Papa Francis: The Good Disciple

Look no further than Pope Francis to see Good Discipleship in action. What is discipleship if it is not grounded in the studied practice and fearless proclamation of the challenging teachings of Jesus Christ?

I, like many, love this pope and have done little since he arrived in the United States this week other than tune into live feeds of his speeches and homilies in order to soak up his every word. The man is a prophet on a mission to deliver the Gospel message to the whole world.

His demeanor and style of delivery have made him wildly popular with people of all faith traditions as well as many non-believers. His words are refreshing and compelling, and urgent. There are a few who wish he would be silent. Francis has alluded to the possibility of a short tenure, and knows his popularity may be brief. This awareness led him earlier this month to remark “Jesus also, for a certain time, was very popular, and look at how that turned out.”[1]

Pope Francis is the Good Disciple, but I can’t help but notice the volume of grumbling against Francis’ pastoral focus on the impoverishment of the earth and its people. It suggests his opponents, many of them Christian, do not share my gushing definition of him as a good disciple.

As soon as word came out that Pope Francis was writing an encyclical letter on the environment, many hard core capitalists, again many of whom are Christian, got prickly. And ever since the May 24, 2015 publication of Laudato si‘ (On Care for our Common Home), his critics have suggested he’d do well to keep his church business out of the political realm and stick with the things he’s “qualified” to do. Things, I suppose, like lead prayer, administer sacraments, and celebrate the mass.

Call me crazy, but the first commandment, “Love God and neighbor” implies loving all of God’s creation. Still, one does not need to share the view of creation as divinely inspired in order to understand that greed-driven environmental deterioration and its effect on human life, particularly the poor, is so great a threat to the continuation of life on this planet that a global effort to correct it is now essential.

Pope Francis’ message is one of hope and encouragement that changes are possible, changes both to the way people understand ecological and financial responsibility, and changes to a public policy focused on serving the common good. Care for our common home (and its inhabitants) is a humanitarian issue and indeed a serious political matter.

I hope that many people, after having heard or at least read some of the Pope’s powerful words which he delivered this past week will be inspired to make meaningful changes in the way they live and view our precious common home. Clearly, voices of dissent will linger. But it is up to those of us who take to heart Francis’ message to give witness to them, starting today.

For Christians, discipleship—living out Jesus’ teachings— involves a commitment to social justice—loving our neighbors, forgiving them as many times as is needed, and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. No one, especially Jesus, said it would be easy. He told his disciples they would be hated because of him [MK13:13; MT 10:22; LK 21:17].

Jesus did not come to build a church to house the Trinity and to “assist nicely washed and appointed people to maintain the status quo.”[2] Christianity is not about having a comforting religious experience. We have responsibilities.

Pope Francis’ iteration of Catholic social teachings comes directly from the words and examples of Jesus as well as the prophetic books found in the Hebrew Scriptures. What Francis says challenges those who believe the earth and its riches are at their disposal. In his encyclical, Pope Francis says “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, ch2 no.67]. In like manner, Francis insists that society has a responsibility to care for the least of our brothers and sisters, many of whom suffer as a direct result of policies driven by human greed.

Caring for the poor and being good stewards of the earth and its resources is not a debatable topic; all are woven into the fabric of a civilized society—especially an extremely wealthy capitalist society in which people of good faith and character ought to recognize that the common good, indeed a peaceful world, depends on sincere generosity and compassion for all.

I want to be a good disciple like Pope Francis. This means continued prayer and study of scripture, both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures. It means attending to the wisdom of other like-minded traditions and respecting our profound and beautiful tapestry of differences. It means taking an active role in conserving earthly resources, reducing my footprint, and becoming more aware of what I consume and what I waste. It means stepping out of my comfort zone and seeking ways to level the field of opportunity on which all humans stand.

I understand that this ministry, for indeed ministry is what it is, begins in my home with my husband, and daughters, my parents and siblings, my extended family, and my friends and neighbors. I will attempt to season all that I do with the love of God which I feel so deeply. I will try to be the salt, the good disciple. I will try my best. Who would like to join me?

[1] Interview with Portugal’s Radio Renascenca, Monday Sept 14, 2015

[2] Bonnie B. Thurston, Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2013. pg xi

I’m the greatest!

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

When I was a kid my younger brother had a maddening habit of sneaking up behind me and whispering, “I’m the greatest!” He’d repeat this claim multiple times, driving 13 year-old me to, on occasion, throttle his little pencil neck. Sorry about that, brother, but what you didn’t understand was that I, your older and more fabulous sister, was the greatest. Ha!

