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Living Under Threat of Disaster


Luke 21:5-19

I don’t care how young you were when you first read Harry Potter: You quickly figured out two things:  (1) Harry would ultimately survive and be OK and (2) He would eventually kill Voldemort.  Right?  But even though you knew both those things, you didn’t just say, “OK, Harry equals good guy.  Voldemort equals bad guy.  Harry will win.  Next!”  You made a decision to put your trust in the author that this was a story worth savoring and throwing yourself into even though you knew where it was going.  

And then, one day, Dobby died.  How many of you cried?  It was awful.  And at that point, you could have just slammed down the book and said, “I give up.  This is terrible.”  But somehow you decided to trust the author.  You didn’t know how bad it would get, how many more precious characters and places would be lost, but you were pulled forward because you knew that, however bad it got, Harry would win.  

Now, of course, the Harry Potter universe also opens kids to the reality that life isn’t always just good vs. evil, and that people who appear evil might in fact be good deep down, and people who seem good and wise may harbor secrets or conflicting motives.  But Rowling ultimately sorts these things out, and we see the reality behind our guesses, behind our initial prejudices.  

The attraction of the whole universe Rowling created, of course, is that it conforms to what we see, and it conforms to our hopes.  

So, what about our story– the actual story we’re living in and which we see through the lens of our faith?  When we turn to the Gospel, of course, we have Jesus in full-blown apocalyptic mode.  They’re walking through the temple– which is huge and, we should note, at that time pretty much brand new– and Jesus says to the folks who are admiring the beauty of the place, “Yeah, this building that seems so stable and so permanent?  So much a symbol of national and religious pride?  So much a sign of how we have made our peace with Rome?  The days are coming when this whole thing will be torn down utterly.”  

That got their attention.  

And then he cautions them, saying, essentially, “Look:  You are going to experience some really bad times.  Wars.  Insurrections.  Persecutions.  It will feel like the end of the world.  It won’t be.  Nations come and go.  Buildings come and go.  Evil may reign for a season, but love has the last word.”

Whatever your politics, and however you’re feeling about the election, it’s worth noting that Jesus realizes the temple isn’t forever.  Nor is Trump.  Neither, for that matter, is the United States.  Only his Church and his kingdom is forever.  People put their faith in the temple, which was destroyed.  People put their faith in Rome, which fell.  People put their hopes in an endless string of nations, political movements, and charismatic leaders over these last two thousand years.  All once seemed more powerful, and now all are gone, but Christ’s church remains.  

If you are letting Jesus shape your understanding of your political obligations, that’s called discipleship.  If you are letting your politics shape your understanding of Jesus, that’s called idolatry.  Be a disciple, not an idolater.  

I have heard repeatedly from Christians this week that we must not worry because “God is in control.”  At one level, of course, they are correct.  At another, I find myself wondering why they jump to this so quickly.  History is littered with examples of things going very, very badly.  History is littered with times when good people stuck their heads in the sand and let horrible things happen.  History is littered with times when seemingly good people– including religious leaders!– sold out to evil, justified evil, even collaborated with evil because of a misguided desire for power and safety.  God is indeed in control in the sense that he will ultimately work his purposes out.  But God has given you a conscience.  God has commanded you to be kind.  God has commanded you to love the immigrant, the widow, the orphan.  God has commanded you to love justice.  God has commanded you to protect the vulnerable.  God has commanded you to side with the poor.  If we know these things and know that we fail, how can we assume that somehow everything’s going to work out splendidly in the near term?  We can’t.  

Now, that said, we have to be humble enough to know that our assessment of any situation– even when things appear to be going our way– always bears within it the potential for being wrong.  This is why Jesus warns us that many will be deceived– human fear can distort us and our perceptions.  This is where prayer comes in– it is a long, loving look into reality as it is, not either as we are afraid it might be or as we unrealistically think it is.  The world is a stubborn thing that will not wrap itself around your human hopes.  

So it is for us to long for holiness, to strive for justice, to love the truth more than we love being right, to love the poor, the disabled, the orphan.  In a world where bad things happen, we need to stay close to Jesus, stay courageous, recommit ourselves to justice and to each other, be sober and vigilant.  But above all, people, be charitable.  Be kind.  Be respectful of difference.  Do the difficult work of reconciliation when reconciliation is possible.

A few things:

  1. Don’t let either your activism or your happiness get ahead of the facts.  The world needs sobriety and vigilance, not hysteria and gamesmanship.  If you engage in politics, let truth and love guide your steps.
  2. If you find yourself speaking with hatred or condescension, check yourself.  Whatever Jesus wants of you, he does not want this.
  3. Don’t attribute to God’s will what can be better accounted for by human sin, selfishness, stupidity, or lack of wisdom.  
  4. If you find yourself giving in to despair, know that this is not of God.  The authentically Christian life is both aware and light.  As Wendell Berry would say, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”  
  5. Be, above all, a person of prayer.  When we admit our need for God and we begin to trust in his lovingkindness, the inevitable setbacks and tragedies of life can start being framed against the grand narrative of his story.   

