Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Friday, March 20, 2015

Marc Borg and Paschal Cheline


Friday, March 20, 2015
John 7:1-30

        The readings today tell us what we already know:  that there is something in us and in the world that denies Christ, that mocks Him and questions Him.

     But there’s goodness, too, there are those who recognize the Lord and honor Him, and I want to mention two of these this morning, two friends of mine who recently died, two men who loved Jesus in their different ways.

     The first is Marcus Borg, whose memorial is this afternoon, at Oregon State.

     Marc was a professor of religious studies, a very well-known Jesus scholar, a member of the famous Jesus seminar, and someone who was very kind to me years ago when I was first starting at Oregon State.  He invited me to join a men’s group he was leading and for several years we shared some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.  We prayed together.  When I was first asked to teach the Bible as Literature course, Marc helped me figure out what to do and how to go about it.  As a Catholic I disagreed with Marc in some really important ways, but he was a gentle man and a good man and he always accepted me for who I was and took seriously my spiritual search.  He was the first academic I’ve known who took the spiritual search seriously and was willing to talk about it and live it.  And I know he loved Jesus.  I know in his own way he believed.    

     The second is Father Paschal Cheline, whose funeral mass is Monday, at Mount Angel.

     Father Paschal was a monk for many years at Mount Angel and a teacher at the seminary, and we became friends over twenty years ago now when I taught literature for a year at the seminary.  Later, when I was studying to be a deacon, I took a class from him on the liturgy and the sacraments.  He was a sweet, sweet man, a person of joy, someone who loved the Church, loved it deeply, and who loved literature and art, who loved life, who loved people.  Unlike Marc, he wasn’t famous.  Unlike Marc, he was deeply and unreservedly committed to the Christian tradition and to the institutional Church.   I remember the last time I saw him:  he was giving the wine at mass, and he winked at me.  I remember the sweetness and purity of his singing voice. I remember him telling me that he prayed every night for a good death.  I remember once when we were talking about Dante’s Paradiso he just started to cry, at how beautiful the poetry was but even more at how beautiful he knew heaven would be.   

     And now he knows, as I believe Marc knows.  I like to think of them talking together, and I like to think of them looking down at us and praying for us. 

 

     O Lord, we pray for Professor Marcus Borg and we pray for Father Paschal Cheline and we thank you for their lives.  We pray for all who have helped us and taught us.  And we pray for ourselves, that we, too, in our own ways, may be Christ for others.  We pray that we, too, may have good deaths, and that one day we will see You with our own eyes, that one day we will live forever in Your love and Your truth.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What Happens


March 22, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 11:1-45 

     The raising of Lazarus prepares us for the raising of Jesus.  It is what John calls a “sign” or a symbol of the resurrection.  And yet what’s so important about the raising of Lazarus is how different it is from the resurrection itself.

     We see Lazarus walk out of the tomb, but we don’t see Jesus.  Jesus is gone by the time we get there.  The tomb is empty.

      When Lazarus walks out of the tomb we know it’s Lazarus.  It’s obvious.  It’s him.  But when Jesus rises and appears to people, even people who knew him before, even his friends, they don’t recognize at first.  Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener.  The disciples are fishing and see a figure by a fire on shore and that’s all they see at first.

     Lazarus doesn’t come through locked doors.  He doesn’t come through walls.  He doesn’t appear and then vanish.

     And he will die again.  Just like anyone else.

     But not Jesus.  Not Jesus.  He will never die.  He will ascend. 

     This is the most important difference of all:  that the raising of Lazarus is good news only to him and to his family.  It doesn’t change anything except for him.  But what happens on the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus radically alters the very nature of reality for all of humanity forevermore.

     “If in Jesus’ resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse,” Pope Benedict says, “it would ultimately be of no concern to us.”  “It would be,” he says, “no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors.”  This is from Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth and it echoes The Catechism in every detail.  “The New Testament testimonies,” as he puts it, “leave us in no doubt that what happened was utterly different.”  The Resurrection of Jesus--and I’m quoting here still--“was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming but lies beyond it—a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.”  It was not “an isolated event” but what the pope, in a really striking phrase, calls “an evolutionary leap.” 

     In the Resurrection “a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future.”

