Free Fall

"Everyone will be salted with fire" (Mark 9:49).

We seldom find Jesus speaking as forcefully in the Gospels as he does in this passage from Mark 9:41-50. What caused him to speak this way or why was this recorded in Mark as part of his instructions to his disciples? They are being entrusted with enormous spiritual power and authority to lead their faith communities. This can lead to abuses.

He addresses those who would cause a “little one” to stumble or sin, whether this is a child or someone innocent and trusting: “It would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea!” Jesus’ indignation is palpable. Avoid this kind of scandal at all costs. It is better to lose a body part, an eye or a hand or a foot, than to be guilty of harming a little one who believes in Jesus. It devastates not only the victim but also the victimizer.

Perhaps only those who have found themselves immersed in the issues of child abuse within the church, as counselors or lawyers or advocates or prosecutors, investigators and journalists or bishops and priests responsible for protecting the young, know the full evil of this kind of pathology. There can be no talk of forgiveness until all denial is swept aside and the most severe remedy is applied -- the double purification of being “salted with fire.” To have murdered a child brings a life sentence of remorse for the murderer. To have destroyed the innocence of another is no less a crime.

There is always mercy, but Jesus stands in the reality between light and darkness, life and death, and reminds us that we must choose life, for ourselves and others, if we hope to enter the light.

Watchman, What Do You See?

“Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

The prophets were depicted as watchers in the night, those who kept vigil to read the night sky and to announce the dawn. Their example is that before we can know the future we must first imagine it. Before we can negotiate a path into the future, we must read the signs of the times and ask the right questions.

Jesus devoted his last days and final words to preparing his disciples for the forces of division that would attack and try to frustrate the dream of unity he said was the clearest sign that he had come from God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives them guidance: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” With this statement, Jesus lays the foundation of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue for shared mission. The importance of this principle is evident in the subsequent tragedy of religious quarrels and theological competition that have scarred the entire history of the church ever since. What went wrong?

Theologian Fr. Peter Phan has addressed this tragedy by proposing an upside down model for mission. He looked first at the spread of many Christian churches in the developing world as part of European colonial expansion. What he found was religion introduced from the top down, converts attracted by material benefits and education but told to abandon their own religious and cultural roots to take up Eurocentric religious practices in European-style churches. Established missionary churches gave heroic service and charitable works, but these sometimes undermined local networks of interdependence and promoted competition among missionary groups and traditional religions all trying to claim the same people.

Phan's answer was to turn the whole model upside down. Missionaries who want to share in the human development of the global family need to dialogue first at the level of justice, addressing the issues of food, clothing, shelter, health and self-determination. Find other groups who share these goals and collaborate with them, regardless of their ideologies or beliefs. This is the necessary human foundation for faith and the clearest expression of Catholic belief in the Incarnation. Missionaries do not bring God; God is already here, so listen, serve, love, care for the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and you will be standing on common ground with all others who want the same world.

Only when these fundamentals are addressed will good people already partnered for justice be able to talk about their theological and mystical worldviews and visions for creation and the cosmos in communion with the mystery of God, called by many names, including science and what is unknowable and ineffable to human understanding. What we build together will take us into a different future than the one we promoted thus far based on competition and quarrels. Isn't this the Gospel of life that was entrusted to us?

Starting Point

“Taking a child, he placed it in their midst…” (Mark 9:35).

Images and news reports from Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., remind us, as if we needed reminding, of how precious our children are, and how chaotic and fragile life becomes when we cannot protect them from harm. Putting their care, protection, health, and happiness first is a natural priority in the universal order of things. When we fail them, we fail ourselves.

Natural disasters are unpredictable and incomprehensible, and we do everything in our power to avoid them. Other disasters hold human complicity, like the collapse of a sweatshop in Bangladesh on young women harnessed into the global economy that produces consumer goods at low prices. Sandy Hook Elementary is in a class by itself, the long chains of causality woven back into the fabric of our culture of dark insecurity and the isolation of the mentally ill.

In each instance, when tragedy strikes we come back to heart-wrenching images of children being searched for, held, cherished, even as they slip through our grasp.

