Tuesday, December 18, 2012

6 Christian Images for Newtown

I cannot imagine what the parents in Newtown are going through, especially those who have lost their children in this tragedy. As a mother, I know the pain in their heart is unspeakable and my heart breaks for them. Driving my car yesterday, I started to brainstorm, "what are some images from my tradition that can speak to the horror we saw last Friday?" I want to share 6 of them with you.

1. The first one is pretty obvious. Every speech we've heard since the event, particularly the speeches by President Obama, has used this quote. Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew to "Let the children come to me" and "That the Kingdom belongs to such as these." In New Testament times, children were to be seen, not heard. They were the lowest of the low, the very bottom of the totem pole. So it was quite revolutionary for Jesus to give them so much attention and dignity. Jesus loved children and although they died, we can trust that the victims of this massacre are being held in His arms right now.

2. The next one is fairly obvious given the holiday that is coming up. God, when He decided that He wanted to come to Earth and save us, didn't come as a king in glory and majesty. He came as a little child. As the hymn "Come, thou long-expected Jesus" says, "Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king..." Again, another one "The coming of our God" says, "The everlasting Son comes down to Mary's womb; He bears our servitude to save us from our doom. O Zion, rise in haste to meet the meek and mild; Throw wide your arms; embrace the peace brought by this holy child." We Christians celebrate Christmas because we believe that God Himself, Creator and Sustainer of the world, came down to us in the form of a newborn baby. All children are God's children.

3. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read about how after Jesus' birth and after the Magi ran off, Herod ordered for all little boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed in hopes of that he would kill Jesus and prevent Him from becoming king. Joseph had a dream about this warning him and so he took the Holy Family to Egypt and Jesus was spared. In many Christian traditions, these children are considered the first martyrs. After the events in Newtown, I saw a prayer to the Holy Innocents make its way around Facebook:

A Prayer To The Holy Innocents

Holy Innocents, you died before you were old enough to know what life means, pray for all children who die young that God may gather them into His loving arms.

Holy Innocents, you were killed because one man

was filled with hatred, pray for those who hate that God may touch their hearts and fill them with love.

Holy Innocents, you experienced a violent death, pray for all who are affected by violence that they may find peace and love.

Holy Innocents, your parents grieved for you with deep and lasting sorrow, pray for all parents who have lost young children that God may wrap a warm blanket of comfort around them.

Holy Innocents, those around you certainly felt helpless to prevent your deaths, pray for all who feel helpless in their circumstances that they may cling to God for courage and hope.

Holy Innocents, you who are now in Heaven, pray for all of us that one day we may join you there to bask in God's love forever.


4. Now, follow me to the other end of Jesus' life on earth. We believe that Mary was there at the crucifixion. She witnessed the little child who she had held close in the manger grow up and die a horrible death on the cross. She watched her Son bleed and breathe His last. In sculptures, like the above by Michelangelo, and other similar statues and paintings, Mary is depicted holding her dead Son in her arms. Mary knows what the parents in Newtown are feeling more than I ever could. True, Jesus was not taken from this world in the springtime of His youth, He was an adult when He was executed, but a parent should never, ever have to bury their own child.

5. John 3:16 states, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life." Not only does Mary know what it is like to lose a child. God the Father knows too. Now, since He is God, He knew the reason why His Son had to die. He saw the bigger picture. But I'm sure that did not lend much condolence to Him as He watched Jesus suffer and die. A Man He knew to be innocent, a Man who He had watched grow up and had such an intimate relationship with, dies of asphyxiation, bleeding, naked on a cross. He knew why His Son had to die that day, but it was still His Son He watched dying.

6. And then we get to Jesus Himself. Jesus died. He not only died, but He died in the most horrific way that the Romans could think of at the time. He walked into the garden at Gethsemane knowing He was going to die. As part of the mystery of the Trinity, we also believe that Jesus was God. So as fully divine as well as fully man, Jesus walked every day of His life knowing how and when He was going to die. And when the time came, it was not easy for Him. He prayed that His fate could be changed. He cried out on the cross feeling as if God the Father had abandoned Him in His final moments. He courageously went to His death, but "courage" does not mean without fear. It means not letting the fear paralyze you into inaction. It reminds me of something else that has been making it's way around Facebook:

This is Victoria Soto. She died a hero today. She hid her first graders in the cabinets and closets after hearing the gunfire. When the shooter came to her classroom, she told him that her students were in the gym. He then gunned her down and moved on. She saved the lives of all of her students. Please pass this on if you see it. She deserves to be remembered for her bravery.

The story is not entirely true, but as the facts come in, we do know that she did die trying to protect "her kids" and five other staff members did, too. They showed the exact same courage Jesus showed on the cross.

This is the image I want to end with. There is the face of a young child (maybe angel) with a halo, a symbol of holiness. That face is right next to the face of the suffering Christ with this crown of thorns. I think this sums up the points I made with the other images very well.      

