Saturday, March 14, 2015

Work in Progress: 4th Sunday Lent

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners
587 B.C. The Temple was destroyed, the city laid waste, the people exiled to a foreign land. Preachers are always trying to find an analogy to communicate how devastating this was for Israel. Here’s my try: if ISIS succeeded in destroying every Catholic Church in the world, blew up most of our cities, annihilated every last vestige of our government, and if you survived but were forced to live the rest of your life in Syria, it was kind of like that…maybe. Anyway, it was a tragedy that couldn’t be overstated. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, it was the defining tragedy of the Old Testament. It occupies the attention of most of the Prophets and a big chunk of the historical books, even a Psalm or two: “by the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept…how could I sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?… if I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.”

Anyone can write down what happened. It’s another thing entirely to say why. That’s what the Prophets do, and it’s what we find in 2 Chronicles 36. The Chronicler tells of Israel’s growing infidelity. He explains how God tried every correction, sent messengers, tried everything He could to set them back on course. It didn’t work. The cup of God’s wrath became full, and the Exile was the result.

It would be easy to imagine this wrath of God in terms of human emotion: we all know what it’s like to get fed up, even to lose our temper. That would be a mistake. God doesn’t do that; God’s wrath isn’t like that. But I can think of a human analog. When we were little Dad told us not to go too close to the water when we played outside. No other rule equaled this one - it was the first and greatest commandment. It was clear that the punishment for breaking this rule would come upon us with swiftness and severity that we'd never known.

This was wrath. And it was love. It was love that would have stopped at nothing to enforce the Law. Not because the Lawgiver was cruel and demanding, but because the Lawgiver had a broader perspective about  lessons that must be learnt at any cost, and the stakes involved in the keeping of the Law.

When we read about God’s wrath in the Bible, that’s the way to understand it. The Lawgiver is working from a greater perspective, and a greater understanding of lessons that must be learnt at any cost, and the stakes involved in the keeping of the Law. Like any good father, He will not punish only out of temper, or more severely than is necessary to impart the essential lesson. But like any good father, He will not abandon His children to darkness. He will not sit idly by as they set their feet on the road to ruin.

As the story continues, the plan of God comes forth in the form of an unexpected hero, the decidedly pagan Cyrus of Persia. The Temple is rebuilt, the nation restored. The awful exile was not punishment by an aggrieved tyrant, but healing by a loving father. It was hard medicine, but it was the right medicine. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but it was one more chapter in the story of how God so loved the world.

The Chronicler and the Prophets were given the grace to understand that. They could say not just what happened, but why. But sometimes we don’t understand. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes not understanding is itself part of the lesson we must learn.

We must be careful - very careful - in claiming the mantle of the Prophet. To say “I’m sick because God is punishing me” or “my friend lost his job because God wants him to have a different one” or “that driver pulled out in front of us because God arranged it” - that's something only the Holy Spirit can give. Careful! But what you do know, what you always know, is that God is working in your life.

You have to take that on faith. The exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon saw nothing but shattered dreams and lost loved ones and a great people reduced to the remnant of a remnant. They could hardly have known that theirs was the story of God redeeming a fallen world. In your moments of tears, and in your moments of joy, and in the moments where life seems to be just sort of happening as the days go uneventfully by… yours is the story of God redeeming a fallen world. God is working in your life. We can talk about how that might be happening, but I won’t tell you for sure; I don't have that particular gift of Prophecy. But it’s happening, believe it. Bet your whole heart on it. God is working in your life.

And what work is He doing? Well, there’s the question. Is He trying to make you wealthy? Comfortable? Is He trying to just barely squeak you into Heaven by the skin of your teeth? You know the answer. You know what God’s project for your life is. God is trying to make you a Saint. And He’s trying to use you to make other people Saints. That’s the project. You might wish God would settle for something less ambitious, but He can’t and He won’t. He loves you too much for that. Wake up tomorrow morning and face the day and remember: “God is going to spend today trying to make me a Saint.” Maybe nothing particularly extraordinary will happen. That’s because Saints find holiness mostly in not particularly extraordinary things. 

Ephesians 2:10 says that you are God’s ποίημα. The Greek can be translated ‘workmanship,’ like the King James and RSV, or ‘handiwork,’ like the NIV. I usually read the Jerusalem Bible translation, and I’d like to leave you with that one. Translation is not an exact business; there are always ambiguities. The Jerusalem Bible translates ποίημα just a bit differently, capturing a different but absolutely valid shade of its meaning. It says that you are God’s work of art.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Making a Scene: 3rd Sunday Lent

Part of the preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage that we do is this big inventory thing where the couple answer a bunch of questions individually, it generates feedback, and then we get together and go over it. One of the statements, presented as sort of a True/False item, is: “I know everything there is to know about my partner.” You wouldn’t believe how many engaged people agree. Well, I’m not allowed to slap people, but…

Truth is, of course we never know someone else completely; another person is always a mystery. But we do this thing where we fill in the blanks. Right? To take the most extreme example: how many times have you seen a young person fall madly in love, not with a real person, but with the ideal soulmate they’ve projected on to someone? Come to think of it, people fall madly in hate the same way. Let me propose a True/False question to you. True or False: every relationship - friend, family, spouse - involves a tug between who they really are and who we’ve imagined them to be. Isn’t that true? And it might sound unfortunate, negative, phrased that way. But I don’t think it is. Let me put it another way: no matter how well you know someone, he or she can always surprise you. Once in a while you have one of those moments with someone you thought you knew pretty well, and all of a sudden he or she says or does something that makes you think “Who is this? Where did that come from? I thought I knew this guy!”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What God takes: 2nd Sunday Lent

I read a piece by a writer who was explaining why he could never be a Jew or a Christian.  Though he found certain elements of these religions really attractive, he pointed to Genesis 22 as a deal breaker. He wanted nothing to do with any God who would ask a father to sacrifice his son. He couldn’t believe in such a God and wouldn’t want to worship Him if he did.

It’s not so hard to sympathize. But I wished there was some way I could write to him and suggest that perhaps he didn’t read all the way to the end. Isn’t it more the point of the story that God didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Especially if you know the context, that the Canaanite religions all around Abraham and his descendants did practice human sacrifice, as have many religions through history. But the God of Abraham lets it be known here on Mt. Moriah that this is not worship, this is not devotion, this is not what He wants. It’s not a story about God asking something horrible, but a promise that He doesn’t. 

Well and good, but why the cruel drama? Couldn’t God have just sort of told Abraham this important truth without such a wrenching and horrific demonstration? So maybe there’s something incredibly important here, and maybe God is teaching us more than just a prohibition on human sacrifice.