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

How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff?

4th Sunday of Easter (B)

Last month on Facebook I happened upon a lively conversation between my friend—a respected environmental activist—and his friends, on the relevance of religion in today’s world.

In his original post my friend made a proclamation of faith stating he would persist in his practice of Catholicism—which he strongly identifies with values of charity and justice—and partake in the sacraments as is his right, despite what he called the antithetical “contempt for the lives of their fellow humans” exhibited by certain Catholic Cardinals (i.e. the largely dismissed, but widely quoted Burke). If I could have “liked” his post a thousand times I would have.

I did not know my friend was religious, or Catholic for that matter. But what followed was a series of challenges to his (and my) belief system, some of which may have been driven by curiosity or a sincere desire to understand, but my sense was that most of the challengers’ questions were based on the logical conclusion that “it doesn’t take a creed or cross to understand the difference between right and wrong” (quote paraphrased from the conversation). This statement is a sad reminder to me that for many, the beauty and vibrancy of faith and religion is lost, and the grandeur of God, on which the poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins muses (you may read the poem at the end of this post), that surrounds and saturates every waking hour and all of creation has been hijacked by moralists and functionalists.

My friend responded with the utmost kindness, patience and clarity to his readers’ questions such as whether religious institutions teach anything that cannot be found in the writings of great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hume. My friend provided personal experiences from his younger days and concluded that being educated in philosophy does not make one a moral being, impart a desire to care for others, increase empathy, or instill a love or reverence for other humans or creation.

Another reader opined that religion is the source of authoritarian power against poor, helpless masses. He challenged my friend to name one thing, other than religious doctrine, that a church can offer which cannot be found elsewhere. My friend pointed to the radical examples of faith from people like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Tom Berry and Paul Mayer, and questioned his friend’s premise that the presence of secular moral teachings that parallel those of Jesus indicate Christianity has run its course and is obsolete. He also noted that the actual cause of the world’s problems are money and power, both of which are capable of contaminating any institution including government, religion, education, media, and business. Of these, he said, “Christianity at least has values and beliefs around which one can build a life and community.”

Believers are frequently confronted with questions like these, which seem to ask “How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff? It gets tiresome. But, in many cases, I think people really want to know what makes believers, believe. I have to admit, if I did not know God and was standing on the side of “I can be a good person without religion” I would have questions for my believing friends, too. It’s true.

But the purpose of religion is not to teach us how to live a “goal-filled life characterized by moral direction,” as one of my friend’s readers suggested. The purpose of religion is union with God; the act of religion is grounded in love of God, the creator, the higher power, or the “something greater” sensed by many people. Religion is God-centered, not self-improvement centered. Why do we do this? Because we want to know God, and when one has an experience of divine presence and abiding love (which by the way happens all the time if one is attentive), it’s pretty hard to understand how all people aren’t actively seeking the same.

At some point in life, maybe as a child, maybe as an adult, maybe at the point of death, believers come to see that regardless of our imperfections, God loves us with a radical love. And as author Cathleen Falsani writes in my new favorite book, “Disquiet Time,” “God loves me. Just as I am. (…) God fights for me. God pursues me. God never gives up on me. God never stops loving me.” (Grant and Falsani 2014)

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. —1 John 3:1b

This personal knowledge of God’s deep abiding love does not arrive by stork or magic or by lightning. People of all faith traditions have devoted their entire lives to the quest of knowing God. Spiritual practice is work; that is why it is called a practice. It requires conscious awareness, detachment and a decision to forego functionalist thinking, to follow that nagging “what if?” and traverse the jagged, unknown regions of life.

When we walk the earth with wonder and revere the miracle and dignity of every man, woman and child, every living creature, our planet and the universe, we make room for God and our hearts fill to the brim. It is entirely possible to become aware of God’s grace, God’s full-out mercy, and God’s limitless generosity. Here’s how: Remain open. You are beloved. Accept it like a soaking rain. This is the most profound statement of faith anyone can make. And the fact that one can deny it does not make it any less true. Sure, it is possible to be a good person without religion. And, let’s be honest. It’s damn hard to be good all the time. But religious people believe there is more to life than being good.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Today’s readings can be found here.

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** Grant, Jennifer, and Cathleen Falsani, eds. 2014. Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. Jericho Books. page 6.  You can find the book here

No deal. You can’t buy that.

3rd Sunday of Lent (B)

What was being sold in the Jerusalem Temple that put Jesus over the edge?gold_bag

The Gospel of John 2:13-25 specifically mentions oxen, sheep, and doves. But, this was not like a farmer’s market populated by vendors, or a quick stop on the way home from Temple. The goods and the market had a specific purpose; this was a place where animals could be purchased for religious sacrifice. The gospel also mentions money changers. A simple interpretation suggests the system of purchasing animals for sacrifice had become too materialistic and the money changers may have been taking advantage of buyers. Clearly this would be an unjust situation, but was Jesus’ rage brought on by commercialization and price gouging? Let’s go deeper.

Recall the reason Jesus was in Jerusalem. It was  because “the Passover of the Jews was near.” Every year great numbers of Jewish people made the long and arduous journey for the feast. Imagine making this trip, not only with your children and your elderly parents, but with your sacrificial animals in tow. For many it was unrealistic. Therefore they intended to purchase those animals upon their arrival. And what better place to find the finest, most perfect and unblemished animals than in the temple area where  people understood such things? Makes perfect sense.  But not to Jesus. What was it about this situation that enraged him so?

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” [John 2:15]

Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah denounced the cult of animal sacrifice as abhorrent to God, proclaiming what God desired was justice for the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized, not the slaughter of innocent animals as an act of worship. And yet the practice continued as a kind of transaction initiated by humans to gain favor with God. The Jerusalem Temple had become the locus of human-divine deal making.

Theologian John Shea writes “Jesus’ Father, however, is not a deal maker. (God) does not exchange favors for sacrifices. The Father is a free flow of spiritual life and love that cannot be bought, bartered, bargained, or bribed.”[1]

Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” [John 2:16c] He literally turns the tables on the idea of making bargains with God, and says no deal. This is not how God works. God wants your fidelity, your commitment, and most of all, your love for God, for neighbor and for all of creation. As an evangelizing people our actions must respond to each of God’s desires, not because these are pleasing to God, which they are, but because our experience of God’s abundant love prompts us to do so.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] John Shea. Eating with the Bridegroom.Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005. pg 91

Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635