Journal Archive 2011 CYCLE A

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Faith’s Dare Advent
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5

Between the visions of a prophet and the assumptions of a politician exists a chasm few manage to bridge. “What can people do,” the prophet asks? “What will people do,” asks the politician?

“God works in people,” says the prophet, “He frees us from our fears. We can meet our potential. We can become the people God intends.”

“People are people,” responds the politician; “we look for security and prosperity.
Life is short and dicey; we do what we think will succeed. Beliefs and promises about God are fine but life has to work – we have to live.”

The prophet and the politician: they struggled within our faith before it was Christian. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of the tension (Isaiah 7:1-18). Jesus’ and Peter’s relationship revealed the stress (Mk 8:33) that beset the first generations of the Church.

Scholars refer to the strain in the gospels between the already and the not yet in their treatments of the Kingdom of God. On the one hand Jesus proclaimed the reality of God’s promised new world was present in his own life (Lk 4:18-21). On the other hand, the gospels foretold persecution (Mk 13:11) and encouraged virtues necessary to endure the inevitable privations of living a life of loving-justice in a world not yet embracing God’s vision (Mt 5, 6 & 7).

This same tension has always plagued the Church and will continue to dog it until God’s peace fills our hearts and lands. Praying beside us are people who, by personality and experience are politicians as well as people who are prophets. And each of us has our own political and prophetic side. If we look closely and honestly at ourselves we can observe them hammering out awkward truces time and time again. It’s a situation we can neither accept nor escape.

What we can do is acknowledge it honestly and humbly, not shirk the pain that it engenders in us and never, never cease asking ourselves if we’re being as true to the vision of Jesus as we possibly can.

Faith: The Power To Risk
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10

During the riots following Martin Luther King’s murder an angry, looting throng came upon a lone white man in their ghetto. The crowd beat him severely. Finally a voice said loudly, “that’s enough; we’re not going to kill him. Someone call an ambulance.”

“No ambulance’s coming in here tonight,” someone yelled back.

“Then get out of the way,” said a man moving through the crowd toward the bloody figure. He dragged the victim to his car. “Get in and hold him up while I drive,” he yelled to a young woman.

After several blocks the two deposited the injured man at a nearby hospital with neither introduction nor explanation. The man lived but never discovered who had saved his life. Somebody had braved a mob of his peers to save a stranger he doubtlessly on some level hated and whose death would have seemed puny revenge for the misery and injustice he and his people endured.

Some folks understand faith to be primarily about what God will do for them. They find their virtue in declaring His power up to any challenge. They pray fervently then wait for God to take care of business.

Other folks understand faith to be about what God can accomplish through them. Such people approach problems that seem prudent to address with confidence that God will aid their endeavors. So far, so good – but only so far.

Faith offers more than a determination to meet life’s reasonable goals: the prudently winnable battles. The point of faith is to equip us for necessary tasks no matter how impractical. Giving love that will never be returned, striving for justice that holds no promise, pursuing the common project that will never win public funding – that’s the stuff of faith. After all, did you ever see a wolf and lamb napping together? How about a lion contentedly gnawing a bale of hay?

Faith’s purpose isn’t to make us exemplary citizens, honorees of the chamber of commerce or president of the parish council. God places an astounding dream in our hearts. Faith opens our ears to its beckoning and strengthens our hearts to settle for nothing less.

The Never-Ending Christmas
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35:1-6, 10

Many have noted that every time a baby’s born God proves that he hasn’t given up on the world. Christmas celebrates the revelation. Every year we pause laying aside our troubles and absurdities to renew our astonishment that God still works with us.

Without in any way diminishing the birth of Jesus, God-with-us, it’s useful to think of that event not so much as the crisis in God’s relationship with the world but as the synopsis of God’s constant involvement with us. Billions of babies have been born into our world. Each birth has been God’s miraculous act; its source, God’s unconquerable creativity. Each birth has brought a new brain, new hands, new dreams: a new person for our future. Each life has searched out and pursued the fulfillment of life as best it could. Each one died unfulfilled yet having contributed. Each one will be present to and part of creation’s completion. This is Jesus’ story; it’s God’s story; it’s our story. That’s why when we understand Jesus, we understand ourselves.

Does contemplating our future or God’s actions in it make any difference? Does the story of Christmas and the Christmas of every birth do more than generate warm feelings of importance for lives inundated by the concerns of surviving and getting ahead? Are we searching for more than a way to give life lasting significance in the face of death’s permanence? These are unavoidable questions. Their answers remain an act of faith. Still we have to ask them.

We can’t prove the claims of our faith but they remain the bedrock of life for us and for millions. We refuse to accept that we live for nothing larger than ourselves. We are convinced that the good we do, small as it often seems, matters – forever. That’s the point of Christmas. That’s the meaning of every Christmas since the beginning of human history.

The Christmas Promise
Thoughts on the First Readings – by Joe Frankenfield
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14

What do we want from God?

What do we expect from God?

If God were gone tomorrow (say, we find a signed note from Him saying that He’s permanently relocating to another universe and wishes us a “nice life”) what actual difference would it mean for us?

These may sound like questions hurled back and forth in a heated relationship argument but they’re not hidden accusations, they’re a faith life self-exam.
Religious images and language are so prevalent in our society, the assertion that we’re a “Christian nation” so widespread, that we can blithely acquiesce to Christianity without consequences. Claiming faith is often easier than denying it. Since the mere discussion of religion or politics is viewed with distaste in many circles, particularly if it progresses beyond the most superficial level, no one will challenge the depth or results of our beliefs. Except for the ritual of a sermon or the safety of a religion class this is often true even within our parishes. Presenting ourselves with a blunt faith interrogation is important: no one else is likely to.

The Christmas story is presented so romantically that we can overlook that it’s a story for adults. The love that God reveals in the birth of Jesus is not a generic warm feeling for humanity; it’s a specific promise to rescue the weak from the exploitation and misery that they suffer at the hands of the strong. From its setting in Bethlehem to its references to King David, from the appearance of shepherds to the words of the angel chorus, the message is that the world is in for radical change: a change that many will resist but a change that God will accomplish through his faithful ones. God’s gifts are ultimately for all but getting to that ultimate place will be neither easy nor painless. Still, God promises success.

Believe God’s Unbelievable Love
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
The Feast of the Holy Family
Sirach 3:2-6,12-14

I did what you wanted; now you do what I want, okay?

Though few of us place our relationship with God on such a crass footing, there’s an element of this thinking in most of us. From religion’s earliest days to the present people have searched for effective ways to persuade God to meet our needs.

Hebrew Scripture is full of discussions about convincing God that the Jews deserved God’s favorable attention. Jesus himself frequently used this biblical language in his teaching though his belief in a totally reliable God, always faithful, loving and forgiving, is clear. Christianity has spent immense energy and not a little blood fighting over the nature of God’s care for us. Generally those who want to protect the idea of God’s absolute justice struggle with those who want to protect the idea of his gracious love.

Since the beginning, by fits and starts, the realization that love most accurately describes God has slowly permeated our faith. The awareness struggles because God’s love differs profoundly from our love with its strings, conditions and needs. God’s love is more like love the way that we long to practice it: always unconditional, always forgiving, always attentive, always giving, never counting the cost, never exhausted.

God’s love is so distinct from what we generate in our daily lives that even believing it possible is a stretch for us. Our tendency is to hear the absoluteness of God’s love and respond, Sure, but even God will dump us if we ignore him enough. He’s no patsy.

Doesn’t it make a difference to God whether we lie, cheat or steal? Sure it does; just as it makes a difference whether we hit ourselves in the head with a rock. Doing bad things is bad because we’re hurting ourselves and to one another: the consequences are real and lasting. But those consequences never include God’s withdrawing or diluting his care for us. God simply doesn’t do that. His love is not negotiated; it’s a gift.

Leaving The Game of Favorites
Thoughts on the First Readings -by Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6

“Am I still your best little boy,” I once asked my mother? Everyone has embarrassing childhood memories: this incident, though not the only or worst, is one of mine. My parents had recently brought my second brother home from the hospital and my relatives were making the usual fuss. Alone in the kitchen with my mother I blurted out my sad question. Her exact answer escapes me, probably the standard you boys are all my favorites but I knew I was never getting back my three-year role of best boy. One brother could have been a fluke but two made a pattern. I was definitely demoted.

Reading Hebrew Bible stories, listening to the carefully pruned narrative of Catholic history, the claims of unique gospel faithfulness from various protestant churches and even Islam’s assertion that it alone carries out true worship of the One God; I can’t help wonder if it’s endemic to religion that each spends immense energy clinging to its most-favored-son status.

When a counselor is trying to understand a seemingly ineffective behavior, she looks for the unexpected benefit it brings to her client. One result of a religion’s preoccupation with being larger, more powerful, more honored than others is that it diverts attention and energy from supporting its adherents in being more just and loving. The hard crux of faith is that in our world, as Jesus observed, God’s vision of life can’t come to pass unless we who believe in that vision are willing to accept sacrifice and suffering to further it.

Maybe that’s precisely the reason for all the discussion about the most respected, the fastest growing, the most influential, the most successful event-organizing religion – it deafens us to the real question: does our religion support us in being the most God-like, the most loving we can be?

It’s time we asked adult questions of our religion.

Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

A servant of God has a big heart. That sounds trite and fluffy; it’s neither.

A local radio personality characterizes folks who appreciate many different kinds of music as people with big ears. That’s the sense in which big hearts characterize people who work with God.

We all have hearts for those close to us, for the people we need. Crime films have a stock character of the brutal hit man who dotes on his wife and kids. The role plays on our awareness that we can limit our world of concern to a realm that is astoundingly self-centered. It’s a struggle to widen our love to the point where we value others for themselves, not for what they do for us. Most of us realize only moderate success.

Still, we’re capable of expanding our hearts to encompass many more people than we assume. The issue isn’t how far our hearts can expand; it’s whether we have the courage of faith to acknowledge the depths of others’ needs.

