Blog

The King

This final Sunday of the liturgical year: Christ the King. 34th Sunday of Ordinary Time. It is crowded with meaning and significance. The feast is an allusion to monarchy while living through 2020’s challenges of democracy; it whispers of grandeur while struggling with the human, economic and emotional tolls of the pandemic.

This last Sunday is an invite to live with compassion and consciousness, to recognize need and purpose, to take action and to make a difference. The tenderness of a benevolent monarch is embedded in the readings: the simple shepherd, faithful to his call, tends to his sheep. And then, in the Gospel from mat. 25, it becomes even more clear.

For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

This kingdom, this Christ, seeks benevolence from each person. This is a kingdom that is about recognizing realities and moving with courage and conviction towards providing immediate assistance. In a sense, it is tasking the role of shepherd to each human being. Each is meant to care for the other, to do what can be done for each other. It is about living goodness, sharing compassion, and accepting responsibility for self and others.

The concept of a benevolent, generous god is aligned with the vision of a monarch who truly loves and cares for the people of the kingdom. It is not about power, aggression, subjugation or oppression. It is about loving with gracious fidelity and opening pathways that may not have existed before. It is about leaving the world better than we found it, about daring to live with generous hearts and accepting spirits. It is about realizing we belong on both sides of the equation, as givers and receivers, and that life itself is part of the exchange. And, finally, it is about the constancy of Christ’s presence in the very routine matters of daily life.

The King provides an example, a model, an inspiration. Aligned with the subjects, the King faithful to their issues and concerns. The King is trusting in the fidelity of the subjects. In every way, it is an active relationship, real and very human. For hundreds of years, the monarchy model was familiar and understood. Now, in a secular society grappling with the rich realities of democracy, the fullest meaning is more elusive. It can be shrouded in misunderstanding or dismissed as something irrelevant.

But the feast points, too, to a second reality. Human life does not stretch beyond the grave. But the acts of kindness, the moments of generosity and love, those live on. History is made in the healing of hearts and heroes are carved from the choices they make. The grand narratives of history are resplendent with victories and triumphs. But tucked beneath all that is this Kingdom of Christ’s: a place where conflict is met with charity and suffering with compassion, all the things that really matter to human beings. Long Live the King!

Choosing

There is a subtlety to Scripture, a way in which its stories capture all the vagaries, faults and flaws of what it means to be human. Then there is the juxtaposition with the stories of courage and heroism, quality and strength, and the delicate truth that each of us, in being human, is made up of both. All that is explored in the most ordinary of circumstances, the lives we live everyday in relationships, families, work places and in each of the choices we make. Even when those ordinary lives are caught in quite extraodinary circumstances, choosing the Light makes all the difference.

The pandemic, the social unrest, the election, the weight of economic uncertainty and the unremitting force of technological change has rendered 2020 one of those “extraordinary circumstances”. It would be easy to bury ourselves in the misery of it, bemoan each new turn, and embrace a frustration and anger that might buffet the next blow. But that would mirror the actions of the man in the today’s Gospel reading. It was the Parable of the Talents, Mt. 25: 14-30. Jesus narrates the story with a steady hand: a departing master leaves his servants with a prescribed number of coins, talents, and directions to care for the property until he returns. The first two invest and double the take; the third buries his and can only return what he had been given. The Master rewards the first two, but the third is punished. To bury ourselves in the messiness of 2020 is to bury what we have been given. The call is to be like the first two servants who utilize the gift given, the time allotted, and invest with confidence and certitude. That Gospel speaks of commitment, of attentiveness to the master’s purpose, of action. Keeping that in mind means looking at the texture and layers of reality that surround us.

In the horror of this epidemic, the sun still rises and washes away the night. New babies are born everyday; new homes and jobs are found. Kindness is practiced in a thousand different forms: sharing food resources, watching out for neighbors, organizing drive bys and Zoom calls. There are heartwarming stories of elderly couples reunited, and young families bolstered by the return of first responder parents. Adapatations occur everyday: masks and social distancing are standard fare now; grocery stores have runway patterns and clerks are behind protective plexiglass. There is a palpable sense of possibility even as the numbers of hospitalizations and positivity tests rise. People struggle to use what we have for the benefit of another.

