On not bracketing essentials during moral battles

Today, both within society and the churches, we are finding it ever more difficult to resolve our differences because our conversations are shot through with non-civility, name calling, character assassination and disrespect.

What’s particularly worrying is that we are doing this in the name of truth, cause, the Gospel and Jesus. We are giving ourselves permission to hate, demonize and disrespect each other in God’s name. Our cause seems so important to us that, consciously or unconsciously, we give ourselves permission to bracket some of the essentials of Christian charity, namely, respect, graciousness, love and forgiveness.

This is wrong: No cause allows me to exempt myself from fundamental charity, even if I see myself as a “warrior for truth.” There is a Gospel imperative to fight for truth and ultimately we all need to be prophets who fight for what is right; but even war has its ethics. Even in war (perhaps especially in war) disrespect may never be rationalized on the basis of claiming that God is on our side. Indeed, if God is on our side we should radiate respect for others.

Authority must be exercised with justice, integrity

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 21 (Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

People and institutions do not readily or easily relax their steely grip on power. Like this shadowy figure Shebna they come to believe that they have a right to office and position and that power once given is eternal. Shebna was denounced by Isaiah for arrogance, pride, court intrigue and engaging in power politics to counter the Assyrian threat.

Those addicted to power have not yet learned the lesson that our friend Shebna is about to learn: all legitimate authority is from God but it is conditional. The condition is that it be exercised with justice, integrity and mercy and that it always be above reproach. If it is not, God can and often will raise another person or group to power. We have seen this played out in our own lifetimes: dictators sent packing, brutal regimes brought low and corrupt officials disgraced. No one is exempt or immune — this applies equally to the political, economic and religious spheres. And when an institution, political or religious, fails to live up to God’s expectations it too must suffer and be purified. The key is accountability, not only to the people but to God. All power or authority is given for service to humanity and the common good and is not an innate or unlimited right. In this passage power was transferred to David and his descendants but they all fell short of God’s expectations, sometimes egregiously so and with catastrophic consequences.

Don’t conform to the world

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 28 (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)

Most of the biblical prophets were less than thrilled with their calling from God and Jeremiah was probably the most reluctant of the lot. Upon being called he offered a barrage of excuses, but God was unmoved. A call is a call, and if it is from God the necessary strength and inspiration will be given.

Jeremiah had a particularly difficult assignment: he was to prophesy to the nation about the Assyrian and then the Babylonian threat with a ringing call to repentance and rejection of idolatry. But his exhortations and warnings fell on deaf ears. Those in power were surrounded by professional court prophets whose specialty was telling the rulers what they wanted to hear. This is a danger for all who are in positions of power and authority. Their message usually consisted of soothing reassurances that all was well and nothing more was needed to ensure the safety of the nation. No one had time or patience for Jeremiah’s apparent doom and gloom predictions. He would suffer a lifetime of ridicule, rejection, physical abuse, imprisonment and even an attempt on his life. He lived to see his terrible predictions come to pass as the temple and city were destroyed.

Into the darkness, where we can let go

In a retreat I led, we talked about healing broken relationships: not just fixing something, but the new life that can come out of broken places. In the process, a real life is established, for underneath the relationship that broke is a life in need of deep healing.

Forgiveness can’t happen unless we’re willing to let go of winning or losing, being right or wrong. (Fortunately, God forgives — thereby unlocking the door to the process.) This is not to say there isn’t hurt and responsibility, and we may need to sort out what we’re responsible for and what we’re not.

What needs to be let go of? It’s almost never what you think; the surprise of it is part of the joy.

Some hours after this discussion, I was in the garden weeding, during free time after lunch. A participant was on the porch changing a diaper. She lingered, enjoying the beauty of the woods, the sunshine, others’ presence. She broke a long silence by asking me, across the garden: “But how do I let go?”  

In God, all is possible

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 7 (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33)

What would we expect to see if it were announced that the Lord was going to pass by? Nurtured on many of the stories from the Old Testament and years of Hollywood biblical epics, we would be waiting from a spectacular display of power and energy. That was most likely Elijah’s expectation, and sometimes that is how we expect to find the presence of God in our lives — with lots of flair and excitement. When that is not forthcoming it is easy to slip into pessimism and negativity, thinking that God has abandoned us or that God plays favourites.

Elijah witnessed a parade of flashy and powerful earthquakes, wind and fire. But guess what — God was not in any of these. God is not to be identified with natural phenomena — God is much more than that. God is quiet, unobtrusive and subtle; God is non-violent. The Hebrew word is translated in different ways — a murmuring sound, a still small voice, a gentle whispering breeze, and here in this translation “sheer silence.” The “correct” translation can be left to the scholars. They all say fairly much the same thing: quiet, gentleness, stillness, something just beyond our conscious awareness like a dream struggling to be remembered. When Elijah experienced this he covered his face for he knew that he was in the presence of the Holy One.

There are no favourites in heaven

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 14 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

Who are God’s favourites? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Human beings have always had a distressing tendency to want to possess or control God, making God the champion or protector of an ethnic group, nation, class or religion. People have difficulty imagining God blessing those considered to be enemies or undesirables. And yet the “distressing” message is repeated often in Scripture: God does not play favourites and God is there for all people.