But, seriously, the whole “I’m the greatest” thing and the need to prove it is not limited to sibling squabbles, it lies at the heart of every human conflict. Think about any one of the myriad disagreements surrounding what identifies a people, a nation, a culture, a political party, or what distinguishes an economy or power. Even in the adult family dynamic the need to be “number one” is responsible for conflicts that continue for generations. My theory, my religion, my politics, my needs, my suffering, and my personal goodness: no matter what it is mine is greater than yours.

This claim to greatness is connected to our sense of self-worth and as such, is fragile; it is easily threatened by external events and the needs or perceived greatness of others. How will this new thing or new, potentially better person affect me? What about my needs? I must prove my worth and stake my claim! Clearly, the general understanding of greatness is backward; it lacks justness, humility, compassion, and love.

The traits of true greatness, which also include self-awareness and empathy, create a culture of righteousness, of living in right relationship with others—the exact kind of righteousness the writer of the Letter of James exhorts his community to embrace. The passage begins, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” [James 3:16] He goes on “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” [James 4:1] Yes. Wars and conflicts do come from our self-serving passions.

Jesus attempts to teach his disciples about true greatness. When he predicted his death to his disciples Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.” [Mark 9:31] The scripture goes on to say the disciples did not understand and were afraid to question Jesus. But when I read this, I can imagine the disciples thinking to themselves: “This can’t be. If what Jesus is saying is true, what will become of us?”

Theologian, John Shea, explains the disciples’ lack of response this way,” Since their focus was completely on themselves, they naturally were afraid for themselves.”*  I wonder if they even heard the part about “and three days after his death he will rise.” It’s like a case of selective listening; they jumped over it because their primary concern was “what about us?” Jesus was inviting them into a higher consciousness, but they, like us, were not yet ready to accept it. Instead, they began to argue amongst themselves who was the greatest, and perhaps, the most likely one to carry on Jesus’ ministry after he was gone.

But then Jesus makes the meaning of true greatness clear to the disciples: Greatness is not about you.

Earlier this week I was standing in front of my house talking to a good friend and neighbor. We were talking about flu shots. He and his wife had just gotten theirs. The conversation turned to the fact that in some known cases, the protection offered by childhood immunizations diminishes. My friend commented that he used to have mixed feelings about inoculations, but what he said next really struck me. He said he chooses to get annual flu shots and inoculations not so much to reduce his own chance of sickness but to help prevent someone else who is weaker from getting ill.

Now, who’s the greatest?

Jesus said, “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” [Mark 9:35b]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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*John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 230

Your First Word Was Light

Your first word of all was light,
and time began. Then for long you were silent.

Your second word was man, and fear began,
which grips us still.

Are you about to speak again?
I don’t want your third word.

—Ranier Maria Rilke. Your First Word Was Light. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours I, 44

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) has been called “the greatest German poet of the twentieth century” (The Economist). I’m going to bypass writing a short biography of the poet and just point you here instead.

Barrows, Anita, and Joanna Macy. A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke. 1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009. p 116.
You can find “A Year with Rilke” here, or through your favorite bookseller.

Slow Cooking (or, the morality of Clean Food)

clean produceI am away this weekend with my husband to visit our daughter at Jerusalem Farm, a Catholic intentional community located in Kansas City, MO where she lives and works. Jerusalem Farm is a not-for-profit organization which strives to transform the lives of the community members and those they serve “through service retreat experiences, sustainable living and home repair.” While there we will be participating in a weekend retreat entitled “Food and Faith.” In light of this experience this week’s blog post is taken from an essay I wrote in 2012 in response to my growing passion for sustainable agriculture and the Clean Food movement. Note that I wrote this essay well before the majority accepted the reality of Climate Change.

I was raised in a family where the summer garden and its produce was on the table 12 months out of the year whether it was fresh, canned, or frozen. My parents had a serious vegetable garden, and still do as a matter of fact. Seed catalogs, visits to the nursery, and the smell and feel of soil were part of my upbringing. And because meat was expensive we ate relatively small portions of it—supplemented with lots of vegetables and fruit. As a child it did not occur to me that what I ate was particularly special; I’m sure I thought it was boring.

Today, a clean diet like the one on which I was raised has become a privilege. Last week I stood near a woman at the grocery store who, like me, was trying to justify the cost of organic fruit. We talked about how it was the healthier choice not only for our bodies but also for the earth. But she was buying for a family; I was only shopping for my husband and myself. It is an injustice that consumers have to lower their standards of what is good and healthy in order to feed their families.

Food is morally significant. What we buy helps heal or worsen the wounds caused to the earth, to animals, to the laborers, and to our bodies.

Several years ago my youngest daughter recommended a lecture given by one of her college professors on the effects of climate change[1]. The lecture, given by Creighton University theology professor, Richard Miller, Ph.D., was based on his award-winning book, “God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis.” The talk focused on the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change emerging from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the EPA, various University studies, and other substantiated global sources.

