Tag Archives: mercy

The Most Jesus-y Thing My Church Does

Our church held it’s annual festival last weekend. Now, I grew up in a respectable Southern Protestant household, so this was foreign to my childhood. If we wanted to ride marginally safe spinny rides, our only outlet was the county fair.

On its face, the festival is a pure sellout to the devil, raising money for the church school by selling cheap thrills, bingo and fried foods galore.  It attracts all sorts of people, including several who I’m sure have never darkened the door of a church except to sneak into the bathroom. The carnies who work the rides seem particularly sketchy. To make it worse, it happens during Lent every year, without fail, when we’re supposed to be solemnly fasting, abstaining and atoning.

But our pastor of the last 20 or so years is a wise man, and while most people who are aware of the festival (and it draws from across the area) think it’s timed to be close to St. Patrick’s Day, not so, he insists. It’s timed each weekend to fall on the weekend of Laetare Sunday, which marks a sort of “halftime break” for Lent. While Sundays remain a feast day, even in Lent, the readings for this week are particularly joyful, reminding us that Lenten fasting is only for a season.  This year, the Gospel was the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or the story of the Prodigal Father, which may be a more accurate name). And while listening to that Gospel for the millionth time, I realized that the festival was perhaps the most “Jesus-y” thing our parish does.

I don’t mean for a moment that our faith community doesn’t show lots of other glimpses of the body of Christ. We worship. We partner with the poor and oppressed, through our sister-parish relationship with a church in Haiti. We try to live out the challenge of Matthew 25 by feeding the hungry through local outreach efforts like St. Vincent DePaul. We learn together to grow in discipleship.

But at the beginning of the reading, before you get into the parable, you learn that what prompted Jesus’ telling of it was the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus “welcome sinners and tax collectors and eats with them.” And when the parable itself turns from the prodigal son come home to the do-good son who stayed behind, it says that what sets the “good son” off is “the sound of music and dancing” from the homecoming celebration.

Because we’ve been doing it so long, I suspect most people who might be offended by the lack of Lenten decorum in our festival have either made their peace or moved to another, more respectable parish. I’m sure there are still a few who grumble about the noise, the mess, or the parking. The rules of good Christian decorum would say that, if you want to come back to Mother Church, you should show up on Ash Wednesday, do some serious penance, maybe take a class or two, and when you’re “ready”, come back for good. And if you’re just trying to be respectable, at least make it to the dress-up services at Christmas and Easter.

But as surely as the love of the Prodigal Father short-circuits the reinstatement plan of the prodigal son and skips straight from indentured servanthood to the full homecoming of a lost son, so, I would argue, does our festival offer everyone the opportunity to celebrate a homecoming to our community, just as Jesus did when celebrating with sinners and tax collectors.

During the weekend, I sat next to a couple (playing Bingo) who said they weren’t members of the church “anymore”, but they still come back to festival each year because it’s fun and homey and reminds them of their connection to the place.  I ran into another old friend who said she had fallen out of the habit of Church, once her kids had flown the nest, but she realized that it was important, and Festival was her first step back. Is Festival “enough” to be a part of God’s family? Common sense would say, no, you need to show up for Mass and throw something in the offering plate. But who are we to say?

Whether it’s the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the “good Christians” of today, it seems to be an easy slip to let our zeal for righteousness translate into a “Gospel for the good enough,” a way of acting that implies (if not overtly states) that you have to meet some minimum standards to fall within the circle of God’s love.  The music and the dancing and the celebration of homecoming reminds us that the Gospel isn’t for the good enough; it’s for all of us. Whether you come home to Festival to reconnect with family or friends, to ride rides, eat fried foods or dance to loud music, it all happens beneath the shadow of our church because we know that that’s our ultimate family, our ultimate home, and even when we’re “supposed to” be serious, our Prodigal Father is always ready to deep-fry the fatted calf and cue the band. That’s what the Father said to the older, “do-good” son. That’s what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees who “tut-tutted” him. That’s what our Church reminds all of us in it’s most Jesus-y moment.

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The difficult grace of the passive voice

My wife is truly a saint in the making, and not only because she puts up with me.  She has an unquenchable thirst for God – prioritizing prayer and study. She’s great at something I am horrible at – praying for others in her life, not only when they ask for it but just as part of her daily routine. And, as the founder of a moms’ prayer group at our daughter’s school, she convenes a community of women that she cares deeply for and serves in countless ways.  She has organized enough meal drops for sick or recovering members that the “Take Them a Meal” website should consider her for their board, or as a celebrity endorser.

