Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable (and Should!) Part 3

Too Good to be True?

The gospels have been misused to incite guilt. Some may need that stern correction to over-spending or luxuriating while others starve. But many hard-working people are simply trying to survive, raise their families, and do their jobs, while being as generous as they can with time and treasure. They don’t need another guilt trip!

What we may find harder than guilt is the gospel’s insistence on how splendid we are. Jesus walked among people who were probably diseased, smelly and sweaty and assured them that even in poverty, mourning or persecution, they were “blessed”—the kingdom of heaven was theirs. Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle with good news?

Admittedly, the central message is hard to absorb. WE, limited and flawed as we are, are made in the very image of the divine. Furthermore, God continues to dwell and act in us. Jesus once said, “you will do greater things than I have done.”

Throughout the gospel, the message recurs: you are not a slave, but a friend, an adopted child with an eternal inheritance—not condemned to futility or the finality of death. Jesus has sanctified everything human, making us indeed a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

The implications could be unsettling. God chose each of us for a unique purpose and equips us to get it done. So no whining or stalling—get on with it!

To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable (and Should!) Part 2

The Perils of Storytelling

We may be uncomfortable with the gospel’s storytelling style if we want “just the facts, please.” We might prefer the precise architectural drawing or accounting spreadsheet to what seems rambling or inconsistent. But if we compare the Bible with our own life stories, we grow more comfortable with its mixed genres. For example…

The early years of my parents’ marriage were interrupted by my father’s Navy service during World War II. My college studies were filled with news of the Viet Nam war—and protests against it. My son began graduate school at Georgetown just as the dean of his school, with her family, were killed in a flight from Dulles to Los Angeles and Sydney, where she’d teach at the university there–9/11/01. My friend missed his daughter’s birth, because he’s a Marine in Afghanistan.

Those are a few examples of the stories that nest within stories like a set of Russian dolls. The hinges between levels connect them: my story—our story—The Story. We search for links where the larger Story intersects my personal one.

So when Lent begins, we reflect not only on Jesus’ and the Hebrews’ experience in the desert, but also on ours. Wandering in the wilderness has brought valuable insights we haven’t learned from secure kitchens. We’ve found God in the “spaces between certainties.”

Much as we enjoy the intriguing connections, storytelling has its problems. It’s not scientific, it’s subject to personal interpretation, and sometimes it’s wildly inaccurate. Ask two people about the party Saturday; they might tell radically different accounts.

So too, each gospel writer has a different emphasis. Even within John, there are apparent contradictions: “Jesus was deeply troubled” (13:21) but in the next chapter says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1).

Those who tell stories and enjoy them listen beneath the words, because their primary interest is the meaning stories give our experience. We don’t read the gospels primarily for scientific accuracy or historical fact, but to better follow Jesus.

We read through the lens of a human author, who will sometimes shade, condense or exaggerate. Sometimes we also need to read exegesis or commentary, but most important is our response. It’s an old saying: the gospel gives the chapter headings; we write the texts in our lives.

To be continued… Originally published in Everyday Catholic

Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable (and Should!) Part 1

It may be a shift to read the gospel and find the opposite of comfort. While it sheds light, it’s no escape hatch. Conflict, tension, and frustration still plague believers. We may respond with the puzzlement of the father who cried, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

We read the gospel for one purpose: to know Jesus better and increase our intimacy with him. We don’t read for warm fuzzies, easy answers, or reinforcement of our prejudices. Nor will we always encounter “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

He who threatened the cozy assumptions of his contemporaries may have the same effect on us. If we rely on the “wrong” supports, like wealth (Lk. 6:20), family connections (Mt. 12: 48-50), prestige (Mk. 12:38-40) or strict religious ritual (Mk. 2:27-28; Lk. 18:10-14), he’ll challenge us too.

Jesus questioned many of the religious and social customs of his time—such as the strict meal hierarchy, the subservient role of women, and the authority of the Pharisees. Nathan Mitchell writes in Real Presence: the Work of Eucharist, “It is hard to believe he was simply an early flower-child who traipsed through sunlit fields talking about lilies and love! Who would seek to arrest and execute such a sap?” (p. 41)

To be continued…. Originally published in Everyday Catholic

A Book Filled with Joy and Light

At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Liturgical Press, 2015) by Christopher Pramuk

I’m slightly embarrassed that a male so clearly and closely articulates the feminine face of God, but maybe we have Chris’ wife Lauri, mother Gladys and daughters Grace and Sophia to thank. It’s hard not to let our friendship and the beauty of his style—the precision of each word—influence my judgement, but still the book stands: clear, luminous, a diamond with many facets to which I’ll return repeatedly. I can read simply for the pleasure of a sentence such as this: “God…saturates all things in a sea of reverence.”

