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Always Go Forward

Posted on 30 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Don't look back" (Gen 19:18).

The famous story of Lot's flight from Sodom and Gomorrah includes the startling detail of his wife looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt. Scholars say this was to identify the geographic terrain marked by salt formations, but the story holds our imaginations for its depiction of the consequences of hesitation in a time of crisis.

The phrase "Don't look back" is found in the Gospels when Jesus warns potential disciples to put their hand to the plow and not look back. It entered popular culture as one of the "rules for life" from baseball legend Satchel Paige: "Don't look back; it might be gaining on you!"

The idea we are to go forward through life, through any storm, is also found in today's Gospel. The disciples are crossing the lake as Jesus sleeps on a cushion in the back of the boat. A squall comes up and threatens to swamp them. Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith, then calms the storm.

In his short novel, Typhoon, Joseph Conrad powerfully depicts the stolid, practical captain of a freighter caught in a killer storm in the straits of Formosa who puts aside his navigation guides and follows his instinct to go through the crisis rather than around, thus saving the ship, crew and passengers.

What stormy crossing or dangerous passage are you facing in your life? It could be a difficult decision, a challenge to go against convention, a moment when you risk everything to choose a new course toward greater integrity and freedom. Whatever we face, the Gospels counsel courage and faith. "Don't be afraid. Go forward. Don't look back."


Peter and Paul and You

Posted on 29 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Who do you say that I am?"

Like all other figures in the New Testament, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, Peter and Paul received their holiness and significance from their relationships with Jesus. He is the touchstone and source of our encounter with God, and only by our incorporation through baptism and faith into him as Incarnate Word are we transformed and destined for life with God.

This is important to remember, because as the early church became institutionalized, the authority of Peter and Paul became more a matter of the debate over the primacy of the church at Rome among the other centers of church life in Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. To preserve the unity of the church, Rome claimed leadership based on the probable fact that both Peter and Paul were martyred and buried there. Therefore the bishop of Rome held special rank among other church leaders to decide doctrinal and disciplinary disputes.

Today's feast of St. Peter and St. Paul celebrates this belief, which is the basis for Pope Francis' extraordinary moral authority as the voice for the global Catholic church. At the same time, Francis has sought to promote unity among all the Christian communions by referring to himself as simply the bishop of Rome. This opens the door to deeper respect among the churches and more dialogue toward intra-Catholic unity and ecumenical solidarity.

Francis has also made clear that the central focus of all church identity and activity is Jesus himself. Knowing and growing into the life of Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ now present in history, is the only source of grace we have. No ecclesiastical rank or office or charism elevates any church member above the common dignity of baptism.

The holiest person alive in the world today is the one who has entered full intimacy with Christ in faith and in their imitation of his life of sacrifice and service. This could be man or woman or child, or even an "anonymous Christian" somewhere outside the formal church but filled with the life of God in a baptism of desire or blood because of their longing to know the truth and to live a just and loving life. Only God knows who this person is.

We honor Peter and Paul by responding to the same invitation they embraced, to draw close to the mystery of God in human form that was revealed in Jesus and today is being revealed in other profound human experiences, the most authenticating one being martyrdom.

Perhaps we have witnessed this most powerfully in recent days in the nine church members murdered during Bible Sunday in Charleston, South Carolina. Their witness is the rock on which the Christian faith depends, what enabled them to withstand the assault of hatred and fear from the very gates of hell. We have all seen Jesus in them and can find strength in their example.

"Who Touched Me?"

Posted on 27 June 2015 by patmarrin

“Please, come and lay your hands on [us] that [we] may get well and live” (Mark 8:23).

Today’s Gospel about the healing of the woman with blood issue and the raising of the dead girl intersects multiple themes Mark emphasizes to show the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ ministry.

First, this is a story about Jesus’ direct challenge to religious laws separating everything and everyone into clean and unclean, pure and impure. The encounters in today’s reading follow the story of the cleansing of a leper, so Jesus (or Mark) is on a roll. In each instance, Jesus touches or is touched by something legally unclean.

The woman who pushes through the crowd to touch the tassel of his cloak contaminates him with her menstrual blood. Jesus touches a dead body when he takes the little girl by the hand in the house of the synagogue official. In each case, compassion trumps legalism. For where there is love, nothing is untouchable, and reality cannot be divided into good or bad, clean or unclean. The synagogue official in this story is important, because the local synagogue was where such rules were taught and enforced.

Second, this is a story about faith. Jesus does not work miracles to demonstrate his power, but to show that when God’s life-giving love meets total human trust, grace flows freely into our lives.

The woman in the crowd, desperate for healing after having exhausted all her means on the limited remedies offered by doctors, believes with all her heart that Jesus is filled with God’s life. She risks public shaming to fight her way through the crowd, sure that even to touch his clothing will heal her. Her faith taps into the source of life always present in Jesus. He does not initiate the miracle, and he is only aware that it has occurred when he feels the life force flow from him into whoever has just touched him with profound faith.

The official, informed that his daughter is already dead, falters. Jesus immediately tells him not to lose faith, for his faith is essential to the miracle. Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and summons her back to life. "Rise up." This miracle foreshadows the resurrection that will make eternal life available to all believers, and Jesus’ request that the parents give her something to eat foreshadows the Eucharist that is inseparable from the promise of resurrection for the members of the early church Mark is writing for.

Third, this double miracle clearly affirms Jesus' extraordinary regard for women as life givers, challenging a culture that gave women little respect apart from their role to satisfy men’s sexual needs and bear their children. Jesus blesses both of these women, one at the very start of her adult life and the other dying at the end of hers. The pulse of life flowing through Jesus’ human body and blood, flush with the promise of transcendent life, revives and restarts the lives of both women. The mystery of creation they carry is essential to the Good News Jesus is preaching and demonstrating to everyone who touches or is touched by him.

We are invited to touch and be touched by Jesus at Eucharist, in the Communion we receive and in the human embrace of our communities of faith. Our blood should quicken and our bodies thrill at this encounter we renew each time we gather to break open the word and share the bread and the cup that is Jesus’ powerful presence with us now. "Do not be afraid, just have faith."

Holy Compassion

Posted on 26 June 2015 by patmarrin

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”

After a stern lecture from her parents about picking good friends at school because “bad children can influence good children to be bad,” their daughter asked, “Can good children influence bad children to be good?”

Jesus raises the question of reverse contamination by his example of eating with sinners and touching lepers. In today’s Gospel, the leper reveals his deepest fear and suffering — that not only is he afflicted with a loathsome disease, but good people have decided it is somehow his own fault or the result of sin, so they will have nothing to do with him. The leper approaches Jesus wondering if perhaps even he will refuse to heal him. “Lord, if you wish…” contains the option, “you may not wish to heal me.”

People in trouble with illness, addiction or personality problems become social lepers. It is as though others, even family members, fear that if they get too close to them, their problems will someone jump onto them, contaminate their virtuous, disciplined and moral lives. We define whole classes of people, including the poor, ex-convicts, recovering addicts, or anyone who has made some mistake in their past, as worthy of avoidance. We add isolation to their suffering, depriving them of help and hope.

The reality is that all of us have our troubles, our weaknesses, though some can hide them better than others. There are no purely bad (or good) children, but only real individuals who are works in progress, each on their own learning curve. The truth is that most virtuous people get there by making mistakes. Compassion is born of personal failure, which inspires us to understand and accept others who have made the same mistakes we have made. Pope Francis has grounded his call for a church of mercy on the admission that he himself is a sinner in need of forgiveness.

Jesus wants to make us clean, but not with a purity based on a "perfection" that separates or elevates us from other people. He immersed himself in the human condition, was like us in all things, knew every temptation and weakness, but without sin. We follow him by accepting ourselves, then others, for who we all actually are, sinners on the way to holiness and compassion. This is the joy and freedom of the Gospel.

The House of God

Posted on 25 June 2015 by patmarrin

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

The image of building a house is a biblical metaphor for legacy. In the ancient world, progeny was the sign of blessing, since your children are how you extended your memory and influence into the future. The story of Abraham illustrates this, and the “house of Abraham” promised by God extends Abraham’s memory into the three major religions of the Book: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Jesus has no physical progeny. He comes into the world by a virgin birth, a sign of his divine sonship, and after this family identity is now a matter of spiritual birth. He tells his disciples that God will recognize his children not by ethnic or religious identity but in those who hear, keep and act on the Word of God. This is the “house” built on rock. Jesus is the cornerstone of the new age, the new creation, the new Temple of God’s presence. Those who follow him extend his house and are destined to share in his divine life.

The paradox of our faith is that the more we are grounded in Jesus, the more confident and free we can be to explore the future. Our identity is protected and certain as long as we are faithful to his example. This means not just believing in spiritual truths, but trying to live them each day. When God sees us living as Jesus lived, open to others, forgiving and compassionate, God sees our family resemblance to Jesus. This is the house that will go on living when all other certainties and human structures fail.

The Birth of John the Baptist

Posted on 24 June 2015 by patmarrin

“The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Isaiah 49:1).

It has been said that a human life is like a sentence: We don’t know its full meaning until the last word has been said.

The trajectory of each life is often indiscernible until its course is complete. Then we can look back and see how preference, vision and purpose guided that life to its goal. This is why so many elderly people, in the last chapter of their lives, spend it summarizing their experiences. How many of us only come to know ourselves at the end of the story we have been writing over the years.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus had relatively brief lives cut short by violent deaths. John’s birth to older parents stirred wonder and posed the question, “What will this child be?" We meet him 30 years later, a desert prophet, a voice in the wilderness whose purpose is to announce the coming of Jesus.

We can imagine him as a child, or as an adolescent struggling with other voices in the wind and in the sacred scriptures, preparing him to be the one who prepares the way for God’s promised Messiah.

The baptism of repentance John offers in the Jordan draws Jesus down from Galilee to begin his ministry of grace. No sooner does John complete his mission to point to Jesus than he is swept up in the paranoia of Herod Antipas and beheaded.

