Who is God?

Matthias Grünewald – Crucifixion. 1524. playbuzz.com

Re-post 2015

I was listening to a lecture by Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Behr, and he made a fascinating, yet very basic point. He said that Christians, before beginning a debate about God’s existence, must first clarify which God they are claiming exists. And across global human cultures there is actually quite a wide variety to choose from. Often, he argued, our description of God remains rather abstract and non-specific, such as “God is good, omnipotent and omniscient.” We use these terms that are only thinly content-specific to set up very specific problems regarding how one can reconcile the existence of a God so-described with the way the world is. The problem is, these qualities we attribute to God beg questions like, “What exactly is this power, this goodness, this knowledge like?” — and if you have left the descriptive attributes without much specific and clear content, the debate will be hard to press forward far.

But if you are Christian, he said, the answer is actually quite specific. Shockingly specific. The answer is God is like Jesus of Nazareth. “No,” he added, “God is Jesus of Nazareth, because we believe Jesus is God made fully human.”

The Christian claim is that the most complete expression of what it means to be God — of who God is — is to be found only in the historical man, the first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Not some God revealed in an idealized, conceptually pristine or generic way, filled with clear and distinct ideas that we then try to “fit into” our experience of this world. Christianity confesses that everything about God is revealed in the most excruciatingly minute details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. More specifically, he argued, we confess a God fully revealed in the all-too-humanness of Jesus — in His weakness, brokenness, death, burial. In John’s Gospel, the crucifixion is the moment that reveals God’s glory and majesty in its totality, for while His executioners intended the details of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion to represent a mock enthronement, God intended the details of His execution to serve as the most perfect manifestation of what majestic power looks like in God.

Fr. Behr said that in Jesus we encounter the character and manner in which God’s omnipotence and omniscience are exercised, and we encounter the way God relates to our world that He once loved into existence; a world which has fallen into ruins. He added (and this is what I found to be the most powerful insight) that when we try to discern God’s providential care for us in the face of our various painful and challenging life circumstances we must, if we are Christian, look not to our general, preconceived ideas of how an all-powerful, all-good and all-wise God should meet us in our distress to give us hope. Rather, we should fix our eyes on the life of Jesus, found in the Scriptures, to see the real-time workings of God’s providence in our fallen world. He said,

The encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to understand one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as nothing less than our own “salvation history.” In this nothing is left aside or glossed over, as being too shameful or painful, something that we would prefer to forget (but which even as “forgotten” continues to act negatively in the present). Rather, just as it was through that which is all-too-human — his death — that Christ shows himself to be God, so also it is through our sinfulness and brokenness that we come to know the transforming and loving power of God; not that we should thereby sin some more, as Paul warns [Rom 6.1-2], but to see ever more clearly how deep our brokenness extends. “It is,” St Isaac of Syria affirmed, “a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sins,” and such a one is greater than those who see angels or raise the dead by their prayers.

To plumb the depth of our fallenness is to scale the heights of divine love. The more we are given the grace to see in this way, the more we begin to understand how everything is encompassed within the divine works of God: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor 5.7), but it is a faith that all things are in the hands of Christ, and that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8.28).

All of this reinforces a final point I will leave you with. If we wish to encounter the reality of God, and not simply a self-manufactured projection, we must come to know Jesus. Yes, so basic! Which means we must prayerfully read the Scriptures — especially the Gospels — at every opportunity, especially in the face of every trial and hardship. In the words of St. Jerome, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” and ignorance of Christ is ignorance of God.

 

Remembering God with God

Psalm 77 is remarkable for its daring honesty with God, as the psalmist wonders how the catastrophe Israel is facing in his time can be reconciled with the memory of the God of the covenant whose faithful mercy once led them out of the land of Egypt. O God of the Exodus, where are you now?

As a faithful Jew, when one wishes to turn to God for help one remembers. The Jewish conception of memory (zikaron) is remarkably different from how we think of memory now, and defines our Christian understanding of liturgy (the Mass especially). Jews believe that when God’s covenanted people remember, with faith and trust, God’s “wonderful works” from the past, the same saving power of those works is renewed in the present. It’s as if God opens up life-giving fountains at definite points in history, to which all future times must return, through memory, if they wish to drink of that life.

Liturgy is nothing more than this life-giving memory that opens a fresh fountain here and now.

