Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

LETTING GO AND LETTING GOD

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.   -Mark Twain

I have long been fascinated by stories of forgivness, especially when forgivness is extended before it is sought by the offender.  And as often as I have read the stories I have wondered if I could do that.  What kind of forgiver am I?  It took years for me to come to understand that letting angers fester because of perceived injuries resulted in my being imprisoned by my resentments.  And then there was the reality of wallowing in self-pity.

You remember the horrendous devastation and multitude of deaths both of adults and children that happened in the Oklahoma City bombing.  This nation grieved and longed for ways to embrace and console those who lost loved ones or were injured in the onslaught.  Seldom has the country been as united as it was in the rage of hatred for Timothy McVeigh, the bomber.  Many awaited his execution, thinking that his death would not only bring closure but also a sense of atonement having been exacted.  When that day finally arrived, the father of one of the victims, having made the contact and secured permission, journeyed to be with McVeign’s father to support Mr. McVeigh in his grief at his son’s execution.  I marveled at the compassion and wondered.

If we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as often as we do we ask the Father to forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of others.  That is the condition we ask God to impose on his act of forgiving.  I must be a slow learner.  It was years before I started at the phrase and hoped that God would not take me literally.  I had begun to suspect that I wasn’t that good at forgiving.  At the time I was laboring under bitter resentments and hurt feelings because of what I knew to be lies and betrayals by some I had loved and esteemed.  Who, knowing the details, would blame me if I could not forgive?

I lived under the cloud of shattered hopes and on the brink of despair.  I felt myself closing in on myself and putting up walls of defense.  Bitterness is a bottomless pit and so, too, are resentments.  And both seemed justified for several years.  Then one day, in the course of my prayer, a phrase, unsought, rang in my consciousness.  What would Jesus do?  Actually, I heard myself praying, Lord, what would you have me do?  And in an instant, I knew that some attitudes had to change because I was being called to imitate Christ on a deeper level.

You know as well as I do, that in addition to Christ’s commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us, there is the challenge to Christ’s followers to take up the cross everyday and follow him.  We don’t do either when harbor grudges and give our hearts over to bitterness and self-pity.  Peter was told that when he had forgiven seventy times seven times, he had only begun the process and, it is implied he might have to forgive seventy times seven more times.  In a moment of transparency I had to admit that I hoped God would forgive me that often, understandable as my sins might be – to me.

I thought of Jesus’ words to Judas that night in the garden: Friend, do you betray me with a kiss?  In Jesus’ mind, Judas was a friend and the kiss they had often exchanged sealed that.  Betrayal by a friend always cuts to the core.  And there were Jesus’ words as he hung dying on the cross: Father!  Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing!  Somehow, as those to moments whirled around in my mind, I experienced what I can only call a conversion, and with conversion, a liberation.  The walls came down and I was free again.

I had known for sometime that I was powerless before those whose actions I perceived as offenses.  Naturally, bitterness followed.  What I had not understood was that fostering bitterness and letting anger take root in my being resulted in my imprisonment.  I had to let go of all of it.  My life was being stifled and so was my ability to pray and to live the Gospel.  The only one I had been harming was myself.  This was my opportunity to reclaim my sense of worth and to reawaken my conviction of purpose.  It was a moment of grace, certainly, and I was the only one would could let it transform me.  I wept as I accepted the fact that I am loved by God even as I am forgiven.  Those were the realities that I had to begin to live again.  Then, I laughed and was able to breathe deeper than I had for what seemed like ages because I knew in that moment that I could forgive and love again those I had begun to hate.  I knew again the freedom of the children of God.  I accepted that ultimately God is the only vindicator.

Not many of the current values of our society support what I share with you today.  We fight wars.  We know that many of those harmed exact revenge.  We accept capital punishment as a fitting punishment for those who have committed capital crimes.  Sadly, we don’t realize that we are all debased and brought to the level of the offenders when we engage in, or support these behaviors.

It is safe to say that many people accept the fact that they are unable to forgive.  Perhaps there are things that you have experienced that you think that you cannot forgive.  Infidelity in a committed relationship.  A drunk driver running a stop sign and t-boning a car carrying good people.  Enraged youngsters shooting and killing their classmates.  Bullying.  Whatever is lodged in your stomach, filling you with rage.  There is no denying the horrors.  The sad reality is that once the event has passed and grief takes hold, the tyranny remains and imprisons until the victim desides to stop being the victim and realizes the power in being able to forgive even what was thought to be unforgivable.

