Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

AN ADVENT MUSING II

To this day I can feel my father’s hand holding mine as we walked up California Avenue toward home.  I had just had my first haircut in a real barbershop.  We passed a man seated on the sidewalk, leaning against the Woolworth’s storefront, his hat in his hand.  I pointed my finger at the man and laughed.  My father and I kept walking until we were some distance from the man when my father stopped our walk and turned toward me.  In as stern a voice as I had ever heard from him, he said, “Listen to me, Mister.  You will never do anything like that again.  You do not know that man’s story.  You don’t know what has reduced him to that condition.  He is your brother.  Do you understand me?”  Shamefaced, I nodded and tried to keep from crying.

“Dry those tears.”  Then he put two coins in my hand and said, “Now you go back to that man and give him that money.  Then you tell him that you hope he has a nice day.”  I did as I was told.  I returned to my father and we continued our walk home in silence.  It was about a block later that Dad said, “Whenever you see someone in trouble or hear someone’s story, I hope you will always try to understand what the person is going through.  Try to share the experience as if it were your own.  That’s called compassion.  If you are compassionate, you will never ridicule another.  Do you understand what I am saying?”

I said, “Yes, Daddy.”  I didn’t, of course.  Not then.  It took some years of living and experiencing other people’s sorrows.  But, finally I think I got what my father wanted me to understand.  When we are compassionate, we know that we love the other even as we dare to try to help carry a cross.

That memory came to me as I woke this morning.  My sleep had been somewhat restless.  Thoughts of all the hatemongering that has occupied the news lately kept me tossing and turning through the night.  Before retiring, I heard the confession voiced by the young man in South Carolina who killed those people in the church because they were Black.  They had invited him to share Scripture with them.  He responded with his gun, even losing count of how many he had killed.  No remorse.  He had to do what he did for racist reasons he said.  He is a white supremacist.

The KKK is organizing for a march to support the President-elect.  The alt-right speaks ever louder.  Ranting against Hispanics and Muslim refugees and talks of deportation all foster the ever-increasing evidence of division in our society.  My heart aches.

Perhaps it is my father’s words challenging me to be compassionate that cause this reaction in me.  There is Syrian ancestry in my DNA from my father.  The image of that little boy, dazed in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo haunts me.  It doesn’t matter whether he is Muslim or Christian.  He is an innocent child who should not have to experience the horror of being buried in rubble, terrified that he would not be found and freed.  At 5 years of age, he should not have to mourn the loss of his family, killed by the bombs that destroyed their home.

How can anyone look into the eyes of that child and not ache for him?

Last evening I heard the voice over of a commercial.  I hadn’t been paying attention, so I don’t remember what was being advertised.  The voice said, “You can like many.  You can love only a few.”  Really?  Is that the truth to be embraced by today’s society in this country?  What about the Gospel?  I remember those bracelets we wore those many years ago: WWJD.  What Would Jesus Do?

There are difficult sayings attributed to Jesus that we can hear proclaimed without being shocked because we have heard them so often.  It doesn’t occur to us to wonder, “Who can do that?”  Our vulnerable selves should be listening more closely.  We’ve missed the point if we think the challenge of the Gospel is easy.  In this context, I think of Jesus’ challenges regarding love.

“Love one another as I have loved you. “

“Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.”

“By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In short, the Gospel is about love.  It is not by accident that in the Gospel, so often the great example of response comes from a Gentile.  The Good Samaritan responds with compassion to the man beaten and left half dead by the roadside.  The priest and the Levite pass by to maintain ritual purity.  The Samaritan woman rejoices in who Jesus is and goes to tell others about him.  It is the one Gentile among the ten lepers cured at Jesus command that returns to him to praise God for what has happened to him.  The examples Jesus uses angered his Jewish brothers and sisters who thought of themselves as observers of The Law and God’s favored ones.

Jesus proclaims the universality of God’s love for all, regardless of race, gender, or religion.  Strange how Christians have taken that proclamation and limited it.  How judgmental we have become over the centuries and ready to consign others to damnation.  It’s hard to see the Gospel message in the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

What are we to do in these times?  The voiceover in the commercial said we can like many but love only a few.  That’s not what Jesus said.  In this splintered and divided society, those who have heard the Gospel and dared to accept the challenge to be a disciple must live in such a way that it is evident that we love all, especially those singled out for derision, the non-Caucasians, the Muslims, the Lesbians, Gays, and Transgenders, the Hispanics and the Refugees.  If you are a Republican, love the Democrats, and vice-versa.  All people are created out of God’s love and are destined to live in that love for eternity.

