Saturday, February 18, 2017

SINGING THE MESSAGE

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This morning I was reflecting on tomorrow’s gospel passage, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, which reads, in part:


"You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. but I
I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:43-48)


Jesus’ reasoning is very clear: Just as God lets his rain fall on the unjust as well as the just without making distinctions, our love  should be that way. The New Jerusalem Bible quite correctly translates that last line (So be perfect, just as…”) this way: “So you must set no boundaries on your love, just as your heavenly Father sets no boundaries on his love.”


As I began to reflect on this verse, I had a flashback to yesterday's morning convocation in school. Each morning we begin with a service of scripture, songs and prayers. Yesterday was particularly spirited. Given the present atmosphere of divisiveness in our country, I would like to share a little of this experience with you, hoping that it might encourage you as it did me.

Picture our 550 teenage boys singing, many of them with their arms draped over one another’s shoulders. Black kids and white ones, Catholics, protestants, Jews, Muslims and an occasional Buddhist (you can see the kids singing like this in the 13-minute segment that Sixty Minutes did on us). They are singing loudly one of their favorite songs:

We have got to love people;
We have got to love people;
We have got to love people; love people!”

The next part of the song is a shouted chant:


You can’t choose (You can’t choose!)
Who to love! (Who to love!)
You’ve got to love people!
You’ve got to love people!”


This is Jesus' message in the gospel passage from the Sermon on the Mount quoted at the start of this post: You must set no boundaries on your love -- you don’t get to pick and choose who you love -- you’ve got to love people.
Then these lines change into a rhythmic mantra:


Love people, love people, love people, love people, love!
Love people, love people, love people, love people, love!


When we switch back to the first section, the energy and the volume have reached a joyful climax:

We have got to love people;
We have got to love people;
We have got to love people; love people!


So, here's a gift from our kids to you, a reminder of Jesus' words to us:
You can’t choose (You can’t choose)
Who to love! (Who to love!)
You’ve got to love people!
You’ve got to love people!

"You can't choose who to love!"



Saturday, February 11, 2017

MISSING EDEN

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This past Wednesday, the first reading at mass was Genesis 2:4B-9, 15-17, in which God creates a garden and places man in it. Here are some of the verses:


Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and he placed there the man whom he had formed.
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


The LORD God then took the man
and settled him in the garden of Eden,
to cultivate and care for it.


I was reflecting on this familiar passage when I came across this footnote in the Catholic New American Bible (Rev. Ed.):  “It should be noted, however, that the garden was not intended as a paradise for the human race, but as a pleasure park for God; the man tended it for God. The story is not about “paradise lost.”


The footnote continued: “The Garden in the precincts of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem seems to symbolize the garden of God, (like gardens in other temples).” We can find allusions to this garden in the Psalms, e.g. “He is like a tree planted by flowing waters” (Ps. 1:3), “planted in the house of the Lord, they shall flourish in the courts of our God” (Ps. 92:14), and also in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation, Ch 22 verses 2 and following).


I immediately thought of all those beautiful “pleasure gardens” I’ve seen attached to all of the palaces and chateaux in Europe. I pictured the beautiful symmetrical layout of the gardens of Versailles, for example, where everything is harmonious: the paths and the flower beds, the fountains and statues, the trees and shrubs. There’s something about that orderliness that delights us -- that’s why God did not put our first parents into a trackless forest or a jungle, but into a garden.


With the Fall, we were expelled from the Garden, but to this day we feel nostalgia for that original order that delighted both God and us. We still want the world to make sense, we want to see the gist of things. And every now and then we are surprised and delighted when we come across a little splinter of that original Garden in which everything was ordered and harmonious. Watch the face of a child when she puts in the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle and sees the whole picture. Think of the feeling of satisfaction we feel at solving a problem or watching the detective put the clues together and solve the crime. Something inside of us shouts, “Yes!” We are made for order, for seeing the patterns of things.


Perhaps this is why times of rapid change are so uncomfortable for us, because the “gist” of things is temporarily beyond our grasp, and the world is not a comfortable place. At times like this, Christians have to rely on their Faith, confident that God is still ultimately in charge.


But Christians cannot simply retreat into caves and wait for order to be restored: we need to be working to restore that order.

Even if we don’t feel ourselves called to some public action to help restore the Reign of Love in the world, we are all called through our Baptism to spread as much peace, justice and love as we can in our own hearts, our lives, our families and our workplaces by living the values of the Kingdom every day.

