Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Holy Week Prayers

Hosanna ----- Save us.  Please!!
My thoughts during this Holy Week before Easter have varied over the years.  Some years, I never got beyond Palm Sunday and its praising of Jesus:  “That’s me and how I’d want to treat Him,” I thought.  Other years (perhaps most of them) the depths of the Passion became my focus --- “I caused that,” I remembered.  I think this year, however, will be different because of my recent prayers and reflections on our country.
This past Palm Sunday I was reminded what the word Hosanna means in Hebrew.  As Jesus passed and they laid down palms, the Jews weren’t shouting “Hail to our King,” or “Hail to our God,” or any other such adoration.  It’s more like they were humbly begging, loudly: “Save us.  Please!!”  (With an emphasis on the “please”)  The Jews were under Roman power.  We’ve read stories of Christians martyred for refusing to bow to the self-proclaimed god, Caesar.  Don’t you imagine that there were Jews facing the same threat?  Don’t you imagine many Jews only saw a future of death and destruction for themselves, with no way out?  Then along came Jesus, a man with great powers.  What will He do?  What CAN He do?  They don’t know, but “looking out for Number One,” they scream out to Him as He passes:  “Hosanna --- Save us.  Please!!”
And then, only a short while later, these same people see that their high priests and the Romans obviously want to kill Jesus (“And us?” they wonder), and so suddenly their cries changed.  To protect Number One – again – they cried out:  “Crucify Him.”
The Jewish individuals, wanting to protect themselves first, sought safety in the crowd.  My thoughts in recent months have been on the trends of the crowd in our culture and the many people focused on saving themselves too --- and I realize that I don’t want to follow that crowd anymore.
My God, my God.  Why have You abandoned Me?  (Ps 22:1)
This Holy Week I shall try to focus on the examples and witness of those who did not follow the crowd.  And all the while I shall be considering my next steps in turning around our culture:  what I can do --- and what I will do, and where shall I find the seeds to begin to sow change.
Reading Prior Lenten Blog Posts:  I feel that over the years I have been writing these posts, God has often given me insights, small bits of wisdom, but it’s so easy to forget, or get confused.  These next few days I shall re-read my prior years’ Lenten thoughts, to see if any may be stepping stones for me on which to advance.
Movies:  These next three days I will again watch my three favorite Lenten movies, and take time to reflect again on the lessons I see in them (and perhaps new ones I missed), and the people there who didn’t follow the crowd.  In I Am David is the prisoner who chooses to die in place of another condemned one, and events in that innocent one’s subsequent life.  The same theme echoes in Saving Private Ryan, where the captain does what he must because “I just want to get home,” and in the end he does go home, his eternal home, as he gives his life for another.  And then we hear from that other one, years later, as he reflects at his savior’s gravesite:  “Did I earn your sacrifice?  Did I lead a good life?”  And as he says those words, I know I’ll look up to the cross on my living room wall, and ask the same questions. 
And then I shall also watch The Passion of the Christ movie.  And I shall cry.
I Thirst For You
On the wall behind the altar, at the foot of the giant suspended Crucifix, are these words:  “I Thirst For You.”  I will be reflecting on those words much during these coming days, and what I might do for Him Who calls.
Holy Thursday Night:  It was perhaps ten or fifteen years ago that I became acutely aware of the most troubling part of Christ’s Passion for me.  It was Holy Thursday night, after the scourging, after the crowds had left.  Jesus was alone, with just the guards.  They crowned Him, mocked Him, and laughed at Him.  What must He have thought?  Does it matter, my pains and sufferings?  Will anyone remember?  They all abandoned me.  Here I am, alone.  Have all I said and done been in vain?  Does anyone care?  Perhaps it’s because I know those would have been my thoughts, that I can attribute them to Him.  Regardless, I was not alive then; there is nothing I could have done then.  But I am alive now ---- and so this Holy Thursday night, all night, I will not leave Him alone in the chapel.  I WILL do something, to offer Him some small consolation, demonstrating that I will not forget: what He said and what He did.  I will speak to Him as I ponder His mental agony; He will not be alone.
Lent is meant as a time of penance AND a time of change.  It is a time for commitment, and like Easter, new beginnings.  On His cross, on His sufferings, we can make a sacred commitment to change our lives.  We can make a start.  And the world may change for our little efforts, in ways beyond our comprehension, for in Him all things are possible.
Save us, Savior of the world, for by Your Cross
and Resurrection, You have set us free.

Do not be anxious.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Tobit's Dog

I read Michael Nicholas Richard’s book Tobit’s Dog in a single sitting.  And then I picked up the bible, and read the Book of Tobit.  The dog is only mentioned twice in the Bible, but he becomes a key character in Richard’s book.  I guess that’s why it’s called fiction --- and maybe why I liked it so much.