As believers, we must be about forgiving and raising up.  The survivors of that terrible shooting in the church in South Carolina one by one told Mr. Roof that they forgave him.  We must do the same if there is someone we have to forgive for hurting us.  And if we are disciples, we must do what Jesus did.  We have to pour ourselves out in loving service of those who stand in need.

We have to listen carefully as Jesus challenges us, “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.”  In today’s divided and judgmental society, loving is that cross.  That’s what my father tried to teach me all those years ago.  And I hear his voice as I continue to try to follow his instruction.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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AN ADVENT MUSING – 2016

O COME, DESIRE OF NATIONS,

BIND IN ONE THE HEARTS

OF HUMAN KIND;

BID EVERY STRIFE AND

QUARREL CEASE

AND FILL THE WORLD

WITH HEAVEN’S PEACE.

The above is from the Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  For this Advent Season, the hymn seems especially apt.  Certainly, there have been other years in this country that were marked by racial strife and tension, years of marches, lynchings, and violence that attempted to stifle emerging racial equality.  Some of us thought that in spite of the violence or perhaps because of it, equality had become the law of the land.  We were becoming more and more obviously a land of one family, brothers and sisters, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In a moment everything can change.  After a year-and-a-half of vitriol, what to many seemed to be a call to re-establish a divided nation, and ranting that seemed to condone racism, sexism, and homophobia held sway.  It is true that some are rejoicing.  But many are not.  Some thought there were signs that the Church’s theory of Social Justice, the theory that we are responsible for the well being of our brothers and sisters, had captured the secular imagination and motivated major movements.  True, also, not a few decried that theory.  And not a few wonder where we will go from here, and tremble at the prospects.

In these troubled times we celebrate the Season of Advent.  What is the Season about?  Advent is not embarrassed by adversity.  Do not miss the fact that the first one’s to hear the Good News and respond to the message with the poor, the off scouring of society, and the unclean.  The challenge remains to look up with eager longing and believe that the coming Emmanuel bids strife and quarrels cease as he brings the fulfillment of God’s desire that this world will be filled with heaven’s peace.

But how?  Advent is not a season that invites us to watch for a divine intervention, a swooping down from above that with one spectacular gesture will make all things right.  Jesus formed and sent.  His preaching changed the hearts of those who listened and believed.  Then he sent those believers out to bring the Good News to all they met – practically by tending to the needs of the poor, embracing the leper, and telling the despised that God loves them.

We may sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel this Advent, but our longing is different from that of those before the dawn of the Christian era.  Emmanuel has come.  We believe in Christ.  What we long for is that Christ, Emmanuel, will come in this day and age and change our hearts and send us out with the message.

That’s where it must begin, with us.  Our desire for the Advent experience is the longing for a change of heart.  Pope Francis has been tireless in his challenging the Church to change, to become a poor church, serving the needs of the poor.  He challenges the shepherds in the Church to shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even to smell like the sheep.  Put aside the trappings of splendor and send out the message that all are welcome here.  He imagines the reconciliation with the divorced and remarried.  He allows for priests to absolve the sin of abortion.  He refuses to judge a person’s sexual orientation.  Some wonder where it will stop.  That is not the message that some in the Church want to hear.

But for many, that message resonates with Gospel.  Each of us, by virtue of our Baptism, has put on Christ, become identified with Christ, and is loved by God as Christ is.  As the Body of Christ in this age, Christ challenges us to live the message and do what we can to make us all one again.

Our times are troubled.  Many wonder if they will be deported.  Many feel they will be discriminated against because they are Muslims.  The disparaging of the dangers of Climate Change concerns many.  A friend said he was glad he is of an advanced age.   There was little evidence of hope as he said he is glad his life is nearly over.  We can give my friend and the many others on the brink of despair renewed reason to hope.  Live the Gospel.

The powerful among us can work for reform.  The rest of us, in the trenches, can reach out and by acts of kindness lift up the lowly, even as we identify with them.  The Gospel calls us to be compassionate.  Compassion means to suffer with.  We are compassionate when we take on another’s suffering.  And when we do, the world changes.

