Monthly Archives: February 2016

The older son

…that son of yours…
Luke 15:20

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32), more aptly called the merciful and welcoming father, has a third character, the older son.

He is resentful that his father welcomed his younger brother whom he calls “that son of yours,” hardly recognizing him as a brother.

But what has struck me is that he claims that his brother wasted his inheritance on prostitutes. How does he know that?

His brother has been back for probably less than an hour. The parable only says that he wasted his inheritance recklessly, immorally, dissolutely. But the adverb used could mean a lot of things.

Why does the older brother claim that he wasted his money on prostitutes? We don’t know but, this being a parable, I think we can imagine that perhaps the older son was envious. Perhaps the older son, out of duty or fear, had wanted to consort with prostitutes but didn’t dare – in fear of what his father might think of him, fearful that his father might disinherit him.

And so the older son might have accused his brother of what he really wanted to do.

Of course, this is pure conjecture about a parable (which never really happened). But I think it reveals something about who we are.

Sometimes we are like the prodigal son and waste our fortune in a dissolute life, in whatever way “pleases” us. Sometimes we are like the older son who appears to be faithful but really is just afraid of getting caught.

But we really should learn from and imitate the father – rich in mercy, full of love. He not only welcomed the lost son but ran out to greet him when he saw him from afar. Perhaps he was looking down the road every day hoping to see his lost son.

That’s how God is – and how we are called to live as children of God, in love and not in fear, welcoming all.

 

 

A prayer, facing Lazarus

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores…
Luke 16: 19-20

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Lord, give me eyes to see the poor and needy around me.

Lord, give me ears to hear the cries for help and assistance.

Lord, give me a tongue to speak words of comfort to those in need and words of challenge to us who have all we need.

Lord, give me hands to share what I have with those in need.

Lord, give me feet to walk among the poor.

Lord, give me a mind to know how to respond to those in need.

But above all, Lord, give me a heart open to all your poor.

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The image above is found at St. Francis of Assisi Church, New York City.

A heart full of grace

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 20: 17-28, James and John ask Jesus for positions of power in his Kingdom.

It would have been easy for Jesus to just dismiss them as being power-hungry, but he doesn’t.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., noted in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” Jesus recognized in them the drive that is in all of us, the drive to be recognized, the drive to be important.

This morning, after reading the Gospel, I sat, listened to, and read King’s sermon, available here.

I had heard it first in the mid-eighties and been struck by its call to the greatness we are all capable of – the greatness of love and of service.

Here are a few excerpts that touch me:

[Jesus] said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

…Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Take some time today to read or listen to this sermon. It changed my life. What is important is to love, to serve. And so today I want to recall these important words of King and carry them with me all day:

You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Loving enemies and conflict

love your enemies,
pray for those who persecute you…
Matthew 5: 44

Sometimes we think that if we love we will have no enemies. But loving enemies, loving the stranger, may bring us enemies, may cause us to find ourselves opposed to those who seek to demonize the enemy, the stranger.

Love can bring us conflict, but this conflict can be healthy. As Frederick Douglas (who died on February 20, 1895), said in an 1857 speech:  As Bruce Adams wrote in “Building Healthy Communities,” commenting on Frederick Douglas,

I am not trying to abolish conflict. There is great value in healthy conflict. And the dangers of group-think are real. Conflict can inspire creative leadership. Where there are fundamental conflicts over values, they should not be ignored in a sentimental yearning for consensus. The problem in our communities today is not that we have conflict, but that we manufacture conflict and exaggerate differences to the point where it is very difficult to make meaningful change. Too often we abandon basic civility and cannot disagree without questioning the motives of our adversaries. Our standard as we debate should be similar to doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” Disagree, but don’t tear the community apart as you do.

I often find it hard to really feel good about disagreeing with someone. I sometimes prefer “peaceful coexistence,” even in the face of a serious disagreement. But real love is not afraid of conflict. In fact, real love – which includes real respect for the other – should welcome conflict and find ways to make of conflict a step to greater community.

This week I spent three days in the Gracias, Lempira, jail for a workshop on Alternatives to Violence where we tried to learn how to facilitate workshops on that theme, finding ways to deal effectively and lovingly with conflict. It was not easy and is not easy. But experiencing the workshop with five persons in jail refreshed my spirit and gives me the hope that I can truly love the enemy in the face of conflict – even the enemy within!

 

Fasting from war and injustice

Dresden

Dresden, 1945

See the fast that pleases me:
breaking the fetters of injustice
and unfastening the thongs of the yoke,
setting the oppressed free
and breaking every yoke.
Isaiah 58: 6

Isaiah 58 is one of the most important chapters for taking Lent seriously. It contrasts fasting from externals and the fasting that changes oneself and one’s nation.

On February 12, 1945, US and British air forces began the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in which more than 22,000 people were killed.

Eileen Egan, a close associate of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, worked in Europe after the Second World War for Catholic Church relief work. She saw the results of war first hand.