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Joy! Reflections on Gaudete Sunday

Joy! I have a little trouble every time I hear that word. It's more than just a word for me. My mom's mom, the grandmother who died suddenly in the car accident that I talked briefly about a couple days ago, was named Joy. Of course I didn't call her that when she was alive, she was grandma to me. But since her death, I've seen and heard her name many, many times. And now, I cannot hear that word without thinking about her.

Yup, that's the stereotype.
Unfortunately, I cannot share a picture of her with you because she tended to run away whenever she saw a camera. And besides, she died long before digital photography became common place. I can try to paint a picture with words. Imagine the stereotypical Sicilian grandmother: short, stocky with dark eyes and dark curly hair. Always cheerful and a very good cook. Every year we had a cake walk at my school and she'd always bake a couple Barbie cakes (like this). I always made a point to win one. She babysitted me all the time. I remember playing at her house. I remember her helping me over the fence in the backyard so I could visit my friend who lived in the house behind hers. One of my last memories of her was of her crocheting in the front room of their house in the Ozarks (the house they moved to only a year or two before her death. They had previously lived near my family in Kansas City, MO).

After death, her influence on me got so much greater. I may never know what impact she had on me while she was alive because she spent my formative years with me. But I do remember and appreciate her impact on me since her death.

One of the most concrete ways that her death itself impacted me is that it still, to this day, affects how I deal with people who are mourning. When she died, I saw at least three very different ways of mourning. 1) My mother completely lost control instantaneously when we got the phone call. I remember my mom wailing and I went to her room to find out what happened. Between sobs, I got the whole story.

2) Then it was my turn to mourn. I didn't shed a tear or acknowledge any sadness for a couple of years. While my mom is the kind of person to express themselves dramatically on the spot, I'm the kind of person to stew over it for a while. I guess I was in shock for a while and then I got busy with other things. I guess I may have also had a sense of needing to stay strong for everyone else. I was in middle school before I started seeing a counselor regularly. (She died when I was in third grade.) And this is not simply the response of a young child. Only 7 years ago, a close friend of mine died and I didn't start mourning him until months later. So, when I walk into a hospital or hospice room, I have a lot of sympathy for the aloof family member who doesn't shed a tear and I often find myself wanting to defend such people against the other family members who are accusing them of not caring.

My mom is "On Time." I'm "Delayed." And I think by grandfather was basically "Cancelled."

3) My grandfather, her husband, ran away from everything. It wasn't instantaneous, but in the two or three years after her death he gradually abandoned the family that they had raised together. He sold all of her belongings without giving the kids a chance to pick anything up first. He burned all of his bridges to his old life with my grandmother. Unfortunately, I don't have much sympathy for people who react this way. I can sympathize with the family who is victimized by such people. I say victimized because when one person dies and another person disappears, you essentially lose two members of your family at the same time.

Shortly before September 11th, 2001, I had a dream with Joy in it. She told me some things that at the time didn't make any sense. After the terrorist attack, however, it dawned on me that she had been telling me about that. She had been dressed in a stewardess outfit. Now, I don't claim any precognitive abilities, but I think that in some way we can all sense when something big is going to happen. It's kind of like animals before a natural disaster. They can feel something in the ground or smell something in the air and they start to run. Since we're more rational than the animals, we tend to ignore or suppress our urge to run. Like I did in regards to this dream. The dream made no sense until it actually happened. At least that's my theory.


So, when I saw Joy again in my dreams a couple of months into my pregnancy, my first thought was, "Oh great, what's going to happen now?" I had to work up the courage to ask my mom about it a couple of weeks later because I was so convinced that something bad was going to happen. My mom told me, however, that on her way to work, she frequently prays to God and talks to our dead relatives. She gave each of our relatives an assignment. My dad's dad was to watch over my dad. My dad's mom was to watch over my little brother. And Joy was to watch over me. So, that was it, my grandmother knew how scared and depressed I was living 18 hours away from my family and pregnant with my first child. She was just letting me know she was there. For the remainder of my pregnancy, I talked to her and prayed for her intercession often. I know she's still watching over us but maybe not as closely as she watched us while I was pregnant and the weeks directly after his birth.

Joy was the last woman in my family to be a housewife. As I am currently a housewife myself, I feel a bond with her in that. Of all of my grandparents, she was the one who was the most of a home-body and a caretaker. My dad's parents traveled everywhere. I got postcards from them all the time, but I rarely saw them until after my mom's mom died. Even Joy's husband liked to go out exploring, driving around and doing outdoorsy stuff.

On our way back to Syracuse from St. Louis for Christmas last year, my husband and I went through some pretty scary weather. Since Joy had died in a car accident due to icy roads, I took comfort knowing she was going to help make sure her granddaughter and unborn great-grandson were not going to have the same fate. I could just see in my mind's eye all three of our guardian angels led by my grandmother keeping our car safe. 

