Connecting the Dots

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.”  [Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said to the Pharisees us.

“And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”

Two men lived in close proximity to one another but under very different circumstances, one was wealthy, the other was destitute. Eventually, they both died and went on to the afterlife. The storyline zooms in on a conversation between the former man of privilege, now tormented by the fires in the Netherworld, and Abraham, in whose excellent company the other man, Lazarus, now rested.

In life, privileged people step over the Lazarus’s every day, walk by them, and even know their names. Did the rich man, while lifting his purple robe so as to not brush against the beggar’s wounds as he stepped out of his house, ever think about Lazarus, or drop him a stale crust? Or did he simply look the other way, tsk tsk’ing about lazy people who do nothing all day and expect handouts from hardworking, tax-paying citizens?

The world exists, some might have us believe, for our pleasure. The rich man probably felt he earned the purple garments, fine linen, and sumptuous dining. He worked hard for them, dammit. The poor, wounded man lying outside his door was not his concern.  His sole concern was for himself.

But in death, the formerly privileged man found himself in poor man’s place, begging Abraham to make Lazarus help him. Still, even in death he saw himself as one to be served. Not a single word of remorse for his lack of charity was included with his pleas to Abraham to have Lazarus comfort him, not a moment of regret for his astonishing selfishness in life, not a thought for anyone else, except perhaps for his equally self-absorbed brothers. “If you can’t make Lazarus help me, at least send him to my family!”

Too late, Abraham tells him. It’s too damn late.

This parable, which is the gospel reading for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, is not a prescription for getting to heaven. What it is is a starkly accurate portrayal of modern day attitudes towards the vulnerable, and one that really needs to be taken to heart.

Some might say, “Oh this story is so obvious. It’s exaggerated: just a simple morality play.” Some may protest, “The problem of the poor is so much more complicated than that, we can’t just give to everybody who asks us.” Really?  Is opening our wallet and putting some cash into the hand of a person experiencing homelessness going to lead to the impoverishment of our families?

This parable ought to help us open our eyes and hearts to what we can do to alleviate the world’s suffering, even, and especially if it means making room in our homes, churches, and communities for refugees.

Meanwhile, a 6-year old boy named Alex from Scarsdale, NY sees on television the stunned, dust and blood covered face of a boy about his age, the victim of bombing in a far-off place, and delivers the purest, most uncontaminated contemporary translation of Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus.

In a handwritten letter to the President of the United States, Alex asks “can you please go get him and bring him to our home?” These words flowed from the tender, unsullied heart of a child. “We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

This is a parable for the ages, and we are living it right now. Alex and generations of children are watching, expecting us to do the right thing.

One Earth. One God. Rise Up!

PBSnewshour91616.png

©PBS Newshour. September 16, 2016

I woke up in the middle of the night. When this happens, and to my growing irritation it happens frequently, it is for no good reason. Not last night, though.

One Earth. One God. That was the gist of last night’s dream. And those words wove themselves into the remaining four fitful hours of “sleep,” telling me that all faith traditions must pull together and respond as one to the crisis our earth faces. I know this dream was informed by the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline on PBS Newshour (9/16/16) and the powerful response of over 100 Native American tribes from all over the United States who converged at the Standing Rock Reservation in support of one another.

One Earth. One God. We have a unique opportunity to share our traditions, our respect for the Earth, our creeds and our creation stories for the good of the world.

The words, One Earth. One God are a way to think about an ecumenical response to the crisis that is rapidly unfolding in every corner of our planet. While we can do little more than passively experience climate change-related bizarre weather patterns, devastating storms and natural disasters, we can reject and stop the active and ongoing destruction of human and animal habitats and subterranean ecosystems by curbing our relentless appetite for fuel. If we wanted to, we could stop this.

In March of this year, I awoke in the middle of the night with a crystal clear understanding of God’s plan for creation. Really. It was as if someone turned on every light in the house and I could see without my glasses. I cycled the idea in my semi-sleep hoping it would find a place to settle until the morning when I could have a better look.

The majority of dreams vaporize. Our nocturnal wisdom dissolves, leaving us with disturbing traces, impossible to contain. This was no different. The following morning I tried to grasp its fleeting tendrils, but the only words I would write were “God’s plan is a complete reversal of what humans have come to believe is the natural order.”

Clearly, this is not a new idea. That the least shall be the greatest is at the center of the Gospels. At the time of my dream, it was Lent, and I was probably just rehashing what I was reading about the nature of God in the New Testament, that the Kingdom of God is revealed through the least expected, the poor, the small, the humble. The infant born in a barn, etc. It’s not a top-down world; it’s a bottom-up world.

The natural order is not the tree that drops the seed, it is the soil that allows the seed to sprout. But even soil needs to be disturbed for a seed to take root.