For Jews, the fountain of fountains is the memory of the greatest of God’s wonderful works, the Passover-Exodus when God rescued His people from slavery and brought them into the Land of Promise. For Christians, the fountain of fountains is the New Passover-Exodus, the open side (John 19:34) of our dying and rising God, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ Passover, God rescued all of humanity and all of creation from the slavery of sin and death (Rom. 8:18-30). And (amazing amazing) in Jesus, who is God and Man, the remembering of God’s wonderful works by His people becomes one and the same. You see, at the Last Supper, Jesus remembers the Exodus event both as the God who wrought it and as a Jew who remembers and is rescued by it — and at that moment of memory the whole of creation is suffused with (transubstantiated by!) God’s rescue, beginning with a bit of bread and wine … that we dare to eat and drink.

OMG.

In Psalm 77, the author cries aloud to God (hear, yells heavenward in desperation) in a time of great hardship, returning in memory to the fountain of the “deeds and wonders of the Lord” in the Exodus. He faces with radical honesty the fact that the present reality does not align with the power and beauty of God’s past rescuing mercy. He wonders if this means “the way of the Most High has changed”? That’s daring for a Jew! But instead of ending in doubt, skepticism or despair, he does what every faithful Jew does in the face of this dissonance: he liturgizes, he remembers God’s past invasion of history with mercy, and he overwhelms the present with his vehement, trusting, pleading memory of God’s past saving actions. “O God, remember your past mercies, wonders, deeds and do it all again, now, here!”

That is prayer, that is liturgy, that is the Jewish and Christian response to every present suffering, evil, catastrophe: to remember God’s faithful love, His endless mercies, invoking them on the present in prayer and then consenting to allow God to renew them in the present through, with and in us (and not just for us), Especially as we eat and drink in order to become God’s rescue in the world.

“Do this in memory of me” means something very different thought of this way, does it not? Notice it in the Mass next time, memory language saturates its language. It also gives the definition of prayer as “remembering God” a whole new depth of meaning — not a generic memory, but the memory of God’s corpse hanging on a Tree, God descending into Hell and God rising from the Tomb to re-member us into life. Even now.

So let me invite you to pray this psalm with me. First, pray it as a Jew, and then to pray it with Christ who prayed this psalm and remembered with us and for us; and thereby watered all of creation with His unchanging mercy. And then listen to a marvelous musical rendition of this psalm….

I cry aloud to God,
cry aloud to God that he may hear me.

In the day of my distress I sought the Lord.
My hands were raised at night without ceasing;
my soul refused to be consoled.
I remembered my God and I groaned.
I pondered and my spirit fainted.

You withheld sleep from my eyes.
I was troubled, I could not speak.
I thought of the days of long ago
and remembered the years long past.
At night I mused within my heart.
I pondered and my spirit questioned.

I said, “Will the Lord reject us for ever?
Will he show us his favor no more?
Has his love vanished for ever?
Has his promise come to an end?
Does God forget his mercy
or in anger withhold his compassion?”

I said: “This is what causes my grief;
that the way of the Most High has changed.”

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old,
I muse on all your works
and ponder your mighty deeds.

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders.
You showed your power among the peoples.
Your strong arm redeemed your people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and trembled;
the depths were moved with terror.
The clouds poured down rain,
the skies sent forth their voice;
your arrows flashed to and fro.

Your thunder rolled round the sky,
your flashes lighted up the world.
The earth was moved and trembled
when your way led through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters
and no one saw your footprints.

You guided your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Fathers walking with us

Sacramental Confession. pravmir.com

[My last repost in this series and last post till next weekend — always a joy to share faith here and receive the depth of comments that stream in. Godspeed!]

Any religion concerned about the souls of people and not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economics that strangle them and the social conditions that imprison them is a molly coddle religion awaiting burial. — Martin Luther King

Between the years 2000 and 2001, I came to know a priest who was one of the most human people I have ever known. If I had to use one word to describe what stood out most in him, it would be “accessible.” Which is really another way of describing the quality of his fatherly heart. He was the kind of person everyone felt comfortable around. I grew quite close to him the time I was there and came to deeply appreciate his model of servant-leadership. He would always say that managing the administrative side of parish life was not his strong suit, but that he knew the best way to compensate for this deficit was to gather around him people who were good at it. Which, I said to him, was a sign to me that he was good at administration!

I was especially moved by his extreme generosity. Whenever people would give him money, gift cards to restaurants, food, he would almost always find a way to give it away to someone he knew would benefit from it. And very often he would find a way to do it anonymously, almost making a game out of it (which delighted him). His business manager shared with me confidentially that this priest would have him identify needy families in the parish and then anonymously pay for their utility bill out of the priest’s own private income.

