Journal Archive 2012 CYCLE B

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Being God’s Hope
Thoughts on the First Readings- Joe
Feast of Christ the King
Daniel 7:13-14

Following Jesus is more than thinking Jesus was a good and wise man. It’s more than believing he was the Son of God. Following Jesus is being convinced that he revealed the Creator of the universe not in an abstract, philosophical way but in an active, relational way. In Jesus the Creator touched human life. Believing in Jesus is being convinced that Jesus demonstrated that the heart of God as we can know him is love for the world.

Believing in Jesus also means believing that Jesus demonstrated what it means to be human. A follower of Jesus is someone who says from the heart, I want to live as Jesus lived; I want to reflect God’s love to others; I want to bring God’s hope to all I meet.

In demonstrating both what it means to be the Creator and what it means to be human Jesus spent himself in service to humanity’s fulfillment.

The first question for a Christian isn’t what do I get because I follow Jesus but what can I give because I follow Jesus.

Having experienced in Jesus the Creator’s unquestioning love, we’re able to love others with equal abandon. We’re able to bring hope for the future to people in their darkest hours. Through our faith God can induce faith in them – not necessarily a faith spoken in the words of our religion but faith in life, God’s gift, and in the meaning of their own efforts for their future and the future of their loved ones.

The gift of being Christian is that we reveal to others what Jesus revealed to us: God is always with us, always on our side in the struggle for joy and justice. We bring Jesus’ promise that our efforts are not futile, God is accomplishing his future through them.

In the face of every failure, every suffering the Christian community’s gift to the world is unconquerable hope.

To Be Hope For Our World
Thoughts on the First Readings
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time -Joe
Daniel 12:1-3

Ever since Christians realized that our faith wasn’t simply a variant of Judaism, we have sought to take our message to the entire world. But frequently we’ve argued about what the message is.

One understanding of Christianity’s need to evangelize is that we need to convince everyone to join the Christian community. A different understanding is that we’re responsible to bring others Jesus’ promise that their efforts for a just and loving world aren’t futile. We offer all Jesus’ assurance that the Creator stands with them as they struggle to transform the world and that he is the energy within their efforts.

Underlying these different understandings of evangelizing is the question of how necessary it is that everyone accepts all the beliefs of Jesus’ followers. For most of our history Christians have thought that beliefs such as the divinity of Jesus and his identity as the sole savior of the world are essential to receiving God’s salvation. It was only in the 1960s that the Vatican Council’s document, Lumen Gentium, taught that the Church recognizes that salvation is the destiny of all who live in loving service to life. This still astounds many.

Though the majority of Catholics welcome and embrace the bishops’ statement, few have asked themselves why they then continue to believe Christianity’s teachings about Jesus. If the blessing of the Kingdom of God is destined for all people of good will, what’s the benefit of Christian faith? We have to answer that question if we’re to realize the particular gift we bring to the universal quest for human destiny.

We believe in Jesus as the presence of God. He demonstrated divine love to everyone he met despite the rejection that ultimately cost him his life. We believe that our faithful God raised Jesus from death into the future prepared for us all. It’s this faith in God’s unqualified love given by Jesus and fulfilled, despite all obstacles, by his resurrection that fills us with hope.

Hope is the gift we’ve been given and hope is the gift we offer the world.

Moving From Fear To Awe
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 6:2-6

We hear those words repeatedly in church. The beginning of wisdom, says scripture, is the fear of the Lord. Unfortunately, we use the word fear in this instance with the unwarranted assumption that everyone knows and agrees upon its meaning. While the word fear usually means something akin to dread, it’s usage in this case counsels us to be in awe of God.

Still, fear in the sense of dread has played a big role in Christianity.

In a recent conversation a parishioner mentioned how fearful she was that comments of Church leaders portended a return to a religion that tried to coerce adherence to its judgments by threats of divine retribution. “I accepted that as a child and it was extremely painful. No matter who tries to reinstate it, I’ll never go back to that thinking.” I have heard similar sentiments from many lately.

While I understand and agree with a refusal to return to religious authority that bases itself on fear, there’s a concern.

While younger Catholics who grew up without knowing fear-based religious authority will simply ignore such threats, those of us raised in obedience rooted in fear can find ourselves anxious about confronting it once again. Our intelligence demands freedom of conscience while our emotions still make taking full responsibility for our decisions more difficult than we anticipate. We may experience gnawing anger as well as disquietude.

In addition, religious authority that tries to back up its judgments with spoken or implied threats makes it difficult for those who would normally value their teaching to take it seriously. To the extent that this occurs, it’s a costly loss for everyone.

The awesome, loving Creator, the God of the universe, the God of Jesus is not a source of fear. To paint him as such portrays a false God. That’s very dangerous.

