Wakes

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I am an associative thinker and tend to rely on analogies to help me interpret my world, particularly its more painful aspects.  And so, as I stood alone in the aft, transfixed by the cruise ship’s turbulent wake, a different wake, my father’s from three months prior, came readily to mind.

Close by the ship’s propeller, the water churned fiercely.  Yet, as the vessel moved on, I was consoled to see order and serenity gradually restored to the sea.  Perhaps the emotional aftermath of my father’s death will follow a similar pattern.  Time is essential, of course.  Time… and very much grace!

I have written elsewhere about my father (most notably in “The Red Sweater” http://wp.me/p3OG1U-3C), testifying to the healing work that God has already accomplished in me.  Tragically though, forgiveness does not always translate to reconciliation.  So, by my father’s choice, which I honored, for the past twenty-three years – his final twenty-three years – we were estranged.

Considering the painful distance between us in life, and now, that ultimate separation in death, I’m amazed by the significant space my father still occupies in my psyche.  Such is a son’s need, I guess, even as the son himself grows old.

—–

A few years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At the courthouse, while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with the man immediately ahead of me in line.  He was an African-American Protestant minister, who explained that his “calling” was to help broken-hearted men, of which there were many in his congregation.  He referenced the story of the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 and made special note of verse 17, wherein God the Father’s voice is heard saying:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

“That verse,” the good man observed, “is something every boy – and every man – aches to hear from his father.”

Quite unexpectedly, while inching toward courthouse security, I felt laid bare.  Fighting back tears, I desperately hoped that my vulnerability, my wound, went unnoticed by my new acquaintance… that healer of broken-hearted men.

—–

When a loved one dies, memories sometimes come in a torrent.  In the wake of my father’s death, an all too familiar memory came yet again to me.

When I was a young boy of perhaps eight or nine years, my father made me a special promise.  “This Saturday,” he said, “will be our day. We’ll spend the whole day together, and we’ll do whatever you want to do.”

I was ecstatic!  Time alone with my Dad!?  Even as a child, or perhaps especially then, I had sensed the disconnect between us; but, maybe things could be different.

The days of that week could not pass quickly enough.

When Saturday came, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen, where I found my mother, with a knowing smile on her face, already making breakfast for my father and me.  As we ate together, my father told me that he had a quick errand to run but thereafter the day would be mine. In fact, I could even accompany him on his errand.  It didn’t matter to me.  We’d be together.

While on the errand, my father ran into a co-worker, who told him that a number of their mutual friends were getting together to play golf that morning.  Then, he asked my father if he’d like to join the group.

Even now, it’s difficult to explain my feelings as I was dropped back at home that morning.  Rejection?  Embarrassment?  Confusion?  Yes to all those things.  But maybe shame comes the closest to telling the story.  Even as my mother tried to console me, I just wanted to disappear.

Through the years, I’ve often wondered if my father enjoyed that round of golf, which was surely the most costly round he ever played.

—–

“The Red Sweater,” was a story I’d told a number of times, but I’d never felt free to write it down.  It always seemed like something that should wait until my father’s passing.  Then, in late September of last year, I unmistakably sensed that the time had come.  The writing proved cathartic as I relived that blessed experience.

My work was completed on October 6th.  I then sat staring at the “Publish Post” button on my blog site.  “Should this wait?” I briefly anguished again.  Then, feeling a surprising sense of peace, I really knew the time had arrived.  I clicked the button without regret.

The next day, I received a characteristically kind phone call from my dear, life-long friend, Paul.  “Steve, I’m so sorry about your father’s passing…” he began, but I quickly lost track of his words.  You see, no one close to my father had informed me of his death. Paul had unknowingly broken the news.  He had died the previous morning… just a few short hours before I posted “The Red Sweater.”

All things considered, I am truly grateful to have learned the news the way I did, from a loving friend.  God is good!

—–

I didn’t attend the formal wake or funeral.  After all, his second family had shared his life far more closely and deserved their private time of grief.  Instead, my wife, our children, and I went to pay our respects the night before, alone.

My father was eighty-eight years old when he passed.  In death, his body looked so small and frail… so unthreatening.

In the funeral parlor, my family gave me some private time.  Time alone for just me and my Dad.

I knelt, prayed, and said “good-bye.”  The next day, after the graveside service had concluded and everyone from his second family had gone home, I paid my final respects just before the cemetery workers filled in his grave.

May God rest his soul!

And, at a time known to God alone, may we finally have that special day together… father and son… on a day that will never end.

In the meantime… healing, as the waters gradually settle.