He walked the streets of his parish territory daily for exercise, praying a rosary and stopping to chat with beggars and vagrants to see what their needs were. He was always in communication with Catholic Charities to see what could be done to give them a hand up, “and not just a hand out,” as he would say.

During that time, Patti and I were going through a very tense period regarding my decision to leave my job, as she and I did not see eye to eye. It was one of the most difficult times in our marriage. He took a long walk with me one day to help me process the situation, pray with me and give me wisdom. At the end of the walk, he prayed over me and then handed me a $100 bill, saying, “take her out to dinner and please don’t say it came from me.” I was overcome with emotion. He said, “This is why God called me to celibacy, so I can be freed up to do things like this; to be free for you and Patti. I’m alone so that I can be with you. And with them [pointing to the people on the streets].”

That dinner conversation Patti and I had was a breakthrough for us, and I am convinced that his act of sacrificial love had entered our marriage that day and opened between us a space of grace and freedom. That is the paternal genius of ministerial priesthood when it’s placed in service to marriage and family life. To the lonely and alone.

He made, makes me want to be great.

Thank you God for those men you call to be priests, giving their lives for us as fathers walking with us.

The Cross: Critique of the Curse

Bl Miguel Pro awaiting execution

[repost 2015]

I love the psalms. They teach us the meaning of prayer as nothing else does, inspired by the Spirit and written in the blood, sweat and tears of the sons and daughters of Abraham. The psalms are what Christians means by prayer, and so they populate and animate all of our liturgies and give basic shape to all of our prayerful devotions. As a rabbi I once knew in Hartford taught me, “When a Jew is asked, ‘What does it mean to pray?’ he always answers, ‘Psalms.'” The Catechism #2584 calls the psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”

Even the Our Father, the only prayer Jesus taught His disciples, is really nothing more than, as my Scripture professor in grad school once said, “the pocket-sized Jewish prayer for uneducated and educated alike; a peasant’s psalter. 150 psalms in 7 petitions.” That blew. my. mind. In other words, the Our Father has compressed into it all the major themes of the psalms, including trust, adoration, praise, submission, contrition, lamentation, supplication. Notably missing, though, are the curse psalms. Think here, for example, of Psalm 109:6-17, prayed by the psalmist against his enemy:

Appoint a wicked man as his judge;
let an accuser stand at his right.
When he is judged let him come out condemned;
let his prayer be considered as sin.

Let the days of his life be few;
let another man take his office.
Let his children be fatherless orphans
and his wife become a widow.

Let his children be wanderers and beggars
driven from the ruins of their home.
Let the creditor seize all his goods;
let strangers take the fruit of his work.

Let no one show him any mercy
nor pity his fatherless children.
Let all his sons be destroyed
and with them their names be blotted out.

Let his father’s guilt be remembered,
his mother’s be retained.
Let it always stand before the Lord,
that their memory be cut off from the earth.

For he did not think of showing mercy
but pursed the poor and the needy,
hounding the wretched to death.
He loved cursing; let curses fall upon him.
He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by.

An absolutely understandable human response to injustice. But in the Our Father, Jesus offers a stinging critique of the curse psalms not only by omitting their dark imprecations, but by adding a single, simple and stunning line that has no exact analogue in all of the Old Testament. As Luke 11:4 has it, “forgive us our sins [inasmuch as also] we forgive those in debt to us.” He knew very well that this would have caught the attention of His hearers, and in Matthew’s version (6:14-15) concludes this new prayer with a coda that holds in stark relief what is new:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Though this manner of expression is new, Jesus’ critique of the Old Testament tradition of cursing enemies draws on another Israelite tradition, found in its most dramatic form in the book of Jonah. Recall that Jonah, to his chagrin, is commanded by God to enter the heart of enemy territory — Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian empire which had utterly devastated the northern tribes of Israel — and invoke God’s mercy on the Assyrians by calling them to repentance before God’s impending judgment. Of course, Jonah famously rejects this call and flees, only to find himself swallowed up by a fish and spewed back on mission, still filled with resentment and anger at God.

Jesus makes it clear (Matt. 12:40f) that this prophetic tale is a (comedic) prefigurement of His own willing and passionate pursuit of us, His enemy (Rom. 5:10), into the kingdom of darkness where He is swallowed up by death and ‘spewed out’ by the Father (Rom. 6:4) to bring to the City of Man God’s unsparing mercy. On the Cross, Jesus became the object of every curse, transforming them into blessings, drinking the poison of sin to become for us the antidote that pardons every sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13-14).