Mass Celebrates Our Union In God
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 31:7-9

Among people whose livelihoods depend on thinking about such things there’s a long-standing argument about whether the Eucharist is a meal or a sacrifice. It’s a memorial meal of Jesus’ union with his disciples in the saving love of God, says the one side. It’s a continuation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins, says the other. Ah, but it’s actually both, says a third group trying their best to sound open-minded and reasonable. Everyone whose paycheck isn’t embossed with the name of a church says, Can’t we just get through to Communion time and pep up the music while we’re at it.

In the old days (i.e., when I was a child), people in the pews knew the Mass was a sacrifice because Father and Sister told them it was. After Vatican II those same people began to think of the Mass as a meal. They liked that idea because they understood meals and often used them to bring family and friends together. Now instructions from the Vatican on how to celebrate the Eucharist again refer to the Mass as simply a sacrifice. There are many problems with this whole discussion but a central one is the word sacrifice itself. Sacrifice has so many religious and secular meanings that it’s often more trouble than help.

The essence of religious sacrifice is establishing or strengthening a relationship with God.

If we can focus on this essence of sacrifice rather than imagining it as some suffering or distasteful situation that somehow satisfies God, I think we can avoid the pointless meal/sacrifice argument and experience the Mass a renewal of the promise that everything we do to make the world loving is part of God’s work of making the world loving. This was the promise of Jesus’ life.

Luke’s and John’s gospels are particularly helpful in seeing Jesus as united to God’s work of fulfilling the world’s promise. Jesus and we together with him are building something good with God.

Being Christian and celebrating Eucharist together isn’t about placating anybody.

The Point Is Love, Not Suffering
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 53:10-11

From the beginning people have been bad and deserve to be punished. In fact, we all deserve hell. Still, God didn’t want to send everybody to hell so he sent Jesus to earth and punished him instead. Since Jesus was God, he could take it. After that people who believe in Jesus, don’t complain and do what they were told can go to heaven. That sums up what I believed about Jesus, suffering and redemption when I was a kid. It was how disobedience and punishment were handled at home and at school. Whenever things were hard, someone: parent, relative or teacher told me to just offer it up – that is, tell God to add it to Jesus’ sufferings that were keeping us all out of hell.

I was in graduate school before I realized that my way of thinking about suffering and redemption wasn’t the only Catholic way of seeing things. There are and have been lots of ways Catholics understand how Jesus “freed” us from sin. As long as we respond to Jesus’ demonstration of God’s absolute love for us and unite ourselves with God’s work of making creation just and loving, we’ve got the message regardless of how we explain it.

What do we make of suffering in our faith then? It’s like suffering in other aspects of life. Parents don’t fixate on the suffering of being a parent. A parent’s suffering doesn’t make their child thrive. Suffering doesn’t make a student a successfully educated person. A lineman’s suffering doesn’t win games for an NFL team. Suffering isn’t the mechanism of success. Suffering is simply a cost of doing business. It’s not beneficial in itself – not for parents, NFL linemen, Christians or for Jesus.

We’ve merged the ideas of suffering and sacrifice to the extent that we have equated Jesus’ sacrifice with his suffering. If Pilate had interviewed Jesus and decided not to calm a few Jerusalem power-brokers by executing a threat to their control, would Jesus have been any less a revelation of God’s love. The foundation of our faith and the essence of Jesus’ sacrifice is God’s love for us that he revealed.

God Gives Us Faith – Not Solutions
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 7:7-11

“Gentlemen, hold your faith tightly but your opinions loosely. And may God help you know which is which.” That was advice our moral theology professor gave my class when we were in graduate school. The Second Vatican Council had just ended and this man was seeing many of the lessons he had taught for his entire professional life called into question. I disagreed with much he said but his statement stuck with me. I think I realized it came from a good man who was struggling.

Christian faith is the lived determination to realize God’s promise revealed in the life of Jesus. It entails a vision of life and society summarized in the word justice: every person is treated with love, respect and dignity. To the extent that I trust and am actively committed to that vision, I have faith.

The sticky issue, however, is how to act for the vision we hold. Some elements of a faithful course of action are obvious; others are very un-obvious. Anyone who thinks the path to realizing the Reign of God is simple has never raised children or tried to plot a course to justice in business.

Here’s an example of how folks acting in faith still have to wrestle with the practical decisions about how to proceed. All parents want their children to love one another and would agree that promoting such love is central to faithful parenting. Still, one parent might make a judgment that the best way to encourage love between two fighting children would be to place them in separate rooms to sulk and cool off for a while rather than to force them to kiss and make up on the spot. Another parent, wanting loving children just as much, might make a diametrically opposed decision. Living for the faith does not mean that we possess a specific route to the Reign of God.

This freedom of faith demands a high degree of prudence and an even higher degree of self-honesty. One element of that honesty entails admitting that our decision about the best course of action may be wrong. Nothing substitutes for prudence and honesty. We forget this at times: both our leaders and our general members.

Believing in God Is Believing In People
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 2:18-24

People matter; people make a difference. That simple idea lies at the root of religious faith. Its connotations may differ for different people at different times of their lives but it’s the basic answer to the question: what difference does it make whether we believe in God and, more specifically, in God’s love or not.

