Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

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Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.

 

Too Late Wise

“Y’know life can be really hard!” A dear friend was summarizing a conversation we had recently. Each of us could recite a long litany of challenges family and friends are facing — death of a spouse, chronic physical pain, frustrating dead-end careers, relapses in addictive behaviors, unspeakable betrayal in relationships, the list goes on.

All this was washing over me as Jeb the Dog took me to Minnehaha Creek for our late afternoon walk. We’ve had a marvelous summer, gardens are well-tended and the world looks lush. Weeks away from summer solstice, the sun now casts a perceptively different shadow. Jeb remains enthusiastic in his obligation to mark designated trees but he too seems to recognize the waning season.

With head cocked, Jeb grieves the absence of once plentiful ducklings from the water. A fresh silver maple now obstructs the creek’s easy flow, sad consequence of the previous night’s storm. Mary Oliver’s lament in her brilliant poem, The Summer Day rippled within my heart, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

In a few days Medicare kicks in. That more than the fact of turning 65 shocks me into heightened reflectivity. Like every Minnesotan’s experience of summer, it all happens too fast, passes too soon! There is no time for regrets. Precious time is now better spent remembering, gathering wisdom from what has been, harvesting all that is needed for approaching winter.

Upstream from where the silver maple diverts the free-flowing creek, Jeb plants himself as a sentinel surveying this place he knows so well. Feet squarely set, he appears oblivious as his chest creases the fast-moving current. A rock we know so well for its musical ripple when the creek dances with a normal flow has been smothered by the swarming storm water.

Again, Jeb becomes my best teacher. With legs squared and eyes fixed on the approaching torrent, he ponders our familiar terrane and the changes transforming our daily routine. Like the now silent rock that lies submerged by the storm, his resolute posture tells all I need to know. Do not fear deep water or the rushing torrent. Stand resolute in the middle of it all and let the waters flow over and around you.

As I officially join the Medicare generation on Saturday and turn 65 mid-month, what wisdom is to be gathered? Is there a harvest to be gleaned from these fast flowing years? By necessity, a new modesty seeks to take hold — I am far less certain about everything for which I once asserted a cocky self-confidence. I recognize a propensity to attack paper tigers like Papal infallibility all the while laying arrogant claim to my own.

If age smooths certain edges, it yields strength and confidence as well. Jeb resolutely squared himself midstream. Just as the stationary rock provides rippling melodies when the creek is running its normal course, so too it remains planted and ready to resume its role once the surge subsides. So too with us — I cannot imagine how we are to remain centered amid life’s litany of challenges without resolutely planting ourselves in a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation.

I increasingly cringe at the “wisdom” and “advice” I so wantonly gave whoever would listen. No longer do I claim to speak for God. In fact, I am coming to recognize the God I claimed to serve was too easily an idol of my own fashioning, one I tried to direct and contain. The Risen Christ breaks boundaries, defies our categories and shows up where we least expect — sometimes among those of whom we would not approve.

Finally, I am getting a glimpse into what Benedict of Nursia taught in the sixth century. This preeminent exemplar of western monasticism prescribed that any who would presume to offer spiritual counsel to others should know how to heal their own wounds first (RB46.6). Only when we have felt the full force life’s torrents wash over us may we presume to understand those who feel overwhelmed or are mired in despair.

Of this I am certain… those to whom I have been consistently drawn for solace or counsel somehow communicate they too have known the overwhelming mercy of God. They too are familiar with life’s torrents and human frailty. They know what it is to feel submerged or planted amid life’s rushing currents.  They simply stand firm with legs squared in the assurance that we are loved — beyond measure, beyond ourselves, beyond time.

Until Death Do Us Part

Too many are tormented. Too often our churches and moral leaders instill lingering shame instead of comfort and support. They just don’t get it!

Once again I sat across from a long-suffering faith-filled Catholic who was in a second marriage without an annulment of a first marriage. As a gay man, I get it! I know what it is like to be deemed “inherently disordered” if not demonized by a church in which I had eagerly professed vows as a religious and served as a priest.

