Saturday, October 22, 2011

Needing to be pruned

"Cut it down." Lk 13:9

Jesus often uses images from nature to help his disciples understand his message. This is no accident. Because most of his disciples were illiterate, he could not urge them to read the Torah more carefully, but being illiterate did not mean they were unintelligent. Rather, they came from a class of people who had no access to education. In fact, they may have been brilliant in ways we could never imagine, but because they were illiterate, Jesus would have had to use stories, songs, and images from their everyday lives to help his followers grasp the content and power of the good news.

There is a powerful lesson in this for me. When I first began to teach college age friars many of them were Franco Americans from New England. Because they had been raised in bilingual homes they spoke both French and English, but many never learned to write either language well. Judgmental and somewhat arrogant, I thought that these men were slower intellectually than their classmates from the New York area, and at times I did not even want accept their questions in the classroom. Only after I had been teaching a while did I discover the great intellectual skills some of them had. As these men slowly began to write better I was able to let go of my prejudices and honor their insights and knowledge about the Second Vatican Council especially.

How wrong I had been about my younger brothers! And how wrong some on the Rabbis were who judged the first disciples harshly. No wonder Jesus talked about cutting down the fig tree that was not bearing fruit. Too many in the Jewish community of his day were locked into a narrow interpretation of the Torah (the law and prophets) and were unable to learn from the wisdom Jesus embodied and proclaimed. Even sadder, they dismissed Jesus' disciples as poor fisherman who knew nothing about the law or the prophets. At the very least, the Jews who refused to look beyond their own artificial boundaries needed to be pruned in order to let go of branches that were unproductive and were sucking the life out of the fig tree.

Today, ask yourself about your own prejudices. Do you dismiss people because they speak poorly, dress poorly or are not good conversationalists? Do you not listen to others because you have judged them for their lack of education?

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Weakness of the Flesh

“For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” Rom. 7:19

It always amazes me how long it can take me to quiet down, to still my spirit, and to listen to God. Some days it never happens. My spirit, even in the morning, is so full of “stuff to do” in the day ahead that my conscious mind cannot rid itself of the clutter of a busy day. At times, it is a talk I am preparing, at other times it is an event I will be attending, but it is always something that gets in the way of breathing slowly and quietly with God into a new day. Most of us share this struggle. Our minds race ahead and there is little room for the Spirit of God to suggest something new.

Last night I was speaking with a young father who is a stay at home dad. While he is grateful for the privilege of staying home and happy to be with his children, he spoke about how his small children demand all his attention all the time, making it impossible for him to do the ordinary things he wants to do, even pray in a traditional sense. His story made me think again about the luxury I have most mornings to sit quietly, and to enter the day slowly and prayerfully, but how often I waste the privilege or so easily get distracted by what I have to do. In other words, I am just like Paul. I do not do the good I want to do, but get hijacked by my pride which compels me to work too intensely at preparing talks or even writing this blog. I will not allow myself to be embarrassed by the "me" that spends so much time in front of others explaining our faith or encouraging people to go more deeply into the life of the Spirit.

It must have been very humbling for Paul to write about not doing the things he wanted to do, but it is the admission of his helplessness that allows him to accept the grace of God that will do in him what gives glory to God despite his faults. As he reminds us, despite his inability to live in Christ by his own devices “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Rom 8:1) according to the power of the spirit.

In the end, all of this brings a smile to my face. Clearly, God has worked in me and us, especially when we least expect it, and in ways we could never imagine on our own. We are in God’s world, not our own, and the simple willingness to let God do God’s work in us is enough.

Today smile at how good God is and be grateful for the all the good God has done in and through you despite your faults and sins.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." Lk 12:51

When Jesus tells us that the “good news” he speaks is a hard word, a demanding word and one that will sometimes bring about division between and among families, we are always unnerved. What could this talk about division mean? Are we not called to be one with each other as a sign of God's unity?

Fire in the bible, always a sign of God's presence, often purifies and cleanses. Sometimes the lesson is simple. When we get distracted by concerns that we can do little about like the weather on a day we are flying, we need to be cleansed and purified. We need to let go, enjoy the day as it unfolds and remember the wisdom of an old saying: Things that are important are rarely urgent and things are urgent are rarely important.