Almost everyone I know who’s serious about faith wrestles with this question at one time or other. Those who don’t throw up their hands claiming that they have something better to do with their time, like the dishes or next month’s budget, come to the conclusion that the question is inseparable from the question of whether they – their lives, their loves, their efforts, their dreams – make any difference.

People have always faced a universe that makes us seem irrelevant whether it’s the power of a storm to destroy any trace of our very existence in seconds or the latest photograph of galaxies whose immensity and age make our brief lifespan seem totally inconsequential.

The scriptural story of creation, couched in ancient concepts, asserts that Creative Center of the universe knows us and cares for us. The Creator in the story of Genesis goes to the trouble of reopening the work of creation to provide for human happiness. “It is not good for the human to be unique, I will remake it into a community.” To the Creator we’re worth care and effort. We matter.

There’s a crucial corollary to the observation that belief in God’s love means that we matter. The really important response to God is to live, as much as we are able, in a way that matters, a way that makes a difference. The ultimate denial of God isn’t to intellectually dismiss him. It is to live as though we don’t matter. To tell ourselves, and to make decisions as though, we make no difference. That is the most profound rejection of God.

We Search In Faith
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 7:7-11

“Gentlemen, hold your faith tightly but your opinions loosely. And may God help you know which is which.” That was advice our moral theology professor gave my class when we were in graduate school. The Second Vatican Council had just ended and this man was seeing many of the lessons he had taught for his entire professional life called into question. I disagreed with much he said but his statement stuck with me. I think I realized it came from a good man who was struggling.

Christian faith is the lived determination to realize God’s promise revealed in the life of Jesus. It entails a vision of life and society summarized in the word justice: every person is treated with love, respect and dignity. To the extent that I trust and am actively committed to that vision, I have faith.

The sticky issue, however, is how to act for the vision we hold. Some elements of a faithful course of action are obvious; others are very un-obvious. Anyone who thinks the path to realizing the Reign of God is simple has never raised children or tried to plot a course to justice in business.

Here’s an example of how one acting in faith still has to make a prudential choice of how to practically proceed. All parents want their children to love one another and would agree that promoting such love is central to faithful parenting. Still, one parent might make a judgment that the best way to encourage love between two fighting children would be to place them in separate rooms to sulk and cool off for a while rather than to force them to kiss and make up on the spot. Another parent, wanting loving children just as much, might make a diametrically opposed decision. Those who live the faith do not possess a specific route to the Reign of God.

This freedom of faith demands a high degree of prudence and an even higher degree of self-honesty. One element of that honesty entails admitting that our decision about the best course of action may be wrong. Nothing substitutes for prudence and honesty. Catholics forget this at times: both our leaders and our general members.

To Pray Is To Hope
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20

My mother had two sayings that she uttered when particularly exasperated with my brothers and sister and me: “God, give me strength” and “God, give me faith.” She used them interchangeably, never elaborated on them and I doubt she ever gave them much thought.

Ultimately, all prayer boils down to strengthening our faith. It refocuses us on and recommits us to what we believe God is doing. It’s not concerned with faith in the sense of ideas we might hold about God; it’s faith in the sense of living the way of Jesus. For Christians all prayer boils down to, God, let me live as Jesus lived.

Prayer is a daring activity. Every prayer, explicitly or implicitly aligns us with Jesus’ willingness to spend his life for the world of God’s promise. A bloody body dead on a cross isn’t always the best way to portray this. In our lives it’s more often an exhausted mother arguing for a just allocation of public resources for a depressed school. It’s an apprehensive employee refusing to go along with the bosses’ plan to move a faulty product through clever marketing rather than fixing its problems. It’s parents voting taxes for the common good when they know that that may decrease the advantages available to their own family. Most often it’s simply the daily care for the person next to me who needs my love.

Our faith is rooted in our confidence that the world is good but it’s a far cry from the gift that God promises. Immense natural evils obviously exist. But much worse are people willing to allow others to suffer, or even to cause them suffering, in their efforts to advance their own welfare. Such people don’t allow their power to wane without a struggle. We who are dedicated to justice, as Jesus was, will face their resistance and even hostility. In addition, we will face our own desire for unjust advantage.

Too often folks have portrayed praying as an act of tribute we perform to please God. We pray to keep hope. We pray to keep from growing depressed, exhausted and simply giving up on that hope which is, in the end, the core of our lives.

Faith’s Sorrow
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 50:5-9

“I’m not concerned with whether you’re sorry or not. I’m concerned that you don’t do this again.” I don’t know how many times I heard those words growing up. I knew that my parents didn’t mean them literally but I was slow to understand that their first concern was my disruptive and sometimes dangerous behavior. Their hurt feelings mattered much less to them.

As children we learned the Act of Contrition. We memorized, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. We believed we were apologizing to God and for having hurt him by our sins. Such a response would be understandable and even appropriate in a relationship with parents, lovers or friends but it’s misleading, if not harmful, in our relationship with God. It’s not God we hurt when we do evil or ignore the opportunity to do good; it’s ourselves and our community.

Expressing our fear and regret to God for our failures as well as our renewed determination to embrace life is more useful than protesting our contrition for imagined slights we’ve done him. The importance of repentance is realizing that our moral failures we cause pain to ourselves and our community and deny to everyone involved the goodness that God is offering.

It is hard enough to live by faith and hope without worrying that the God on whom we rely to guarantee life’s future rebuffs us for our offenses and must be reassured of our love and appreciation. We need language that reminds us that God is the promise: never the problem.

Tempted as we are to view humanity’s suffering as inevitable and our flaws inherent in our being, it’s an act of courage to express personal responsibility and sorrow, even pain, at our failures. Only a certainty that our God never hesitates in his commitment to us can free us to keep going in the face of our obvious weaknesses.

God never turns his back on us. If Jesus showed us anything, he showed us that.

Asking Is Believing
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah35:4-7

My friend was showing his four year old son a book of photos of galaxies when the little boy turned excited eyes to him and asked if they could go visit these wonderful places. “They’re too far away,” his father said. “Can’t we take an airplane,” came the quick response? “We’d never get there,” my friend explained. “Let’s buy a rocket ship,” was the determined response.

Something deep within us isn’t willing to take no for an answer when there’s something good we really want. As grown-ups we grow cautious about voicing such determination and we accept delay as a part of life but desire survives, even if quietly, looking for its moment.

Once we’re aware of the awesome universe and life we’re being given, It’s impossible to be indifferent towards it. We want all we can get. Prayer puts a voice to those desires. It’s not so much asking God for something new as it is voicing our desire to plum the depths of all God’s already giving. It isn’t an activity separate from the rest of life. It’s is part and parcel of life.

My aunt was a painter. She once gave a friend of hers a beautiful landscape. Without hesitation her friend immediately hung the work in her living room where she could see and enjoy it constantly in the best light possible. She wanted the maximum pleasure from her gift.

An old piece of advice is to pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us. That advice isn’t trying to say everything about prayer. It’s simply making the point that asking God for something isn’t a business-like request or bargaining for some item. It is more an excited urging of a friend to continue the generosity that he is already showing. It’s showing appreciation and trust for a continuing love.

Asking God for something doesn’t tell God something new. It reminds us that we want more of life; we want the unimaginable all of life. We know that we can’t grasp it all on our own but we bring our desires before God in faith.

The Gift Of Appreciation
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

Last week I suggested that developing a sense of amazement or awe rather than adoration might well help us deepen our prayer lives because it can move us beyond the idea that we are giving God something. It also opens up the idea that everyone, not just folks in organized religion, regularly and naturally pray.

A powerful reaction of faith to amazement is appreciation. At the heart of faith is the certainty that the goodness and beauty of everything isn’t an accident. It’s the work of a caring Creator. Creation is taking place not in a void but in a relationship: God knows and cares about creation and gives it existence out of love. We, and all creation, exist because we are held in God’s heart.

When we appreciate creation’s awesomeness, we’re not fulfilling an obligation. We’re recognizing the goodness of being who and where we are. We are recognizing the relationship that we have with the Creator. Appreciation makes awe personal. For the person who appreciates, creation isn’t something marvelous that simply happens; it’s something marvelous that the Creator gives us.

To be appreciative is to know our value to our Creator. Faith sees that our – that all – existence is given not as a reward for services rendered but as an unmerited gift freely given. Appreciation arises from within a relationship of love; not one of obligation. And, as is true of all love, it elicits deep humility because it is a gift that’s never repaid.

At our core, being Christian means that we are in awe and deeply appreciative of all creation and our place in it. It means that we are never uninvolved. We are never indifferent. And while we strive to be patient, we are never satisfied. The gift we are given is beyond comprehension and we can’t not wait to live it more deeply.

The Prayer of Amazement
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
21th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18

The verses omitted between the beginning and end of this portion of the Book of Joshua recount how The Lord rescued the Hebrews from Egypt and gave them a new home in the land of Canaan. In light of that history Joshua asks an obvious question: Given all that The Lord has done for you, why would you ever follow other gods who’ve done nothing for you?

Adoration is a ponderous word. It conjures images of cathedrals, incense and pompous music. It often involves angels, golden thrones and abject prostrations before an Almighty Being. Rarely do we think of it growing out of the normal experience of living – at least 21st century in our part of the world. Still, adoration has been a fundamental type of prayer for millennia. If we don’t want to return to the days of Rome or the late medieval age, what are we to do with the concept?

It may advance our understanding of spirituality if we speak about a prayer of amazement rather than adoration. When we’re amazed, we don’t have to say anything; in fact, we often don’t want to speak because words feel inadequate, even trite. Imagine holding a just-born infant, think of love’s power to bring us out of ourselves for another, ponder the universe’s immensity and intricacy that the Hubble telescope reveals, reflect on humans’ relentless urge toward freedom. The list of amazing realities is endless. Most amazing of all is the simple fact that everything is.

Amazement is at the root of love, of faith, of hope. It’s the core of prayer. Regardless of the words we use to express it – if we use words at all – being amazed is experiencing God. Even though we get the disquieting sense that it will move us beyond our answers and certitudes, we have both a boundless longing and capacity for amazement. It drives life.

Amazement is God’s Spirit within us. Embrace it.

Prayer: Doing Ourselves A Favor
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs9:1-6

“My life is hectic; I’m on the go constantly. I suppose I should spend more time praying but, honestly, I don’t see it happening and I can’t honestly say that I think it’s a problem. I take care of my kids and my home; I’m involved in community activities and have a part time job. I know I’m not perfect but I think I’m basically a good person. A least I’m trying and I’m not worried about it.”

A mother made this comment during a discussion about the spiritual growth of children. Several other parents nodded as she spoke. Her thoughts were typical and revealing.

It’s helpful to begin a discussion of prayer by undoing some common assumptions. The first is that prayer is something to feel guilty about. God loves and cares for you constantly; can’t you spend at least a few minutes talking with him each day! Parents and preachers have been making this kind of well-meaning statement for centuries but does it really make sense. A parent may long for a phone call from us; a friend may hope for a letter; a spouse may experience loneliness, even rejection without our expression of love but God isn’t in need of our attention. It’s we who need to give God attention.

Prayer is being aware of what God is doing in life and aligning our desire and determination with the divine intention. We need to be in awe at the reality, beauty and promise of our existence. We need to be aware that the chance to be part of creation is a gift, not a necessity. We need to know that our actions advance or inhibit the gift of life that God is giving. All those needs depend on paying close attention to the world around us and the hope within us.

When we get over the habit of thinking of prayer as an obligation to God, we have a better chance of moving past normal resistance we feel to demands imposed from outside and come to see prayer as a need we respond to – for our benefit and the benefit of the world that’s our community and home.

A Journey Of Trust
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1Kings 19:4-8

There is a story that takes place during the Hebrews’ travels from Egypt to Canaan. As they wandered in the desert the tribes ran short of water and began nagging Moses to find some for them. God told Moses he’d find water if he struck a certain rock with his staff. Moses did as God told him but, unable to imagine water gushing from a rock, he hit the stone twice rather than once as God had directed. God punished Moses for his lack of faith by allowing him to see but never enter the Promised Land.

Christian history is full of stories about people who did their best to believe in the world God promises but found it a difficult tale to accept. While most never gave up entirely on the idea, they often found themselves hitting their own rock two and even three times.

We can easily understand how Christians in the decades immediately following Jesus’ Ascension expected the world’s immediate transformation. They assumed that God’s future would come to pass as soon as he enforced his will on creation. What seemed his pointless delay precipitated a crisis of faith for them. Only gradually have we come to understand that God’s will generally evolves with one phase setting the stage for the next. We still struggle to find comfort in the idea that the Creator doesn’t act like a dictator with creation.

Just as no form of life foresees the subsequent form it will evolve into, we can’t see how the Spirit of God is leading us into the future. We’re only capable of living the way of Jesus as closely as possible. We love, we forgive, we share, we build and, most importantly, we never give up. That’s the role each of us inhabits.

As much as we might like to know the wheres, whens and hows of the Reign of God, we don’t and we can’t. Not even Jesus could. That is one of the hardest parts of taking up our crosses and following him.

Focus On What Matters
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus16:2-4, 12-15

Everyone wants to live in a land of milk and honey but nobody wants the exhausting desert trek it takes to get there.

Were the Israelites who had for generations inhabited ancient Egypt’s strip of Nile-watered green ignorant of what awaited them beyond the country’s border? Not likely. What was going on then?

The scriptural authors wanted to highlight our tendency to elevate minor difficulties to the level of the tragic when it distracts us from a challenge that we want to avoid.

Each step, from deciding to leave Egypt for Canaan to the task of developing then defending their small nation from surrounding super powers was immense. Never were the Hebrews truly secure. Fully aware of this they were constantly tempted to toss in the towel and use the slightest reversal as justification for taking a dive. We were safer and had better food as slaves in Egypt sounded pretty reasonable in the middle of a cold desert night with the sound of prowling animals close by.

If you want something important, you have to go all out for it, we tell children. Countless songs, plays, novels, sermons and graduation addresses make this point. It’s the central idea of nearly every religion, certainly of Christianity. It’s a core tenet of all human wisdom. The ultimate something that we encourage one another to go all out for is the world of our dreams. Faith names it God’s promise.

The world is full of things to complain about. We each have a long list. A goal of spirituality, however, is to distinguish nuisances and irritations from profound problems. It gives us the strength to step out from behind peripheral dislikes and provocations to face the central challenge of living justly and lovingly. Success depends on our prayerfulness and a wise, caring community.

A Hope Without Bounds
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2Kings 4:42-44

Despair may not be the best word to describe folks’ reaction to our national politics, our Church or our hope for a world where people aren’t daily blown up, raped and starved. Pessimism may be better. Still, many folks are near giving up on one or all of our institutions and our efforts to construct a world closer to our dreams.

A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times echoed the advice many Catholics have received from friends both in and outside of the Church: “Just leave.” It’s mistaken to assume that the urgers or the urgees have been lax or casual members of The Community; the usual case is just the opposite. And that’s just the situation in the Church.

When folks begin to talk about state or national politics, our economic behavior, the many wars going on or the living conditions of millions of the world’s poor, the temptation to helplessly throw up one’s hands is too much for many of us.

Lest we think that this is a new reality in the effort to live and act in God’s hope, it’s good to note that the story of a few loaves of bread feeding a multitude of hungry people occurs frequently in the Scriptures. The point of these stories isn’t to impress us with God’s or Jesus’ power so that we’ll pay them fitting homage. This isn’t about homage. It is about hope.

The good news in such tales of amazing nourishment is that God stands with us for life and growth even when success looks absolutely impossible. Such stories are common in Scripture because doubts about life turning out well are common. We can’t allow I don’t see any way that this can turn out well to be a reason for giving up on God’s promise.

Is giving up understandable? Of course. Should we condemn or shun folks who throw in the towel? Never. The pain of wanting out is a predictable price of caring deeply and intelligently about any aspect of life: social, political or religious. It’s an occasion for respect and encouragement, not for harangues about faithlessness or hints of hellfire.

Encouragement is a gift that we always owe everyone, especially those with whom we’ve shared communion in Jesus. We offer it while acknowledging that we too live with more faith than answers.

Moving Beyond Shepherds
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah23:1-6

The image of the shepherd is a staple of Jewish and Christian religion. It’s comforted countless generations and still holds meaning for many. It’s becoming a problem, however.

As a symbol for a community’s king, shepherd called attention not only to the deep love and gratitude that the people felt for him but also to the absolute authority which he exercised over them. Sheep didn’t second guess the shepherd and the people didn’t second guess their king. A king, like a shepherd, had complete responsibility for those in his care. No one thought that members of a tribe or nation possessed the ability or the right to set their own course. That was the king’s, their shepherd’s, role. The king was God’s agent, not the people’s. Therein lies the problem.

For several hundred years folks’ ideas of how a community should work have been changing, especially, but not exclusively, in the West. With great effort and cost most of us have come to see that the responsibility and the right to rule reside within ourselves. Though we haven’t figured out all the particulars of making this work smoothly nor proven as enthusiastic about the responsibility it entails as the self-determination it promises, we’ve wholeheartedly embraced democracy.

Catholic authority rejects the idea that its authority resides within all the people. Some lay people find the idea obvious; others find it unimaginable. Though there are undeveloped theological principles that could support the concept, the dominant theology adamantly holds that God directly gives both ecclesiastical and dogmatic authority to those he ordains.

Our Church is in the midst of a struggle over authority that pervades every aspect of our self-understanding. The differences in points of view are basic and the implications immense. Historically such struggles have been protracted and exceedingly nasty.

The core task Jesus gave his followers was to exemplify the peace and love that faith in God makes possible. If we handle our differences the way others have handled such conflicts in the past, we’ve absolutely nothing to say the rest of the world and no real reason to exist as a Church.

God hasn’t revealed the direction or the timetable for change to any of us. We have to work that out over the decades to come. Hopefully we’ll prove smarter – and more loving – than sheep.

In Praise Of Prophets
Thoughts on the First Readings -by Joe Frankenfield
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 7:12-15

Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.” Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Who are today’s prophets? If a prophet is a person who stands before people speaking God’s word, what does a prophet talk about in our country in our time?

I’ve met prophets in every parish where I’ve worked. None wore long robes or stood on the street corners predicting the end of the world, none of them rose up in church condemning the materialism of wealthy parishioners but they were prophets nonetheless.

Some refused to take revenge against people who had wronged them. Some turned down job promotions that paid more to spend more time with their families instead. Some refused to belittle political and religious adversaries who did not return the favor.

Some shared more of their wealth and possessions than others thought wise. Some reached out to folks everyone else spurned. Some always had a word of hope when things seemed to be heading down the tubes. Some were willing to question their most precious assumptions and listen intently to those who rejected their ideas.

Some always saw the promise in young people who made mistakes. Some were able to keep working hard when no one seemed to take notice. Some put everyone at ease in tense situations because they had a sense of humor that wasn’t taken aback by life’s chaos. Some just seemed to live a gentle but rock solid faith that evil wouldn’t have the last word.

People often think that prophets have to be extraverts but many that I’ve known are introverts. All have been humble: not I’m-a-nobody humble but very honest about themselves.

Being a prophet isn’t an optional activity for Christians. It’s central to the job description. The only question for us is what part of God’s promise to the world are we able to speak the most plainly.

One other thing about prophets. The job often goes unsung, even resented. After all, it often presents an unwanted challenge to the world around them. An unsolicited “Thanks” from those who understand helps a lot. I’d say it qualifies the giver as, at least, a prophet-in-support.

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thoughts on the First Readings -by Joe Frankenfield
Ezekiel 2:2-5

As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard the one who was speaking say to me: Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day. Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD! And whether they heed or resist–for they are a rebellious house — they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

If we imagine God standing by our bed tomorrow morning shaking our shoulders to get us up, what do we think he’d have in mind for us to do?

Does God simply want us to get to the job by eight and put in an honest day’s work? Is there more for us to do than keep the kids fed and clothed and make the loan payment on time? If we volunteer an hour each week to drive an elderly person to the doctor have we rounded off our to do list? What does God expect of Christians?

It’s surprising how many of us rarely, if ever, ask ourselves where we’re going – what our Creator is hoping to see us do. We don’t shirk responsibility. We simply assume that someone will tell us what to do or that the demands of life, like a crying child or a neighbor’s request, will make it obvious.

I once commented on this to a parishioner who replied, “I’m not a big picture guy. I just try to get through the day without screwing up.” The problem with that is that Jesus made Christianity a big picture religion when he promised the Reign of God and urged us to play our role in it. The Reign of God is a huge outline of the future. It demands that each of us flesh out the particulars of our character within the larger story.

On trial for his life Socrates told his judges that he asked unsettling questions because the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Jesus told his disciples that they had to pray if they hoped to live his Way. Paul told the Christians of Thessalonica to pray continually. Praying, or examining life, is simply attuning ourselves to what God is up to so that we can get with his program. That assumes, of course, that we believe God’s program is life itself.

Brilliant Catholic thinkers and leaders on the left and right agree on one central point. We Christians will become people of deep prayer or we will cease to be Christian. Like it or not our world is too complicated and changing too rapidly for a faith life to rest content in the assumption that someone else will tell us what to do. No one else knows. We have to discover where God is leading life and how to join the journey. That’s prayer. It’s a big picture thing.

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24

God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For he fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of the netherworld on earth, for justice is undying.  For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.  But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who belong to his company experience it.

“Life has to make sense to people. If they can’t find the sense, they’ll make it up.”  A psychology professor said that years ago.  I often recall it because it’s proven true.  And it causes problems.

It’s always struck me as strange that religious folks for whom mystery is a central element of faith find a need to explain everything.  Often, if they can’t find any other explanation, God will do as the last ditch answer.

Why did my friend have to die?  Why did my fiancé have to run off with his secretary?  Why did I get through the war without a scratch?  What wonderful thing brought you into my life?  Why is the earth just the right distance from the Sun for us to live on it?  I’ve heard countless answers to questions like these that begin, “Well, God . . . .”

The trouble is that making God responsible for things we don’t understand inevitably causes problems down the road.  When we pretend to possess answers that we don’t and use God’s name to do it, we set up contradictions.  I once heard a minister explain a young son’s death to his parents by saying that God always takes the best when they’re young.  “God’s pretty much of a selfish (so and so) then, isn’t he,” responded the angry father.  Though I felt sorry for the publically embarrassed minister, the parent was absolutely right and I couldn’t blame him for lashing out.  I have no idea is always better than making something up.

Parents sometimes fear that admitting to not understanding God will lead their children to have religious doubts.  From talking to many college students I’ve learned that answers that make God look good but don’t ultimately square with experience cause much more doubt.  They make religion look desperate and dishonest.  Many of young people find current Church authority guilty of precisely that because they loudly assert explanations that make no sense and when they’re challenged, they simply assert more loudly.

I can’t explain why life is as it is.  But I believe in a loving God anyway because . . . is an answer that demonstrates integrity as well as the strength of faith to honestly face our ignorance.  It’s more than okay.  It’s excellent.

Loving The God In Front Of Us
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist
Isaiah49:1-6

I have two friends, both Catholic. The first hopes to enjoy an eternity with God as his reward for an obedient life of love and justice. He hopes to obtain this reward upon his death. He evaluates all his actions now by whether God will find them pleasing. The inherent value of his present life matters little. Only his obedience and loyalty to God is important. “Life, he told me, is a course you run not because you want to change your location. The point is to run well enough to win the sponsor’s prize.”

My other friend doesn’t speak much of rewards when he talks about religion. He actually talks little about religion but when he does, he focuses on its support for finding hope and courage for day to day living. He is concerned much more with earthly matters like improving life for his family and neighborhood than other-worldly matters. He doesn’t feel an acute need to deepen his love for God in the abstract so much as he feels the need to widen his love for life beyond his immediate circle.