Every moment of history is emblazoned with meaning in someone’s life; each moment Choosinghas a hand in shaping destinies for individuals and nations. The 21st centruy world is not an exception. In the search for understanding, the centuries old Gospel can become, if allowed, a timeless companion. Jesus, imparting simple stories in a world so different than our own, transcends the centuries to provoke thought and challenge conventional thinking. Entrusted with the stories, it is left to each of us to decide how to grasp the meaning and how to apply the message in 21st century life. In other words, it is about how to live and love and be the very ordinary human beings we actually are. Even in this time, the mission is being offered, the chances taken, and the world is a better place for it.

Entrusted

New England’s Autumn strips the color from branches, baring the most essential elements of the landscape: rocky escarpments, slanted roofs, skeleton trunks. Wandering under the shifting skies, every image becomes sharply distinct and somehow certain, more real. Autumn owns the moment in the same way the virgins awaiting the Bridegroom owned the moment. In Matthew 23:1-13, the story of the ten seems to be all about the moment: five had lamps and oil; five only brought the lamps. Only the five who were prepared were able to actually welcome the Bridegroom. The others were off searching for the oil.

We stand at this moment, maybe at every moment, with those ten women. Beneath that message about preparation is a deeper and compelling reality linked to our common humanity. That short pericope wrestles with purpose, awareness, choice and relationship. The virgins, after all, were on a mission of sorts. There was an assigned task, one that required more than showing up. Woody Allen may have argued that 99% of success is showing up, but planning for that, anticipating possibility, also matters. To achieve their purpose, the virgins needed resources. Imagine if they had forgotten not just the oil, but the lamps themselves. More than that, a conscious understanding of the broader situation was necessary.

Being there, showing up, mattered. This two thousand year old story captures exactly what “waiting” means for us today. Every honking horn points to our needs for immediate gratification. Every automated answering machine, with its multiple steps and reassurances that your call is indeed important to them, exposes the frustration that can be part of waiting. The parable whispers softly that patience and perseverance are life necessities, and how we wait makes a difference.

In a sense, the whole story is about the importance of the choices we make as human beings, and how those choices impact ourselves and others. Each choice falls somewhere along the continuum of enhancing relationships or jeopardizing them. This is about how, with all the contemporary emphasis on human individuality, we are also, achingly collective. In so many ways, we are dependent on the right choices made by others. The Gospel effortlessly highlights that.

I have often wonderd what ultimately happened to the five who searched for the oil, if they got a second chance or found themselves searching for that, if they even realized what had happened or that it might be necessary to change patterns of behavior, review choices, acknowledge the loss as an opportunity. The Gospel doesn’t say. That, too, interfaces with the uncertainties that undergird human lives. And yet, that very open question is a comforting validation of what it means to be human.

In essence, the gift of life, of being, of connections and even of purposes. has been entrusted to each of us. What we do with it and how we do that matters not only for self, but for all those we companion. The journey of life is not one of isolation, but one of connection and celebration, of losses and gains, of moments entangled in every century, decade, year and day. Preparing for the journey matters; being entrusted with the lifetime matters even more.

Choose Wisely

All Saints Day. Gray and rainy in the Northeast. Election Day imminent. Pandemic spreading. Families reeling. Fears of economic losses and civil unrest. And here we are, such as we are, with the Gospel of the Beatitudes standing in startling contrast to the tumult overwhlming every other aspect of life.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. 
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.Mt. 5:1-12

And there, wrapped in every line, weighted in the flow of verse, rest the very secrets to being fully human, fully alive. Every phrase delineates a fundamental aspect of humanity; each characteristic is named, and each is followed by a promise of a future, a next step. There is a quiet reality to each one, to the isolation and even the suffering each portrays or implies. But beyond that, there is that sense of commitment to life, to somehow making things work. Everything about the Beatitudes points to the challenges and difficulties that life presents. Nothing suggests that there is sanctity in rigidity, judgementalness or cruelty. Instead, there is a certain self-confidence flowing from choosing compassion, kindess, hope and peace. The Beatitudes are about personally choosing a path and then making a difference in the lives of others and self.