But our need for cleansing and purification can cut much more deeply. When we hold grudges for months or years, expecting the other person to ask for forgiveness, when we ridicule the weak and take advantage of the poor, we need to be cleansed. In the film, The King’s Speech, the Duke of York is a terrible stutterer. Though born to nobility, the man who would eventually be known as King George VI, cannot even read a speech on the radio. Battered by his father to try harder, and to speak more slowly, his stammer only gets worse, but what is most difficult for him is the ridicule he is subjected to, even as an adult, by his own brother.

Exhausted and ashamed by his struggles, the future king submits himself to the “cleansing” and “purifying” skill and friendship of a commoner. Slowly he gains some control of his stammer and emerges humble and grateful, and able to play a key role in leading England through the Second World War. This is, of course, exactly what the Lord did for his first disciples and continues to do for us today.

While the church may be organized in a hierarchical way, it is our common baptism that unites us as one. Paul is clear about this,
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. 1 Cor 12: 12-13
The body of Christ is one but has many members, each with a distinct role without which the whole cannot function completely and integrally. All of us are important in the eyes of God. Each of has a dignity that can never be taken away from us. When we forget or ignore these basic truths, we must be cleansed and purified.

Today, ask not to be afraid of the fire of God. We are being refined like gold in the furnace for the service of God's reign.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Being Rich

"Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." Lk 12:48

I am a very rich man. I am in good health. I am very well educated. I live in a home with running water, electricity, heat in the winter and room air conditioners in the summer. We have computers and television. We have a full kitchen, and indoor plumbing. We eat each day without worrying whether we can afford the meal. I have a car for my use and enough money to put gas in it. I can go to a doctor when I am sick and pay for medication when I need it.

Unfortunately, like most people in the developed world, I often take all of this for granted, and even feel entitled. If the phone doesn’t work for two days, I might threaten the service provider with switching to another company. You get the idea. I have been given so much that when I read today’s gospel parable, I realize that my one task is to stay awake in gratitude and too often I am asleep, even to the gift of faith.

On occasion, I ask people at a workshop to complete the statement, I believe..... Their responses always touch and challenge me. They say: I believe there is a benevolent God who loves his children. I believe God has sent us his son as an eternal gift. I believe that the world is a good place that I can make better by my faith. I believe I should be compassionate to every creature. You can imagine the rest, and I would encourage you to pause a moment to answer yourself. When we stop to notice, acknowledge and offer a word of gratitude for whatever and whomever comes to us each day, we are different. We are rich and as Jesus reminds us, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much.” Don’t be afraid of this warning. Be grateful for the gifts you have been given, and share them generously. God gives us all the strength to live our faith and give it away with joy and exuberance.

Today, make an inventory of all you have been given. Then take five minutes of silence to sit with your gifts in gratitude.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

St Luke

Do you see this woman? (Lk 7:44)

St Luke, whose feast we celebrate today, is the author of his own Gospel which helps us understand the life of Christ, and the Acts of the Apostles, the parallel story of the church. Called by St Paul a physician, Luke addressed his gospel primarily to the Gentiles and emphasizes three critical aspects of the Christian life: salvation is for all, the poor play an important role in helping us understand God, and the mercy of Jesus is foundational to understanding the Christian life.

While Luke would have not been overly concerned with convincing his gentile audience that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews, he very much wanted the new Christians in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Thessalonica to hear of God’s special love for those whose lives had collapsed into illness, poverty and sin. Luke tells us about Samaritans and shepherds, the prodigal son and the lost sheep, but it is the sinful, unnamed woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair whose story convinces us that God is merciful beyond our imaginations. The story is so dramatic and compelling, and so full of detail that we wonder whether Luke actually knew the woman or her children?

Jesus, Luke tells us, allows himself to be touched and washed by a woman who had lived a sinful life. Any observant Jew watching this scene would have wondered what Jesus was thinking, but it is the Pharisee who takes the bait. He immediately concludes that Jesus could not be a prophet since he was allowing a sinful woman to touch him, wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. But Jesus reads the Pharisee's heart, tells him a simple parable and then asks the key question of the passage. “Do you see this woman?” The answer is simple and shaming. Of course not. The Pharisee was trying to test Jesus and saw nothing but his possible triumph over an imposter. He could not see the woman as a person. He only saw Jesus failing to keep the law by allowing a sinner to wash his feet and rub them with expensive oil. His shame reminds us to listen more deeply to every person we meet, not to judge but to seek understanding and offer mercy.