An ardent advocate of peace she once wrote:

“Instead of feeding the hungry, we destroy the fields that produce the food; instead of clothing the naked, we bomb factories that produce clothing; instead of giving drink to the thirsty, we bomb reservoirs. In war, the enemy is dehumanized and is no longer seen as a child of God. As Christians, we must penetrate the disguise and see Jesus in the enemy. Then, we would not kill and destroy.”

Would that we would pay attention to her words and the words of Isaiah and make of this Lent a time of real conversion – at all levels: personal, community, and world.

Would that we turn from war and violence and injustice and seek the God of mercy and justice.

Today we can also remember a woman who did that, living and working in the Amazon. On February 12, 2005, Sister Dorothy Stang was killed for her defense of peasants and small farmers. See my blog post a year ago.

Sister Dorothy saw the face of Christ in the poor. As she prayed:

I light a candle and look at Jesus on the cross and ask for the strength to carry the suffering of the people. Don’t worry about my safety. The safety of the people is what’s important.

Eileen Egan asked us to see the face of Christ in the enemy.

What better way to spend Lent – contemplating the face of Christ and responding in mercy and solidarity.

 

Paradoxes

In today’s Gospel (Luke 9:25), Jesus reveals a paradox:

whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

Holding on to ourselves closes us in and so we die; but letting go of ourselves, losing control, handing ourselves over, can open us to new life.

But there’s another paradox I’d like to share today, the anniversary of the death of A. J. Muste in 1967 at 82 years of age.

“One has to be both a resister and a reconciler to be an effective pacifist. You have to be sure that when you’re reconciling you’re also resisting any tendency to gloss things over; and when you’re primarily resisting, you have to be careful not to hate, not to win victories over human beings. You want to change people, but you don’t want to defeat them.”

Paradoxes teach us that it is not always black and white – and that doesn’t mean that everything is grey. For me, it means that the truth is found in the ongoing dialogue, the ongoing paradox, the living in the midst of paradox and ambiguity.

AJ Muste seems to me to be one who lived with conviction – but int he midst of paradoxes.

Abraham Johannes Muste, born in the Netherlands, was raised in Michigan. After college he taught for a few years at what is now Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. After seminary he served for several years as a minister of the Reformed Church. He would subsequently pass through several denominations, before joining the communist Workers Party.

After several years he returned to a faith based on the Sermon of the Mount and advocated an activist pacifism. He was for several years the executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization.

When he retired from that role, he continued to be an advocate for justice, peace and nonviolence – protesting nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and the draft. A year before his death he was arrested protesting outside the US Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam. A few weeks before his death he visited North Vietnam to see the effects of the US bombing.

One of the most striking photos of A J is his climbing over the fence at a Nebraska missile base.

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Unworthy yet graced

Last Sunday’s readings reflected a sense of human unworthiness.

Isaiah protests (Isaiah 6:1-8),

I am a man of unclean lips.

Peter protests (Luke 5: 1-11),

Depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man.

Even Paul protests (15: 1-11).

[I am] not fit to be called an apostle.

Is this just a reaffirmation of a faith that crushes people, that keeps people down by promoting a low self-esteem?

It might seem so. But, when I look at myself honestly, I realize that I am inadequate, I am not complete, I am not perfect.

I often have the illusion that I should be able to do it all, to do it always right. But reality often hits me in the face.

I cannot.

But, for we who believe in a God who became flesh for and with us, this is not the final word.

God sends an ember to cleanse the lips of Isaiah. Jesus calls Peter to follow him, to get up off his knees and go forward.

But Paul puts it most clearly and succinctly:

By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace in me has not been useful, not been sterile, not been in vain, to no purpose, empty.

Dorothy Day once noted that “The sense of futility is one of the greatest evils of the day.”

But she realized that God worked with her, in her – and made of her smallest acts a sign of God’s love and grace.

Yes, she experienced “the long loneliness,” as she entitled her autobiography. But she also experienced the grace of God – which came to her in a special way with the joy of motherhood.

Recognizing our need of God and others, our dependence, can free us from dependency on ourselves and from the frustration of not being able to be perfect. It can open us to God’s love.

Last year, while reading a book by James Keating on the diaconate, I cam across this quote:

[The deacon] is to receive an intimacy from God that makes him feel uncomfortable, because it makes him know that the love given by the Trinity to the alienated and the lonely is first given to him.

This brought me great consolation in the midst of a time when I was feeling a bit disconcerted and disconnected – alone. I felt a strong sense of both my sinfulness and God’s mercy. Not one or the other – both.

The next day I went to a Mass in the neighboring village. It was the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Later I found there words in one of her letters (#226):

I expect as much from God’s justice as from His mercy. It is because He is just that “He is compassionate and filled with gentleness, slow to punish, and abundant in mercy, for He knows our frailty, He remembers that we are only dust. As a father has tenderness or his children, so the Lord has compassion on us!”

This gives me great joy – and a great lesson to begin Lent.