Each one implies that many other paths are possible, even likely. But these choices, resting in the most human of hands, offer a profound difference, a comforting sense of possibility, a commitment to being. They are far more than “Be-attitudes.” Instead, they are richly textured with the power of choice and possibility; they rest in the life of every human person. The words are a reminder not only of the strengths of human beings but the links between and among us. Here, there is no class, no race, no gender: it is all about everyone, each one. Most importantly, each one matters.

In this time of heightened anxiety and fears, looking into the eyes of another, seeing through the eyes of another, is essential. The Beatitudes dare us to step out of the box and open the doors to one another, to dare to listen, see, comfort, console, choose and challenge. Above all, the Beatitudes are about actions born of deep convictions, reflected in attitudes and brought to life by choice. Choose wisely.

Replenishment

There is a simplicity to Autums’s luring radiantly colored leaves to the brown sanctuary of the earth: a quiet statement about replenishment, change and growth. Laying down something to embrace what is waiting, what comes next. Trusting what is past, what is happening now, and what is to come. Believing, somehow, that Autumn’s presence itself is a harbinger: there is something more to come. Simplicity belongs to each of us as much as it does to Autumn. Times are boldly complex, clearly unfamiliar, definitely uncertain. And then there is the Gospel message of this day: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself.” Mt. 22

There is a profound simplicity in those words, a depth beyond easy grasp. First, be attentive to what is, who is, Other than human. Be conscious of the mystery of being! Celebrate the sunrise, the light, the moment! Find the future in the eyes of the aged; discover the wealth in the joy of the young. Know the wisdom of laughter and the blessing of tears, the comfort of friends and experience of hope in loss. Believe in the more. Recognize what is less. Trust in mystery and discover faith. And then, when you are ready, pause. Breathe very deeply. The next step is about loving self.

How is that done? How does loving self begin? How is it practiced? How is it made real, visible to others, alive in the Universe? Have the courage to ask. Have the courage to wait, to listen, to know finiteness and empowerment at once. recognizing who you are, what you are about, your strengths and areas for growth, is a foundation for learning to love your neighbor. Love is a process, a journey, a commitment to growing. Know that you are growing and changing, and you are somehow choosing that path in the choices and decisions you make. It matters what you do, and it matters how you choose to do it. There are challenges and pitfalls, obstacles and wrong turns, but keeping an eye on the long-term goal is an invaluable tool. Look for the mentors, the models. Find the exemplars you admire. Believe in goodness. Life is short, and moments matter. Trust in change.

And then, love your neighbor as yourself. Imagine tenderness, kindness bestowed upon another. Attentiveness to the person, the moment: that is love. Love respects, love reaches out. It is present in the quiet smile, the door held open, the unexpected gesture. It is present in the truthful statement and gentle wording. It is there with the extra hand, the shared plate, the ability to see the common ground. It is about realizing that having good neighbors starts with being a good neighbor. It lingers with the forlorn and dances with the despairing. There will be moments of rejection, but that is about suffering and meeting suffering with empathy. Most of all, loving your neighbor as yourself is part of the challenge of being human.

Love replenishes purpose in life; it re-focuses attention on what really matters. In a time of such complexity, the very simplicity of the wors, the ideas, offers more than promise.

Mystery

Just off the main road, surrounded by the vigor of fall foliage, sits a simple monastery. The walkway is open; the front door is glass. There is a tiny doorbell under a large sign that says,”Use this doorbell”. So I did. And there began a conversation that threaded the essence of monastic life with the social and cultural life existing all around and within it. The opening words belonged to a Poor Clare, and she spoke of “the mystery of enclosure”.