As a family member, I get it! First marriages of two siblings culminated in divorce. Both married again. Neither sought the “benefit” of an annulment from the church. Neither have I sought official “laicization” (that is “return to the lay state”) from ordination as priest. Annulment and laicization legalities simply feel condescending and shaming. With my sibs I choose to have no part of it.

As a friend, I get it! The same sad story is all too common. Too many live with lingering doubts and troubling conflicts inflicted by a church they want to call home. Many tears have been shed, many doors slammed, many hearts broken. As one friend recently shared:

“Till death do us part” has been narrowly assumed to be physical death. In my experience, there is also mental, emotional, and spiritual death that can occur. I hung on to a 21 year marriage until I was so close to mental, emotional, and spiritual death that it has taken 21 years to get resuscitated.

As Scripture attests, those in high places are wont to impose heavy burdens on others they themselves would never carry. (Matt 23:4) In this — and so much regarding sexuality and marriage — the church leadership is simply wrong!

Married people know this! Your average Catholic knows this! The Synod of Catholic Bishops gathering for a second session in October have a rare opportunity to show they are beginning to get it. Perhaps as preparation they can meditate on the verse: “It is mercy that I seek, not sacrifice!” (Hosea 6:6; Matt 9:13 and 12:17)

But married people and average Catholics have our work cut out too. We “get it” but too many of us are still shackled by shame and doubt. Perhaps all who have been baptized would do well to reflect on the words Jesus heard at his own baptism in the Jordan and his disciples heard spoken at Jesus’ Transfiguration: “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased!” (Matt 3:17 and 17:5)

God does not say to those he loves, “Get an annulment, jump through these legalities to become acceptable.” To all who are baptized into Christ — and I would include all who have been created in God’s own image — God says, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

With that as bedrock, we are prepared and commissioned to love as best we are able — until death do us part. In this God is more than well pleased.

Only Thing of Monumental Significance

The disappointing truth is that most of us are content with answers. “Give me the facts, ma’am, just the facts!” is a famous line from some detective show better left in the caverns of youthful memories. I guess this approach is fine if you are a police detective. Its a disaster if trying to live a mature spiritual life.

The current brouhaha about the Ten Commandment monument in Oklahoma leaves me scratching my head. What’s the big deal with the Ten Commandments? Christians know that Jesus assumed the role of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount. Why aren’t God-fearing Christians erecting monuments listing the Beatitudes? Better yet, how about Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the standards for our Last Judgment?

My reluctant assumption is that a scary percentage of folks like black and white answers. This drive for clarity feels to me like rigidity, an obsession with control. “Tell me what to do or not to do” is the passive version.  “I’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong!” is the more aggressive and dangerous manifestation.  Looks like infantile paralysis to me!

When such moral certitude is pulled out from under us by life’s complexity, and it will be, too many throw in the towel on religion. “Bunch of hypocrites!” often becomes a simplistic and defensive excuse to summarily dispose of thousands of years of wisdom. Such a dismissive attitude is no better than the cold stone monuments some want to erect on courtyard lawns.

After reluctantly wrestling with the confounding complexity life throws at us we gradually soften, become more supple, proffer eternal truth with greater humility. We come to live the questions rather than seek answers. If we remain alert — and lucky — we escape slipping into moral relativism or synchronism (it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s all the same anyway).

It does matter! It’s not all the same! Our questions are profoundly consequential — not because they yield clear, precise, fixed answers, but because they quicken in us the very decision-making dignity imprinted in us by God. We become morally mature, responsible adults created in God’s very image.

Remaining securely within the safety of laws, texts or answers — typically handed down by some self-authenticating spokesperson — is a popular way to go. Too many people refuse to take the first critical hurdle to spiritual maturity — they prefer the moral straitjacket of already having the “truth”. Complexities of living are addressed as reason to dig in their heels even more firmly — reciting threadbare principles over and over, shouting louder and more insistently if they must. Erecting monuments of cold, hard stone.

Sooner or later all this becomes indefensible! Life’s inevitable ambiguities don’t yield to simple, clear answers. Its exhausting having to constantly defend moral rectitude. Loud voices are in abundant supply and routinely dismissed. Life’s questions are simply too numerous, complex and spontaneous to be catalogued.