I mention this because, as she recovers from her own health issue, it is readily apparent that she is very uncomfortable with the shoe being on the other foot.  As her friends rise to the opportunity to reciprocate for all she’s done for them, she is grateful, but uneasy.  Some of it, I suspect, is the desire not to be the center of attention, but it’s more than that.  We are trained to think of faith in the active voice – we pray, we worship, we study, and especially we love, by feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and comforting the lonely and sometimes guiding the lost.  But if we are all equally children of God, and we live in a community of faith that supports each other, we need to be willing, when needed, to accept the sort of support we freely offer to others.

If you’re the type who is used to achieving, used to independence, used to control, being helpless (or at least needing help) is tough.  There is inevitable guilt (“think of all the people who are in much worse shape”) at being served, when you are used to doing the serving.  There is a safety in being the one to offer help; depending on others can feel like the opposite of safety.

But I think it’s good for us, to some extent, to accept the difficult grace of the passive voice.  When we do, we make evident that there are not two classes of people in God’s family – the givers and the receivers – but that we are all both, all the time. If it is in giving that true joy lies, there is a consideration in letting others embrace that joy at our expense. And the experience of receiving something that you could not attain on your own is to experience the definition of grace and a kind of love that is a reflection of the divine.

I’ve been reflecting this week on Luke 7, where Jesus goes to a Pharisee’s house and a “sinful woman” washes his feet with her tears.  There are a lot of dynamics in the story, but one that hadn’t struck me before was Jesus’ willingness to let this woman wash his feet. Late in John’s Gospel, when Jesus says he will wash the feet of his disciples, Peter protests – no way, you’re the one who should be served. But if we are to be the hands and feet of Christ, that not only means we need to heal and feed and go where Jesus would have us minister; it means we need to let others do the same for us. May we embrace the difficult grace of the passive voice.

What a hairless Mexican dog taught me about mercy 

My first lesson in this Jubilee Year of Mercy came from a hairless Mexican dog and her owners over the New Year’s weekend. 

Chica, the dog in question, is owned by friends of ours. Over Thanksgiving, we house- and dog-sat for them, and my daughter, always passionate about dogs, bonded with Chica and her brother Taco as they all shared a bed. 

On New Year’s Eve, we got a text: Chica had gotten out. Our family was distraught, but only to a fraction of the owners. 

Over the next few days, they literally didn’t rest in their search for Chica. We helped a little – designing and distributing fliers, calling vets, posting on social media, hoping to mobilize other sets of eyes. On New Year’s Day, someone called to say they saw Chica get hit crossing a major street, but that when the caller went to help her, she took off, as fast as any greyhound. We spent the night helping the friends comb the streets and alleys where she was last seen. No signs. 

While I idled through the streets, what I couldn’t shake was how this was a parable for our time. The shepherd with a lost sheep meets the prodigal father. 

The unflagging devotion of Chica’s owners – they could not rest until their dog was safe, and they would do anything to secure her? That’s how God pursues each of us. And they were relentless. 

And Chica? Her every need was met, she was showered with love and treats and an FSU t-shirt, and when she got the chance to leave all that, she bolted. Driven by fear or longing for something she thought was better than the perfection she had. 

That’s us. 

The owners never gave up hope, but on Saturday night they realized they had done everything they possibly could. Though their role in the parable was the divine one, they were only human, and they put things in God’s hands and collapsed. 

In the night, Chica came home, waking them at 4 am with her kisses. She was bumped and bruised but no worse. In the end, as we all know, no matter how fierce the search party, ultimately you don’t get found so much as you find home. 

And the owners? They were thrilled beyond words.  

That’s what divine mercy looks like. 

What does mercy look like to…

What does mercy look like to me? Every time I’m confronted with my own failings, which is a lot, it’s remembering that God loves me more. It’s also every small kindness I receive and every chance to offer one to others.

What does mercy look like to my family? It’s every person who lets on that they know that this first Christmas, New Year, round of birthdays, etc. without Dad is going to be tough and offers Mom, or my sisters or nieces a little extra TLC.

What does mercy look like to the too many people I know who are battling – battling cancer, battling addiction and mental illness, battling tough times of all sorts? It’s the hug, the casserole, the pithy words of encouragement, the break that finally comes.

What does mercy look like to the refugees desperate for a better life? How can it be anything but the welcoming of a stranger that Jesus has on His short list of what His followers will be judged by in Matthew 25?

What does mercy look like to the people living in daily terror in Syria, Iraq, and too many other places we don’t even notice? It’s someone with power risking their life to make it stop. I’m almost a pacificist, but I know that much.

What does mercy look like to Muslims here and abroad who have nothing to do with these people who claim their faith to do unspeakable things? It’s embrace, friendship, acceptance from Christians who have their own issues with people hijacking our religion to spread hate.

