What actually will make America great again?

sad-rain

I have to forgive these people? I have to pray for them?  After what they have done?  So many dark thoughts. Not Christian thoughts at all. Thoughts I normally would reject with all of my might.

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and prayer are repeated throughout the gospels and are frequent themes on this blog. But I was in a dark place that day. Even my dog knew it. She turned away from me when I picked up her leash. Instead of an exuberant response to her favorite activity she stood still, her long tail pointed down as I snapped on her harness. The date was 11/9, the day after the presidential election, but in some ways it felt like 9/11 to me.

Like many Americans, I felt my home was now located in a strange, inhospitable land. Throughout the day I experienced some of the fear, shock, insecurity, and disorientation that haunted me and others for many months after the events on that terrible September morning 15 years ago.

About mid-day I decided to deactivate my Facebook page. Earlier I huddled with my friends online, while others gloated and thumped their virtual chests as if the presidential election was part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The words “drain the swamp” and “how’s it feel to be a loser?” and an undisguised blood lust filled my news feed, because electoral victory was not enough.

Others offered snarky shoulder-shrugging comments about “change, finally” interspersed with suggestions that poor losers should get over themselves. There is nothing quite as menacing as a vindictive winner, and this, following the most hostile, hate-filled campaign on record threatens to be the kind of contest where every citizen will be the loser.

It is my firm belief that there is a life-giving aspect to every experience, no matter how dark, but hard as I tried I was too broken up to locate it. So, before disabling my Facebook account I reached out to my friends and asked them to share their wisdom on the subject.

The idea of forgiveness worked its way into my thoughts and later, umbrella in one hand, dog leash in the other I worked my way up the street and began my silent rant. Forgive? Forgive who? Doesn’t forgiveness first require someone asking for it? Does forgiveness even come into this conversation? And who should be forgiven? Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.

fall-sadnessI picked up the pace, walking faster and more fiercely than I ever had, slogging angrily through piles of leaves littering the sidewalk—unraked fiery gold and persimmon leaves, their wet fragrance rising towards me. I walked along streets shiny with rain and reflected red maples, my poor dog moving as fast as she could behind me. I was surrounded by the colors and scents of fall’s glory. Look up, look up. I saw it all and I didn’t care.

I was angry with God. I was angry with the church and the 51% of Catholics who from my point of view voted against the full teachings of Jesus Christ. I blamed the Bishops for their inconsistent teaching on Catholic social justice issues and their failure to demonstrate God’s mercy in this Jubilee year of Mercy. I blamed those who willfully ignore the words and example of pope Francis whose eyes are trained, as ours should be, on the Lord.

Pray for them.

I stormed past the grand home of a wealthy neighbor and whipped the bag of still warm dog poop at the political sign taunting me from their lawn. Maybe they will need to learn how to mow their own damn grass and clean their own damn house and take care of their own children after their help is deported.

Sigh. Oh Susan.

Oh God. 

Remember, I never claimed to be The Good Disciple. I only strive to be.

The heaviness in my chest slowed my gait, and the sky opened with my tears which stung as a reminder of their source—the perception that The United States’ slow but steady progress towards a more inclusive and just society had just been halted.

I didn’t want to pray for these people, but I did go back and retrieve the bag of dog poop from their lawn. And as I stood up to continue walking home in the receding daylight and porch lights began their timed announcement of the days end, I became aware of the silence. No cars, no planes, no dogs barking, just the patter of the rain, my dog’s nails tapping on the pavement, and my sniffing. I offered a prayer for healing and asked for forgiveness. We are all mourning our country in some way. Forgive us Father; we know not what we do.

What is life-giving about this experience and other similar situations throughout the world? Dear readers, it emerges from the fact that this cuts us so deeply. We mourn our broken union. But our progress towards a more inclusive and just society has not been halted, we just have to work harder at it. We need to insist on being community with one another, to console and listen and work to build bridges across our painful divides.

The life-giving element—what actually will make America great again— is our collective agreement to act on behalf of one another because we are human beings. We know what to do.