We have to believe that our quiet, good example can be like the tiny mustard seed or the single grain of wheat that Jesus talks about in the parables of the Kingdom. We have to at least plant the seeds.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

BUILD THAT BRIDGE!

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The gospel for today’s mass (Saturday, Feb.4) ends with this sentence,

When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things. (Mk 6:34)


Although I was reading an English translation, I immediately spotted one of my favorite Greek words in the phrase “his heart was moved with pity for them.” It’s actually a verb based on the Greek word for the inner organs of the abdomen, the bowels,which were considered to be the seat of the deep emotions. Thus the translation “his heart was moved with pity;” another translation might be “he was moved with compassion.”


In consulting a commentary on this passage I read this statement by John R. Donohue, S.J.: “‘Compassion' is the bridge from sympathy to action.”


The Akashi Bridge in Japan
That quotation provided plenty for me to meditate on both before and during Morning Prayer. I kept picturing long, handsome suspension bridges such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Akashi Kaiky┼Ź Bridge in Japan, (its central span of 1.2 miles is the longest in the world).


Think of the efforts, time and investment of resources that it takes to build such bridges --bridges don’t just happen. I thought about my actions as a classroom teacher. I have a student who has lots of issues and problems, and I feel sympathy for him. But if my reaction stops with sympathy, I’m not responding to Christ’s call. When I stand before the Judgement Seat, Christ says, it won’t be enough for me to say, “When you were hungry it made me sad, when you were naked I felt really lousy, when you were thirsty I felt sorry for you.” Those are three bridges that never got built, bridges from sympathy to action.


More than sympathy
In Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the Levite and the priest who came upon the man lying on the side of the road undoubtedly felt sympathy for the poor fellow, but  they walked on past. Then came the Samaritan, but he (here’s our Greek word) felt compassion, and the bridge spanned the gap between sympathy and action. We know the rest of the tale: the Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds and took him to an inn and paid the man’s expenses. Bridges take effort.



The bridge at Avignon. Notice anything?
Bridges also demand a lot of maintenance (the famous “pont d’Avignon” of the song kept collapsing whenever the Rhone flooded, and so was abandoned in the 17th century. Only four of its arches are left, a bizarre reminder of how much work it takes to keep a bridge intact.)


Am I willing to work at building and maintaining bridges of compassion in my life as a teacher? As a confrere in the monastery?


Is the United States of America willing to maintain bridges of compassion with less-developed nations, or will we confine ourselves to sympathy, excusing ourselves from the difficult task of compassion by hiding behind mottoes like “America for Americans.”

International relations is a complicated field of which I know next to nothing. But the Church does have the obligation to preach the message of the Kingdom, and insist that compassion is a crucial Christian value that we ignore at our peril as individuals and as a people.


Meanwhile, I have plenty of bridges to build and maintain in Room 36 in St. Benedict’s Prep.
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Saturday, January 28, 2017

COLLAGES AND KINGDOMS

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What the Kingdom does NOT look like!
The problem started with the Gospel of Matthew. The writer, apparently a convert from Judaism writing for a community of mostly converts from Judaism, tried to avoid overusing the word “God” -- remember the Jews’ prohibition about saying or writing the Sacred Name.


So, when Matthew came to write about Jesus’ announcement, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he changed it to “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” You can see this twice in this Sunday’s gospel passage, the beatitudes, where the reward for two different beatitudes is “the Kingdom of heaven.”


Military Messiah: Not the Kingdom either 
In my sophomore Religion class this past week we’ve been studying the meaning of Jesus’ central theme, his dream of “the Kingdom of God. The Jews in first century Palestine were expecting God to intervene and deliver them with a military victory over the occupying Roman forces, and establish His “Kingdom” -- nation state with borders, a standing army and a new king David/military messiah in charge.


Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom (a better translation is the "reign" or sovereignty" of God) that he was establishing and embodying was something quite different, however: a new way of relating with God and with our brothers and sisters, characterized by unconditional and unbounded love, imitating God’s love for us.

The Kingdom becoming present

His whole message throughout the gospels is an attempt to present us with the challenge of the Kingdom. His dream can’t be reduced to words, so he presents it through parables about a forgiving father, a compassionate Samaritan, a grain of wheat, and so on; he demonstrates it by healing the sick and raising the dead, and by sitting down to eat with outcasts and sinners; and he challenges his hearers to participate in the Kingdom by loving their enemies.      