Tobit, a black man, lives in the South during the years prior to World War II.  There are good men there, and bad, and Tobit’s life, like the life the Tobit in the Bible, becomes one of suffering.  He loses a good position; he’s arrested for cutting down a young boy hanging for three days in a tree, and he goes blind.  He has many trials.  But Tobit is most fortunate in that he has his wife, Anna, and his loyal son, Tobias, to care for him as things just seem to get worse and worse.
A long-lost cousin, Ace, suddenly appears on the scene, and Tobit is reminded of other long-unseen relatives, including one who he had given a sum of money to many years ago --- money he certainly could now use.  Ace says he’d be happy to look up the relative (because he’d planned on traveling that way anyway), and he offers to take Tobias along with him for the journey --- and Tobit’s dog, Okra, decides to tag along too. And they begin their interesting adventure, seemingly watched over by God, as many trials happen along the way, and yet each turns out well in the end.  And they do find the long-lost relative, the very successful Jubal, and his wife ---- AND, his daughter.
And there are bad guys in the story (who come to bad ends), and bad guys who change their ways, and the daughter who marries ---- well, I don’t want to spoil the story for you.  And, yes, there are miracles.  Oh yes, there are miracles.  But what I found most remarkable about this book is that the miracles seem so in the natural flow of the story.  I’ve read many a “Catholic novel” and been bored:  either they preach doctrine for pages on end in ways that no normal person would, or they mellow doctrines so much that almost anything goes because, after all, “Jesus is Love.”  But this novel doesn’t come across that way, either preachy or peachy.  This comes across as if it might have happened.  The characters speak in ways you can readily imagine them speaking, and they laugh at jokes you could imagine yourself laughing at, and they hug one another at times you could imagine hugging them too.  And you can see God’s hand working so calmly among the all characters --- including Tobit and his family.  The story so easily reminds you that God is an intimate part of their lives, and ours.
This is a good book for anyone, and will be on my Christmas giving list.  Teens will love this book because it moves along quickly, and has turns of events you could not foresee.  The old and religious will love this book for it does make you stop and ponder, especially if you follow it by reading the book in the Bible, as I did.  It’s not preachy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make you stop and think now and again. 
Near the end of the book, Tobias muses about his father:
“Tobit had told him that nobody hated or feared doubt, however, so much as an atheist.  He said they were so repulsed by the reality of doubt that they constructed for themselves, a small, materialistic reality that even their own philosophies and laws were proof against.  No one is so deluded as someone who has no doubt, Tobit often asserted.  He scoffed at their pretending that reality could be perfectly measured and tested.”
This brought me back to my own recent musings on atheism in our culture, and in reading Tobias’ words, I found could not have put some of my thoughts better.  This book resonated with me, and while it had sat on my shelf for a while, I read it at just the right time.  No one is so deluded as someone who has no doubt.
I hope you buy this one and read it --- on a nice warm summer’s day, sitting in the shade of a big ol’ tree, and seeing God all around you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Growth of Atheism: 3. Learning to Love Again

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all
your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,
and your neighbor, as yourself.   
(Lk 10:27)
When asked about the greatest of the commandments, Jesus replied as above.  Some describe His words as a summary of the Ten Commandments, but they are more than that; they are the heart of the Ten Commandments.  It’s kind of like the debate about whether one is saved by “faith alone” or by “faith and works.”  The above words are the faith we should have in our hearts, and the Ten Commandments are how we live our lives (“works”) if we have that faith.  They go together; one is living out the other. 
But that is not how we are living today.
The first two parts on this topic dealt with the roots of atheism and the fertilizer which helped it grow.  Evidence showed the growth of atheism and the decline of religion paralleled the decline of the family in our culture.  Many things contributed to a new way of thinking among people, people of good intentions.  None of them thought of themselves as evil, nor wishing evil on anyone.  They wanted to do good.  What changed, with the decline of the family, was for whom they sought to do good, whom they sought to love.  The Great Commandment written above puts a priority on loving God and then neighbor, as yourself.  Those last two words are an assumption:  of course you love yourself.  With the decline of the family and the love received from the family, however, a evidence shows a subtle mindset change for many people:  they no longer feel sure that they are loved.  A new mindset arose in our culture:  Only you are responsible for making yourself happy; the first priority in love is to love yourself, and your actions must focus on this.  This turned the Great Commandment upside down.  Loving me is first; loving neighbor then is a good thing --- if they deserve it, or they act in a loving way to me --- and love of God, well, many people have come to say:  “Well, I just don’t know.  Maybe there is a God; maybe He loves me, but He has to prove it”
There was a time when most people believed He had. 
