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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.

The Forgiver

September is sliding into apple-picking season here in New England. There are those crisp clear nights that bear a hint of Autumn, and just enough cloud cover to contrast with just-emerging colors. That shift is reflected in the readings of the day; they are a summons to goodness, to forgiveness, to love. Jesus’ description of forgiveness offered “seventy times seven” in Matthew 18:22 is actually an invitation to come beyond where we are and realize the power that rests within each of us. It is a moment, like this time of September, about change.

Forgiveness is not a commodity; it is about communication. Most surprising is that the communication itself is deepening a connection. It is not simply about the forgiven; it is about the forgiver as well. To be the one who forgives, who possesses the wisdom, the strength and the courage to do that, is to be sharing compassion that is birthed in the divine, in the presence of Christ within each of us. It means drawing on grace to find freedom. And that means having a connection with God to draw on. We cannot give what we do not have. Sharing the relationship actually enables forgiveness to find a home in other relationships: knowing compassion in one connection leads to compassion in the next. Considering forgiveness of another means looking at self and being willing to change.

The Forgiver has power and risks the offer of forgiveness. The Forgiver must be observant and genuine, see the need for forgiveness even when no request is made. To forgive does not mean to allow perpetuation of a wrong. Nor does it mean that the Forgiver becomes a doormat. Instead, it means embracing reality: accepting what is. It is about moving comfortably in a universe changed and re-designed, better for all. For example, Tamerlyn realizes that her friend and co-owner is stealing from their meager profits and occasionally takes merchandise. Confrontation leads to bitter conflict. Tamerlyn offers forgiveness, but dissolves the business connection. Over time, a form of friendship is recovered. The benefits of this are profound for the Forgiver: a heart free from anger and a mind and soul unencumbered by the bitterness of the past. Moreover, recognizing and accepting the reality of the situation benefit the Forgiver, too, in moving forward.

The Forgiver facilitates the change, but the Forgiven face different choices. There is no less a sense of change or adaptation, though. Circumstances and situations vary so widely, but there is no doubt that every human hurts self and others on the journey of life. There are deliberate and calculated actions as well as words carelessly, insensitively used, and decisions made with dire uninended consequences. Here, too, self-awareness is critical. Realizing the impact of one’s actions, the capacity one has to harm and hurt, destroy and even decimate another is essential in the process of forgiveness. Without that critical understanding, the acknowledgement of personal responsibility, the full grace of forgiveness cannot be realized. The Forgiver can only communicate so much; the Forgiven must communicate, live a change, to seal that forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not like giving a nealy wrapped package; it is about a process of communication that is both deeply personal and necessarily interactive. “Seventy times seven” asks for so much more that a simple act; in so many ways, Jesus was not commanding an action. Instead, Jesus gave an invitation to learning more about the process of communication and becoming a better human being. And that just might mean embracing the many colors of Autumn.

Beauty of the Gray

There is a certain tenderness to the aging process, something that tempers youth’s passionate energies and reconsiders the pieces of the past with a generous understanding of life and truth. It is something that belongs wholly to those who have managed to navigate the complexities of life with reverence and reflection. More importantly, it enables an embrace of the future and a peace with the past. As it occurs, there is a new understanding of the stark contrasts of right and wrong, black and white, light and dark. Aging is the gift of seeing more realistically: self, others, life, truth. Ironically, the acquisition of wisdom comes in partnership with social marginalization: aging, whether we like it or not, means social irrelevance.

Life and truth find new birth in the aging process. Life possesses a treasured heartbeat. There is no longer an endless stream of sunrises: the consciousness of mortality makes it so. But there is a second reality: grappling with truth. Truth finds true resonance in the depth of the soul. Aging allows the understanding that everyone is sharing that resonance, trusting that gut interpretation, searching for the most meaningful truths of human life. Aging allows the embrace of difference, the consciousness of love, the confrontation with the spirit of the law. Most of all, aging provides possibility.

When I was a child, I found it odd that Jesus died at such a young age; it seemed as if everyone older than that would be unable to relate to Him, to call or mission. But as I grew, I learned that the stories of the Bible are often wrapped around that process of growth and aging: there was Abraham, Solomon, David. And in the New Testament, Zechariah and Elizabeth, even the father in the Prodigal Son story. The mirrors, the role models, are there and somehow, they are all connected to living life fully with a spirit of wondrous appreciation and love. That happens in the realization that few things in life are actually clear cut. Choices are complicated: motivations and purposes are diverse; right and wrong are not always easily visible. What seems so clear to one person is opaque to another: neither can grasp the other’s perspective. Being right or wrong has status and sometimes equates to a jostling for power. It is never simple. Aging is the process of letting go of all that, of the process of ascendancy. Aging is about accepting and living reality.