Being a Christian does not mean that things can’t get abysmally bad; things do, in fact, fall apart. Being a Christian is knowing that the story’s ending is in the author’s hands, and that by staying close to Jesus we can share in that ultimate victory.  And I can’t emphasize this enough:  This altar, right here, is where heaven meets earth in the Eucharist, where all the saints and martyrs gather around the throne of the lamb in the new Jerusalem, in a living temple of which we are all building blocks. Remain in him, let him be your strength and your joy until we come at last to the fullness of his kingdom where he lives and reigns forever and ever.  

The Church is a Dying? Uh huh.

People talk today as if the present state of the Catholic Church is a disaster– some like to claim that this time the wheels really are coming off and that the Church can’t possibly survive the scandals, the onslaught of secularism, the Obama administration, the transition into the information age.

If you think those things, you probably need to familiarize yourself with the actual history of the Church and with the current phenomenal growth and flowering of the Church in many places throughout the world.  Persecution, confusion, debate, corruption, and martyrdom are, historically speaking, the normal conditions under which the Church has grown.

Some things to consider:

1. Read the Gospels, especially the Passion narratives. The Church was born in the bosom of failure and has alternated between near-defeat and utter defeat throughout its history.  The founder was killed.  Almost all his closest followers met violent ends.  And yet, it grows.
2. Read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Or Acts. Or James. The Church was a disaster in the New Testament- morally, structurally, socio-economically.  And yet, it grows.

3. Read some early Church history. There were fist fights at Nicea. It took them 350 years to really nail down the definition of the Trinity. It wasn’t pretty. It has never, ever been pretty.  And yet, it grows.

4. There is no era where the members of the Church weren’t arguing about stuff– important stuff. Argument, dissent, and error are all present at every single stage of the Church’s life. So is persecution in one form or another. You’d do well to get used to it. Arguing is how we figure stuff out, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Whatever else it is– and I believe, of course, that it is very much more– the history of the Church is a 2000-year-old argument about what is true.

5. Even the stupid heresies and bad ideas can last a few hundred years. The more robust ones can last 400-500 years, but they all collapse back into Catholicism eventually because Catholicism finds a way to incorporate the real, legitimate, holy insights and truths that the heresies illumine.

6. Before you get worked up about the present corruption of the Catholic Church, go and read about Pope Alexander VI. We’ve had some certifiably evil Popes and some certifiably crazy ones.  We’re here.  We survived them.

7. I think it was Chesterton who said that the demise of the Catholic Church has been predicted regularly for 2000 years. He’s right. The prophets of doom have all been wrong, and most of the organizations they’ve proposed for replacing the Church no longer exist.

The best thing you can do, as far as I can see, is keep your eyes on Jesus and keep looking for the real saints Jesus has planted in the Church as leaven. They are here, in your midst, and they are the signs of God’s continuing presence in the Church. And that is also how it’s always been.

A Saint’s Decluttering Method

There have always been rich Christians and poor Christians.  This will most likely always be true, though one may hope and pray that disparities and the real injustices that cause disparities might be healed. But, given that the tradition seems to indicate that a Christian may hypothetically occupy any socioeconomic strata while remaining true to God’s calling, the question becomes clear:  How can a person understand how much stuff– possessions, money, and the like– he or she needs in light of a personal calling to holiness and union with God?  Because ultimately, that is the heart of the matter and not a mere abstraction.  There are expectations placed on every Christian (e.g. love of neighbor), and there are some expectations that pertain specifically to one’s vocation (e.g. the duties unique to a spouse or parent).  How to discern the difference?  How to discern what to keep in my life and what to give away or let go of?  How to discern what things I should do out of the many things that I can do?  How might I become more open to the real will of God in these matters and not rely on my vague desires and longings as a stand-in for God’s will?

How much stuff do you need, and why?  And, well, what?

One way of discerning an answer to the question is to consult a text from near the beginning of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491-1556) Spiritual Exercises, his retreat manual for those seeking to hear God’s call more clearly in their lives.  Early in the retreat, Ignatius asks those on retreat to meditate at length on the “Principle and Foundation,” a brief text which lays the groundwork for everything that is to follow.  But the text stands on its own, in a sense, as a simple manifesto for a Christian seeking to sort between what must be done and what could be done, what is needed and what can be discarded, between the essential and the inessential.  It is, in a sense, a theological yet extremely practical “decluttering method,” grounded in the Christian vision of the human person.

So, what does Ignatius say?  I will let the saint speak for himself and offer commentary.  Ignatius’ words are in bold; my comments interspersed.

The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.

There is a recognition of a common baptismal and perhaps even fundamentally human vocation.  This is why we’ve been created at all, why we are alive today, and why, God willing, our lives will extend into the future.  We are here to praise, reverence, and serve God.  Built into that fundamental nature of our being is an end, a purpose, and a destiny.  There is no double standard:  All are created, and all are called.  Each of us has been summoned by love and invited to discover a meaningful contribution to the world.

