Sunday, March 18, 2012

God of Day and God of Darkness

For perhaps thousands of years, humans have struggled with the duality of light and darkness. Light has almost always been regarded more favorably then darkness and has been most closely associated with divinity. Darkness, on the other hand, has been associated with evil and even Satan (a.k.a., the "Prince of Darkness"). In many cultures, light skinned persons have been regarded more favorably than darker skinned ones. The false dichotomy of light versus dark seems to be deeply etched into the human psyche and is very difficult to uproot unless one is consciously aware of this ingrained and cultural bias. 

The dichotomy between darkness and light figures very prominently in the Gospel of John. The Gospel writer uses the one (darkness) to serve as a foil for the other (light). Darkness very often symbolizes faithlessness or the "demonic" powers that are allied against Christ and his mission. However, there is at least one instance in the Gospel of John where the interplay of light and darkness and the integral relationship between the two actually serve as the foundation for a profound faith experience. The healing of the Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41) is precisely this instance of a far more nuanced, subtle, and complex interplay of light and dark. While darkness in John is usually a symbol of a lack of faith in God or, even, opposition to God's plan as it unfolds in Christ, in the story of the Man Born Blind, darkness in the literal sense provides the "horizon" or "backdrop" for the man to experience the light of Christ and to then proclaim him boldly before the harsh criticism of the religious leaders. It was no doubt the condition of darkness, ironically enough, that prepared the Man to be able to perceive the light of Christ's saving power. It would seem as though the darkness that enshrouded the man was akin to a chrysalis that formed and shaped his faith in such a way that when Jesus drew near he was able to be drawn out from his dark cocoon like a butterfly coaxed from it's shell by the warmth of spring. Far from being something menacing, darkness in this instance of John's Gospel is like a cocoon that played it's part in the Man Born Blind eventually spreading his wings and soaring in faith. 

What the story of the Healing of the Man Born Blind conveys, at a deeper level I believe, is that the God of Jesus Christ is both the God of day and the God of darkness. There is no place in our lives or world, no matter how dark or dank, where God doesn't deign to encounter us, mostly unobtrusively, to bring light, life, and love. However, we must allow ourselves to encounter God precisely there: in the darkness of insecurity, inferiority, injustice, oppression, difficulty, pain, doubt, and, yes, even, despair. When we allow ourselves to "go" to those places in our lives and larger world, the darkness we find ourselves at times overwhelmed by is precisely where we will eventually encounter the Christ who came into the world that, "those who do not see might see." (John 9:41). 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mark 1:41: Moved With Compassion

In the Gospel from Mark for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus is approached by a leper who is seeking his healing touch. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was "moved with pity" in response to the leper's request for healing. The word, "pity", doesn't really come close to approximating what the Gospel writer originally intended to convey about Jesus' emotional reaction. The Greek word that describes Jesus' reaction is splagchnizomai, which can be interpreted as, compassion. The word compassion means a deep sympathy for the suffering of another along with the desire to alleviate it.

If we compare the words "pity" and "compassion" as they are used in our culture, the difference between the two words becomes even more apparent. To pity a person implies not merely a sensitivity to the plight of another but a corresponding awareness of being in a position that is less pitiable. In other words, to pity another is, in a sense, to look down upon them or their situation from a better place. No matter how good the intentions of the one who feels pity, it speaks to an attitude or orientation that is fundamentally condescending. Let's contrast this with the attitude of compassion. Compassion, as a "deep sympathy" implies being "with" another in their sorrow, suffering, or, pitiable situation. Compassion is an orientation of solidarity in the sense that it recognizes in the other a struggle, suffering, and, even, a misery that is part and parcel of the human condition. Far from being condescending, the emotion, attitude, and virtue of compassion means "descending" to be with another in all that they are experiencing and being for another in seeking to alleviate the source of their misery.

What made the suffering and misery of the leper so acute and unbearable was undoubtedly the isolation and loneliness that dogged him like his own shadow. Fewer things make suffering and misery worse than the experience of being isolated, alone, and cut-off from others. This is as much the case with those who suffer now as it was in Jesus' time. The healing touch that Christ extended to the leper wasn't from above him, but was from beside him. True to his mission and mandate from God and the Holy Spirit, in healing the leper (and countless others), Jesus bears witness to the fact that he came to be the very compassion of God, to be with us and to be for us. Yet to allow God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit to be a source of healing compassion and solidarity, we must likewise "descend" to those forelorn, broken, and, even, miserable places within our lives and in the lives of others. In so doing, we will experience that, far from being alone, we have never known such intimacy, connection, communion, and, ultimately, healing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Waiting for a Messiah Out of a Surplus Longing for Life

