Wednesday, September 30, 2015

All or Nothing

" Jesus said to His Disciples, ' Whoever causes one of these little ones [my beloved followers] who believe in me, to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for your to enter into life maimed, than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled, than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die and the fire is to quenched.' " --[Mark 9: 42-48].

It is hard to read this Scripture, and not despair that Christianity is harsh and violent. What kind of God would want us to drown ourselves in the sea with a millstone around our neck? Cut our hands off to avoid sin? Cripple ourselves by cutting off both of our feet? Pluck our eyes out?

This kind of passage is why it is so dangerous to read Scripture for its absolute sense. We would end up with a God who possesses a criminal level of cruelty. And yet, God IS Love. . . .

To read this passage correctly, we have to comprehend the metaphorical level of the verses.

I used to work in an office in a downtown skyscraper. If the Boss asked one of us assistants to do any unpalatable job, such as to clean out the refrigerator in the kitchen, we all groaned. We dreaded the moldy leftovers, the half-eaten Chinese food, the wilted salad greens.

A co-worker of mine would say to the Boss, "Clean out the fridge? I would rather pluck out my eyes with a melon-baller! " THAT'S how much she dreaded the task-- (but, you understand, that she was not actually going to pluck her eyes out. . .)

What Mark is pointing out here, is the cost of being a Christian.

As Christians, we cannot remain neutral. There really is no such thing as "Neutral". In  "Revelation and the End of All Things", Craig Koester lays out the encircling visions of John's book of Revelation: of the reign of the Beast (representing extravagantly sinful Rome) vs. the Reign of Christ.

Koester says, "Some of John's readers found the proponents of false religious claims to be [merely] intriguing or innocuous, while others found them to be intimidating. The vision [of Revelation] does not allow readers the luxury of remaining neutral. Every person belongs to someone. The only question is whether one bears the name of the true God or the name of a counterfeit god."

I experienced this growing up in a family of non-believers. I had stark choices, but I did my best to always reach for the good, while walking away from what was evil. I did not emerge unscathed, however.

When my mother fed me barely edible leftovers, I would refuse to eat. My father would say, "Do not feed her anything else." I did not, in reaction, become gluttonous or viscerally angry. BUT, even today, in my own household of plenty, I still get anxious over where my next meal will come from.

My parents called me a failure. They never hugged me or said, "I love you." They watched a family member hit me and said, "Stop crying. You are not hurt." TODAY, I bear an essential sadness, and I fight a nagging feeling that I am a lone atom in a senseless world. I get nightmares about being attacked, or about being lost and abandoned. But, I live-- to my core -- the belief that the cure for feeling unloved is to love others fiercely.

My parents never made sure that my chronic lung disease was consistently or properly treated. As an adult now, I get bronchitis yearly; I have even had pneumonia a few times. I am out of breath every day, because of the scarring on my lungs. But, I never did hate my family for that. I pace myself, and try to help others daily. Sometimes the littlest gestures mean a lot.

I suppose many would ask me, HOW did I resist their cruelty, their intolerance, their hate, for so long? HOW did I not become them?

But that is just it, what choices did I have? I could have chosen to become just like them. But, a child does not want Hate, a child wants Love. It never made any sense to me to "cure" Hate, by spewing even more Hate.

I could have run away from home. But, a child alone on the streets with no food, shelter, or protection, faces just as cruel a world as the one which she has fled.

I sometimes get caught in a trap of regret. What if Child Protective Services had rescued me? But then, I would have ended up in a foster home. Would that have been any improvement? Or, would things have been so much worse for me ?

What if I HAD been able to tell a teacher or a neighbor? Would there have been an even worse backlash against me at home, if these adults did not believe me?

Acquaintances have said to me, "Some people [meaning, my own parents] should not have children."
Then, my other option is to be - - - Dead?

When it comes to regrets, I have to ask myself-- IF I could do everything all over again, would I have changed anything?

Given my choices?  No, I would not have changed anything. As Mark 9 says, I would rather cut myself into pieces, than to slip into Sin. Better to become broken and cling to God, than to "repay evil with evil".  Better to "overcome evil with good". -[Romans 12:17-21)

St. Paul says, in 2 Corinthians 12: 10, "Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ."

 I had the choice between the Beast and God. --- I chose God.

[Related Posting: "The Cost of Christianity", Sept. 9, 2013].

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Servant Life

"Jesus and the disciples came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, Jesus began to ask them, 'What were you arguing about on the way?'  But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then, Jesus sat down called the Twelve, and said to them, 'If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last and the servant of all.' " -[Mark 9: 30-37].

As a child, I had an upside down life. When my older brother and my parents would argue over how my brother did not want to do his nightly reading for school, I would tell them all to stop arguing, that I WOULD do my brother's reading FOR him. The only trouble was, I was only in kindergarten, and could not read yet.

When my mother gave me something inedible for dinner, and my father told her not to make anything  else for me, I ate no dinner. Very soon, even at age five, I figured that I had better find food on my own during the day, or I would not eat.

And so, as so often happens in dysfunctional families, the child became the adult.