     Wow.  Powerful, striking stuff.  Not what I think most people assume we Catholics believe.  My friend and colleague the Jesus scholar Marc Borg recently died.  His memorial was just this Friday.  And he often used to say that if we went back in a time machine, if we could actually stand before the tomb, we couldn’t really videotape the Resurrection, we couldn’t actually see it directly, and though as Catholics we disagree with many of Marc’s ideas, I think this is exactly what the Pope is saying, too, and what the Catechism tells us and what the raising of Lazarus tells us.  This wasn’t just a physical event.  The gospel accounts of the resurrection are a kind of literary shorthand for something far more profound.

     But we have to be careful.  We have to immediately qualify this.  Because as contemporary people we are so used to thinking in either/or terms that we immediately think, well then, the Resurrection was just an idea, it was just a feeling, it didn’t really happen.  No.  No.  The gospel writers knew the difference between a dream or a vision and a real event and they don’t call the resurrection a dream or a vision, and we have to take them at their word.  When people did recognize Jesus they recognized him.  When the encountered him after the resurrection they could touch him.  Thomas put his hands in the wounds.  On the shore of the lake he made the fishermen breakfast.  No.  This was real, absolutely real. 

Indeed [the Pope says—and I’m quoting him again because he’s so clear and so authoritative here] indeed, the apostolic preaching with all its boldness and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside . . . Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner, mystical experiences.

The Resurrection, in other words, was historical.  It happened.  The disciples aren’t making it up.  The Church in all its courage and conviction could never have come from a mere idea and it could never have lasted until now if all there was here was a metaphor.

     What the Pope is saying and what the Catechism is saying is that the Resurrection wasn’t just historical.  It was more than historical.  Again, I’m going to quote the Pope.  Just one more time.  I want to get this right:

Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data.  The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience.  They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed.  What already exists is not called into question.  Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known.  Does that contradict science?  Can there really only ever be what there has always been?  Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new?  If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether?

Well, I know I’ve been risking your patience.  This is all pretty abstract and complicated.  That’s why I’ve been quoting the Pope!  But here at the end of this last quotation we get to the real point, to the wonderful implication, to the astonishingly good news:  something unexpected, something new has happened, and it’s happening in your life right now.  I’m speaking to the RCIA people especially.  I’ve had the privilege of preaching to you at the last two Scrutinies and now at this, the third, and this is what you show us.  This is why you’re here.  Because something new has happened inside of you, too.  Because you, too, are making an evolutionary leap.  You, too, believe that there is more to life than biology, more than the merely physical, more than the digital and the industrial and the relentlessly commercial, more than your sins, more than doubt and anger and violence and greed.  It’s happened in you, a new faith, a new hope, and it’s happened because of the Resurrection, because of what happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, because what happened then was real, more real than anything that has ever happened and ever will happen, and it is still real, it is still happening, in you and in me and in the Eucharist and in all of us here. We are the Body of Christ, we are the Risen Lord, He is in us and we are in Him, and like Mary and like Martha we know now, we really know, that we, too, will never die, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, we will never die, we will live forever, we really know that, we really believe that, because we feel it now, it’s happening now, in this place.  We are already living forever, because the Lord who has risen is risen indeed, is truly risen, and his life and his goodness and his beauty fill all the universe, fill every atom, fill and overflow and transcend every quark, every Higgs-Boson, now and forevermore.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Bars and Coffe Shops


March 15, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent, the Second Scrutiny

1 Samuel 16:1-3; Ephesians5:8-14; John 9:1-41

 

     My mother grew up in a Pentecostal church and she was bitter about it.  On Saturdays her father, my grandfather, would take her to the bars to keep him company while he drank, even when she was a little girl.  She’d see these people carrying on, doing the things they do, and the next day, at church, she’d see them again, the same people, all dressed up in their Sunday best and pretending to pray.

     She thought everyone was a hypocrite.  That the truth is always the ugly truth.

     I wouldn’t cross the street to talk to that so-and-so, she’d say.

 

     The other day I was sitting on campus at the Memorial Union drinking coffee and watching people.  And I was watching myself watching.  I was watching how every second I was judging:  that person is too well dressed.  Arrogant.  That person isn’t dressed well enough.  Lazy.  That person is too tall, that person is too short--too young, too old, too this, too that--we do it by instinct, we do it so automatically we don’t even know we’re doing it, in 12 seconds don’t the scientists say, we form our opinions, labeling and dismissing and throwing people away in our minds based on their hair or their clothes or their slightest gesture.

     It’s like we’re swiping them on our smart phones.  That fast.

 

     But not God.  Thank God:  not God.

