Monday, October 29, 2012

Seeing Results — Thirtieth Week of “Ordinary Time,” October 28 to November 3, 2012

I have a friend, a layman, who wants to do great things for God. He would just say “specific things.” He is competent, dedicated and trying. And having only minimal success. That is a problem for me.

God knows a good deal when he sees one. And God certainly sees in this man a believer who wants to serve him, is open and responsive to God’s voice, and willing to do whatever God asks. Okay, within limits. But he would not have to be a saint for God to use him more than he seems to be doing. So why isn’t God, who is all powerful, making this man’s ministry more effective? He’s got a guy who is willing to run with the ball; why doesn’t he help him make touchdowns?

The Holy Spirit is vast; not some little dove fluttering down from heaven. Think of the most awesome thunderstorm you ever saw: dark, rolling clouds from one horizon to the other. Then make the clouds brilliant, shining with light. That is a better image of the Holy Spirit. “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful… Send forth your Spirit, Lord, and our hearts will be regenerated. And you will renew the face of the earth!” We’re talking power here. Why isn’t God pouring out his Spirit on the Church and on the world, moving everybody to respond to his prophets?

Don’t we all relate to this man? I do. Yes, seeing him makes me see myself (is that narcissism?). Don’t you see yourself in the description of him? We may not be super-competent or super-holy, but don’t you and I both want to serve God? Aren’t we willing volunteers? We aren’t heroes, but then we are not volunteering for anything heroic: just to use whatever talents we have to do something good in the world. Seeing my friend’s frustration made me ask questions I did not dare to ask about myself. It seems to me God should be using him more. If I am honest, I think the same about myself. Are you having the same experience?
Another good friend of mine would call this whining. I just call it honesty. And honesty makes us look for answers. Do I have any?

Yes and no. None that satisfies me completely. But there is one that leads us into mystery: the fact that Jesus himself lived and died a failure.

People flocked to him, yes. But not for what he came to give. Most just wanted physical healing. Of the others, none spoke up for him at his trial. He was rejected in Jerusalem, Capernaum, and in his home town (Matthew 11:23; 23:37; Luke 4:29). When he challenged their faith, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Judas betrayed him. Peter cursed and swore that he did not know him (Mark 14:71). When he was on the cross he felt abandoned by God and everyone else. Even his chosen twelve deserted him, except for John, who was probably kept there by his mother and the few women with her. He died without bringing about any changes in Judaism, much less in the secular world. Jesus died as he had lived: a visible failure.

And yet he said to all of us: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16). We pray for faith; for the hope that is based on faith; and for the love that makes them both authentic.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Christianity — Twenty-Ninth Week of “Ordinary Time,” October 21-27, 2012

Vicksburg, Mississippi: Preaching a mission on St. Paul — in St. Paul parish. And the pieces just keep falling into place.

The Good News: Paul puts it into three words: “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27).

Christianity: Paul describes it in four words: “Faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

In these two lines Paul gives us everything we need to keep the “Year of Faith” on course. This year was conceived as “the New Evangelization.” But there is danger it might be tragically stillborn. What may emerge instead is another review of  “orthodox” Catholic doctrine, with a myopic focus on “fidelity to the magisterium.” This insistence on “myopia over mystery” is what has kept Catholics from being evangelized in the first place.

Paul sets us right. He summed up his whole mission in one line: it was to preach “the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” His message was this mystery. That is the Good News.

So if anyone asks, “What do Catholics believe?” we should answer, “We believe in Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Everything else is explanation.

And if anyone asks, “What do Catholics do?” the answer is, “Our religion cannot be explained that way. Our religion is faith working through love.” The minute you try to spell it out in rules and obligations, you have denied the faith.

Does that sound extreme? Paul sounds worse. Writing to those who felt it was an obligation to keep a fundamental law of the Covenant, circumcision, he wrote: “I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Paul would say Catholics who identify “being a good Catholic” with obediently affirming the right doctrines, keeping the right rules, and observing the right practices of our religion have cut themselves off from Christ; they have fallen away from grace.

That is pretty strong. But it is the inspired word of God, bursting from the mouth of a man who saw the Church in his day threatened by the same Phariseeism of  self-righteous, closed-minded insistence on legalistic morality and narrow dogmatism that is being sown throughout the Church today.

Paul says our religion is “faith” — that is, deep, personal, grace-enlightened knowledge of God — “working through love.” Our “morality” is our sharing in the “mind of Christ” translated into actions that are unpredictable because they are inspired by the Spirit, not codified in law. Our “doctrine” is the gift of sharing in God’s own act of knowledge (the theological definition of “faith”) translated into human thoughts and words. The ancient definition of “theology” is “faith seeking understanding.” Any insistence on doctrine, even true doctrine, that is not coming out of deep, enlightened, personal sharing in God’s own act of knowing is a denial of faith in action that distorts one’s affirmation of faith in words. Those Catholics, whether bishops, priests, deacons or laity, whose teaching is anything but “faith working through love” have “cut themselves off from Christ” and “fallen away from grace.”