Still, the hardest thing in the world is for some to let go of their “answers”, especially those intended for others. To do so is not to question one’s faith but to maturely embrace and express it!

There is no judge seated aside a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Pearly Gates. As from a master-teacher, we already have been given the only question on our Final Exam. All answers are not the same. Our own answer matters, definitively!

Did you love?  Really, did you? …especially those we consider least (if we consider them at all)!

As Through a Glass Darkly

She is her mother’s daughter, that’s for sure!

For a few years now I have listened to an acquaintance — rather than friend because I consciously keep her at arm’s length — grouse about her 85-year-old mother. It’s a long story spanning their lifetimes which has been recounted to me in brief snippets. Can’t she see what she’s doing? Why doesn’t she understand?

Not only is it a great principle of human psychology, it is an important function of literature to allow us to “transfer” or “project” our own selves onto the characters we envision or read about. Shakespeare remains masterful in creating figures onto whom we can dump or build our hidden selves.

Case in point… To Kill a Mocking Bird vies with Grapes of Wrath for my all-time favorite novel. I love the character of Atticus Finch for his demeanor, delivery and dedication to justice. Now, pre-release publicity suggests that Atticus comes off as something less that saintly or heroic in Harper Lee’s long-awaited sequel.

I don’t want to hear it! Already, I have concocted all sorts of excuses not to read Go Set a Watchman. I don’t want anyone to tinker with my well entrenched opinion of the virtuous Atticus! He’s my idol. He’s the one onto whom I projected my youthful passion for justice. NO, he cannot have feet of clay! I will hear none of it!

A few days ago I was walking where my “arm’s-length acquaintance” typically intercepts me. Her rants have become so tedious I sometimes take other routes to lessen the chances of an encounter. Again, she bad-mouthed her elderly mother and rolled her eyes in disgust to emphasize her frustrations.

What doesn’t she see? Why doesn’t she get it? She is her mother’s daughter! She is a master at precisely the obnoxious, tiring, off-putting manner she accuses her mother of personifying. Pointing this out to her would simply be met with denial — a lifetime of projecting our problems or faults onto others is not going to change because of anything I say.

Perhaps the most I can hope for is that I not be guilty of that which I accuse others. I, too, project and transfer my negativity and culpability. I am too often blind and fail to get-it. I, too, am heavily defended behind walls of denial.

Today, Kayla McClurg has a terrific [reflection] on the Gospel being read in many churches this weekend. She recognizes that when we don’t truly know ourselves, accept ourselves, or be our true selves we fail to listen and learn. When we fail to admit our faults and failures we live forever displaced from the center of our lives.

Even in tedious rants and people we would rather avoid, there lies the invitation to own our own stuff. To be the person on the outside the person we are inside. Yes, to project and transfer both our grandstanding and our greatness onto characters of Scripture and literature. But also to own the fullness of all that is reflected back to us.

When I was young I wanted to be Atticus Finch! Perhaps now that I am approaching 65 I do need to read Go Set a Watchman more than ever. It is a gift that Harper Lee waited fifty years to release her sequel — only now am I starting to recognize even the great ones have clay feet. We all do!

Those I deem to be tedious, tiring and troubling may simply be holding up a mirror for me to see more clearly. Truth is, I am also my acquaintance’s reflection. If not in exactly the same ways, then at least more than I want to admit.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

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The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Grandparenting

Grandmas — and sometime grandpas — have to be as good as it gets this side of heaven. Yesterday a friend’s account of her time with her grandkids at the shore drew me back to fond memories of my own Grandma Wieseler.

Theresa had just returned from a week with her seven grandchildren. The kids are scattered all over the U.S. so she gathered them at their house on the shore for a week of family togetherness. Yes, this would provide terrific bonding-time for the cousins. But Theresa was also indulging her own deep affection for them — there was plenty of healthy self-interested “grand-mothering” in her plan as well.

