Friday, February 28, 2014

Living Together



“Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God […] The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
I recently read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great book examining the essence of Christian community. Living in community is an indispensable part of following Christ. Pope Benedict said, “A Christian cannot live and be fully Christian without community.” We are united in Christ as one body. Community allows us to put into practice Jesus’ command to “love each other as I have loved you.”

As a member of the Brothers & Sisters of Charity, the call to community is central to our way of life. Our constitution clearly states, “The Brothers and Sisters of Charity is a Catholic community of singles, celibates, and families called as a monastic and domestic spiritual family into deep love relationships with and in Jesus Christ.” (emphasis mine)

For most of us, most of the time Christian community is a great source of joy. Every now & then something or someone comes along to challenge that joy. These times are just as important as all the warm & fuzzy times. In some respect they may even be more important for us and for our community. As Proverbs 17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” It’s in the hard times and with difficult people that we truly learn to love, and love like Jesus.

Two temptations we face when trouble surfaces in community is to: (a) give in to gossip or take sides; or (b) think that the community/group is a failure & give up on it

We need to be aware of these temptations and realize the best way to defeat them is by humility and understanding what real community is all about. To do that I want to share just little of the insight from Life Together.

Humility as the Antidote to Gossip or Taking Sides
“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. ... How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?” – Life Together
Got that? In other words, don’t focus on the spec in someone else’s eye while you have a 2x4 in yours. The Orthodox monk Ambrose of Optina has some great advice on this subject, “If we have not committed the sins that others have, perhaps this is only because we did not have the opportunity.” Definitely something to keep in mind the next time someone offends you.
“God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God's image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God's free and sovereign creation.” – Life Together
Have you ever met someone that just rubs you the wrong way? How easy is it to just ignore them or write them off? Yet, every person is a unique reflection of the image of God and if we don’t take the time to get over ourselves and get to know that person we miss out on a new way of encountering Christ.

Deeper Understanding of Community to Counter the Temptation to Walk Away
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”- Life Together
We can’t love our idea of community more than the actual people that make up that community. It’s so easy to have that utopian dream of Christian community where everything is rainbows and unicorns. That community cannot exist here on earth. As much as we may desire to be “of one heart and mind” as scripture says, our fallen natures guarantee that conflict will come. Even the early church, often held up as an example of the ideal community, had issues and conflict. However, if we remember that we are not called to love an abstract concept of community, but actual people in it then we can press through conflict and come out stronger on the other side. Getting that whole humility thing down really helps the process.
“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.” - Life Together
What a profound statement. How can I possibly hold a grudge against someone if I am holding them in intercessory prayer? A community of believers that does not pray with and for each other is almost certainly doomed to fail. Prayer changes us, it exchanges our heart and will with that of the Christ’s. That is the glue that holds authentic community together.

As a final thought I want to share two passages from the scriptures:
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! […] For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. “ (Psalm 133:1-3)
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:8-11)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

To Know Jesus

Over the past few weeks I've been following a few controversial blog postings and comment wars with unfortunate Catholic on Catholic attacks. Mostly these have been in the form of staunchly conservative Catholics and Catholics who aren't so staunchly conservative. (I'm not talking about liberal, cafeteria Catholics, just those who have a slightly more relaxed attitude towards the faith while still embracing and upholding it. Basically, good Catholics who are okay with the liturgical changes of Vatican II and aren't horribly scandalized by a guitar being used at mass.)

So this just got me thinking and stirred up some comments/observations I wanted to make. Let me first say that I want to be clear that I do not personally know anyone involved in these debates, nor am I judging or directing this post to anyone in particular. I have known really, really conservative, Latin-mass loving Catholics. I have know some really far left field, Obama-loving, women priest supporting Catholics. I've know plenty of Catholics at various places on the spectrum between those extremes. One thing that strikes me is the number of Catholics of all walks that I've met who really know and love Jesus and the number who only know and love things about him. There is a difference.

There is a danger that we can lose sight of Christ for all the various trappings of Christianity and Catholicism. We can fall in love with rules and rubrics or with causes and services and somewhere along the way miss falling in love with Jesus. At the very core of our faith is a Person, not a program, not a liturgical form, a real, live Person. All that we do, whether it's promoting chant or proper prayer posture or feeding the poor or seeking social justice is ultimately hollow and no different from the world if it doesn't start and end with having a personal relationship with Jesus.

When we walked away from the Catholic Church in 1997, one thing that I was really struggling with was trying to figure out if I was worshiping Jesus, or worshiping Catholicism. Was I in love with my God, or was I in love with the rules, theology, and trappings of the Church that were meant to point me to him? In hindsight, I wished I had worked out that internal struggle while remaining in the Catholic Church. At the same time, God makes straight paths from our crooked lines. I have a much greater appreciation now for how the Church leads me to Jesus, and how that personal relationship with Christ invigorates and enlivens my experience of the Faith.

This danger of setting up our involvement and experience of the Church as an idol over and against a personal encounter with Jesus has not been lost on our recent popes:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. - Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium #3
"Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ... Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians" - Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, Sept. 3, 2008
"Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional -- rather than as an encounter with Christ -- which explains why they don't see it as a source of joy." - Pope Benedict XVI, May 2004
“Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6).”  - Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano, March 24, 1993
“It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Savior.  Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelization develop.”  - Pope John Paul II, speech to bishops of Southern Germany, Dec. 4, 1992

Dry wood?

Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my LORD has forgotten me.”
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
(Isaiah 49:14-15)

This passage from Isaiah is the first reading for this coming Sunday, March 2nd. How ironic that we hear these words proclaimed while we live in an age when many women DO forget their infants and show the opposite of tenderness for the children in their wombs. Just a few weeks ago marked the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. More than 55 million infants have been aborted by their mothers in our country.

As we prepare to enter into Lent next week I am also reminded of the words of Jesus that we commemorate at the eighth station of the cross:
Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28-31)
We are living in the days that Jesus predicted. Contraception is not just accepted but considered a fundamental human right, so much so that the government now mandates that it be provided for free to all regardless of religious objections. Childlessness is celebrated and even has its own special day. Those that make it through the contraception gauntlet face the prospect of being ripped limb from limb, chemically poisoned, or decapitated within their mothers’ wombs. The tiniest of victims offered on the altar of materialism that undervalues the dignity of human life in favor of pursuing personal comfort or choice.

There are those who look at natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Super Storm Sandy and claim that these are examples of God’s judgment on a sinful nation. Others predict a future judgment coming in the form of economic collapse or social upheaval. After all, the blood of so many innocents cries out for justice; how long will God look the other way. Sooner or later America will face God’s wrath and judgment.

Here’s a scary thought, we are already under God’s judgment and it has nothing to do with Katrina, Sandy, recessions or any other calamities. In fact, our continued peace and prosperity is God’s judgment. No divine intervention is judgment. “Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.” (Rom. 1:24) Mercy would be intervening in some dramatic way that jolts a society lost in its own narcissistic gaze in such a way that they realize the depravity of their sin so that they turn and repent. Judgment is allowing the sinful to prosper along the way of destruction. It’s a terrifying reality. 

For a culture that seeks pleasure and avoids pain at all costs (even at the exploitation of the weak), the words of C.S. Lewis are true, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

7 Post in 7 Days Challenge - Day 2

Okay, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out but I'm sick and have a fever so for day two of the 7 Posts in 7 Days Challenge I'm posting this link to my previous article on the Eucharist and Theology of the Body (it's one of my favorites).

Here's hoping I feel better tomorrow. I've already got a couple ideas brewing.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Redemption Impossible

I’ve got a confession to make. I love to watch makeover shows. Specifically, I love watching Restaurant Impossible, Hotel Impossible, and Kitchen Nightmares. All of these shows have the same basic premise, a troubled business calls for help, an expert comes in to save the day by renovating the d├ęcor (which almost always involves some serious cleaning), working with the owners and staff, implementing changes to workflows and practices. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The success or failure depends on how well the owners follow the expert’s advice.

As Catholics we experience our own version of a spiritual makeover, a kind of Redemption Impossible, when we encounter the Gospel. We’ve messed up. Through sin and bad choices we’ve allowed our souls to fall into disrepair. In our hour of need we call out to God to save us. We meet our Savior in the confessional. He hears our cry and pours out his grace upon us. Not content with merely fixing what’s broken, he redeems the mess of our lives and offers us new life. We are able to start anew with a clean slate and how well we grow depends on how well we follow his instructions.

Pope Francis recently discussed the sacrament of reconciliation during one of his Wednesday audiences. While the media may have conveniently forgotten to report on his comments, what he had to say was powerful. “Don’t be afraid of confession…When someone is in line for confession he feels all these things - even shame - but then, when he finishes confessing, he leaves (feeling) free, great, beautiful, forgiven, clean, happy.” He reminded us that confession is a sacrament of healing and called for Catholics to “Be courageous, and go to confession.” Why does confession require courage? Because it calls for us to die to our pride, to admit that we have failed and cannot do it on our own.