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

“The devil made me say it” — Twenty-Eighth Week of “Ordinary Time,” October 14-20, 2012

I am preaching a mission in an inspiring parish in Oregon. The people are educated, reflective and open. I don’t pick up the presence of the “Pharisee party” in the pews. Result: I am much more free in what I talk about. That raises a question.
A supporter took out a piece of paper while we were at lunch and wrote on it: MISSION —— AGENDA.
“What is coming across in your talks,” she said, “is two things: your mission and your agenda.”
‘Your mission is pure Gospel: relationship with Jesus, the mystery of Baptism. Being a Christian, Disciple, Prophet, Priest and King.” She is right. My mission would be equally exciting to fans of the National Catholic Reporter and Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). And I think that is no mean feat.
“But you also have an agenda. You bring up — by way of example, it is true — controversial issues.”  In short, I address issues that are drawing some people into the comforting embrace of the establishment and driving others out of the Church. 
“If you would stick to your mission,” my parish ombudsman said, “You would do more good. As it is, some people are walking out.”
Right after that, I got a phone call praising me to the skies for addressing those very issues. I told the caller what my other friend had said. “Yeah,” he answered, “and if Jesus had kept quiet about some things, he might have been better accepted too.”
That doesn’t answer the question. My first advisor said, “Read your audience. Don’t give everything to everybody. Give your mission in some places; preach your agenda in others.” Wise advice. Jesus himself said, “Don’t cast pearls....”
The problem is, we act in space and time. The same place doesn’t invite you for two different kinds of input. Most chances to speak are a one-shot deal. And almost every audience is going to have the wounded and the wounding alike; those to the right and those to the left; some who can’t take more than the “milk of children” and others who are thirsting for the “new wine.” For every person I have shocked and alienated, I could probably name another who thanked me for lifting an intolerable burden. There are afflicted sheep that need to be healed; and there are unafflicted for whom strong medicine acts like poison. What sheep do you sacrifice?
Plus, there is never time to explain everything adequately. Is it better to let sleeping dogs lie, even though you know they are biting people in their sleep?
I have been trying to “play it by ear,” grateful for the advice I get from every side. And praying I will recognize the voice of the Spirit.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Marketing Problem — Twenty-Sixth Week of “Ordinary Time,” September 30 to October 6, 2012

The daily reflections for Immersed in Christ are going out of print on December 2, First Sunday of Advent. They haven’t sold well enough to even pay for themselves. As the Spanish say, “No hay remedio.” There is just nothing we can do about it.

Of course, I believe in the product – which includes much more than the daily reflections. The “plan for spiritual growth” that is Immersed in Christ is essentially an idea. It amounts to a simple, intentional way of living out the five mysteries (five promises, five commitments – they are all the same) of Baptism. Everything else is just support. And we offer a lot of support besides the daily reflections.

We just don’t have the resources to make the plan known.

This morning I was lying in bed, half awake, having an imaginary dialogue with someone.  I was saying there are people “out there” with so much money they could finance Immersed in Christ with massive marketing and not even notice it. They wouldn’t miss what it would take to do that any more than ordinary Catholics miss what they put into the collection on a Sunday. But I don’t know anybody that rich.

Then I realized: my own father has that kind of money. He just won’t use it for me 

When my oldest brother (who was his favorite, and who worshipped him) started his career, Dad gave him nothing but “moral support.” Encouragement, advice, but no financial backing. He left him so poor that my brother once told the rest of us he sometimes literally did not have a roof over his head.

And the people that worked for my brother? They were volunteers. He sent them out with no salary, no expense account, no credit cards, sometimes not even a change of clothing. He told them not to worry about it!

My brother was murdered. Dad saw it coming and did absolutely nothing about it.  It was a “legal murder” – a combination of lynch mob and frame-up that resulted in my brother’s execution. And Dad could have stopped it by using his connections, through bribery, or even by force. He had the resources. But he stayed out of it. He let my brother be killed.

I expect to come into a great inheritance. But I can’t touch it now – only the tiny advances my father sometimes gives me. And in terms of money, they would not finance a corner grocery store! I know Dad is not going to let me starve, and I do have a roof over my head. I’ve got no complaints about day-to-day needs.

But it sure would be nice to have some financing for my work. At least, I think it would.

But I might be wrong about that.

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