Enlarging our hearts presents with real dangers: we’ll experience the pain of all whose lives we pay attention to, we’ll experience the finite resources we possess to meet the needs that underlie their pain; finally, we’ll face the decision whether to do all we can to meet those needs or to turn our backs on those we’ve come to value. Who knows where such a decision will lead!

Every time we pick up a newspaper, every time we watch the evening news, every time we wander around our town or any other with our eyes open, life – the God of life – invites us to grow a big heart. We’ve been given the spiritual DNA. It’s not a question of human nature; it’s a question of human nurture. A healthy church nurtures big hearts.

Friends, Not Servants
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3,5-6

People tell us from the altar and in religious books that good Christians serve God. They issue calls to pray and take part in various ritual activities; less often they urge us to obey divine prohibitions and carry out task of love and justice. The message is idiomatic Christian teaching generating little disquiet. Christianity’s servant language presents difficulties, however.

Servants provide their masters needed benefit. The two form a mutually dependent relationship. God neither needs nor wants anything from us for himself. We aren’t God’s servants. Understanding this reveals the gratuity of our Creator’s love.
Furthermore, folks dedicate themselves most wholeheartedly to projects they freely choose. We’ve an innate desire to be free, to choose our destiny and path.

Regardless of how nicely someone packages them, we will never follow external laws with the same enthusiasm with which we pursue internal desires. In that case, servant language used in our relationship with God makes life in God’s Spirit more difficult.

Another problem with presenting Christian behavior as a command given to underlings either directly by God or mediated through human spokesmen is that, sooner or later the because-I-said-so approach engenders resentment in those being told what to do. It engenders a search for ways around God’s will or for the least bothersome interpretation of his will rather than the realization that the divine will is inseparable from God’s loving act of creation.

Servant language hides the practical reasons behind rules, prohibitions and directives that we ascribe to God. Love your neighbor seeks to strengthen the community we need to survive and thrive. Don’t lie protects the reliability of speech: a basic building block of community. Love your enemy makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible. It keeps us connected to those we harm as well as those who harm us. Again, it protects community: the womb of our shared future.

Servant language seeks to promotes realism. Life makes either-or demands. A careless person falling off a thousand foot cliff dies. A person hoarding wealth when others are in need, causes real people real harm; he increases our world’s chaos. A master’s command to his servant is non-negotiable. Only by knowing, respecting and cooperating with God can we realize our human promise. But servant language makes its point in a way that tends to keep us immature and resentful rather that adult and cooperative with the world and the world’s Creator.

Maybe this is why at the last supper John the Evangelist has Jesus telling his followers, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” It’s been over 2000 years now. It’s time.

The Problem’s Trust Not Stuff
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 8:23-9:3:1

When I was a youngster, I had an aunt who, whenever I got upset about something, reminded me, “Joe, nothing in this world makes much difference. What matters is eternity: heaven or hell. That’s what’s important. Don’t fret about other things.”

Though few today use my aunt’s exact words, her ideas still echo in the on-going criticism that we’re all, especially we Westerners, too materialistic. This critique, broad and unfocused and thus easy to make, is also, I believe, misdirected and troublesome.

It’s true that we’re often self-centered and selfish. We’re also leery of spending much time pondering the meaning of things, not because we don’t care but because those who proclaim themselves arbiters of meaning are so often rigid, closed and angrily defensive about their views. We dislike the battle.

Still, I’ve never met a person who maintains that material reality is all that matters. I know lots of folks, on the other hand, who think that we either deal well with the material stuff of life or get everything else wrong. Jesus’ description of those who are one with God shows the importance he placed on effective stewardship of life’s stuff. “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, thirsty and you gave me water, sick and you cared for me.” These are material needs and meeting them constituted Jesus’ criterion for inclusion in God’s Realm.

We may be greedy and insecure. We may limit the circle for which we care to a few folks with whom we identify. We may try to meet our need for love, community and purpose with stuff even though we know that stuff will never suffice. But we’re not materialists.

It’s time we lay that whipping boy aside. It’s more helpful and accurate to realize that we’re all burdened by a consuming anxiety for a love we do not trust. Our respect and passion for material reality is something we get right. It’s our fear of being unworthy of it that imperils us.

Morality: It’s About More Than The Law
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3,3:12-13

A professional pianist once commented to me that another pianist was technically superb but possessed little feel for the music he played and would never be great. When I asked what he meant, he played two CDs for me, one after the other. The first amazed me; the second touched me. I told my friend as much but also that I couldn’t put my finger on the difference. “The first got the notes right; the second got the piece right; he felt what the composer did and you responded to it,” he said.

Once I asked a theologian how he made moral decisions. He replied that he needed three things: first, a love for the people involved, second, knowledge of the situation finally, an awareness of what God was offering in the situation. He told me how much, as a medical ethicist, he had to learn about disease and medical practice. He spoke of the many operations he had observed and the frequent hospital rounds he still made with physicians to experience the reality of their work. He also spent long hours speaking with patients about what it meant for them to be sick and under medical care. Only by doing these things did he think that he could make good judgments and offer guidance to those searching for the most loving response in difficult medical situations.

The pianist and the moral theologian had much in common. Far more than simply playing the right note or teaching the right rule both had to have an intimate knowledge and love for their discipline and their audience, they also needed a feel and love for the possibilities of the music and the person before them.

Morality is never simply a matter of placing tab “A” in slot “B.” We all know that from observing how easily we render judgments about folks we barely know and how difficult it is to make those same judgments about folks with whom we’re intimately acquainted.

Prayer is observing closely, pondering seriously, loving deeply and acting hopefully. Prayer, not calculus, is the heart of a moral decision.

The Reign of God: Dream or Goal
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfiled
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 58:7-10

“Here’s my problem,” a friend said recently. “God’s supposedly working through people to make the world just and loving. But when I look at human history, I don’t see much good having come from groups pursuing grand designs for the world – including the Catholic Church. People with grand plans whether it’s the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformers, the French Revolutionaries, the Nazis, the Communists – they all begin with high ideals and beautiful fantasies and end up hurting lots of people and seriously muddling things up. Maybe the Kingdom of God is fine talk as long as no one gets specific about how it should look or the particular path we should take to get there. Of course, that means it’ll never be more than a sweet idea – but nobody gets hurt.”

My friend made a good point. The kingdom of God is a wonderful image, something we all long to see realized but not something we have the slightest clue how to accomplish. We’re part of a church that fights tooth and nail over who gets to touch the bread and wine that Jesus left us as his sustaining presence! We’ve cut our ranks in half over the correct date for Easter! We barely tolerate folks who want to use different words when they pray! And God is supposed to work through us to end world-wide hunger and war. Seems unlikely, doesn’t it.

It’s noble to dare good in the face of powerful evil. It’s lethally naïve to boast of extraordinary strength when possessed of intractable weakness. So what are we claiming when we pray the Our Father? How many poverty stricken people did we feed and clothe yesterday; how many new people were born? What’s that math telling us?

Whose plan are we following when we say we’re cooperating with God for a transformed world? Can we imagine anyone advancing a program that we’d all agree to follow?

Ancient Christian wisdom says that the Kingdom of God will never guide the world until the Kingdom of God guides our hearts. God’s Spirit simply can’t accomplish her work in us until we invite Her to guide our thoughts and desires. Are we ready for that – to want Her?

The Essential Hope
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 15:15-20

How can we stay hopeful for a world where life is so often cheap and violent? How do we continue to believe that God is working through us for the fulfillment of creation’s promise when we see our own and others’ failures thwart God’s gift of life?

Can frustrated hope be the reason that generations of Christians have exchanged God’s promise of a just and loving earth to a promise of a glorious existence in the afterlife? Has history proved humans too fearful and self-centered to consistently care for our neighbor as we do for ourselves? Even with Jesus’ example, is it naïve to hope that we’ll ever face the choice between love and death and chose love? Are we incapable of the courage to find ourselves in our enemy? Will we always say, “Sure I’m a Christian, but . . . ?”

The biggest challenge of faith isn’t to believe in God or the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus or his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Such beliefs cost us nothing; their presence or absence in our lives matter little to those around us. What matters is our willingness to anchor our behavior on the promise of Christ. After watching Christians fight over words and rituals for two millennia, it’s our ability to love others at a cost to ourselves that our world searches for. One-time grand gestures mean little. People seek a prolonged, consistent generosity of self from follows of Jesus.

Folks who’ve given up on faith haven’t cooled to some proposition or concept; they’ve despaired of ordinary people’s, especially Christians’, potential to rise above their private self-interest for a future larger than themselves. The self-immolator seeking a martyr’s glory is sad, not inspiring. The fighter willing to die for a cause as long as he can take ten bad guys with him is part of the problem, not the solution.

Many people can’t find the doctor, lawyer, politician, businessman, homemaker, teacher or entertainer whose life echoes and advances the promise of Jesus. Nor can they really believe that God is going to step in and, willy-nilly, save us from ourselves. It becomes difficult for them to hang on to their hope; sometimes almost impossible.

I’m offering a question, not a harangue. For what do we really hope? Why?

Focus On The Message
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18

Given Christianity’s belief that Jesus died for the world’s salvation, it’s ironic how often its message seems to be that the world is incapable of redemption. Many Catholics, growing up before the second half of the 20th century heard repeated admonitions against trading life’s blandishments for heaven’s sure joy. Most of what seemed good in this life, the story went, was either tainted by sin or would lead to sin if pursued too energetically. The only realistic hope of uniting oneself to the love and purpose of God was to leave the world, as far as practically possible, by becoming a priest or sister or, even better, a monk or nun living completely apart from the world.

When the growing tension between rejection and a positive appreciation of the world reached the breaking point, Catholics reacted by turning away from warnings against the world’s evils and embraced the possibilities of life. They searched for and found reflections of God’s love everywhere. Their faith in the Spirit of God’s power led them to view their daily work the arena of God’s ongoing Creation.