     It’s true, of course, that we all try to appear certain ways and that there’s sin underneath those disguises and that we have to face that darkness, admit to it, be honest about it, with ourselves and with others.  “It’s shameful even to mention the things we do in secret,” Ephesians says, but we have to mention them and bring them to light or we won’t be free of them.

      But what God sees is deeper even than that.  “Not as man sees does God see,” first Samuel says, “because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart,” and what he sees in the heart, underneath the layer of sin, is a fundamental goodness, a fundamental graciousness.  He sees what he made:  his beloved child.

 

     This is the theme of the gospel today, too, not just what the blind man can’t see but what his neighbors can’t see.  They can’t see him.  They only see a blind man, a beggar.  “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg,” they say?  But Jesus has transformed him:  or rather, he spit on the ground and made clay with the saliva and smeared the clay on his eyes and revealed who the man always was inside, who he really was.

 

     All of Catholic social teaching rests on the faith that each person in the world is made in the image and likeness of God.  This is why we are opposed to abortion, this is why we are opposed to euthanasia, this is why we are opposed to capital punishment, this is why we work for the rights of the poor, this is why we try to protect the beauty of creation and all the little live things of the earth.  We are supposed to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourselves—everything can be organized around this, this greatest commandment—although we fail at this again and again, every day.

     Or we do love our neighbors as ourselves.  Exactly.  Because deep down, we don’t love ourselves at all.

     Several times when I was studying to be a deacon I panicked and thought, I can’t be a deacon, I’m not good enough, I’m too sinful.  I still feel this way sometimes.  Maybe you feel that way, too, you in the RCIA, you who are becoming Catholic, that you’re just pretending, that you’re lying.  Maybe the voice of my mother is the voice we all hear.

            

      But no.  God doesn’t judge us by how we appear even to ourselves.  He sees deeper than our own self concepts, deeper than on our fear, deeper than our own shame.    

    

     Last week when I was preaching at the first scrutiny, at the five o’clock mass, I quoted from C. S. Lewis’s great sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” and I want to quote from it again:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to our as the life of gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit.  . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

Maybe this seems overstated, maybe this seems like too much, but it absolutely follows, it’s the logic of faith--because we have souls, all of us, through grace, not through our own merit but through the infinite mercy and love of our God, and we are promised eternal life, through that same grace, and this has consequences, dramatic consequences, for everything we say and everything we do.

 

      All we have to do is let God love us.  All we have to do is believe that he does.

 

     The other day through this grace I had a momentary breakthrough, I was able to see past my own small self, and again it was at the MU, when I went to get my coffee. 

     It was just a small thing.  Very brief.

     But when I smiled at the young barista, and she smiled back, there was something about her eyes, they seemed to warm somehow, or open wider, and for a moment I saw her as little girl, reaching up her arms to her father.  For moment I really saw her, and I saw the others around me, the pimply boy with the backpack, the skinny girl on her cell phone--they were all my children.

     This was grace, pure grace.  I don’t have the capacity to love my neighbor as myself, not on my own, but for a moment I did, for just a moment I could do what we are all called to do, to see the other person as God does, at least a little, to ask myself, who is this person for Jesus?

     And in that moment I felt who I was, too.  In that moment I was given the gift of seeing into my self, or I thought I was. 

     You and me and my bitter mother and my drunken grandfather and all the people in all the bars and all the coffee shops and all the churches in the world--we are all beloved, we are all loved beyond measure, we are all beautiful in the sight of God, more precious and more beautiful than we can possibly imagine.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Praying for Parking


February 15, 2015
Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Mark 1

      You know how when you’re running late, and it’s raining, and you can’t find a parking place, you can’t find one anywhere, and you’re just going crazy, you’re completely stressing out, and just instinctively you pray, O Lord, give me a parking place, O God, help me find a parking place? 

     Well, in a way that’s silly, but in another way—Michael Casey says—it’s not.  I take this example from Casey’s book, Toward God—Casey is a Trappist monk, in Australia, and just really, really good—and he says that in moments like this we are forced to admit to what he calls our “inner incompetence,” how really we’re all just children in a way, lost and lonely and in need of help, in need of God’s help.  Sometimes we can’t figure out the simplest things, we can’t just get through a normal day, everything defeats us, and unless we admit this to ourselves and to God, unless we just step back and laugh at ourselves, we’ll never grow in our faith.

      The best thing about the leper in the Gospel today is that he knows he’s a leper, he admits it, out loud, and it’s because he does that, sincerely and simply, that he is able to turn to Jesus and ask him for help, ask him for healing, and that healing comes, it always comes, it’s there, exactly at the moment we acknowledge our need for it.

     This is the hardest thing.  We don’t like admitting our inner incompetence.  We want to look good, even to ourselves, we want to walk around as if we’ve got life completely under control and we’re really wise and spiritual and if we sin our sins are really complicated and mysterious and just in general we’re really advanced, really up there.  It’s hard to face who we really are, inside.  “People will do anything,” Jung says, “no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”  We’ll eat, we’ll drink, we’ll play with our cell phones, we’ll have sex, we’ll throw ourselves into our work, we’ll exercise until we drop, we’ll buy stuff, we’ll do anything, anything, to avoid this journey and this struggle, to keep from embracing our shadow, and that’s exactly the problem, because unless we do, unless we do, we can never be free.  “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Jung says, “but by making the darkness conscious.  There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”

      The other day I was on an interfaith panel for “Spiritual Wellness” week at OSU, and that was nice and good.  Really nice people.  A good thing to try to do.  And of course, we’re all in favor of spiritual wellness.  It’s what the leper wants and what we want and it’s great that OSU is interested in that, too.  The problem comes when, as sometimes happens, a fuzzy or flawed idea of what “Spiritual Wellness” is leads us to seek out only what makes us feel good, temporarily, only what keeps us on the surface, what keeps us from the really hard work.

      The problem isn’t sin, it’s the refusal to acknowledge sin.

     I’m teaching a course in the parish on Dante’s Inferno, this famous journey through hell, and that’s the key idea.  Dante is lost and can’t find his way and he wants to head directly to the light, up the hill, but he can’t.  He has to go down to go up.  He has to go through hell in order to get to heaven, because the hell the Inferno describes is really his own consciousness, his own soul, and he has to confront his own monsters, really see them and name them for what they are, before he can any further.

     And when he does, all those creatures he sees, the three headed dogs and the minotaurs, they turn out to be harmless.  Stupid really.  Sin isn’t complicated.  It isn’t mysterious.  If we resist Satan, the letter of James says, he will flee.  Sin is a coward.  Shine a light on it and it loses all its power.  Nothing in hell can hurt Dante, and nothing in hell, in our own inner hells, can hurt us, unless we don’t admit it’s there.

     This is true even as we advance in the spiritual life.  Even a life of prayer and mass and spiritual reading and good works, even a good, faithful life doesn’t make our sin go away and in fact, as we progress, things get worse in a way.  We become even more aware of our inner nature, our inner incompetence.  We can’t expect the Church to make things easy for us or to make us feel superior or safe forever, not in that sense.  Of course we can improve, we can transcend many of our bad habits, with discipline and effort, and we should try, but our inner nature remains, our inner limits, and it’s good, it’s liberating, whenever we admit that, whenever we see it, because it reminds us that we’re not God, that we need Jesus, that only Jesus can help us.

      I don’t mean this in a woe-as-me-I’m-so-terrible sense but more in the sense of laughing at ourselves and moving on, in the sense of saying of course, what did I expect, thank you Lord, I trust in you Jesus, you’re the one who can heal me, and I will be healed, I know you love me for who I really am, this person running late, in the rain, who can’t find a parking place.

     I’m a good person.  I am fundamentally good.  I am made by God.  But I’m a person, just a person, like anyone else, and I need you, Lord.  I need you.

     “We never graduate from a state of being utterly dependent on God’s mercy and forgiveness,” Casey says.  “The shadow is part of our reality, and so in a spirit of faith, we thank God also for the darkness in our life.”

     Especially notice this in prayer.  If we have a prayer life, if we really try to stick to prayer and pray regularly, we’re going to keep encountering this darkness—not just this, there’s light and joy too—but we shouldn’t be afraid when we see this darkness again and again, or discouraged, or surprised.  We should rejoice:  yes.  We need you Lord.  Heal us.

     I’m talking about the dynamic of confession, of course, of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

     Especially notice this when you’re really mad at someone else, really despise someone else and blame someone else.  That’s always a sign.  The danger when we don’t admit to our sinfulness and limitation is that we end up scapegoating others, blaming them for what’s wrong with us.  Watch for this.  Whenever you’re mad or frustrated with OSU or St. Mary’s or your job or your family or the country, think:  what’s wrong with me?  What am I avoiding thinking about?

     And I want to emphasize how joyous this is, really, and how liberating.  It’s not awful and depressing and it’s not about putting ourselves down all the time, feeling like worms.  No.  It’s raining and I’m late and I can’t find a parking place and I step back and see myself in the rain and see myself late and anxious, and suddenly I’m free.  I laugh.  Of course.  And then, whether I find a parking place or not, it’s good, it’s all good, as people are always saying now, but it really is, because I realize that none of this is important, not really, that whether I find a parking place or not I’m still me and I’m still loved by God and that God doesn’t love me any less because I’m stressed out and frustrated and will never love me any less.  And that I’m not a hero.  I’m not different from anyone else.  However much I’ve prayed the rosary or worked at Stone Soup or done the things I try to do, I’m still a child, I’m still a leper, I’m still a person.

     That’s exactly when Jesus heals us:  when we let him heal us. 

    

 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Nets


January 25, 2015
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1 

      When Jesus walks by, the disciples are working with their nets, for they are fishermen, and I take the nets to be a symbol of the work we all have to do, of our jobs.  They’re not necessarily bad.  Most of us are not called to leave our jobs, the way the disciples were, but to follow Jesus in our jobs, through our work, through our kindness and good will.

     But I also take the nets as a symbol of all the things in our lives we do have to put down in order to follow Jesus.  The disciples “put down their nets and followed him,” and in some way we all have to do that:  the nets of our fears, the nets of our anger, the nets of our ego and pride.

    
      The language of Mark is so brief and condensed that people have often missed what a great writer he is—exactly because of that brevity, exactly because his brief, clear words contain so much meaning.  All Mark says is that Jesus walks by and asks the disciples to follow him and they do.  He doesn’t explain why.  He doesn’t say that Jesus preached a wonderful sermon and that that convinced the disciples, or that Jesus used logic and philosophy and participated in some kind of debate and that this won the disciples over, or that Jesus performed a miracle and that this so amazed the disciples they knew for certain what to do.  But I think there’s something wonderful in Mark’s silence here.  I think he’s saying that conversion is a mysterious thing, that we never know exactly what moves us to change, and that there was something about Jesus and something still that is deeply attractive, deeply persuasive, just in his person, in the tone of his voice, in his physical presence.

     We’ve all known people like this, a few of them, men or women we somehow trust, we believe in, who have a kind of charisma or trustworthiness or wisdom.  We can feel it.  It radiates out them.  Jesus was like this, but even more so.  Far more so.
 

     Except that even then, even within the story of the Gospel, many people ignore him or turn their backs on him, and this is grace, too, that God didn’t make Jesus so obvious and doesn’t make Jesus so obvious that we can’t say no.  The beauty and power of Jesus breaks through into the lives of these ordinary men, as the beauty and power of Jesus breaks through into ours.  They put down their nets because this has happened, because Jesus has gotten through.  And yet I think there also had to have been a certain openness in them from the beginning, a certain readiness in the character of the disciples, a certain goodness, or they wouldn’t have responded at all.  They wouldn’t have listened or let themselves be attracted.  And that applies to us, too.  We have to be ready, we have to be available, and to do that we have to put down our nets in advance, in a way.  We have to free ourselves of what binds us.

 
     Last year a group of us went to the Holy Land, as I’ve said, and we spent several days by the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived and did most of his public ministry, where this story is set, and I was struck by how really beautiful it is, even now, two thousand years later.  We stayed at a Franciscan retreat house on what could have been the Mount of Beatitudes and it was like staying at most of the retreat houses I’ve stayed at:  it was out in nature, in the beauty of nature, away from the noise and the pressures of the city and of our too busy lives.  It seems to be the condition of going on retreat:  that we retreat, we get away, and we get away into the natural world in some way, into silence, and into slowness.

     At the Sea of Galilee it was the expanse of that water, of the lake itself, about 13 miles by 8, and the grassy hills and fields all around it, and the hills across the water.

     And the other thing that struck me was how small it all was.  You could stand on the hill and see in one view all the places Jesus taught and did the things he did before he went to Jerusalem.  You would walk it all in a day, from Magdala to Capernaum, and that’s part of the point, too, that people walked in those days, that there weren’t even very good roads for horses and chariots in Galilee then.  Our guide told us people walked about seven miles a day on average.