The Christmas season has a peculiar tendency of causing the human heart to swell with anxious anticipation and a universal hope for a reality much different then the one we have grown all too familiar with. In 1984, Irish Singer Bob Geldof, moved by the suffering in Ethiopia due to horrific famine, wanted to write a Christmas song to raise funds to relieve the plight of the suffering. The song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?", sung by some of the most popular artists of the 80's, raced to the top of the charts upon it's release and occupied the number one slot for five consecutive weeks. The climax of the song that rang out over and over again on the radio airwaves was a veritable "prophetic protest" against a brutal reality that simply shouldn't be: "Feed the World! Let them know it's Christmas time!" In 1992, Amy Grant revised and popularized the song, "Grown Up Christmas List." The song speaks to the the mature longing for what the Christmas season should bring: "No more lives torn apart, and wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts. Every one would have a friend, and right would always win, and love would never end."

Where do such hopes and longings arise from? Are they simply "pie-in-the-sky" ideals, forever out of reach, or do they point to something more profound at the core of the human heart, spirit, and soul? I believe that the latter, is, of course, the case. At the heart of every person who has ever endeavored to live a truly and fully human life is a "surplus longing for life." Some have said that at the core of who we are lies an empty void that can only be filled by God. While this is certainly one way of describing the angst that we often feel when life doesn't quite measure up to our hopes and aspirations, another way is to say that at the core of our selves is a "surplus longing for life." Far from a mere "emptiness" or "void", this sacred "energy" in our heart is meant to always be unnerved by a longing that no amount of eating, drinking, drugging, debauching, or acquiring can slake. In fact, to try and slake this "surplus longing" by filling ourselves is to bring about it's vengeance. How can we possibly fill what is by definition an unyielding desire for fullness? How do we live with such an unnerving tension? I would suggest that we first acknowledge it and then, simply let it be. By doing so, this "surplus longing" yields a creative and powerful vision of what life can and should be, not only for ourselves, but for our entire world.

I would like to suggest that acknowledging the "surplus longing for life" and simply letting it be is precisely what the prophet Samuel and the Virgin Mary do in this past Sunday's readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. After Samuel is told by King David that David plans to build a temple for God, Samuel is gripped by an intuition and vision that it isn't David who is to build a house, but God who will build a house for David, ensuring that David's reign will never end. This is the first, explicit oracle that points to the Messiah. In the Gospel, Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel who tells her that she will "be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit" and will give birth to the Son of God. The readings make explicit what Samuel and Mary do in response to God's oracles; however, what we can assume is that these oracles came, in part, as a result of Samuel and Mary learning to accept and live with the "surplus longing" at the core of their persons. A famous theologian once said that, "every symphony must remain unfinished." What he meant by this is that the symphony that is our lives, and the symphony that is the world, no matter how beautiful, still inspires more than what we can realize this side of heaven. The point of the metaphor, the point of this weekends readings, and the point of the surplus longing for life that drives us is to simply play the tune of Christ as beautifully as we can and leave it to God to conduct it into the final symphony of salvation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

First Week of Advent: What I Learned About Advent Anticipation in Meeting Mark

With the Christmas season in full-swing in the secular realm and record commercial sales being posted, it can be so very easy to overlook the fact that we are actually in the thick of the Advent season. The word itself is from the latin adventus, which means "coming". Wikipedia has it quite right by saying that the Advent Season is one of "expectant waiting." This implies an "active" mode of the hopeful anticipation of encounter rather than the more "passive" act of waiting to see what is wrapped under the Christmas tree. With regard to the waiting that is characteristic of the Advent Season, Henri Nouwen describes it in these words: "Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise: 'Zechariah...your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son.'.... 'Mary,....Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son'. (Luke 1:13, 31). People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for has already begun in us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more."

I learned a profound lesson about the spirit of Advent Anticipation in meeting Mark. I met Mark on a recent trip to the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, MN. I went there to attend the care conference of a client under guardianship. I arrived with the "lowest common denominator" expectation of simply attending the care conference and then meeting with three other clients in residence there. I didn't anticipate or expect anything special or out of the ordinary. I had been down this road several times already and must say that I had a bit of "tunnel vision" in focusing solely on my reason for being there (rather than God's reason for my being there!) When I walked into the room where the conference was going to be, I encountered a diminutive, slightly older than middle-aged man sitting by himself. He had thick glasses on that made his eyes as big as coffee saucers and was quietly and contentedly sipping coffee. I wondered what he was doing in the room all by himself. I introduced myself and told him my reason for being in the room. At that he said that he should probably leave. I told him he could stay since the conference wouldn't begin for about ten minutes.