Now we face a reaction to the reaction. Those acutely aware of God’s will and the Tradition of his commands point to the refusal of many, especially the well-off, to cooperate. They criticize what they see as a naïve belief in the world’s goodness and a self-centered focus on comfortable happiness when chaos and suffering seem an insurmountable evil. They see in the end-of-the-millennium optimism not Christian hope but a quasi-atheistic assertion of human self-perfectibility.

Are we fated to endure the reaction to the reaction to the reaction? Jesus asked one thing of his community: to carry his promise to the world. We’re not Christians for ourselves. The world hasn’t the slightest interest in our internal theological arguments. It doesn’t care about the good feelings we may or may not get from Mass or our particular spiritual practices.

Do we still believe that we can inspire the world? Do we think ourselves capable of giving practical encouragement to those struggling toward human dignity? Can we be the reason people believe in God’s love for them.

There are things more critical to us as a church than whether we’re liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, hierarchical or democratic. Do we make God’s love believable to those around us? That matters.

Forgiveness For All – Ourselves Included
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 49:14-15

Not too long ago a friend made an interesting comment.

“I get fed up with politicians’ self-serving decisions packaged as noble efforts for the common good. Church leaders drive me nuts with worthless direction on problems for which they have no feel because they never have and never will face them. I have no respect for folks who complain about others’ selfishness but contribute nothing to the commonweal that law or their job doesn’t demand. But, when I’m all alone, when I’m really quiet, when I pray, what bothers me most isn’t someone else, it’s how little I live up to what I want to be. I know that my frustration with myself often comes out as frustration with others.”

Over the years, people have frequently made such comments to me. Though we don’t speak of it often, being disappointed with ourselves is common. I’m not referring to feelings of guilt. They’re different. Guilt has to do with fear of an outside disapproving force. My friend’s feelings arose from his own hopes for himself. The origin of his distress was deep within him where the promise of life dwells. The sadness of not realizing one’s own potential for goodness is profound.

Jesus constantly taught the importance and presence of God’s forgiveness. The point wasn’t to present God as a nice guy who didn’t sweat the small stuff. His message was that our Creator never gives up on us. He knows something about us that we forget: we have worth beyond counting. Rejecting us simply isn’t an option for God. It can’t be an option for us either.

Of all the acts that we perform in harmony with God, nothing is as crucial as forgiving: forgiving our friends, forgiving those who oppose and hurt us – our enemies, forgiving ourselves. Forgiveness makes love possible; it makes faith possible; it makes God’s will possible.

It was brilliant of Isaiah to personify God as a mother incapable of turning her back on her children. It’s an image with the power to sustain our hope in the face of any evil within or outside ourselves. Forgiveness deserves to be at the heart of our prayer. It’s the kernel of the gospel.

Pointed Questions
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
9th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32

I once had a discussion with a parishioner that concluded with his statement that he didn’t know why, or even if, he believed in God. Maybe he just kept on being religious because, like his parents, it was what he did. Coming to church was calming and restful as well as a chance to see friends that he didn’t see throughout the week. “Maybe I do believe in God but I believe in an expanding universe too and, to be honest, both have about the same influence on my everyday life. I don’t really know,” he said, in a confused voice as he left my office, “I suppose I ought to decide.

Until recent centuries people might argue over how to honor God or which God to honor but almost never did it occur to them to deny that there was a God to honor. Today many people, especially in the “western” nations, see no need to believe in any God and those who do believe often wonder whether it really makes any difference.

Long before Jesus, Jews realized that believing in and honoring God was no guarantee of success or security in life. In fact, they knew that it often brought inconvenience and pain.

The earliest Christians understood Jesus’ sufferings simply as the usual lot of a good and just man speaking God’s will [Luke 13:34]. So, even though some still try to convince us that honoring God insures prosperity, a little observational acumen ends that illusion. No, belief, love and union with God have to be rooted in something other than security and prosperity. But what?

Lent begins soon. It would be good to be able to join ourselves to Jesus and one another in the Easter Eucharist knowing clearly why we want to be there. We have seven weeks to ask ourselves good, blunt questions. Frank discussion and prayer about faith – and love – is liberating and rejuvenating.

Love Creates
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7

In John’s first letter he writes “God is love.” That deserves a lot of thought. Though we hear it in our hymns, prayers and religious conversations, it doesn’t always sink in. John goes on, lest we miss his point, that when we participate in loving, we participate in God. That too merits a pause.

John isn’t saying that God’s nice and loves us like a kind uncle or a good friend. He’s saying that God is love.

Every theologian and mystic in our Tradition has made the point that God isn’t just a being among beings. We can’t lump Aunt Tilley, Black holes and green Jell-O with God and say that they’re all beings that exist.

Thomas Aquinas, Catholicism’s touchstone philosopher, taught that God doesn’t exist like anything else exists. Karl Rahner, the greatest theologian of our own times, taught that God is the Ground of being: the source and foundation of all that is.

Before any of us decide it would be interesting to set aside a couple minutes to understand just how God does exist, I’ll note that both Thomas and Rahner, as well as every other Catholic thinker, has said that we’re simply incapable of imagining God’s being because we’ve never experienced anything like God. This would be a good point to practice our humility. Back to John’s letter.

Living with and watching Jesus led his followers to realize that at the heart of everything, at the core of our being and the core of every being is loving. Their Jewish faith was that God creates the sun, stars and people. As disciples of Jesus, they discovered that the life-giving heart of everything was love: not chance; not uncaring power; not a frivolous, self-centered super-being; not a divine ego fashioning subjects to bow and pander to him but love.

Jesus’ disciples learned something else. Love isn’t a warm feeling shared over a glass of wine. It’s a relationship where one values his bond to another so much that he gives himself for the other’s welfare. They discovered this not in Jesus’ words but in his decision to accept death on a cross rather than walk away from them. In that decision they sensed the loving at the heart of the universe; it changed their lives.

Praying over our understanding of God is time well spent.

Offer Or Command? What Do We Hear?
Thoughts on the First Readings
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12: 1-4a

Several weeks ago thousands of Egyptians revolted against a repressive government. They repeatedly told interviewers that they were standing up to their government because they weren’t afraid anymore. They left fear behind for a future of freedom.
As I write this, Egypt’s future is unclear. There’s more to establishing a free society than expelling a repressive regime. As we’re discovering, there’s even more to keeping a free society than establishing one.

There’s a longstanding popular understanding of Christian faith as a series of mandated beliefs, prayers, directions and prohibitions. Those accepting these prescriptions and proscriptions often do so because they expect a divine reward for their loyalty and obedience. The mystics of our religion, however, speak of faith as bringing profound freedom. Once a person accepts that Absolute Loving resides at the heart of the universe, she lays aside the idea of faith as a test of obedience and loyalty and never touches it again. In its place she discovers a security rooted in Love that renders her free to face any menace in the pursuit of humans’ fulfillment.

Knowing Absolute Love, the person of faith is free to love herself without fear, without qualification. Gone is the question, what must I do? It is replaced by the question, what am I able to do? Gone is the question, how should I act to please God? It is replaced by the question, how can I make God’s love more available to my world?

Faith makes us not so much obedient to God as an outside authority as free to follow his Spirit within us to whom we’ve totally opened ourselves.

We can understand in God’s words to Abram a divine command to abandon his territory and form a new nation that would honor God as he wished or we can understand God’s words as a new and wonderful opportunity for Abram to create with God a future for himself that he hardly dared dream before.

Did God give Abram a demand or a gift? How we hear God’s words reflects how we understand our relationship to our Creator.

God Against Suffering
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:3-7

Once, after a religion class, a third grader came up to me and said, in a serious voice, “God sure messes up a lot.” Putting a hand on his shoulder I replied, “It looks like that doesn’t it. But He loves us even when it looks bad.” “I know,” said the little fellow. “I think he tries His best.” At the time I thought it a cute answer. Over the years I’ve come to see it as profound: God tries.

Enough bad things happen to us individually and communally that even those with deepest faith have to wonder what kind of a God they’re worshipping. I’ve listened to people fresh from tragedy tell me in tears that they simply can’t bring themselves to pray to “our wonderful, loving God.” They’re more broken-hearted than angry. They trusted God and feel abandoned by him.

Many people never come to terms with the suffering and loss in a world whose Creator is, according to our scriptures, love. Faced with a choosing between actual experience of how life goes and religious doctrine that doesn’t square with what they see, folks often base their practical decisions on their experience relegating religious faith to a ceremonial role. That’s a costly reaction.

Some folks can accept punishment for sin, a test of faith, or part of God’s plan that will turn out for the best as acceptable explanations for human suffering. Others find such ideas no help at all. Jesus never explained human suffering he simply worked to end it. He also encouraged his followers to do everything possible to relieve it or keep it from occurring in the first place.

We see this response to suffering in his healing of the man born blind and in his own prayer to be spared execution if that were possible without abandoning his mission of revealing God’s love to the people.

Our Tradition teaches that creation is good; it’s a gift to us from an all-loving Creator. When things fall apart, it’s natural to search for an explanation. But there’s a caution: don’t settle for an answer that insults God or people – and don’t substitute an intellectual quest for loving. The call of faith is to cooperate with God in bringing his gift to completion – even when matters remain unexplained.

It’s About God’s Strength Not Human Weakness
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7, 10-13a

You don’t have to be big to accomplish big things is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. One can make the case that the entire saga of Israel makes that point: a small, out of the way, third-rate, bumbling power can play the staring role in the world’s drama. We can even view the story of Jesus, the unremarkable teacher in an unremarkable land, as making the same point. God chooses the youngest son who’s capable of nothing more than riding herd on the family’s sheep, to become the next king of Israel and the ancestor of the carpenter turned teacher who will reveal God’s loving presence to the world.
Bible stories are more about what will happen than what did happen.

Don’t settle for the world the way it is. Don’t settle for making the best of the situation. Don’t settle for getting yours and getting out. Don’t wait for superman to come along to make things right. Don’t wait for God to come along to make things right. Don’t tell yourself that the world is naturally a mess but everything will be fixed in heaven. Don’t tell yourself that you’re helpless before evil, injustice, prejudice and suffering.