How did we go from a point in our culture where God was number one, to where He is not on our list of priorities?  And why?  There are things that happened in families and in our churches and in our country which helped atheism take root and grow, and other things which promoted our selfishness, but it was not all outside influences.  Our ways of thinking changed.  With the advances of science came a new way of logically looking at the world:  we could understand things, and we felt that we MUST understand things.  Understanding things became a way of prioritizing our life, putting us in control, a way of self-love for self-preservation.  We ran our lives, and we wanted to be responsible for them.  Everything must be neat and organized in our minds; this was a new way of thinking, one which did not allow for a faith in things we didn’t understand.
I recently watched a play titled “Falling,” by Deanna Jent.  The play was one day in the life of a family with an autistic son.  The 18-year old son in the play has grown taller than his mother and lives in his own world, and only sometimes can he communicate with the world around him.  He intensely focuses on stimuli and MUST fix things to the orderly reality of his mind, so the slightly out of place toy on the floor MUST be moved, food MUST be served to him in a certain way, and noises must be familiar ones, or they must be changed to HIS way.  A barking dog outside, which can’t be controlled, leads him to almost choke his mother in his frustration.  And his sister tells his mom that he should be sent away:  “I hate him!”  But the mother replies:  “I know you hate him, that’s okay, but mothers don’t get that choice.  We just love our kids, no matter what.”  And this was the reality that the mother lived in, in her neat, organized mind which put things in a way which SHE could understand:  “you love your kids no matter what.”  In a way, her thinking was much like her son’s, and much like the thinking which goes on in our culture today:  we must be in control  A reviewer of the play wrote: “Deanna reminds us as the play comes to a close that many times, we don’t get answers to tough questions, and that sometimes the best thing to do is to let yourself fall into the void.  Not a void of darkness, mind you, but rather of letting go and letting the answers come as they may as we trust in what is higher and bigger than we are.”  Not everything is neat and organized as we would like.
A recent Gospel was about the Jews worshipping the golden calf in the desert.  They had good intentions; they wanted to worship God, but they wanted a God that they could see and touch.  They wanted a God that was, in a manner of speaking, in their image.  There was a portion of their minds which said: “Oh, God.  Well, God is like this, or you can think of Him this way, or you should act around Him like this, or this is what he wants.”  They really wanted to, but really didn’t, understand God.  God can’t be thought of as some portion in our mind, something we fit into a nice neat box that we can see and understand, like a golden calf over there in the corner.  If anything, we are some tiny portion of God’s mind; we are something which is much more understandable to Him, than Him to us.  He is God; we are not.
You see this type of thinking all the time:  “Oh Catholics; Catholics are always saying … or, Christians are people who won’t … or, God?  I know God.  God is …”  How often have you heard words like these, or said them?  Every time you do that you are being just like the Jews in the desert, shaping God in an image you can understand, subjecting Him to your rules.
The play Falling had the mom defining love of her child by rules she had learned.   She did seek to love her child as she loved herself, herself first.  But she finds that love doesn’t fit into her neat little box of: “This is how love acts.”  She was looking at love as like looking at the Ten Commandments: these are the rules on how you act.  But love isn’t a rule of action, it is a rule of your will.  Love can’t be contained in simple rules.  Loving your neighbor is loving someone who you will never completely understand --- he is a totally unique being --- and loving God is loving based on faith because He is someone who you will only understand in the smallest sense.  You love an unperfect child and you love God because you WILL to love them.  You love them not because logically you should, but on faith, a faith beyond human reason.
If someone says: “You must have faith,” our culture teaches us to rebel: “I need to understand!”  This is the warp created in some minds by the absence of a loving father --- one they learned to trust.  This is the warp supported by a science that says: “All things can be measured and proven, or they are not real.”  This is the warp created by the cultural lie broadcast to us hundreds of times each day:  “Look at this; it is a good thing and you are right to want it, and you have a RIGHT to have it!  This is your right!!  You understand that, don’t you?”
And we can’t understand that it could be wrong.  And we can’t understand why we might not understand --- everything.  We can’t accept that what we reason to be right, might be wrong in the eyes of God.  In the Gospel on the 5th Sunday of Lent, Jesus hears His good friend Lazarus is ill --- and so He stays away for two days.  WHAT??!  If Lazarus was His best friend, and if Jesus IS God and could heal anyone, why oh why would He stay away for two days?  To our way of thinking, it doesn’t make sense.  But it did to God.  In His love, it made sense.
I have written here in the past about what it means to understand another person, another being.  We have our five senses, and science says that is how we know something or someone.  It (or he) is what he demonstrates to our senses, his actions or words are things that we can analyze.  But that type of analysis only works for physical objects or animals, not for a man or God, who are beings of a higher order.  We can know and predict most things about a seed and the life of a resulting plant, but we can never know man that way.  Each and every man is a unique being, made in the image of God in a unique way, with a unique purpose in God’s plan, an ideal purpose.   But each man also has a free will, such as no plant or animal possesses, and so each man creates his own being, changing it constantly.  Throughout his life, man is growing in his Being, becoming something different than he was --- hopefully growing better, even holier, as Christians would say.  So one man, in trying to understand another, can never fully understand the other.  NO human being can truly know, in all his depths, another human being.  Each is unique.  To the degree that one comes to understand another more, it is a lifelong growing in knowledge, a lifelong commitment --- like marriage.  Yet, still, one man will never achieve perfect knowledge of another.
