Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

IT IS NOT GOOD TO BE ALONE

Dear Jesus,

I am writing in the prayer mode today.  I feel burdened by things that I have heard and read and even experienced lately that both support and deny a basic tenet of your Good News.

Many people cry out in pain, unaware as they are of the source of their misery.  Something in our nature demands the experience of bonding with others in order for us to survive.  Those words in Genesis leap out with fresh power to shock.  “It is not good for the one (Adam) to be alone.”  People living in isolation struggle to find meaning and reason to go on living.  As much as this nation might laude the spirit of rugged individualism – an attitude and value that gets in the way of our ability to form community and for the rich to have a sense of responsibility for the needs of the poor – the fact remains that no one can survive long in isolation and remain sane and sound.

Several years ago, I wrote to you through tears regarding the plight of a large number of Romanian orphans that had spent the first months and years of their existence in antiseptic isolation, deprived of human touch.  Frequency of the failure-to-thrive phenomenon was reported.  Babies didn’t grow, mature and survive – even when they were fed rich bottled formula that they sucked from rubber nipples while lying in cribs wrapped in swaddling clothes.  When they were adopted into families by well-intentioned and loving parents, heartache resulted when those youngsters could not bond, as children ought, with their parents and siblings.  They abhorred being touched.  Unless the newborn feels loved through human touch in the first months of its life, that bonding instinct, basic to the human condition, dies.

Other problems follow.  Parents not only fondle little ones, mothers cradling them in their arms as they suckle at the breasts, but also they make small talk as the infants become familiar with the sounds of words that will become the foundational building blocks of communication.  Deprived of the experience of imitating those sounds during the first years, they may never be able to speak their native language accurately without an unnatural “accent.”  Frequently the little ones would close in on themselves.  They would sit and rock back and forth oblivious of the world around them.  Being unable to bond with others would also stifle any sense of empathy and/or compassion for others.  Many of the adoptive parents of those Romanian orphans could not cope with their sons or daughters as they grew and manifested bizarre patterns of behavior.  Grieving, they felt compelled to return the children to the orphanages from which they had been adopted.

That is the Romanian story.  Did we, in this land of plenty, learn the lessons contained there?  As I said, this letter is written in prayer mode.  I am pleading with you for help.  Most people in this land of plenty are not deprived of human touch in the beginning the way those orphans were.  But the experience of loneliness, isolation, and broken bonds at later stages of life take their toll.

Many people live very busy lives.  You know how long and how hard people work pressing with every fiber of their being for promised rewards of position, power, and wealth.  The realization of the “American Dream” dazzles like a mechanical rabbit, bounding just out of reach before the hounds in pursuit.  Then there is the plight of the unemployed whose very sense of self-worth is undermined because they are unable to find work that will enable them to earn even a basic living and provide the basics for their children.  Many relationships become strained and marriages fail.  How many adults and children settle on suicide as the only way to end their pain?

Quality time shared between spouses, among parents and children, between friends and intimates is an increasingly rare commodity.  Nationally, nearly 60 percent of marriages end in divorce.  People even speak of first marriages as “starter marriages,” the way couples of generations past used to speak of their first house as a “starter home.”  Neither is meant to be a permanent involvement, but a steppingstone to something better down the road.

A study in 1995 showed that adolescents who regularly spent time engaged with their families were less likely to become abusers – even users – of alcohol and “recreational” drugs.  But children whose parents were too busy to just be with them were more likely to become problem drinkers and drug abusers as teenagers.  Who can blame the parents who are tired from over working for extended hours or emotionally exhausted from their fruitless quest for employment?  Is it their fault they have no energy, much less the time, to participate in family life?  Sad to say, some who are driven by the quest for material gain will not take time for relationships that aren’t profitable.

I told you at the start of this letter that it would be more of a prayer than are my usual letters to you.  I’m pleading for the multitudes ensnared in these situations, situations that seem to be getting worse and to have even more dire consequences.  I sometimes feel isolated in my own life and deprived of the intimacy that sustains and gives zest to living.  I see signs pointing to that isolation in the lives of many about me.  In isolation, God seems remote.  I am aware of being out of touch with you.

Do you remember the last letter I wrote about praying for harvest reapers?  There is application in regards to the situations I’ve held up to you in this letter.  It’s true, isn’t it, that basic to your call to discipleship is the invitation to enter into community.  The great example of that was when you fed the multitudes with the few loaves and the couple of fish.  You asked the few to make the little they had available to the many.  They did and community formed as all ate their fill and were satisfied.