This is the wisdom of my friends who responded from both sides of the debate.

 “The America that we know and the rights of every community of Americans will remain sacrosanct. The darkness will lift – the weight of this enormous shock will lift and our faith will sustain us.”

“Activists will be born today.”

“But life-giving for me is the truth that God will use this experience to strengthen the resolve of those who stand for true social justice, across the board, from womb to tomb. Love always wins. Love always wins. Love always, always wins.”

“Love, reason, and compassion are the antidotes to the hatred of the campaign. We have to continue working for the common good.”

“People who normally would be passive will now be activists for justice. We need to be vigilant now more than ever.”

“Let’s reflect (St.) Paul’s words, “where abounds sin, over abounds grace” Rom 5:20… let’s be positive … and get involved, and claim “our” country back, with kindness, love, charity, mercy, all those Christian virtues that tell who we are!”

“Feeling despair does not help and does not change anything. Instead, continue to raise the important issues – whether that is through getting involved in politics or volunteering with an organization.”

What is your response?

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

7th Sunday of Easter (C)

Immediately before his arrest Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples. He prayed for their mission, for their unity as a group, and for their unity through him and with the Father. The final part of this prayer is read on the Sunday before Pentecost. It is one of those mind-bending scriptural passages that tend to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. Some readers simply scan it, not absorbing a word, or they turn the page in search of something Jesus says that is easier to understand, something like “love one another.”

But this prayer from Jesus to his Father on his friends’ behalf is beautiful and enlightening and deserves to be read slowly. Jesus’ words challenge us to wade into our deepest spiritual waters in order to contemplate this union we share with God and with one another. Sitting with this reading can help us make sense of our Christian mission.

As part of my own study of the text, and to feed my logic (which is illogical) I attempted to diagram Jesus’ words. Pencil in hand, I began to draw circles.

In my mind this “you in me, and I in you, and they in us, and we are one, and I in them and you in me, and I know you and they know that you sent me, and your love for me is my love for them, and therefore, our love is in them,” (deep breath) takes the form of concentric circles that expand and recede and shift to accommodate the fullness of the described union in an endlessly twirling helix.

My first attempt was to place God at the center of the Jesus circle, which I put at the center of the disciple circle, in which both the Father and Son dwelt. Hmmm.

Dissatisfied, I drew another set of concentric circles with disciples in the center of the Jesus circle, who was in the center of the God circle. But no.

Then I drew two concentric circles, one with Jesus at God’s center, and then God at Jesus’ center which was just as confounding as my earlier attempts because each one resulted in a picture of a picture of a picture, and so on. This is known to visual artists as mise en abyme, which translated from French means “placing into infinity.” In painting and photography mise en abyme can continue only so far as the artist is able to depict it; eventually, the image becomes too small to be perceived. Although it is theologically intriguing, the mise en abyme was inadequate. Or, was it?

My final attempt involved two overlapping circles, one for the Father and one for Jesus, with the disciples in the intersection of the two. This sketch I tossed out immediately because the union of the father and son was more representative of a mutual giving between two persons whose “product,” for lack of a better word, is revealed in the giving, such as in a family. Hmmm. Not perfect, but not bad, either. I sketched it again.

These attempts to diagram a satisfactory translation of Jesus’ prayer were inadequate precisely because the relationship between the Father and Jesus and Jesus’ followers cannot be contained or reduced to a concept of fractal geometry or artistic theory. So, you see, I have not added any clarity to the discussion. I apologize.

However, inadequacy is not the same as fallacy. The mise en abyme, the overlapping circles and the endlessly twirling helix each hold a portion of the truth.