No matter how small you think you are; no matter how intelligent, powerful, rich, clever, or well-connected injustice may be, if you open yourself to the Spirit of God you will be a movement of God’s transformation. Do not measure your success – that’s God’s responsibility. Measure your faithfulness – that is ours.

Folks generally give up on faith not because they find God failing but because they find themselves failing.

There’s a reason that the story tells how God chooses the least likely child to rescue the nation.

Trusting God: Daring To Love
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezra 37: 12-14

A man once who told me in all seriousness that he never went to doctors. He simply trusted in God he said. I told him, as nicely as I could, that his logic escaped me. “God never mentioned anything about relying on him instead of doctors,” said I. “Of course not,” he countered, “but he never said to wear a coat when it’s cold either. It’s just common sense that God’s smarter than doctors.” Sometimes a little voice whispers in my ear, “Time to shut up.” I did.

All believers claim great confidence in God but, in my experience, when they give specific explanations about what their reliance entails, they wander all over the lot. It’s hard to criticize them for this vagueness since the guidance teachers and preachers offer them is also all over the lot. Given that we all value the attitude of trust in God, it’s good as part of our Lenten reflections to seriously ask ourselves what we’re talking about when we claim such trust. What do we think God wants to be trusted about?

When we look at Jesus’ teaching, we don’t find him acting as an expert on child rearing or health maintenance. He didn’t prescribe a type of government. He didn’t even give a program for running a church. What he did was promise a world that would be guided by God’s Spirit and told everyone that the way to be part of this world was to love one another and “one another” included one’s enemies.

It seems, then, that trust, in the Christian context, consists in loving one another, including our enemies, with confidence that such behavior places us within the new world guided by God’s Spirit.

The difficulty, of course, is that trusting God and ourselves to love that much scares us to death. Maybe that’s why it was only after they experienced the Resurrection that Jesus’ followers could seriously discuss the necessity of picking up the cross and following him.

Love God; Love What God Loves
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50: 4-7

When we hear what God is speaking to us, our lives change. When we actually come to realize that God is constantly creating us with a love beyond comprehension and that he creates everything that exists with the same love, we experience a unity with all creation deeper than any divisions we may encounter. As Christians knew from the first, there’s no loving God without loving what God loves.

From the beginning of our Tradition the saints, philosophers and theologians of our faith have taught that there’s no separating God from God’s loving. God is what God does. And God’s loving extends to everything God creates.

There are moments when we like – and we need – to step back from the activity of tending God’s creation to simply praise God verbally and emotionally. We have to catch our breath and enjoy a moment of song, a comfortable prayer. We refresh our souls and restore our wills. We recollect God’s promise, our priorities and what we’re all doing together.

Our verbal praise is only part of the story, however; and not the most important part at that. We can easily convince ourselves that our relationship with God consists in giving him something that he wants. We can forget that God doesn’t want anything for himself. He’s giving us existence and promising to fulfill it through the action of his Spirit in us.

In the end, praise of God, our response to God, isn’t what we say. It’s who we are. It’s being who we are in union with the rest of creation. In short, our praise of God is caring for what God cares for.

Resurrection: Beyond Harps and Clouds
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34a,37-43

If you ask a grade school child what Easter means, she’ll almost always reply that Jesus came back to life after he died on the cross. That’s not a bad answer for a grade school child. It might be an improvement if she said that God rescued Jesus from death and took him to a new and better life but her answer works for an eight year old.

For the rest of us it’s important to recognize that Jesus faced death, just as we all do, powerless over it. God raised Jesus from death. God didn’t bring Jesus back to life as he knew it before. God brought him into a new life. We know that his new existence was the fullness of life but beyond that, we can’t imagine it. We can’t simply say now Jesus lives forever. We can’t imagine the life to which God raised him as endless bliss with, as my kid brother used to say, “no school, no bedtime and an endless supply of ice cream.”

About the existence God that has in store for us Paul wrote that our “eyes haven’t seen, ears haven’t heard, and minds haven’t imagined” what it will be.
What we do know about existence after our current life is that it centers on relationships. We will be at one with our Creator. We will be at one with all of creation and that will include being at one with ourselves.

The important thing now is that, pointing out how he lived the promise of God in his own life, Jesus taught that nothing stops us from beginning the life God promises today by being at one with our Creator and his creation. That’s an awfully good start – and an awfully good Easter prayer.

The Struggle To Be Christ
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
2nd Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47

Jesus continued to live and act in his disciples after his execution and resurrection. That was the message that Luke wanted to get across in the second part of his gospel that we know as the Acts of the Apostles.

During a Sanhedrin trial of Peter and other apostles a judge named Gameliel suggested that others had claimed to the Messiah before only to have their movements evaporate soon after they died. He suggested that the Jewish authorities not upset themselves over Christians since, assuming Jesus had misguided them, they too would soon fade away.

Luke wrote Acts to make the point that Christians, rather than fading away were increasing in number. They were spreading throughout the Mediterranean world because Jesus’ Spirit was alive and active within them.

The picture Luke painted of the Christian community may have been idealized but it portrayed how they attempted to live and what they tried to be for their world. They wanted to stay faithful to the way of Jesus; they wanted to care for one another so that everyone among them had dignity and worth. They wanted to remember Jesus’ total love for them that they experienced in the sharing the bread and wine. They wanted to deepen within themselves the image of a world transformed into God’s Gift to all people. That vision had filled Jesus’ life and guided his deeds; it would fill and guide theirs as well.

There are days when we all feel our Church is floundering without a sense of purpose. We feel like a committee whose sole goal is to continue to be a committee: it verges on absurdity. If we’re attentive to what’s written between the lines and allow for a certain heroic tone, a slow reading of the Acts of the Apostles gives us a good idea of what it means to be a community in Jesus’ Spirit. It tells of the ongoing struggle to be God’s love in a very imperfect world.

Giving The Life We’re Given
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
3rd Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14, 22-33

I remember reading a story about pirates when I was a child. They weren’t very bright pirates. They had waylaid a ship carrying gold pieces to pay an army. They searched that ship high and low looking for the gold never realizing that it filled the old sea chest in the captain’s cabin on which they played cards and rested their feet.

Recently a preacher touted Christianity as the best insurance policy a person could have: it reimburses a faithful person, he said, not with silver and gold but with eternal happiness.

It’s very common but sad to find the relationship that we have with God reduced to this kind of individual affair. We degrade the universal promise of creation’s fulfillment into a private future of eternity-on-a-cloud for a chosen few of us given in trade for our fealty and tribute.

The God we pray to – the God of Jesus – isn’t some super potentate resting on a throne waiting for his subjects to enter his presence with honors and gifts. God’s intent isn’t to offer us a reward for appropriate behavior. It’s difficult for us to realize that The Creator is offering us a chance to co-create the cosmos.

We are life-bearers. In all we do, wherever we go, we have the ability to bring life. Are there other life-bearers? We don’t know; it makes little difference. We are what we are and we can do what we can do. We can knowingly, intentionally work with God. We are not probationers or sycophants; we are co-creators. That’s a role we can’t ignore without betraying ourselves – as well as our Creator.

The Key Is The Promise – Not The Problem
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
4th Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41

A mother told me the following tale. She had walked into her kitchen to find her five year old lighting matches and throwing them into the wastebasket. She, naturally, sat him down and gave him a stern talk ending with the picture of the disaster that would have happened had she not walked into the room and prevented it. To her amazement, he tearfully promised never to play with matches again unless she was nearby! Whenever I hear entreaties for us to repent, I think of that story. What does our Creator call us to repent of?

Generally, when folks voice their sorrow for and intent to change some behaviors, they’re referring to actions commonly thought sinful: mistreatment of others, selfishness, abuse of some substance and the like. As harmful as such behaviors are and as important as it is to stop them, faith looks for a more profound repentance.

In the address Peter made to his fellow Jews gathered in Jerusalem he didn’t point to the everyday failings that, doubtlessly, fill their lives. He, instead, pointed to Jesus, the man who revealed the world that their Creator wanted to accomplish through them.

Make Jesus the template for how you view life, what you deem possible and reasonable. Let his love for you – the Creator’s love for you – overcome your insecurity and your need to take advantage of those weaker than you. Move from being self-absorbed to being world-absorbed. End the fight in your heart. Believe that you can be the touch of Love for everyone you meet just as Jesus was. Accept a new reality: a reality rooted in the Creator’s love rather than your fears.

Little boys can be forgiven for not understanding the danger of fire and, with luck, their parents will continue to prevent conflagrations. We, however, have to get the point of Jesus. He wasn’t the morality police. He wasn’t a divine “Miss Manners.” Jesus was a call to rethink life. He was an offer of freedom for us to be what God created us to be and to live in the world that God is trying to give us.

In Wars Over Faith Everyone Loses
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
5th Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-7

Hellenists vs. Hebrews: the thought sets few hearts racing now but in the years after Jesus’ execution and resurrection this was the Christian community’s culture war.

The Hellenists were Christians comfortable with opening the new faith to the influences of the world beyond Judea and traditional Judaism (Rome governed the Western world; Greece (Hellas) was the touchstone of culture.). The Hebrews were folks convinced that Christianity had to preserve its Jewish morality and mores unsullied by outside influences. Though both groups found Jesus and his Way attractive and wanted to follow him, they fought mightily over the heart and soul of the infant community. Ultimately the Hellenists triumphed and Jesus’ revelation adopted the language and ways of people beyond the confines and history of Judea. The development made our understanding of faith possible. But the ancient Church’s choice came with great cost.

For over fifteen centuries a feel for the world in which Jesus lived and taught vanished from Western Christianity. His worldview and key ideas were foreign to our faith experience. God’s Reign, being a son of God, even the understanding of words like body and blood lost the sense that would have come naturally to Jesus and his peers. The modern rediscovery of Jesus’ milieu and the revelation couched in its terms is the fruit of today’s intense scriptural and historical study. That research made much of what we cherish in the teaching of Vatican II possible.

