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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What is truth?

We hang our sense of self-worth upon the mere trifles of life, mere specks in a vast ocean of time. In the thick of the battles of everyday life, we forget that all these daily concerns are not our ultimate ground or our destiny; it is not for these things that we were made, but for the glory of God. Regardless of whether we think we are "winning" or "losing" in life, the truth is, God never stops loving us.

“What is truth,” Pilate asked Jesus. The truth to which Jesus testified was not the sort of truth that one can objectively examine and measure. Jesus taught that God is love. So what is true and what is false when we have no empirical data to guide us? When confronted with the things of the heart, when making the decision to believe in love, how do we know that love is the right thing to do?

When speaking of love, we are not speaking of something tangible, of something that we can examine, measure, weigh, and consider. We are left to ponder the qualities that love makes manifest through its presence. We recognize love by what love does. We recognize love by how it manifests itself in our lives. We make a decision to live for the things of love or to reject the things of love based on the way that love works in us and around us. So, then, what are the manifestations of love? Paul tells us:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

But is love the right thing to believe in? If we’ve been hurt by those that said they loved us, perhaps we may think that love is a false pretense, something that only a fool, and a damn fool at that, would continue to believe in. Having been hurt by those that claim to love us, we may resolve to never to fall for the lie of love again. We reject love as a reality for our lives. There is a bit of truth in this. Yes, it is true that people will let us down. In fact, sooner or later, everyone will let us down in some way.

Yet we cannot quiet the restless longing in our hearts. We may fashion for ourselves a vision of being a solitary rock, strong and serene, which needs no one and certainly does not need love, yet the restlessness disturbs our serenity. We attack the restlessness with a myriad of substitutes, with all the diversions and pleasures that the world has to offer, yet despite all our efforts we feel disconnected, isolated, and insignificant. Our life becomes reduced to an endless desperation, waiting out the seconds and minutes and hours for death and oblivion to overtake us.

So it comes down to this: love is a risk. We take a chance on love. By love, I do not mean the mere emotion that comes and goes, but real love, the love that endures all things, no matter what. We take a chance on loving and not being loved in return, on giving and getting nothing back, on sacrificing and our sacrifice being counted for naught, for such is the way that God Himself has loved us. God loves us even though we reject him; he loves us and we do not love him in return; he sacrificed everything for us and we consider it nothing. Despite all that, God persists in loving us into life. We take a chance on being let down, hurt, and betrayed because we recognize the power of love to transform and move us, to inspire and to bring us life. Everyone will let us down, sooner or later, save one: God. God will not stop loving us. Even when life has fallen into pieces and all our plans have come to nothing and all we see is failure, when death itself is but a moment away, God still loves us.

We stand, as it were, on a precipice. We have a choice to make. Step out into the nothingness, into the vast chasm, and trust that love will catch us, or remain where we are, fixed and frozen. It is an act of faith, and faith is also a risk. We may see others take the leap and see that they do not fall, but our own step forward is still marked by hesitation and fear. We turn inward and fixate on all the times that people let us down. We do not see that even at that moment, even before we take that step forward, that God loves us with all his Being. Yes, it is an act of incredible courage to believe in love, now more than ever, in our world of hate and manipulation and exploitation. But the chasm into which we are stepping is not the chasm of the world, and what appears to us to be a chasm is not a chasm at all, but an entirely new world that we did not –could not– see from where we are before we take that step. We step forward into the unknown and find that love was there all along. Jesus taught that God is love and then showed us the love of God in action. The love of God is total surrender to God, trusting him to love us no matter what. Do we dare take him up on it?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Living in Charity