  • Jesus is and always has been in the picture of the picture of the picture of God. In today’s second reading from Revelations, which we have been reading throughout Easter, John tells of hearing a voice that self-identifies as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” and as “I, Jesus,” the “root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” Jesus’ death was a departure, a transition; he returned to the Father where he has dwelt since “before the foundation of the world.” [John 17:24c].
  • And of his friends, Jesus says “Father, they are your gift to me.” [John 17:24]. It is a mystery why seekers begin and continue to search for God, or, in the case of the poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), who wrote about the divine pursuit in The Hound of Heaven, why they attempt to resist their spiritual stirrings. But Jesus’ words acknowledge that Peter and James and John, and all the other apostles, and every disciple and follower throughout Christian history, including you and me have found our way to him because of the Spirit’s urging, inspiration, and nudging; we have accepted the invitation to know God through Jesus.
  • The fullness of our union with God and Jesus and with one another is very much like an endlessly twirling helix. Christians understand that Jesus—the Word made flesh—made God known through his teachings and actions and love. Jesus remains, he dwells within the hearts of his followers, not so they can hoard Jesus for themselves but so they can share him. Jesus has made God known, and it is now the task of the disciples to do the same—this is the work of the evangelist—you and me.

mise en abyme

And here is the message about our mission. Unlike Jesus’ actual disciples, none of us can claim to have known the man, Jesus. We only know what has been passed on to us and what we have experienced with Jesus.

It is that experience—our interaction—that we share. We can spout off bible verses and tell people what the church and theologians say about Jesus, but without a heartfelt expression of one’s own experience, these things are dry, inconclusive, and unconvincing. Jesus expressed his loving relationship with God with his words and works and his love for God and his followers. Our job is no different.

Looking at my sketches now I began to notice something resembling a seed within a seed within a seed, and it occurs to me that this “seeding” is the work of God, the work of Jesus, and the work which we have been commissioned to fulfill. This is the union. We in them, them in us, Christ in all, Christ in God, God in all things.

We receive the gift of life-giving water which Jesus offers us and we accept our Christian mission: to make God known to future generations through our unity. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This is the way of being that has the power to change the world.

In my mind, I imagine hearing Jesus speak to me, “I wish you could experience what I know about the Father. I want this for you, for you to know this. Because, if you knew God as I do, you would love one another as I have loved you. But the world does not know God, and this is why loving is so difficult. This is what you do know: you know that my works are of God, you know that I am of God. All that I say and do, these words and works are not my own, but God’s. It all comes from God. Listen, if you know me and you know these things about me, you know God. God’s love for me is my love for you. It is one and the same.”

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

A Soul’s Legacy

The Otto Raus familyEarly in my marriage, when my husband was in law school, I decided to trace my family history. Stories about stout-hearted immigrant ancestors who scraped together the fare for passage, and willingly left their families and everything they knew for what they hoped was a better life used to break my heart. But those stories also inspired me. These were sturdy and brave souls; braced for whatever awaited them on the distant shore. I felt compelled to know them better because I shared some of those traits.

At that time there were no online immigration records. Research involved letter writing, contacting distant relatives for copies of pictures, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the hand written details inside the old family bible. It included working with translators who could communicate with village churches in the old country, and countless Saturdays spent in the New York Public Library combing through rolls of microfilm for census records, city directories, and vital records. It involved studying maps and taking road trips. It was a treasure hunt that led me to an amazing discovery.

My research began with my four grandparents, which turned into sixteen extended families. On and on it went. Through the process of collecting and weaving bits of data into family stories I actually developed a relationship with my ancestors. I felt I knew them somehow, and I did. Incredibly, I was able to piece together vignettes of life through historical records: addresses and occupations, the age and number of children, whether they rented or owned, if they lived in a flat, over a store, with other relatives or took in boarders, and whether they had received their sacraments. All of these things plus what was happening locally and globally helped me “know” them. For most, life was difficult. Many were poor. I located news clippings and obituaries for children hit by a streetcar, or runaway horse, or who succumbed to an illness that is no longer a threat. I learned about their neighbors and what part of town they lived in, and if they were active members of their church or community. In addition to facts, my research generated questions that had no answers, like how they spent their day, if they did acts of charity, who were the silent saints among them, and who might have been affected by a simple kindness, or a friendship between neighbors that changed a life for the better.