In high school my history teacher never tired of drumming into us that the first casualty of war is truth. It’s not simply that each side lies to present itself as good and right. It’s also that both sides are fighting for a point of view, an experience of life that they value and history rarely gets a chance to know the experience – the truth – of the losers.

It’s difficult to see the truth imbedded in a point of view that we are fighting to overcome. Still, it’s important to ask how we might impoverish ourselves when we strive to vanquish our enemies and their vision of life. What truth will our victory kill?

Listening First
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
6th Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17

Jesus preached to an audience that was totally clear about what it hoped to hear. The Jewish people were looking for their Messiah, a person who would lift the weight of Roman occupation from their shoulders and lead them to the greatness that they believed was their destiny. Jesus’ promise of the immanent triumph of God’s will for the world wasn’t abstract or other-worldly for them. Its hope resonated clearly and powerfully with their hearts.

Jesus’ problem, as far as the majority of his audience was concerned, wasn’t his message; it was his credibility as a messenger and the significant demands that the new world he promised placed on those who would be its citizens. As the number of his followers grew, powerful Judean leaders also began to fear him as a threat to the tenuous political balance between them, their people and their Roman occupiers.
We offer Jesus and his message in a radically different situation than the one he addressed. Our world possesses no unified idea of God. Few in the Western world expect a divinity to enter history bringing peace, justice and greatness to their future.

The world most of us inhabit believes that it originates its own fate. Those of us who live well look for no great overhaul of life. Those suffering chronic deprivation struggle to better themselves. They look only for a fair shake and, possibly, a temporary helping hand. This isn’t the world that Jesus occupied. How do we present his promise now?

How can we justify claiming a unique and superior revelation if we find ourselves no more loving, just and peaceful than people who claim other wisdoms? How can we claim a unique understanding of The Creator’s actions and purpose if people see that we know no more about our world, let alone our universe, than anyone else? How can we claim to possess the keys to a joyous heart if our world finds us lacking an appreciation of their lives and dreams?

We need to become a Church that listens more than we speak.

Saved – But From What
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Ascension Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter)
Acts 1:1-11

Some time ago several students and I were talking about religion. “I just don’t see the need,” one of them said, “what’s the point?” Another student listed several reasons for being religious but all left the questioner unimpressed. Finally she turned to me, “What do you think? Church and religion never meant anything to me. It’s not bad; just pointless. Am I missing something?” Not only the questioner but the students from our parish seemed surprised when I said I didn’t know.

Immediately someone said, “You’re missing out on salvation: you’re risking Hell.” “Tell her,” he told me.

“You want me to convince her that she has a soul so that I can convince her that her soul is destined for Hell which will make her want to be religious so that she won’t have to be afraid of eternal damnation?” Our Church teaches that even if someone truly sees no reason for God or the Church but puts themselves on the line for justice and love, they’re united with God and destined for heaven. What, exactly, does she need saving from?”

“Well, I always thought being religious was about saving our souls. If you can go to heaven just by being a good person who tries hard even though you don’t know about God or souls or Hell or all the rest, I don’t know what religion’s all about. Maybe we’re better off without it. “

“Good point. Knowing that God doesn’t write people off for honest beliefs or opinions held with integrity raises the question of what salvation is all about. It’s easy to get so used to words that we don’t question their meaning. We can hear ideas so often that we just assume they make sense whether we see the sense or not. What is there in our real lives that actually needs saving – needs freeing?”

An animated discussion broke out at that point but I wasn’t going to be part of it that night. Eleven p.m. may be pizza time for college students but it’s bedtime for me!

Saving Salvation
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Pentecost Sunday
Joel 3:1-5

The religious idea of salvation originated among people with an intense need for change in their world. They were also people who believed that God was directly involved with them in a way that made his will the inevitable fact of life.

In the world we call home, however, many of us see no need for such change. Our lives are comfortable; we’re generally secure. Others look for no change because they feel caught in a current of hardship and suffering more powerful than any imaginable rescuer. These folks hope simply to endure, not escape. For both groups salvation is no more than an assurance of comfort after death. To their ears God’s promise to “work wonders in the heavens and on the earth” sounds quaint at best.

Certainly some continue to speak facilely of salvation regardless of how meaningless the term is to most of their audience. The rest of us, however, must set about rescuing the word – or, more usefully, the message behind the word – from its current focus on personal eternities. We face a task essential to restoring the power of God’s promise. It’s essential to opening ourselves to the activity of God’s Spirit within us. It’s essential to fending off the urge to fabricate a relevant faith by resurrecting some past age of piety. Meaningless salvation leaves us with a meaningless religion.

What’s the state of the world we live in? What‘s the deepest hope of the human community? What evil realities do we despair of overcoming alone, without the assurance that life’s Creator stands with us? No one answers these questions for us.

Being adult Christians doesn’t center on determining one or another issue of ecclesiastical policy. It’s a matter of actively fashioning our vision of the world God promises. It’s assuming an active role in setting the best course for our journey to that future.

Never in the history of our Church has every Christian possessed the voice and responsibility that each of us has today. No one has decreed this responsibility to be ours; it has evolved to us within the conditions of our times. No one can take it away. It’s an exciting challenge.

Searching For God We Find Ourselves
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Holy Trinity
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9

William James, the 19th century philosopher and psychologist believed that the central pain of life is the fear that nothing makes any difference. Or, as my young nephew once said after waves washed away his second sand castle, “It’s no use making another one; they just get knocked down. It’s stupid.”

Most of us have wondered whether our lives mean anything. The experience of throwing ourselves into some task, some dream, only to watch our efforts come to nothing is universal. We struggle with the reality of such failure throughout life, often to the hour of our deaths. If we don’t come to terms with it and find ways to invest ourselves completely in life in spite of it, our lives become meaningless.

This painful aspect of our existence underlies the first statement of our faith – that, at the heart of all reality, there is a loving Creator. That assertion is our refusal to give in to the temptation of meaninglessness.

It’s odd how often we speak as though we can understand God as God understands himself. Such knowledge is impossible given our decidedly un-divine intellects. It is much more helpful to realize that what we know and say about God is what it benefits us most to know and say about God.

The first image in that Trinity, Father, is the source of all and guarantee that all is worthy of being. It is the guarantee that we are worthy of being – that the universe and we within it have a lasting destiny.

God, the Father, the customary name we give to the first person of the Trinity, is a statement that, whatever failures we may endure pursuing our most precious dreams, nothing good that we do is ever lost. Everything good we attempt reflects and participates in the creative force of the universe.

That is what my nephew is learning about life and God – and castle building – as he grows in faith.

Searching For The Common Faith
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a

This week’s scripture is part of a speech Moses’ made to the Hebrew people. In it he gave them The Law God had dictated to him along with two additional points. He told the Hebrews that God promised to live and travel with them, protecting them and guiding them to a new homeland. Moses also explained that The Law God had given them was a blessing because it enabled them to live as a community in harmony with both one another and their divine benefactor.

This message is the kernel of faiths around the world: we’re not alone in the universe and the Creator guarantees our future.

Though I can’t claim universal expertise, it seems to me that religion, in general, focuses on these two basic tenets however they understand and express them. All of us, whether we think a lot about it or not, realize on some level that we exist in a world and universe where we have very little control over our destiny. We also realize that our lives will end before we experience all the goodness and beauty we imagine.

It’s understandable that we long for and believe in an all-powerful Creator who loves us and guarantees our happiness. This is, and will always remain, an act of faith. It’s a faith that, in one form or another, whether explicit or not, unites humanity.

It’s both wise and comforting to recall this commonality of faith. It reminds us that we’re a single family inhabiting the globe. Governments as far back as we possess written histories have understood that to wage successful war a population has to believe that their enemy is different and less human than they. There’s a lesson there for us who seek not war but peace.

Step One: Decide What’s Real
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zechariah 9: 9-10

“Your hopes and dreams will color everything you ever do,” a professor told me years ago. “They’re the source of your likes and dislikes, your judgments, your decisions, your friendships and your loves. Pay attention to them. Take responsibility for them.”

Those words came back to me recently when someone commented, “I’m a Christian but I’m a realist too.” I’d wondered at such sentiments many times before but, this time the contradiction in the comment really struck me.

If Christianity is anything, it’s a set of hopes and dreams. It’s an understanding of the world’s future and a proclamation of the human behavior that will lead us into it. It’s not a philosophy that wise people have generated; it’s a revelation arising from Jesus’ life and teaching that his followers have passed down to us. It’s a revelation of the universe’s Creator. How strange that anyone would juxtapose such a revelation over against reality!

We might not like everything about the revelation. We might be unsure how to respond to it. We might be unsure whether or not we can live up to it. We might not even accept it is revelation. But, if we do accept it; if we find it believable as the Creator’s truth; if we make it our faith, how can we understand it as anything but reality at its most basic?

The Creator gave his Word: human life will be loving and just. He gave his Word: the power of God working within us will accomplish that just and loving life if we trust it and follow its urgings.

A spiritual life is a life that reflects our beliefs. Christian spiritual life is a life that accepts the Word of Jesus as the foundation of our likes and dislikes, our judgments, our decisions, our friendships and our loves. It’s not easy . . . but it’s not complicated either.

Seek the Language of Today’s Faith
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:10-11

There’s a common sentiment that life is too complicated for an individual to make much difference. That’s an understandable reaction to the immense, entrenched power centers of contemporary society. An astounding amount of influence lies in the hands of relatively few people. It’s tempting to take the attitude that we’re swept along by the tides of modern life rather than aggressively seek ways to steer those currents for the better.

On the other hand, Christian spiritual language is full of images of overcoming the power of the devil. We constantly hear how God gives us the strength through prayer and the sacraments to stand up to supernatural evil and find supernatural blessings. Such ideas held powerful meaning for Christians who saw the powers of heaven and hell controlling everything from planets to plagues, from stars to starvation. Today’s understanding of reality demands a different conversation.

Where’s an understandable explanation of how the sacraments strengthen us to stand in solidarity for economic injustice? Who’s promoting prayer to overcome the nationalism that keeps us fighting wars? How do we pray for the strength, in a consumerist society, to take only what we need rather than all we can grab from life’s platter? Is there a prayer that the Holy Spirit will help us find truth in the babble of information thrown at us? Who’s the patron saint of keeping one’s integrity in the push and shove of democracy?