In today’s readings, Romans chapter 13 describes love as the fulfillment of the law. The Gospel reading from Matthew 18 contains the critical line, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Both passages echo a deep truth. Life is about learning how to love, not control one another. Being present to one another and relating through conscious choice. Love is about sharing deep understandings with one another, not being fearful of or threatening each other. Love is about intent, generosity, actions. It is not about power or acqusition of power. There lies the connection with aging.

So much of what was perceived as the life force, the vitality of life is fading in aging. Physical strength and appearance are altered and diminished. What really matters in living becomes far more visible and valuable. The challenges of the past can be looked at once again, and the hurts can be consigned to a broader context…there is the chance to let go of the anger, the griefs, and the losses. Ironically, aging offers the chance to begin again. It may not be visible to everyone, but this is actually something that cannot be understood until actually experienced. Being at home as a Catholic means being all about the journey of life, and realizing the beauty of the gray.

Agency and choice

In a world of change that defines and defies generations, agency as a person has opened up new stages for individuals, given life to ideas and thoughts that would have dwelt quietly in marble notebooks and handwritten journals just decades ago. But now, curtains drawn back and spotlights aglow, new venues abound. Influencers yeild power; youtubers win fame. The compulsion to share words and message exists as it always has in the human story. To be heard is to be recognized, to be known and perhaps to be understood or provide deeper understanding. Personal integrity and collective good seek voice as well as consistency.

At the root of all this lies the esential nature of choice: agency. More than ever, what we do and how we do it matters. There are competing forces at work: self-gratification, noble ideals, murky realities, visible and implicit bias, even contradictory interpretations. There are perceived truths, subjective stories and blinding judgements ciruclating in dialogue. How to choose? How to act? What to believe? What to dismiss? Is it possible to explore or investigate, to genuinely dialogue and learn to contextualize experiences? Does communication dare us to choose for the good for self and others? Is doing the right thing a possibility?

In the tide of the pandemic and all that 2020 has brought, it is tempting to believe that this is the most unique of turning points, that human beings have not grappled with such questions or controversies before. That would belie a deeper reality: our challneges are showcased in 21st century dressing, but every generation before this has struggled with so much. That is where the Matthew 16 Gospel comes in: it is about choice, about what we do and how we do it and the agency we exercise in making those decisions. The Gospel invites deliberate choice, not simply drifting with the tide. The Gospel demands commitment in choice and advises that the complexity of life presents the pain of choosing.  Matthew 12 shows Jesus inviting the apostles to make a choice. In that ancient parable lies a simple truth about humanity: choice belongs to each of us. Owning it makes a difference.

The second reading from Romans 12:2 carries it even further: “Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and mature.” “Renewing our minds” occurs in each generation of history: mistakes are made, and adaptations are necessary, but the process was as essential then as it is now. Fear has no place in either the choice or the process. For a Catholic, living out the idea of discernment implies a deep and personal connection with God and an acknowledgment of the divine. What we believe comes alive in every ineraction, every decsions, every moment. We are free to choose. We can trust that mistakes will be made, and we can trust that forgiveness is possible. It is literally all about choice.

Catholicism has suffered insitutional scandals, financial failures and deep divisions. The collective and personal failures of the clergy have become reasons for choices and decsions to reject the very concept of religion. And yet, there is that persistent whisper that calls us beyond the brokenness of humanity to the something more. The choices, the exploration, the discernment, all that belongs to this moment. What are the messages, the stories we will share during this time? What will be given life? How will we define our purpose, our identity? How will agency be exercised? Influencers or influenced? Or simply the quiet voices away from the fray sustaining possibilities?

Courage to Ask

As the world wrestles with natural disasters, COVID, elections and the clash of social movements, an uncertain anxiety reigns in even the calmest of hearts. But then comes an invitaiton, a question, and a revelation about identity. Identity, after all, is not confined to ethnicity, race, gender or sexuality. It is also about who we are as persons, emissaries, servants, and human beings. That is made clear in the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus claims his identity as the Christ, but he also invites the disciples to become co-collaborators in His mission. In that, a new identity is formed. It is a call to mission, to become something more in the midst of complicated times. That invitation laid out for Peter comes right after he names Jesus as the Son of the living God. The statement was profound, life-changing.