“Enclosure” to some is a fenced off area, a separate space. To a Poor Clare, it is the space within the house in which the sisters live: their home and their workspace. It is set apart from the public parts of the monastery: visiting rooms, guest rooms, the chapel. It is a challenge and a reality, a purposefully physically restricted space.

There was a twinkle in her eyes as she spoke. With six decades of monastic life under her belt, she had been invited to speak to a parish group about enclosure. “We all live in enclosures,” she said. “Family, friends, work, schools, ethnicity….” and the softness in her voice was strengthening. Enclosure shapes who we are in ways both clear and curious. There are strengths to it: identity and purpose, connections and support. Danger lurks as well. Those enclosures can become insular, and isolating, discriminatory and divisive. Enclosures are like social systems: subtly and consistently, actions become norms and thoughts become shared viewpoints. They are both inclusive and exclusive, and somehow become visible. The enclosure lives within the person as each person lives within it. Consciousness of that reality is enviable.

In the world outside that monastery, the enclosures so casually named are now colliding: the understandings, the images, the perceptions. What was unseen, what gave life and identity, a common purpose and foundation, has challenged the comfortable enclosures of others. That has opened social channels of uncertainty, confusion, convictions and courage in a torrent of wonderings. But above all, colliding enclosures represent an opportunity to generate new groups, new systems, new hope. Enclosures are there to be created and recreated: the enclosure is a human construction, part of a searching for more.

Monastic enclosure also represents that search for the more. Grounded in the truthfulness and simplicity that allows for awareness of the sacred, monastics cultivate the quiet, the attentiveness to the present moment with a tenacity and resilience that belies the structured days, the sameness. Their enclosure is a testimony to both the human spirit and the divine spark. The mystery of enclosure is embedded in the reality of every day, praying together, eating together, discerning and deciding together. There is the mystery: in the very stillness of being apart comes the wealth to become attentive to who and what is present and outisde the physical parameters. Here, the losses and brokenness can be named, accepted, understood if not forgiven; the divine spark genuinely dances into daily lives. Stillness has substance and movement.

Each enclosure is animated by the layered beauty of humanity. And each is maddeningly challenging to live through: humans working with other humans both gifted and flawed is decidedly difficult. Life is difficult: enclosures like family, friends, churches and ethnic groups promise some comfort, familiarity, hope. Our colliding enclosures are dislodging the past and enabling us to choose new structures, a new system, and new hope.

Common Denominators

In vivid words, soft and full of strength, Psalm 23 sketches and then shapes the buccolic image of a shepherd. Loyal and attentive, the shepherd faithfully accompanies the sheep. In a world of dangers, the shepherd insures safety, kindness, home. The dangers are ever present; confidence and comfort are the gifts the shepherd brings. Generation after generation has found a compelling intelligence in the acknowledgment of both the shepherd and the frightful journey through the valley of death. Courage is nestled there in the harbor of those words just waiting to be heard, to be lived.

The Psalmist could not have suspected what 2020 would bring to humankind nor the afflictions humans would visit upon one another. And yet, “though I walk through the valley of death…” resonates with the world we are navigating. Odd, really, that phrases so ancient might still capture the weight of the world with such stunning simplicity. But then, perhaps that is the magic of Scripture: it captures the fears and frustrations, the anger and the joys, the triumphs and the tragedies of what it means to be human. It gives words to humn experiences that might otherwise defy description. Instead, exploring the depth and breadth of the Old and New Testaments, their complexities and translations offer windows and mirrors into the human journey.