This isn’t disdainful carping. We face huge difficulties and our Church possesses millennia of experience and wisdom that could help us find the path through them. The question is will we demand those resources from the teachers whose job it is to couch our heritage in a useful form? There’s another question: do we still believe that our Church has practical guidance for 21 century Westerners trying to live the Way of Jesus?

The old saying is that generals always prepare to fight the last war. We can’t afford to content ourselves with spiritual teachings that met the needs of Christians four and five centuries ago.

Jesus: Revealing God
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19

We commonly talk as though we know lots about God. We pretend to know who is in and out with God, who is blessed and cursed. We give the impression that we can see God’s purpose in daily and even extraordinary events of life. We even give the impression that we know God’s mind for the future. Is it possible to have such knowledge? Like it or not the answer is yes and no.

What we know about God, what we can say that we actually understand, is what we know and understand about Jesus. When we say that God is love, it is because we’ve experienced the radical love in which Jesus lived and acted. When we say that God forgives anyone who will accept forgiveness, it is because we’ve witnessed the generosity that characterized Jesus’ forgiving. We speak confidently of God’s promise to bring all of creation to fulfillment. We don’t know that from philosophical musing or messages in the stars. We know it because Jesus taught and lived that message throughout his life and, when evil seemed to triumph over him, God raised him from death.

The Church limits its official teachings about God to what it sees in Jesus. It doesn’t forbid folks from having their opinions about God that they developed in other ways, but it withholds its seal of approval from such opinions.

Sometimes people wonder what to think about God. They worry about God’s relationship with them. They fret about purported plans that God harbors and their place in them. It’s our Tradition that Jesus is our touchstone for testing ideas about God. Getting to know Jesus’ life as well as we can is the way we get an accurate feel for God and God’s ways. It’s a relationship we only build together with other people of faith, whose wisdom and honesty we trust.

A Faith In Common
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

One of my childhood memories is my brothers and sister and I saving up money to get my dad a very special surprise birthday gift. It was so special that even we couldn’t know the secret until we made the purchase. The day to buy the gift arrived and my mom took us all to the jewelers where we picked out a shiny gold Bulova watch. As you’d imagine, the money we kids had saved didn’t cover the cost. To make up the difference my mother gave the jeweler a treasured ring that had been her grandmother’s.

There are moments when a child learns lasting lessons about love. I knew that rings carried special meaning. We weren’t to play with them. My mother had a habit of taking her rings off as she did housework. If we found them, the rule was “tell but don’t touch.” I watched her hesitate as she handed her diamond to the jeweler. On the way home she told us several times how proud of us she was that we had saved all that money to buy dad’s present. On his birthday she never mentioned her role in the present as we excitedly explained all we had done to make sure he had a good watch to wear to work.

The opportunity for generosity can elicit an amazing practicality in us. We rarely question the goodness of helping those in need. Yet we’re likely to temper our response to others’ needs with a sharp eye for the risk we’re taking: irremediable losses we might suffer, harmful precedents we might establish or untoward advantage that someone might take of our largesse.

We do face danger when we love to the point of risk. Allowing ourselves to love freely is an act of faith – in others, in ourselves and in our Creator. Someone has to teach us to love past our comfort level. Someone has to support us. Maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a spouse or close friend, maybe it’s the person who prays next to us on Sundays – but it has to be someone. We never live the Way of Jesus alone.

Grunting Isn’t An Act Of Faith
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:1-3

Many years ago a friend of mine desperately wanted to play little league baseball. He prayed that God would get him on a team. God didn’t. Being, even then, the caring soul that I am, I speculated that even God couldn’t compensate for awesome klutziness. Ignoring my cleverness, he kept asking, “Why did he let them cut me?”

Gather a group of Christians for more than a few minutes and someone, somehow, will voice a problem with God’s reliability: typically someone has a friend in need for whom everyone has prayed without discernable results. An awkward silence ensues until someone else in the group grows anxious enough to proffer a stock defense of God; the rest grunt agreement though no one really buys it.

We Catholics often grumble that our Church doesn’t treat us as adults. Setting aside the accuracy of this complaint, it brings to mind a lesson that most of us learned early on. The crux of being an adult is taking responsibility for ourselves. Sometimes authority is happy to see us do that; sometimes not. How others accept the decision to take adult responsibility isn’t the issue.

My point is that grunts of agreement to teachings and answers that make no sense is a costly abdication of responsibility. Every time we roll our eyes and send our judgment out for coffee when authority hands down an opinion, we weaken our faith and our community.

We do our priest, our bishop, ourselves no favor when we hear seemingly senseless statements and close our ears in scorn. We weaken our unity and our power to do good. We weaken the gospel and we deny God’s Spirit in us which, after all, is what we really have to offer our world.

The idea here isn’t to buttonhole every priest about our every disagreement. The idea is that we undertake the effort of thinking through and taking responsibility for what we actually believe. It means discussing our thoughts with others who share our faith. It means acknowledging that agreeing and disagreeing has implications for the strength of our faith vision as well as the strength of our community.

There are many ways to respond to authority. Grunting is never helpful.

The Goal: To Love As God Loves
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a

There’s a revealing incident in Elijah’s life that precedes the one we read today. Jezebel, the Phoenician princess, maintained 450 prophets loyal to the god, Baal, as part of her court. Elijah, the prophet of Israel’s God bested these prophets in a context to see whose God was greater. After demonstrating the superior power of his God, Elijah personally murders all the prophets of Baal. Jezebel then vows to do the same to him. It’s while fleeing Jezebel’s understandable wrath that Elijah encounters God in a gentle desert breeze.

The prophet was exhausted by his labors and the frustration of seeing his efforts go unappreciated by the very Israelites he’d been championing. He was also fed up with God who wouldn’t visit the disastrous punishments on his enemies that Elijah believed appropriate. Elijah wasn’t looking for a breeze; he was looking for a hurricane.

The narrative’s point is simple: think again about expecting God-in-a-hurricane to carry off those opposing our noble efforts. We naturally think that our positions promote the good life for us all. Why wouldn’t God back us up? Why shouldn’t we threaten – even abet – a little divine fury against our opposition? Think again.

God’s appearance to the Israelite prophet as a gentle wind anticipates the Christian experience of Jesus, God’s loving justice personified. He insisted that we love those who oppose our understanding of how life should go. He accepted his own death rather than do harm to those who opposed his own work.

We who strive for the world that God promises will find our greatest power in pursuing God’s vision in God’s way – in Jesus’ way. The day must come when we accept that ultimately our success lies in seeking the welfare of those who oppose us with the same energy and consistency that we seek our own. As disconcerting as it is: in our blow-hard world God is a gentle breeze.

Not My, Not Our; Everybody’s Religion
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7

When I was in grade school, there was a painting of St. Michael in our parish church. He had blond hair, lots of muscles, and looked something like my uncle Gene. There was also a statue of Mary that looked something like my aunt Virginia and my children’s prayer book had a picture of God that looked a lot like my next door neighbor, Mr. Fry, though with a fuller, whiter beard. Everything around me conveyed the assurance that heaven was full of my kind of folks. It wasn’t until high school when a priest brought me a holy card from Tokyo with a picture of a distinctly Japanese Mary wearing a mysterious smile that I later found on many representations of the Buddha that I realized that heaven was more cosmopolitan than I’d ever imagined.

It’s difficult to express how deeply that Japanese holy card impressed me. At fourteen years of age it made me think of my religion in a whole new way: it didn’t belong to me or to my relatives or the priests and sisters at St. Michael’s. It belonged to people whose lives I simply couldn’t imagine – people who viewed it very differently than I did.

It’s easy to nurture the illusion that we hold faith in our back pocket. We think of it as an alphabet of facts about God and morality. Instead, it’s a relationship with our Creator and with all creation. It’s an ongoing activity between people, God and life that never holds still, is never the same from person to person or century to century.

Any boundary that we place on God’s relationship with people, and thus people’s relationship with God, is certainly a mistake. That awareness intimately unites us with the whole of creation.

If we’re to actually serve the richness of our faith to the world and not just lay it on the table with a take or leave it attitude, acknowledging the universality of God’s love and the ubiquity of the Spirit’s action is crucial. Heaven will not look like our family reunions.

A Morality of Promise – Not Of Threats
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22: 19-23

Many Catholics can remember a time when they lived in fear of committing mortal sin with the consequent prospect of an eternity in Hell. Some rejected particulars on the list of mortal offenses but, agree or not, few performed a proscribed action without being aware that it was, indeed, forbidden. No one who lived them would revisit those days. Most found the situation a legalistic morass in which one could become mired in fear and guilt for reasons that made little sense.

There was one plus in the situation, however: few were oblivious to the weight of their moral decisions and actions. If inherent value didn’t determine their importance, eternal sanctions did. Mature or immature, reasonable or unreasonable, a lively, sensitive conscience characterized Catholics.

Setting aside the threat of facile damnation has left some with the impression that moral issues, though interesting, are crucial neither to our relationship with God or the success of life. That’s an expensive mistake.

There is today, and has been for many months, a famine raging through much of sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands die daily from malnutrition. Children are most at risk.

Jesus bluntly taught that those who want to live in harmony with God must respond to his needs by responding to the needs of folks around them. His prime example of a person in harmony with God was a person who feeds the hungry (Mark 25:35). His prime example of a person not in harmony with God was someone who doesn’t feed the hungry.

The issue for Jesus, and for an adult Catholic faith, isn’t a childish cops and robbers game between God and us. The issue is that God is trying to give life to people and we either cooperate with God’s efforts or we don’t. Will we act with or against the Creator of the universe?

Some would return our Church to the middle of the last century because they’re convinced that, like children, we won’t respond to life’s demands and the intent of our Creator without the threat of personal spiritual banishment. That’s a problem. The real issue is much larger, much more important. Just ask the parents of Africa’s children.