Isn’t it true that the material God uses is the ordinary, chaotic, unglamorous stuff? Doesn’t life begin one way or another in the dark?

Someone smarter than me once said ‘the bread can’t rise until the dough has time to rest.’ In the same way, it seems that our collective desire for change grows out of that kneading of life’s scraps, old jewelry and gravel, joy and heartache, injustices and kindness, successes and fatigue, strings and bits and morsels, late night talks, desperation and loneliness, and thirst. Everything is mixed together and kept alive like a succulent with spritzes of Holy water.

In that enormous pile, like in the dough, mysterious happenings are taking place. And no matter how many times the powerful of the world punch the dough down, it will always rise up in new and surprising ways.

Doubt: Faith’s Dependable (but not victorious) Companion

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Every week an abundantly rich reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU).

As an alumnus of CTU I appreciate the opportunity to read the words of my professors with whom I spent many years studying and whose wisdom continues to pervade my theology. As I read, I hear their voices and recall their scholarly encouragement (and the readings, and papers, and lectures, of course). Just as often the reflection comes from a professor or faculty member with whom I never studied. This week was one of those times.

This writer’s words touched me so deeply I requested his permission to post it here for the readers of The Good Disciple. The author is Fr. Mark Francis, CSV, the president CTU. His writing hit home with me, I explained, because even while I am one who studies and writes about the meaning of discipleship, and who strives to embrace the body of Christ in all I do, I find the more deeply I wade into the waters of faith the louder my doubts become, clamoring for my attention. Clearly, crises of faith are to be expected, for why would doubts arise if our faith was not challenging us to rise above them?

Fr. Mark opens his reflection with remarks about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized today, and delves into what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” She and all of the saintly doubters who came before her should give us reason to reach higher, to continue to move beyond the messy feelings that our doubts stir in us.

By Fr. Mark Francis, CSV

This Sunday Mother Teresa will be canonized and very few doubt her holiness. But in light of this canonization I think it is important to note that for many years this saint experienced a real crisis of faith. In a collection of her letters Mother Teresa: Be My Light, compiled by her spiritual director, we read that after founding the Missionaries of Charity, she had doubts about the existence of God, about the soul and therefore the promises of Jesus – and heaven. This revelation has been received in a variety of ways. In an extensive article in Newsweek published by the late journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, he criticized her as being an over-promoted religious celebrity. He also contended that Mother Teresa’s doubts made complete sense because the Catholic faith is based on asking people to believe “impossible things.”

While I was never a great fan of Mr. Hitchens – who seems to have become somewhat of an over promoted anti-religious celebrity himself – (his book God is not Great was a scathing screed against any kind of religious faith), I think he may be on to something. The Catholic faith does ask us to believe impossible things – or at least things that are impossible from a certain point of view. The fact that Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence may rattle some people, but anyone who has a mature faith has experienced similar moments of doubt and despair – when God’s presence just seems absent. St. John of the Cross described it as the “dark night of the soul,” Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, XVI, in his book Introduction to Christianity speaks of all of us being constantly inhabited by both faith and doubt. Flannery O’Connor, the great American Catholic writer, criticized glib ideas regarding what the faith is all about. She wrote, “most people believe that faith is a big electric blanket, when it is of course the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

Our readings today seem to underscore the “impossibility” of faith. Jesus speaks about discipleship – following him. This involves three very hard, if not impossible, things to do: prefer Jesus to one’s family, carry your cross, and renounce your possessions. How unreasonable. How impossible. Once again the Gospel turns the world-common sense – on its head.  This is not normal behavior especially in the Middle East of Jesus’ day when one’s family was the only real support one had. To prefer Jesus to them (to hate family is the Semitism used) would leave you completely exposed and vulnerable – and you would be forced to depend not on them – but on God. The same is true of renouncing possessions…security and comfort all go out the window.

And then there is the case presented in our second reading. Paul’s letter to Philemon over the slave Onesimus also reveals this same “turn the world on its head” attitude. To appreciate what’s going here is that Onesimus is with Paul not because he is a runaway slave, but availing himself of a stipulation in Roman law called amicus magistri (friend of the master).  He has felt himself mistreated by Philemon, and has gone to Paul who is in prison in order to intercede for him. While with Paul, Onesimus becomes a Christian. And now Paul is asking Philemon to do the impossible – accept Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. How unrealistic, how impossible.

So, Mr. Hitchens appears to have been correct. We are called upon to believe and to act on the impossible things we believe. That God will somehow provide for us. That we are all equally loved and cherished by God as brothers and sisters in Christ. That a little nun, who after starting a work in the slums of Calcutta, and after struggling with faith all her life, is being canonized and that her work with the poor has grown to almost 5,000 sisters in 14 countries. How impossible all of this sounds. But that’s the point. Mother Teresa, despite her tests of faith, took up the cross and was faithful – and was able to accomplish the impossible.