My family was perfectly well-off and well-known in the community.  Sometimes, I think, 'Why did I not tell anyone what was going on in my house?'  But, I came from such a well-educated, proper, well-dressed, "upstanding" family. Who would believe me?

I do not know how or when or why I decided to become the Peacekeeper in that house, but someone obviously had to keep the peace. No one else was doing it, so I took that on.

I knitted my brother a sweater-- the same brother who used to hit me and called me ugly every day. I weeded my mother's garden -- the same mother who would not feed me, and who called me a failure despite my straight A's.  I sewed my father a tie, and I hemmed his pants -- the same father who took his anger out on me.

Now, I ask you, in this kind of life, WHO is the greatest? Whom do you admire the most?

The little girl who went to school with black eyes and was told, "Stop getting black eyes, you are embarrassing us"? The little girl who kept loving and serving and hoping that maybe tomorrow, things would get better? (But all she got from the school librarian was, "You ought to smile more.")

OR, the family admired by the community, who kept the lawn and gardens immaculate, who kept their car waxed and shiny, who dressed their kids in cute matching outfits and who took their kids to piano lessons, Cub Scout meetings, tennis lessons, and Little League?

I think you know the answer. . .

People wonder if Pope Francis' humility is real? Or, is it just good public relations?

I have read about Pope Francis' early life as a cleric in Argentina. He was exiled from his Jesuit order for years, at one point, because of bitter factions in his order. Jesuits believe that if you are not negotiating a solution, then YOU are the problem. [Source:, "The Pope's Dark Night of the Soul", by Daniel Burke].

Francis lived, as Jorge Bergoglio, in a one room cell in Cordoba, at the Jesuit Residence. For years.

Another priest from Cordoba, Rev. Angel Rossi, knew Bergoglio. Rev. Rossi says, "It was like a seed planted in the hard soil of winter."

It was out of that dark exile that Jorge Bergoglio emerged, to become Pope Francis, and to teach us all about humility and mercy and Love.

Secular people don't always "get" Pope Francis. OR, Jesus' definition of success. The notion of the greatest being the most abject, humblest, poorest among us, seems counter to all human reason.

Yet, Jesus' mother, Mary, was an illiterate peasant girl. Jesus' father was a carpenter. Jesus walked from village to village, wearing sandals and breaking bread with tax collectors and sinners. He died a bloody, violent, ignominious death, betrayed by one of His own disciples. No one in this earthly world would call that a "successful life."

As Timothy Kesicki, President of the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C. has said, "Is the Crucifixion a promotion?"

And so, call me a failure that I did not believe my family, when they said there is no God. Call me a failure when I disobeyed their selfish creed to keep everything for themselves, and I donated to charity. Call me a failure when I knitted for the homeless shelter, and was told, "You need to take care of yourself first." Call me a failure when I tried to make peace, in a family bent on family warfare, by loving and serving them.

For, the meek shall inherit the earth.

[Related Postings: "And the Lowly Shall Be Exalted", Sept. 1, 2013; "The Last Shall Be First", Sept. 17, 2100; "The Humble Shall Be Exalted", November 4, 2011].

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Losing Our Religion

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has Faith but does not have works? Can that Faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also Faith itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed, someone might say, "You have Faith and I have works." Demonstrate your Faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my Faith to you FROM my works." -[ James 2: 14-18].

America is losing its religion. Marriage is down 36% since 1960. Secularism [people claiming no religious denomination and attending worship as little as once per year] is now 59%, up from 38% in 1972-1976. [Source: Charles Murray, author of "Coming Apart."]

Frankly, America-- in dropping its religion-- is flaunting a nakedness that is all too obvious.

I cringe when people tell me that the Bible is obsolete . . . .This Scripture in James points to a heated argument that is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. I have have known more than a few friends and co-workers who say, 'You can be a good person and be an atheist.' This is exactly like the person in this Scripture who says, "You have Faith and I have works."

I grew up in a household of no Faith and no charity. My family members would say, "Let those poor people get jobs. They don't WANT to work!" When I would suggest that we had enough money to give to charity, all members of my family would shout me down in unison, " WE don't GIVE the money away!!"

But, it is not all as simple as telling a guy to get a job.  Father Gregory Boyle, a priest who works in one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles, wrote a book called, "Tattoos on the Heart". He writes, "Part of the spirit dies a little, each time it's asked to carry more than its weight in terror, violence, and betrayal. . . It is a toxic shame, a global failure of the whole self."  And yet, we dare to demand that these wounded souls, who cannot even take care of themselves, go out and get and keep a job? HOW is this even possible?

My family, without Faith, had no compassion. I believe that you CAN have some compassion as a non-believer. But that faithless compassion is not deeply grounded in the poignant expressions of Jesus.

It is Jesus who says, "Love your neighbor as yourself."- [Mark 12:31].  What this means, quite simply, is that we are responsible  for each other!

It is Jesus who says, "A new command I give you:  Love one another, as I have loved you." How big is this Love? -- even to the point of a harrowing death FOR us humans, who are by very definition faulty and broken.

Not long after I began delving into Scripture in a serious way, I came across Matthew 25:31-46: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are family members, you did it to me. Depart from me, into the eternal fire, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me."