I guess you can say that my grandmother has acquired a bit of a mythological significance since her death. I see her interceding for me and our family. I know she's watching us making sure we don't royally mess up our first time parenting. So, when I hear the word "Joy" in the liturgy, I don't think of some abstract religious version of happiness. I see my grandmother's face and I know she's smiling down on us wherever she is.

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4:4-7

Read the rest of the readings here: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121612.cfm

Friday, December 14, 2012

8 Years as a Catholic

This past Wednesday was the eighth anniversary of my Baptism, Confirmation and first Eucharist. I still regularly surprise people who don't expect me to be a convert.They say I fit in way too much. I guess that's a compliment.

So, how did I get there? I was raised in a family that was largely non-religiously affiliated. My parents both felt like they had been forced to go to church as children and they didn't want to do the same thing to their kids. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, although the religious meanings of the holidays weren't high-lighted. I wouldn't say they were all about Santa and the Easter Bunny though. We weren't materialistic like that. I would say that my parents emphasized the family togetherness above everything else. Somehow, although I never went to church, it was engrained in me that there was a God and that God was infinitely loving and forgiving. I've tried out a number of different religions, but I've never questioned that fact.

I was a very religiously precocious child. I remember asking whether Adam and Eve were apes when I was in early elementary school. Every year when my mom took out the nativity set, I would play with it with my Happy Meal figurines making up my own stories about what happened. Some of my earliest memories are of meditating in my backyard trying to become one with everything. Well before the age of ten, I was already conversant in the belief of reincarnation and astrology.

When I was in third grade, one of my grandmothers died suddenly in a car accident. Her husband had always adored me and my parents let me spend a lot of time with him to help him through the loss. I wasn't the only person helping him through the loss and he remarried three years later. His new wife's church became his whole life. He practically lived at that church. He was there for several hours every evening and on Sundays singing and listening to fire and brimstone sermons and participating in altar calls. They called themselves "Southern Baptists" and their God was going to damn to hell any non-white, non-straight person who did not go to their specific church building in southwest Missouri. He started to intensely believe in this angry, vengeful God and he did everything he could to make sure I was saved. In the meantime, my other grandmother died and he told me she was in hell because she didn't go to his church (I think she was Presbyterian). I associated all this hate with the Christian God and if this was what the Christian God looked like, I didn't want to have anything to do with Him.
My grandfather would fit right in.

I looked into Buddhism and practiced it for a while. I took a quiz on Beliefnet that suggested that I might be a Unitarian Universalist, so I tried on that label for a while. I had a number of really good, really meaningful experiences as I explored my own spirituality. Due to my experiences with my grandfather, I didn't want to have anything to do with anything connected to Christianity. As such, I was part of the outsider/weirdo crowd in high school. And as part of that crowd, I gradually found myself more and more surrounded by practitioners of Wicca/Neo-paganism. I discovered that I liked that belief system and in February of 2003, I officially started my year and a day of study toward becoming an official witch as part of the coven of the guy I was dating. I graduated high school later that spring and I started college that fall.

In October of 2003 (I believe it was the 12th) I went to my first Catholic Mass. My first semester of college was very hard for me. I was away from everyone I had ever known. I could not do the caliber of work that was expected of me. I tried to be a physics major and my first physics professor was a nightmare. Someone I knew fairly well committed suicide. One of the main bright spots in my life was my World Religions class. For that class, the main project was to go to a religious service in a religion you had no prior exposure to. Now, one thing you need to know about my college, Truman State University, is that it is a dumping ground for all, and I mean all, of the Catholic private high schools in St. Louis. I was one of only two or three non-Catholics on my floor in the dorm. So, I decided to go to Mass with some of my new floormates.

[As a side note, while all of this was going on, I was experimenting with Christianity. I was not intending to convert. It was just that since I was so far away from my old life, I wanted to prove to myself that everything my grandfather did no longer had any power over me.]

So, it was a Sunday evening. I sat down in the back near the door. It was at the Catholic Newman Center so it wasn't really a traditional church. Mass was held in a multi-purpose room using a wooden portable altar and plastic stackable chairs. I had a notebook and pen with me and I remember one of the first notes I made was, "What is up with the boards with numbers on them?"(You know, the ones that have the song numbers on them.) Throughout the service, I had no clue what was going on. But I felt like I belonged. I felt like God was calling me to join the Church.

I was upset. I ran off to the sunken garden on campus to yell at God. I was a free-spirit! I was a tree-hugger! I still believed in reincarnation for crying out loud! How could God call me into such a structured, conservative church? I went back to the dorms and was sucked in to a midnight walk with one of my friends who was a fallen away Catholic. I shared with him my experience and he launched into a rant about all of the reasons why he left the Church.