We are called to do these same impossible things in our own way, in our own time, despite doubt and despite a lack of clarity: to take up our cross out of love…in order to bring the presence of Jesus into our world.

Mark Francis, CSV
President, CTU

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Published September 4, 2016. © Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Catholic Theological Union is a Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry serving both vowed religious and lay women and men. The mission of Catholic Theological Union is to prepare effective leaders for the Church, ready to witness to Christ’s good news of justice, love, and peace.” —Catholic Theological Union Mission Statement

My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.

Image: Mother Teresa at age 77, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner praying during dedication ceremonies at her 400th world wide mission to care for the poor.

The Kingdom of God and the Cost of Discipleship

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

“Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.”Rev. 19:9

“Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”Matthew 8:20, and Luke 9:58

Christ is the image, the Logos, mind and heart of God and as such manifests for us the plan of God for all creation. Christ’s manifestation…incarnation…is to establish the rule and reign of the Kingdom of God in our experience, in our time, in our place; to open us to and for us a way to enter the Kingdom of God; to be married in covenant love to one another in God. That is why the Kingdom of God is described as a Wedding Banquet. [Rev. 19: 6-9].

The Kingdom of God is not a time or place. It is beyond time and space. It is “relatio”, a relationship, a state of Being…Presence, a matter of the heart. Time and space are subsumed and held in it…held in Love.

When we are in love, we are in relationship and we experience God as Trinity, the ground of our being, the template of all creation; to Be is to Be In Relationship.

The Kingdom of God transcends all of creation and yet everything subsists in it. It is a place of Presence, Peace, and Love. It is entered into wherever and whenever there is love, reconciliation, healing, and compassion…as well as the celebration and sharing of life in joy and love…as in a grand marriage celebration.

Presence is what makes life and the sharing of life, sacramental. We bear a Presence, The Presence of God…Christ…to one another in and for our world…for others, even our enemies and especially the poor and those in need of mercy, which includes all of us.

That is how and why Jesus could say, “the kingdom of God is within you…in your midst!” [Luke 17:21].

Because it is not limited to or geographical place, Jesus could say, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” [Luke 9:58].

To follow Jesus requires that kind of freedom and detachment, in the Kingdom we are not limited or tied down by geography, time, or space. It is a way and disposition of the heart. When Jesus told Thomas, “Where I am going, you know the way…” To which Thomas replied “we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way.” Jesus told him effectively, Thomas, I’m not talking about geography; I’m talking about a way of Being, of Presence, a way of the heart… “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life” [John 14:4-7].

No one enters the Kingdom, into the heart of God, where there are many dwelling places and room for us all, except thru that “Way”…the Way of the Cross, Mercy, Peace, and Reconciliation…a way of the heart, the way of selfless sacrificial Love.

We are People of the Way…followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was before time, in time, and now beyond time and has brought all of us along with Him into the Heart, Presence, and Kingdom of God.

In order to follow Christ we must learn to “let go” of our ego, our false self, to let go of time and space, of all things, to be detached, to die a lot of little deaths before the final “letting go” of death itself; to take up our cross daily, dying to our false selves so that we may discover who we truly are alive in Christ and Christ in us. As St. Francis learned and said with St. Paul, “In possessing nothing, I possess all things!” [2 Corinthians 6:10].

Christ is our life! We are in Christ a new creation; we share in the glory of the resurrection and Christ’s own life in God. We are not our bodies, or our minds, or the personas which we have created for ourselves. We inhabit a body, we have a mind, we have a personality, and yet we are so much more. We are incarnate body persons who bear a Presence. Our soul, our true self is hidden with Christ in God [Colossians 3:1-4].

That is the cost of discipleship, of following Jesus, to follow and learn from him, who is the Way, Truth, and Life. In being so detached we find and enter through the narrow gate into the Presence and Kingdom of God which is beyond time and space; Eternal Presence, Eternal Peace, the Eternal Now which is within you…in your midst wherever and whenever there is Love in the midst of all things and people encountered in time and space.

Imminent Presence is the window through which we enter the transcendent eternal Presence of God. The Kingdom is here and now, within and without, wherever and whenever we connect, heal, reconcile, and live in love with one another and God. As that happens the Kingdom and Will of God is manifest… done on earth as it is in heaven!

Now is the acceptable time, this is the day of salvation, this is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it! We live in the Presence, in the Eternal Now, in God, in Love! Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life! Let us follow Christ with Joy into the Presence and heart of God now and forever! Amen.

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL, the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, wherever and whenever possible.”

ART: Visual reflections ©Vonda Drees. https://vondadrees.wordpress.com/