In many ways, Jesus lays the same question before each of us. “Who do you say I am?” Taking the time to consider that, to wonder for a moment at such dialogue, is a validation of the idea that each person, each life, is precious. Each matters to God. Each issued multiple opportunities for that interaction, that exchange, with God. Taking the time to listen to that questions amid the cacophony of crises in the world and in personal lives makes a dramatic difference. It reframes the priorities, the concerns and even the choices that matter. “Who do you say that I am?” means that a multitude of responses can be made; some will be insightful, some awkward and others entirely inaccurate. And some will resonate with a keen honesty and truthfulness, a sense of deep recognition.

There is another application of the question: to dare to ask this of others, to ask what is seen in us. The feedback, the responses, are a revelatory mirror. It is not always about who we think we are but how we come across to others, how they see and experience who we are. That offers the chance to become who we want to be. Jesus dared to ask the disciples; the answer mattered. The courage to ask is what made the difference: Jesus showed that, and Jesus invites each of us to that very same courage.

Identity is not determined by self alone: it is a composite of factors, of experiences and moments. It is about reconciling what others see in us, what we know of self, and who we imagine ourselves to be. There is a simplicity in the truth of that, in the possibilities that represents. Being named is being known; being known is beginning to be. Both Jesus and Peter begin a whole new phase with this exchange. Asking the question leads to new pathways.

In these most challenging of times, asking the question will require courage as well. But it may also prove to be the chance to find a new path into the future.

Beginnings

Scaffolding surrounded the brick facade, and we entered cautiously, almost tentatively. Inside, crisp and clean colors and light awaited. The altar was centered, but the Baptismal font was on the right side, and the baby was ready. He wore an immaculate white outfit with the Cross embroidered on his socks and bib. Lips pursed and eyes sealed, he slept with the peace of the innocent. Wrapped around his chubby legs was the Christening blanket that covered his maternal grandfather 60 years before. Nearby was the paternal grandfather; the child would receive his name. There was the great grandmother and three young cousins and very attentive parents tending to that baby’s needs. And everyone wore masks. It was a pandemic christening, but the joy could not be contained.

The gathering was a testament to resilience and to faith. After months without visiting, a family gathered to welcome and celebrate the life of the next generation. He cried when anointed, and he cried with the water spilling over his forehead. “Shouting for his faith,” his great grandmother noted. There were smiles and nods everywhere, and he settled in the strength of his parent’s arms in full contentment…in spite of the missed nap time. Then there was the closing applause for this child now formally welcomed to life and to the family of Catholicism.

Baptism as a beginning allows for reflection. We all begin there, tiny treasures. And then there is becoming, growth and change: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood. . And finally, there are endings. Seated in those socially distanced pews were young adults and middle aged and senior citizens, each bringing a life perspective and the grace of lived experience. There were a variety of faith traditions and some lack thereof, but there was no shortage of the love that transcends all that. In this moment, this child gathered everyone together for the purpose of celebrating the gift of life. In this pandemic celebration, there was the promise of new beginnings, a first step forward for everyone there.

Baptism is the strongest of reminders that we are all in this together; one cannot exist without the others. There is a wisdom to generations gathered, to griefs set aside, to time spent in gracious gratitude for the breath of life. There is a glow to the Baptismal candle that persists in the darkness and the shade of uncertainty. There is a strength in godparents ready and committed to support child and the parents, a courage from previous generations to sharing lessons, a hope in the children gathered. All that stands against fear and anxiety.

Baptism is a visible testimony that with God, all things are possible. And so the sacrament of belief and beginning is the sacrament of hope and promise, the one that opens the door to the next, and is the foundation for grace received over and over. It is the awareness that we all belong to something greater than self, that we share something greater than self in each breath of life. And somehow, it is the promise that faith and life go on and thread generations of families, communities and lives into one tapestry of faith and hope.