At the invitation to stay we began to share a little bit about ourselves. I found out from him that, in addition to being a veteran, he had earned his PhD in history. He also had a number of children and a loving wife with whom he had recently spent the Thanksgiving holiday. After sharing my theological educational and vocational background, we began talking about faith. He surprised me by saying that it was his conviction that we didn't end up in the same room as a happenstance, but, rather, that God gave us this time, and this space, to share with one another in order to encounter the living God who delights in surprising us at a moment's notice. I found in Mark what Advent Anticipation is all about. Here was a man who was not at all alone in the early morning light of the conference room. Rather, he was there with the seed of God growing within him, being nurtured by his recent experience of Thanksgiving and his total life experience. Mark was kind enough to share that seed with me and to remind me of the divine seed that I hope is growing within me and that will grow within all of us this Advent Season.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Proper "Fear of the Lord": To Live Life on Earth as It Will Be Lived in Heaven

The month of November in the Northern Hemisphere brings many changes in the appearance of nature, the outside temperature, and the emotions that many people experience. Christians throughout the centuries have chosen to "go with the flow" of these changes by taking time to pause and consider the reality of loss, the waning of the vigor of life, and the inevitable end of all things. During this time of year the Church chooses to ponder loss, diminishment, death, and the end through the lens of various Gospel teachings concerning how to be prepared for such eventualities. One reason for doing this, perhaps, is to reshape our personal and collective sense of fear of the greatest unknown associated with life: death and what happens beyond it.

The first reading and Gospel for this past weekend's liturgies both explicitly mention the word fear and the role that it plays in the life of faith. However, the manner in which the word is used is quite different between the two readings and therefore offers us the opportunity to compare and contrast a "healthy" and empowering sense of fear versus one that debilitates and cripples. The first reading from the book of Proverbs speaks of the praiseworthiness of the woman who "fears the Lord." The Gospel tells the parable of the talents and describes how one of the three servants entrusted with the Master's talents (an ancient sum of money) tucks it away in the ground out of fear. Why is it that fear in the first reading is praiseworthy and in the Gospel text the fear of the servant towards his master (i.e., God) is the grounds for punishment?

The first reading and Gospel are obviously dealing with two very different meanings of the word fear. The basic distinction could be described as the fear that empowers (as in the first reading) versus the fear that incapacitates (as in the Gospel). The type of fear that we are to have of God and the mystery of God is one that empowers; however, what is sad is the fact that the Christian tradition has very often used the fear we see in the Gospel to manipulate belief in God or to cajole compliance with dogma, doctrine, or moral teachings. True "fear of the Lord" according to the Judeo-Christian scriptures implies not a "slavish" fear of punishment, but a sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur of God, God's Creation, and God's plan of salvation. Such a "fear" motivates through inspiration, not intimidation. The importance of having a proper understanding of the role of "the fear of the Lord" in the life of faith cannot be understated.

I was recently having coffee with someone of staunch Christian belief when the topic of heaven and the life of heaven was raised. I explained my reflections and musings on the subject and expressed my conviction that life here on Earth likely won't change significantly unless Christians give serious thought to the program of the Kingdom (meaning, life in the "New Creation" or "heaven") and than work to enact this program here on Earth (this is truly what it means to proclaim the Good News). My counterpart stated that she hadn't given much thought to heaven and, rather, focused more on fearing God in the sense of avoiding God's judgement and punishment. This example, I believe, throws into relief what's at stake in how we understand "the fear of the Lord". One sense of fear leads to contemplating the divine mystery embodied in God, Christ, Holy Spirit, and God's plan of salvation and than being empowered to envision and enact the possibilities of New Creation in the here and now. The other approach to fear stifles creative thought and incapacitates the imagination from being able to see and strive for the possibility of God's will being done "on Earth, as it is in Heaven".

Monday, October 31, 2011

Love of God, Love of Self, and Love of Neighbor: Reactive and Proactive, Receptive and Responsive

In the Gospel for Mass two Sundays ago, Jesus issues his most poignant and succinct teaching about how humans are to live in the world: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Since everything in the Christian and truly human life hinges on love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor, it would be worthwhile to ponder what this "looks like" in the concrete. One way of approaching the "greatest commandment" of total love for God, self, and other, is to think of this love as an energy that is "reactive and proactive"and "receptive and responsive." 

