Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

HEARING THE COMMANDMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME

Dear Jesus,

Do you know how, in an instant, familiar things can become new again as if you were seeing them for the first time?  I have a cut-crystal vase that has been in my family for years and is now in my possession.  It sits on my dining room table and largely goes unnoticed.  Yesterday an unexpected ray of sunshine caught the vase and all its prisms burst into glorious color.  I’ll never look at the vase again without remembering that splendid moment.

From the time I was a youngster I have heard you speak about love and even command us to live your love.  When I was younger, all that talk of love became like the color on the wall in my study or the air I breathe, an ordinary part of my surroundings and, I suppose, taken for granted.  But did you see your words have any impact on my life?  Was I stretched because of them?

Just as that vase in new light made me see it for the first time, someone’s ordinary response to your commandment forced me to hear it for the first time.

When her husband died, she and I talked about some of her memories from the more than 40 years of their marriage – the last 15 of them with his being an invalid from early Alzheimer’s disease.  She talked about the pain of witnessing his powers fail, of having to watch him and care for him, as one would tend a child.  This man had been a very successful executive of the company he founded resulting in their being able to live a comfortable lifestyle.  Each of them drove a snazzy sports car with the top down as often as the weather would allow.

The first warning surfaced the day she found him pacing back and forth in a panic on the walk in front of their home.  He told her he was lost and couldn’t find the way back.  Then he couldn’t remember how to flush the toilet or where the switch was to turn out the light.

She was determined not to put him into custodial care as long as she was able to see to his needs.  She refused to refer to caregivers who tended him during brief times she was away from him as “babysitters.”  And she talked of the pain the first moment she realized he no longer knew who she was.  He thought she was his mother.

When I asked her how she had done all of that for so many years without burning herself out, she said, “I always had my faith.  Besides, isn’t that what love empowers you to do?”  Even in the worst times, she could remember the man he used to be.

After she left, I sat in silence and prayed.  Then I knew I had to pick up my pen and write to you about the transforming moment I had just experienced.  She was right.  Believing people live that kind of love.  Doing it seems to come naturally to them.  They couldn’t live any other way.  That’s when I heard your words for the first time and they convicted me.  Now I need your help to untangle my thoughts and deal with my grief.

I want to live in your love, but how can I do that?  I think I am too busy wanting to be loved, the recipient of other people’s affection.  Am I still at square one of my conversion process?  Are you becoming impatient with me to the point of wanting to give up on me?  Do you still see the potential in me that made you invite me to come and follow you?

Perhaps grace is working in me and the Spirit is working, too.  Do you know what else I think is finally making a difference and having its effect on my heart?  How long have I been coming to Eucharist?  About as long as I have been hearing your commandment to love!  All of a sudden, and I don’t know for what reason, the “do this in memory of me” words rang in my ears and made it almost impossible for me to come to the table.  I grant you I am a slow learner, but it dawned on me that loving others as I am loved by you means that I have to be bread broken and cup poured out for them.

The first disciples recognized you in the breaking of the bread.  New disciples today will recognize you in those whose lives are broken and poured out in service of the marginalized, the desperate, the hungry, the naked, the unloved.

It isn’t adoring you in the bread that you want from me.  That will not mark me as your disciple.  It is taking and eating and living the Eucharist that will guarantee my living in, with, and through you on the way to being in the Father’s love for all eternity.

As I write these words, Lord, I am hoping that you will get back to me with what I have to do to make a start.  I have been at this a long time.  I should be farther along and surer of myself.  Why do I feel like I am faltering, walking with the halting steps of a toddler?

I went back to look at the vase on the table.  Could it be that just by chance another ray would splash through it and thrill me anew as it had this morning?  But that didn’t happen and I had to remember the moment.

Now I wonder.  Please help me to recognize the bonds you want me to form with my brothers and sisters.  I am ashamed to write this.  Perhaps you must prompt me to recognize who are my brothers and sisters.  I know longer think they are just the ones with whom I feel comfortable.  Do not let me be complacent, much less a person who seeks only to be loved and served.

“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love…. This I command you: love one another.” I think I hear the commandment for the first time.  Help me not to be afraid to respond and live it.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT – March 27, 2011

Exodus 17:3-7

Romans 5:1-2, 5-8

John 4:5-42

The fact is that people live busy lives.  Frenzied lives in many cases would not be an exaggeration.  So much to do and so little time to do it could well be a mantra that runs through people’s minds unawares.  Conscious of the clock perpetually ticking, not a few will say that that they can only a lot a specific amount time for such and such and not one second more or they will be late for their next appointment.  That goes for the amount of time they have for God, too.  It is the exception when someone doesn’t make an announcement prior to the start of Liturgy, reminding everyone to turn of cell phones and pagers, or at the very least to put them on vibrate.  It’s too bad the announcer couldn’t include asking people to cover their wristwatches.

That last announcement might well be made this Sunday and on the remaining Sundays of Lent.  If you’re in a hurry you’re going to be frustrated.  The readings, especially the gospels, are long.  To accommodate this time consciousness, some parishes will use abbreviated gospels.  My prayer is that that will not be the case where you worship.  The readings, especially the gospels are rich.  We need to sit under them, or stand in the case of the gospel, and let the living word wash over us.  (Of course I am hoping that they will be proclaimed well and the preaching that follows will be inspired helping the Assembly find themselves and their lived experiences in the readings.)  We need to be vulnerable, put aside the barriers, and let that word enter and transform our hearts.  In every case God speaks words of love to us.  We have to listen in order to be convinced.

The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent are the Scrutiny Sundays.  In every parish where there is an active Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program, on these Sundays those in the final weeks of preparation for Baptism, those now called The Elect, come before the Assembly.  They will be invited to kneel and receive the imposition of hands by the presider, their sponsors, and indeed the whole Assembly, as the Spirit is invoked to keep The Elect thirsting for the Waters. May they experience the new Light of Faith to help them see everything in that new light.  May they not be afraid of the death Baptism is so that they will be filled with the new life that will be theirs in the Risen Christ.  To celebrate these rites well takes time.  When you are present for these rites, I urge you to enter into these moments with your consciousness of time suspended.  In the process you just might experience renewal in faith and transformation in spirit.

The other day the radio was playing providing white noise as I drove along rather than being something to which I was attentively listening.  In a moment I felt a jolt and thought that I couldn’t be hearing what I just heard.  The words of the song more than the melody amazed me.  These were the words that stunned and then thrilled me: Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying! In the lyrics of the song, that is what someone had lovingly said to the singer.  The person singing has faith and is convinced that death is the transition from this world to heaven.  But more than that the one who loved the singer challenged him to savor every moment and every encounter, every walk along the shore and every mountain climb, each kiss, and appreciate the wonder of now as if it might be the last time for the encounter, the walk, the climb, the kiss.  Maybe you had to be there.  But for me it was an aha moment.

If I took that singer’s insight seriously, I would enter the Exodus reading and be with the Israelites before that rock, feeling their disenchantment with the God who led them out of Egypt, feeling God’s absence because of the want they were experiencing, and look on as Moses strikes the rock and the water gushes forth from it.  Of course, if I were thirsty as desert experiences often make people, imagine what I would feel in the presence of that sudden abundance.  It isn’t just the water that thrills me and satisfies my thirst.  The experience could stop there.  But the reality is that if I am aware and attentive to the moment, this water rushing is the reminder that the Lord is in our midst and we are loved.  How many signs do we miss because we are preoccupied?  We can be so busy that we might not even see the sun set.

Paul uses a water image to remind us that hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. Even before we believed.  Even before our baptisms.  It is all gift.  Imagine it.  Thrill to the wonder.  We are loved not for what we have done but because we are.  The love doesn’t end if we sin.  We are saved by the blood of Christ and loved by a God who loves unconditionally and forever.  Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

The Samaritan woman in the Gospel seeks meaning, longs for an anchor in her life.  Every day she comes to the well, burdened with her cares, joyless.  In the course of her dialogue with Jesus, after he has awakened her thirst and helped her to get in touch with how weary she is in her present existence, we learn that she has been married several times and now is living with someone who is not her husband.  What that means is, most likely she has been several times dismissed through bills of divorcement, since it was the man who did the divorcing according to Jewish law.  How could faith survive in one who so consistently experienced being discarded and abandoned?  Since God’s presence is supposed to be in the marriage bond uniting husband and wife, she must have struggled with the sense that God had abandoned her, too.

Then, when she meets Jesus in this very public place, she is stunned when he, a Jew, asks for a drink of water from her, a woman and a Samaritan.  Jews considered Samaritans unclean.  Men did not engage in conversations in public places with women who were not their wives.  Jesus puts all convention aside, heedless of the danger to his reputation as he makes his request of her.

Our God is a god of surprises and so is the Word made Flesh and the Spirit he brings.  In the banter that follows Jesus brings the woman to a new understanding of her poverty.  She seeks but may well have concluded that her quest will be endless and nothing will assuage the pain of emptiness that she feels inside.  Jesus, in effect, says: Just ask and what you seek will be given to you in ways beyond your wildest imagining.  She may not even have realized that she was seeking faith, but Jesus helps her recognize that is what she really desired.  Jesus is the giver of that gift of faith through the Spirit – the source of the living water.  When you hear living water, hear Baptism and think of the difference the sacrament has made or will make in your life.  The woman has sought God on the mountain where Samaritans worshipped and in household gods.  Jesus and the Jews have worshiped in the temple.  Here is the wonder of wonders.  The implication of God having taken on flesh is that God has taken on all human flesh.  The woman who seeks, through the out-pouring of the Spirit will have God living within and she will worship in Spirit and truth. That will be the living water she will recognize.  The chasm no longer exists.  This   God is an imminent God evident in every aspect of creation and present in humankind.  This is God who desires intimate relationship with humankind.  Amazing.  Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

Through the course of their dialog the woman comes to feel that at last she is known and valued.  She has found that for which she has been searching, or rather, been found and claimed as beloved.  She listened and understood the significance of what Jesus said in one of the great I AM statements in John’s Gospel: I am he (the Messiah), the one speaking with you.

Notice that the water jar is left behind.  She drank in the water Jesus gives and it has become within her a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The woman with full dignity restored, heads back into her village to invite her neighbors to come, to see, to drink and to believe.  She does apostolic work in announcing Jesus as Messiah the way Mary Magdalene will announce that he is risen!  The Samaritan woman invites her neighbors to come and see the one who told me everything I have ever done. Isn’t God the only all-knowing one?

Let the words wash over you.  Pay attention to that for which you search.  Preoccupied with so many things, you might endure rather than listen and be touched.  Listen.  Be open to the Spirit washing over you and those gathered with you in worship.  It is all about love and the possibilities when you live in that love.

Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

Sincerely,

Didymus

DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE ASKING?

Dear Jesus,

I love being forgiven.  I delight in remembering when I first felt the challenge of your invitation to follow you.  It is strange how, in a moment, in a flash, so to speak, the world and everything in it looked different.  Tears were part of that experience.  I wept for what I had been and for where I could have gone had it not been for you.  A catastrophic spiral downward suddenly shot upward in an arc of limitless possibility for good.  And you were at the heart of it.

Obviously I didn’t achieve perfection in a moment.  I had a lot of inertia to overcome, the residue of experiences that I wanted to forget.  The tears I shed purged a lot of the sledge out of me.  Gradually I began to feel confident in the new life that I was living as a member of your band of followers.  The lure of the past lurked in the shadows.  If I hadn’t been careful I could have let myself fantasize about the old days and ways.  But I never went there, as they say.  I got up from that table and left the stacks of coins right where they were.

I don’t remember when I first felt pride in what I had overcome.  Little by little, like a tide creeping in on a shore, I let myself rejoice in what I had become, so superior to what I perceived many others to be.  After all, I changed.  Why couldn’t they?  Remember that banquet I gave for that wide circle of friends that I had?  That was my way of challenging them to take the step that I had taken.  A couple of them thought about it, impressed with you as I am.  I think most of them went on with their lives as they had been living them.  Tax collecting is a hard occupation to give up.  There are many openings for former tax collectors.  Some hold fast to grudges.

That brings me to what I want to ask you about.  You place a great deal of emphasis on forgiveness.  Your disciples, all of us, are supposed to rejoice in the forgiveness that you have brought us.  I do that, I think.  I pray about that when I give thanks to God for all that is happening in my life.  The problem I have is with our having to forgive others.  Do you know what you are asking?  Do you know how difficult that is?

When I remember my own sins I remember how ordinary they were, and how understandable in their context.  They were the kind of sins that I imagine everybody commits, at least those who shared my profession.  Money is a lure as strong as any other in life.  It was understandable that I added to tax bills.  How else could I support the lifestyle to which I was becoming accustomed?  But other people’s sins that I come up against seem much worse than mine.  I can’t imagine ever doing those kinds of things.  And so forgiving them seems a bit much for you to ask of me.  When I am the one sinned against, shouldn’t I be able to exact my pound of flesh for vengeance’s sake?  There does need to be retribution, after all.  If someone suffers a bit waiting to receive my forgiveness for something that I think is close to unforgivable, isn’t that all right?  That’s the way the world judges and the kind of retribution the world exacts.  People have to atone for their sins the way I did when I got up from that table.

There I go again.  Why is it that I can get so far on the strength of my logic, feeling very assured of myself and all of a sudden my logic seems to turn to mush just the way my insides do?  I can see you looking at me, your eyes boring through me.  That twinge tells me that there is something wrong with my thinking.  The simple fact is, I am not thinking the way you do.  That is the problem, isn’t it?

So, I have done it again, failed to understand what you are saying, especially when the implications of your message make inordinate demands on me.  You want forgiveness to be a hallmark of your disciples and of your church.  What am I not seeing that would help me to accept this hard saying?  What needs to lodge in my consciousness so that I can forgive as I was forgiven?

You want me to put myself in the other person’s shoes.  But how can I do that if I can’t imagine doing what s/he did?  Or is that where love comes in, loving others the way I love myself, loving others the way God loves us?  That is the norm that sounds like a call to super-human powers.  I think I begin to understand why you said: A new commandment I give you.  Love one another as I have loved you. If it were easy or natural to do, we wouldn’t need a commandment as motivation.  Still, sometimes it is hard for me to imagine myself being able to love that way, just as it is hard for me to imagine forgiving some of those who have offended me.

You are the great example of the reality and impracticality of your new commandment.  Do you really expect love and forgiveness to be the first thing outsiders think of when they think of your disciples and your church?  Is that the carillon that should ring out from every Eucharist that we celebrate, the meaning of the one bread and the one cup?  On the other hand, maybe it is the celebration of Eucharist and the sharing in the meal that is the source of the strength we need to live out your commandment.

If I am going to exemplify that love in my own life I am going to have to spend more time thinking about how abundant was the grace of forgiveness that washed over me in that encounter I had with you.  I have been forgiven beyond my worth.  Maybe my sins are understandable only to myself.  I am going to have to learn to be compassionate.  The word means to suffer with. I must enter into others’ sufferings and experience them as my own the way you took our sins upon yourself and bore them to Calvary.

Please be patient with me.  I see that I still have a long way to go.

Sincerely,

Matthew