Religious Freedom: Christian and Necessary
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7-9

America has a civic axiom: never mix politics and religion. It’s one of those two-handed ideas.

On the one hand, the adage makes perfect sense because religion is rooted in revelation and revelation is amenable to neither verification nor argumentation; it’s a matter of faith. Politics is the art of the compromise; how do we compromise about what we believe to be God’s will!

On the other hand, religion, by definition, is the foundation of people’s understanding of life and their dream of what it should and can be. It guides their decisions in ways both conscious and unconscious. It puts them in harmony with the Creative Principle of the universe. People simply cannot put aside their religion when reflecting, conversing or voting on political issues. To say that they can misunderstands religion. It’s a major element in politics whether we want it, like it, or acknowledge it.

The best way to handle the situation is to accept it. We can then agree on the practical necessity of not forcing our religion or its perspective on others – after all, even God doesn’t do that. We can also admit that standing for and working seriously for a value doesn’t mean that the value has to be or even should be written into civil law. Without general agreement on the goodness of a particular law, it’s better not to make it. Finally, we can recall that the first expectation of our religion is love which doesn’t exist without respect. That love applies to those who disagree with and resist what we want.

There’s another consideration to keep in mind. We can’t deny that God is the source of all truth and that to ignore God’s is the height of foolishness. The problem is that religion, and our religion in particular, has, at best, a spotty track record when it comes to recognizing, interpreting and responding to God’s word. Radical humility is never out of place when we think we are speaking God’s mind.

Religion and politics will always have a messy interface. Honesty about the situation is a good place to begin the discussion.

The Practical Needs the Holy Needs the Practical
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7-9

One very sloppy winter afternoon a student walked into my office to tell me that he wanted to talk about prayer and holy stuff. “I think we make way too much of the religious side of things and way too little of the practical needs of people. When I think about Jesus, the holy stuff takes a back seat to the practical stuff. The point of everything is that people are in need and God wants us to help them.”

“There’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying but there’s an important problem too,” I answered. “Think about what Jesus asks of us: we’re to love others – including our enemies – as we love ourselves. We’re to be merciful. We’re to share what we have with those in need even when that sharing lessens our personal security. We’re to put our selves and our welfare on the line for the welfare of folks who are threatened. We’re to totally focus our energy on the world of justice and love that’s God will. Nothing is to be more important to us than that: nothing.

“When we realize all the necessary areas of cooperation with God that Jesus stressed, the task is superhuman. That’s where the holy stuff comes in. Everything that our Tradition holds sacred is something that puts us in touch with God’s involvement in human life. It reveals God’s power at work in and through us. It reminds us that we face faith’s daunting task alone.

“There’s a saying: we can’t give what we haven’t got. The holy stuff strengthens us for the practical stuff. It’s to align us with God’s work day in and day out, when we feel up to it and when we don’t, when it seems to make a difference and when it doesn’t.”

Sometimes it sounds like the holy stuff is all that matters for a Christian and the practical stuff of life is a distraction to faith but it’s not so. The holy and the practical are inseparable. The prayer and sacramental aspects of our lives are necessary for the success of the love and justice part of our lives. And the love and justice part of our lives give meaning to the prayer and sacramental part of our lives. They’re the inhale and exhale of Christian living.

Faith: The Most Basic Vision
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 27:30 – 28:7

Recently a motor scooter rider and I got into a conversation about riding two wheels in a four wheel world. We shared stories of drivers looking right at us and then heading right for us. “I know I’m not safe until we make eye contact and nod to one another. They don’t expect us so we don’t register,” said the scooter rider. “It’s like they can’t see what they don’t believe will be there.”

That conversation came back to me when a friend, in the middle of a casual gathering, asked, “So; do you think God wanted Osama Bin Laden killed?” That released a storm of Bible quotes, Church teaching, moral aphorisms, ethical equations and warnings of dire consequences. Finally someone commented, “You have to live in the world the way it is. If you can’t deter bad guys, you have to kill them. That’s just reality.”

Living our faith, as opposed to simply accepting doctrines, is about deciding what is. It’s deciding what’s real and what isn’t. Choosing the faith that orients us is the most radical decision any of us ever makes. Subsequent decisions as to whether we believe in a God or not or whether we’ll subscribe to any particular religion are decisions about the framework of our faith. They’re not our faith.

Does life have a direction? Does life mean anything beyond a story we impose on it? Do our individual lives make a difference for good or ill in life’s future?

Ancient Jews believed that life had a direction; it was towards fulfillment. They were convinced that their lives made a difference in its progress. Jesus came along and some saw in him the embodiment of life’s meaning and direction. They saw him demonstrate a way of living that moved all life towards fulfillment. Jesus encapsulated and exemplified the promise of life for those who followed him. They named him the Word of God.

How do we advance life? Do we advance life by killing? Do we advance life by giving our own life rather than taking another’s? It’s a stark choice between visions of reality. It all depends on our vision – our vision of what’s real.

Dancing With God To Life
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6-9

My wife and I once attended an evening’s entertainment at Central Michigan University where I worked. After eating a good meal and listening to many talented performers, the orchestra moved to a large hall where we had few hours of dancing. After my few valiant attempts to move with the music which Barb graciously endured, we took seats at a table to watch the folks who knew what they were doing. We were amazed how some couples moved so effortlessly together knowing exactly where the each other was and how to coordinate their movements. They were beautiful to watch.

I’ve thought often that mastering the Christian life is like learning to dance with God. When do we move quickly; when slowly? When do we touch and when do we create a space? Are we turning left; are we turning right? God leads not for the sake of ego or control but for the sake of the dance. We follow not out of fear or subservience but, again, for the sake of the dance.

The analogy doesn’t exhaust the reality by any means since the dance we do with God isn’t for our enjoyment alone but for the joy of all creation, especially the rest of humanity. Still, the image is useful. What’s the music that God is moving to? Are we moving to the same melody? How is God loving? How do we love the same? What’s God trying to give? How can we cooperate in his generosity?

I’ve known a few young couples who were excellent dancers but all of the really good dancers that night at Central were older couples. They had learned over many years how to avoid one another’s toes and how each heard the music and liked to move. Their grace wasn’t magic and it hadn’t come quickly.

Well-meaning Christians sometimes think that they can learn God’s steps simply by having a good heart and being determined. They follow the rules – like school children moving their feet on diagrams of printed steps. But it takes watching God and listening to God and growing comfortable in God’s arms. That’s not learning rules; that’s a conversation – with or without words – that’s praying.

Imagine Loving
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 22:20-26

People who study moral behavior note that the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes is crucial to making moral decisions. Jesus taught that we should love others as we love ourselves. To do that we have to be able to imagine our neighbor’s situation as well as imagine how we would want to be treated in the same situation. Some people’s imagination just can’t stretch that far. They are dangerous because they unknowingly cause others pain.

The more common problem, however, is our unwillingness to place ourselves in another’s shoes. We don’t want to see another’s point of view because we might have to adjust our own. We don’t want to know the pressure or stress they live under because we may find ourselves becoming sympathetic to them. We don’t want to know the weaknesses others struggle with since we may find that it makes more sense for us to adapt to them than for them to adapt to us. We don’t want to know their hearts because we might find ourselves wanting to forgive them. The Christian Way can be very demanding.

Catholic Tradition has always put a lot of emphasis on praying in a group. It is not always the most emotionally satisfying way to pray. It is not always the most intellectually profound way to pray. But it is the way of praying that places us in the proximity of others in a way that forcefully reminds us of our common humanity and our common faith and dreams. Praying together puts us in a great place to imagine the lives of others, to imagine how they must see things, how they must feel about things, how they must fear and dream.

When we watch people lining up to receive Communion, it is easy to imagine important things about their lives. It’s easy because we see them seeking the same promise from God that we seek. There have been times when I didn’t want to go to Mass because I was mad about this or that and I knew that I’d have a hard time staying mad at the person I was upset with if I went. We all seem so much in the same boat when we’re at Mass – with one another and with God. That’s exactly how it should be.

It starts there and spreads to the world.

Sharing The Gift Of Hope
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
27nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 5:1-7

A co-worker I once knew told me that only someone who believes in God can live a moral life. Atheists can do good things but in the final analysis they can’t be moral because they can’t obey a God they don’t believe in. “That’s why,” he said, “atheists can’t go to heaven: they’re never really with God.” I think there are several problems with this understanding of God, faith and morality.

Basic to Christian faith is the conviction that God is giving us life as a gift and wants nothing in return other than that we enjoy that gift to the fullest. The most dramatic indication of this is Jesus’ life and death. Believing that Jesus is the real presence of God in our midst, we see in him God’s disinterest in praise or honors. Symbolizing God’s complete commitment to our welfare was Jesus’ willingness to face execution rather than abandon his work of bringing hope to his people. Unless we understand that God is trying to give to us – not get from us, I don’t see how we understand the basic revelation of the Incarnation.

If God is trying to give us life, everyone who works to make life more secure and more full for others as well as herself is cooperating with God. From our perspective, God’s Spirit is at work in that person’s life. That is not meant to be haughty. It’s a view arising from our faith that life is the hope, the gift and the display of God’s action. The essence of morality is being in harmony with life.

This understanding denigrates neither God nor faith. Jesus revealed God’s commitment to us in order to strengthen our hope in life which the Creator had already given us. Jesus was God’s all-out effort to make hope possible. Our role is exactly the same as his: to do everything possible to increase hope in all we meet. This is the core of the gospel.

Gift Of Faith: Gift Of Freedom
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
28nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 25:6-10

There are times when we ask what God wants us to do; there are times when we simply ask ourselves what’s best to do. The two questions are the same. The answers, however, can be very different.

Asking the question in terms of God’s will places our evaluations and our assumptions within the context of Jesus’ promise of God’s New World. Asking the question without reference to God’s will may deprive us of the support of Jesus’ promise.