Today, ask St. Luke for the grace to see all those to whom you have been blind and pray that others might see past your faults to the person trying to live a gospel life.

Monday, October 17, 2011

St Ignatius of Antioch

One of the great qualities of saints is that, while they do heroic things, they don’t bring attention to themselves. Today, as we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we have a wonderful example of this. Famous for telling his followers, "I am Christ's wheat and shall be ground by the teeth of the beasts so that I may become Christ's pure bread,” Ignatius begged his friends not to try to stop his martyrdom. So confident that the Lord would protect him, the saint knew the strength he received from God would be a sign to others of God’s unconditional love. At the same time, as one reads further in Ignatius' letter, there is a hesitancy, a moment of fear perhaps. He says, "If then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you now."

Most of us, while admiring Ignatius’ faith, would be more likely to tell our friends to ignore our craziness in seeking martyrdom and write it off as the dream of a madman. Because we are afraid of the unknown and more concerned with the life we have and know, even if it is full of pain and confusion, we hesitate thinking about and asking God for the grace of a peaceful death, much less a martyr’s death. In fact, most of us think Jesus is talking only to foolish rich people when he says, "You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." Amazingly, we often cling to the little we have rather than remember God’s mercy and throw ourselves upon him.

There are, of course, very good reasons for this. Some of you are parents of young children and can’t imagine your kids growing up without you. Others are grandparents who think having grandchildren is giving you a second chance, especially if you spent more time working and obsessing about work than you did with your children. Even more grand, some may be spending your lives working in a not for profit company that feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, and wonder who will do this marvelous work if you can’t. In all of this, of course, we fail to honor God when our excuses suggest that God cannot do God’s work without us. While understandable, it is not a gospel principle to act as if everything depended on us.

St. Paul reminds us that Abraham, like Ignatius, “was empowered by faith and gave glory to God and was fully convinced that what God had promised he was also able to do.” (Rom 4:21) When we become convinced that God’s love is complete, unconditional and unearned, we begin to realize with Abraham and Ignatius that we can do all things “in him who strengthens us,” even let go of life itself for the sake of God’s reign.

Today, ask for the humility to let God be God and to trust that God's grace will be enough even when we face death.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Give to God what belongs to God

“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" Mt 22:17

Taxes are a problem in every society. Two summers ago I was in Tanzania and while visiting with a young fellow who was about to finish his university studies, I learned that because so many Tanzanians are self employed it can be very difficult for the government to collect taxes. No doubt this is an issue in most of the developing world. Studies in Tanzania suggest that because people don’t trust that their taxes are helping improve public services, they are unwilling to pay their fair share. Perhaps the movement to “Occupy Wall Street,” is manifestation of this same distrust in our country.

A similar situation existed in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Because Israel was occupied by the Romans, their tax rate was high. There was a poll tax, equivalent to a day’s wage, an income tax of one percent and a ground tax that demanded Jews give 10% of all grain to Rome and 20% of all wine and fruit. Some scholars suggest that by the time the poor paid all their taxes it amounted to almost 40% of their income. It was no surprise that the Pharisees and Herodians, enemies in most things, used the issue of taxes to try to entrap Jesus. If Jesus agreed that the taxes should be paid he would be accepting the legitimacy of the Roman occupation and offending the leaders of the Jews. If he suggested Jews should not pay taxes, he might please the poor who were so heavily taxed, but would be vulnerable to the Romans who ruled Israel.

Jesus escapes the trap by asking for a coin. That the leaders of the Jews had a Roman coin was an offense in itself since it bore the image of Caesar and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The Romans demanded that taxes be paid in Roman currency and for a Jew to have any currency bearing the image of someone who claimed divinity made him or her unclean. In a sense the argument is over. Jesus has turned the tables on the Pharisees and Herodians, but he takes his argument a step further. To both of his adversaries he suggests that they are more concerned with winning silly arguments than pleasing God and that is our lesson for today as well.

When we enter into serious discussion with others are we merely trying to win the argument and prove our superiority or are we seeking insight and wisdom in order to live more justly in the world and with God?

Today, ask for the grace to listen to others with reverence. Perhaps you will also be granted the gift of wisdom.