And even as we celebrate the mystery of the birth of the church at Pentecost, the Gospel readings find Jesus again on his way to Jerusalem, always going to the center where life and death converge, showing us how to care for one another, beginning with the most vulnerable. He confronts his disciples, who are quarreling about who is the greatest, by placing a child in their midst. This is the measure of the new dispensation. Children come first. Those who care for and nurture them are the greatest in the kingdom. Embrace not just them, but the vulnerable child within yourself, for this is the key to entering the mystery of God who dwells among us in the poor, the weak, the neediest of our brothers and sisters.

Jim Caccamo, a lifelong advocate for children in Kansas City, started a quiet revolution by asking a single question of all our policymaking and social spending: “Is it good for the children.” To make this our starting point, our highest priority, reorders the whole world. It is also, clear and simple, the heart of the Gospel message.

Lost Boys

“I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Scottish writer and playwright J.M. Barrie based his character “Peter Pan” on an older brother who died in an ice-skating accident the day before he turned 14, and "thus always remained a young boy in his mother's mind" (Wikipaedia). The story of “lost boys” who live in perpetual childhood in an idyllic place called Neverland has charmed and challenged audiences of children and parents since the play was first performed in 1904. What parent, facing the coming storm of puberty, has not imagined holding their child just a little while longer in sweet innocence while confronting the necessary threshold of adolescence?

The Gospels have several stories about parents who come to Jesus in anguish over a sick or possessed child. The 12-year-old daughter of Jairus dies just as she is about to enter maturity. The boy in today’s Gospel is possessed by a mute spirit that causes him to convulse and roll on the ground. Coming down from the mountain after his transfiguration, Jesus is met by a distraught father, frantic disciples who have been powerless to help, and a large crowd eager to witness a miracle.

Jesus interviews the father to assess the depth of his faith, always the key to healing in Mark’s Gospel. The boy will be restored only if the father’s faith meets the grace of the moment. Is he ready to receive what God is offering through Jesus? Without this openness and receptivity, no miracle is possible. Slowly a bridge is built between the power flowing through Jesus and the father’s heartfelt desire to believe. “I do believe,” he cries out. “Help my unbelief.” In that instant, the Holy Spirit of Jesus reclaims the boy from all other lesser spirits, and he is restored.

It is a miracle we must ponder deeply, pray and fast about, when whole cultures are losing boys to so many forms of deadly possession and misdirection, children left unguided and unprotected because of absent fathers, broken marriages, and a plague of men who have refused to grow up. Jesus, who offers full maturity in selfless love and service, comes among us able to restore balance and order to lives on the threshold of adulthood. But only if we have the faith to meet him halfway, ready and willing to sustain the discipline and courage adulthood requires.

Good News

“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’ “ (John 20:19).

I am a journalist by profession and of a generation that still looks for the newspaper and a cup of coffee to start my day. I dodge the rain drops this stormy Pentecost Sunday to retrieve the paper from the sidewalk in front of our house.

It is good paper, though a shadow of its former self, yet still offering strong local features, columns and news the Internet does not. In between the full page ads for clothing, cars and prescription medication, it does its best to create a composite and highly selective view of the larger world, political quarrels at home, bombings and disasters elsewhere. I save the funnies for last, but finish this morning ritual shaking my head, feeling discouraged and anxious over the dismal progress we seem to be making to find a better world, one suitable for children, something with a future for everyone.

Pentecost, the great harvest feast on the Jewish calendar, marked the entry of the Good News of Jesus into the larger world, represented by the many ethnic groups and languages gathered in Jerusalem that day. It was not an easy birth for the first followers of Jesus. Hiding in an upper room, feeling fearful and empty, they prayed for the empowerment promised to them by their absent Lord. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit shook the building, then came over them in wind and fire. Once shy, they became bold. They were filled with a message they could not keep to themselves. In preaching it, they saw it take effect in everyone who stopped to listen. The universal reign of terror was over, the time of fear and division was giving way to reconciliation and joy, the long loneliness was overcome and everyone was being welcomed into a community of love and mutual forgiveness, God dwelling with us here and now, the kingdom of heaven on the earth.