Forever in My Heart

When I was a little boy, I forced myself to stay awake one night after being convinced by my big sister that a spaceship would soon be coming to pick me up. Apparently, a monumental intergalactic war was taking place, and my help was desperately needed if the good guys were to prevail. In the morning, Christine had quite a chuckle.

And then, there was the “May Procession” incident.

In the 1960s, our (Catholic) parish held an event every May honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was always band music, a parade through the nearby streets of the town, and a crowning of Mary’s statue with a wreath of flowers.

“O Mary, we crown Thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels, Queen of the May…”

I remember it well.

Now, I look back on those events with great fondness and admiration; however, on one unusually hot “May Procession” day, this diminutive (yet stubborn) parochial school student didn’t want to march. My mother’s pleas fell on deaf ears; so, her secret weapon – Christine – was deployed.

My big sister took me aside, saying that she had something really special to show me. In the palm of her hand, she displayed two thick, but otherwise ordinary, rubber bands.

“Do you know what these are, Stephen?” she asked, before answering her own question. “These are very special rubber bands, the kind that baseball players like Mickey Mantle use to hold up their socks. I’ll give them to you if you march in the procession.”

Resistance was futile. Of course, I marched. Christine could always convince me.

When I was seven, my parents purchased our first dog, a smart, frisky miniature poodle. One morning, the front door was accidentally left ajar and our new puppy ran outside. Christine, still in her pajamas, bolted out the door to catch her. I watched out the window as passers-by laughed at the sight. I teased her about that for years… and, I wish I could tease her still.

In prayer this morning, I suddenly became aware that I’ve now lived longer without my big sister than with her. With that realization came tears, surprisingly ferocious tears, like those I cried on January 27th, 1985.

I’m not sure why the particular memories mentioned above came to mind today, but I treasure them all.

Christine was beautiful in every sense of the word. Phony space adventures aside, I’ve never known a kinder, more thoughtful, more faithful human being in all my years, and I’ve known a great many wonderful people.

I loved her so. And, you would have too. Everyone did.

—–

P.S. I’ve written previously about my sister in the essay Hearts and Treasures. If you’ve never done so, you might check out this entry: http://musingsamidthethorns.com/2013/08/21/hearts-and-treasures/. It speaks to the depth of her character.

 

 

Re-Birth: An Instruction Manual?

Upon the birth of a first child, someone among the new parents’ family and friends will most likely – and with the best of intentions – observe (about the baby): “It’s too bad they don’t come with an instruction manual.”

Parenting is indeed a learn-as-you-go proposition; however, looking back on our own steep learning curve, I wonder how Marianne and I may have benefitted from just such a handy tool.

When our youngest grandchild, Benjamin, was baptized, the administering priest, Fr. Raymond, used the opportunity to provide all in attendance with a strikingly beautiful catechesis on that foundational Sacrament. I remember leaving the church with the very clear conviction that Benjamin had just been “re-born” in Christ.

Thinking back to that joyful day, I’ve been doing a bit of prayerful reflection on what a post-Baptism “re-birth” instruction manual might contain.

If an instruction manual were to accompany a first baby, it would be written specifically for the new parents. A “re-birth” instruction manual, however, would be primarily for the baptized. Of course, if the “new creation” in Christ could not yet read or comprehend the manual, the instructions could temporarily be implemented by the parents and god-parents, but with the clear understanding that the new Christian must assume personal responsibility for implementation upon reaching maturity.

Please bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be comprehensive. These are just some of my “musings.”

—–

Congratulations! You are a “new creation” in Christ. In order to experience fully the benefits of your transformation, please do the following, and repeat each step as necessary:

  • Appreciate that, in all circumstances, you are loved by God beyond the furthest limits of your imagination.
  • Know that you have always been in the mind, heart, and plan of God. And, at just the right moment in history, God purposely “spoke” you into the world.
  • Recognize that God intends community among people and has deliberately woven us together so intricately that everything we do impacts the broader human family. You yourself are a communal being. Always keep this in mind.
  • Confront, with humility and faith, the tragic reality of sin and its implications for you personally and for the world.
  • Understand that, if you were able to conquer sin within yourself, you would have no need for a Savior.
  • Always rejoice in the great Savior you have been given.
  • Be grateful that God has gifted you with authentic power, significance, and freedom; but, also recognize that, because of these gifts – and the divinely-ordained communal nature of the human family – you must always act with discernment and love.
  • Because all are sinners, you and your neighbors alike will often fail to perfectly carry out the instruction immediately above. Consequently, you will wound, and be wounded by, others. Never despair!
  • Seek and dispense forgiveness liberally.
  • Trust that God can bring good from even the greatest tragedy.
  • Know beyond a doubt, however, that God never causes a tragedy to bring about a good purpose.
  • At times, you may be tempted to see yourself as ugly, unlovable, a mistake, an inconvenience, a burden, a failure, a disappointment, etc. Recognize and absolutely reject these lies, which are designed to steal the truth of your identity and dignity in Christ.
  • Cherish that God knows you intimately; and, rejoice that God wishes to be intimately known by you.
  • Seek God constantly in prayer. And, when prayer is dry, persevere. And, when prayer is drier still, persevere further.
  • Study God’s revealed truth.
  • Recognize that God chooses to speak revealed truth through human agents; so, it is vitally important to discern the voice of God from the voice of God’s agents. Trust the Church’s guidance, as well as the noble work of scholars and theologians in these matters.
  • Humbly seek a spiritual director to guide your journey in Christ.
  • Appreciate that the created world is holy. So, when you observe the majesty of the mountains, the raw power of the ocean, the beauty of the night sky, or the miracle of a tiny wildflower, see God as their Creator, and know that God has perfected their beauty precisely for you.
  • Richly and gratefully partake of the Sacraments of the Church, which heal, feed, and ennoble your interior life.
  • Become an active member of a faith community. You will quickly discover that your gifts complement those of your brothers and sisters; and, you will experience life more completely.
  • Be gentle and patient with your neighbors, who may be bearing a greater burden than you realize.
  • Use your words to build up, but never to tear down.
  • Make sure that your life of faith never deteriorates into an ideology that will set you at odds with your brothers and sisters.
  • Learn to live serenely with things beyond your control, always trusting in God’s ultimate goodness and sovereignty.
  • Share your time, treasure, and talent with great generosity.
  • Be patient.
  • Treasure innocence.
  • Listen, always, for the voice of God.

—–

Thoughts?

Ripples, Tares, and Bedford Falls (Part One)

I have always enjoyed watching the ripples caused by the dropping of a stone, even a small stone, into still water. There is, I think, a valuable life lesson to be learned from those concentric waves gently moving whatever floats in their path.

It’s a Wonderful Life, my favorite Christmas film, teaches a similar lesson. George Bailey’s small acts of kindness ripple through the lives of his Bedford Falls neighbors in subtle yet utterly transformative ways. “Strange, isn’t it?” says Clarence, his guardian angel. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Even after viewing the film countless times, I find it impossible to hold back tears when George’s loved ones and friends rally to save him in his moment of need.

Ah, the human family!

Recently, I was privileged to attend a presentation delivered by Fr. Michael Himes, a professor/theologian at Boston College. Fr. Himes is a brilliant speaker, and I always enjoy hearing his perspective; but, that evening, I found his subject especially captivating. He spoke of how God has deliberately and intricately interwoven our lives such that even the smallest of actions can have wide-ranging significance. He then logically concluded that, “There are no small actions.”

It’s true! We ripple each other’s lives in countless, meaningful ways. In a sense, we are all George Baileys… or, under the right circumstances, Mr. Potters.

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells what we have come to know as the “Parable of the Wheat and the Tares/Weeds.” In the story, a man sows good seed in his field, but weeds grow up alongside the wheat. The man’s servants ask if he would like them to pull up the weeds; but, he wisely concludes that both wheat and weeds should be allowed to coexist lest the wheat accidentally be uprooted during the weeding.

I find that man’s decision strangely comforting, perhaps because I know that my life – and, frankly, every human life – manifests both wheat and weeds. (Even good George Bailey unjustly railed against Mrs. Welch, Zuzu’s teacher, while under particular duress.)

As Christmas draws near, I’ll be praying especially for two things: 1.) insight into the various ripples emanating from my life; and, 2.) the grace to remember that the child born in Bethlehem so long ago came to save not only the George Bailey in me… but especially the Mr. Potter.

Merry Christmas!

Bridging the Chasm

Dear Friends:

Once recognized, few things weigh more heavily on the human heart than a missed opportunity. Likewise, the related and unanswerable “what if?” is counted among our most perplexing questions.

​In the winter of 1995, I committed to speak at Chapel Talks, an adult faith-formation program being offered at the time in my parish. My topic was to be the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), a well-known and tragic example of habitually missed opportunities.

​Shortly after agreeing to speak, I was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia for a professional conference. Being a homebody at heart, such trips were often an occasion of loneliness for me. This time, however, I was actually looking forward to the time away. While my days in Philly promised to be quite busy with meetings of one kind or another, my evenings would largely be my own; thus, I anticipated having ample time to immerse myself in the story of Lazarus and the rich man as I prepared for my upcoming talk.