The language at the end of this first phrase, “to save his or her soul,” can be jarring and can be misinterpreted to imply that we are, in some sense, in charge of our salvation or somehow above the gracious work of God.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  We are saved by grace through faith in Christ.  But it is fair to ask what the experience of that dynamic is, what it feels like to unwrap that gift in the day-to-day of Christian discipleship.  This, it seems, is what Ignatius is addressing:  We are here.  We want to be holy.  We want to avail ourselves of God’s grace.  What is the point at which the experience of living meets the experience of God’s grace?  It occurs precisely in this milieu of praise, reverence, and service.

All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.

Ignatius has been criticized for the anthropocentrism of this aspect of the “Principle and Foundation,” but one must understand the text in existential rather than ontological terms.  God did not create the Gulf of Mexico so that Mark Shiner could get to heaven.  God has created all things with their own inherent goodness and utility quite apart from my individual needs, and God wills them to be free of my efforts to exploit them.  However, to the extent that each of us encounters other things (or even people, to a limited extent) as objects, we may consider how our relationship with those things either furthers God’s purposes or thwarts them.

One of the fundamental challenges we humans face is that there is a certain impulse to  take as much of everything as possible.  Why?  Well, for many of us, there is an idea that we might need something some day.  “You never know when this will come in handy,” we say.  Or maybe, “I’ll save this money for a rainy day.”

Ignatius is here reminding us that God gives us everything, and we are to take what we need to do what we are called to do.  But what are we to do when God seems to have given us too much?  In such moments– which are so plentiful in the lives of affluent Americans– God may be inviting us to share in his own work by being the means through which his gifts arrive at their proper destination.  We achieve our fullest identity when we are able to give and be generous anyway, and the joy that God has built into generosity is far greater than what he has built into possession even of nice things.

It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end.

This, in a sense, is where the rubber hits the road.  What do we need in our lives?  We need the things that help us to fulfill God’s specific plan for us.  What do we not need?  Anything that doesn’t help.  What doesn’t help?  You might consider these:

  • Things that prop up out self-esteem.
  • Things that merely impress others.
  • Things that draw us to useless preoccupations.
  • Stories we tell about ourselves about the sign value of our possessions, the ownership of which we perceive to put us into some sort of special club.
  • All the things we do that aren’t a part of God’s plan for us.
  • Attitudes, habits, and other traits that God might wish to transform.

To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition.

This word, “indifference” is a hard word for modern readers, as indifference is often seen as synonymous with “contempt” or “lack of regard.”  Nothing could be further from Ignatius’ mind.  It may very well be that the exact object that pulls you away from God’s purpose for you is meant to pull someone else toward their vocation!

Let’s say that you own a beautiful, expensive tennis racket.  It’s what the professional tennis players all use.  You feel more important when you hold it and play with it.  But, truth be told, you are a terrible tennis player.  You don’t even play much– maybe once or twice a year.  You don’t own the racket for what it does– you own it because it lets you tell a story about yourself as worthy of such a racket, a comforting and self-esteem-building lie.  Ignatius would ask you to interrogate that lie:  What purpose is that lie serving?  Can you let go of both the racket and the lie that binds you to it? What if you really accepted that a loving God had a genuinely great plan for you to bring you to your fullest usefulness to the human family and your greatest beatitude both now and forever?

Now, of course, Roger Federer or Serena Williams may need exactly the racket you own to do their life’s work.  They may even need five of them, or they may need even fancier rackets.  But you don’t.  God has other plans for you, plans grounded in the truth.

The second half of this phrase is significant.  There are certain goods that a person can just say, “no” to.  If I am married, could God be bringing another good and beautiful romantic relationship into my life?  No, Ignatius would say, because a married person has eliminated the possibility of the future choice of a new romantic partner, and his or her state in life would prohibit it.  That person might be a superb romantic partner, but not for me.

Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.

Wait, what?  How can we not desire health more than illness?  Wealth more than poverty?  This seems masochistic.  Does God not want good things for us?  Why would God choose bad things for us?

The key to unlocking the spiritual treasure of the text is actually relatively straightforward. We can begin by asking very straightforwardly:  What is the fundamental commitment of my life?  An illustration may help:

Let’s say that you are a parent to a small child.  The child gets seriously sick.  You had always dreamed and hoped for a healthy child, but the circumstances you now find yourself in are not in keeping with your dreams.  It would obviously be deeply wrong to say, “Sorry, I only accept children who are healthy” and to abandon the child!  Rather, your fundamental commitment is to the child as a human being, not to the child because of his health or sickness.  In much the same way, the “Principle and Foundation” asks us to place our fundamental purpose in life– the thing toward which we are striving, the reason we were put on the earth– ahead of inherently lesser goods.  These lesser goods are almost always desirable, and in a perfect world they would be our lot.  But we can never overestimate God’s ability to use the deprivation of lesser goods to accomplish a greater good.

Ignatius himself sustained a very serious and life-threatening injury, and it was exactly during his time of convalescence that he became open to following God and desirous of discerning God’s will.  What seemed like a huge setback was in fact the occasion for God’s transformative love to begin to work on Ignatius.  Wealth, fame, and long life are goods, but they are lesser goods.  The greatest good in a human life is to grasp the truth of one’s calling and to live it out in simplicity, joy, and purpose.

