Monday, June 30, 2014

Self-Evident Truths

"We hold these truths
to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed
by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are
Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness."
These words from the Declaration of Independence provide the foundation upon which our democracy stands.  Or falls.
If we accept the premise that our Creator has made all men and women equal and has endowed us with "unalienable" rights--rights which are not to be separated, given away, or taken away--, then we have a common ground for meaningful public discourse and rational decisions about particular policies.  However, if we deny truths such as the right to life or liberty or the pursuit of happiness, our society becomes subject to the arbitrary whims of those wielding power.
Indeed, if the only "self-evident" truth is that there is no truth, then we have effectively embraced a new Declaration of Dependence:  Our "rights" will be perceived as coming from the government; our value for human "life" will be determined by whether it is "productive" or "wanted"; our definition of "liberty" will be dictated by whatever the often tyrannical majority deems appropriate.  Our laws will inevitably become unjust.  And, as Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "An unjust law is no law at all."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Loving Ugly

Statue of Homeless Jesus
In sports, we often talk about "winning ugly."  As Christians, it's time we start talking about "loving ugly." 

In other words, we need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to love our neighbors even when they don't live up to our almighty expectations.  We need to look beyond the pedigree or paperwork or social position or nationality which we deem worthy.  And we need to ponder the mysterious fact that God himself loves ugly.

It's not that God thinks ugliness is a good thing, of course.  It was certainly not part of his original plan.  Rather, having allowed us the freedom to love as we desire, God is willing to reach out to us even when we've rejected or mocked or silenced him.  Moreover, Jesus revealed that he expects his followers to do the same: "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Mt 5:45). 

From a merely worldly perspective, this is either ridiculous or down-right offensive.  In the eyes of the Pharisaical world, only perfect people count.  Whether it's the "beautiful crowd" (judging by outward physical appearances, of course), or whether it's those gifted with strength, smarts, or wealth, the message is all about dividing and conquering:  We're in--you're out; we measure up--you never will.  Those who are into "loving pretty" basically imply that they are the "blessed" and that the rest of us should step aside.  The economy of exclusion and spiritual Gnosticism both hinge on such a mentality, as Pope Francis has pointed out, since some people count more than others.  And most don't count at all.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Freedom to Serve?
Ever since Jesus said, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt 25:40), Christians have been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and the imprisoned.  Indeed, both corporal and spiritual works of mercy have defined the Church's mission for centuries, and Western civilization has particularly benefited from this gratuitous Christian witness.

But the question raised by the radical secularism of our time is whether followers of Jesus should be allowed to serve others in accord with their well-formed consciences, and in his Name. 

In the face of such a dramatic question and such a rapid turn of events in American history, many people have simply yawned.  Indifferent to whether the government redefines freedom of religion as mere freedom to worship, they naively ask, "Why can't we all just get along?... And why can't the Church keep out of politics?"  Others have used the issue of religious liberty as yet another bludgeon against Christianity, in general, and the Catholic Church in particular.  They resent Christians for resisting the "truths" which radical secularism want to impose, and they insistently question, "Why don't people just keep their religion a private affair, so we can maintain alleged neutrality in the public square?"  In other words, it's OK for the federal government to force its will upon the people because that's it's job, but it's no longer OK for Christians to follow teachings handed down from Jesus through his Church.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Fathers of Mercy

As Father's Day approaches, so does the anniversary of my father's death.  It's been four years, which in some ways seems like a long time.  But it mostly seems like yesterday.  (Here's a link to an all-time classic photo of a couple holy fathers!)

During my dad’s final months, one of our family’s favorite activities was reading the various notes sent by friends near and far.  One of the best was from a boyhood baseball teammate.  Basically, the two had played on a legendary team that had made it to the championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, but they had not been in touch for over fifty years.  The old teammate wrote to say that he had heard my dad was battling cancer, and he went on to offer words of support and the promise of prayers. 

In this note, however, he also recounted the last inning of the championship game, which their team ended up losing.  Down by five runs in their final at-bat, this old teammate had tried to bunt his way on base; he went on to apologize to my dad for this bad decision and commented:  “I never was good at bunting and wasn’t very fast—what was I thinking?!”  My family and I were touched by this note, but I was struck by the fact that this poor guy seemed to be still haunted by that game so long ago.

In the final weeks of my dad’s life, as his ability to speak was slowly fading, he became a master of non-verbal interactions.  He also seemed to become even funnier and more insightful while using fewer and fewer words.  At one point when we were alone, I sat down next to him and said that I wanted to apologize for all of the stupid things I had said and done down through the years.  He looked over with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Talking about bunting in the last at-bat?!”

Monday, June 2, 2014

Toward a Poly-Lingual Pentecost

My oldest daughter and some courageous classmates are finishing a semester abroad in Latin America--living with host families, immersing themselves in the culture, and mastering Spanish through their studies and travels.  It's both amazing and edifying how much effort it takes to learn a new language.  As someone who has dabbled in learning a second language (or faked his way along through an unknown one!), I am struck by how important it is to ask over and over again, "How do you say this in your language?"

"Spirit-filled evangelizers," as Pope Francis' describes intentional disciples of Jesus, are much like second-language learners: We have to figure out how to speak of the Supernatural in a natural, everyday way; we need to learn how to talk about Mercy in an all-too-merciless world; we have to transpose our experience of Christ into language that makes sense to those who are wandering about without a Good Shepherd guiding them. 

In other words, we need to constantly ask ourselves, "How can I describe my lived-experience of God's grace in words that will make sense to people of this time and place?"  Ultimately, the answer is that we need to learn the language of the heart.  We have to communicate "heart-to-heart," in a way that testifies to the Truth and Goodness and Beauty we have encountered in Christ. 

If you're like me, however, this means that we need to reflect a bit more deeply on our own experience in order to translate the terms and categories we use to think about our lives.  Was I raised by a merely wonderful family, or by a wonderful Christian family?  Did my experiences of the Sacraments of initiation merely mark transitional moments in my life, or were they new beginnings?  Are my favorite hymns or Scripture verses merely passing inspirations, or are they the living Word of God reverberating in my heart?  Do the mercy and absolution I experience in Confession merely meet my emotional and psychological needs, or are they an encounter with Christ risen and present in the ministry of his Church?