​When the time came to travel, I brought two books with me – my Bible (of course) and Be Not Afraid, a short but intensely challenging book written by Jean Vanier, a living saint, who was the founder of L’Arche.

In the book, Vanier specifically speaks of Lazarus and the rich man; but, he also elaborates, more generally, about the “two worlds” they symbolize – the worlds of misery and comfort, respectively. Further, he describes a “huge wall” that keeps the two worlds safely separated and explains that the comfortable often “throw money or things over the wall” but carefully avoid any direct contact. “The last thing they want,” Vanier explains, “is to see and touch.”

Hmmm.

Holding winter meetings in northern locations is always a risky proposition. On Saturday, my second full day in Philly, a 9-inch snowstorm blanketed the city. After the storm passed, temperatures plummeted such that Sunday’s high never made it out of the teens, and the evening and overnight hours saw temperatures drop into the single digits. It was brutally cold!

Early on Sunday morning, I asked the concierge about Catholic churches within walking distance of the hotel. My intention was to attend Mass prior to the day’s slate of meetings. He told me that there was indeed a Catholic church within a few blocks and advised me to leave by the hotel’s side door as that would be the exit closest to my route.

​Clinging awkwardly to a street map with my gloved hands, I left by the hotel’s side door and turned right toward the church. I quickly noticed two things – the biting wind that brought tears to my eyes and made viewing the map a challenge and the Uno’s restaurant situated right next door to the hotel. Since I’ve always been an Uno’s fan, I made an on-the-spot decision about dinner. When the day’s business was done, I’d have pizza in my room with Lazarus and the rich man.

​That evening, I returned to the hotel, readied a work space on the desk in my room, and called Uno’s to order a large pizza and two soft drinks. (If inspiration came, I wanted sufficient fuel for a long and productive night.) A few minutes later, bundled against the cold, I headed once more for the side door of my fine hotel, totally unaware that I was about to enter a living parable.

​Walking out the door, I glanced briefly to my left and noticed a man huddled on the sidewalk grates adjacent to the hotel. The heat rising from the grates must have offered him some relief from the cold… but I’m sure it was nowhere near enough. I quickly turned away and marched in the opposite direction to pick up my dinner.

​On the way back, the man on the grates was directly in my view. A knapsack, likely containing all of his possessions, was by his side. And, I noticed him periodically stepping in place, left-right-left-right, no doubt attempting to bring feeling back to his frozen feet. As I turned to enter the hotel with my food, our eyes briefly met, and I gave a slight nod in his direction.

Back inside – safely behind the “huge walls” of my luxurious hotel – there was blessed heat, but it offered little relief from what now seemed an interior chill. As I ate my pizza and tried to read and think about Lazarus and the rich man, I felt an unmistakable conviction in my heart. Lazarus was right outside.

​Have you ever debated with God? I did that night. God’s intention that I share my food with the man on the grates could not have been clearer, but I resisted in a variety of selfish, petulant ways.

​“I’ve worked hard all day and deserve some uninterrupted time. Further, I have work to do – Your work, in fact – so I need to stay focused on the task at hand. And, by the way, how can I even be certain that the man on the grates is homeless? Maybe he was on his way home and decided to warm himself for just a few minutes. I might actually insult him by offering him food. Are You trying to embarrass me… and him?”

At that moment, the man on the grates was inconvenient… but, I knew the call of love.

Finally yielding, I closed the pizza box, put the unopened can of Pepsi back in its bag, grabbed my room key, and headed outside.

​The man knowingly watched my approach. As I drew near, he returned my earlier nod and then waited for me to initiate conversation.

​“Have you had dinner?” I asked.

​“No sir, I haven’t.” he replied respectfully.

​Shivering, for I’d not worn my coat, I handed him the pizza box and the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “just half a pizza and a drink, but you’re welcome to it.”

​“Thank you, sir!” he said, immediately reaching for a slice.

​“You’re welcome! And, God bless you!” I offered, and then went inside.

​Any self-congratulatory impulse quickly receded. In fact, by the time I arrived back at my room, I knew without question that my response had fallen well short of God’s intention. God wanted human contact, communion. In Vanier’s words, God wanted me “to see and touch.” Instead, I had “thrown a pizza over the wall.”

I prayed with urgency. To my shame, I had to admit to myself and to God that leaving the hotel without a jacket had been intentional. How could I stay to talk when I wasn’t dressed for the savage cold?

​I definitely experienced God urging me to return to the man on the grates, this time, wearing my coat, hat, and gloves. I neither hesitated nor debated. Rather, I dressed quickly and headed for the elevator.

​Before venturing outside, I stopped at the coffee shop in the hotel lobby to buy two cups of coffee. One I left black and, to the other, I added just a bit of cream; he could have his choice. I stuffed a couple of sugar packets and a stirrer in my coat pocket, took a deep cleansing breath, and exited by the side door, the door near the grates, for the fourth and final time that day.

​And he was gone…

​I stood there in silence for quite some time, suddenly oblivious to the cold. Then, chastened, I returned to my room… and to my task. Later that same month, I introduced my Chapel Talks audience to the man on the grates, my personal Lazarus, and to the “rich man” standing at their podium.

“What if?”

I have no idea what might have happened if we’d had a chance to talk that night. I am, however, keenly aware of the lesson I learned from his absence, which is also the lesson, I believe, of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. As long as we live, there is no chasm too wide or too deep to be bridged, no “huge wall” too steep to be scaled, if only we can love without prejudice or fear.

​Lest, in your kindness, you be tempted to console me, please know that I no longer bear a burden of guilt over this matter. In a strange way, the missed opportunity proved to be its very own opportunity, which (hopefully) I have seized, by the grace of God.

As I write this note, I am especially conscious of the countless acts of kindness you have shown to me in the time we’ve been acquainted – the ways you have bridged the chasm. This is my opportunity to thank you and to say that I genuinely treasure our friendship.

I hope you had a grate Thanksgiving,

Steve

Doorknobs and Destinies

One of the most unpleasant conversations I’ve ever had was with a hardline fundamentalist Christian, who, upon learning that I was a Catholic, made it quite clear that I was on my way to hell. This man knew virtually nothing about me, and yet he had my eternal destiny all figured out. Amazing!

That encounter left a stark impression on my soul. I found no evidence of compassion or love in that man, only judgment for those different than himself. What frightens me the most is that he claimed to know and worship the same God to Whom I have devoted my life; yet, our respective notions of that God could not be further apart. His god, I fear, is very much like him.

Recently, I received a Facebook message that, at first glance, appeared to be representative of popular Christian piety. It included a familiar image of Jesus, taken from Revelation 3:20, wherein The Lord is depicted as standing outside and knocking on a door with no external doorknob. The initial, visual implication was clear – Jesus can only enter one’s life when the door (to the heart) is opened from the inside; but, after reading the caption, I understood that this was not the intended theme.

The message, forwarded by someone I know – a Christian – who regularly monitors atheist social media sites, was meant to mock the often contradictory images of God that some Christians seem to hold. The caption read as follows:

“Knock, knock…
Who’s there?
It’s Jesus. Let me in…
Why?
I have to save you.
From what?
From what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t let me in.”

Sadly, this version of Jesus seems much like that fundamentalist’s god. If one is on that god’s good side, then all is well. If not, well, there’s (literally) hell to pay.

Honestly, I found the forwarded message both humorous and sad; but, I also find it important, especially for consideration by a Christian community that often seems to present contrary pictures of her God to a disbelieving world. In fact, it seems that Christians themselves often hold on to contradictory images of God without ever noticing the conflict. It is perplexing to say the least.

Is God the cause of humanity’s struggle? The cure? Both? Hmmm.

Several years ago, a woman in Iran was sentenced to death by stoning for the sin/crime of adultery. As news of her fate filtered out through various news and human rights outlets, an enormous protest was raised against what was rightly seen as a barbaric form of punishment.

Her story reminds me of a similar episode in the Gospel of John. Therein, a woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus in an effort to entrap Him. Jesus was told of the woman’s sin/crime and that her sentence, according to Mosaic law, was death by stoning. The religious leaders then asked Jesus if He concurred with her sentence. His reply is one of the best known verses in the entire Bible. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7b)

Whenever I read or hear those words, I marvel. This woman had infinite value in Jesus’ eyes. While the religious leaders viewed her situation opportunistically, Jesus looked at her with the very compassion of God.

Imagine for a moment, however, if Jesus’ response had been entirely different, if He had concurred with her accusers and had said: “Since I am the only one here who is without sin, I shall be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Impossible? Why?

“That’s easy! Stoning is barbaric!” you might say. “And, God loves and desires to save that woman, not to condemn and brutally butcher her! Get real!”

I would agree wholeheartedly. Then, however, I might read Numbers 15:32-36, wherein God is said to have ordered the stoning death of a man caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

If stoning is barbaric today, and if stoning was barbaric in Jesus’ time, was it not also barbaric in Moses’ day? If God was merciful to the woman caught in adultery, was God less than merciful to the man in Numbers 15? Is there another logical explanation? We’ll see; but, first let’s consider another apparent Divine contradiction.

When the horrific murder of so many innocent, defenseless children occurred last year at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, every sane and civilized person recognized the unspeakable evil of the gunman’s actions. Anguish and grief were universally felt.

At least one prominent “Christian” leader, though, pronounced this tragedy as evidence of God’s judgment on the United States – as if Adam Lanza were somehow acting as an agent of God in his murderous rage.

How could such an opinion be held? Can God be complicit in such evil? Does God ordain the murder of innocent children?

“Of course not,” I would say. Then, however, I might read 1 Samuel 15:1-9, wherein God is said to have ordered the total annihilation of the Amalekites due to a past offense against Israel.

Imagine, if you dare, the horror of walking amidst the slain Amalekites… seeing babies and small children violently, mercilessly slaughtered. Would you sense the handiwork of a loving and merciful God? I certainly would not; and, the recent Newtown tragedy has only intensified my conviction in the matter.

A few months ago, I started to write an as-yet-unfinished essay with the working title, “Jesus Wept.” I began it with a short reflection on what the scene must have been like in the aftermath of the slaughter of the Amalekites. Perhaps I’ll finish that essay one day; or, perhaps this essay is the completion. In any case, here is that brief reflection:

—–

“The aftermath was perversely still and cold. Retributive violence, fueled by religious zealotry, had been meted out with frightening indifference. Absent was any sign of mercy, any evidence of human understanding or compassion. Even the smallest of children had not been spared. After all, the value of human life – including innocent human life – paled before the presumed divine imperative. Such was the cruel mandate of ‘the ban.’

“Now, no one remained to grieve those lost to the sword. Death had won!

“Did that also mean that God had won? Unthinkable!”

—–

In my view, Jesus wept not only for the death of his friend Lazarus, which is the Biblical context, but also for all of suffering humanity. Lazarus’ death was only the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And so, the God/man wept for all of fallen humanity’s ills, e.g., poverty, injustice, cruelty, oppression, abuse, persecutions, wars, natural disasters, slander, loneliness, selfishness, sins of every kind. Jesus thus wept for the victims of the Holocaust, Columbine, Newtown… and for the slain Amalekites.

It genuinely puzzles me that pro-life people can argue with such passion about the inestimable value of every human life but then can accept as literal truth stories about a God Who treats human life – even the most innocent and vulnerable of human life – as utterly disposable.

Killing a helpless child is always wrong!

And those who argue that when God does something deplorable then it’s really not deplorable are, in my opinion, naive and potentially dangerous.

Could an absolutely good God really be the architect of the monstrous butchery found in 1 Samuel 15? Surely, there must be another explanation!

Today, as never before, such apparent contradictions in the Bible are being spotlighted by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and (the late) Christopher Hitchens. I certainly disagree with their ultimate conclusions, but I actually applaud their raising of the questions. In fact, I wonder if – unbeknownst to them – God is using people like Dawkins and Hitchens prophetically to call God’s people to deeper engagement with revealed truth, especially in the pages of the Bible.

I realize that I’m treading on hotly disputed ground here; but, with no intention to harm, I feel I must go still further.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, we read the following:

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (RSV-CE)

What does the author really mean by the phrase “inspired by God” – or, “God-breathed,” as some translations render the phrase?

Some Christians, like the fundamentalist mentioned above, unwittingly adopt an understanding of Biblical inspiration that has more in common with the Islamic model of Koranic dictation than with the demonstrated intention of The Lord to work incarnationally, i.e., in and through human agents in real-world circumstances, to bring about God’s salvation plan.

Here, I find it necessary to share a bit of the Catholic perspective on Biblical inspiration because it is the view that I embrace.

In Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council, this explanation is given:

“… To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though He acted in them and by them, it was as true authors (emphasis mine) that they consigned to writing whatever He wanted written, and no more.”

Perhaps the best example of this at work can be found in Luke 1:1-4 wherein the human author explicitly states that he decided to “write an orderly account” after carefully following the (oral and written) traditions handed on by the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” There is no direct Divine dictation happening here. Luke did careful research before composing his Gospel.

I also find an interesting example in 1 Cor 7:25 where Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as a true author, claims to “have no command of the Lord” but offers his “opinion” on the state of the unmarried.  The Church has subsequently come to identify that opinion as inspired, but Paul had absolutely no sense of this while he was writing.

Critiquing the fundamentalist approach to interpreting Scripture, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) offers this explanation, which I find enormously informative, in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church:

“[Fundamentalism] refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources (emphasis mine). For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations (emphasis mine)

 

Quoting again from Dei Verbum:

“However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion,  the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.