So, how might one apply the “Principle and Foundation” to the life of faith and to an evaluation of the role of one’s possessions?  It seems there are several takeaways:

  1. You are loved by God and you have a role in God’s great story for the world, and your happiness– both now and forever– is tied up in cooperating with God in your own discovery, creation, and embrace of that role.
  2. God gives you the things you need to fulfill your purpose.
  3. You will probably be given more than you need.  In these circumstances, ask God who to whom you should give the extra.
  4. Hold on to the things you need to fulfill your mission in life, and let go of the things you don’t need by giving them away, selling them, or donating them.
  5. Our material possessions can become a real impediment to our gaining the things that are most important to us.

Choosing to rid yourself of things is never easy.  Certain ideas and dreams need to die.  Ignatius elsewhere advises that, if you find some calling of God repulsive, you should simply ask God to give you the grace to desire his calling.  And if you don’t even want that?  Well, then ask for the grace to desire the grace of his calling.  We are inclined toward selfishness, of course, but God and his grace have both the final word and the cure for what ails us.


That Odd Moment of Victorious Joy

We could get ourselves whacked three times with a paddle if we were caught with cassette tapes of secular music.  We could also get paddled if we said mean things about someone or if we sassed a teacher.  Heck, we could get paddled for just about anything. 

Some kids, like my cousin, actually knew all the tricks that made paddling less painful.  He’d sit at the lunch table and hold forth for all the “good” kids like me who were terrified of the paddle.  “Wear about three or four pairs of underpants.  I only need three now because I’m used to it, but you might want like 5.  Just put them on right before you go in to get paddled.  When he hits you the first time, really howl, because then he’ll lighten up.  If you tell him how sorry you are, sometimes he’ll just pray with you,” and on and on.  He acted like an expert, and he was. He got paddled once a week, on average.  I was in seventh grade, and we were attending a  fundamentalist “Christian” private school.  It was the worst.

I had gym class a few times a week, which at least gave me a little social time.  In preparation for gym class we all had to change into matching gym clothes including a red shirt emblazoned with the school’s name and a somewhat indistinct white graphic of a lion with its right front paw raised.  Boys and girls had gym class separately, for reasons that were obvious to the adults at the school.  Something about sinning, no doubt.

We were trying to learn to play basketball, and four of us were taking turns shooting baskets.  We knew each other well and ate lunch together every day.  David, a round-faced kid with brown hair, braces, and bangs, was sort of the ringleader.  He was not much to look at, but he was rich, we thought.  His dad’s ownership of a franchised sub shop impressed the heck out of us.  Then there was Alan, a skinny kid who talked fast and always seemed to be lying even when he was telling God’s honest truth.   And then there was Froggy.  I don’t remember his real name– Glen, maybe?– but he had perpetually tousled black hair and thick glasses and his voice always sounded broken and squeaky (hence the nickname).

We weren’t very good at our free throws.  It was getting frustrating, and we needed to vent our frustration.  But we had to be careful because there was a policy at the school– severely enforced, with paddling– against any sort of swearing.  So, to vent about our lack of basketball skill, we resorted to what we very quickly learned were words that were almost as bad:  shoot, heck, and darn.

The gym teacher was a harried but athletic-looking young woman with a long Bruce Jenner haircut.  Is that still OK to say?  I could imagine her standing next to Bruce Jenner with some gold medals of her own, so imposingly athletic did she seem to me at the time.  Her gym outfit matched ours in every way except that she had a whistle.  She told us that we couldn’t use those words.  We asked why.  She was flustered and couldn’t explain it.  But we were told we had to stop, so we did.

Well, the principal sure could explain it, and explain he did, devoting the whole of the next day’s chapel service to the evils of substitute swear words.  I don’t remember the Bible verse he cited, but I would guess he provided a pretty imaginative exegesis on the text.  We were told that we needed to avoid not only the obvious bad words, but even words that vaguely sounded like bad words or that were based on bad words.  That cut down the functional vocabulary for many of us.  We felt chastised.  Well, hell– we always felt chastised.  We were 7th graders, secretly listening to AC/DC on tiny portable tape recorders on the bus, telling jokes, watching the wrong TV shows.  By the world’s standards, we were really good kids.  But, of course, the world’s standards were MUCH lower than the school’s standards, which were exactly the same as Jesus’ standards or maybe a little higher just in case.

So, David, Alan, Froggy and I now knew the rules.  Swear words were out.  Words that sounded like or were derived from swear words were out.  So, what did that leave us?  Interjections, as we learned on Schoolhouse Rock, showed excitement or emotion.  We needed at least one exciting or emotional word that we could use when we missed our layups.

We talked it over for a long time at lunch.  We tried out words to see if they made us laugh.  Vomit?  Nah, didn’t roll off the tongue right.  Dirt?  Not satisfying at all, and possibly open to scatalogical interpretation.  Rats?  Nope– didn’t get the emotion.  Finally one of us said it, and we all winced and started laughing so loudly that the monitor in the lunch room gave us a stern look and started walking toward us.  But it was too late to stop our plans.  We all knew that we had our word.