The woman stood under the overpass, where there was some shade and protection against the sun. It was 95 degrees in the shade, and she was wilting in the heat. A man in a shiny new Jeep just ahead of me, inching along in the traffic entering the construction zone, rolled up alongside her. The driver put down his window and spoke to her. I could not hear what was he said, but her reaction spoke volumes: she stared at the ground, winced, and closed her eyes, tightly clutching the small cardboard sign scrawled with her request for money.
Why do they stand along the road, begging? Aren’t they looking for money for drugs or alcohol? Aren’t there shelters, agencies, places where they can go for the basics of life? So we stare resolutely ahead as we pass or, if we feel the need, we might even take the time to stop and curse them: filthy, lazy, shiftless, worthless, get a job, get a life, get out of here.
Personally, I cannot find it in me to insult or revile a person who is begging for money, regardless of what that person’s true motives may be. That said, not knowing what they would actually do with cash they collect makes me very hesitant to hand them any money. As I passed by the woman, I made eye contact with her and gave her a meek smile. She stared back at me blankly and I had to wonder, what should be my response? What are we supposed to do in this situation?
As a person of faith, I accept that that my response should be based on two guiding principles: subsidiarity and solidarity. Luckily for me, the church provides significant detail on what these words mean. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the principle of subsidiarity is broadly concerned with the limits of the right and duty of the public authority to intervene in social and economic affairs” (Mulcahy, 567). The Church also tells us that subsidiarity is, “economic, institutional or juridical assistance” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 187).
Solidarity, as defined by Pope John Paul II, represents ‘‘a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say for the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all’’ (John Paul II, 38).
In practical terms, solidarity means that we are working towards a society that is concerned with the common good of all, not just a few, and trying to make life better for everyone. We are not focused on our own status or consumed solely with our own well-being or welfare, because when we take care of one another, everyone benefits. The old saying is true; a society is measured by how it cares for its weakest members. We recognize that our relationships do not end with our friends and families, but that what affects any one person affects us all. Subsidiarity, practically speaking, means that we recognize that larger social institutions, like the state and local governments, have a duty and an obligation to help and support smaller institutions that help those in need. We have an obligation to give our consent, at the very least, to the support that the larger social institutions provide. Moreover, we need to actively support the help that smaller social institutions provide. It is important to recognize that subsidiarity and solidarity must go hand-in-hand. Faith and reason tells us that “solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “welfare state,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 152).
Making these principles part of our lives is not all that difficult. Voting for candidates who promise to work for the common good and personal development of all, and who will also work to support the social aid we provide for the poor, is an obvious example. We can donate to charities that work with the poor and the marginalized.
However, meeting the material needs of the poor is not the whole story. Governments and social institutions, while having an important role to play, are not the entire answer. While they address some of the needs of people in distress, there is also a kind of poverty that all the riches of the world will not help. I’m thinking of poverty of the spiritual sort. This sort of poverty is harder to see and to identify. A person’s material needs may be met, but may they be suffering from spiritual needs. In the face of this sort of suffering, we should not be afraid to meet people, to see their faces and hear their voices and to let them see us. Doing so means that we recognize the poor as people with dignity, as people who deserve contact with other persons and who deserve to know that someone, a person and not just an institution, cares about their well-being. So we can also volunteer our time to a food bank or a soup kitchen, or to a homeless shelter, or to a retirement home. And, perhaps most importantly, we can make time to pray for justice and for peace.
The people we see on the street and under the bridges are easy targets for our anger. Sometimes they are easy to ignore. Sometimes we wish they would just go away. But they remind us of a crucial reality. They remind us that this world is not finished; there is work that needs to be done to make sure that everyone everywhere has their basic needs met. The reasons for their circumstances are not simple, and the efforts we need to take to help them are not simple either. The work is daunting, but for the good of every one of us, we need to persevere.


Halfmann, Janet. New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. 15 vols. Washington, D.C.: Gale, 2003.

Mulcahy, R.E. "Subsidiarity." In New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003. 567-569.

John Paul II. " Sollicitudo rei socialis." Vatican: the Holy See. (accessed July 22, 2012).

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C.: USCCB Communications, 2005.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Do You Say That I Am?

 “We don’t need God anymore.”[1] Our culture holds belief in God to be, at best, a fanciful myth of a primitive pre-enlightenment people or, at worst, the cause of most of the atrocities of recent history. In the face of this range of responses, trending from amused indifference to indignant hostility, the question of the significance of the person of Jesus Christ to the modern world isn’t a mere academic exercise: it shines a blinding light upon the heart of the modern culture and on the struggle of the Church to either be relevant or be ruthlessly discarded and forgotten by that same culture. If this Jesus that we profess, if the message that he has entrusted to us, is to be anything more than a caricature from an dusty tome, the answer has to be loud and clear if it is to be heard at all.