“To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. (7) For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (emphasis mine)

How might this perspective be put into practice? Well, regarding 1 Samuel 15, and mindful of the instruction given by my Church and the excellent work done by Biblical scholars, I might approach the text this way:

  • Israel, like other Middle-Eastern nations of during the time period recounted in 1 Samuel 15, necessarily had strong militaristic tendencies as a condition of survival
  • Also, Israel, in those early days, was monolatrous rather than monotheistic (see Psalm 95:3, for example); and, The Lord was seen as the greatest among the various gods
  • In battle, warring nations/tribes perceived that they were enacting a larger cosmic battle between rival deities (e.g., the Lord vs. Baal) and victory was indicative of a triumph of one deity over another
  • Herem (or, “The ban”), wherein total destruction of life was exacted upon an enemy, was thus perceived as an absolute victory of one people’s deity over another’s
  • The true author of 1 Samuel 15 was a man of his time with “limited capacities and resources,” i.e., with an incomplete theological and political worldview
  • That author wrote from his limited worldview, which God honored and used for God’s good purpose in that time period
  • One of the central themes of 1 Samuel 15 was the tension between temporal kingship and Divine kingship… (though Saul was Israel’s first temporal king, it was important for the author – guided by the Holy Spirit – to communicate that Saul remained subordinate to The Lord)
  • Saul, consistent with the practice of his time, most likely carried out a herem – or, a nearly complete herem – against the Amalekites; but, since his destruction of Israel’s enemy was not absolute, he was judged, likely by the prophet Samuel, as unworthy of kingship
  • The text of 1 Samuel 15 then would represent the (limited) theological interpretation of the true author, which was honored and used by God to teach about Israel’s need to recognize The Lord as the true King of Israel
  • Taken in its entirety then, the author of 1 Samuel 15 was actually reflecting on two important themes – The Lord’s sovereignty over the god of the Amalekites and The Lord’s sovereignty over King Saul and the people of Israel
  • By reporting on Saul’s use of herem as a tactic of battle, the author had no intention of commenting on the character of God… (remember, herem was a vicious but theologically justifiable practice at the time)
  • A contemporary reader in the author’s time period would have understood the text within his/her own worldview, which had much in common with the worldview of the author
  • A 21st century reader, however, comes to the text with a much deeper understanding because we now have Christ to show us God’s true, merciful character; so, Christ Himself becomes our hermeneutic (i.e., interpretive tool) for understanding the troublesome text
  • We now know that God is love (1 John 4:8b) and that 1 Samuel 15, along with other problematic Biblical texts, represent the evolving faith/understanding of God’s people over time rather than the true character of God

For me, this interpretation is far more intellectually and spiritually satisfying than a strictly literal reading could ever be; but, more importantly, I believe it is also far more respectful of the Biblical text and of the incarnational process of Biblical inspiration.

To be clear, I believe that God was “breathing” through the human author of 1 Samuel 15 and was speaking to the people according to their understanding at the time. I make no claim that 1 Samuel 15 was not inspired by God; rather, I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the contemporary reader to engage the text on its own terms – e.g., through historical critical study – and to discover the true meaning in light of the fullness of revelation now available in Christ.  Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s being (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is our perfect hermeneutic!

In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Paul identified death as “the last enemy to be destroyed.”  I do not believe that God is complicit with this enemy in any way.

Jesus wept because of human suffering and due to the horrible choices that fallen humanity has made and continues to make.

As a Christian, I believe that our only sure hope is God’s grace. Further, I trust that one can turn the doorknob of the heart without fear precisely because Jesus, Who wept with compassion for each one of us, is waiting on the other side.

Amen

Bus Fumes… and Leaven

One bright morning in the fall 1996, a brief verbal exchange happened between my two sons that, when considered in light of something else that would happen a few short weeks later, I’m quite certain I’ll never forget.

I was driving my children – the two boys and their sister, Rachel – to school along a two-lane stretch of highway. We were in the right lane directly behind a large bus. Eventually, I grew impatient with the slow pace and seized an opportunity to pass. This prompted my older boy, Stephen, aged ten at the time, to say: “Nice move, Dad. Those bus fumes were getting to me.”

Matthew, four years his junior, then rather innocently replied: “I like bus fumes.”

To which Stephen, a precocious boy, answered: “Perhaps you’d change your mind if I told you that bus fumes contain deadly carbon monoxide gas.”

Matt paused, no doubt bewildered by both his brother’s words and tone, and simply replied: “Oh.”

I stifled a laugh. The difference in their perspectives was remarkable… and would soon console me during an unexpected hardship.