This something that can be done only in prayer and openness to the grace of God.  You might have to start with your own sense of needing forgivness, or of having been forgiven.  Then comes the realization that the one who may be the object of your resentment is loved by the same God who loves you.  Forgiving does not deny whatever evil might have been inflicted, but it does break its power over you.  No one can force you to forgive.  The grace of God can urge you.  Only you can yield to the grace and experience the power and the freedom that comes with forgiving.  And the peace, too.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 29, 2012

 

The Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12

John’s First Letter 3:1-2

The Holy Gospel according to John 10:11-18

 

 

The only sound in the church was the burbling of the water in the baptismal font.  In the late afternoon, the sun, deep in the western sky turned the stained-glass windows vivid as the penetrating rays dappled the church in reds and blues.  As I was wont to do, I sat near the font for vespers, the evening prayer to end the day.  Light played on the water’s surface as the tower bells tolled the Angelus.  These waters are your tomb and your mother.  One of the early Fathers of the Church coined that phrase that has fascinated me from the first time I heard it.

Some may say that the phrase is an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory terms that the mind struggles to wrap around and to reconcile.  Some, failing to do that would dismiss one part of the phrase or the other.  My choice is to ponder and plumb the depths for meaning.  Sometimes that can be a scary course that surfaces implications difficult and demanding, often implications with which I would rather not have to deal.  The tomb part, the dying, isn’t so bad; the possibility of dying to sin and everything that would separate us from the love of God comforts a troubled spirit.  One can rest there.  It is the birthing part that troubles.  Entering the tomb to die is essentially passive, a letting go.  The community baptized me.  It was done to me.  Maybe being born is passive, too; but the implications are phenomenal, the ensuing responsibilities, tremendous.

In the early Church, when adults were baptized, in the course of the Easter Vigil, the elect came to the font’s edge and shed their clothes, ridding themselves of everything that was of their former lives, and naked, they entered the waters to be immersed in them.  Drowning is an apt image.  So is dying.  But then they rose from the depths and crossed over to the other side, emerging there to be clothed in a white, alb-like garment.  You have put on Christ.  In him you have been baptized.  That is the birth that goes deeper than putting on as one would a shirt or a pair of trousers.  The new birth results in identification with Christ.  The new life lived is Christ’s own.  The love bond that results is tremendous and will never be broken.

John spells out the implications in bold relief.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  Christ is the Word made flesh.  Christ is the only Son of God, the Father’s beloved one.  The baptized are born into that relationship and assume the mantle of God’s beloved.  Perhaps there can be passivity in accepting this new identity; we cannot be passive in living out what that identity means.  The baptized are called to do what Jesus does, called to act in, with, and through Christ, to do all in his name.  What power resides there!  That is what Peter declares as he reminds the leaders of the people that the healing of the crippled man that now incriminates him was done by his power by was done in the name of the Risen One whom they condemned.  Peter says this not to denounce the leaders but to invite them to repent and embrace the Name.

Hear the words of the gospel today.  Jesus speaks of his role as shepherd, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep just as the sheep know him.  The language speaks of intimacy of relationship, reflective of Jesus’ relationship with the Father.  I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  Be vulnerable to those words.  Let them penetrate to the core of your being.  Then hear the conclusion to the declaration: I will lay down my life for the sheep.

Again, not to belabor the issue, we might be comforted to know we are sheep.  Not the brightest of God’s creatures, sheep cannot possibly have much of a burden of conscience or responsibility.  They simply follow.  Not so here.  Being identified with Christ means taking on the responsibility of shepherding and knowing the sheep, at once being both sheep and shepherds.

The language begins to limp.  So let’s speak in clearer terms.  What is your experience of Church?  What is your experience of parish?  What role do you play?  The call to membership is not to embrace passivity.  The Church, the parish is a communal reality; all members have shared responsibility.  The faith resides in them.  Members must know each other just as the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father.  The caring for each other must reflect the depth of that knowing.  The members come together to celebrate the sacraments.  It is the community that baptizes.  The members of the community are co-celebrants of Eucharist and not mere passive spectators.  They are called to full, active, and conscious participation.  Passive attendance won’t cut it, if you will.  When you gather with your parish community is the love so strong that you know the others would lay down their lives for you just as you would for them?

Sometimes the evening news doubles as powerful catechist.  The image was of a car in flames.  A fallen motorcycle lay in front of the car.  A group of people, most of them strangers to each other at this point, realizes that there is a young man, the cycle rider, under the car.  No one hesitates.  They move in on the burning car and together they lift it as one of their number stoops down and pulls the man from beneath it, saving his life.  Later, to a person, when their deed was praised, they refused to be called heroes.  They just did what anyone would have done in those circumstances.  Would that were so!

There’s more.  Jesus says: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  Jesus’ call is universal.  His desire is that there be one human family, that all believe they are sisters and brothers in the human experience.  Our sense of responsibility must be universal, too.  No one is outside the pale.  Kenyans and Ugandans are our brothers and sisters.  So, too, are Israelis and Iraqis.  So are those of every family and tribe on the face of the earth.  That’s not easy to deal with, but it is the truth and is our responsibility if we have put on Christ.  That’s what it means to live in Christ and for Christ to live in us.

The gospel concludes with Jesus’ being confident as he moves toward the crucifixion.  Notice that he is the actor and not the passive recipient of the impending execution.  I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.  No wonder the cross, that horrid instrument of torment, has become for us a symbol of hope and life.  Jesus suffered these things and so entered into glory.  So will we if we do the same.

