their other functions, particularly teaching and judging.  They would tend to focus on the minute details of the law rather than the broad purpose of the law.  They would tend toward the parsimonious rather than the charitable and generous.  Further everything they taught would have to be documented from the law or previous writings.  Think of a piece of writing in which every word is footnoted and you get an idea of the spirit of "scribism."

Jesus was different.  He came from a different occupation and tradition.  His teaching was more his person and his actions rather than the intellectual content of his preaching.  Even Mark's account makes clear by not mentioning the content that who Jesus was constituted what astonished his hearers.  He spoke with freedom and conviction and then attended to the healing of those who needed it.  He made clear later in his ministry that the minute details of the law were inconsequential compared to the ultimate purpose of the law:  holiness.  

While the scribes were laying heavy burdens of of details laws and regulations on the ordinary people whom they served, Jesus offered freedom that came from recognizing the Divine One within each and every one.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Without a king, everything gets more complicated

U.S. Supreme Court
For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out,and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;the lives of the poor he shall save.  Psalm 72:12-13
The "he" in this passage is the King of Israel.  It is a prayer that the king will be the source of justice and peace within the kingdom.  In fact, it is through the king that justice and peace will prevail.  As a result, salvation in some sense comes through the king and the king's relationship with the Divine One.  This made great sense in a society and culture in which the king basically owned and controlled with absolute authority the territory of the kingdom and the inhabitants therein.  As a matter of fact, there was no other way in which the rule of the Divine One could be understood within that culture.

The result has been a profusion of royal terms and imagery to describe the, well you see what I mean, the kingdom of the Divine One.  When you add to that the patriarchal character of that early society, it is easy to see how things turned out the way they did.  We have a male dominated church with many of the trappings ad practices of a feudal if not royal system.

The 18th century in Europe and European colonies saw the rise of a different system of governance and social organization:  democracy.  The first words of the American constitution say it all.  "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."  The source of authority and identity became the people, not the king.  The life we experience today in modern America is the fruit of that initiating insight and principle.

One of the difficulties of this change is that our religious language and symbols seem so irrelevant to our life.  They not only seem archaic but even dangerous.  We have no King who will protect us and make our world righteous as suggested in these lines from the Psalms.  The concern is no longer to have a "good" king but somehow to have a "good" demos or people.  This is a much more complicated and challenging task.

Just re-read those lines substituting "we" for "he" along a few other changes in person and number.

For we shall rescue the poor when they cry out,and the afflicted when they have no one to help them.We shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;the lives of the poor we shall save.
The call to justice and mercy is no longer to the King as one we look to for safety and salvation.  The call is to each and all of us.  Not only is this more in accord with our democratic traditions, it is also more in accord with the fundamental message of the teaching of Jesus.  We are all one body constituted by our union with Jesus the Christ and called to include all.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Suddenly, everything was different

Flint Hills in Kansas from passing car
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galileeand was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn openand the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens,"You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."  Mark 1:9-11
Mark's gospel is the earliest and shortest of the four accounts of the life of Jesus the Christ.  The author was clearly focused on getting the essentials down in writing for his community because time was of the essence.  It was essential to get the word out to as many people as possible because the return of the Lord and the end of the age was eminent.  That belief turned out not to be literally accurate but it did result in a gospel that focuses on the core truths about Jesus and the faith required for eternal life.

I have often meditated on these lines and tried to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus who was both fully human and fully divine.  After some thirty years of life, he was drawn to John, his cousin, for baptism.  He must have had some inkling about the relationship he had with the Divine One whom he would call his Abba, his father.  Whether he had full comprehension of his divine nature is difficult, probably impossible to tell, but he must have felt something stirring in him that would lead him from his life as a builder toward the desert and this man, John.

I imagine that he entered the Jordan to be baptized by John and that when he came up out of the water everything was somehow changed.  The world looked different and his place in the world had changed in some perceptible yet not fully understood way.  I think about the first time I saw the world through glasses.  I was 12 or so and had been experiencing bad eyesight for some time but was not aware that there was anything wrong.  I just kept living day by day with a difficulty of seeing distant objects that I thought was perfectly normal.  When I finally went for an eye exam, my eye sight was 20/400.

