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The Call to Compassion

Posted on 02 July 2014 by patmarrin

“What have you to do with us, Son of God?” (Matt 8:29).

The issue of mental illness as a social crisis has been in the headlines of late because of mass shootings and suicides. Some of these tragedies involve former military personnel suffering from the effects of battlefield trauma. The larger national challenge reportedly stems from the failure of mental health policies that deinstitutionalize thousands of patients without providing adequate community programs to support them. Any major city dealing with homelessness and poverty is also facing serious mental illness issues.

In Jesus’ time, some members of society were discarded into the lowest ranks of the destitute; widows and orphans, landless peasants, street beggars, lepers, cripples and blind people without family support. Jesus moved among them with compassion, touching, healing and welcoming them as God’s anawim – little ones. He also confronted and cared for people like the two Gadarene demoniacs in today’s Gospel, driven over the edge by unknown causes compounded by rejection and isolation. Jesus frees them from their demons and restores them to the community, but at the cost of a herd of swine that rush into the sea and are drowned.

Demonic possession and mental illness are two different ways to describe these victims, but whether we see this scene spiritually or scientifically, the healing Jesus offers is both individual and social. In a real sense, social, cultural and religious forces played a major role in the disorientation the two men were experiencing. They were outcasts from their communities, adding to their personal suffering and cutting them off from the understanding and care they needed to be restored. Jesus gave them that care and they immediately came to their senses.

A good shepherd never abandons the lost sheep, but goes out searching for them, lifting them up and carrying them home. Who are those good shepherds today? Where does fear and anger end and compassion begin for those outcasts created by poverty, substance abuse, race, homophobia and xenophobia? God’s grace and power wait to be poured out in those who accept this difficult call to help the poorest of the poor. But all of us without exception are called to compassion and a deeper understanding or the real causes of suffering in so many of our brothers and sisters.

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ

Posted on 01 July 2014 by patmarrin

“Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped; but Jesus was asleep” (Matt 8:25).

The Gospel accounts of lake crossings and powerful storms at night served as parables of reassurance for the fledgling church. Jesus had schooled the disciples in the mysterious passage that was their exodus from slavery to sin, their crossing over through death to life. Even when he seemed asleep, he was with them, always with them as captain of their new life in the spirit of his resurrection. When necessary, they could even walk on water, for the full force of the netherworld had no power to stop their progress through history. Faith gave them full access to this power. Without faith they would sink into the primordial chaos.

Our own night storms, when we all must navigate our darkest fears and know the fragility of our human powers, are included in this promise of his presence. “Don’t be afraid; have faith. We are making passage together!”

St. Paul, who knew every kind of danger, including shipwreck, reminded his young churches, and us, that Christ’s love was ultimate and trustworthy: ”I know this. Death, life, angels, rulers, things happening now, things that will happen, high things, low things; nothing else in all the world can come between us and God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).


Do It Today

Posted on 30 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt 8:22).

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows what lies ahead, and an urgent sense of the baptism he must undergo in the Holy City is evident as he encounters would-be disciples eager to join him. His mood is apocalyptic; he knows that what is about to take place will not be mere reform but the upending of entrenched historical patterns of injustice and inequality that have shaped the world. What might have been an evolution had people listened to him will in fact be a revolution that begins in the heart and then topples empires.

Jesus is traveling light, stripped of human ambition and shedding all concern for his own survival. No wonder he tells one enthusiastic follower that he no longer has a stake in this world or its ideas, no place to rest his head; or another to let the dead bury the dead. As a prophet heading for Jerusalem, where all prophets go to die, all he now needs to complete his mission is to empty himself into God’s will. Think of Martin Luther King’s inspired resignation in Memphis the night before he was gunned down on a motel balcony.

Jesus’ vision was, of course, launched not by his triumph in Jerusalem but by his defeat and death. His baptism in blood was about to enter the arteries of history, a movement mightier than any army, a force more powerful than death itself. “The long arc of history bends toward justice,” he might have said from the cross, echoing every martyr to come, from Ignatius to Gandhi.

Conversion begins with knowing our finite hopes and just how short our lives really are. Do the good you dream now, today. Risk it all now, today, for the chance to follow Jesus may not come again.

Peter and Paul

Posted on 28 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Heavenly Father” (Matt 16:16).

The idea of a single initiating force made up of polar opposites – Yin and Yang – is one of the oldest conceptions about the nature of the universe. The whirling image of light and dark halves of a single sphere is both dynamic and stable, each force completing the other, but generating an expansive, centrifugal energy. The source of reality is not inert, but an engine that runs by balancing constancy and change.

Today’s feast of Peter and Paul offers us a reflection on the dynamic nature of the church from its foundations. These two great saints represent two strong personalities often in tension, facing off over fundamental differences about the nature and direction of the church. They were like wrestlers whose perfectly matched strength became the source of the future. Peter was the Apostle of the Jewish origins of the Jesus movement; Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles and the expansion of the movement beyond Judaism. Peter’s model of governance was hierarchical and based on the temple priesthood; Paul’s communities were charismatic house churches, often headed by women.