Each of Us

There are moments of pure splendor when all the world seems right, and light seems to beam into every aspect of life. And there are the mundane, the mediocre times, barely noticed for their sameness. Then there are the times of trial, tragedy, where the real self is far more visible and the truth of who we are is no longer hidden. That is where Jesus comes walking towards us, just like He walked over the water to Peter. (Mt 14:22-33). His words are not solutions to problems or rules to be followed. Instead, he announces himself and speaks words to remember: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Fear is a paralyzing force; it is also fuel for fury, a foundation for the fight or flight response. And here, in the Gospel, long before the arrival of psychology as a discipline, here is Jesus inviting us to look at fear, at skepticism, doubt and trust. That basically is an invitation to look at who we are, how we interact with self, God and others. What matters here is the reality of being human, of recognizing who and how to trust. It is about daring to believe. But most of all, it is about the fact that Jesus is coming towards us in the midst of our greatest challenges. That sort of love knows no fear, holds no grudges, only becomes deeper over time. And He keeps on coming.

Often, Peter is characterized for a lack of faith in this story, that he fails in faith. As he sinks, Jesus saves him, chides him gently, and invites him into a new phase of life as a disciple. But doubt is so very human; it finds roots in the inability to trust. Trust is the foundation for love, for relationships. Intimacy cannot take root without trust, and trust is the factor that dispels doubt. In essence, Jesus was inviting Peter to a deeper level of trust. It was no longer about being together, fishing, handing out loaves and fishes. Instead, Jesus and Peter came face to face. And he gave Peter the evidence and support that he needed to grow in trust. Jesus fully recognized Peter’s humanity in those moments. The Gospel is the promise that Jesus fully embraces our humanity, our strengths and weaknesses, our triumphs and our failures. He sees who we are, and He remains present, the God who waits for recognition.

This is a far cry from the capricious gods of the pantheons of Greek and Rome. It is a far cry from the image of an all powerful puppet master who dangles danger before us and plays with human life. This instead is about a God who cherishes and cares, who willingly waits for wonder. This is a God who practices compassion and allows for each human journey to be one of discovery and exploration. This is the God who waits. And each of us are the ones He awaits. Each of us matters to Him. Each of us is Peter. We have only to see Him.

Loaves and Fishes

Bewilderment, even despair, may devour our better selves at this time. Seeking and recognizing the goodness that is so much a part of being human is more necessary than ever as counterpoints, antidotes, to the turmoil of the past five months. Those moments are still tucked in the most ordinary of times: the Fed Ex worker who stops to persoanlly deliver a package to an elderly person, the neighbor who helps carry in the groceries, the child dancing in the store aisle. There is a strength, a goodness, that resides tin the human person and challenges so many of the images of media. There is a core to who we are as human beings that challenges the destructive and divisive social forces captured in media. There is a sameness to humanity that defies the evolution of technology and social media in our time. Hope is centered on a reality that transcends what is most visible to us.

To postulate the existence of God in a world immersed in science is hardly contradictory. Instead, the concept invites questioning, curiosity and humility, the idea that there may be more than we suspect to the realities that we define. To be able to entertain the concept dares us to carry what we have learned from science and psychology and apply it in a new and different way. It enables looking more deeply and exploring more fully the dimensions of human existence, purpose and process. Somewhat counter-cultural, it involves fully acknowledging the many facets of human existence and persons, circumstances and contexts. And yet, it is celebrating the very things that are related to what is currently known as “well-being”. To dare to explore it is to dare to be different as well as to acknowledge the nuances of being human.

Today’s Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the loaves and fishes, encourages a trust we may need for the journey. The disciples of Jesus suggested dismissing the crowds; Jesus, instead, takes the loaves and fishes and blesses them, and the disciples can feed the crowd. Mulitple interpretations exist; just now, the parable relates that was needed in the moment was actually there. And so it is in this moment of time: what we need already exists within us. The parable goes no further: there is no promise about outcome, no definition of system. It is simply that what was needed was found. It was already there, within the sacred space where the crowd was gathered. Trusting that is a chance to become curious enough to discover the divine nestled within the most human of experiences.

Paul epitomized that radical trust. He becomes the outsized hero of the New Testament with his visible and fiery conversion. But it is also Paul who demonstrates in his experience and confides in his writings that daring to seek and choosing to believe is more than life-changing. His path opens possibilities for each of us. It would be easy now to walk away, to contribute to the chaos, to believe that there is no way to emerge from this time period better than we were before. But there is so much more: we can deal with the realities of our time with the resources within us. We can trust the loaves and fishes can be found within us, and we can remember that there is nothing at all that can separate us from the reality of the divine within us.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” Romans 8