The overarching theme of the book is Merton’s discovery of God as Wisdom, a process in which Rowan Williams says we can observe the dynamic of God and human possibilities. Merton’s awakening is expressed primarily in Hagia Sophia, which Pramuk inspires us to re-read if it’s been a while… Wisdom-Sophia “is God’s call from the future breaking ever into the present.” This book gives us the freedom to know God not only as Father, Son, and Spirit, but also as mother, sister, child, and friend.

Such breadth ain’t the God of your ordinary homily, this “spirit of creativity and celebration.” As the author comments wryly, this spirit is “feared and starved dead for oxygen by an institutional church that seems determined to rigidly choreograph and control every move in the dance. After all, as the logic of clericalism goes, the people in the pews ‘are not theologically trained.’” For those who feel suffocated by such thinking, this book offers a chance to breathe again, and symbols that contradict hopelessness.

Considerably shorter than the author’s other books, this one nevertheless combines his signatures: careful scholarship with lyrical prose and accessible insights. Seems a bit odd that chunks of this book have appeared in previous books, but maybe that’s only a problem for fanatic Pramuk fans like myself, who read every word he writes. So treat yourself to a large draught of beauty, freedom, fresh air and joy.

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 5

A Tripod for Support

Often under duress, people turn in desperation to the triad of caffeine, alcohol and sugar. A three-legged stool that’s far more stable is church, relationships and exercise. We may trudge to liturgy or another church gathering without much energy to contribute. That’s when the faith community steps in like the friends of the paralytic who lowered him through the roof. The shared belief, homily, song, social interaction and scripture may relieve our anxiety and bring us to Jesus when we can’t quite get there on our own steam.

Some relationships may cause the stress (think wildly dysfunctional family or boss), but others relieve it. A friend or close relative can be the channel for grace if they offer a place to vent, a sympathetic ear, a helping hand or a gentle touch on tight muscles.

Many experts encourage exercise to release the stress that accumulates in the body. Christians who see the body as God’s temple should have even more reason to honor it and protect the flexibility of muscles, the supple bend of spine.

Stressed Saints

If it’s any consolation, the saints didn’t coast blissfully through trouble-free days, popping their spiritual Prozac. They sometimes dealt with worse pressures than we do, yet didn’t let that build an obstacle to prayer.

Catherine of Siena, for instance, was the twenty-fourth child in her family. Picture that large, boisterous Italian crew, always eager for the drama of an argument, and it’s understandable why she retreated to the hermitage of her room for a long time. According to legend, Jesus led her back—and into some of the worst warring factions of her day. She stood smack in the middle of local feuds—and mediated the fourteenth century dispute over whether the pope should live in Rome or Avignon. Unsurprisingly, she writes in her Dialogue, “my life has been spent wholly in darkness.” Yet she never deserted prayer, where she found the consolation of Christ: “bath and medicine, food and clothing, and a bed in which we can rest.”

St. Gregory Nazianaus lived long before computer melt-downs and traffic gridlock. Yet he could have been summarizing twenty-first century stress when he said, “Alas, dear Christ, the Dragon is here again.” We can speculate what the Dragon meant to him—or fill in our own particular names for this unwelcome visitor.

People who have had near-death experiences consistently report a sense of joy, light and peace. So if death itself has lost its sting, that puts all other stresses into perspective. St. Francis was even able to call death “sister.”

After a recent workshop in another state, I drove for two hours on remote county roads to reach the airport. Fiddling with the radio, I heard the end of a Mass broadcast. The presider must’ve been Franciscan because he concluded with the blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he turn his face to you and have mercy on you. May he shine his countenance on you and give you peace.” Across unfamiliar fields shone a beacon. Into a tense car came a peaceful prayer.

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 4

Bodily Prayer

Humans live incarnate—and the stress on our minds will inevitably transfer to our bodies. When we’re overly stressed, we pour toxins into our systems. Why are we then surprised by the resulting back ache, indigestion or migraine? Deep breathing has been part of every major religious tradition. Many use it to replace the venomous retort, to gain a few minutes to think, or to restore inner calm. In Genesis 1, God breathes life into humanity. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes courage and forgiveness into a confused and frightened group of friends. Yet when we’re nervous, we take short, shallow breaths, not the deep, relaxing ones that could bring peace. Breath is intrinsic to yoga, which can be moving meditation. It helps relieve chronic stress which for most people collects in the neck, back and shoulders.