What does mercy look like to people who live in fear in Paris, in California, in just about anywhere? It’s the comfort of knowing that the Christian Bible says 365 times “Do not fear” and not once says “get so afraid that you’ll be a sucker for any tough-talker eager to lead you away from who you are, which is God’s child.”

What does mercy look like to the fear-mongers? It probably looks horribly naive. But I also hope it looks like the nagging conscience of the right they know is true. And it definitely looks like the offer that, while it may not be easy and certainly won’t be without some shame and loss of face, God wants them back in His love, only at the cost of letting go of their hate and fear and the phantom power it brings them.

What does mercy look like to the radicalized? I honestly don’t know how, but my faith tells me that God holds out hope even for them, that they will come to know the deception they have bought for what it is. Mercy always offers the chance to exchange false idols for real God. Even when the rest of us have written you off.

What does mercy look like to you?

What do we do with mercy?

Today, Pope Francis inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy to help us bring to the forefront the role of divine mercy in our life and to “rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”

Mercy is the place where God’s perfect love meets our brokenness, be it sin, failure, lack or imperfection. It is also where we seek to be like God, to embody the spirit of Christ that we confess lives within us, by extending that same love to the brokenness of others. It seems to me that, over the course of the next (almost) year, we can do the following to grow in mercy:

  1. Understand it. To truly grasp the depth and power of God’s love for us, personally, we need to come to grips with the brokenness we each struggle to hide from others, from God, and from ourselves, and fully understand that God’s love for us surpasses the scars of that brokenness. That in itself is tough.
  2. Accept it. It’s not enough to cognitively understand mercy.  We can do that without fully accepting, in our hearts, that this love of God applies to me, to my particular brokenness. There are a lot of people walking around carrying a lot of stuff not because they don’t know in their heads that God loves them anyway, but because they can’t love themselves past that stuff.
  3. Offer it. We Western Christians can get really wrapped up on the one-on-one, me-and-God component of faith and completely overlook its communitarian dimension. In his homily today, Francis underscores that the reason to dwell on mercy is to empower us to go out beyond ourselves and share it with others. Read the news. Look around. We could all use to offer a lot more mercy, a lot more love, to others this year.*
  4. Receive it. Consider this the flip of #3. Even if I accept God’s love, I can still throw up walls to prevent other people from reaching to me, especially if I hold on to past hurts. Receiving the love of others can be harder than it sounds.
  5. Share it. So, the secret to this year of mercy is that it’s all about spreading the Good News of God’s all-surpassing love with others. Once you’ve experienced it, you’re better able to testify to it. As this is timed to the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, which among many other things fundamentally changed the relationship of the Catholic Church to other religions from one of sullen superiority to respectful encounter, this is not a license to go proselytize the already religious under someone else’s flag. But the “nones,” they are everywhere, as are the disaffected former believers. Bringing them some genuinely Good News about what God wants of them — to love them — is our calling.

* Looking for a way to show mercy? Here are 14 from Catholic tradition. The seven corporal works of mercy:

To feed the hungry.
To give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To Shelter the Homeless
To visit the sick.
To visit the imprisoned
To bury the dead.

And the seven spiritual works of mercy:

To instruct the ignorant.
To counsel the doubtful.
To admonish sinners.
To bear wrongs patiently.
To forgive offences willingly.
To comfort the afflicted.
To pray for the living and the dead

Try to play blackout bingo on these instead of picking and choosing.  And as you delight to instruct the ignorant and admonish sinners, remember that the #1 ignorant sinner is usually in the mirror.

Writing straight with our crooked lines: #Synod15, family, and the hot issues.

For the next three or so weeks, the focus of the Church is off of Pope Francis and on the bishops gathered for the ordinary synod on the family. If this sounds like deja vù, it’s because last year bishops gathered for an extraordinary synod on the same topic (ordinary synods happen every three years; extraordinary ones are ones that don’t fit that schedule and are fairly rare in the 50 years of synodal history). Plus there was a World Meeting of Families in Philly last week. This synod should end with a document, and possibly from that document Francis will write an apostolic exhortation like the one that sort of launched this blog.

Lots of expectations about what could happen in this process. A path forward for divorced couples to fully rejoin the church? Softening on same sex marriage? Married priests?

First, let me suggest one of the most likely, and most potentially fruitful outcomes: a new commitment to more comprehensive marriage preparation that extends across the lifespan from youth through traditional marriage prep to ongoing continuing marital education, if you will. The Church has an exceptional story to tell about the sacrament of marriage that most members, much less non-members, don’t know about; Saint John Paul II made it, and the Theology of the Body in which it sits, the cornerstone of his theology. To fully inculcate that appreciation of what marriage can optimally, gracefully be, would require a significant rethinking of what catechesis is and how it’s delivered, and if the outcome were for even 1/2 of Catholic marriages to fully embrace the prefiguring of divine love that marriage can be, it could transform the church and the world.

