Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Christian joy

Hey? Are you smiling now? Do you have a face that radiates your Christian belief. Many think Christians should be happy all the time. So, are you smiling yet?
There's a pop-Gospel song entitled, "If You're Happy, Notify Your Face." Not a well-known song among the contemporary Christian songs. The first stanza goes like this:

If you're happy, notify your face,

Take that frown off and put a smile in its place;

If you love Jesus, well, show it to the human race,

If you're happy, notify your face.

The song is catchy and cute, but, in reality, our facial expression is affected by the whole range of things we experience. Do you know people whose natural facial expressions when at rest looks like smiles? If projecting happiness is a Christian obligation, then those people have an edge on the rest of us because they don't need to think about notifying their faces. But, of course, their usual expressions are merely the result of how the muscles in the face function. These same people might tell us that their lives aren't happy at all. On varying occasions, we might even see their faces projecting pain, upset and anger. Most of us find it impossible to be happy all the time. Life is just too complicated for that.

Author Thomas Kelly tells of a well-known Christian of an earlier era, John Wilhelm Rowntree (1868-1905), who began to lose his sight, and went to a doctor. After examining Rowntree, the doctor told him that nothing could be done; he was soon going to go completely blind. Afterward, outside the office, Rowntree stood holding onto a railing to collect himself, when he suddenly felt the love of God wrap around him and he "was filled with a joy he had never known before." Under the circumstances, that was hardly happiness at all, but it was the powerful presence of God. And certainly that radiates a quality of joy!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Joy from the Holy Spirit

"with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers"

Acknowledging the joy referenced in today's second reading reveals the total picture of humanity. We are not half-empty, but half-full. While it is true that we are flawed and fractured and thus may never be able to remain filled and satisfied for very long, we can nevertheless return again and again and again to the well of God's love and joy and draw from it all that we need to refill our strength of will and soundness of heart.

Rejoicing in the Lord and proclaiming the glass half-full and the bucket fillable takes more than a sappy sense of well-being - it takes gutsy joy. Gutsy joy enables us to see the steady stream of God's love and fidelity flowing into our lives when we feel as though we are in the midst of a spiritual drought. Gutsy joy keeps us striving after obedience even when we realize we will always fall short of God's intentions for us.
One of the greatest examples of gutsy joy is Robert Louis Stevenson, someone who was devastatingly ill from childhood on and was in pain almost every day of his adult life.

One morning toward the end of his life, when he was hemorrhaging so badly he could not even whisper, Stevenson wrote his wife and daughter a little note which read: "Mr. Dumbleigh presents his compliments and praises God that he is sick so he has to be cared for ... Was ever a man so blest?"

In the closing days of his life, Stevenson wrote this prayer that has become somewhat of a classic: 

"We thank Thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food and the bright skies that make our lives delightful.... Give us courage, gaiety, and the quiet mind." 

Experiencing joy, feeling the laughter of loved life well up in our spirits and burst out of our mouths is a divine gift. C. S. Lewis believed that the ability to laugh at ourselves is as close as we get to true repentance in life. Tears over our brokenness close us down, as we dwell on the empty portions of our lives. Laughter opens us up, allowing us to lift our faces to the Lord from the surface of our half-filled selves, acknowledging our incompleteness and awaiting the pouring out of God's spirit

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Sunday Word

We don't really know if Jesus ever put pen and ink to paper. No record exists that he ever wrote anything or kept a library of his own. We do know, however, that Jesus was immersed in Israel's Scriptures in a way that did not require him to carry a Torah scroll with him or keep a filing system. The text never disappeared from his memory, and the words that he spoke were so important that among tons of paper and gallons of ink ever used in history, they are the most important -- so much so that precious ink is still used to show them to the world. And perhaps none of those words are as important as those spoken by Jesus in this Sunday's text, known to history as "The Great Commandment."
The great commandment
In Matthew's Gospel, this passage appears in a series of rapid-fire questions from the religious authorities who are grilling Jesus in the temple. The Pharisees maintained huge libraries of commentaries about the Torah and believed themselves to be experts in the law as it appeared on ink and paper. When they heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, another religious literate group, they gathered together and had a lawyer among them ask Jesus a question designed to "test" him.

The test question, or "trick" question was: "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

Jesus answers with words that were familiar to every Jew, words that were recited every morning and evening as a prayer. The "Shema" was so important that pious Jews took the commandment to "bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" literally. Little scrolls containing the words of were worn on the foreheads of pious Jews in leather boxes called phylacteries and attached to doorposts in little containers called mezuzahs. It was a command to be carried, worn and touched.

But even more than that, it was a command to be lived. In a sense, the words on the scroll were unnecessary because they were prayed and recited daily. The irony of the "test" is that those standing in front of Jesus in their phylacteries had the text in paper and ink and yet they did not realize that in their desire for religious correctness they were allowing it to disappear.

Indeed, Jesus tells the crowds to listen to the teaching of the Pharisees but not to do as they do "for they do not practice what they teach." Of all the commandments in their scrolls, Jesus says, this commandment is "the first and greatest" -- not just to be taught, but to be lived. Even if the words on the scrolls disappeared, this commandment remains permanent.

The second commandment is "like" the first: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" . This commandment wasn't just to be worn on the forehead, but it was to be kept in the heart and obeyed through the hands. For Jesus, love of God naturally works its way outward in love for neighbor, and love for neighbor can be an expression of love for God. If you put these two commandments together, says Jesus, you will boil down all the words of "the law and the prophets."  The words printed by the water-jet printer may disappear every 24 hours, but the words of Jesus will never disappear.

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's all about you, Jesus!

"It's all about you" - the phrase can build us up or tear us down. 

But if truth be told, a more appropriate mantra for this generation is: "It's all about me." In fact, Web sites abound making that very claim. Type in "It's all about me" and you'll find thousands of self-declarative, self-proclaiming, self-expressing netizens professing "It's all about me" - whoever "me" might happen to be. 

Ebay, the online auction site, encourages "about me" pages because "Your About Me" page is a great way for people to understand who you are. You describe who you are - or if not who you are, then maybe how you see yourself, or wish yourself to be. You create a Web site which defiantly declares, "It's about me! It's all about me! Me, me, me, me! Notice me! See me! Here I am! I matter! Read about me! Know me!"

Jesus is well aware of the destructive nature of the "all-about-me" mentality. That's why he warns that his followers must be willing to deny themselves before they can be counted as true disciples. He understood that the only thing that stands between God and me, is me. I'm in my own way. Every time I try to walk alone I trip over myself.

This getting-out-of-the-way is what makes Peter's proclamation about Jesus so remarkable, so extraordinary, so inconceivable. For a moment, perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter gets out of his own way. For a moment Peter stops thinking about himself. He stops putting "me" first. In a flash of insight he understands, if only for that instant, that it isn't "about ME" - it never was and never will be. In effect, Peter proclaims, "It's all about you, Jesus!"

It's about Peter's becoming smaller inside himself and allowing Jesus to become bigger inside him. John the Baptist had the same insight when he said about Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Church as the Body of Christ

Pope Francis has delivered a message that, in light of recent events, might be seen not only as timely but also pointed:

The Church as the Body of Christ was the focus of Pope Francis general audience this Wednesday morning, attended by tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists in an autumnal St. Peter’s Square.

Referring to the Apostle Paul’s advice to the quarreling community in Corinth the Pope noted that many of our Christian communities, our parishes are divided by envy, gossip, misunderstanding and marginalization.

He said this “dismembers us” and moreover is the beginning of war. “War does not begin on the battlefield: war, wars begin in the heart, with this misunderstanding, division, envy, with this fighting among each other”.

No one is superior in the community of the Church, and when we feel tempted to think of ourselves as superior “especially to those who perform the most humble and hidden services” the Pope said we should “remember our sins” in shame before God.

The only way to counter such division is to appreciate the individual qualities and gifts of others and give thanks to God for them.

The Church understood as the Body of Christ – he concluded – is a profound communion of love, its deepest and most beautiful distinguishing feature.

From the official text:

In Paul’s time, the community of Corinth experienced a lot of difficulties in this sense, experiencing, as we too often do, divisions, jealousies, misunderstandings and marginalization. All of these things are not good, because rather than building and helping the Church to grow as the Body of Christ, they shatter it into many pieces, they dismember it. And this also happens in our day. Just think of our Christian communities, our parishes, think of how many divisions there are in our neighborhoods, how much envy, gossip, how much misunderstanding and marginalization. And what does it do? It dismembers us. It is the beginning of war. War does not begin on the battlefield: war, wars begin in the heart, with this misunderstanding, division, envy, with this fighting among each other. And the community of Corinth was just like this, they were champions in this! And the Apostle, then, gave some practical advice to the Corinthians that can apply to us: Do not be jealous, but appreciate the gifts and the quality of our brothers and sisters in our communities. Jealousy: “But … he bought a car,” and I am jealous; “This one won the lotto”, and I am jealous; “And he’s good at this,” and another jealousy. And that dismembers, it hurts, it should not be done! Because jealousy grows, grows and fills the heart. And a jealous heart is a bitter heart, a heart that instead of blood seems to have vinegar, eh! It is a heart that is never happy, it is a heart that disrupts the community. But what should I do? Appreciate the gifts and the quality of others in our communities, of our brothers. But, when I am jealous – because it happens to us all no? All of us, we are all sinners eh! – When I am jealous, I must say to the Lord: “Thank you, Lord, for you have given this to that person”.

Appreciating the qualities and countering division; drawing close and participating in the suffering of the poorest and the most needy; expressing gratitude for everything – saying thank you, the heart that knows how to say thank you, is a good heart, a noble heart, a heart that is happy because it knows how to say thank you. I ask you: do we all know to say thank you? No? Not always? Because envy, jealousy holds us back a bit? Everyone, and especially those who perform the most humble and hidden services; and, finally, this is the advice that the apostle Paul gives the Corinthians and we to should give one another: never consider yourself superior to others – how many people feel superior to others! We too, often sound like the Pharisee in the parable: “Thank you Lord that I am not like that person, that I am superior”. But this is bad, do not do that! When you are tempted to this, remember your sins, those no one knows, shame yourself before God and say, “You, Lord, you know who is superior, I close my mouth”. And this is good. And always, in charity consider yourself as members who belong to one another and who live and give yourselves for the benefit of all (cf. 1 Cor 12-14).