The next day after lunch we went to gym class.  More basketball.  More free throws and layups.  More frustration.  And a new way to vent it.

“Aw, pus.” said David quietly, after missing his first shot.  He looked around. We giggled.  The teacher didn’t hear it.

“PUS,” exclaimed Froggy, his wrecked voice squeaking a bit, making us laugh harder.  The teacher looked, then looked away.

“AW, PUS!” I finally cried, even though I hadn’t even taken a shot.  I didn’t know then where my stupid, happy, defiant courage came from, but it became clear later– that day I discovered some deep well of rebellion and glee within me from which I have drawn many times since.  These days, I think it was the Lord giving me bravery and a willingness to stand up to the Pharisees, but I don’t think the folks back then  would’ve accepted my interpretation.   We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe.  It was the purest joy I had known in that abysmal place.  Shot after shot, deliberately missing now, louder and louder while the other kids–and eventually the teacher–began to come over to learn the source of out delight.

“What are you SAYING?” She asked, unamused.

“We are saying, ‘pus,’ Ma’am, I said, mustering what little dignity I could while completely unable to keep from breaking or from being terrified.  The fear, of course, made it so much funnier.  I was going to die for this.

“YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!  UGH!  THAT IS DISGUSTING!” she said.  Tears flowed down Froggy’s cheeks as he tried to stop laughing.  Alan was the first to compose himself.  David was next.  Froggy and I never got there.

“Didn’t you hear pastor’s message yesterday?” she scolded.

“Well, yeah,” one of the guys said.  “But we didn’t think this broke the rules.  How does it break the rules?

She ran her fingers through her center part, feathering her hair back and giving herself time to think.  The moment of victory came quickly and showed on her face and in her eyes.  We were right, dammit.  Uh, darn it.  Uh, never mind.  It wasn’t against the rules.  Yet.

By the next morning,  of course, it was no longer OK to say “pus” in any non-medical context.  In fact, that three letter word changed the school from a place governed by rules to a place governed by the whims of people.  We were told at chapel that any adult could tell us if our language was appropriate or not and could order up detention or spanking according to their judgment.  And we were told sternly that although it was very likely that Jesus was mad at us, there was nothing they could do to enforce their sense of his sense of decorum.

So, we didn’t get paddled.  Rules, until we ruined them, were rules.  And pus?  Well, at least in my happy memory, pus is still pus.

Notes for a Palm Sunday Homily About Right Now.

Text:  Luke 22 and 23

I don’t usually write out my homilies.  Today, I did.  Well, some of it.

We have read these long passages from the Gospel of Luke that seek to give an orderly account of what happened at the arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus.  What becomes clear is that, while the account is orderly, the event itself is a disastrous moral failure.   The Savior is put to death because of the religious and political leaders’ cowardice and distortion of the facts and their incitement of the mob. If you have confidence and a group of uncritical supporters you can say or do just about anything and it’ll seem true and right.

Pilate:  (23:1-25) What an intensely odd story– the capitulation of Pilate to the desires of the mob.  Why?  To prevent further trouble?  To keep the peace?  To throw the mob a bone, hoping they’d quiet down?  Pilate is at the center of this drama.  He is tasked with leadership– maintaining justice, peace, and fairness– so, he is the linchpin.  He is the grownup.  And yet he gives in, abandons his responsibilities and his courage.  He feels the anger of the religious leaders and their backers.  The defenders of Jesus are nowhere to be found– they are Judean, for the most part–, and Pilate’s conscience is solitary and attacked on all sides.  And then there’s Herod– his immature, mocking, bullying approach to Jesus helps to undermine justice as well.  He shows contempt for the truth and contempt for the good and a preference for a good joke over good judgment.  

And through it all, there is Jesus.  The one who is the Way and the Truth and the Life reveals in his presence the brokenness and corruption, the murder and violence in the political and religious system.  But it will not be this way forever.  

The Women of Jerusalem:  (23:26-31)  Later, as he approaches his crucifixion, Jesus finds compassionate faces in the women of Jerusalem.  It is terrifying to imagine the bloodied and humiliated Jesus, his heart still overflowing with compassionate love, saying to the women who wish to comfort him, “What has happened to me looks like the worst thing, but your fate will be worse.  I did not wish for my death, but you will wish for yours.  I came to restore the earth from its brokenness, but you will pray that the earth would devour you.  My mother will be revered for all ages, while you and yours will feel cursed by the burden of your days.”  There is, in other words, absolutely no guarantee– and this is clear to anyone who studies history– that everything will work out just great.  Everything comes to an end, frequently by violence and frequently by rot.  Jerusalem, the very City of God, is in no way immune to to destruction and collapse.   Keep that in mind.  

The Crucifixion:  (23:32-49) And notice, too, the familiar dynamics of power evident in Jesus’ crucifixion.  Those in power lack all awareness of their own culpability and cruelty.  They deflect the blame for Jesus’ suffering by means of mockery– the fact that the Christ is vulnerable to their own evil and violence is twisted to confirm their legitimacy.  How can that be?  The travesty of Jesus’ execution should make us look at ourselves, our own bullying and toleration of bullying, our worship of power even when put to evil ends.  But it will not be this way forever.  