Often it is the encounter with people and groups who are different that acts as a catalyst for rethinking images of God. Those Israelites who went into exile in Babylon had to live among (and at the mercy of) an alien people with very different views of the divine. Although they struggled against this environment they also were affected by it and began to broaden their theology and their image of God. In Third Isaiah (chapters 55-61), which was written at the end of the exile, we begin to see a more universal understanding of God. In this passage an image of a holy mountain and temple in which all the peoples of the Earth are welcome makes a startling appearance. Israel’s God can be everyone’s God — right conduct, desire and worship is the only entrance requirement.

Facing up to a new challenge

When I began writing this column, I shared that occasionally I would do a column that was more exclusively about my personal life. I have tried to limit myself in that and, in the 28 years I have been writing this column, have probably done fewer than 10 pieces whose main focus was my own life. When I have done so, it was almost always to share with readers a major transition in my life.

This column is one of those personal pieces. My personal life is again undergoing a major transition, though this one does not concern a move to a new job or to a new city. It has to do with my health.

In early May I went for a routine colonoscopy and the doctor discovered a cancerous tumour in my colon. The good news was that it was discovered relatively early, before there were symptoms.

The Father provides for His followers

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 31 (Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21)

During hard economic times people usually take a long hard look at their spending habits. Under pressure many things suddenly seem unnecessary, even frivolous, and decisions have to be made: What is really important?

Isaiah wonders at the money people are willing to throw away on relatively worthless things that do not even satisfy. In our own time we might look at the multi-billion dollar industry aimed at making people feel better about their appearance or happier and more content. Isaiah has good news: God has far more valuable gifts than anything we can imagine and they are free. He uses the basic symbol of life — water — and invites all who are thirsty to quench their thirst. It is the same image the Gospel of John uses for the living water (Spirit) that Jesus grants to His followers. But there is more: wine, milk and rich food, again without cost. These are the symbols of the God of Israel as provider and sustainer. They encourage the people to trust in God and not give in to fear.

We can become captivated by the bad spirit that always screams, “More!” The Spirit of God, on the other hand, is the spirit that whispers reassuringly, “Enough!” This spirit also bestows on us a feeling of well-being and gratitude despite whatever struggles may come our way. A covenant or relationship with God is never richer or more satisfying than during “hard times.”

There is no shortcut to God’s kingdom

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 24 (1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52)

What can you give someone who appears to have everything? God solves the problem by giving Solomon a heavenly gift certificate — he can cash it in for anything he wants. God asks what Solomon wants and suggests the usual suspects: wealth, long life and the demise of his enemies. But the burdens of his office of king are weighing heavily on Solomon and he feels grossly inadequate for the job. That alone sets him apart: run of the mill despots would not have felt inadequate and wouldn’t have cared in the first place. Solomon asks for an understanding mind fit to govern others and the ability to discern between good and evil. God is immensely impressed and grants him those qualities to a superlative degree. There will never be another like him.

We can only hope that those in positions of responsibility and authority would make similar requests of God. Being granted wishes (usually three) by some superhuman or divine power is a familiar theme in the stories and legends of many of the world’s cultures. The fascination is seeing what the person will ask for and imagining what we would ask for in similar circumstances. The answer to that question probably reveals more about the individual’s character than we would care to admit. But this is not a story of the fulfilment of wishful fantasies nor is God in the business of granting wishes. It is about focusing on and maintaining a high ideal. Solomon’s ideal was wisdom, sound judgement and good leadership. We can ask God to grant us the grace to fulfill and live by our highest ideals. But this must be kept alive and maintained in the heart and mind consistently.

The internal battle for our souls

Two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same subject. Aristotle wrote that and it seems to say the obvious, something can’t be light and dark at the same time.

However, in terms of what’s happening inside our souls it seems that contraries can indeed co-exist inside the same subject. At any given moment, inside us, we are a mixture of light and darkness, sincerity and hypocrisy, selflessness and selfishness, virtue and vice, grace and sin, saint and sinner. As Henri Nouwen used to say: We want to be great saints, but we also don’t want to miss out on all the sensations that sinners experience. And so our lives aren’t simple.

We live with both light and darkness inside us and for long periods of time, it seems, contraries do co-exist inside us. Our souls are a battleground where selflessness and selfishness, virtue and sin, vie for dominance. But eventually one or the other will begin to dominate and work at weeding out the other. That’s why John of the Cross picks up this philosophical axiom and uses it to teach a key lesson about coming to purity of heart and purity of intention in our lives. Because contraries cannot co-exist inside us, there’s something vital we need to do. What?

God expects the righteous to be kind

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 17 (Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43)

The use of force and violence — despite our denials — is widely admired by many people. Just look at movies and video games, as well as the heroes and idols adored by our culture. Restraint and refusal to resort to force is readily seen as a sign of weakness. And strange as it may seem, there are those who prefer a God who is rather violent and quick to punish evildoers (as long as it is someone else!) in the severest ways. They see God’s wrath lurking behind every natural or human disaster and every personal tragedy.

The author of wisdom does not deny for a moment that God is sovereign and has the power to do whatever He wants. But God’s true greatness and strength lies in His restraint and reluctance to resort to such responses. This patience and mildness is borne of God’s intense concern and care for all people and the fervent wish that all have a change of mind and heart. This does not mean that God is a pushover or just turns a blind eye to our injustice, unkindness and downright cruelty. We live in a moral universe. We will meet ourselves in our experience — what we deal out to others will return to us in one form or another.