 
     The Incarnation could have happened anywhere and at any point in history.  God could have chosen to come into history in 1955, in Ohio, or in 555 in Japan, or he could have decided to wait until the twenty-third century and come on another planet, but he chose to come in the first century and he chose to come into this beautiful natural place, in beauty, and in a time before technology had so sped things up that we had lost the ability to see and to feel.

     People lived close to the land, to their crops and their animals.  They lived close to the water, as the disciples did.  They knew nature.  They smelled it and touched and saw it every day, and I think there’s something really important in that.

     Jesus is our model.  We are supposed to imitate his life, and I think sometimes we forget that his life was a simple life and a slow life and that it required this closeness to the natural world, this way of thinking and being so foreign to us now.

 
     So how do we become ready for the call, which is coming to us, too, here and now?  One thing we might do, very simply and literally, is walk.  Take at least a short walk each day, if we can, physically.  Slow down.  Park the car and walk, or open the front door and walk, even just out into the yard.  Jesus is always walking.  The verb “walk” must be used hundreds of times in the gospels. 

     What we do with our bodies changes our minds.  If we walk, we slow down.  If we slow down, we see, and hear, and smell. 

     Try walking down a stretch of road you usually drive by.  How much more you see.
 

     And I want to take “net” here quite literally. 

     A friend of mine, a writer, told me the other day that for a month he made a vow to write in the mornings and not get on the internet until the afternoon, and he was really humbled by how hard that was.  He couldn’t always do it.  He’s addicted.

     The internet is rewiring our brains.  It’s speeding them up and changing how we take in information, and some of that is good but some of that has really dangerous consequences for us spiritually, not just what we take in, but how we take it in.

     Let’s try to limit our time on the internet this next week to an hour a day.  Just that.  But that can be huge.

      I mean our personal time, not however much time we have to spend online at work.

     The word “repent” that Jesus uses here is “metanoia” in Greek.  It’s related to the word “paranoia,” to be out of our minds, but what it means is “to change our minds.”  And that’s what we have to do.  We have to change our minds.  We have to rewire our brains, back to the way they were before.  Otherwise, we might never see him.  We might never hear him.  We might never know him at all.

     We have to put down our nets.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Satan and the Dove


January 11, 2015
The Baptism of the Lord
Mark 1:7-11 

     Last spring some of us in the parish had the great privilege of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  And one day we went to the river Jordan and to a bend in the river where the baptism of the Lord may have actually taken place. 

    This was out in the desert, and on either side of the road we went down there was a barbed wire fence warning us about the danger of unexploded landmines left from one of the recent wars.

     And as one member of our group stood in that shallow, muddy water, she looked up and saw a white dove descending from the sky—an actual white dove, in the sky above the Jordan—and she was filled with joy and gratitude and a sense of the presence of God.

 

     A few days before Christmas I had the great privilege of baptizing a man about my age and his four grandchildren, three handsome little boys and a baby girl with a bow in her hair.  It was a wonderful moment, right here, in the back of church.

     When the grandfather kneeled at the edge of the font, and I put my hand on his back, and he leaned over, and I baptized him with my other hand, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the tears just welled up in me.  I could feel the love of God, I could feel the energy of the Spirit, in all of us.

 

     Jesus didn’t need to be baptized.  He was entirely without sin.  And he is the creator of all rivers, and the creator of all waters, the creator of everything, come now to this one ordinary river, in the desert, and I think he did that in part to show us what we need to do, but also, I think, as a way of once again diffusing his spirit throughout the world.  In his baptism, says an ancient Church Father, “he sanctified the fountains of waters” and “into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles.”  It’s as if in entering the river Jordan Jesus is recharging with his love and his light all rivers and all waters and all places and people forevermore.

     This is why the image of the Holy Spirit in this passage is so important.  The Trinity is here: the Father’s voice coming from heaven, the Son coming up out of the waters, and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down upon him.  And it’s through the Spirit that we are freed from history.  We’re not stuck in the past.  What happened then happened--it did, we can believe it--but Jesus died, and then he rose and he ascended, and then he sent his Spirit, as we say every Sunday in the creed, he sent the dove, and through that Spirit and in that Spirit what happened then is always happening.  Every land is the Holy Land.  Every moment is a pilgrimage. 

 

     This is so, so important. 

     Last week Father Federico talked about the stars we have to follow in our lives, as the magi follow their star—about the signs that are always being given to us—and the Baptism of the Lord is the type of that sign, the model of it.

