Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When bad things happen to God's people

Again a brief, and late, reflection on the lessons for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Malachi 3:19-20a
  • Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
  • Luke 21:5-19
Next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, will be the last Sunday of this year in the liturgical calendar. When we note that this passage is part of Jesus' last teachings in the Gospel of Luke before the Passion narrative, we can expect that this selection should be some kind of summation of what we have been hearing for months. It is, but not what we might want to hear.

Jesus warns that we will not think that things are going well at all, including warnings that could come from this, or any other morning's news:
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."

Then he said to them,

"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.

"Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name."
The disciples feel just like we do -- they are frightened and uncertain. Just like us, they ask Jesus for some sign as to when this will happen, probably so they can get out of town first. Jesus does not oblige, and specifically warns us against those who will try to answer that question for us. He tells us that if things go right, things will be going very wrong indeed, at least from our point of view.

When things get strange and uncertain, our first impulse is to take control, often taking it back from God. Trying to live according to God's guidance is all well and good when things are all going well and good. We seem to think that storm clouds on the horizon show that God has failed us, and that we have to take charge again. In telling the disciples not to prepare testimony but to trust to God to give them the words, Jesus reminds us that in these times out hope is not in our own ability, or in God somehow magically rescuing us. Our hope is in what God will do through us, if we let Him.

It is when things really go wrong that we have the greatest ability to show just who we can be, and who God is by what he can do through us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Quote: Alan Knox

There is a misconception that community is built around uniformity: people who believe alike, act alike, respond alike, desire alike, etc. However, uniformity will not create the type of community in which God calls us to live. This is evident in the constant exhortation for believers to bear with one another, forgive one another, have patience with one another, and consider others as more important than themselves. Thus, the authors of Scripture recognize that there would be relational frictions between believers. This relational frictions [USC professor Dallas] Willard describes above by the phrase "raw, skin to skin contact". The way that someone responds to relational frictions demonstrates whether or not they are living in a Spirit-enabled, Spirit-empowered community, or if they desire to live in a uniform community.

People normally and naturally respond to relational friction with anger, impatience, divisiveness, selfishness, defensiveness, pride, etc. These responses are manifestations of sin. This type of response may reduce relational friction, but it will not maintain community.

However, through the indwelling and enabling of the Holy Spirit, it is (super)-naturally possible to respond to relational friction with understanding, acceptance, patience, humility, forbearance, perseverance, and even joy. This type of response will not immediately reduce the relational friction, but it will maintain community. In fact, true community is only possible in the presence of relational friction and a Spirit-controlled response to that relational friction.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Quote: Leonard Sweet

Q: The concept that seems to be gaining traction within North American Christendom is a call for the church to become "missional." What does a missional church look like?

A: I believe the primary mode of the church today is "attractional" rather than "missional." The Bible says Jesus "sent them out" (Mark 6:7). A "missional" church is a GOOD Church, where GOOD means Get Out Of Doors. A GOOD church is not one where people are trying to "live in" the gospel so much as "live out" the gospel.

Just as the early church was shaped by mission, so must we be shaped by mission.
  • An attractional church is focused on the word "come" ; a missional church is focused on the word "go."
  • An attractional church tries to invite people in; a missional church tries to interact with people where they are.
  • An attractional church is fixated on increased market share; a missional church is obsessed with increased world presence.
From Canadian Baptist

Fair warning

This blog is at at College(PostGrad) reading level.

I'm not sure if I am happy about this or not.

Oh, and another warning. If you want to display a rating like this, I suggest you check the HTML code they provide before posting. Here is what I got:

<a href="">
<img style="border: none;"
alt="cash advance" />
Get a <a href="http://www.***************.com">Cash Advance</a>

Which would embed a link to a cash advance site (URL removed). Not nice at all, guys.

Quote: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation. It is sufficient if the word as we read and understand it penetrates and dwells within us. As Mary pondered in her heart the tidings that were told by the shepherds, as what we have casually heard follows us for a long time, sticks in our mind, occupies, disturbs of delights us, without our ability to do anything about it, so in meditation God's word seeks to enter in and remain with us. It strives to stir us to work and to operate in us so that we shall not get away from it the whole day long. Then it will do its work in us without our being aware of it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

We have no idea

The readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • 2nd Maccabees 7:1-2 9-14
  • Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8+15
  • 2nd Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
  • Luke 20:27-38
At the very end of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a passage that rings true to me. Gandalf and Frodo have left the Grey Havens on an elven ship to the Undying Lands:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
I surmise that most of us have some idea of what we think the next world may be like, and this hits the closest for me

A set package of images and ideas has developed pop culture about the next life. They usually involve people in white robes with wings and harps, standing around on clouds. Then, of course, there is St. Peter and the gates. There have been all sorts of variations on this, Defending Your Life being one of my favorites. These often blend into simplistic ideas of judgement and reincarnation.