I met my Daddy downtown after his work to receive my glasses.  It was at an topical company that was in a tall building in downtown Kansas City on Grand Avenue.  I wore the glasses in the offices and down the elevator.  It was went I stepped outside into the late afternoon sunshine that I was struck speechless.  Everything looked alive and dazzling.  I could hardly believe what I was seeing.  Cars, people, streetcars, buildings all looked shimmering in that bright sunshine.  I could see everything with sharp definition and brilliant colors.  All this had been there all the time, I just couldn't see it.  I walked, ran, studied, played is a world that was a faded version of the true reality.  Once I saw it, everything changed.

I imagine that Jesus had these same feelings after his baptism.  Nothing had changed and yet everything had changed.  After his baptism, he went into the desert for forty days in preparation for the beginning of his ministry of announcing the Good News.  As 1 John has it in today's first reading:

And this is the testimony:God gave us eternal life,and this life is in his Son. Whoever possesses the Son has life;whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life.  1 John 5:11-12

Monday, January 2, 2017

Maybe I learned too many things

Cancun Sunrise
As for you,the anointing that you received from him remains in you,so that you do not need anyone to teach you. But his anointing teaches you about everything and is true and not false; just as it taught you, remain in him.  1 John 2:27
The Message renders the last line with a bit more impact:  "Live deeply in what you were taught....Live deeply in Christ."  The practice of infant baptism sometimes can make it more difficult to get to the core of the message of Christ.  John is writing to those who as adults heard the Good News and experienced the conversion of soul brought about by faith in the Son of God.  He cautions them about those who would purport to "teach" them about that faith and spirit.  His warning should not be taken to mean that we should not use our human intelligence in the search for deeper understanding but rather that we have to be on our guard lest that search for understanding obscure the core reality of our anointing by and into the Son of the Divine One.

For most of us, however, this anointing took place in the sacrament of baptism which we received when we were infants.  Religious education seeks to form us in Christian values and life style as we proceed from childhood into adulthood.  Sometime this formation is interrupted and stopped before adulthood and we can be left with a childish understanding that fails us when confronted with the realities and challenges of adult life.  My difficulty was not that but rather a different issue.  I was taught so many different things about my faith that it was easy to lose sight of the core truth and become focused on peripheral practices and understandings.

Robert Michels, a German sociologist of the 19th century wrote of "goal displacement" as an all too frequent danger of modern organizations.  I think it is also applicable to individuals.  We begin with a goal that is important and one that we very much want to achieve.  As human beings we create or adopt policies and practices that seem to help us achieve this goal and, in fact, they very often do.  But since change is an essential part of human life, over time the goal or at least our understanding of it changes.  More likely the means which we have used to achieve the goal are less and less effective and it is necessary to adjust or even jettison them in favor of new approaches.  However, human being can very easily become committed to the the various means and lose sight of the over all goal that generated the means in the first place.

As a social endeavor, Christianity developed a culture that included a church--and later various churches and denominations--and a elaborate set of personal and group practices, i.e., prayer, sacraments, liturgies, education, etc.   All of these were developed to achieve the goal of living a Christian life but it too often happened that the means became the much too important focus of the Christian life.  As long as I said my prayers, went to church, and generally engaged in a set of cultural practices, I would be saved...somehow.  What was often lost is exactly what John is describing in this passage.

When we received the spirit of the Divine One through the Son, we entered into the very life of the Trinity in a real if yet incomplete way.  We are to live deeply in that reality, deeply in Christ.  Nothing that can be taught to us can change that reality although what we are taught can distract and misled us.  The test is always not what we say or even what we do as much as it is who we are and how we live out the reality of Christ within us.  Jesus gave us a simple path to follow:  love the Divine One before all else and love all others, even our enemies, as ourselves.  That is what will naturally follow from our living deeply in Christ.