He was for gay rights.........................check! So was I.
He was pro-choice..............................I was pro-life. In fact, I was the only one among my family     and friends who felt that way.
He was pro-death penalty..................I was against it. Again, I was the only person among my family and friends who felt that way.

...Wait a second! I've been pro-life and anti-death penalty for as long as I could remember. Long before I ever heard the lingo "consistent life ethic" I had one. In addition to being against abortion and the death penalty, I was against war, I was against euthanasia, I was for any and every policy that could help the poor...I had always been a weirdo among my family and friends. I constantly had to defend my views on abortion and the death penalty.


Why the hell had no one told me there was a billion people out there who agreed with me? For years I had thought I was a freak!

I started RCIA soon after. I had an even more intense experience at my first Eucharistic adoration. I felt like I had known every one there my whole life although I never met any of them before. I also felt as if everything in my life had been geared to that moment in time.

Because I was a non-Christian convert, I was asked to wait the following Easter out. I got very close to a well-respected, dying old man though. I was initiated off schedule in the middle of advent because we wanted me to get baptized while the elderly man was still alive to see it. So, on December 12th, 2004 on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Gaudete Sunday, I was baptized, confirmed and received communion for the first time in the same multi-purpose room I had attended October the year before.

Fast forward to eight years later:

I just graduated with my Master's in Pastoral Studies where I was trained as a hospital chaplain. I'm married to great guy who I met a couple months after my baptism (and didn't start dating until two years after that). I'm the mother of an adorable seven month old. I regrettably live half-way across the country from where my story started and I hope to get to move back soon.

I'm still a free-spirit and tree-hugger. The analogy I like to use is that of a river. I have discovered through my conversion (and marriage) that I'm like water. Without banks, I will go everywhere and not get anywhere. I need the structure to channel my energies and I just can't make my own structures, they need to be imposed from the outside. I still hold to a consistent life ethic. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about reincarnation. Of course it's contrary to Catholicism, but what throws me is that my "memories" of "my last life" are so vivid, I have a hard time believing it's entirely my imagination. I'm still searching for an explanation of those without resorting to reincarnation.

To use another analogy, I see my conversion to Catholicism as a marriage. For better or worse, I'm going to be Catholic until the day I die. Sometimes I'll disagree with the Church, sometimes I'll have a lot of questions, but I still love Her and support Her. I'll never leave Her. Some mornings I'll wonder to myself "What was I thinking when I became Catholic?", some mornings I'll wake up happy to see the world through Her eyes. (Exactly like with my husband, sometimes I really don't like him, but I'll always love him with all my heart.) I will be Catholic named Mrs. Ryan when I reach the pearly gates and (St. Barbara pray for me) I'll receive last rites before I get there. [Side note: I've already received last rites once before James was born because of the complications involved. So, I've already had all of the Sacraments (at least once) I can get as a woman in the Church. Go me!]


Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Way: Reflections on the Second Sunday of Advent

"The Way" was one of the first names of the new Christian movement as it gradually distinguished itself from Judaism. We find this name in the book of Acts as Saul (later known as Paul) is looking for followers of "the way" (Acts 9:1-2). Now, you ask, what does this have to do about this week's readings? The first reading talks about God making the ground level for His people, Israel, while in the Gospel, John the Baptist exhorts all to make the way straight for the Lord. In our religious journey, God supports us on our way and we are called to make a path for the Lord to our hearts.

In one of my classes in college, a professor introduced this icon for group prayer and meditation. She said that the part of this icon that spoke most to her was the small space between the two figures in the foreground. It reminded her of two main facts:

1) The way of righteousness is narrow (Matthew 7: 13-14)

2) God's open love for us all and an invitation into the life and the light of the Trinity

On the first point, the right way is a lot harder than the easy way. Our faith is counter-cultural in many ways. Our culture encourages us to seek immediate pleasure, our faith tells us to be patient. Our culture tells us that "stuff" will make us happy. All we need is to acquire more possessions. We are even, often told to look at other people as objects to possess. Our faith tells us that true and lasting happiness can only be found in God. Our faith teaches us that people are not objects, they are to be respected and loved having been made by God in God's image. Going against the crowd is hard. It's much easier to go with the flow and make the popular decision rather than the right one.

It takes a lot of work to make a way for God by following God's will. There is good news here, though. We are called into a relationship with God. Being in relationship, we can count on God to meet us on the road. We are not expected to make the path completely on our own.

Through the Holy Spirit, we find strength to fight against sin and to nurture our relationship with the Divine. As we make a path for God, God comes into our lives. This is not to say that God will make life all of a sudden much easier. We will still encounter hardship. But with God, we can hope that things will get better and we know that we are not alone. Both this hope and this sense of companionship somehow makes us feel better, even if the hardship does not go away. We know that whatever we go through, God with us can go through it together.