As a Catholic Christian, the depictions I have found most influential come from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a recurring theme in Lewis' writings, breaking through in Narnia, Perelandra, and most specifically in The Great Divorce. Tolkien's most detailed takes were in the Silmarillion his depiction of the creation of the universe, and the Undying Lands, Aman.

I love these images, but one thing worries me. I do find Lewis' and Tolkien's ideas easier to accept than harps and fluffy clouds. When I think of those I have loved who are now dead, I have no problem believing that my own beloved dead are there. My problem is that I have not been able to see myself there -- it simply has not been real to me. Today's Gospel may explain why, and perhaps why I should not worry.

The Question

The Gospel lesson is sometimes referred to as "the Sadducee question". The Sadducee party were traditionalists often identified with the priestly Temple leadership, and held that only the written law (primarily the Torah) was binding, and rejected the tradition of oral law, precepts and interpretations passed down from one generation of teachers to another. Their interpretations of the law were often quite rigid and harsh, and were resented by many of the people, who generally preferred the teachings of the Pharisees. These two factions often argued, often about whether the dead are resurrected. Traditional Jewish belief only admitted the existence of Sheol, a shadowy place, and many in Israel felt that they would live on more in their children rather than in some next life.

The intent here is to trap or embarass Jesus with a trick question. The Torah requried that if a widow had no children, then the brother of her late husband must marry her (known as levirate marriage from a word for brother), to provide children to carry on the dead man's name and provide for the widow. And while Jewish law at that time could contemplate a man having more than one wife, a wife with more than one husband was impossible. If Jesus taught that the dead rise, his teaching would violate one law, or the other.

Jesus Responds

Now Jesus could simply denounce his questioners as hypocrites, as Sadducees only accepted levirate marriage under very unusual circumstances, and the practice was almost unheard of. But He chooses to first point out that the rules that they want to snare him with are rooted in our earthly experience and needs, and would not apply in a different situation, mooting their example. Then he turns the tables on them by placing them in a dilemma. The Torah itself refers to the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" in present tense, and Israel's God is God of the living and not the dead. If the Sadducees want to reject resurrection, they will have to reject the Torah as well.

This response leads us away from a mistaken view of the resurrection -- that trying to project onto that life our understanding of this life will only lead to absurdity. I should not worry about not being able to visualize a situation that is entirely beyond my understanding. But then, why should I believe in a next life at all, something completely outside my knowledge or experience? Why should I believe in the Gospel at all?

I believe because I have learned to trust Jesus in my life. This trust was not a sudden thing, nor is it really complete. But I can try to believe in the big ressurection because I have seen it happen in smaller, more personal ways -- in healing and redemption in this world that transcend my limited understanding and ability. By seeing lives made new again, including my own, I can trust in something I cannot see or understand, because of someone I know. I can hope.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What ties them together

Some time back, I bookmarked an ariticle on GodSpy, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day - Two Radical Women by Jerry Dauost.

Mother Teresa once invited Dorothy Day to speak to her novices on the occasion of Dorothy's visit to Calcutta in 1970. Eileen Eagan, who was traveling with Dorothy, tells of the novices' reaction to Dorothy:

". . . I saw their eyes widen as she recounted the many times she had chosen to go to jail. They understood going to prison for truth and liberation, as Gandhi had done; now they were hearing it in a specifically Christian context, that of the Works of Mercy, of visiting the prisoner by entering prison. When Dorothy had finished, Mother Teresa took the black cross with the Corpus of Christ, as worn by the Missionaries of Charity on their saris, and pinned it on Dorothy's left shoulder. I know of no other case in which Mother Teresa gave the crucifix of her congregation to a lay person."

Eagan continues: ". . . It was clear to me that a like vision animated the two women. Mother Teresa served the dying of a scourged city, seeing each one 'as Jesus in a distressing disguise.' Dorothy Day stated that Jesus linked salvation to 'how we act toward him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.'"
It's a good article, worth the read. One point made in the article is how for both women the life of radical charity was rooted deeply in prayer. This is something that those of us doing this work have to keep returning to. We spend so much of our time working directly with people in need, or working with others to train and organize. For some of us, this is the first time we have applied our talents to something that matters beyond a paycheck.