And so, every time my family did not comfort my tears, but blamed me for them; every time my family did not feed me when I was hungry; every time I was thirsty for their love, but they denied me; every time I was cold and they denied me a sweater and told me that I was not cold; every time my pained, lost eyes gazed out at them from my prison of fear, but they did not comfort me --- THESE they did TO Jesus.

My aunt --and godmother-- used to say to me, " But, you are their daughter!"--This all makes me think of Mother Teresa saying, 'Don't we know that we all belong to each other?'

And so, I watch a candidate for President declaring that he will build walls to keep "those people" out. I watch a candidate saying that "those people" are all rapists and murderers and drug dealers. All the while, I hear the cries of the refugees calling, "WHY are we being treated this way?" And, I think -- How has our world become so very cruel? Beyond our saying, "Let them get jobs", are we now saying, "Let them perish"? Far from being an esoteric, archaic theological argument, this is about as real as it gets. .  .

Without our Faith and our knowledge of Scripture, we cannot possibly know how very personal this all is. Abandoning the poor, the refugee, the victims of gang culture, the sick and hungry, means abandoning Jesus -- and all of humanity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the 1960's: "Injustice is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." And-- "The poor in our countries have been shut out of our kids and driven fro the mainstream of our societies because we have allowed them to become invisible."

I was once Invisible. I would not dare to do that to another human being. Being invisible is a slow kind of agonizing death.

How shallow is our Faith? How deep is our callousness?

[Related Posting: "Show Me Your Faith", Sept. 16, 2012; "The Least Among Us', November 18, 2011.]

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Blossoming Desert

"Thus says the Lord: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; with divine recompense He comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water." --[Isaiah 35: 4- 7A].

I grew up in a staunchly anti-religion, anti-Catholic household. My parents were horrified when I married a Catholic man; just as disgusted as if I had declared that I wanted to marry a drug dealer or a man who beat me.

My life changed suddenly, the day my father passed away without warning, without even any prior illness. So much for doctors and diagnoses, treatments and second opinions. Was life really that abrupt? As soon as my father died, I had to move my frail, ill mother near to me. My mother, the Catholic-hater was IN my house.

My life had gone upside down. White was black, day was night, everything I had thought was true was a Lie.

I went to my pastor to seek help. We talked about my converting, since there was only one thing I knew for certain -- I HAD to draw closer to God.

And yet, the very idea of converting, right under the nose of my sacrilegious mother, totally terrified me!

I remember all this, because Isaiah 35: 4 was the exact Scripture that my pastor gave me to reflect upon: "Be strong, fear not! Here is your God."

I have to smile, looking back at all this; because, I had lived this Scripture. I guess I had always been too busy trying to raise myself up and avoid trauma; that, I had never had the luxury to reflect upon how God had saved me.

I spent a lot of time in the parish chapel during conversion, looking back upon my life, and pondering those times when God had quietly entered in and lifted me up.

I realized that my family was like the Pharisees in the story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind. My family judged others, denied the very existence of God, called believers as much as superstitious fools, and scoffed at the weak.

Jesus concludes in John 9: 39: "For judgment, I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind."

My family was spiritually blind, but I saw. I SAW, as plain as day, that blacks were not throw-aways, but folks with dignity and soul. I SAW that the poor were not stupid or hapless, but just struggling with some awful twists of bad fortune. I saw these as plain as day. Was this God's Grace, that helped me to see ?

Whatever I said, mostly my family ignored it or laughed it off. I suggested that we give to charity and was mocked: " We don't GIVE our money away!"

My family and I developed a "mutual deafness". They did not listen to me; and I could no longer "hear" or take in their insults-- the daily verbal assaults from a sibling about how ugly I was; my sibling hitting me and my mother telling me that I needed to stop getting black-eyes, because I was embarrassing her. I lived either at school or holed up in my room. I lived in the Silence.

All, all were hemming me in. I was shutting down. I blocked out the world. I stopped speaking. I was mute.

One day, though, I was invited to sing in the church choir. I thought this was a coincidence. I thought it was because the minister was only desperate to fill slots in the choir stall.

I may have largely stopped speaking, and stopped "hearing" the ugliness around me. But, I began to sing in rehearsal. I sang in my room. I sang in the shower. I sang walking or biking to school. I could not stop hearing this music.

I sang "The First Noel". I sang "The Doxology". I sang "Faith of Our Fathers." I proudly sang in church.

All that singing made me feel like dancing. I took ballet classes. I danced all the way down the front hall of my grandparents' house. I performed water ballet at the lake. I leapt and twirled around my neighbors' expansive front lawn. In my imagination, I was a leaping unicorn, a glimmering white horse. I skipped to school.

Where my heart had been dry as a desert, God was sparking a tiny rivulet inside me. I was blossoming, despite my harsh environment.

My God had placed a glowing ember of courage in my heart. I WOULD praise him, in my singing, in my dance. I would see the Truth of who the weak and the lame and the blind really were.

And in truly seeing the weak and the lame and the blind, I would myself be healed. I would be strong.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2015. All Rights Reserved.