     On the one hand, in moments like this we are always taken out of ourselves, the way John the Baptist is and the others who are present, entirely caught up in something wonderfully greater than we are.  We forget about ourselves, what we see and feel is so beautiful and right and good.  We transcend our own egos, if only briefly.

     But at the same time, exactly because of this, we find ourselves--our true selves.  In losing who we are we discover who we are:  beloved sons and beloved daughters, cherished by God.  In this sense we are like the Lord himself, and are supposed to be.  He comes to the Jordan to tell us again that deep down we are good.  We are fundamentally good.

 

      It’s not an accident that in the very next scene—we’ll be reading this next week—Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, because this is how the life of faith is, up and down, the high moments immediately and inevitably challenged by doubt and fear.  The word Satan means the Accuser, and what the Accuser always accuses us of is being a fraud, a fake.  We all have this voice inside of us, this other spirit, this darkness, telling us that we’re not good enough the way we really are, that we should be ashamed of our nakedness.  Notice the difference--this is how we can tell if we’re having a genuine religious experience—the voice of the Lord, of the Holy Spirit, is always the voice of reassurance, of joy.  Of self-confidence, even in our humility.  The voice of Satan is always the voice of self-loathing.  Self-doubt.

     Or the root meaning of the word devil:  the divider.  He who divides us from our confidence.

 

     And notice, too, that Satan works on us through a false kind of reasoning, works on us intellectually.  We have these experiences, and then they’re over, they’re gone.  They’re fleeting.  It’s not an accident either that the Holy Spirit is so often symbolized by a dove or by some other kind of bird, because birds fly away, we only glimpse them, we have no control over them, we usually can’t capture them and hold them.  And so the devil says, look, that moment wasn’t real.  It’s over now.  This, this lonely, painful life, this is all there is.

     And notice that in Mark’s version of the story it’s only Jesus who sees the dove.  Luke and Matthew suggest that other people see the Spirit descend, too, in some form—John, that John the Baptist does--but not Mark.  For him this is an interior experience, inside of Jesus alone, as these experiences are almost always interior for us, not something other people can see or verify —“on coming up out the water,” Mark says, “he saw  . . . the Spirit, like a dove.”  And the Spirit descends like a dove.  It’s not a real dove.  The dove is a metaphor, an image, and you know what our culture thinks about metaphors:  they’re worthless.  You can’t buy one.  You can’t hold one.

      But the gospel is always the gospel according to.  According to Mark.  According to Luke.  According to you and to me.  These moments are almost always private, and particular to us, to our own sensibilities, our own imaginations.

 

     It’s like what happened to me once when I gave this long talk as a part of lecture series at OSU on faith and the university, and I poured myself out for about half an hour or so talking about these experiences I had had of the presence of God.  And the first question from the audience, from a professor in another department:  how do you know you’re not deluded?

      Because I’m not, and we’re not.  Because the Lord of all came to the river, and in coming to that river he blessed all rivers, and I have been baptized in that river as most of us here have been baptized in that river, and we know that what has happened to us is true.  We know it.
 
     Because these moments don’t just happen once.  Because these signs are not given just once. 

They are given again and again, they happen over and over, if only we have eyes to see them  and

hearts to feel them.  In the flight of a dove, above the barbed wire fences.  In the little girl with the

bow in her hair.  In the grandfather, kneeling by the water.   Again and again and again.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Joy of the Gospel


December 14, 2014
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-28
 

     I know a young man who has been blind from birth.  Recently his father died, and he’s grieving about that, and he’s despairing, too, about the future, afraid that he won’t be able to find a job or someone to share his life with. 

     And Isaiah says, in the depths of this, in the heart of it:  rejoice.  St. Paul says:  rejoice always.

     I know a woman who is estranged from her son.  He lives far away, trying to heal from the wounds of abuse, and she is afraid that they will never be reconciled. 

     And Isaiah says rejoice.  John the Baptist says, in his courage and his confidence:  Someone is coming.  Someone is here.

 

     Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday, and it proclaims what Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation, last year, called the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, and this joy isn’t just a feeling.  It’s a way of looking at the world.  It’s a call. 