So why do we think we can understand, or for some reason MUST understand God, or what He thinks?  Why must we look at Scripture and say: “That doesn’t make sense to me, therefore here is what it must mean …”  Why?  Why must God make sense to us?  That feeling comes about because of all those cultural warps we wrote about earlier:  the culture supports us in thinking and saying that we MUST understand those things.  We have a RIGHT to know!
But we can’t, and we don’t.  We weren’t made that way.
We’ve turned that Great Commandment of God --- to love God, then neighbor, as ourselves --- upside down.  The commandment assumes we love ourselves and then tells us that beyond ourselves we must first love God, and then neighbor.  But the culture, the warps in our thinking, leads us to see the commandment as:  Love ourselves, then neighbor, and perhaps God --- if He exists.   The original commandment ASSUMED we loved ourselves, but we have let the culture warp our thinking into believing we must focus on self-love.  “Look out for number one,” is what the culture screams.  “You have a right to be happy,” --- as if someone is saying you don’t.  But it implies further, kind of like that tempting voice in the Garden of Eden, “And you can make yourself happy.  No one else will.”
And that is the subtle, softly spoken, BIG lie.
And that gets to the heart of the issue with the growth of atheism, the decline of religion and the decline of the family in our culture --- and the decline of our happiness.  It is a decline in feeling loved.  It is a growth in the feeling that we need self-love.  Narcissism has changed from a mental illness to a virtue.  As a society, we’ve forgotten how to love, and be loved.  What once was taught in our families, in our churches, in our communities, and lived out in our lives, has become only a memory of the elderly.  Even as we’ve flipped around the commandment on who we are to love, we’ve flipped around our assumptions about who should love us.
Our educational institutions and our culture assume that God doesn’t love us first; He isn’t there.  Among our neighbors, our family doesn’t love us first --- we can’t rely upon them, our government does, or can be made to.  And our concept of love revolves around what we can know and understand.  We can’t know another person, but we can know a government and its laws --- and if it will give us things we want.  That is how we feel loved, when something gives us what we reason we want, and should have, --- and have a RIGHT to have.  Something that gives us those things, loves us.
And in getting the things we want, our reasoning (strangely) stops, for we “feel” loved.  And we can’t reason the illogic of our feelings:  a government can’t love us; it is a thing.  It is not another person.  Only another person can love.  Laws can’t love.  Even commandments can’t love.  Love is something freely given from one being to another being.  We choose to love.
That is freedom.
So, if our concept of love, and how we feel loved, is warped, turned upside down, how do we turn it right side up?  How do we stop this decline in our culture?  How do we turn around epidemic narcissism?  How do we learn to love again?
There are some who would say it starts at the top.  We need to evangelize and teach people about God.  We need to teach people how to love and have faith that God loves us.  Certainly this is a good thing to do, but I’m reminded about that parable of the miracle of the loves, as I wrote about recently.  Jesus fed the 5,000 AFTER the people did what they could, first.  He worked with their little efforts (their puny 5 loaves and 2 fish), and made them bigger.  With that mindset, I think that our efforts to change our culture should not start at the top, but at the bottom with a change in our actions.  Learning to love again should start where it first stopped:  in the family.  Absent fathers and broken families rooted and fertilized the cultural decline.  And that is where, I believe, the decline should be stopped.
We need to learn to love again, as a family loves, and where there are no families, create them.  The target of our love should be our own family, and then extend out from this to our parish family.  As Jesus commanded his disciples: we should prioritize a love for widows and orphans --- those without a father.  We should be for them the father image they are missing.  The need for self-love and self-dependence can be stopped by changing our focus to one of providing love.  Within our families and within our parish families we need to establish a visible love, a trusting in each other, a knowing of each other.  We need the world to look on us again with envy:  “See how they love one another.” 
Some would have us focus on changing the world, and say that is the example of Jesus.  But they would not be looking closely enough at the Scriptures.  Jesus loved the world one person at a time.  He expects no more from us --- but He does expect us to do what we can, no matter how small in relation to the size of the project.  We need to start learning to love again, by focusing on those nearest to us, and our parish families.  Even as atheism took root in our culture from inadvertent seeds which warped minds, we need to deliberately plant seeds, to begin again the culture which is not focused on self-love, but on God and neighbor.
Next:  4. Planting New Seeds