Where will all this take us?  God only knows.  But if we believe that God loves us with the same love God has for Christ, what does it matter?  Hear again what John says in the second reading.  Listen and remember.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  That will happen even if the worst befalls us.  That is the promise.

So it is that often I paused by the font and remembered.  Remembering gives the courage to go on.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

 

OUR VULNERABLE GOD


Dear Jesus,

Was that you I saw the other night as I made my way home through the storm?  You were seated on the sidewalk and leaning against a building.  Two little boys were with you, one on either side.  You had sleeping bags with you and parcels of something.  It looked as if you were preparing to spend the night sleeping on the vent in that entrance.

I got out of my car to see if there was something that I could do to help.  But by the time I was close enough to speak to you a van with a church emblem on the side pulled up and two people got out and asked if you would like to sleep out of the storm and in a warm and dry place.  You got up and the three of you entered the van.  It drove off into the night before I could say or do anything.  I stood there and watched as the van taxied down the avenue for several blocks before turning and going out of my sight.

Was I watching you on the evening news as the reporter walked through the lines of mothers and their starving children, refugees in Kenya from the famine in Somalia?  I had to look away from the pictures of listless little ones too weak and malnourished even to brush away the flies that crawled on their faces.  The reporter said that one child, held in his mother’s arms, was four years old.  Anyone looking at him saw one that looked more like a listless one-year-old.  Were you in that helicopter in Afghanistan that was shot down, killing over 30 young soldiers inside?  I wondered if you were the elderly woman that died in her stifling house because a thief stole the AC unit from the window of her home.

This morning during my prayer period, I couldn’t get those images out of my head so that I could experience inner silence and be able to pray.  For some reason I began to think about the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  So, I got out my Bible and read both accounts clear through.  I was struck anew by how each Evangelist presents you in all your vulnerability.  The human child is the most helpless of creatures, totally, completely dependent on others for survival.

It is at the hands of others that a child learns to bond through the experience of human touch, sucking in nourishment from the mother’s breast, being held, fondled, cherished.  In the first weeks of life the baby learns to imitate sounds so that in due time the fundamentals of language can be learned.  I know that a child deprived of these basics at the very beginning may never learn to trust and to bond with other human beings.  Deprived of sounds of speech from the beginning, a child may learn to speak later, but never as naturally as others who, as infants, are exposed to those sounds can do.

I come to see that that is how dependent God became in order to show the compassionate depth of love that God has for us and that we should have for each other.  The human condition is God’s condition.  That’s what God achieved in you, isn’t it?

Is it true that many, even some in the Church, banish the image of vulnerability when they think about your nativity.  How could an infant, fully human and fully divine, possibly be susceptible to the dangers that those who are merely fully human can experience?  Christmas pageants and greeting cards would make one think that what you experienced in those first few months was only a masquerade, a pretending.

Certainly you are fully God, but a vulnerable God.  Those astrologers, those seekers from the East, came because they watched for signs and then interpreted them.  They weren’t called “kings” in the Gospel, nor were their number three.  They were wise.  They were astrologers.  They came to Bethlehem because they habitually watched for signs and then interpreted them and followed out the implications of those omens.  Outsiders, foreigners saw more clearly than did members of the household.  Sometimes I would like to think that they had some extraordinary helps so that they could get beyond the mewling infant and recognize the Wonder unfolding, the promise being fulfilled, hope’s dawning.  But all they saw was a baby and a mother and father.  What they saw became a sign for them and they adored as one does God alone.

All of this brings me back to my initial question about recognizing you in today’s victims.  If I say that I believe in the Christmas and Epiphany events, that through you, God has entered definitely into the human condition, then I have to search you out and serve you wherever you are found.  It was you being rescued by that van as I approached the other night, wasn’t it?  And it was you, so fragile and weak, that you could not raise your hand to swat the fly away.

All this searching in the night that threatens to envelope us today, in the midst of these calls to war and attempts to be a dominant presence in other lands make me wonder if we don’t live in an age of idolaters.  The state is not our reason to hope.  It is not our salvation.  If the light is to shine, you have to be the source.  We have to read the signs of the times, search the heavens, ponder and pray if we are to hear your cry and come and adore.

Perhaps that is why I am outraged when I hear some of our political leaders decry the thought of taxation of the wealthy and say that the government has minimal responsibility for the poor and the aged.  The private arena has that obligation, they say.  Is profit the only goal and motivation of manufacturers in these difficult financial times?  Shouldn’t there be a problem with outsourcing to foreign lands by so many of the corporations the jobs that used to provide employment for many of our laborers.  From a faith perspective, I wonder about our value system.  As the chasm separating the wealthy from the poor continues to grow and imitate that in other nations where revolutions now rage, I wonder what might lie in store for us, if we don’t recognize the implications of the Good News perceived in our vulnerable God.

Is that the Gospel message?  Or, am I getting it wrong?  Correct me, please, if I am missing the point.  I want to know your peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus