Saturday, July 23, 2016

Learning to Endure

The mass readings for Sunday (7/24), the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, present us with a teaching about prayer, more specifically intercessory prayer.

In the first reading Abraham negotiates with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As God contemplates destroying the cities for their rampant sins, Abraham pleads with God to spare them for the sake of a righteous few. In the back and forth conversation Abraham starts with asking for mercy if merely fifty righteous could be found, gradually lowing the number down to ten.

There are some who look at this passage and see a vengeful God ready to smote while kind Abraham has to argue with him to save the cities. It’s the same kind of situation when we see Moses pleading for mercy on behalf of Israel before the Lord. So what’s the deal? Why does God make Abraham and Moses plead for mercy? Isn’t God merciful? It is difficult for many to read these stories and understand what God is doing, especially when the focus is placed on God’s wrath.

The Gospel reading from Luke presents us with Jesus’ teaching on prayer and provides the interpretive key to understanding the reading from Genesis. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Keep in mind that as good Jews they likely followed to religious commands to pray, and pray daily. The Jews had specific guidelines for prayer. So why ask Jesus to teach them? I would argue that it was because they watched Jesus pray, they took note of his prayer life and realized there was something different about it from their own experiences.

In response, Jesus first gives them the prayer we know as the Our Father. It is a prayer unto itself and a model of prayer. He then tells the parable of the man asking his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night. This man seemingly pesters his neighbor until the neighbor agrees to just be left alone. Jesus even says as much, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”

So what does this have to do with Abraham? Is Jesus saying if we just pester God enough he’ll give us what we ask for just to shut us up because we’re bothering him?

Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock—in the Greek these verbs are more like keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. He assures us that God is a loving, caring Father who knows our needs and will not deceive us or withhold from us. How does this fit with the story of Abraham and the parable Jesus told about the persistent neighbor?

God always has our ultimate greatest end in mind, he is always most concerned about forming his children so that we can be fully restored to his image and likeness. The point of the conversation with Abraham (or similar conversations with Moses) isn’t that these men somehow managed to change God’s mind, but that through their perseverance in prayer their own hearts are changed. In pleading for mercy on behalf of others the hearts of Abraham and Moses are moved to mercy themselves. They become less self-centered, self-focused and become truly concerned for others. When we keep pressing on in intercessory prayer, the longer and harder we press in the more our hearts are transformed. God knows our needs and he will “work all things together for the good of those who love him” but that good is always the highest and perfect good. We never see the big picture, we never truly know all of the facts, but Jesus calls us to keep seeking after God and his kingdom. He wants us to be transformed while resting in the knowledge that God always cares for us.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Bearing the Fruit of a Culture of Death

I believe the Unites States of America is truly one of the greatest civilizations in the history of mankind. As a nation it has contributed to the safety, security, and prosperity of not just itself but most of the world through the innovation and generosity of its citizens and the socio-economic and political example of its government. This is not to say that it is perfect.

America has a problem. It’s a problem that’s been there since its very beginning. It’s like a congenital birth defect—a problem that is rooted in the very DNA of the nation: Violence.

It was violent resistance that brought our nation into existence. It was violent oppression against Native American that fueled its expansion. It was violent and bloody war that ended the violent and dehumanizing practice of slavery. Violence against the family through abortion and divorce has been a means of economic gain for many. The option of resulting to violent means to address and solve whatever problems we face is a very real and present solution for too many.

Today as I’ve read and watch the coverage of the shooting of Dallas police officers in the wake of protests of police in Louisiana and Minnesota shooting black men I cannot help but see this same disease of violence wreaking havoc on our nation again.

This disease is not caused by economic disparity. It is not the result of racism. It is not political. These are only symptoms. Our nation suffers from a spiritual disease, our soul is sick. There is a cure, but many don’t want it, they’re too content to profit from the symptoms.

The Old Testament (2 Kings 5) tells the story of Naaman, the commander of the armies of Syria. He was stricken with leprosy and the king of Syria sent him with an entire entourage, gold, silver, and riches to seek healing from the God of Israel. The prophet Elisha sent a message to Naaman to wash in the Jordan River. When he received the message Naaman at first was insulted and refused to even consider the idea of washing in some puny Israelite river. It was then that his servant asked him if he would have done some great and heroic deed if that was what the prophet requested, and if so, then why not do this simple thing? Naaman relented, washed in the Jordan, and was healed of his leprosy.

Like Naaman our culture is suffering from a fatal disease that is slowly, yet progressively eating us alive. We have become a culture of death embracing every form of immorality and ridiculing the virtuous life. Pundits and politicians and every other sort of talking head will discuss the recent acts of violence, just as they did after the Orlando shooting, and they’ll search for motives. They will propose all sorts of ideas, programs and laws to act as a medicine to heal our land. Like Naaman, they will recommend buying a cure with millions of dollars in new programs and initiatives. They will want to do many great things, but they will shun and ridicule the one simple, and only real cure, Jesus.

The only escape from the death spiral our nation finds itself in is to turn to the Lord of Life to rescue us from the culture of death. The only true antidote to hate, racism, and fear is love. The only light in darkness is the Light of World, and the challenge to the Church is to bring that light and that love to others. We must rise above the Balkanizing efforts to divide along political, racial, or economic lines and fully demonstrate to the world the unity of being in Christ Jesus.

Unfortunately, this will come at a price. It is the medicine our world needs, but not what it wants. Like a petulant child it will fight and kick and scream against us. It will resist with the hope that we will give up. We must be faithful and selfless. We must be willing to love as Jesus loved, even to the point of laying down our lives for the love of others.