But yet– too late to stop things, but not too late to bear witness– some characters in the story begin to grasp what is going on.  One of the two thieves sees the truth.  The centurion sees that he is party to a crime.  Even the multitudes, at best silent and probably complicit, go away beating their breasts.  Where does this sign of repentance ultimately lead them?  

It seems that, in this moment in our common life, we are called to do several things:

  1. When you see government and religious leaders teaming up to bully and to marginalize and to further hurt the poor, the alien, and disenfranchised, know with confidence that it is not from God.  But take heart– it will not be this way forever.  
  2. When you see the truth despised and hidden under a veneer of power and respectability, know that this also is not from God.  But take heart– it will not be this way forever.  
  3. When you feel your own soul inclined toward hatred because of prejudice– even prejudice toward those in power– know that this is not from God.  But take heart– it will not be this way forever.  

During this Holy Week, we want to position ourselves close to Jesus, close to the truth, close to love.  Keep your eyes clear, attend to the signs around you, and pray for the wisdom to know the truth and the courage and love to follow it for Jesus’ sake.  Soon the glory of the Lord will be revealed, God’s Kingdom will show forth in time, and it will no longer be this way.  

Snags, Logs, and Seeds

Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  — Acts 3:6

Even in college, there was gym class, a fact that disappointed and angered me to no end.  Since a Physical Education credit was necessary for graduation at my undergraduate institution, I signed up for a backpacking class.  This seemed a reasonable choice, and the almost perfect lack of content or work for the class suited me just fine.


On our first hike in the dead of winter, a few of the guys started doing a very “guy” thing— we’d walk up to the trees which, though still standing, looked as if they were sick and vulnerable enough to just get knocked over by a good hit from the shoulder of the hiker.  We’d keep an eye out for trees with woodpecker holes, trees with rot, trees with no twigs.  These dead trees are known as snags.   We’d see the rot and the vulnerability and turned the great tree into a source of amusement and chest thumping.  It’s easy to spot a dead tree in the summer— it has no fresh growth, no leaves.  But in the winter, it’s different, and our stupid game led to some big and dramatic mistakes when one of the guys would walk hard into a tree only to discover that it was still living and solid.  We were surprised, at times, by the vigor of a tree that looked dead.    Now, in the natural course of things, all of those trees would’ve fallen in the forest, perhaps alone (and yes, they would’ve made a sound, wise guy).  My fellow meatheads and I merely expedited a natural process for fun and sport.  But the drama was equally great when one of us would walk toward what looked like a big, healthy tree and knock it to the ground with one good hit.

Beautiful, majestic trees have a life cycle, and the health of any forest depends in large part on the cycle of death, decay, and renewal.  But in any given case, losing a tree is a moment of sadness and a reminder of mortality.

Although it is hard to admit, it is equally impossible to ignore:  Many of our American Christian parishes and institutions are dead and many others have begun the inexorable march toward death.

When you actually sit down and listen to the so called “religiously unaffiliated,” you hear a lot of interesting stories.  A great many of those stories are stories of heartbreak and disappointment.  There are, it seems, millions of casualties of the church’s inability to inspire love, confidence, and celebration.  Many of our beloved institutions have become like those dead, rotted trees, the vitality gone, and with no growth possible.  And, of course, it’s more than that.

When I was in seminary, my friends and I coined (or, more probably, appropriated) the term “the Millstone Club,” a phrase that reflected Jesus’ warning that it would be better for one to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to hurt one of his little ones.  The term “Millstone Club” was applied to those clergy we knew who’d ruined lives through sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other horrible behavior.  At the time, we had no idea of just how large or how ruinous the Millstone Club had been for the Church, nor did we know of the complicity of church leaders.

And now for the last decade we have seen this great era of truth-telling and God’s score-settling.  In the Gospels, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit– his continuing presence in the world– will lead the Church into all truth and that the truth will set us free.  But as David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The truth will set you free.  But not until it is finished with you.”  It seems self-evident that the truth will not be finished with the Church until its leaders thoroughly repent, accept what has happened, and care for the casualties of the Millstone Club.  There are hopeful signs.  Great effort has been made by good people to take the truth seriously and to accept its consequences.  I pray every day that the process will continue and that the leaders of the Church will accept this era’s suffering as, to borrow an image from Thomas Merton, God’s resetting of the Church’s broken bones.

And still, there’s often this attraction to Jesus.  Strangely, Jesus is almost never actually the problem.  Even though he says these difficult and deeply challenging things, people will still give him a listen.  I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think I get why:  The challenges that Jesus presents are things that, deep in our being, we largely know to be true.  We know that our possessions don’t make us happy.  We know that our life and well-being are tied to the well-being of the needy and vulnerable.  We know we need to pray.  We know we need to forgive.  All this is true, and all of this is hard.  It starts to feel impossible when it seems that the institutions given by God to empower us to follow Jesus are themselves in disrepair.