Collaborating with the Inevitable

Sometimes a difficult situation is beyond our control. If, for instance, our work involves tax preparation, we know that the weeks preceding April 15 will be full. In such times, Piero Ferrucci, author of What We May Be recommends an attitude of acceptance. We can ask in prayer not to descend into self-pity, but to freely choose what we can’t change. The same God who gives the pleasant Sunday picnic also sends the midnight deadline. Can we learn from both, finding enrichment in radically different circumstances, trusting that God knows what we need? One unexpected blessing of the recession has been that with so many people out of work, those who have jobs appreciate them more—even the stressful ones.

The Strange Benefits of Stress

Oddly enough, stress is a mixed blessing. Without it, we might not get much done. Indeed, some folks look forward all year to their two-week vacation. They dream of lounging around the pool doing nothing. Inevitably, the novelty wears off. In a few days, they’re organizing activities: a tennis match, a shopping trip, a hike. They’re consulting the movie schedules and piling the family in the car. Hmmm—almost as if humans were made for action!

So too some who retire to the tropics grow tired of the sameness: one sunny day after another. Nothing like a good blizzard to get the juices flowing and the snow blower humming! With the right amount of pressure—not too much nor too little—we get organized, make efficient use of time, and accomplish great things for God.

As long as we sail through life untroubled, we don’t feel much need for God. But when we start coming unglued, we know how precarious our hold on sanity really is. If stress brings us to prayer, it may not be so bad. No matter how tired, frustrated or frazzled we are, we can end the day with compassion for the self.

I once gave a talk about prayer in a church basement to an audience seated on folding chairs. One plumber told of his experience. He’d met many people confronting the dire situation of sewage back-up. But he commented wryly, “if they’d just say a prayer instead of cursing the flood, they’d be in much better shape when I arrive!” I smiled in response: “you may be the answer to their prayer.”

 To be continued…

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 3

A Broader Notion of Prayer

If we think of prayer as long, uninterrupted stretches in a quiet church or retreat house, we might get more stressed out worrying that we’ll never achieve that. Instead, we might want to think of prayer in terms of the different voices heard in John 11: 1-44.

It’s definitely a stressful situation. Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary has just died. Making matters worse, Jesus has delayed coming, even though he knew Lazarus was ill. His disciples are annoyed with him for returning to an area where the Jews were just trying to stone him.  Emotions must be running high, but various forms of prayer appear during the crisis.

Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus all love each other—so the sisters must wonder why Jesus waited so long to come. We can only imagine their anxiety increasing as Lazarus grew worse, and their dear friend didn’t appear. Martha’s complaint, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” may sound like whining. On the other hand, it is honest expression of her feelings—and her respect for Jesus.

Later, Mary weeps; her friends join her, and Jesus also weeps. This could be our prayer when we have no words left, and silent tears are eloquent. Jesus is “greatly disturbed,” but begins his prayer by thanking God. Despite the annoying criticism of the crowd (“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”), he can still be grateful. In that stance lies a message for us—no matter how stressed we are, we can still be deeply thankful.

Jesus speaks with great confidence to God: “Father…I knew that you always hear me.” Then from the depth of his inmost being tears the wrenching cry, “Lazarus, come out!” It is the call to life, a stirring invitation to renewed engagement with the family Lazarus loves.

None of this occurs in a silent chapel. Indeed, the background noise of the crowd must be irritating. Prayer doesn’t always convey the polite emotions. Martha’s distress is as raw as the anger which rages through some of the psalms (See Ps. 88, 120, 137). No one consults a Bible or a book of prayer—all of it is spontaneous; some of it is wordless.

How does the gospel scene translate to our prayer in stress? Sometimes—when the gas guage nears “empty” or the thermometer spikes over 102–we may use “arrow” prayers, brief, direct beams to God’s heart. They may be simple as “Help!” “Please!” or “Thanks.” In short, they tell God we’re at the end of our rope. We’ve exhausted our limited resources. We don’t know what to do. We desperately need God’s intervention—or appreciate it.

Sometimes, our throats are tight and our minds are numb. We’re too tense to know what to say in prayer. Then, we can turn to scriptural mantras. We repeat consoling words in calming rhythms. For instance, when time, money or resources seem scarce, Jesus recalls to us the abundance of the Kingdom. We repeat then the father’s assurance to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Or Jesus’ words at the last supper tell us of his abiding presence, no matter what we’re going through. “Do not let your hearts be troubled….I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14: 1, 3). Water often calms and refreshes; Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37-8).

 To be continued… 

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press