Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Promising, Dangerous Faith

Your destiny is not struggle and misery ending in blackness.  Trust your future.  Trust love so much that you love even your enemies.  Be peace for your world.  Be fearless in the face of every threat.  Live your deepest dream with hope and courage.   This message from Jesus’ lips to the poor, powerless farmers and fisherman of Galilee must have sounded at once thrilling and absurd.  Enduring hardscrabble lives and massive taxes as a breadbasket to the Roman Empire hope and dreams were dangerous words to them.  Seeking justice got you killed.
It’s strange how we who live in the most powerful nation in the world’s history with more control over our environment and lives than anyone before us still find Jesus’ words a threat; such a threat, in fact, that we’ve eviscerated them, draining them of their thrill.  Most of Christianity, our Church included, has relegated God’s Kingdom to an existence after death whose realm we can’t imagine and whose likelihood we can’t evaluate. 
There is a reason that so many of our contemporaries find religion irrelevant to their lives.  To a great extent, we’ve made it irrelevant.  We’ve made it irrelevant to make it safe.  The problem is that removing the danger has also removed the promise and the thrill.
Our times are looking for a different world, not a guaranteed retirement plan from life.  The question for everyone claiming to follow Jesus:  Who’s up for living the life we all hope for – right here; right now?    
That was Jesus’ question two thousand years ago.  It still is.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Doing God's Work God's Way

Why doesn’t God make things right?   People have asked me that question countless times.  Their criticism, implied or explicit, is that God isn’t fulfilling his job description.  The past three thousand years haven’t silenced Job’s complaint, “Why do the wicked survive, grow old, become mighty in power? [Job 21:7] 
In Luke’s gospel an aggrieved heir sought Jesus’ support in his search for satisfaction. When Jesus responded, “Who made me judge over you,” I’m absolutely certain the man walked off grumbling, “Then what good are you?”  Seeking a judge or policeman, the man couldn’t see that Jesus was offering a whole new world.  Or maybe the man understood very well and turned away because the gift offered was too big, too threatening.
An important clue that we don’t understand the offer God revealed in Jesus’ life is our tendency to pray that God will make others change their ways or that God will make some unsatisfactory situation conform to our liking.  Rarely do we pray that God will help us change or help us promote justice.  We want God to play on our side or at least umpire a fair game.  God wants us to change the game.
The first question in developing a Christian spirituality is what is God doing here?   The second question is, am I doing what God is doing?  The caution in the first question is the danger of assuming that God is following my agenda.  The danger in the second is assuming that we can accomplish God’s goals by using our means rather than God’s.  Recall that God offers faith and unity to people respecting their freedom to accept or not.  Christians, on the other hand, have gone to war to force belief and unity on people.
It’s worth our time to pray over the fact that Jesus followed up his refusal to judge between two heirs with the admonition not to place material possessions above the peace and loving relationships that characterize the World of God’s Future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

God's Spirit Moves All Forward

Why would anyone want the Holy Spirit?  The quickest answer to that question is that most people don’t – at least not explicitly.   A professor told us in graduate school that the Holy Spirit was the forgotten member of the Trinity.  Few people want the Holy Spirit because few people give any thought to what the Holy Spirit might offer.  
There are people who do think about the Spirit a lot in terms of a calming agent in daily life or an exhilarating agent in their prayer life.  For them the Trinity’s third person provides closeness to God and wisdom about spiritual matters.
There’s much more that we can say about God’s Spirit, though, and the best way to discover it is to look at the life of Jesus.  What do we know about his Spirit?   Jesus was a person so dedicated to his vision that it filled his every teaching.  He wasn’t cowed by the common people’s lethargy or leadership’s hostility.  He got up again and again after failure.  He stood up to threats and pain and, ultimately, execution.  He stood faithful to the truth he knew.  That was Jesus’ Spirit.
Matthew’s gospel ends the parables of the helpful friend and the generous father by saying that God will meet the needs of those who ask just as a friend and father would.  Luke changes the point making God’s gift more specific.  For him, the generous God will give the Holy Spirit.  Matthew’s idea is that God will stand with those facing hardship as they live the Christian way in an unsympathetic world.  The message is that the same Spirit that guided and supported Jesus will guide and support them.  That’s just what they needed to hear.  That’s what we need to hear as well.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Work And Prayer: The Crucial Balance