The next month, I made my first (of four) trips to Cuba. My visit was part of an allowable cultural exchange, and I travelled with an appropriate license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Due to legal restrictions, travel between the U.S. and Cuba must involve an intermediate stop in a neutral country. I booked an itinerary through the Bahamas that necessitated an 8-hour layover in Nassau.

Admittedly, spending eight hours in a tropical paradise doesn’t sound like the worst of fates; however, there were no lockers at the airport in which I could store my luggage, so I spent the entire layover sitting in a nearly empty departure lounge lacking even a television monitor to keep me company. By the time the flight to Cuba boarded, I was exhausted and gnawingly hungry.

Onboard the plane, I immediately experienced disquiet. My fellow passengers were a rowdy group; and, I got the sense that many of them were traveling to Cuba for a “good time.” I wanted to disappear.

When the plane finally landed in Havana, many seemingly inebriated passengers gave a mock cheer, as if surprised by the flight’s successful arrival.

Relieved to be off the plane, I gathered my luggage at baggage claim and stood in the long line at immigration and customs. Just in front of me, I noticed another man traveling alone, who looked a bit haggard. I introduced myself and discovered that he too was from the United States. Further, I learned that he would also be staying at my hotel, the Habana Libre, in the newer section of Havana. I was grateful to have a companion for this last portion of the journey.

When we arrived at the hotel, it was nearly 2:00 a.m. We asked about food options at the front desk and were directed to an all-night cafe across the lobby. My new acquaintance and I agreed to drop our bags in our respective rooms and then meet back in the lobby to get a bite to eat. At this point, I was only moments from one of the darkest experiences of my life.

I turned on the light in my room and, as I dropped my bags on the bed, noticed a cockroach running along the top of the headboard. Things were not going well.

Back in the lobby, I joined up with my companion and headed for the cafe. We were not yet through the door when we were met by a very aggressive young man, who kept asking us in broken English if we wanted to go to the disco? I told him that we weren’t interested and kept walking toward the stools in front of the counter. He walked right along with us and sat on the stool next to mine. Again, he asked about the disco and then motioned to someone with his hand. Suddenly, two young women, dressed quite provocatively, came over to join us.

I was exasperated. “No!” I said, shaking my head emphatically. The young man looked at me with a truly puzzled expression and walked away with the two young women. A moment later, two young men – undoubtedly sent by the same pimp – came to take the places of the young women. Again, I looked at them and said, “No!” Ever persistent, two other young women then came by, only to receive the same response.

After that final dismissal, the pimp finally yielded. I hurriedly ate my hamburger, bid goodnight to my quasi-friend, and went back to my room and my multi-legged roommates.

When I entered, I did not turn on the light. Instead, I walked to the window and pulled aside the curtains, revealing the downtown area of the city. On the street below, I saw many young people, each of them a child of God, prostituting themselves.

I felt sick!

Describing what happened next is an impossible undertaking since spiritual matters, by their very nature, defy explanation. It must suffice for me to say that an oppressive and “living” sense of darkness overwhelmed me.

I wanted desperately to rescue those beautiful young people… to help them understand their awesome dignity; but, instead, I felt paralyzed and completely impotent. I could not change their world. All I could do – and this with great difficulty – was pray.

In God’s time, the then-recent conversation between my two boys came vividly to mind, and I suddenly had greater clarity about its implications. And, with that clarity, came peace.

Very few are called to change the world in an obvious and heroic way, least of all me. There is nothing I could have done directly to change the circumstances in Havana at (roughly) 2:45 a.m. that day. Still, I firmly believe that we are all genuine agents of change and that there is a portion of the world in which we can make an enormous difference – namely, in what sociologists call our personal “oikos,” i.e., our regular social circle comprised of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

The recollection of the conversation between my two sons broke through the darkness to remind me of my “oikos,” my very own sphere of influence.

Stephen had matured to the point where he understood some of the world’s risks, but there was still so very much to learn. Matthew was in an even freer – and, consequently, more vulnerable – place, where bus fumes were still a good thing.

And me?

I was (and still am) privileged to hold an enormously important place in both of their lives. If I could(/can) help them – and other members of my “oikos” – to understand better their remarkable dignity and worth, I will have made an enormous difference.

In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven, which has a transformative effect on an entire loaf of bread.

It can defeat us to imagine trying to help an entire world “rise” to wholeness and holiness. But, if we can leaven just our personal “oikos,” the loaf entrusted to our care, we will have done a great deal, i.e., we will have changed the world.

Love dispels even the deepest darkness.

—–

NOTE: This essay is definitely not intended in any way as an indictment of the Cuban people, who were among the warmest, kindest, and most hospitable people I have ever encountered while traveling internationally.