This week, I assigned as homework a collage that would show Jesus’ idea of the “Kingdom,” his dream for us and for the whole world. Many of the students got the idea well, and used pictures of families, parents and children, peace signs, doves, brown hands clasping white hands, and that sort of thing. But all was not well.


There were several students who misunderstood Matthew’s expression, “the Kingdom of Heaven,” and came up with collages filled with pictures of pearly gates, of wide stairways leading up into the clouds, and of angels drifting in a pale blue mist. This, of course, is a total misrepresentation of what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God.”


As each student got up and explained his collage, it became a very “teachable moment.” We got to respond to those presentations of the Kingdom as “Pie in the Sky When You Die,” and noted how this approach removes the Kingdom from our daily lives and postpones it until after our death, locating it in some “Grand Elsewhere” beyond this world of everyday experiences of love and fear, joys and struggles, of relationships with our brothers and sisters. This image of the Kingdom of Heaven is very comforting -- but way too safe and distant.


Jesus wants his idea of the Kingdom to be a challenge to each of us here and now: God, through Jesus Christ, is acting in history, in your history and mine, right now, and is calling us, challenging us, to make that Kingdom a reality by the way we live.


When Karl Marx characterized religion as the opium of the people, he was reacting, it seems to me, to the religious idea of the Kingdom as something in the future, a reward promised to those who put up with suffering and injustice in this world in exchange of something better after they die.


The Kingdom becoming present
The true notion of the Kingdom of God, however, is very much bound to this earth, and to our relationships with one another. We need to hold on to this ideal during these turbulent times in our country when some people are preoccupied with building barriers, and separating themselves into opposing camps that will not communicate with each other, where “me first” becomes the starting point for all moral decision-making.


After we listen to the beatitudes proclaimed at mass tomorrow, let us also let ourselves be challenged when we pray, in the Lord’s prayer, “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  
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Saturday, January 21, 2017

INAUGURATION DAY CHALLENGE

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WHO IS IN CHARGE HERE?


I began this blog years ago with the purpose of offering spiritual reflections for “troubled times,” and I think that the situation in our world and in our country can still be called “troubled.”  I would like to offer some thoughts on the occasion of the inauguration of our new president, not on the level of national politics, but rather from the angle of the Kingdom of God.

We monks began morning prayer at 6:30 today with Psalm 24: “The Lord’s is the Earth and its fullness.” That’s an essential starting point for any religious reflection on a new presidency: God is still in charge of the United States, so even the most powerful political figure in the world is, in the end, playing a role in God’s plan for the world.


This belief is should be comforting for people who are uneasy about Mr. Trump in the White House, and sobering for people who see him as some sort of savior. (I remember those tee shirts of eight years ago that pictured the new President Obama as a Messiah in a white robe.)


Six clergymen read scripture passages at the Inauguration Ceremony. I thought the passages were well chosen -- prayers for wisdom for the leader, reminders of what is truly important in life, invoking God’s blessings, etc. As the television camera slowly panned the solemn faces on the dais during the readings, I hoped that some of the power mongers present were listening with their hearts to those lines.


ARE YOU LISTENING?

After the ceremony was over, it occurred to me that, regardless of whether or not the political figures got the message of those beautiful biblical passages, the readings can still challenge me, and you, and all of us.


One of the selections, for example, was the Beatitudes from Matthew Chapter 5. I’d like to offer the passage here for our reflection, hoping that one or another verse will indeed pose a personal challenge to each of us during these difficult days of disunity and discord. These verses about the merciful, the meek and the peacemakers are an invitation to each of us to do our part in healing our nation instead of adding to the bitterness and intolerance, the fear and division.


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)

May the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, bless our new president and all the peoples of the earth, and keep all of us in peace. Amen.
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Saturday, January 14, 2017

AN ANGRY JESUS?

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ANGER OR PITY?

Thursday morning I opened my Greek New Testament and started reading the day’s gospel passage, Mark 1:40 ff -- and never got past the second sentence. The English translation in the lectionary begins this way:

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said,
"If you wish, you can make me clean."
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched the leper, and said to him,
"I do will it. Be made clean."

But in my Greek text, that third line, instead of reading “Moved with pity,” had “Being angered, he stretched out his hand.”  This passage is what the scholars call “one of the more disputed textual readings in Mark,” because the ancient Greek manuscripts disagree as to which word belongs there -- some have “moved with pity” while others have “being angered.” Not being interested at the moment in the the details of the scholarly controversy as to which is the better reading, I began to reflect on the idea that Jesus got angry at the situation.

Why would he be angry? When I’ve come across this passage previously, with the variant reading that has Jesus being angry, I’ve always assumed that he was angry at the existence of the disease and the horrible suffering it was causing this unfortunate man. This is the human side of Jesus identifying with the pain of a fellow human, and rebelling at the presence of that kind of “evil” in the world. His anger moves him to stretch out his hand against the disease and cleanse the man.

WHY NOT JUST ASK?

But Thursday morning I thought of a second possibility when I looked at the sentence that immediately precedes the one in question: “A leper came to him … and said,
"If you wish, you can make me clean." Could Jesus’ anger have been in response to the man’s phrase, “if you wish?” The leper evidently knew of Jesus and believed in his power of healing, but, it seems, couldn’t quite bring himself to ask Jesus directly for help. Jesus is saying in effect, “What the heck do you mean ‘If I wish?’ Why don’t you just ask me to heal you?”

I realized that there are times when I don’t ask the Lord to help me with my problems, but instead try to solve them myself, or resign myself to putting up with them, or feel sorry for myself because God has laid some particular burden on my shoulders.

I too easily forget Jesus’ invitation “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), or I tiptoe around the issue instead of confidently calling out “Lord, help me! This is too much!”  Maybe the Lord gets exasperated with me when I don’t simply and confidently throw myself on his mercy and ask for help.

That meditation was a good reminder not to let myself get preoccupied with worries, but rather to hand them to the Lord and trust that he will give me all the help and healing that I need.
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Saturday, January 7, 2017

EPIPHANY GIFT

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UPON YOU THE LORD SHINES

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory...(Is 60:1-2)

I was sitting in church early this morning, reflecting on this text from Isaiah, from the first reading for tomorrow’s Solemnity of the Epiphany, when I recalled an encounter I had with a student on Thursday. I’ll call him Jay.

I was going over his semester report card with him, asking him to explain the F and a couple of C-’s. His monosyllabic responses and complete lack of emotion were getting on my nerves. When he complained that his History teacher had written that Jay had been late several times, I stood up and said, “Well, let’s go next door and ask him what the story is.”

Jay and I walked a few steps to the next classroom to talk to the History teacher. The conversation between him and Jay was nothing unusual, until suddenly the teacher looked him in the eye and said, “Jay, when are you going to start dealing with all the personal issues you have inside you that are keeping you from doing your school work?”

It was as if a bright light suddenly shone through the window out of the dreary winter sky. I brought the conversation to a close and, thanking the teacher, stepped into the hallway and asked, “Do you agree with Mr. Riley that there’s stuff going on that’s keeping you from doing your work?”

I was surprised and relieved when Jay answered in a barely audible voice, “Yeah. He’s right. I went for counseling once last year, but then I stopped.”

So I asked him, “Well, do you think maybe it’s worth another shot now, before your grades get so bad that you won’t be able to get into college?”

He agreed to let me give his name to someone in our school’s Counselling Center, which I did half an hour later. (Our students are fortunate to have this resource so easily available.) I’ll check on Monday to see if he’s started counselling sessions or group meetings yet.

This was the incident that I thought of this morning during my meditation time.

The Christ event has already happened, but the God who delivered the Israelites through the Red Sea, the God who came in person to save us, is still on the move today in our lives. The “good news” involves not just some past event, not just the unveiling of a new future that lies ahead, but what N.T. Wright calls “a transformation of the present moment, sitting between the event that has already happened and a further event that therefore will happen.”

All of us are being called to let ourselves be transformed by the newborn Messiah into a light for the world around us. My self-centeredness is supposed to be transformed into a generous concern for others, my fears are to be transformed into trust, and the parts of me that are darkness are to be transformed into light. I caught a glimpse of that transforming action of God working in Jay’s life Thursday afternoon in the form of a challenge from a teacher to take a risk and go for help in dealing with his problems.

Then I started thinking about myself. My own transformation is part of the Good News, it is God’s plan for me. Am I able to let go and allow God to transform me? This grace-filled season is the perfect time to ask the Lord for that gift, the gift of letting go and allowing God to transform me into light for my students (like Jay), for my brothers in the monastery, and for everyone else the Lord puts into my life.

That little encounter with Jay took less than ten minutes, but I believe that, with God’s help, its effects may last for years.

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.

HAPPY EPIPHANY!