The church must foster that same sense of community.  No one should feel isolated or excluded.  The sense that “all are welcome here” ought to radiate throughout each assembly.  If that is not promoted, how will those seeking to gather with others around you and your table, sense their transformation into your body?  It is one thing to focus the assembly on the transcendence of God.  There is validity in that.  But as important is the focus on the immanence of God.  That is a principal significance of your Incarnation.  You united the human and the divine so that they would never be separated again.  When your people gather to celebrate Eucharist, the presider ought to invite all present to recognize their union with God through you and through you, their union with each other.  Then the invitation to “take and eat” and “take and drink” will transform those who do and translate into the invitation to enter into love and bring that love to all who flounder in isolation waiting for someone to awaken hope within them.

In you, no one is without worth or alone.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – February 26, 2012

 

The Book of Genesis 9:8-15

Peter’s First Letter 3:18-22

The Holy Gospel according to Mark 1:12-15

 

You have to let go if Lent is to have its desired effect.  You can come into Lent toting a lot of baggage, resentments, hostilities, sins, or whatever.  Let go of them.  You can come into Lent with all kinds of presuppositions, especially if you have had the experience of a prior Lent or two in your life.  Let go of the presuppositions and see if something new doesn’t happen.  You can come into Lent convinced it’s a downer, a season of moroseness and negativity.  Let go of that.  If you let go of everything and let yourself be open, even vulnerable, you just might be surprised.  After all, the Church calls this a joyful season; it is a season of grace.  It can be that for you if you don’t let your defenses get in the way.

On the other hand, could this be your first Lent?  Are you journeying through this season as a catechumen?  You might have no idea what to expect or what you are in for.  Good for you.  Let Lent happen.  Let the Spirit lead you.  Be a blank slate on which the results of the season can be etched.  You’ll be amazed at what can happen and how you can be transformed.

It’s all about conversion, a turning away from sin and believing the Good News that turns you toward God.  It is important to remember that Lent is about life, your experiencing God’s call to the fullness of life in Christ.  Let it happen.  God is the actor.  You be the recipient of God’s grace at work in your life.  That same grace will be working in the lives of those who gather with you as Church.  Lent is not meant to be nearly as private and individual a journey as some would have you think.  Lent should be a communal experience of the ongoing transformation of this people into the Body of Christ, a transformation that won’t be complete until, well until when?  See what you think as the season goes on and you and those around you enter more deeply.

The first reading for this Sunday puts us in a very important context.  The floodwaters rushed over the earth because ten just people could not be found on the face of the earth.  With the exception of Noah and his family, all those God had created in God’s image and likeness had embraced darkness and sin.

Now the waters have receded.  The only survivors are Noah and his family and the animals, domestic and feral, that Noah had brought aboard the Ark in pairs before the rains began.  Sin and corruption, the wholesale turning away from God’s ways caused the destruction.  Now the flood is over and the bow is emblazoned in the sky.  God makes the rainbow the sign of the covenant: Never again shall the waters of a flood destroy all bodily creatures; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.  Down through the ages the appearance of the rainbow will remind all who see it that this first covenant is forever.

The poetry and imagery are lush.  Take the reading literally and think of it as a historical record and you will miss the point.  This is the stuff of myth, powerful and grace-laden.  As Christians when we read this account of the flood in Genesis, the first thing we notice is that following upon the destruction of all that was, God begins something new – just like what happens with Baptism.  The sacrament fulfills the flood and changes its meaning forever.  That’s why when Baptism is celebrated there ought to be lots of water in a Font large enough for us to drown in because that is what we believe happens there.  In Baptism we die with Christ so that we might rise and live Christ’s life.  Never an ending, Baptism is always a beginning.  The baptized become a new creation.  You have put on Christ.  In him you have been baptized.  Amazing.  And we ought never to forget it.

In Peter’s First Letter, this Sunday’s second reading, we hear a primitive, that is, an early theology of Baptism.  Already, in the first century of the Christian era, Noah’s flood prefigured Baptism, which saves you now.  The flood that is Baptism washes sin away and gives new life, life that never ends.  The baptized stand, forgiven before God.

By the way, did you notice that in the first reading, God has all the lines?  Noah says nothing.  He is the recipient of the grace.  Usually a covenant is an agreement between two parties.  This first covenant, preceding those with Abraham and Moses, is a lavish outpouring of God’s love that far surpasses anything we could merit.  All we have to do is accept that and live the consequences.