As you pray, listen to your inner voice.  What does the Spirit invite you to do?  What act of charity would the Spirit enflesh in you?  Where should you volunteer?  Whom should you invite to dinner.  Who needs to hear that you forgive him or her?  There is no limit to the possibilities.  And when you say “Yes” the divisions will begin to heal and world begins to fill with heaven’s peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus

EARLY ON THAT MORNING, THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK…

I woke with a start as his name flashed through my mind, a name I hadn’t thought of for over thirty-five years.  A shock had trembled through me when I first heard the news that he had been murdered, killed by a shotgun blast as he peered from his front door on a snowy January night in 1969.  He was a black man who had lived in a mostly white neighborhood.  He was an activist for racial equality.  His killers had thrown a snowball against a window.  The sound had alarmed his wife.  She looked through their bedroom window and saw the intruders hiding behind her husband’s car in the carport.  He had gone to the front door to investigate.  She cried out too late to alert him to the danger and heard the blast that killed him almost instantly.

In those years, assassinations were frequent.  Violence ran rampant in the country.  Riots and demonstrations on college campuses and in city streets demanded that race relations and war be reconsidered.  John Kennedy’s slaying in Dallas in 1963 ushered in an era of change the way, in the same year that Vatican Council II opened windows and let the wind of renewal and change rush through the Church.  Then Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were gunned down.  Watts, Detroit, Selma, and other cities found new fame as places where citizens banded together and stood in the face of police batons, snarling dogs and the rush of water from fire hoses.  Kent State and other campuses experienced sit-ins and student demonstrations led to violence and bloodshed.  Pictures of anguished students crying out in the camera’s eye haunted all who saw them.  So did the picture of the naked and napalm seared young girl running down a Vietnamese street shriek of the horrors of war.

Those years are distant now.  They were the years of my formation and the beginning of my priestly ministry.  Then it seemed that the church for which I was prepared in the seminary years ceased to be with the Council’s closing and the issuing of new foundational documents called Constitutions that called the Church as the people of God to a new springtime, a new Pentecost.  From this vantage point Pentecost seems a most apt analogy.

We’re used to sanitizing and tranquilizing Scriptural scenes – Pentecost among them.  There was the sound of a violent wind blowing in the place where they were and over their heads appeared tongues as of fire.  Yet when you see stained glass or holy card representations of the scene, everything looks tranquil and serene, without a hint of violence.

Looking back on those years and remembering the violence in the streets and the upheaval in the Church, I believe the world experienced the rush of the Spirit in those winds of change.  Nothing would ever be the same again, no matter how nostalgically some would come to look at pre-conciliar days.  Those times may have seemed safer with people kept in their proper places in an established hierarchy and with roles carefully defined according to sex and race.  The evils of sexism and racism wore sanitized masks.  Justice and Equality became the new catchwords that came to define that new era.  Pentecost is dangerous as are hurricanes and forest fires.  We have to remember that the ones who emerged from the first Pentecost could never go back to what they had been before.  They were transformed forever.  And so were we who matured in the 1960’s and experienced the new Pentecost.

Which brings me back to the man whose name came to me in the night nearly forty years after his murder.  We appeared on a panel together addressing the question of racial equality in a mostly white neighborhood.  The Church in the Modern World called for us to be involved in societal change and to be engaged in the cry for justice.  Speaking on that panel before an all-white audience seemed like the right thing to do.  The parish hall was packed.  My co-panelist was the only black in the room.  Several of us spoke in turn of our desire to see this new era of justice emerge and to see the crime of racism cease.  I can no longer remember what I said.  But I’m sure it was safe and sanitized.  I was new to speaking out, new to the Church’s role as an implement of change in society.  I did not want to rankle the assembly.  Polite applause followed my remarks.

Then he spoke last.  I remember sitting in stunned attention as he lashed out at the establishment and at the Church for tolerating the abuses against which he now spoke.  It seemed like a call to anarchy for which I had not been warned.

He finished his speech and called for an intermission.  To this day I do not know what possessed me.  Without forethought, I reached over and pulled the microphone back to myself and asked everyone to wait a moment.  Then I turned to the speaker and acknowledged his pain.  I admitted that I could not understand what he suffered because I had not experienced it.  But I said anarchy was not the answer.  We, he, those like him, and the Church, all of us ought to work together.  Together we could be a leaven for the change he longed for.  Apart and at odds, hostility would be the only results.  I pledged to work with him and never again be complacent with the status quo.

I remember our conversation during the break.  He apologized for what I had taken to be a broadsiding.  I pledged my support of his cause.  We promised each other that we would remain in contact and parted that night as friends.

Three weeks later, Edwin Pratt was shot to death in a snowy night in the neighborhood we shared.  It’s been years since I’ve thought about him.  His name came to me in the night.

I remember and wonder how far have we come?  Has the stone been rolled away?