Family Values

So what does Jesus have against families?

His parents were saints! He seems to have had a great extended family and lifelong relationship with cousin John. We’re led to believe he had an ideal relationship with his father and followed in the family business. When it counted most it was his mother who stood by him.

If you go to church this weekend you’re likely to get a very different impression. The saccharine images of Christmas greeting cards are gone. Forget any recollection you have of Rafael or Botticelli. No Madonna and Child this weekend!

Today is the official start of summer. Maybe the people who set-up the Common Lectionary think we won’t notice — church attendance is way down at this time of year. Here goes:

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (Mt 10:35-36)

Really makes you want to run off to church, doesn’t it?  Or, maybe run out of church! Who needs this? I am absolutely certain this Gospel will not be selected for use by the Catholic bishops at their Synod on the Family in October!

But, wait! Words of my dear, deceased mother — the one who insistently trucked the family off to church every Sunday — come to mind. This is a time when she would interject her invariably profound, “You know, life is strange.” Because, it just is!

Our family flunks the Holy Family test. For generations we have wrestled, not always successfully, with alcoholism. Marriages in our family end in divorce at the same rate as the culture as a whole. We have a sibling who has turned into a recluse and ignores overtures even for some minimal communication. Need I continue?  You can likely supply your own list!

This Gospel surprisingly became Good News when I actually heard the introductory lines: “A disciple is not above the teacher… it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.” Jesus is teaching what it means to be a follower. No, these are not marching orders for apostles — the message we eventually will be sent to proclaim!  We’re not adequately prepared for that yet.  Remember: the word disciple means a student!

This is our apprenticeship where we need to learn the discipline of what it means to be a disciple. Remember the setting… this is not the Sermon on the Mount preached to the masses. The setting much more resembles what a coach would say at half-time to a team at the World Cup: “Okay, team, we are in the match of a lifetime. This is about all the marbles. Here’s what we need to do. Play hard! We can win this! Don’t lose focus… remember why we’re here!”

Tough as it may sound, this is exactly the message this Christian apprentice needs to hear. Life is strange! Keep your eye on the prize. Keep your priorities straight! What’s really important?

This is precisely the message our congregations, cities, corporations and nation need to hear as well. When we get these priorities straight, we will finally be prepared to proclaim with confidence and conviction: Gospel of The Lord!

For God’s Sake… and Ours

If you have not read yesterday’s post, “What Are We to Say” please do so.  Because…

Today I want to lower frustration by emphasizing how concern for God’s creation — in and of itself without any self-referential pretense as if it were God’s “gift” to us, but rather “entrusted” to us for our care — cuts to the core of our spirituality and moral responsibilities.

By way of inspiration, I offer a quote from the Joint Declaration by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew made from Jerusalem on May 25, 2014:

It is our profound conviction that the future of the human family depends also on how we safeguard – both prudently and compassionately, with justice and fairness – the gift of creation that our Creator has entrusted to us. Therefore, we acknowledge in repentance the wrongful mistreatment of our planet, which is tantamount to sin before the eyes of God. We reaffirm our responsibility and obligation to foster a sense of humility and moderation so that all may feel the need to respect creation and to safeguard it with care. Together, we pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation; we appeal to all people of goodwill to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God’s world and the benefit of His people.

__________

You may read the entire ten-paragraph statement by Francis and Bartholomew [here].

What Are We to Say?

Imagine, 74 grand nephews and nieces! Yes, my 34 nephews and nieces collectively have 74 children. In fact I’m so old, and my family so prolific, that some of my nephews and nieces are grandparents!

Though I have no children of my own, I take my avuncular role seriously and this is the source of a recurring anxiety. Often I shutter and am down-right scared. I envision my grand nieces and nephews when they are my age. With creased brow and shaking head they ask, “What were you thinking? Were you blind? Why the hell didn’t you do something?”

Perhaps this blog is preemptory self-defense… I imagine one or more of the 74 — perhaps my namesake, Richard James — combing through these posts in fifty years. Ideally, they will constitute something of an ethical testament. We were not totally oblivious, self-consumed and ignorant. Were we?

If I am not careful you will soon stop reading, reflexively click the “close” button. Please don’t! My challenge is to remain engaging about a topic that should scare us to death. Otherwise, how are we to explain to Richard James in 2064 that not all of us lived in the United States of Amnesia!

Moments ago, morning news reported on Mankato, MN — home of a state university as well as the billionaire owner of the NBA Minnesota Twins. The Minnesota River which runs through town was already swollen above flood stage by unseasonably high precipitation. Seems the river and city sewer systems simply could not accommodate seven inches of additional rain. The city is shut down. Crops on more than 100,000 acres of nearby farmland have also been lost.

Sad… tragic, in fact! Thank God no deaths have been reported. The Red Cross and National Guard immediately responded. Families are regrouping and neighborhoods will collectively shovel mud from homes. Mankato will be declared a national disaster area and FIMA will help return the community to some semblance of the status quo.

Then, I fear — and this is the source of my worst fear — we will all return to our respective states of amnesia. Civic leaders will don smiles for Fourth of July parades on Main Street. Banners will proclaim, “Mission Accomplished.” We will collectively settle back to our routines because good hands are taking care of us.

Please resist the sudden urge to “close”! There is overwhelming evidence that all is not right with the world: ice caps are shrinking, glaciers are receding, sea levels rising, permafrost thawing, species of plants and animals vanishing. This is happening amid sustained droughts, heavy rains, heat waves, wildfires, floods and unforeseen threats to food production.

Here’s the blunt truth expressed by Colman McCarthy: “From the grimness, it’s not a wild conclusion that earthicide is happening — the self-destruction caused by human choices…  carbon dioxide is causing the planet to gag, as if gasping for air that for billions of years was breathable but is no longer.”  Writing amid yet another heavy rain I envision this as creation’s desperate convulsion to cleanse itself of the filth and degradation of ravenous human consumption.

As we gather along Main Street for Fourth of July parades and assemble lawn chairs for fireworks displays we might ask: “What will history say about our generation?” Will our sense of civic duty recede with the last strains of a John Philip Sousa march? Will we simply fold up our lawn chairs and return to our respective states of amnesia?

What response will we have for our grandchildren in 2064? What are we to say to Richard James, … or Eleanor, … or Jack, … or Graham, … or Paige, …?

They need our answer NOW!

__________________

Gore Vidal coined the term “United States of Amnesia.”

The quote from Colman McCathy is from an essay well worth reading [link]

 

“Primary Wonder”

Problems connecting to the internet prevent me from posting what I have written on our laptop.  Being restricted to an iPad provides the opportunity to share one of my all-time favorite poems:

PRIMARY WONDER

Days pass when I forget the mystery.

Problems insoluble and problems offering

their own ignored solutions

jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber

along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing

their colored clothes; caps and bells.

And then

once more the quiet mystery

is present to me, the throng’s clamor

recedes: the mystery

that there is anything, anything at all,

let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

rather than void: and that, 0 Lord,

Creator, Hallowed one, You still,

hour by hour sustain it.

— Denise Levertov

When Its No Fun Anymore

Prayer is easy only for beginners and those who are already saints. During all the long years in between, it is difficult. Why? Because prayer has the same inner dynamic as love, and love is sweet only in its initial stage, when we first fall in love, and again in its final, mature stage. In between, love is hard work, dogged fidelity, and needs willful commitment beyond what is normally provided by our emotions and imagination. 

As we grow deeper and more mature in our relationships, reality begins to dispel all illusion. According to Ronald Rolheiser, it’s not that we become disillusioned with the one we love, but we begin to recognize that many of our warm thoughts and feelings we thought were about the “other” were really about ourselves – What we thought was prayer was partly a spell of enchantment about ourselves.

At this critical moment of recognition in any relationship, disillusionment sets in. It’s easy to believe we were wrong, misguided, deluded in feeling as we did. Here Rolheiser is brilliant: Disillusionment is a good thing. It’s the dispelling of an illusion. Disillusionment in love is actually a maturing moment in our lives!

In the spiritual life this is when we typically stop praying. Oh, we likely will not call it that. We are apt to disguise our avoidance with excuses or explanations – not enough time, just taking a break, my work is my prayer, too busy serving others. Fill in the blank! We will fight tenaciously to cling to our familiar preconceptions, a pleasing appearance, “reward” as the economy of grace, and our self-satisfied illusion.

What is needed when the bottom falls out – and it will – is just the opposite. We need to just show-up, minus warm thoughts and feelings, stripped of our enchantment with ourselves. Rolheiser sees this as the beginning of maturity. When we say, “I no longer know how to love,” or “I no longer know how to pray,” then we begin to really understand and grow in our capacity to love and pray.

These words of admonition and encouragement brought me back to something I first heard fifteen years ago as a reflection during Evening Prayer at St John the Evangelist (Anglican) Monastery in Cambridge, MA. It is a text I keep nearby and resort to with some regularity:

Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults. By hiding inside a veil of glory, God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then, can God be God. When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again–then, at last, we are ready to worship God.

_____________________

Initial quote and following references to Ronald Rolheiser are from Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013, pp 45-6. Final quote about “Silence” is from Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent. Cowley Publications, 1998.

Bottoms Up!

We don’t need much proof. Margaret Meade didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. She just had a gift for putting it in eloquent language: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Just look at Pope Francis! My brother retired from a thirty-year career in the Army. After Francis’ trip to the Middle East, Fred commented on June 10 to a post I had made here. He described the Pope’s visit as “a major event which will contribute far more to world peace than all the armies and diplomats have in recent years.”

But there seems to be an essential corollary to Meade’s incisive summation and to the potential expressed in the papal visit. True leaders appreciate this fact: real change has to bubble up from the grassroots. Decrees from on-high are typically ignored, as well they should be. Meade captured this in crediting “thoughtful, committed citizens” for the change the world needs.

With that as my prompt, and inspired by my brother, I decided to engage in some “bottoms up” action. Yesterday I chose to participate in Sunday liturgy at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church. My motivation was to give grass-roots expression to that which Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew expressed in their joint statement from Jerusalem:

Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity…

Thus we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better… Hence, we affirm together that our faithfulness to the Lord demands fraternal encounter and true dialogue.

United in our intentions, … we call upon all Christians, together with believers of every religious tradition and all people of good will, to recognize the urgency of the hour that compels us to seek the reconciliation and unity of the human family…”

The pope and patriarch are not telling us anything we don’t already know! We need wise leadership to give us proof by their actions that what we know we need is in fact possible. We, the grassroots, have a reciprocal obligation to change our ways and adjust our attitudes. We need to shake things up like the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Pentecost Prayer service at the Vatican changed dynamics.

I absolutely do not want to sound preachy, pedantic or like a know-it-all. However, I do feel a passionate urgency. For your convenience and encouragement, here are some ways we can give our prophetic leaders a grassroots foundation on which to build:

  • Prayerfully reflect upon the relatively short Joint Declaration by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (25 May, 2014). It is only ten paragraphs long and is available [link].
  • Read Patriarch Bartholomew’s Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today (2008). I ordered my copy from the used book section on Amazon for $2.58 plus $3.99 postage.   Better yet, host a book club discussion with friends who share your interest.
  • Go to Sunday liturgy at your local Greek Orthodox Church. Be prepared for a rich cultural experience and a service that is likely to last 90 minutes. I went asking that God remove all that divides us, for the grace of curiosity and gift “of communion in legitimate diversity”. True confession: I left with sensory overload (not a bad thing) and did not have the energy to plunge into “coffee hour” – next time!

Let’s never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed folks can change the world from the bottom up. Indeed, it’s the only thing that really will. Let’s give our leadership legs to stand on!  We can be the change the world needs!

Our Fathers

What are we to say of our fathers? Mine wasn’t perfect – none are, I suspect. When I turned 40, the age he was when I was born, I suddenly had a whole new appreciation for the man. What must it have been like to be the sole bread-winner for a wife and ten children? I buckled at the prospect. He did not.

Married in 1931, the Great Depression and WWII prevented him and my mother from “getting off the farm” until 1945. How they managed to “keep the farm” during those hard early years – when so many other good people had not – continues to amaze me.

We had our scrapes. What son or daughter doesn’t? I recall announcing at dinner that I was going to protest a Presidential campaign rally of George Wallace. He said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “Yes, I am!” Back and forth we went, horns locked.

Experienced parent that he was he announced, “This is what we are going to do… we will both go! We will sit in our seats. We won’t cheer or in any way express approval. However, we will not be part of an organized protest.” Together we went.

We witnessed those I would have been with taking folding chairs over their backs. The violence made national news. Though it took years to temper my impetuous zeal and admit his more mature wisdom, I never again doubted whether he would “be there” for me.

Who among us would not like to relive, perhaps re-script, certain episodes with our dads. Today, I am still in search of a hamburger to rival those I shared with him as an 8-year-old in cafes of small Nebraska towns when I accompanied him as a sales rep for a farm implement company. Oh, the conversation we’d have!

About a year before he died we shared another meal. I took the risk of asking what he wanted me to say about him at his funeral. His eyes shot up, “What?” “Look,” I said, “I’m going to be there and will probably have something to say. Most people don’t get the chance to say what they want said about them. What do you want me to say?”

Composing himself, he thought for a moment. “First of all, you better be there!” Then he said, “Tell them I wasn’t perfect… I made my mistakes. Tell them I’m sorry. But, tell them I tried my best and have loved them more than they will ever know.”

Dads aren’t perfect. But, then, who’d want to be the daughter or son of a perfect parent! We honor them best by growing into the woman or man we were born to be. In this we become more like them.

Dad has been gone more than 21 years now. Fathers Day without him never gets any easier – just different. There are times I am certain of his attentive presence. At other times I would give the world to share an experience or tap his wisdom.

This year I am especially grateful for the way he taught me to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”