I discovered a profound level of human connection that revealed our divine union with God. I realized what I was doing was in fact honoring the lives of those who had passed, and ultimately honoring God, of whose great plan they were a part. Were it not for this divine union we would not exist. I honor them with my prayers in a special way on All Souls Day. Remember, the legacy we create begins with living in right relationship; it dwells deeply in the life of every single person with whom we share a moment, a kindness, or a generous act, as well as in the things we do to ensure a future for those souls who are with us and those yet to be born.

Happy All Souls Day.

The World is a Mess

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

I have a friend whose outlook on the state of the world has been reduced to conspiracy theories and an impending Armageddon. She shocked me the other day with words to this affect: “This city is home to a bunch of grubbers and people who are used to having everything done for them. When (the end) breaks loose and they lose everything and come knocking at my door, I won’t open it. Because I planned ahead and I’m taking care of myself.”

This is so sad. In addition to her teeny tiny unhappy world that she believes is about to implode, she has no faith and no vision. No faith in the generosity and goodness of others; no vision for a better world.

Granted, the daily hell we hear and read about and experience is unbearable. No need to spell out the escalating atrocities. People, nations, and leaders do unspeakable things to other people, nations, and leaders. It has to stop. “I beg you, stop. I ask you with all my heart,” Pope Francis said as part of his message to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for the Angelus noon prayer on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

Let me tell you a different story. Three students making their way to a distant city, driving (perhaps a little too fast) on an unpaved road in a rural area of a South American country experienced a blowout and found their car spinning out of control until it slammed into a cinder block home. Amidst the shattered glass and gravel, the stunned students pulled themselves out of the wreckage. The two-room house, home to a poor couple with 11 children, was rubble. Miraculously no one was in the house at the time of the impact, but the damage was severe. Also miraculous, thanks in part to seat belts and airbags the three students’ injuries were limited to whiplash, cuts and bruises.

What happened next, as told to me by one of the students, provides a context and instruction to those of us who suffer losses and face our daily rubble, especially when the damage prevents us from seeing beyond the hurt to restoration. “After a few hours passed and the sun set, the family invited us to sit with them in the house (literally on bricks that had fallen) to eat dinner with them. They brought us eggs and potatoes and put blankets over our shoulders. I can’t really think of anything more incredible than this – we destroyed their home, and they invited us to eat with them.”

Jesus says “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. What might have been a human tragedy can be re-framed as a miracle of human kindness. These are the whispers that tell us God is with us. These are the acts that renew our faith and give us courage. Jesus is here.  This is what living in right relationship with the World looks like.This is what it means to be an evangelizing people.

The World is not a mess.

Today’s readings can be found here.

Make Room

The Irish novelist and poet, James Joyce (1882-1941) earned a reputation for his challenging (that’s putting it mildly) literature. Case in point: Finnegans Wake. The fact that this novel is largely unread attests to its complexity. And yet, Joyce’s “Here comes everybody,” the phrase the author used to describe the Catholic Church, is probably one of the novel’s most familiar and oft quoted  phrases. “A big tent” is another phrase that analogizes the Church’s capacity to house the vast diversity of believers.

We need not look further than Saint Peter and Saint Paul to understand that diversity has been a part of the church fabric from the very start. The two men could not have been more different in terms of their gifts, personalities, backgrounds and the origins of their faith. It is improbable that they would have seen eye to eye on many topics. But while intuition and heart (frequently without comprehension) guided Peter’s rock solid faith, and logic, intellect, and a conviction that his authority came from God led Paul’s, both men were passionately dedicated to Jesus Christ and gave their lives in service to him, his mission, and the unity of the Church. They did not let their differences get in the way of the mission.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul are models for us today when divisiveness and polarity threaten not only the unity of the Catholic church but our overall ability to work and live peaceably.

Let’s remember just how big this tent really is—there’s room for everybody—and devote ourselves to working for unity. 

Come on in!