Jesus is a person. Not an individual, but a person. An individual is a lonely, pathetic thing, a solitary, unconnected unit, but a person is a being that relates to others, connects with others, forms bonds and relationships and is faithful to others. It is part of our human nature to develop relationships. We are a social creature that longs to be with each other and that finds joy in companionship and relationship. Our relationship with each other is based on dialog, with intimate communication that reveals and accepts ourselves from one to another. Jesus, as a person, is like us. He is a man like us who by virtue of his presence among us can enter into a dialog that produces a relationship.[2] He is a man like us, with the same struggles and desires, the same hopes and fears, the same joys and sorrows. “He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart.”[3] Jesus knew every human limitation and every human freedom that we experience. But unlike us, he is also God. Jesus is the divine man, unique in all of history. The expression of his divinity is this: he was a man like us in all things but sin.[4] He was a man like us in all things but one thing. If we eliminate everything but that one thing, if we take away everything that he holds in common with us, then what we're left with is his divinity: he did not sin, he forgave sin, he healed sin, and he conquered sin. In his power over sin, the person of Jesus, the divine man, relates to us sin-besotted beings in a unique way, not as a judge or an executioner, but as a divine-human sojourner who, unique in all who travel this earth, extends to others the healing power over sin.

Jesus calls to us. His is not a voice from the past, a distant echo of a long forgotten shout, but a voice heard in the here and now, at this very moment. He calls to us, beckons us to come to him. “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”[5] He calls us to repentance, to metanoia, to the fundamental changing of one’s mind that is not merely an exchange of like for like but is rather a radical conversion to God, an uprooting of all that we cherish and value. In answering his call, we exchange our existence for something completely new and different. Not satisfied with merely remodeling our human existence, with subtle and incremental change, he instead strikes at the root of all that afflicts us. His call to conversion takes aim squarely at what ails us, at what keeps us from him and from each other. Sin, death, disease, poverty, hatred, ostracism, chaos, and confusion are all evils he firmly rejects. But not satisfied with simply rejecting that which is evil, he offers us in his life the very alternatives to these evils: life, mercy, peace, simplicity, healing, virtue, and understanding. This he does “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."[6] Moreover, as we gather around him, answering his call to come and to convert, he extends to us his own hospitality. His hospitality extends to all, is open to all, regardless of whom or what they are. In his example we truly see a new kingdom where “God and man at table are sat down.”[7] In following him, in answering his call, he asks of us to imitate him, to follow him wherever he goes and to do whatever he does, to continue to allow him to call to us, to beckon to us wherever we are, and to continue always to change our hearts and minds. Thus we continually gather around him and sit down with him in hospitality and fellowship.

Jesus offers us salvation. There is not much to recommend a transformed life if it just leads to the same end that life has always had, to suffering and death and permanent loss. The transformed life he offers is much more than mere window dressing on an otherwise futile existence. As the events of his life demonstrate, he leads us to eternal life itself. Jesus has saved us, he is saving us now, and he offers to us the hope of salvation.

Jesus has saved us. By coming to live among us, he has given our fragile human nature a new existence, a hope that it never had. His incarnation among us redefined our lives and our deaths in a wholly unexpected way. Humanity and divinity have been forever joined together in a new creation. Likewise, his passion has united God with our own sufferings. His passion illustrates the nature of salvation in the kingdom of God. Living the kingdom leads to self-sacrifice, death to one’s self, taking up the cross, suffering, and finally dying with Christ. By hanging next to “the outcasts that were central to his ministry,”[8] Jesus promises heaven, salvation, from the cross. Thus, Jesus reveals the power of the cross in that moment, by demonstrating “how salvation is available to the community through the crucified and risen Lord.”[9] By taking up our cross and following Jesus, we too participate in the saving act. However, his saving act did not end with death. In his resurrection, he displays the great transformation that leads to life. The transformed life that he offers to us has the power to make even us poor souls into images of Jesus himself. “Frightened, guilty, and confused disciples were gradually transformed and became empowered by the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim the good news to the world.”[10] It was the experience of the transformed, resurrected Christ that in turn transformed the apostles. In each of His post-resurrection interactions with the disciples, Jesus did not cure anyone, or relate a parable, or feed a multitude. All the time that he was with them before His passion and death seemingly did little to change them – as soon as he was gone, they started to drift back to their old selves, their old ways of life. It was presence of the resurrected Christ that truly made Simon into Peter and doubting Thomas into believing Thomas.