We all, of course, know that it is important to feed our own spiritual lives, and may even get around to doing something about it. But we seem to forget in any practical sense that prayer is not just something we do to help us do the important stuff. Our intimate life with Christ has to be the center of what and why we do what we do. We go into places where human pain and need are immediate, and demand an immediate response. But we forget at our peril that our first response, no matter how brief, is prayer. The only way we can be sure we are doing God's work, is to start with God, and do the work with Him.

Long ago, my first spiritual mentor said: "In any situation, no matter how dire, the first and best thing you can do is pray." Doing that, one travels the same path as these two friends of God.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Welcome back

Probably the last significant posts I made before going on hiatus were about Chaplain Teresa Darden Clapp of the Rockland County Jail in New York. She was suspended earlier this year for having distributed Jack Chick tracts that attacked Islam (not surprising if you are familiar with Chick's work). Over the summer arbitator Paul Bailey ruled that she should be suspended for 30 days without pay, which she had already done:

Bailey called for Clapp to be retrained and for the Rockland County jail where she works to set standards for distributing religious material.

Earlier this year, inmates complained Clapp was passing out anti-Islam booklets.

In the cartoon panel stories, a tract titled "Men of Peace?" said Islamic fundamentalists who commit terrorist acts are not "bad Muslims" but "very good Muslims" who act in accordance with their religion. Another tract, titled "Allah Has No Son," said Allah is not God, Muhammad was no prophet, and the Quran is not the word of God. Both stories end with people being convinced Islam is false. In one, a Muslim converts to Christianity.

In recent testimony before Bailey, Clapp said the materials were sometimes too voluminous for her to read before distributing them. She said she apologized and removed the cartoon panel booklets as soon as an inmate complained, and she acknowledged she had erred by bringing them in.
This both a good end to the incident, and a window into one part of detention chaplaincy. First, rarely do chaplains have enough time to get everything done, even all the really necessary stuff. Few facilities ever have the resources to hire and support enough chaplains. Also, in more and more cases you have a small group of (usually Evangelical) chaplains trying to supply pastoral care to prisoners with an ever widening array of beliefs and practices. Most chaplains work hard to be fair to all groups, and to support the religious freedom of all inmates. Sometimes just trying hard is not enough. At some time I will go on with what I think chaplains need in support from the rest of us. Until then, I'm glad that Ms. Clapp is back on the job, and wish her the best.

Up in a tree

Just some brief reflections this time on the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Wisdom 11:22-12:2
  • Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13b-14
  • Second Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
  • Luke 19:1-10
There is a lot to think about in this passage -- in particular Zacchaeus himself. This is, among other things, a redemption story. The assumption is generally that Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, must be dishonest and despised. The problem is that some who have researched the period dispute that, for a variety of reasons. Some commentors speculate whether Zacchaeus decision to change occurred during this passage, or some time before. It really can be hard to tell.

There is one thing that is sure -- once Jesus addressed him, he had a critical decision to make. He had to get down out of the tree.

He had climbed up in that tree, as it was the most practical and comfortable spot to look for Jesus. Up out of the crowd, he had a good view. Many of us are like that -- we are involved, somewhat, in the church and have found a comfortable spot to see what is going on.

But the time will come where Jesus calls us to stop being spectators. We have to go from our safe spot up in the tree to back down into the grumbling crowd.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Quote: Albert Nolan, O.P.

If we simply repeat the formulas of the past, our words may have the character of doctrine and dogma but they will not have the character of good news. We may be preaching perfectly orthodox doctrine but it is not the gospel for us today. We must take the idea of good news seriously. If our message does not take the form of good news, it is simply not the Christian gospel.
H/T to Preacher's Exchange

Let's see how this goes

Well, it has been some months, and I will stick my head up here for a while. I'm really not sure if this is a full return to blogging, or just an occasional adventure, but I have been getting the itch to write lately, and tonight I have the time to scratch.

The ground rules for this are simple: nothing direct or explicit about my work. That means nothing about specific facilities, persons, policies or situations -- there are better places for that if necessary, and authorization needed to put things there. But there are other things to think and write about, including some insights gained from detention ministry work in general. I'll stick to that.