We are its messengers. Think, if you can still imagine it, of yourself rising early in the morning, going in the dark to the empty lot where the truck arrives with bundles of papers. You take your allotted number, roll them and slip them into plastic bags and place them into the basket on your bicycle. The dawn is breaking as you ride the quiet streets of your route, tossing papers onto the walks in front of the houses you know by heart. The world is awake to a new day, another chance. Start it with some Good News.

Graduation

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"
"Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (John 21:15 ff).

If we imagine the final discourses in John’s Gospel as executive management training for the Apostles, today’s story of Peter and Jesus on the beach by the Sea of Tiberias is graduation.

It would be difficult to find a more poignant moment between friends than this scene. Peter, chosen to lead the other disciples by example, fails profoundly in his time of testing, denying three times that he knew Jesus, who was being led to his death, alone betrayed and abandoned. Peter’s bitter tears became the baptism that alone could have prepared him to understand the Gospel of Mercy he was to model and preach.

His triple denial required a triple response to the cauterizing question from Jesus: “Do you love me?” Each time the question probed deeper into the wound Peter had inflicted on himself that terrible night around a charcoal fire in the court of the high priest. Each time he answered “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” the precious balm of truth found and healed the denial and the fear that had driven him to protect himself that night from the fate Jesus was embracing as the final sign of his love for a world that was rejecting him.

Who could have imagined that this baptism of failure would be necessary for all preachers of the Gospel of mercy? Have we glimpsed in Pope Francis' determination to direct the church toward the poor and outcasts the wound of his own failure to stand with two brother priests during the dirty war in Argentina? Who knows mercy better than one who has needed it himself? How blessed the church will be to have leaders who have been baptized in their own tears of failure, grounded in mercy and humility and unable, ever again, to lord it over others?

For all of us, graduation hangs not on our credentials or importance but on our heartfelt answer to a single question: “Do you love me?” If we can say "yes," then mission follows immediately. “Feed my lambs. Protect and nourish the flock. Tell the world about the unconditional love that was lavished on you while you were still a sinner.” This is the Gospel the world longs to hear.

The Father in Me

“I want them to be with me…” (John 17:24).

Every human face conveys both history and mystery. A thousand generations peer out at us from within the genetic legacy each person carries in their facial characteristics, color and unique combination of variables that make us both ordinary and original. Over time an aging face sculpts its own experience and personal choices into the texture of its skin, revealed in laugh lines, scars and folds. Some faces move us to pity, or inspire us to awe, or make us fall in love.

The face of Jesus was the human face of God. The Gospels offer us no description beyond the inference that he was a mature Jewish male, perhaps in his early 30s, his hands those of a carpenter, his feet well worn from walking, his face weathered by wind and sun but otherwise unremarkable. Yet, the story compels us to conclude that there must have been something quite remarkable about this man, the way he smiled when he looked at you, his face inviting a response from deep within.

The first disciples spent several years with Jesus, but, if John is correct, it was only near the end of his life that the deeper mystery of his identity began to draw their attention. His eyes had a look that seemed to reach back to the beginning of time, to a universal grasp of the human condition and to the very source of compassion for suffering humanity. Jesus was revealing God —his Abba— to the disciples. It was the Abba who had entrusted all of them to his care, and though he was about to depart this world, Jesus promised them that the unity he had with his Abba would be the same unity they would have with one another —an intimate indwelling formed by love and a shared purpose.

This is the promise of Pentecost. God is with us, in us, the divine identity peering out of our eyes at the world, and from the world back at us. The Spirit fills us with insight and compassion for our fellow human beings. We are all one and God is continually being revealed in the world in our work to become community. To believe this and act on it is to be the human face of God here and now.

Seed for Sowing

“I gave them your word, and the world hated them…” (John 17:15).