Although she was grateful that one parent was present at the beginning and a different Mom came at the end of the week, Theresa mostly wanted the grandkids to herself. Her rationale will be obvious to all of you who have grandkids. It was an Aha! moment for me! She explained, “Kids are just different when parents aren’t around. We have more fun and get to know each other so much better when they are out of the picture.”

Of course, some aspects of being an uncle — and now grand-uncle — prepared me to understand what Theresa was saying. But I also recognized she was speaking of a deep, intimate bond that I will never know. All the more reason to treasure the enduring love my siblings and I experienced with our Grandma Wieseler.

Perhaps the difference comes down to the necessary and appropriate roles parents must play. They need to discipline, proscribe, direct and say “no” as often as “yes.” Grandparents are free of responsibility to be that kind of authority figure. Grandparents are allowed to be much more about love, pure and simple!

Theresa and I mused a bit about all this. Then we wondered whether our experience of God is more like a Grandma or like a parent. Hmmm! Of course, we knew which we wanted it to be. But really, which is it? This seems pretty important for Christians to figure out. Jesus, after all, taught us to call God “Father”, abba, papa.

I have long claimed that my first and best introduction to God was my Grandma Wieseler. She was unconditional love personified. Yes there is a need for discipline, proscriptions, direction and “no” in the practice of our faith. But that’s early on, when we are children. We are meant to grow-up. Isn’t that the point of good parenting?

One day, some of us even become grandparents — in this, God is pleased!

Self-Degradation, Self-Inflicted

We have demeaned and degraded ourselves once again. I feel ashamed, dirty. Why we perpetuate this violence and further poison ourselves remains a sickening question. Who do we think we are, God Almighty?

Yesterday, by sheer coincidence, Richard Rohr’s popular blog posted the following suggestion:

Perhaps upon reading passages such as Matthew 25 or the vengeful Psalms calling for God’s wrath, we might do well to follow the Eastern Orthodox Saint Silouan’s advice:

“I remember a conversation between [Staretz Silouan] and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’ “Obviously upset, the Staretz said, ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire–would you feel happy?’ “‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit. “The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance: “‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.'”

Yesterday, a jury in Boston swiftly sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death under the guise of justice.  Many — if not most — Americans feel vindicated, grateful, safer. We are no better than those self-righteous fanatics who would stone a woman for infidelity or a man for being gay.

Yes, these news stories have also been reported recently in the news. We mask our own vengeful impulses with the self-serving explanation that these religious extremists know nothing of God, of God’s love or of “true” religious faith! We smugly sit within our own self-righteousness, our own presumption to distribute ultimate justice, our own arrogant propensity to play God.

The deliberate taking of another person’s life is immoral. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty of a heinous crime — even his attorneys do not contest that fact. But, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is securely within our custody — restrained and incapable of further killing and violence. Yet, we as a society are not! Instead, we perpetuate the violence, inflicting further brutality upon ourselves.

God forbid! If we but knew the love of God! We must pray for all.

___________________

Richard Rohr’s blog post for Friday, May 14 — the very day Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death — gave the source of Saint Silouan’s quote as: Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, Vol. 1 of the Collected Works (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2004), 48.

Being Taken

He approached us in the parking lot, a lanky man with short-cropped brown hair perhaps in his upper twenties. His generic tee-shirt and jeans contrasted with the strained expression on his face. Anticipating a familiar story, my brother tried to wave me off from his vantage ten feet ahead.

The young man began apologetically according to script. He had recently moved to this town in central Florida from up-north with his family. “Do you know where I can get some help? I have a job,” he protested! On script, he recounted all the people and places he’d been looking for assistance. Inclusion of the police station on his list slapped against my deeply engrained cynicism.

“I get paid on Wednesday. Please… I need food for my family.” Skepticism converged with my deep seeded need to confront the laggard. Recognizing my position of power and privilege, I indulged my need to test the man by getting him to prove to me his need. “What are the names and ages of your kids?” I asked, intending to catch him in my snare. He responded without flinching, so promptly it could not have been rehearsed.  Plausible, I had to admit.  Now it was me off-stride!

Reaching for my wallet and looking him in the eye, “I believe you!” My response was not so much cognitive or deliberative. It came less from a meeting the minds and more from the meeting of our eyes, man-to-man. What began as a random incident in a parking lot – one that could be easily dismissed – ended in human encounter.