Jesus is saving us now. The present state of our life cries out for salvation. Drugs, alcohol, and anti-depressants are used in such large quantities for a reason. They are inadequate substitutes for the justice, peace, freedom, and love that we crave. Jesus acts here and now to heal our sin and our painful separation from God and each other. Jesus continues the work of salvation through the members of his body who are his hand in the world. His work of salvation continues through his word being proclaimed daily. His disciples in this day and age continue to call our attention to those things that keep us from God. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.”[11] The followers of Jesus are sent to spread the news of the resurrection, of salvation in the here and now, not only in the past, to the outcast, the beggar, the unwanted and unloved. They have an advocate, a voice, in Jesus and in us.

Jesus offers to us the hope of salvation. We live in a kingdom that is now and not yet. Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God and he also taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come.” Our salvation is now and is a thing still hoped for, an eschatological hope that at the end of our lives, salvation awaits as we persist in answering his call and following him. “We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” While the end of our world comes for each of us by turn, while inevitable death still comes for us, we still yet wait in hope, hoping to persevere until the end, because of his promise to us.

Jesus forms us as a community. His call to us, across time and space, gathers his followers together and forms a community. His Church is an intentional community that is being added to, renewed, and reinvigorated by the new additions, passing on what has been held to be true. It is a community that is directed towards salvation through the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus gives us work to do. He gives to us the gift of the work of salvation. It is our work to heal the effects of sin; restore people to their proper dignity, and make people whole again in body and soul. Our work is not purely spiritual or metaphysical, but includes both tangible reality and spiritual reality together as one. Ours is the work of saving ministry, announcing the kingdom of God, teaching the kingdom, living the kingdom by word and example, so that all who see us know that Jesus is truly present among us. We extend our presence out into the world, as an offer of help and friendship, so that others too may come to know Jesus in our lives and come to know him for themselves as he is.

Jesus sustains us. He did not abandon us. “I will be with you until the end of the age.”[12] His life and his salvation continue among us in our lives, in his word, in doing what we do in remembrance of him. His words continue to nourish us, restore us to right relationship with God, and uphold our spirits and bodies.

Despite our illusion of being sufficient unto ourselves, noble rugged individuals, there is underlying our self-confident swagger an unfulfilled desire for a sense of belonging, of being part of something larger than ourselves, whether it’s a family or a tribe or a community or a socially-conscious movement. At the same time that we long to belong, we are keenly aware of those things that keep us from belonging. We stand on the outside, looking in. We stand on separate shores, looking across the waters at each other, wondering what will bridge the gulf. Addiction, poverty, terror, ostracism, illness, sin, death, and our own self-absorption conspire against us, to keep us from truly being and from being together. Into this dilemma comes the person of Jesus Christ. He comes proclaiming the kingdom of God, a call from a person to a community to do saving work, all the while sustained by the very one who calls us. Are we truly listening?

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.
Hogarth, Jimmy. We Don't Need God Anymore. Comp. Jimmy Hogarth. 2006.
II, Pope John Paul. "Like Us in All Things Except Sin: General Audience February 3, 1988." Vatican web Site. February 3, 1988. (accessed April 23, 2009).
Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Stamp, Robert J. God and Man at Table are Sat Down. 1972.

[1] Hogarth 2006
[2] Ratzinger 2004
[3] John Paul 1988
[4] Council of Chalcedon
[5] Matt 11:28
[6] Lk 19:10
[7] Stamp 1972
[8] Hill 2004
[9] Hill 2004
[10] Ibid
[11] Mat 28:19
[12] Mt 28:20

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A conversation with a 14 year old

The following exchange occurred on the way home from mass today:

Dom: Dad, where do accents come from?

Me: Eh? You mean the way people talk?

Dom: Yeah.

Me: Well, from the way people pronouce their vowels, mostly. In certain regions, people hear each other and repeat how they speak to each other and it forms a self-sustaining pattern of speech,

Dom: Oh. Huh.

Me: Where did you think they came from?

Dom: The climate?