So, that is the message for me this week. Christianity can still be called "The Way" for two prime reasons. We are to be in relationship with God and like all relationships, our relationship with the LORD is a two way street. We make a way for God into our hearts and our lives. God supports us on our way through life.

Look at the readings yourself: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thomas Merton's Prayer for Peace

I just finished Passion for Peace, a collection of articles written by Thomas Merton and I wanted to share this prayer with you. It was written by Merton and read in the House of Representatives in the height of the Cold War. I think that it has a lot to say to our own time as well.


Prayer for Peace

Almighty and merciful God, Father of all men, Creator and ruler of the universe, Lord of all history, whose designs are without blemish, whose compassion for the errors of men is inexhaustible, in your will is our peace.

Mercifully hear this prayer which rises to you from the tumult and desperation of a world in which you are forgotten, in which your name is not invoked, your laws are derided and your presence is ignored. Because we do not know you, we have no peace.

From the heart of an eternal silence, you have watched the rise of empires and have seen the smoke of their downfall. You have seen Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome, once powerful, carried away like sand in the wind. You have witnessed the impious fury of ten thousand fratricidal wars, in which great powers have torn whole continents to shreds in the name of peace and justice.

And now our nation itself stands in imminent danger of a war the like of which has never been seen! This nation dedicated to freedom, not to power, has obtained, through freedom, a power it did not desire. And seeking by that power to defend its freedom, it is enslaved by the processes and policies of power. Must we wage a war we do not desire, a war that can do no good, and which our very hatred of war forces us to prepare?

A day of ominous decision has now dawned on this free nation. Armed with a titanic weapon, and convinced of our own right, we face a powerful adversary, armed with the same weapon, equally convinced he is right. In this moment of destiny, this moment we never foresaw, we cannot afford to fail. Our choice of peace or war may decide our judgment and publish it in the eternal record. In this fatal moment of choice in which we might begin the patient architecture of peace. We may also take the last step across the rim of chaos. 

Save us then from our obsessions! Open our eyes, dissipate our confusions, teach us to understand ourselves and our adversary. Let us never forget that sins against the law of love are punishable by loss of faith, and those without faith stop at no crime to achieve their ends!

Help us to be masters of the weapons that threaten to master us. Help us to use our science for peace and plenty, not for war and destruction. Show us how to use atomic power to bless our children's children, not to blight them. Save us from the compulsion to follow our adversaries in all that we most hate, confirming them in their hatred and suspicion of us. Resolve our inner contradictions, which now grow beyond belief and beyond bearing. They are at once a torment and a blessing: for if you had not left us the light of conscience, we would not have to endure them. Teach us to be long-suffering in anguish and insecurity. Teach us to wait and trust.

Grant light, grant strength and patience to all who work for peace, to this Congress, our President, our military forces, and our adversaries. Grant us prudence in proportion to our power, wisdom in proportion to our science, humaneness in proportion to our wealth and might. And bless our earnest will to help all races and peoples to travel, in friendship with us, along the road to justice, liberty, and lasting peace; But grant us above all to see that our ways are not necessarily your ways, that we cannot fully penetrate the mystery of your designs and that the very storm of power now raging on this earth reveals your hidden will and your inscrutable decision.

Grant us to see your face in the lightning of this cosmic storm, O God of holiness, merciful to men. Grant us to seek peace where it is truly found. In your will, O God, is our peace.


Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Justice: Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent

Reading this Sunday's readings, I was struck by the word "justice." There seems to be so little justice on the world. Children die. Innocent people get blown up. The poor get poorer while the rich get richer. And all the while, in our own lives, we see time and time again the bad get rewarded while the good get punished. Is this God's justice? What does God's justice look like? Why can't we have God's justice now?

A very commonly quoted verse in the Bible (1 John 4:8) ends with some very famous words: "God is Love." What does this have to do with justice? Pretty much everything, because we aren't talking about the warm-fuzzy love you get when you're cuddled up with your sweetheart. We aren't talking about blind love that accepts everything and everyone. We're talking about God's love. God's love isn't blind (although it doesn't list all our faults either). God's love isn't based in any kind of fleeting emotion (God loved you before you were born and He'll love you long after you're dead to this world). God cannot contradict himself and if He is Love, he cannot do anything that is contrary to Love.

That is where justice comes in. God loves everyone equally and immeasurably. God isn't really in the punishing business, although He certainly hates sin. God wants us to be in a close relationship with Him, He does not want us to stray from him. So, no, I'd argue that the "justice" we see in the world is not God's justice at all. In many cases it's an attempt to mimic God's justice. Whether you personally like it or not, Muslims living under Sharia law are attempting to live according to their understanding God's justice here on Earth. Although America wasn't founded as a strictly Christian nation (again, sorry for bursting your bubble), it's laws were profoundly influenced by Judeo-Christian values because, heck, all of the western world has been influenced by Judeo-Christian thought. So, you can say much of the world tries to imitate God's justice, but looking at the world we see that we clearly fail frequently and miserably.