So, what is Lent about?  How is the season supposed to work in our lives?  The faith walk we began on Ash Wednesday is not meant to be an idyllic saunter in the park.  We’re not in Eden anymore.  Being faithful on this journey begun at God’s invitation involves a struggle of will.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert is the shortest of the three synoptic accounts.  This occurs immediately after Jesus’ Baptism.  Notice the words: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert; and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.  Two things to notice: first, the Spirit drives Jesus into this experience.  That is not drive in the sense of providing transportation.  This means Jesus is compelled to go where he might rather not have gone.  Here is a struggle of wills.  This could well imply that Jesus was forced to go into the wasteland burdened with a foreknowledge of the struggle that would ensue.  This might imply that it was God’s will that Jesus endure this period and so be tempered for the mission he would begin.

Notice, too, that for forty days – the duration of the flood and Lent’s length – Satan tempted Jesus.  We do a disservice to the text if we minimize its implications.  Temptations are not temptations unless they lure us, invite us to something we ought not to do or be.  For Jesus the struggle is to always do the Father’s will in spite of Satan’s urging him to do otherwise.  For us it is the same.

Lent’s purpose is not to plunge us into temptation.  It is an invitation to go into the desert, not to be tempted but to all ourselves time to compare what we became through our Baptism with how we are living that reality.  This will take time.  We will need to be free of distractions.  We must be patient.  We’re going to have these 40 days to pray.  We are going to have this time to shrug off whatever is of sin so that we can more freely live the Good News by loving God and our neighbor.  Prayer.  Fasting.  Almsgiving.  The three activities that make up Lenten discipline.  And in the process we are preparing to be renewed through the celebration of the Great Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter – one tremendous feast spread over three days, the greatest feast of the Church’s year.

For you who are Catechumens, now called Elect, these forty days comprise your journey to the Font.  These days, during which you are invited to fast, to pray, and to give alms, your focus must be on Christ as you struggle to die to sin and put on Christ.  Forty days hence you will be brought to the Font.  You will stand at the edge of the waters and there discard all that was.  You will be invited to enter the waters that are your tomb, there to die to sin.  The waters transform into the womb from which you emerge on the other side from the one by which you entered.  Then you will be a new creation.  Then you will be invited to approach the Lord Table to share in the Eucharist that completes your Baptism.

Whichever this Lent is for you, your first or another one of many, don’t fear the struggle.  Let the Spirit lead you, drive you, if you are not inclined to make the journey.  It is, after all, all about love.  Yield to grace.  Enter in wholeheartedly and you will never be the same again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

ASH WEDNESDAY – February 22, 2012

 

The Book of the Prophet Joel 2:12-18

Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians 5:20-6-2

The Holy Gospel according to Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

What thoughts run through your mind as you approach Ash Wednesday?  Of course the day means that the Church enters another Lent.  What do you think about Lent?  I have to admit that I am a bit torn this year.  Sometimes I wonder if I really need another since I have been observing Lenten Seasons for quite a few years now.  Unless this is your first Lent, you have a few under your belt, too.  I’m wondering what I can do to make this one different from the other forty-day periods begun in the past.

I’m conflicted about what these six weeks are supposed to accomplish even as I feel at odds with what I hear some are proclaiming to be Lent’s purpose.  From what I have heard, I would conclude that some in authoritative positions would have us spend the time concentrating on how sinful we are and how vulnerably mortal.  Some of you, as you stand or kneel will hear as the smudge of ashes is smeared on your forehead, “Remember (wo)man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”  I grant you that remembering that we are going to die can be salutary, especially as we get along in years, but it won’t take forty-days of concentration to convince me.

Guilt for some is a dominant Lenten theme.  Recently I heard a sermon the message of which was that the people should spend their Lent gazing at the crucifix and so come to realize what our sins have done to Jesus.  Of course I believe that through his incarnation Jesus took our sins upon himself.  His crucifixion was our expiation and deliverance, a cause for rejoicing.  I believe that and give thanks daily.  But there should be more to Lent than a focus on the crucifix.  (It amazed me how many people thought Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ got it right.  I wasn’t one of them.)

It amuses me that the faithful, as they enter the local parish church this Ash Wednesday, will find all the statues, icons, and crucifixes covered with purple shrouds.  For what purpose?  To add to the gloom the pastor wishes the people to experience, I guess.  He seems to have forgotten that Lent is supposed to be a joyful season.  At least that is what the Liturgy proclaims throughout these forty days.

I would propose that we seize upon the opportunity to make Lent a positive experience this year, a joyful one.  That doesn’t translate into making the Lenten journey easy.  Lent is supposed to be a desert experience shared with Jesus.  Living in a desert state as I do, the desert experience has clearer meaning for me.  It isn’t that today it is difficult to live in a desert climate, but I can imagine what it must have been like to live in arid waste in that time before electricity and air-conditioning.  Oases don’t mean nearly as much to us as they did to those in former times.  The desert experience would have been difficult.  Thirst would make us appreciate the meaning of springs of life-giving water.  Maybe there is supposed to be something difficult about our Lent, too, if we take our lead from the Lord, difficult, but not gloomy or morose.  The difficulty comes from accepting the challenges the season puts before us, even as the Lord’s grace supports our taking them up.