When one thinks of the word, "reactive", one usually doesn't arrive at a positive valuing of the term. To be "reactive" can cannote being impetuous, impulsive, and "reactionary." However, this word can also refer to equally positive behaviors, especially when connected with the Great Commandment of love. When a person is reactive according to this commandment, they respond relatively easily and immediately to the needs and dignity of other persons. An example would be if someone were to buy lunch for a homeless person standing on the side of the road. To love "reactively" means being open and ready to meet the needs of others. Another way of fulfilling the Great Commandment is by loving "proactively." According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, it isn't enough to simply wait until someone in need comes across one's path; rather, the "bar of loving" is set at the height of looking, and even searching, for those in need of love. A number of stories told by Jesus in the New Testament depict God as a restless searcher for the lost, the lonely, and the needy. Chapter 15 of Luke's Gospel offers dramatic examples of how love at it's height is not only about reacting to the needs of others but proactively searching for the needy other. In a society that has gone to great lengths to create suburban enclaves of safety, security, and a facade of total well-being, searching for the needy other is absolutely imperative, especially since the truly desperate will rarely cross our paths while "holed up" in such places.  

The great command to love can also be approached in terms of being "receptive and responsive." To be receptive implies an openness toward all, especially those who are in greatest need. To revert back to the example of the homeless person standing on the side of the road, it means withholding judgement and allowing ourselves to be moved with pity and compassion. Receptivity, in it's greatest expression, is really about hospitality: setting a long and wide table within ourselves for the divine mystery and sacred story which is at the heart of every person and creature who graces the face of the earth. As important as it is to be receptive to others in fulfilling the great command to love, hospitality only deepens in it's richness and beauty when we have an abiding awareness of those in need of our service.  Just as it is necessary to not only be reactive but proactive in one's loving disposition toward God, self, and others, so it is essential that we not only provide hospitality but extend it through a responsiveness that reaches out to others both near and far. To be truly responsive requires an attentiveness to the heartbrokenness of the world. However, what makes such responsiveness exceedingly difficult in our society is our obsession with being entertained. Karl Marx once said that "religion is the opium of the masses." Today we might revise this by saying, "entertainment is the opium of the masses." To allow one's self to be entertained to the point of distraction deadens the capacity for sharing in, and responding to, the broken heartedness and struggle that is representative of the vast majority of the world's population. 

The great command to love can be approached and understood in various ways. However it is approached and understood, to be truly effective in our lives it must be appropriated in as practical a manner as possible. We practically appropriate the command to love God, ourselves, and neighbor, when we form dispositions and attitudes that are reactive, proactive, receptive, and responsive to the world around us, especially that large swath of the world that is broken, needy, and crying out for justice.

Monday, October 17, 2011

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: "Making Room for Room"

There has been much talk in our contemporary U.S. society about the presence of God in daily life and how Christians are called to bear witness to it. "God talk" and public testimonials about people's relationship with God have become relatively commonplace, frequently arising in the U.S. sports and political arenas. Just this past weekend I heard a college football coach give thanks to God (after a victory, of course) for being blessed to be a part of his particular program. Last week a Republican party front runner for the presidential nomination and Baptist minister spoke of the need to "make room for the Holy Spirit." All of this very public God talk begs the question of God's presence in our lives and world and how to witness to it in a way that is God honoring (meaning, in a way that draws others to God rather then repel them).

The first reading and Gospel for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time reflect different attitudes about God's involvement with the world and how we give honor and glory to God. The first reading is quite fascinating, and, even astounding because it states that God favored a pagan, Cyrus, King of Persia. The reading from Isaiah goes so far as to state that God is the one who has manipulated circumstances to ensure that Cyrus would prevail over his enemies. The attitude conveyed by Isaiah is that God is the one directly responsible for all that unfolds in history, to include military conquest and domination. In the Gospel, Jesus has a different take then Isaiah, seemingly contrasting "secular" powers with the power of God by stating, "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." So, which reading is correct? The first, or the second? Is God directly responsible for all that unfolds in history as Isaiah asserts, or, are there two "parallel" realities as seemingly suggested by Jesus?

This dilemma is perhaps irresolvable. There is no way of knowing for sure precisely how God is involved in the processes of the world or human affairs. It is fair to say, however, that our modern day approach to Christian theology asserts unequivocally that God is not a God who backs the powerful and ruthless but has sided with the poor, the vulnerable, and the defenseless. However, the more pressing and important question that is presented by this weekend's readings is: what exactly "belongs" to God? What belongs to God is space.

In his classic book, "Man's Search for Meaning", the famous psychologist Victor Frankl relates the following account of what he did soon after his release from Auschwitz: "One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks' jubilation and the freedom of space. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world - I had but one sentence in mind - always the same: "I called to the Lord in my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space."

The God of Jesus Christ is almost certainly a God of tremendous spaciousness. When we think of one of the characteristics that defines God par excellence, it is the spaciousness of God: space between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be themselves and to carry out their respective roles in history. Space between God and creation: so that creation can grow and flourish in and for itself. And, finally, space between God and the human person: so that humanity can find its way in history and grow in the image and likeness of God. Far from something ostentatious such as public testimony, we give to God what belongs to God when we simply give to God the same thing that God gives us: space.