In all this, Jesus sets the pattern for Christian life to lived behind enemy lines. After reconciling us with Himself, He sends us out on mission every day into our mildly or terrifyingly hostile environments to proclaim divine mercy by word, by prayer, by deed. By every means. In Baptism, and all the Sacraments, we are joined to the New Jonah, filled and empowered with God’s judgment of mercy, commanded to expend it on the undeserving, the unworthy, the unwilling, the most repulsive and repellent among those we encounter. To us, Jesus says,

But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. — Luke 6:27-36

I will end with a visual reflection on forgiveness and a magnificent sung presentation of the Our Father in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, to Pope Francis during his visit to the nation of Georgia. Our. Faith. Is. Awe. Inspiring.

Matter of Trust

Sonny (Robert Duvall) yelling at God in “The Apostle.”

[Repost 2015, with Pope Francis quote added]

This story is shared with permission.

God likes to argue with us. Someone tells me: ‘But, Father, many times when I go to pray, I get angry with the Lord…’ But this also is prayer! He likes when you get angry and say what you feel to His face, because He’s a Father!          — Pope Francis

A woman in Arizona wrote me an email after reading something I had written. She shared with me her own journey to faith, as well as her story of childhood abuse. She had become Catholic a number of years ago, which, she said, sped her along the path of healing, forgiveness and the affirmation of her own dignity and worth. But, she told me, she still struggled mightily with a certain dimension of forgiveness. In her words, “I don’t know if this is kosher to say or not but I struggle to forgive God for letting all that happen to me. Sometimes I feel divided inside with a mind convinced of my faith but with my feelings filled with rage. My husband calls me a house divided. He’s right.”

While I encouraged her to seek spiritual counsel with a priest or spiritual guide, I also encouraged her (as I do often to people struggling with inner darkness) to bring this directly to God in prayer. I emailed her, “Share with Him your rage. Not to spite Him but to expose to Him the reality that is you. Go deep.” In fact, I encouraged her to bring this to the Adoration Chapel she said her parish had, “Because this issue needs to not stay separate from the most sacred space where you encounter God as a Catholic, i.e. the Eucharist.”

I told her about the Missionary of Charity nun who offered this same advice to a woman who had suffered 12 years of abuse on the streets as a prostitute, and who lived with the Sisters after being rescued. The woman was ready to become Catholic, except for the fact that she still could not reconcile the belief in God’s love with God’s silence those 12 years she suffered terrible injustices. This rescued prostitute, at the advice of the nun, spent nearly 3 hours in the Chapel weeping and asking God, “Why? Why?” She came out after her time of prayer and simply said, “Okay, I’m ready to be baptized.”

After weeks of avoiding the idea, the Arizona woman’s husband convinced her it was important for her to make this time happen. So she signed up for a certain open hour of adoration, but week after week found someone else there with her. She dared not pray so honestly with some else there, for fear of what might happen. She said she was secretly relieved each time there was someone there, as it gave her an excuse to delay longer. But one week, she was alone in the chapel. She began to ready herself for prayer, and someone walked in. Just as she was ready to give up, the man got a call and stepped out of the Chapel. So, she said, “I just dove right into the deep end. I whispered at first then spoke louder and then shouted. I cried like a baby. I think the poor man didn’t dare come back in.”

After her hour was over, she said, “I felt calm purged and my feeling was exactly the opposite of what I had feared. I feared God’s anger at my own anger but I felt only loved. No great revelations to answer specific questions why these bad things happened but I knew without a doubt I was loved to the core which was worth so much more than a thousand answers. Forgiveness suddenly seemed to be the wrong word. More like trust. In fact all I could think of was the Billy Joel song Matter of Trust. Listen to it and you’ll get what I mean.”

Festschrift for Ashley

A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter:
[she] that has found one has found a treasure.
There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend,
and no scales can measure [her] excellence.
A faithful friend is an elixir of life;
and those who fear the Lord will find [her]. — Sirach 6:14-16

“One can make a rather easy transition from human friendships to friendship with God himself” — Aelred of Rievaulx

I’d like to honor Ashley today. She is, of course, lead singer in the indy cover band, Ashley and Maria (or Mashley, as I call them), whose work I have featured here for the last 2 years. She’s a remarkable young woman. My daughter Maria became friends with Ashley soon after we arrived in New Orleans in 2012, and it was not long before they stitched together their unique melodies into a new and fresh harmony.