I’ll be honest with you.  Forty days still seems like a long time.  I remember how those days could drag on to the point that I came to forget my intentions as I began the trek.  I remember being tempted to think that the Church has too many Lents.  Perhaps it would be more effective if we had Lent every seven years.  There’s a Scriptural basis for that thinking that comes from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Besides, if we are to be successful in our desert sojourn, we will have to put a lot of energy into it.  People live busy lives today in a world filled with distractions that, like Sirens on the shore, would lure us to the shoals.  With cell-phones, ipods and Blackberries all at our fingertips, it can be difficult to keep our focus and even harder to see Lent’s relevance.

If we are on similar pages, perhaps you have been feeling bogged down lately.  My senses are sated from constant bombardment.  That’s not something I like to think about, nor is it easy to admit.  When was the last time you heard something positive on the nightly news?  There seems to be no limit to the horror stories that graphically illustrate man’s inhumanity to man.  Maybe things like this always happened, but this year the stories of children being murdered by their parents is stunning.  And of course there are the stories of war and the difficult economic times.  Put all that together and we can come up with indications that match the times in which Joel prophesied.  And we can wonder if God’s heel is grinding us into the dust.  We can forget that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in kindness, relenting in punishment.

At times like these we must remember that it is in the midst of these conditions that we live as Church.  If there is a special grace that I would pray upon the people of God this Lent, it would be that we would hear Paul’s admonition to us: We are ambassadors for Christ as if God were appealing through us.  Alas, there are some in the Church today who would have you believe that it is the clergy who are the ambassadors for Christ and have the mission to bring Christ’s salvation to the world.  The laity is the recipient of their mission and participates in the clergy’s call.  It is as though some have returned to the pre-Vatican II Church and ignore the Council’s proclamation reflecting Paul’s preaching that all the baptized are ambassadors of the Gospel, the ordained, yes, but the laity too through their sharing in the Priesthood of the Baptized.  All of us are called to let Christ speak and act through our words and deeds that imitate Christ’s.  If we serve as Christ serves and love as Christ loves we can do our part to represent Christ to a world that does not know him.  If we enter wholeheartedly into the Lent, we just might be reawakened and become recommitted to living our Baptismal Priesthood.

I am sure that you have heard it just as I have.  Perhaps you have experienced it, too.  People are struggling with a feeling of emptiness in their lives.  It’s Alfie’s old question played back.  What’s it all about?  What purpose is there?  I can’t believe that that is why some would have us believe that we are dust and unto dust we are returning.  That is not the end, as this Lent will prove if we persevere to the Triduum.

Here is a suggestion as you consider going into the desert with the Lord.  Think back to the early days, and the excitement you felt when you first believed.  Remember when you came out of the waters of Baptism becoming a new creation.  Remember the thrill when you were identified with Christ and could be called a Christian.  What did you think your living your life in union with Jesus would mean?  In those first heady days of faith it is tempting to think that the struggle is over and life will mean walking with ease with Jesus through thick and thin on the way that leads to glory.

When the waters crashed over you, what was left?  You were stripped and washed clean.  Oil poured over your renewed bones.  Jesus invited you to the Table.  Have you ever been tempted to think how wonderful it would have been if time and your emotions could have been frozen in that moment so that the wonder of it all would be a comfort and keep the ravens away?

I don’t know about you, but I feel my resistance eroding.  It isn’t that I feel strong enough to go out there alone again to experi9ence a winter of discontent.  Dare I even wonder what fresh wineskins and new cloth might mean in terms of the renewal of my faith-life and vision?  The Spirit led Jesus and compelled him for his own good to stretch and be strengthened for the ministry that was dawning.  What would happen to us, to the Church, if the Spirit rained down?  What if the Spirit lashed out and drove from us all the stuff that surrounds us and deafens us to Jesus’ voice and blinds us to his vision and ways?  How different would the Church be when Easter dawns if the Spirit rained and reigned in her during these forty days?

All of a sudden, what I said earlier about a Lent every seven years doesn’t make sense.  But here is a challenge for us.  When we get out into the desert with our foreheads bearing the ashy cross, let the Spirit remind us and the whole Church of that day when this new life with Christ began.  Ask Jesus to invite the Spirit to lead us on and keep us from looking back with longing to what we need to leave behind.  Turn away from sin and believe the Good news.  And pray that the Spirit will help us see clearly what waits when the journey is over – and the possibilities!

Sincerely,

Didymus