So, what does God's justice really look like? Let's take a look at today's readings, especially the second one.

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.-1 Thes 3:12-4:2
 There's that word, "love," again. The word translated as "love" used here is "agape" (By the way, "agape" is the same word used in 1 John 4:8, the more you know). "Agape" is commonly defined as a "selfless, spiritual love as shown in the example of Jesus Christ." Christians know what Christ did. He taught and He healed and, ultimately, He died a horrible death out of love for us. Love is the key to knowing God's justice and not just any love, but self-sacrificial love.

Here's the word itself: "Agape"

Let's bring this discussion down to Earth, shall we? Where do we see that kind of love today? In the movie theater shooting last July, no fewer than three of the victims died trying to shield others. In the Sikh Temple shooting, a priest (I'm sure that's not the right word, but google isn't helping me) died trying to take the shooter down. Just two days ago, a man died saving his wife from an armed robber. Everyday someone somewhere dies to save someone else. And there are little signs of sacrifice, too. As I write this, a picture of a police officer giving a homeless barefoot man boots is going viral. Recently, a bus driver risked her life saving a handicapped child on her bus. These are all actions of that "agape" love that the Bible talks about.

So, what is keeping us from perfectly mirroring God's justice in the world today? The number one reason: sin. We are in a constant battle against sin. God helps us in this battle, but sin will never be totally conquered until the very end. As the Gospel reading says:

Jesus said to his disciples:
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man."-Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
 The Son of Man will one day return and destroy the evil in this world once and for all. Then, all of the injustice that we listed in the beginning will no longer happen. God's justice, God's love, God's agape will reign. This does not mean that we can sit idle waiting for the time to come. As Jesus says in Matthew 25, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me." We need to continue to try to model God's justice here on Earth, but we can have hope that one day God's justice will completely reign. 

This pic actually came from Drawception. How cool is that?

Look at the readings yourself:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

10 Reasons to LOVE Archbishop Timothy Dolan

I just got done reading A People of Hope: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in conversation with John L. Allen Jr. I finished it in four days which is a remarkable feat for me with a 7-month-old son and it is a testament to the readability and the entertainment value of this book. It was very informative in relation to the state of the Church and the background and belief system of Cardinal Dolan. Allen asked some very tough questions and got some very thoughtful answers. I came away from this book a new Cardinal Dolan fan. This is why:

10. "I enjoy the novels of Dean Koontz..." No one could be bad who likes a Dean Koontz novel. And yes, Koontz is deeply Catholic.

9. In regards to the misperception that the Church is only the men in big hats (i.e. Bishops): "One of the things I've said for a long time is that we need a resurrected sense of apologetics. We Catholics sometimes are far too timid. We don't know how to respond when people throw out these silly, caustic remarks about the Church. We might just smile instead of rising up to say, 'Enough of that. That's simply not accurate.' Somebody sooner or later has got to blow the whistle on this."

8. On the imperfections of the Church: "We shouldn't be afraid to show off the wounds of the Church to the world, and we should boast that the wounds remind us of the healer."

7. On dialogue inside and outside the Church: "One guy who I think has reinvigorated dialogue is Benedict XVI, constantly saying that true, respectful dialogue starts with a clear understanding of the truth that you bring to the conversation. We insult our partner, our respected, cherished partner in dialogue, if we feel that they are expecting us to soft-pedal the truth."

6. In regards to the visitation to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: "Had anybody asked me, which they didn't, I would have advised against it. Do I think it's justified, that there are legitimate worries about women religious? You bet I do. But should we do it? Probably not, at least not in this way, because the danger is that it may be seen as something heavy-handed and punitive, and therefore it risks being counterproductive."

5. He says that in the case of a gay couple wanting to put their child in Catholic school that he sees no reason why they can't. Of course, the child is welcome in the school as long as the parents understand that they are bringing their child into an atmosphere where the parents' lifestyle will be brought to question. No one is going to officially attack the couple for their lifestyle, but the child will, for example, learn in their Religion class that the Church disagrees with it.

4. "Here's the pitch:Let me introduce you to what I think is one of the more consoling, challenging ways to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the beginning and the end--who is, in the words of John Paul II, the answer to the question posed by every human life. Come on in, because this is the best way to do it. I don't know about you, brother or sister, but if you're like me, you need a lot of help, and I'll tell you where you can find it. Let's just say that we're in it together. If you're struggling down a path trying to get to a goal that you're not sure about, it's a heck of a lot better if you find two or three others on the same trail. They may have as many flaws as you, and they may not have the exact map either, but it's sure a lot better to be with some people trying their best to get to the same place. When we pool our talents and resources, we're probably going to be able to get there better. That's the mystery, the invitation, of the Church that I think we've got to pose."   