Several years ago on a cold January day a young man told me that he had been thinking seriously about life after graduation. He considering the Peace Corps and teaching in a country short of schools and educational funding. “I know it’s risky,” he said. “My parents are leery of the idea and my friends – including my girlfriend – think I’m nuts. But, it’s something I can do to make things better and I think it’s worth the risk of being a few years behind in my career. Jesus didn’t mention being uneducated in his parable about people who helped him when he was in need, but he could have.”

The following year another student told me that she’d been thinking about her post graduation life and had looked into an inner-city community organizing job. It was a paid position, but barely. She would be essentially volunteering. She had reluctantly decided against the job however because she had little hope that it could make a difference and she believed that the practical decision was to begin the career in marketing and public relations she had trained for. “I don’t suppose that’s how things should be but that’s how they are,” she said by way of summing up.

These stories aren’t about two students, one of whom was a better person than the other. They’re about two students one of whom was freer than the other. I have no doubt that both will do good things in life. But from what each told me (and one never gets the full story about decisions like these) the first student felt stronger in the face of life as it is while the second felt more hemmed in and controlled by it. Which student ended up contributing more to life? I’ll never know. I do know which one felt the greater opportunity. And it was the faith context of his decision that opened the door.

Don’t Lay It On God
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6

One morning after Mass a young woman told me of her recent auto accident. She’d been driving to the airport to catch a flight to a friend’s. On the way she was involved in a fender bender that took several hours to deal with. When all was done she had missed her flight and couldn’t get another that day. Later that same afternoon when she was back home, her father suffered a heart attack and she was there to summon medical help. Though she had a painful whiplash and would probably have to go to court since the collision was her fault, she thought it wonderful how God had arranged her accident to make her available for tending to her father. I was tempted to ask why God hadn’t given her a flat tire or an unexpected visit from a long lost aunt instead of a car crash but I didn’t.

I doubt that the hundreds of soldiers who died so that Cyrus could conquer Babylon were as sanguine as Isaiah about God’s chosen method of freeing the Israeli exiles from captivity. In fact, since it was through a Babylonian invasion and conquest that God chose to teach Israel a lesson and then through a second war that he chose to end the Israeli exile, an objective observer might consider the entire process inelegant at best. Many Christians have developed the habit of holding God responsible for amazing events whether very bad or very good.

Within the past few weeks both ministers and politicians have told us how the recent East coast hurricane and earthquake were God’s way of expressing his distaste for our sinfulness.

When his disciples asked Jesus whose fault it was that a certain man had been born blind, he answered that it was no one’s fault. It was rather, he said, an opportunity for people of faith – he himself in this instance – to demonstrate God’s power and goodness by coming to the blind man’s aid. He then proceeded to cure the man. Stop trying to read God’s mind and be the touch of God’s love was his response to their concerns. It was the same response he gave over and over again.

After two millennia one would think we’d have gotten the idea.

We’re In It Together
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 22:20-26

People who study moral behavior note that the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes is crucial to making moral decisions. Jesus taught that we should love others as we love ourselves. To do that we have to be able to imagine our neighbor’s situation as well as imagine how we would want to be treated in the same situation. Some people’s imagination just can’t stretch that far. They are dangerous because they unknowingly cause others pain.

The more common problem, however, is our unwillingness to place ourselves in another’s shoes. We don’t want to see another’s point of view because we might have to adjust our own. We don’t want to know the pressure or stress they live under because we may find ourselves becoming sympathetic to them. We don’t want to know the weaknesses others struggle with since we may find that it makes more sense for us to adapt to them than for them to adapt to us. We don’t want to know their hearts because we might find ourselves wanting to forgive them. The Christian Way is demanding.

Catholic Tradition has always emphasized praying within a group. It’s not always the most emotionally satisfying way to pray. It’s not always the most intellectually profound way to pray. But it’s prayer that places us next to others, reminding us of our common humanity, faith and dreams. Praying together puts us in a great place to imagine the lives of others, to imagine how they must see things, how they must feel about things, how they must fear and dream.

When we watch people lining up to receive Communion, it is easy to imagine important things about their lives. It’s easy because we see them asking the same promise from God that we ask. There have been times when I didn’t want to go to Mass because I was mad about this or that and I knew that I’d have a hard time staying mad at those I was upset with if I went. It’s so inescapably obvious sitting there all crammed in at Mass that we’re in the same boat – with one another and with God. That’s exactly how it should be.

It’s the start.

With God For All
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10

A professor once told me that the most important word in the Our Father is our. Too many folks, he contended, think of this prayer as a private appeal to God for their own salvation. It is, rather, a communal plea for all-inclusive peace and justice. In a prayer as dense as the Lord’s Prayer I’m reluctant to choose one most important word but my teacher had an excellent point.

I don’t know if it is true around the world but Americans, and even we American Catholics, find it difficult to give up an individualistic view of our relationship with God. Maybe it’s anxiety about losing our personal independence. Maybe we’re leery of being saddled with responsibility for someone else’s standing with the Almighty. Maybe the difficulty is that we realize that if we take the our in the Our Father seriously, we can never again be casual about others’ material or spiritual welfare.

Whatever the reason, a generation after the Second Vatican Council’s extensive teaching on the communal nature of salvation, many of us have yet to make the idea our own. This makes it impossible to appreciate the liturgy, especially the Eucharist; impossible to understand Scripture and impossible to understand the Catholic moral Tradition. But most importantly when we view our salvation as separate from the current and eternal welfare of others, we deny others the full benefit of the goodness God offers through us.

We are rowers on a stormy sea in a small boat. We can’t afford to think individually. We will find land together or wander forever. Each person’s welfare is our concern.

A what’s-mine-is-mine-and-keep-your-hands-to-yourself attitude is destructive to our civil lives. It is lethal to our faith lives.

The Feel For The Faith
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 6: 12-16

“He said that I’ve got no feel for the game and I’ll never be any good,” a friend in deep seventh-grade despair told me many years ago. His Little League coach was right. My friend had signed up for a team because he thought girls would like it. He was interested in a lot of things but baseball wasn’t one of them. He had made it a point to learn a lot about the game and was as coordinated as the average thirteen year old; he simply wouldn’t invest himself in baseball enough to get a feel for it. His efforts were doomed.

There’s a feel for Christianity that lies at the heart of successfully living it. It’s not theological knowledge, liturgical sophistication or attention to ecclesiastical concerns, though it might include these. It’s not an emotional response to a one’s image of Jesus, though again, this can be an element of it. This feel for Christianity is a deep sense of what God is doing in our world. Since we’re Christian, that sense is exemplified in Jesus’ actions and attitudes towards life. We resonate with Jesus’ promised future and his encouragement to live it now. His life and promise guides our evaluation and response to life, consciously and unconsciously. That’s the Wisdom scripture so often speaks of. It’s living in God’s Spirit.

That brings me back to my friend and his casual interest in baseball. There wasn’t anything wrong with signing up for Little League to attract girls. Since he never deepened his commitment, though, he saw nothing but bench time in games with less than a five run lead. A feeling for the game doesn’t grow with casual commitment. That’s also true in pursuing the Way of Jesus.

The beginning of Wisdom is honestly asking: Why am I in this faith?

We Long For A Life Of Intgrity
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31

“It worked fine then; it wouldn’t now. Everything’s different. But we loved each other just as much as folks today.” That was how an 80 year old friend in my home parish ended a conversation that began with my asking her how she recalled her younger years as a mother and homemaker in the early 1900s.

Our society is much more flexible than past ones. We possess an amazing amount of power which we inject into life creating new opportunities all around. For the most part, we like it that way. Centuries may come when people will look back at us and wonder how we survived such chaos-like freedom. On the other hand, they may view ours as an era of increasingly enlightened humanity. Which view they’ll hold is hard to predict. The focal length of our social vision is shorter than we like to admit.

When we read Proverbs today, its depiction of one sex’s attributes appears applicable to both. It describes behaviors valuable not simply in a spouse but in the entire community.

The life of the Proverbial wife isn’t an extraordinary life. Hers is an ordinary life lived well. She gets up every morning and contributes what she has to offer to the best of her ability to give it. There’s an intentionality and integrity about her day that’s the hallmark of a life lived in God’s Spirit.

I once heard this passage read by a husband to his wife at the beginning of a Jewish Passover Seder. When he finished, every eye in the room was moist not just because we had witnessed an intimate act of love but because everyone longed to hear those same sentiments expressed of them – even if they couldn’t tell a distaff from a decaf. We all sense that God will say to those who live such a life, “You got it and you made a difference. Thank you.”

Christ: A King Without Airs
Thoughts on the First Readings -by Joe Frankenfield
The Feast of Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17

Americans have never been big on kings. There are exceptions but, generally, we view them as autocratic, power-hungry, scheming, pompous, cads. That’s a strange group in which to include Jesus.

Pope Pius XI created the Feast of Christ the King in 1925 to make the point that Christians can never value governmental agendas or political movements above the Way of Christ when choosing how to live. Nazism was on the rise in Germany and Communism in Russia. It wasn’t enough for the Christians to participate in the sacraments, read Scripture and pray to Jesus. Jesus hadn’t come as an other-worldly royal to be praised and assuaged; he came to demonstrate God’s relationship with humanity and the relationship that humans must generate among themselves.

The image of Jesus as King makes another point. We easily overlook the courage and dedication demanded of a king, especially an average king rather than the head of one of the richest and most powerful realms. A king was responsible for defending his people. He was the man in front when the battle started. He was the prime target of all his people’s enemies. True, folks threw him a party if he protected them but failure could also cost him his life.

Ancient, agrarian cultures referred to their kings as shepherds. Those folks knew how hard and dangerous a herder’s life was. Knowing few, if any, shepherds ourselves, we’re largely ignorant of the hardship and danger they endure leading their flocks to water, pasture and safety.

When we imagine Jesus as king of the world, we celebrate our faith in a God totally committed to human welfare and the human future. We claim a God so committed to us that the best way we can speak of him is as a leader willing to give all his energy and even his life out of love for us. Christ the King presents an image of God not as an all-powerful sovereign demanding reverence but a lover willing to risk everything for his beloved.

Sunday Journal Archive