My mother had a prayer in her kitchen that went:  “Be with me Lord for though I have Martha’s hands I have Mary’s heart.”  Before we had a real understanding of the divine value of the layperson’s daily work, many considered prayer the only human activity that mattered in the long run.  People commonly thought of life’s ordinary demands as obstacles to contemplating God’s greatness and contemplation was the path to union with God.  Mary, of the Martha and Mary story, became the patron saint of those who wanted to pray but were kept from it by demands such as raising a family or milling grain.  They could only hope that God would understand and be generous with them despite of their messy, earth-centered lives.
In the decades after Vatican II a growing number of lay people and clergy came to appreciate daily work performed with love and justice as The Spirit’s action in people that was constructing God’s future.  It was an eye-opening time for the bulk of the Church.  Millions of us came to a new understanding of why we were here.  We understood that we weren’t passive participants in life waiting to be sanctified by someone else.
Yet people also took a second look at the story of Martha and Mary.  The task of creating a just and loving world is immense.  It’s endlessly demanding and constantly frustrated by interests intent on protecting power by maintaining the status quo.   The cross that confronted Jesus hasn’t miraculously vanished in the past 2000 years.
How does a person dedicated to the world God is creating keep hope in the face of the immensity of the task?  How do we keep joy in the face of so many failures?  How do we relax when the work is never done and so many people endure harsh suffering for lack of justice?   How do we keep from getting so caught up in the task that we lose sight of the promise? 
When the Messiah in sitting in the living room, it’s not time to cook and scrub.  There are millions hungry mouths to be fed and millions of problems to be solved. There are cures to be found and tyrannies to be ended.  There are homes to be built and fields to be tended.  We can’t postpone the work of God’s creation.  But we also must grasp our opportunities to re-experience God’s love for us and re-hear the promise of his future.  It’s a matter of focus.  It’s a matter of balance.   It’s a matter of survival.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Moving Beyond The Rules

The Ten Commandments aren’t difficult.  They’re straightforward and obvious.  Except for the initial three referring to God, they don’t differ from the rules most people try to live by whether they’re religious or not.  Maybe that’s why Catholics and other Christians argue and complain about rules so much: discussing them isn’t too threatening.  Jesus’ expectations, on the other hand, his descriptions of how things must be for those who want to be part of God’s future are unsettling.
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel [Mt 5,6 &7] summarizes what Jesus was looking for.  It demands thought and some background knowledge but it gives us a rich sense of what it means to cooperate in God’s future. 
Imagine a world where Christians openly forgave their enemies; where they didn’t belittle those who opposed them or hold grudges when they were wronged.  Imagine a world where we didn’t pursue or cling to things that we didn’t actually need so that others could have the basic necessities of a dignified life.  Imagine a world where our first goal in voting wasn’t our own welfare and the welfare of those close to us but for the common good.  Imagine the world where the more than two billion Christians viewed their own welfare as inseparable from the welfare of the all people.  Imagine that world.  That’s what Jesus lived for.  That’s what Jesus said is not only possible for us but is our world’s ultimate destiny. 
This isn’t a matter of political or social theory. This is the gospel.   Those who believe that Jesus is God’s Word, understand that this is the future the Creator is constructing.
For a Christian The Sermon on the Mount is the touchstone of human relationships and human hope.  It isn’t an instruction manual for every problem but it is the vision that orients every solution.  It contains much more than, “Blessed are the meek.”  It’s a must read source of prayer for a serious Christian.