So, when things are broken, we do what we’ve always done:  Retrace our steps and see where we’ve lost our way, what lack of foresight has led to the present crisis.

There is, admittedly, a long list of factors that contribute to our present malaise.  But, whatever else we can blame, we can safely conclude that the Church has frequently been lacking in love, lacking in justice, off-mission and off-message.

There is this great story in the biblical chronicle of the earliest days of the Church called The Acts of the Apostles.   We find the leaders of the Church, Peter and John, are heading to the Temple to say their prayers.  They are greeted with hope by a man who cannot walk.  There are a million things Peter and John could have done, of course, but what they did was extraordinary.  Peter admitted their material poverty– “I have no silver or gold”– but, instead of turning to social services or instead of just saying “I’m sorry,” he did the one thing that Jesus asked him to do:  He proclaimed Good News in the name of Jesus.  In the name of Jesus, rise and walk.  Peter remembered that he had one thing:  A message of hope and redemption.

At the deepest level of its identity, the Church has exactly one thing:  A message.  The message has all sorts of implications for behavior and for our common life, but none of those implications are themselves the message.  Peter understood what Church people need to regain:  It is not about us or our efforts.  It requires, in a sense, our willingness to be vulnerable, to admit our poverty, and to allow the one thing we do have– a message about the reconciliation of all things in the love of Jesus– to come to the fore.

Study of the long history of the church reveals this:  It is in the moments when the church is righting itself after or during a crisis that  the Holy Spirit’s presence is most obvious.  So, for Christians, there is reason to hope, and reason to treat this as an era not of despair, but of expectancy.

The thing to do with a denuded forest and so much death and decay around you is to plant seeds.   I hope to plant some seeds here, and I hope to invite you to do the same in your own life and your own place.

Extremely Small Fidelities

You never know what God’s going to use. You can assume he’s going to use everything.

A long while ago, I was out watching one of my son’s soccer games. I was standing next to a guy I’d known for a few years. I’ll call him Scott. We were talking about this or that the way soccer parents do. And then Scott asked me what I was doing that afternoon. I was semi-embarrassed to admit that I planned to go to Confession, but I just rattled it off as one of my things on the agenda for the day.

“Huh, no kidding. Man, I haven’t been to Confession since I was a kid.”

“Yeah. I go pretty regularly. Good for the soul. Cheaper than therapy.”

The conversation about confession was a little longer than that, but not much. We turned to talking about washing cars or mowing lawns or something.

You can only imagine my surprise when, shortly after the following Easter, Scott saw me and told me the news.

“Hey, remember last year on the soccer field when we were talking? Well, I started thinking about it and I talked to my wife and told her that I was going to go and try Confession. And one thing led to another, and soon we were all going to Mass. And now Jane and the kids got baptized at the Easter Vigil and the whole family is Catholic and we have you to thank for that.”

Except, of course, they didn’t, at all. It was God’s work, the God who uses small things. The small thing in which I was faithful– just a tiny, brief comment, really– was used by God to grow a great thing.

Remember that little story any time you think you know better than God does, and remember it, too, when you find yourself unable to see what God’s doing with your small fidelities.


If I Say I’ll Pray for You

One of the commitments I’ve made in the last year or so is that if someone asks for prayer, I write it down on a sheet of paper.  I pray through that list every night during  Evening Prayer. Most people, I’ll admit, don’t get a lot of individual attention unless I know that something in particular is wrong– they’re hurting or unemployed or whatever. If I think things are basically going OK with you, you get mentioned to God with a “whatever he/she needs” attitude.

I came to this idea of a prayer list when I was preparing for hiking the Camino Santiago de Compostela.  I posted this on Facebook:

Facebook Prayer.png

To my astonishment, I had over 100 specific replies to this post, so I decided to enter all those requests into an Evernote document and to print it out and carry it with my passport and credenciál as I hiked the Camino.  I prayed for these people every day, morning and evening.  I added people along the way, too.  I was surprised and deeply moved by people’s responses to my offer to pray.  Several were in tears as I wrote down their names, like the owner of the hostel in France who told me that his wife had left him 25 years earlier. “But we are still married in God’s eyes,” he said, showing me his wedding band.  I promised I would deliver his petition to Jesus at the tomb of St. James.

Tomb of St James
The tomb of St. James, Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  That’s my prayer list in the center of the photo, mangled from the pilgrimage but still readable.  

Another surprise:  Many people I’d prayed for wrote to me after the trip to tell me that their prayers had been answered– some in extremely surprising ways.

There’s a guy I went to high school with who once complained on Facebook that no one who said they prayed for people actually did. So, I added him to my prayer list and now I pray for him every day. I let God sort out what the guy needs. That’s my basic attitude– let God sort it out. I pray for non-Christians, but not for their conversion. I pray for sinners, but not that they’ll stop sinning. I just pray for them, and whatever God does with that prayer is better than anything I could come up with. God’s got some mysterious stuff going on, and I don’t want to mess with it– I want to cooperate with it.