The evidence made me feel angry and helpless about our culture’s blindness and resistance to accepting the truth. I began to consider the impact unchecked climate change would have on our agricultural system and global food supply and I realized I had to get educated. I began to read up on soil science, sustainable agriculture, and biodynamic farming practices. My husband and I watched many documentaries including Ana Sophia Joanes’ underground movie, “Fresh,”[2] and saw both the diseased belly of corporate farming and the success of its antidote.

My eldest daughter, at the time an undergrad at the University of Iowa, was taking a course on the food industry and shared some of her sources with me. I found out how livestock and poultry farms had been converted to animal factories designed to keep pace with our growing demand for cheap meat, using methods both inhumane and harmful to the animals, to us, and to the planet. I learned about corporate agri-farms which have perfected the science of producing high yield mono-crops of genetically modified corn and soy with the prophylactic application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides.

I also learned enough to conclude that what “Big Ag” corporations are really up to as they participate in the mad science of genetic modification is to literally handcuff farmers to an interdependent system of patented seeds which require their own patented herbicides. For example, herbicides such as Roundup™ are so effective at selectively preventing seed germination that only patented “Roundup™ ready” crops, also known as genetically engineered crops (GEs or GMOs), which produce their own pesticides can survive. I’m not the only one who might suggest that the purpose of GMO Roundup™ ready crops is to sell more Roundup™.

And, by the way, the produce of these genetically modified seeds has been on our plates either in vegetable form, in processed foods, or as part of the diet of the meat and poultry we eat since 1994–without prior safety testing. And we wonder why so many of us have developed digestive problems in that time period?

No doubt, improving farm practices to increase crop yields in order to eliminate world hunger is a good thing. However, what I discovered is that no matter what corporate spokespeople claim, eradicating world hunger is not the driver of Big Ag companies and the corporate farms they run: corn and soy are grown primarily for livestock feed.

I learned that in lieu of tried and true soil sustaining practices such as crop rotation and allowing fields to lie fallow for a season, corporate farmers force feed their crops synthetic fertilizers which destroy organisms necessary to life-sustaining soil, thus killing the soil’s ability to nurture growth without the application of higher doses of fertilizer. Further, it is estimated that only 1/3 to 1/2 of synthetic fertilizers are absorbed by the plants[3], the remainder is washed away by rain which flows into and pollutes our water systems.

Each atrocity leads to another, corporate farm monopolies, seed contamination, soil erosion, super weeds, unwitting consumption of second-hand hormones and antibiotics, farm worker injustices, and pollution that knows no bounds.

The current factory farm model of agriculture is unsustainable and yes, sinful. It poisons the earth and it poisons us. It abuses creation and shrugs off our responsibility to be good stewards of it. This is why I am an advocate and student of the Clean Food movement. I feel called to support a more authentic relationship not only with my body, but with the earth and with the people who draw from the soil gifts of food using methods that enrich, rather than deplete it. I am affirmed daily by the greater variety of sustainable and organic foods are available to the consumer, increased education and awareness campaigns, and opportunities for conscientious investors to help fund small farms, canneries, and retailers.

My choice to purchase food from sources that use methods respectful to the earth began with a desire for greater personal health, but has become something greater. My action is driven by the desire to support the purpose and dignity of the land, the animals, the farmers, the workers and everyone involved from farm to fork, especially those who eat the food. And that is the problem. Clean food is generally limited to those who can afford to buy it or who grow it themselves.

Affordable, clean food is a human right, not a privilege. The fact that it is cost prohibitive for most consumers leads to an unsustainable food industry. The availability of clean food for everyone, not just those who can afford it, is undoubtedly a moral issue.

It is clear to see why it matters. But even on a small-scale reform of the current corporate food system and its far-reaching tributaries in the United States alone is a herculean task for activists, lobbyists, educators, scientists and the medical community. But change is happening, and the desire for clean food justice will continue to be the sharp pebble in the shoe of the deniers until clean food is affordable and available to all human beings.

[1] This four-part lecture has been made available to the public on you tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohoLwfJ8iJU&feature=colike

[2] http://www.freshthemovie.com/

[3] http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/soil/

For more on clean eating, read Steven Rosen’s article: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/story/2012-07-24/clean-eating/56456224/1

Least ones

This is a repost of a blog published today by my friend Fran Rossi Szpylczyn which she wrote in response to the dire situation faced by Syrian refugees and all humans throughout history who have endured unbearable suffering, even to the point of death, in order to escape their current situation. Please read and respond.

There Will Be Bread

syrian-migrant-boy-turkeyThen they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’  – Matthew 25:44

You have likely seen the dramatic photos of a little boy above, all over the internet right now. This precious little one appears to be asleep – think of all the toddlers

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