At this event, Jesus withdraws with his disciples to grieve and absorb the reality that his own mission will end in violent opposition, suffering and death. John’s last gift to Jesus will be the question from prison: “Are you the one?” Jesus defines himself by the works that reveal the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: The blind see, cripples walk, sinners are shown mercy.

What is the meaning of your life? Like Jesus and John, we know ourselves by first listening to the Word and to the voice of God in our experiences. There is no other authentic trajectory than this one, and it will guide us to eternal life.


Gone Fishing, June 12-23

Posted on 11 June 2015 by patmarrin

Dear Pencil Preaching readers: I will be out of the office until June 24, when Pencil Preaching will resume. Thanks for your support this past year. It is good to share the joy of the Gospel.

We Need More Barnabases

Posted on 10 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Barnabas was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24).

Biblical names are back on the baby name lists, including Noah, Jacob and Elijah, but you don't often meet a Barnabas. This stalwart Jewish Christian was the one who went and found Saul of Tarsus after his conversion and introduced him to a skeptical, fearful faith community in Antioch. Barnabas and Paul (his new name) became partners in the mission to the gentiles. Without Barnabas, who knows how things might have gone.

Amid the super stars of Christianity, the apostles and saints, there are countless others in the often anonymous ranks of believers who helped the early church grow. Paul lists many of them in his letters -- men and women who accompanied him, preached the Gospel, founded and presided over house churches in the first communities established in the Mediterranean basin, from Antioch to Rome itself.

We are the church, all of us. And we are its main evangelizers and community builders. Wherever two or three are gathered together in faith and prayer, Jesus is with us, the Holy Spirit animating us to be the body of Christ in the world.

Today’s Gospel emphasizes the central work of the church, to demonstrate and bring the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation to our fractious world. Whenever a believer reconciles with a brother or sister, whenever a Christian helps facilitate peace where there has been conflict, the Gospel is preached.

Pope Francis has invited us all to enter a Holy Year of Mercy. It is a time of Jubilee, full amnesty within the church, everyone off the hook, every wounded sinner invited through the doors of Mercy, restored and renewed by God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. How much we need this, especially those of us who have been so long divided within the church over theological and ideological differences. It is time to kiss and make up, come back together at the Table of Life.

Today I pause to wish a happy feast day to Barnabas Senecal, former abbot at the Benedictine Community in Atchison, Kansas, and a longtime contributor of his poetry and photographs to Celebration magazine. Everything said in Acts about St. Barnabas is true for Abbot Barnabas, a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.

Just Say Yes

Posted on 09 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Your light must shine before others" (Matt 5:15).

The expression, "He won't take no for an answer," describes determination. If only more people were that persistent! How many worthwhile endeavors fold at the first sign of resistance or lack of approval?

A far greater phenomenon is the number of lives put on the hold by the experience that he or she" wouldn't take yes for an answer." Opportunities appear but go unexplored. Doors stand wide open but no one goes through them. No amount of encouragement or affirmation can move someone forward who is afraid to commit, to decide or risk making a mistake.

In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells the community that Jesus was God’s “Yes.” Filled with confidence and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we should go forward into life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are salt and light. Salt that loses its savor or light hidden under a bushel basket accomplishes nothing and does not reveal the source of every gift, which is God’s glory living in us.

In another lifetime, the director of student brothers asked each brother to pick a ministry for the summer. A number of brothers did not hand in the form. When asked, one said, “I just want to do whatever you tell me to do.” The director harrumphed and shot back, “ I told you to fill out the form!”

We perhaps never feel the weight of our own lives until we are forced to make a decision. No one can decide for us. Blind obedience is no virtue if it produces passivity and avoidance of responsibility masquerading as humility.

Discipleship is about daring to shine, using all our gifts fully, risking rejection and misunderstanding to be ourselves. Only then does God have something to work with, someone willing to step beyond their fears and doubts to be Christ for others, fully alive and present to the world.

Living in the Zone

Posted on 08 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven" (Matt 511).

Jesus, like Moses, goes up the mountain, sits down to indicate that what he is about to say is official teaching, then delivers the Beatitudes. In contrast to the Ten Commandments, the basis for the Law, Jesus proposes eight paradoxes that describe a community poised to live between this world and the world to come.

The Beatitudes describe those whose longing, sincerity, vulnerability, suffering and determination are like the lead lines tossed from a foundering vessel onto the far shore of a new land. Disciples cast their imaginations into God's future, then live as though it were already here. They are early indicators and incubators and facilitators of the world God is bringing to birth in them and through them.

Blessed are you when you are poor, simple, grieving, longing for justice, mercy, purity of heart and peace. Though the world will resist and persecute you for these delusions and intrusions on its reality, God's dream will take hold and grow in you. You will be filled with a happiness the world cannot give.

The kingdom of heaven is not beyond this world but in the world, within you and among you. It is the treasure hidden in the field waiting to be uncovered, the pearl of great price waiting for the one who will sell everything to possess it. Have eyes to see and ears to hear, and you will live each day in God's will -- for you and for the world.

This is the joy of the Gospel.