     Sometimes the joy just wells up in us.  We feel it intensely:  when we talk with a friend, when we hear a symphony, when we look out on the beauty of the earth.  But even in the darkness, even in the desert, there is a joy beyond measure, there is a tenderness and a love.  This is what we believe.  This is the faith that we have to try to bring to others, to help them and console them in their struggling---that the darkness is itself a grace, is itself a call, to give up our attachments and to die into a new and wonderful freedom. “In all circumstances,” St. Paul says, “give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”   
 

     I know many people in the Church whose faith in this joy is wavering and weak—I look at one in the mirror every morning--and of these people Pope Francis offers a very sharp critique.  We have the right beliefs, in a way, but we don’t live them.  Our faith, the pope says, “is a mere appendage to our life, not part of our very identity.”  We’ve let the media wear us down and we’ve let the skepticism of others wear us down, and though we pray, we’ve developed what the pope calls “a sort of inferiority complex which leads us to relativize or conceal our Christian identity and convictions.”  We want to be like everyone else, and we are, just as attached to money, just as hungry for human power and human glory.  We may be Christians in name but in fact we’re what Francis calls “practical relativists”:  “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist.”

     The media likes Pope Francis because he seems like such a nice guy, and he is, but the joy he is calling us to isn’t easy.  He’s not saying everything is alright.  He’s saying:  rejoice, but rejoice in the Lord, and you haven’t been.  “In God is the joy of my soul,” Isaiah proclaims, not in houses and cars and jobs.  The reason we feel so listless and despairing, the reason we can’t help and console the people who need us, is that we’ve let ourselves drift away from the one true source.  As Francis puts it, “disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with ourselves, we experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope.” 

     But the truth isn’t relative and it isn’t just an idea.  The truth is a person, and he had a name and he has a name, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, and when John the Baptist sees him walking towards him, he knows--he knows immediately:  behold the Lamb of God!

     Not:  behold, someone is coming, I’m not sure who--or, behold, I think someone is coming, but that doesn’t mean that I’m some sort of religious fanatic. 

     No, the One Who is Coming is the One Above All Others, he is all greatness and all beauty, and unless we kneel before him as the Baptist does, unless we give up our illusions and organize our lives around him and him alone, we will never be happy, we will never be free.

 

     I know many people who are afraid profess their faith because they don’t want to offend anyone else.  Again, I’m one of them.  The only secular dogma is the dogma that no one should claim any dogmas.  And of course as Christians we have to be humble and we have to respect the beliefs of others.  But we’re talking about joy here, not doctrine, and joy is always gentle and joy never judges, but it’s also never equivocal and it’s never ashamed.  Joy is joy.  It’s overflowing.

     I know many people who are uncertain about their faith because of the scandals in the Church—we’ve all been shaken by what has happened--but in the words of Pope Francis, “the pain and the shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love.”  The sins of the Church are real, and they have to be faced, but we’re talking about joy, and joy is joy, it’s overflowing, and joy is at the heart of the Church.  Joy is what the Church is really about.

 

     And patience, too, Francis says.  Patience is necessarily related to joy.

     I’d never thought about this before.

    What Advent proclaims is that however deep and real the joy we sometimes feel, there’s something missing still--these moments are just glimpses of a still greater joy to come, of a still greater future--and so faith is always a matter, too, of what Francis calls “patient expectation and apostolic endurance . . .  a disregard for the constraints of time.”

     Maybe it will be years before the woman is reconciled with her son, before the blind man finds a job, and maybe these things will never happen, at least in this lifetime.  But there’s a larger pattern here, larger even than death, and our joy finally comes from our knowledge of this pattern and our faith in this pattern.

     Something good is coming.  That’s what we have to say, and what we have to believe.  The future isn’t something to fear, the future isn’t something that should terrify us.  Whatever our struggles now, whatever our loneliness now, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

    

     I know a man who hasn’t gone to confession for years, who hasn’t experienced the sacrament of reconciliation in a long time.  He says it feels foreign to him.  He’s forgotten what to do.

    And to him I say:  rejoice.  Now is your chance, this Tuesday, at our communal penance service.  Don’t worry about the process.  The priest will guide you.  Just go, and before you do, I offer this prayer from the pope as a way of doing the kind of examination of conscience Fr. Ignatio has been asking us all to make, not just before confession, but every day: 

   Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you.  I need you.  Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.  

And He will.  He never tires of forgiving us, as Francis says a few sentences later.  “We are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”  But God never tires, and his grace is always abundant and always available, and this is what Advent is about, this is what the Gospel is about, grace and grace abounding.  This is the source of our joy and only this, the One Who is Coming, the Child Who Will Be Born.