This would be the easy part.

The tough questions are really two-fold: What does the Church do for those whose marriages have broken apart seemingly irrevocably? What does the Church do with exemplary marriages that don’t fit the template? (I think there is an argument for married priests, but I just don’t see it coming up in a significant way in this synod.)

On the first question: Pope Francis seems pretty clear on this front: the Church should do everything it can to embrace and welcome the broken, because they are merely more visible reminders of the brokenness we all face in our own way. The catch is, how do we balance hope – the hope that through God’s grace no relationship is truly irretrievable, no marriage completely over – and mercy – and with it the recognition that sending someone back into an unrepentantly toxic relationship is dangerous and unloving. That’s a pastoral challenge I hope the synod chews on a lot. The Catholic understanding of marriage is lofty enough that a “cheap grace” that gives up too early defrauds the recipients from a great gift – the strength that comes with fighting through hardship. But so many people, mostly women, have been damaged unspeakably by an ethic that is unrelenting in its call to keep returning to a bad relationship that the Church has to be sensitive to the need to protect its more vulnerable members.

If the first question is pastoral, the second is theological and historical.  It was just the Sunday before last when Numbers and Mark both told of examples of God working through those who weren’t considered to be acceptable by the favored. In both cases, and in Acts’ history of the inclusion of Gentiles, God clearly sided with the unexpected against convention.

If there are remarried couples who are truly modeling the beautiful mutual self-giving of divine love prefigured in marriage, should we in the Church be turning them away from full communion? 

And what about this? I know same-sex couples who have been better examples of commitment, self-sacrifice and love for longer than I have been. While they, like many opposite-sex couples, have been unable to procreation biologically, they have created life in their service to the greater good and have nurtured life through adoption, fostering, and friendship. They do not fit the mold. They will never conform to the template of sacramental marriage the Church holds today. Just as the Gentiles who received the Holy Spirit did not conform to the template of Jesus’ first followers. Our call as the Church, as was that of the early disciples, is to look not for poll numbers or market share but for evidence of the working of God’s love, discern its authenticity, and honor it at the risk of sacrificing our own assumptions.

What do we do in a HOLY year?

Based on the papal bull Misericordiae Vultus, we are headed for a Holy Year of Mercy. How might we celebrate that?

Ultimately each nation’s bishops will decide, but here are my two cents worth, based on what’s in the document.

Pope Francis calls on us to “contemplate the mystery of mercy.” (2) This requires us to “listen to the Word of God. This means rediscovering the value of silence in order to meditate on the Word that comes to us.” (13) He mentions a few of the many passages of Scripture worthy of meditation on mercy in 17. So one suggestion would be a fast from the noise of modern life, a Blackberry Sabbath, devoted to meditating on Scripture.

He speaks of pilgrimage, and asks bishops to find ways for believers who can’t make it to Rome to make a pilgrimage. I hope to go, but would love to see my diocese set up a pilgrimage to a nearby shrine (maybe Mary Queen of the Universe in Orlando?), or better yet, offer ways for us to create a local pilgrimage through different churches in our diocese to celebrate unity and prayer in different neighborhoods and different sanctuaries than our familiar home.

He speaks of “opening our hearts to those living on the fringes of society” (fringes we create, he adds!) and asks “Let us open our eyes to see the misery of the world.” (15) A greater awareness of who we exclude from our attention seems like an important first step. I learn a lot about the rest of the world listening to Vatican Radio news and would commend it. But learning about our sister parish in Haiti or the plight of those served by St. Vincent DePaul would help, too.

Beyond open hearts and eyes are corporal and spiritual works of mercy. He lists corporal acts from Matthew: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead. Lots of opportunities there.

But don’t overlook the spiritual works of mercy: counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant (which he interprets not only in the spiritual but in the socioeconomic sense), admonish sinners (about which he says little), comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear patiently those who do us ill, pray for the living and the dead. (15) An intimidating list requiring lots of self-examination.

I particularly like his formulation of Isaiah 61: “to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed.” (16) This prevents us from writing off as anachronism and disability terms like slavery and blindness. There could be a great study on who falls in these categories in our lives, our community, our world.

The heart of mercy is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Francis calls for a devoted effort in Lent to bring us to that healing sacrament.

So meditation and silence, pilgrimage, awareness, service, witness, study and sacrament. How’s that for a list of ways to celebrate this next year?