After my first son was born, an older gentleman gave me this advice on raising children well, “If you cultivate in your children a love for good books, good music, good friends, along with your good marriage, you’ll give them a rock solid foundation.” What’s become clear over the 21 years since then is this: while my wife and I have had a good amount of say over the books, music and our marriage, it’s friendships that contain the real uncertainty variable.

Friendship is immensely powerful, for good or for ill. Our greatest goal in this regard over the years has been to instill in our children standards of good judgment that would help them sift the wheat from the chaff and choose people of character for friends. And we prayed (and still pray) each of our children would find and maintain good, faithful and worthy friends. Without exception, we believe that our children have each chosen well.

Ashley is an especially exceptional example of such a friendship. She, like Maria, is filled with joie de vivre. She’s a normal teenager, but not ordinary. She stands out. She is kind and creative, hip, deeply faith-filled, willing to go the extra mile, sensitive to beauty and attentive to others’ suffering. She has moral integrity and — key! — her parents love her enough to hold her to high standards. Her parents rock.

And Ashley longs to know God. When I was in high school, I would not have had the foggiest idea what that meant. But she does, and it’s a way of life she shares with Maria; and with anyone who comes close to her. In fact, Ashley and Maria’s friendship reminds me of the friendship between Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great, which Gregory described in his homily at Basil’s funeral. I will substitute “music” for “philosophy”:

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of [music]. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as [her] own. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

So that’s my take, but don’t just believe me. Let me allow 6 of her friends to weigh in:

Ashley keeps her cool in everything she does and is able to see things from a long term perspective.
Ashley never lets anything bother her, and she does everything with love.
Ashley has a good heart and selflessly puts others’ needs above her own.
Ashley is level headed in tough situations and always just wants what is best for her friends
Ashley has the amazing and unique ability to place all of her needs aside when she sees someone she cares about in pain.
Ashley would do absolutely anything to protect the people she loves, and that selflessness reminds me a lot of Jesus.

Ashley, you’re loved by Mrs. Patti and me. You have an awesome family, extraordinary gifts, great friends and a bright future in God’s plan. And you are a great friend. We look forward to watching you bloom with even greater beauty in the Garden of God. Remember, “a dark world waits for a splash of the sun.” For you to sing a new song with your life.

Let me leave you with two of my favorite Mashley music videos:

It’s All About You

Burn this Face in my heart, O Lord, with your loving Light!

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. — Phil. 2:3

Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the harshest;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious,
but to lowest and most despised. – St. John of the Cross

My first spiritual director, who introduced me to St. John of the Cross, offered me a view of Christian asceticism that deeply impacted the way I approached the question of self-denial — so starkly described by St John. Asceticism is the manner in which one exercises discipline in service to achieving some excellence, with Christian excellence being defined by Jesus’ commandment of love. I’ve written about my director’s take on this many times here. He drilled into me over and over that the entire purpose of all ascetical practice is to make me more capable of being other-focused, which is the soul of love. In St. John fashion, he loved to say that the premier sign of holiness is not spiritual feelings or mystical visions or prophetic words of knowledge or effusive pious-speak. He loved to quote Matthew 7:21-23 on this:

Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

The premier sign of holiness is when you find your thoughts spontaneously populated more with concern for the well-being of others than with thoughts of your own well-being. Not a concern born of a low sense of self-worth, self-hatred or co-dependency, as these all are contrary to the genuine nature of love; and are all subtly ego-centered. When you can very naturally see another’s well-being and God’s glory as coterminous, and see that another’s well-being is integral to your own, divine charity has made a home in you.

The most effective approach to growing in this posture, he said, is to litter your whole day with micro-acts of hidden self-denial that put St John’s above prescription into practice. Quietly, subtly, creatively put others first. Such a life makes flammable material for your prayer life, as the Spirit is wildly attracted to spaces emptied out by self-emptying love. In fact, he said, these secret acts of self-denial are each like a mighty cry to Heaven calling down the Holy Spirit in power to renew the face of the earth and burn into it the Face of Christ.

He also told me that he found the most fruitful of all acts of self-denial is found in controlling the tongue and in listening to others more than you speak. Especially difficult, tedious, irritating others. “And when you do speak,” he added, “remember that in the next life all that you say will be made known to all creation in the presence of God [Luke 12:3, Matt. 12:36, 2 Cor. 5:10]. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” He made me memorize Ephesians 4:29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building others up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”