Lincoln’s Springfield

They were three kids, all under 11, thoroughly enjoying the hotel pool. They were unsupervised; there was no evidence of an adult, but they were having fun. I let myself in, grabbed a seat, and prepared for a dip. They were wary; the oldest one was a girl, and the younger two clearly deferred to her. It was a small, kindey shaped pool, but I put on a cap and goggles and edged into the warm water. They just watched. Then the little boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, asked if I was an Olymic swimmer. His sister quickly reminded him not to talk to strangers. That was when I introduced myself as a teacher and a visitor to Springfield, Illinois, for a conference on Lincoln. I told them where I was from, what grades I taught, and waited. Finally…

“If you’re not a stranger, then, we could talk,” the eldest determined. A flurry of information spilled out from all three: their names and family, their schools and friends. We spent the next couple of hours chatting about how they got in, where they were supposed to be, and then some basic lessons about swimming, just floating, and breathing with even more conversation. They lived nearby in Lincoln Housing. The mom and grandmom were out working and they were supposed to be in the apartment. However, it was really hot, and they knew they could sneak into the pool area with a plastic card. Most days, they got in and out without getting caught. It was generally easier on weekdays; the weekend security guards were less understanding. They advised me that the roof was lovely, also locked, but there was shade up there and you could see their building. Of course, if caught up there, they would also be in trouble. That ran the gamut from being scolded severely to being lead out like criminals to their mom being called (the worst of all. Disappointing her was the worst of all, but it was SO hot, and if she didn’t know…). And so I became an accomplice to the subterfuge, and we became an unlikely quartet for a very short while.

What I learned from them was how hard life can be, how ironic that in the home of Lincoln, kids were still struggling with the realities of poverty. I learned how powerful are the bonds of family and how very innovative and daring kids can be, and how sometimes, we can be a bit more forgiving and a lot more proactive. I think of them often and wonder what the last few years have brought them. But mostly, I remember the power of their interdependence, the ways they looked out for one another, and the way they made friends with a stranger. I remember, too, the responsibility they accepted for their actions, and the ways they expressed love and respect for the women who were raising them. I remember how they made me think about what really matters.

And all that reminded me that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right where we are. The pearls of great price are right before our eyes. We have only to notice.

Spirit

Love has a power all its own, a fortitude that bears the worst of circumstances and invites a deep appreciation for other, an understanding that welcomes flaws and celebrates strengths. It has an intuitive sense of wholeness and an ability to promote growth, individuation, and strength. For human beings, it is also complicated, enmeshed in needs and desires, illusions and realities. But in its purest form, birthed in the divine and a measure of grace, love is the pathway for understanding the past, surviving the present and looking into the future.

There is a concerted swirl of circumstances just now that can devour reason and critical thinking and undermine confidence in the efficacy of love. Anger and frustration on all sides, fear and trepidation on many can prevent openness to one another, and setting those aside can prove more than impossible. That is exactly where Paul’s letter to the Romans. 8: 26-27, whispers of a respite.

 “And as well as this, the Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words;

27 and he who can see into all hearts knows what the Spirit means because the prayers that the Spirit makes for God’s holy people are always in accordance with the mind of God.

https://www.catholic.org/bible/daily_reading/?select_date=2020-07-19

Giving over to God, taking a moment of rest to acknowedge our weakness, is more than a step towards loving self more fully. Trusting the Spirit to pray for us in those moments when we are most unable to do so invokes the trust and honesty that are so much a part of loving. It enables us to connect to God with the confidence of love and the truth of the moment, to maintain the relationship in even the most frustrating times of brokenness.

Love is about becoming; each step begins the journey of a lifetime, and our lives are created through the choices made. Who, what, and how we love matters as we weave the tapestry of lifetimes. Consciousness of those personal choices, our motives and convictions, as well as the consequences of our choices matters. We become who we are through the relationships we develop, the endings and new beginnings, the giving and the taking. Mysteries abound in every fiber, but the presence of God in the reality of love abides. And in our weakness, the Spirit is there to speak for us. So Paul says.

As in all things, each of us has the agency to make choices. There are social, cultural, and economic parameters, but the chance to choose is always there. In these challenging times, Catholicism offers that reassurance. We need not struggle alone: the Spirit is strength in our weakness and light in our darkness. Love is the gift that empowers us to view the world and our options within it most clearly. Love expands empathy and explores understanding, re-evaluates threats and makes clear decisions. Love is honest and truthful and willing to confront cost for growth. It is personal and far more than that. Love makes the difference, and the Spirit helps make that happen.