3. In regards to people who disagree with the Church's teaching on birth control: "If what you're asking is, would I be one of those who's quick in telling people that they're out of the Church? No, I would not, and I wouldn't want to be. People who are struggling to understand, accept, and live the teachings of Jesus and his church need the Church more than anybody."

2.In regards to denying communion to pro-choice politicians: "I always say that I don't know why this topic only seems to come up with regard to abortion, and I don't know why it's only directed at politicians"

"Look at our literature, and drama, and sculpture, and art, and liturgy, and poetry, and everything that's great in the Catholic worldview. The Catholic Church affirms, strengthens, expands what's most noble, most beautiful, most sacred, in the human project. That's what affirmative orthodoxy means to me. I like to quote a line from Father Robert Barron, that they Church only says no to another no, and two no's make a yes. It's only when the yes of humanity is threatened that they Church will say no, to protect the yes."

In a phrase: I like Cardinal Dolan because he stands up for his beliefs without being intolerant or stupid about it. You will never get anyone to understand your point of view if you don't respectfully talk to them. I could see people not liking him because he seems to be "all bark and no bite," but I would counter that argument by saying, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Catholic analysis of the Russell Brand interview with Westboro Baptist Church members

Above is a 11 minute video of an interview that British comedian Russell Brand did on his show with members of the Westboro Baptist Church. For those who don't know, Russell Brand is quite the eccentric bad boy. He has had a lot of struggles with the law and drugs. He credits his practice of meditation in helping him to conquer his various demons. The Westboro Baptist Church, on the other hand, have made a name for themselves protesting at military funerals saying that God is letting our men and women in uniform be killed because our country is too tolerant of homosexuality. Needless to say, Brand and his audience vehemently disagree with Westboro's views. In this interview, the two parties are surprisingly respectful of one another. Of course, as a religion and ethics nerd, I found the whole thing facinating and I want to look at Brand's and the Westboro Baptist views through Roman Catholic eyes.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!       Now, let's get our geek on!
 From a Catholic perspective there are major holes and major truth in both of these positions. There are many ways I can tackle this. The one way I have decided upon is topical. The points I want to make fall into three categories: The Bible, the nature of sin, and the nature of love.

Disclaimer: This analysis is based solely on the interview linked above. Any other statements made by either the Westboro Baptist Church or Brand have not been taken into account.

The Bible

I would say that Brand's understanding of Scripture is closest to the Catholic understanding, but not in anyway completely in line.

Close, but no cigar
The Westboro Baptist Church seems to be strong supporters in the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. That means that for them, the Bible is the one and only authority when it comes to knowing God's will and that the Bible is to be taken literally.

In the Catholic faith, we would have to agree with Brand's statement at 5:05 that "The Holy Spirit doesn't have a pen." Scripture is certainly inspired by God, but it was written by man. We would take it a step further, though, than Brand does when he says that the Bible is only meant to point us toward the one God who is Love. We don't believe that the Bible is merely a pointer. The Bible does also contain Truth. But to get the fullness of God's Truth, as Catholics, we believe that you need to take both Scripture and Tradition into account. Scripture and Tradition are used as a kind of checks and balances. Nothing in either one can contradict the other and they are both valid tools in the search for Truth.

The Nature of Sin

In the case of sin, the Westboro Baptist Church would be closer than Brand in the Catholic understanding. However, in their understanding of God as seemingly hateful, they are very, very far off the mark.
Which is ironically, exactly what "sin" means
 The phrase "love the sinner, but hate the sin" is way, way older than these guys think (see 6:52). It actually comes from St. Augustine. Yup, Billy Graham nor Gandhi thought it up. A Catholic saint did. And, actually, it's a pretty good summary of the Catholic perspective on homosexuality.

Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not hate gays. What some people in the Church (such as Archbishop Dolan, who I will be writing about later) have trouble with is this: Why do some people seem to limit their identity to their sexual orientation? You are so much more, pardon my crudity, than who you have sex with! You are a beloved child of God. God knitted you in your mother's womb. God sent His only Son to die for you. God is with you every second of every day, especially in the Eucharist! We would argue that everyone's main identity, it doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, white, black, tall, short, or purple, everyone's main identity is found only in God!

Our issue with homosexuality is with the act itself. God created our bodies. God basically created sex. We as Catholics feel that one of the main purposes of sex is procreation. God made us to make and raise children in a loving, married family. Anything that falls short of this goal, any sexual act that does not at least contain the possibility of leading to new life, is missing the mark, is "sin." We believe that homosexual activities are unbecoming of a beautiful child of God. That is something that we would agree with the Westboro Baptist Church about. We completely disagree with their belief that God hates gays, but we do agree with their belief that homosexual behavior is sinful.