Like the shepherd, the words of scripture have a dynamic capacity to reflect and break open the realities of what it means to be human for each generation, for each person. In a sense, Scripture offers a common denominator. It is the ultimate reminder that humans are at once gifted and flawed, powerful and weak, humble and arrogant. So much resides in each person, in each circumstance that engulfs each individual: Scripture captures all of it in dramatic exposition through the power of narrative. Its stories capture the intensity of human passion in the triangle of David, Bathsheba and Uriah; the essence of human greed in the book of Exodus, and the wonder of human love and sacrifice in the book of Ruth. Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Esther, Ruth and Judith, David and Solomon, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul….psalmists and prophets, apostles and evangelists. All hopelessly and wonderfully human.

That is what we are: memories and messages, miracles and mourning, always sorting through what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. In this fractured time filled with so much suffering, we share the common denominator of humanity with all those who have journeyed before us. Psalm 23 whispers to us of that reality, that we are sheep with a shepherd; and the psalmist leaves us to wrestle with the meaning of what that looks like in our lives.

In mathematics, common denominators are gifts; they empower action and determine pathways to problem-solving. Unifying fractions is made possible, a miracle of sorts. Searching for the common denominators is the key to problem-solving. Edging towards the end of the liturgical year, searching for the paths forward and the solutions to problems plaguing society, means determining the common denominators, the shared characteristics. . It means looking realistically at who we are, what we are about, and why this matters. It means deliberately choosing to realize that energy, fortitude and courage are birthed in awareness of what we have in common. Moving forward as one with the convictions, loyalty and integrity of the shepherd, solutions are conceivable, even possible. Scripture, the Psalmist and the evangelists, the prophets and the disciples open the door. Finding that resonance, trusting the fragility and the strength of our humanity and moving forward choices is clearly up to us.

Relinquishment

Each day of this pandemic, I have watched children weave a new world from the fragments of the last. They glide by on skateboards and bicycles, construct games around the telephone poles, linger at creeks with fishing rods. There is laughter and disgruntlement and a certain order to each moment. They are children of color and of whiteness, and they represent what is possible. In this tiny quadrant of the world, they have come to represent the reality of the future. They are celebrating what it means to be alive.

Then, too, there are the new beginnings as we relinquish the ceratinities of the past. There are the friendships, the new triads of acquaintances based on these new patterns and lifestyles. There are drivers who share the road, educators struggling to meet needs, cashiers who are endlessly calm. It is easy to embrace the negative, to condemn, to shout down what vibrance earth is offering in this time of relinquishment.

There is the chance, though, that what we have been asked to relinquish will yeild the more. Today is the feast of St. Francis, a tiny figure from a tiny village whose name was chosen by the current Pope. He embraced poverty and founded a movement known for working with and for the poor. The lesser known part was his commitment to prayer, his need for guidance and assisance, and his ackowledgement of grace. In the pantheon of saints, his tiny figure became an enormous testimony to grace.

There are startling parallels: Jesus was the stone rejected by the builders, and so Francis and his ways were rejected in his time. Still, he savored the earth and nature and all it had to offer. Still he learned and crept away to find sustenance in quiet prayer at the Carceri and at LaVerna. He knew both strengths and limits and so he chose to live. Most of all, he knew the weight of loss: disagreement among the brothers, ill health, even his loss of sight. That last, though, did not mean he could not see. Relinquishment brought him closer to God. In these days, relinquishment’s pain and challenge may also be offering us the promise of grace.

Days of grace. Grace in the midst of a now filled with uncertainty. Grace, the sense of God’s presence which surpasses all understanding. Grace, to draw close to God without even realizing what has happened. Grace is that helping hand waiting to make each moment more livable, more bearable, more vibrant and more to be grateful for. Relinquishment is the prerequisite.

Humility

Humility. In a world roaring with voices and searching for equity, justice, inclusion and change, humility would have no place. Such a world asks more: the choice, the action, the photo, the video, shot and shared. It demands visibility, advocacy, deliberate involvement. Society is demanding so much more than in the past. But beneath all that churling action is another layer of human life. That is where the Gospel and the Paul’s Letter to the Philippians finds reasonance on this 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time: at home.