The haunting work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz reflects the great suffering caused by the two world wars in Europe. Her final lithograph, titled “Seeds for the Sowing,” completed in 1945 just months before her death, shows a mother sheltering her children under her arms. Hope in a time of destruction lies in protecting the next generation. If the seed set aside for planting is ground up, there is no future. The sketch here only approximates but cannot approach the power of the original, which can be viewed online, along with Kollwitz’s story and other art.

Both readings for today’s liturgy, from John and from Acts, were composed during a time of suffering and stress in the early church. Internal divisions over as yet unformed theologies and the threat of persecution were forcing the first communities to protect their countercultural identity in a hostile world. In Acts 20, Paul, who is on his way to Rome to stand trial, predicts that false teachers will invade the fragile faith communities “like wolves in the flock.” In John 17, Jesus prays for the disciples: “Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the Evil One. Consecrate them in the truth.”

To consecrate is to set aside for special purpose. The first disciples -- men and women – are the seed set aside for planting. They carry the future of the truth Jesus has revealed about God and about human destiny, and it must be protected until it can take root and grow strong within the dominant cultures that will neither understand nor welcome it.

Each one of us is a seed of promise meant to be sown into the dark earth for the sake of those who will come after us. Seed ground up for consumption or left unplanted bears no fruit and fails its essential purpose. We pray for the Holy Spirit, who nurtures all that is good in us and will multiply what we plant a hundredfold.

Whobody There?

“I call you friend” (John 15:16).

Charles Morse' 1971 book Whobody There? (St. Mary’s Press, Winona) tells the story of two children waiting for their grandparents to arrive for a visit. In the hours leading up to this joyful reunion, many others come to the door, but they are just “somebodies” or “anybodies.” In one instance, they think someone is at the door but it is “nobody.” Finally, Grandma and Grandpa arrive, and they are welcomed with hugs and kisses because they are “whobodies,” two very special people the children know intimately.

The book captures beautifully the mystery of who-ness, the mysterious quality in us that elevates whatness and random or general presence into a personal encounter and floods us with the joy of knowing and being known.

The Gospel of John, who is called the "Beloved Disciple," focuses on this quality of intimate knowledge as the who-ness Jesus offers his disciples, first as master to teacher, then as friend to friend. Friendship, unlike other negotiated relationships of uneven status, is between equals. Mutuality invites full sharing, confidence and respect for the freedom of the other. Jesus tells his disciples that he chose them first, called them to be with him, thus beginning the process of encounter and learning that culminates in their free choosing of him. This completes his joy and opens for them the secret of his own Who-ness, his relationship with God, his Abba.

We know our whobodies by their faces and by the light that shines from them when we meet, filling us both with mutual recognition and joy. Whobodies are forever. Without them, in a real sense, we remain uncalled and unchosen, in a state of potential, but still waiting to be created, alone and not yet real. The psalms invite us to "seek the face of the Lord," because God is always waiting to reveal the look of love that makes us whobodies.

Unbearable Joy

“Now you are talking plainly, and not in any figure of speech” (John 16:29).

Jesus once told his disciples he had much to say to them but they “cannot bear it now." If you are Irish or even half Irish, as I am, you think bad news. But there are also things we need to know that are too wonderful to bear. We simply cannot absorb them all at once. It is said that some people who pray fervently for something can’t take “yes” for an answer. They are convinced that what God wants must involve great trial and suffering, and so they are prepared for "no" or "pray harder." In fact, just when we think everything is breaking down, we experience a breakthrough. What feels like dying turns out to be rebirth.

Ask Saul of Tarsus. This fire-breathing inquisitor was stopped in his tracks by the crucified, risen Christ. The knowledge he received about who Jesus really was was so overwhelming it blinded him. He spent a long time in the wilderness (“Arabia,” he writes) letting the truth of Jesus’ lordship sink in and, even more challenging, his own role as an apostle of the Good News of universal salvation.

In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells disciples that for a time things are going to get worse, but then they will get better. And in the end, everything is going to succeed in a burst of grace and triumph. “Take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We, too, are in the zone. Pentecost is coming. Now is the time to open ourselves wide for what God will freely give to anyone who asks for it -- the Holy Spirit. And when it feels like it just might cost us everything, keep going forward, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

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