Was I taken as a chump by this skillful panhandler? Whether I was or not misses the point 24-hours later. I remember the man, if not the precise ages and names of his children. Only today do I realize that Wednesday is the last day of the month and could well be the day he receives a paycheck. It doesn’t really matter!

The unanticipated gift this young Dad gave me – someone old enough to be his grandfather – far surpasses the monetary value of what I gave him. There was more than “need” in what he expressed. There was vulnerability that I’ve learned to disguise or rarely risk. He revealed a degree of passion in his appeal too many of us have lost. How many of us are driven by our own heart’s yearning manifest in the account of this struggling parent?

For this – if only for this reminder – I stand in this young man’s debt. Too easily I slip into a smug, unexamined gratitude for having it so much better. But, do I? Really? Is such a question even relevant once we overcome cynicism, skepticism, and fear?

Dare we risk looking at one another eye-to-eye?  Dare we not?

A God Not Created in My Own Image

True confession: I’ve got quite a way to go. My spirituality may be accurately described as a faith seeking justice. To me, the fact that God became human in Jesus unequivocally expresses what God has in mind for us.  I quickly fall into a trap: thinking transformation of the world is my/our responsiblity rather than God’s doing!

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers: “If you want peace, work for justice!” The same is expressed by the southern Black Baptist pastor I often quote: “Sometimes our faith is so heavenly minded its no earthly good.”

God in Christ has no other purpose than to restore this creation to what God had in mind in the first place. Mature Christianity understands that we are designated as primary agents in the implementation of God’s plan.  But, my recurring challenge is to align myself to God’s plan, not God to mine!

Today I am confronted — like smack-dab in my face — with the inadequacy of my way of seeing things. I’m long on the justice imperative — I really fall short when it comes to expressing God’s mercy. Honestly speaking, I’m fixated on my conception of “justice” and stingy with extending mercy (except when I am the recipient and the one in need of understanding or forgiveness).

Today Pope Francis proclaimed a “jubilee year” exhorting people like me — indeed the entire Catholic Church — to get with God’s program!  We are to refashion ourselves as a people, not of judgment or condemnation, but of pardon and merciful love. True confession: this would require a much deeper change of my “standard operating procedure” than I’ve been willing to accept to date.

Francis names my challenge: “The temptation … to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step.” He may just as well have had me in mind when reminding us of Peter’s question about how many times its necessary to forgive. We all know the answer; I have perfected the practice of keeping it at arm’s length!

Francis acknowledges the Bible’s frequent use of the image of God as a judge. But he cautions, “Such a vision … has not infrequently led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value.”

Francis explains, “Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation … One can see why, on the basis of such a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life, Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law.”

And here’s something to mull over: “If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected.”

“In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us … and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” Truth is, I’ve heard that so often and in so many ways its like water off a ducks back!

“The Lord asks us above all not to judge and not to condemn,” states the Pontiff. “If anyone wishes to avoid God’s judgment, he should not make himself the judge of his brother or sister.” Ouch!

The Pontiff (word means: bridge-builder) not only challenges us personally but exhorts the whole church to “become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope.”

Recalling the action of the Holy Spirit in Vatican II, Francis reminds, “The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way, … a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning.”

Let’s be honest… this is pretty radical stuff! I thought Lent and all that “conversion” talk was finished for the year. If we really take this Holy Year talk to heart, it will require a complete re-boot of the way I live my faith. I won’t speculate what this might mean for “standard operating procedure” at your rank-and-file church down the street!

Change isn’t easy. I sort of like my well-worn faith-practice, thank you very much!  I prefer the God I’ve created in my own image!

In this, I am grateful God’s justice is tempered by mercy!

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Francis’s proclamation runs over 9,500 words.  I acknowledge my dependence on two articles for papal quotes cited above.  I am especially indebted to Joshua J. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter [link] and to a lesser degree, Cynthia Wooden of the Catholic News Service [link].  I recommend both articles for excellent summaries which exceed what I have attempted here.