For a while I used an iPad for my breviary I opened a page in “Notes” and typed in a copy of my paper list. Nowadays, I am back to paper. I’ve got about 100 people on there. Some of them, I have no idea how they got on my list. But that’s part of the beauty of it, right?

Whatever else prayer does, it makes you pay attention to God’s ongoing work in the world and among his people.  And daily prayer provides a small but concrete way to love others, to take yourself out of the center of your own narrative and let God occupy the center. I don’t think that’s all that prayer does, but I welcome it.

What it’s Like to Baptize Your First Infant

So, here’s the first thing: I’ve never felt so blessed and so utterly unimportant as I did in the moments when I was baptizing Lala.

You understand in an instant, if you’re paying attention, why it is that John the Baptist is so frequently portrayed as pointing to Jesus.

Really, anyone can baptize. You can we a wicked SOB or a saint. You can be an atheist who’s just fulfilling the wishes of the parents or you can be the Pope. A jackass or a whiskey priest or a five-year-old girl can do it. The kid isn’t more baptized by the Pope than he would be by the atheist.

Maybe this is why Jesus made it so easy. Jesus apparently knows his people well enough to know that making it complicated is a formula for disaster. Make it easy. If you make it easy, we get more people, and that’s the whole idea. More, more, more. Jesus is profligate when you are not inclined to be profligate. More. How many people is enough for Jesus? All of them. If we get all of them, that’s enough.

So, when you baptize someone, that’s where you start. All the ceremonial– and it is magnificent ceremonial, and If you can read the blessing of the water without tears you are more of a man than I am– is just intended to heighten the awareness of this bald fact. God wants more children. He’s crazy about it. The Octomom is a lightweight compared to God. He wants you and everybody.

So, anyway, the parents are two people I’ve loved for a long time. I was filled with anxiety back in 2008 when we awaited the news that mom had applied to transfer to Colgate, and I rejoiced when she got in. I rejoiced when she and the dad got married. I rejoiced when they cooked chicken paprikash and when we had the interfaith barbecue one summer and when they graduated and, well, there’s a lot to celebrate with them, as they are wonderful.

And then she was pregnant and then the baby was born and he was impossibly beautiful and I said, “Hey, you know, I’ll be a deacon soon, and if you don’t have plans for a baptism but want him baptized, I’m game.” Thanks be to God, they took me up on it.

I practiced a number of times with one of my daughter’s dolls. I did OK. There’s a certain nonchalance when you’re practicing most things, but I will admit that when one of my students held the doll over the font and I poured water on the doll’s head, I cried. For that moment, it was about the grace that my ordination had given.

But I’ll tell you what– when you’re doing the baptism, it’s completely different, and whatever it is about it is NOT about you or your emotions. It’s about the fact that you, child of God, are able to stand and bear witness to what God is doing with your hands and with the water you poured into the font. Jesus takes over, and you’re his stunt double. If you do a half-assed job, if you missed the miracle of adoption into God’s family, well, that’s your problem. But if you just pay attention, God’s got a show for you. God’s love, your hands.

Baptizing Lala instantly transformed everything I thought I knew about the sacraments. I suddenly saw priests in a different light. Your surrender is all that’s required for the grace to be given. Well, no– even your surrender isn’t required. Your surrender is only required if you want to see it, if you want to see with your own eyes what God has given you to do.

Binge-Watching Maron

I am a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and I spend almost all my “TV” time watching comedians on Netflix or YouTube.

Recently I found myself watching the entire second season of Maron, the comedy series based on and starring comedian Marc Maron. Maron’s probably most famous for his “WTF” podcast, wherein he conducts long, generous interviews with an incredible array of comedians, actors, musicians, and other public figures. Maron’s great weapon as an interviewer and as a comedian is his absolute candor and commitment to truth. The fact that both his candor and his truth are filtered through a sometimes impossibly thick narcissism is the central tension of his work: He wants to be truthful, he even wants to be good, but there’s a ferociously selfish, wounded, self-protecting aspect to his personality that keeps it from being all good. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s quip, “The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.” The truth is not finished with Marc Maron.
I almost want to do an episode-by-episode review of this sometimes-astonishing series, but my first impression is that the whole season’s theme involves the movement from self-protectiveness toward responsibility to others. Maron’s got a growing awareness of his connectedness to others. He rails against the hypocrisy and narcissism in other characters, but almost inevitably his indignation turns toward a recognition of his own selfishness and need to change. He has a keen eye for b.s. and a rapidly evolving conscience. He’s responding more and more to the need for relationships, real friendships, family cohesion, and connection to a community. And, to my surprise, there’s even a growing sense of gratitude. I don’t know if this is Maron’s intention, but there’s almost a sense in which he’s climbing out of the hell he’s created for himself.

That said, it’s still pretty raunchy and broken, alternating between heartbreaking sadness and great comedy. Like Louie, it’s a show I wish I could recommend to parishioners, but in a world where EWTN is what people think of as “Catholic television,” this would seem jarring and vulgar. But I can’t help but think that the paschal mystery undergirds the whole message of the show. God, lead Marc Maron to whatever Sunday you have in store for him and for all of us.