Humility. “Jesus was in the form of God but did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at…” Instead, he emptied himself into human form. And there he found the reality that M. Scott Peck summarized in three words: “Life is difficult.” Think about it…so many of the parables introduce deeply painful moments in life. The Prodigal Son story, the workers in the vineyard and fair wages, and today, the two sons: one who refuses his father’s request and the other who accedes to it. And then, the first actually performs the task and the second does not. And while rewards are discussed, the reality is there is no judgement in Jesus’ story. There is a keen sense of observation of human behavior, and a judgement-free zone about the choices and consequences. In those moments, Jesus lives out the humility of what it means to be human. It is not about power or control. It is about navigating the very difficult tides of human life and experiences.

Jesus recognized that each of us lives within systems that are not of our own construction or even liking. The traditional mantra for this is “Give to Cesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.” But there were a multitude of systems that organized society and individual lives throughout history. There was Rome and the governorship, the Temple and the rabbis, the neighborhoods and families. Jesus neither contested nor challenged those in power. Instead, the challenges he constrcuted were deeply personal ones, and each one sprang from a worldview where God so loved the world that choice was paramount. Encouraging that, Jesus not only stepped away for his own power, but he invited others to do the same. He invites each of us to do the same in the places where we are, when we can and how we can manage. He reminds us that judgement of one another has no place, but conversation, communication, and choice is essential. In all of this, Jesus is illustrating very clearly what it means to be in the form of God and not seek equality with God.

That is the message that matters here: we are a nation engulfed in cataclysmic change at the moment. Acknowledging how difficult life is, how suffering is part of life and life itself is simply not fair means embracing our own humanity with humility. Raising our voices for change means making it better for the next generation. Humility recognizes the road is long and circuitous, but the path is of our own making.

Completely Other

This Sunday’s First Reading presents a passage from the prophet Isaiah. Chapter 55:6-9 speaks a message far louder than the words themselves.

6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.

7 Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts; let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

9 As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Hidden between the words and phrases is an enticing concept: God is completely Other. Who we are as humans is definable in some sense, but God is beyond that realm. Ever present, he is not easily visible. Clearly, His ways and His thoughts defy human imagination. And so it is that over the centuries and millennia, the sharp insight of Thomas Aquinas gains audience: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible.” In a world swirling with uncertainty, groaning with tragedies, bleeding with bitterness, there is a quiet faith sustaining hope and promise, a sense of presence.

Sustaining that faith means nurturing it personally, taking a moment to acknowledge Other or quietly praying the gentle cadence of the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the Sign of the Cross. Each whisper is a consciousness of a dimension that exists but may not be understood or explicable to one without faith. But that need not change the reality of faith or even challenge it. Faith is founded on trust and lives in hope, has the courage to entertain doubt and the depth to be explored. And it is the second reading of the day that highlights a second aspect of living faith: team work, community. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians opens with the words, “Christ will be magnified in my body whether by life or death…” and closes with, “I shall find that you are standing firm and united in spirit, battling, as a team with a single aim, for the faith of the gospel.

In other words, we cannot live this alone. We need one another to uplift, encourage, challenge and comfort, confront engage and grow. Believers are in this together at all times and especially in crisis. Sustaining faith means being aware of and maintaining community connections, reaching out and being reached out to. It means finding strength and courage in one another, entrusting the process of living to a wider community, sacrificing the self-centered certainties to something other, all in pursuit of the more. It is about living a message of respect for one another, for creation itself, in a generosity of spirit that defies human conventions.

That is where the Gospel reading, Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard, comes in. In paying all the laborers equal wages in spite of the fact of various start times, the owner of the vineyard completely defies human imagination about fairness or justice. In so many ways, the story epitomizes what “other” means. It is left to the person of faith to discover that Other in each day, each person, each experience. And slowly, with practice deepening convictions, Other becomes more real, more visible and even tangible in the world. For those who have faith, and those who do not, the world becomes a better place. Maybe that was the whole purpose from the very beginning.