The unresolved tensions between these visions of what Christ intended became the dialectic within church history still being debated today. (Some scholars say that the real core of apostolic leadership was not just between Peter and Paul, but included Mary as well. But that is another question still awaiting formal recognition and the lively discussion it deserves.)

Surprisingly and paradoxically, the survival of the church has been the debate itself. Uniformity would have meant the death and obsolescence of an institution unable to adapt to the ebb and flow of a constantly changing world. A decisive conservative or liberal victory in today’s church would doom her to spiritual rigor mortis, a fortress of left or right unable to entertain the mystery of grace alive and loose in the world. Both poles are needed. Unity in diversity is the secret of a whole church.

Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe has explored the Eucharist as the dynamic engine of the church. The elements of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice of reconciliation –- the bread of his body that gathers us in unity and the cup of his blood poured out in mission — form us to be both conservative and progressive. The Mass both unites us and disperses us. Without both dimensions we cease to live the dynamic, ongoing mystery of the God’s creative love in the world. The church is both a comfort zone and a staging area, each in proper turn.

Preserving this dynamism means continual forgiveness and reconciliation within our wrestling yin yang church. The tensions we celebrate in Peter and Paul define the struggle we must make our own to advance the mystery of the church. It is both our strength and our challenge.

The Heart of Jesus

Posted on 27 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29).

A book of short stories titled “Stories of God” by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) includes a tale about some children who decide that since God is all powerful he can exist in a thimble. They take turns carrying the thimble around. A little girl loses it during play and desperately searches for it. A passerby stops to ask her what the matter is, and she says that she has “lost God.”

Perhaps only children would imagine God in a thimble, but on this feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Gospel lends itself to this profound insight. The real power of God is revealed in emptying the divine mystery into a human person, Jesus, whose meekness and humility are irresistible to children and the poor—the “little ones” who recognize the presence of God when the learned and the wise fail to grasp so startling a paradox.

Today’s feast, officially approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1899, has popularly focused on Jesus heroic suffering for us. The image of the Sacred Heart in many homes reflected the deep popular need for an intimate and emotional relationship with Jesus at a time when scholastic theology offered a more abstract and distant depiction of the triumphant Christ.

Contemporary culture seems intent on heroes of immense physical stature and lethal power (see the previews of current popular movies). We assuage our fears with fantasies of being rescued and avenged by valiant guardians of our values and security. God in the thimble would be an unlikely contender for a blockbuster action film. Yet, who would you entrust your heart to in time of anxious need?

“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

Corner Stone

Posted on 26 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built his house on rock” (Matt 7:25).

There is something reassuring about large stones. My Irish grandfather was a stone cutter who helped build the Minneapolis courthouse in the early 20th century. It still stands as a monument to good architecture and a symbol of the stability the rule of law gives to a society.

In the ancient world, large stone buildings were an attempt to establish a civilization as permanent. The destruction to a regime included leveling its cities right to the foundation or reusing cut stone to assert the preeminence of the conquerors. Consider the archeological ruins of Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations, or the Spanish conquest of Central America in which indigenous pyramids were brought down or crowned by massive Catholic churches.

In the news again is the violent redrawing of maps in the Middle East as insurgent groups try to topple governments in Syria and Iraq. Today’s first reading from Kings 2:24 chronicles the long history of superpowers vying for control of the land corridor between Asia, Europe and Africa. First Eqypt, then Assyria, Babylon and Persia dominated the region in succession, followed by Greek and Roman rule. Islam later conquered it, instigating the European crusades. After World War I, European powers divided the region, seizing natural resources, especially oil, the target of recent American intervention, setting the stage for today's conflicts among Islamic groups surrounding Israel. Each invasion and conquest has devastated the region, creating untold suffering and millions of refugees.

Within the history lesson is Jesus’ parable of the only sure foundation for integrity and stability — to hear the Word of God and keep it. God’s kingdom is less about power than about right relationships. When people treat each other as brothers and sisters despite differences in race, religion or nationality, the world will become the community it was meant to be.


Good Fruit, Bad Fruit

Posted on 25 June 2014 by patmarrin

“By their fruits you will know them” (Matt 7:16).

The late theologian Fr. Ivan Illich once observed that “the corruption of the best is the worst.” He was referring to the long history of damage done to the mystery of the church when the Gospel message of Jesus gets distorted.

His observation captures our own abhorrence for the clergy sex abuse crisis. Pedophilia is a pathology present in other groups and in the culture as a whole, but when a priest abuses a child it violates a sacred trust on which all sacramental ministry depends. Christ is present in the power of human touch – holding a child, anointing and embracing one another, the closeness of the shared meal, the laying on of hands, sexual intimacy in marriage. Anyone who enters the sacred web of relationships with the intent to abuse someone to satisfy his or her own needs is, in Jesus’ words, a "wolf in sheep’s clothing."

Because human beings are opaque, we can present ourselves by appearance before reality, style before substance. It takes a while before we know another’s true motives and agendas. But over time, if we are not duped by our own desires, we see through the surface to what another person is really like. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus said. Pay less attention to what someone says and more to what they do, and note the effects of their activity over time. A good tree will bear good fruit. A rotten tree will bear bad fruit. A sincere person builds up community. A manipulative or dishonest person will harm the community.

The Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart,” describes the sincerity and transparency of those who see and reflect God’s own holiness in the life of the community. To pray for this blessing is a key to Pope Francis’ call to live in the joy of the Gospel.

John is his name

Posted on 24 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the Lord” (Isaiah 49:4).

We remember John the Baptist today, declared by Jesus to be the “greatest person ever born of woman” as precursor to the even greater dignity bestowed by grace on those called to enter the kingdom of God.

Yet on the historical face of it, John’s life could easily seem an abject failure. Born of aged parents, he was drawn into the wasteland as a wild prophet whose radical message attacked the temple establishment and religious experts as a “brood of vipers.” His short life ended in prison and with brutal decapitation when he dared to publicly call King Herod an incestuous adulterer.

Among the many paradoxes of salvation history is God’s apparent use of human failure to advance the triumph of love and reconciliation. John’s execution foreshadows Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul’s beheading, Peter’s upside-down crucifixion and the violent persecution of the early church only seemed to spur growth. In Tertullian’s famous words: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of conversion.”

Doing God’s will in our own lives may mean entering deeply and anonymously into the ordinary work of building up community, holding tradition in place while adapting it to changing circumstances, suffering silently as the many ambitious and ego-driven agendas play out all around us. Being faithful, as Dorothy Day often said, is more important than being successful. God alone sees the whole story and blesses those hidden servants who become the enduring cornerstones of the church in every generation.

No doubt many bishops and priests belong in this blessed group. And the many religious sisters and brothers who have labored without recognition or honor. And surely all the parents, mentors and servants, inside and outside the church, whose very lives make up the warp and woof of the seamless garment of love that has advanced civilization itself.

So today we honor the great hero John, and with him all those who hear God’s voice and act upon it.

Pencil Preaching is Back

Posted on 23 June 2014 by patmarrin

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matt 7:1).

Pope Francis could not have been clearer in expressing his desire that the church turn a more merciful face to the world than when he startled reporters and not a few of his fellow bishops with the now famous reply to a question about gay members of the church: “Who am I to judge…?” If the pope, one of the great moral teachers in the world and, for Catholics at least, an infallible source of truth, declines to pass judgment, how can any of us put ourselves in that place of superior insight and authority over another human being?

This does not mean that certain actions cannot be judged harmful or unjust, as the pope demonstrated just this past week after visiting victims of violence by the Italian crime syndicates. Any Catholic who participates in these murders is automatically excommunicated, Francis declared. Condemnation is reserved for the most heinous crimes, even if we cannot judge the motives or freedom of the individuals who commit them (and forgiveness is always possible with conversion).

Jesus also condemned many types of behaviors, especially harming the innocent, scandalizing the weak, or acting hypocritically. But in today’s Gospel, he addresses one of the most debilitating patterns within every human personality – the impulse to judge others. Jesus warns against this not just because it makes mutual forgiveness that much harder, but because those who judge are actually boxing themselves into their own judgments. “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you,” Jesus said.

People who are constantly judging others become crabbed and enclosed by their own high standards and spend all their time and energy keeping track of other people’s faults. Judgmental people are always right, and who wants to be around them? They get trapped in their own self-righteousness. They cannot allow themselves the freedom to make and admit mistakes, to apologize, let go and start over, which is the very essence and the joy of the church of mercy Pope Francis wants.

Begin today with a general amnesty. We are all sinners. We are all works in progress. So let everyone off the hook. You will be surprised by how unburdened and free you yourself will be. A day without judging is a day of grace, and it is ours for the asking.

Pencil Preaching on Holiday

Posted on 13 June 2014 by patmarrin

Dear Readers:

Today's first reading from 1 Kings 19 seems a propitious invitation to get away for a rest, a chance for my wife and I to see family in Minnesota, including my 102-year-old Aunt Bea. Unlike the prophet Elijah, I won't be going to the mountains to seek God in a tiny whispering voice, but I hope to find some quiet time near a lake, catch up with myself and God away from our offices here in Kansas City.

Pencil Preaching is halfway through its second year. I am grateful for the support of readers who share my love of the daily scriptures. Opening up the Lectionary with the universal church each morning, listening to the Living Voice of God as I read the local paper and have my first cup of coffee has been my compass for the rest of the day. A favorite line from one of the psalms: "A man meets his friend early in the morning," will accompany me to the north country, where crying loons and dragon flies are summer reminders of the state of our world.

My sincere hope is that my own running encounter with the themes found in the daily readings will encourage others to trust their own first impressions, their "pencil thoughts" at first watch over coffee or tea, whether it inspires a homily or just enriches an early morning walk. Word and Spirit are eager to form us in Christ, our own true selves emerging in daily conversion and fresh insight. Whether we are at rest or in the thick of busy lives, the joy of the Gospel is always there.

I will resume Pencil Preaching on Monday, June 23. Hasta la vista. Pat Marrin