The Nature of Love

Similarly, we would agree with Brand's contention that God's primary identity is Love, but we do not agree that this "love" means that anything short of murder is acceptable. As stated by the Westboro members in 1:35, it is sometimes more loving to point out the sins in another person than to accept all of that person's actions. One of our purposes in this life is to help one another get closer to God and ultimately to Heaven. That sometimes means showing some tough love. Now, I'm sure that very few Catholics would agree that protesting at a military funeral is an appropriate display of tough love. But, going on a talk show to spread your Truth might be.

God definitely does stand for tolerance, love and beauty as eloquently expressed by Brand at 4:14, but God's "tolerance" is not "tolerance" as it is currently used in every day speak in the US. "Tolerance" is currently defined as "a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those who differ from you." (italics added) God loves the sinners. God loves the sinners deeply, passionately, madly, and thoroughly. (Remember the "lost" parables.) But God doesn't love the sin. God hates the sin for bringing dishonor to and ensnaring the beloved sinner.
"For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death."- Romans 8:2
God isn't tolerant in the way we mean tolerant. God is Love, but because God is Love, He hates all that does harm to and blemishes the beloved. The Church would agree with Brand that Love, not hate, is the primary message of God. But we feel precisely because the main message is love, God hates sin all the more because it goes against His love.

I feel that it is very telling of Brand's perspective on homosexuality that he almost implicitly links homosexuality with the love between a short, interracial couple (around 7:21). He clearly believes that homosexuality is something that you're born with that you have no control over. He feels that just as interracial couples had to fight long and hard against prejudice, so must gay couples; that interracial dating is on the exact same moral plane as homosexual dating.

First legally married interracial couple in Louisiana, married in a Catholic Church
The Church recognizes that a homosexual orientation can't be fixed, that people are born with it and that is part of who they are. But just as unmarried people, married people where one of the spouses cannot have sex, and religious people are all called to celibacy, gays are as well. The Church would not put interracial marriage and gay marriage on the same moral ground. In fact, the Catholic Church was one of the first (if not the first) church to recognize interracial marriage (We even have a martyr for the cause).

In Conclusion

Neither Russell Brand nor the Westboro Baptist Church are in complete agreement with the Catholic Church on this issue (not that I think either of them would care). But, I hope that I have used this interview to make some sense out of what the Church does believe and to provide some compare and contrast to see the Church through a spiritual lens (Brand) and a fundamentalist lens (Westboro).

God is Love. He does love the sinner, but hate the sin. And the Church does have some reasons to think that homosexual acts are sinful. That seems like a good summary.    

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Solemnity of Christ the King

The following is my "sermon exercise" I did yesterday in front of some of my peers at the hospital. Of course, as a Catholic laywoman I cannot preach during the Mass, but as a person in ministry, it is still important for me to learn to accurately and effectively preach the Gospel.

            Today, if you couldn’t tell from the readings and the repeated mentions of thrones and kings, is the Solemnity of Christ the King. Very few of us have ever lived under a monarchy. When I say “king,” you probably think of fat, old Henry the VIII and his wives or the legendary King Arthur. You might think about King George III, the king that we revolted against in the American Revolution. We, here in America, shook free of the monarchal system of government over 200 years ago, but over two weeks ago we elected our president. Now, I’m sure there are people out there mourning the election results and there are those celebrating the results. Regardless of your feelings about the election, today’s solemnity has something to say to you. Namely, that in the long run it doesn’t matter who won, what matters is our true ruler in Heaven, Christ the King.

                What does this mean? What does it mean down here below that we have a king like Jesus Christ up high? What does that have to do with my life right now? First of all, it serves as a reminder that we are sojourners in an alien land. Our true home is heaven. We are not to work for worldly glory or the praise of people; we are to work for the glory of God. As Jesus says in an earlier Gospel, where your treasure is, that is where your heart will be also. Our values will never match the world’s values and our deepest desires will never be met here on Earth.  

                Also, our King isn’t just an ordinary king. He doesn’t sit high on his throne placing burdens on the people that they cannot bear. Our King loves us so much that He stepped down from His pedestal for us, to die for us. He is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice out of love for us. You would be hard pressed to find an earthly king in the history of humanity that was willing to do the same, although I guess all the truly good ones are. Our King is with us in our struggles. He’s with you right now waiting for that test result or that surgery to be completed. He’s with you in your pain and in your joy. He’s not on some lofty throne somewhere in the sky looking down at us. He is sitting beside us here on Earth.

                And finally, the last thing we can take away from today is that all of the kingdoms of this world eventually will fall away and no one kingdom encompasses all people. The kingdom of Jesus Christ will never fall and it is meant to encompass people of every nation. Jesus doesn’t prefer one skin color to another or one socio-economic bracket to another. He wants to take us all under His wings. While the things of this world are temporary, all things good and bad eventually come to an end, all empires eventually fall, one thing always remains and that is the kingdom of God, of Jesus Christ. God is always there and God will always be there. He says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.” Nothing in this world can get more permanent than that.