I once mentioned these friends to a priest who replied that it wasn’t really important which attitude my friends adopted as long as they were saying their prayers and following the rules. God loved both equally and both would end up in heaven. That was all that mattered.

The more I considered this, the more certain I grew that a lot more mattered.

A parent once said to me that if his daughter didn’t make to heaven, then being there himself wouldn’t be heaven, it would be hell. Those aren’t words one easily forgets.

Loving God isn’t just about valuing God, it’s about valuing life. When we concentrate primarily on God in heaven, we risk missing the experience of God in the life we have here and now and, even more, the life that we’ll have when the world becomes loving and just. How can we hope to love the God in Heaven whom we can’t imagine if we haven’t fallen in love with the life God inhabits right in front of us on earth? Our attitudes about life here and now do matter.

Acknowledge It: God Acts Through Us
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 7: 22-24

We’ve celebrated Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and followed that with Sundays recalling our belief in the Trinity and Jesus’ nourishing presence as wine and bread at Eucharist. Now we return to the day-in, day-out work of living the Christian vision.

With the gilt and banners back in the closets it may seem that we’ve entered the humdrum season. Not so. Now we see if all the celebrations will bear fruit in our more effective living for God’s future. That, after all, is the point. And we need to be wary of hearing the message but missing the point.

We Christians tread a fine line. With great fanfare we celebrate our gratitude for God’s love and Jesus’ total commitment to human fulfillment. At the same time millions around us live with immense suffering. We must remain aware of that incongruity. We must also respond to Jesus’ repeated reminders that his message of divine love wasn’t simply to make us feel good but to free us to bring loving justice to those living in misery.

At the beginning of each Eucharist we ask forgiveness for our failures to cooperate with God for the world he promises. We listen to God’s encouragement and we give thanks for Jesus’ work. We never give thanks, however, for the ways that we have cooperated with God. We never acknowledge that the Spirit has accomplished anything of value through our lives.

It isn’t being humble to ignore the good we do; it’s being oblivious to God’s power in us. When the Spirit’s succeeds in accomplishing love and justice through our lives, Jesus’ life bears its real fruit. Whether the celebrant expresses such thanks or not, we need to. We need to acknowledge what God is doing through us – at home, at work, in our community, in our world.

We need to do more at worship than praise God’s historical and distant actions. We need to experience, at least in small ways, that God is accomplishing good through us. We have to see that his Spirit is moving us to contribute to the life’s future.

A Gift That Nourishes
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ
Exodus 24:3-8

“What happens when you go do communion,” I once asked an eight year old preparing to receive the sacrament. “You get Jesus,” he replied. Ninety nine percent of Catholics would give essentially the same answer. That raises an interesting issue.

During his lifetime Jesus told his disciples that he would always be with them. Whenever two or more of them gathered in his name they could count on his presence. The gospels said that after his ascension he accompanied the disciples confirming their preaching. Within decades after Jesus went to be with the Father, Paul wrote to Christian disciples that they along with risen Jesus constituted the body of Christ on earth.

In addition to Jesus’ presence in the daily life we speak of the Holy Spirit being with us constantly, guiding our efforts to discover and cooperate with the will of God. He not only works with us but he inspires the good work of every human being.

At every moment, of course, the Father is giving us, as he’s giving all creation, our very being.

It is central to our faith that God immerses himself continuously in our daily lives. Given that, what do we mean when we say that we “get Jesus” when we receive Communion?

Sacramental presence is a matter of meaning, not mathematics. Jesus gave himself to us as bread and wine is to make his nourishing presence real for us in the long, exhausting work of the Kingdom. As he faced the harsh consequences of his own life of dedication, he promised to nourish us when we face ours. The Bread and Wine that is the presence of Jesus is not the banquet of triumph but the sustaining nourishment for struggle.

Wanted: A God For Adults
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Holy Trinity
Deuteronomy4:32-34, 39-40

“Who are you to tell me how I should think about God?” I didn’t have a good answer when the student in my office hurled that question at me. Rather than telling him what to think, I had intended to offer him some considerations in his search for God.

If we don’t take God seriously, it makes little difference what – or if – we think about him. On the other hand, if we think that God is creating the universe with purpose, it makes a lot of difference.

Many folks who claim belief in God think of their lives as a train ride. While they hope for a good trip and a pleasant destination, the train’s direction, speed and the condition of the tracks are of little concern to them since, they believe, God is the engineer. Basically they choose to board the train, decide where to sit and what to pick from the menu for lunch. Beyond that the trip is out of their hands. They may even consider it the heart of faith that they leave the driving to God.

When I first started working, a parishioner informed me, “I’m way too busy to think about philosophy. I’ve got a life to keep together. Just tell me what to do. You went to school to learn that stuff. I trust you.” I was never sure whether I was being complimented or dismissed. Probably the latter, though nicely.

No one can prove that God isn’t driving a train on which we’re merely passengers but that’s certainly not the God Jesus believed in. And, though you can’t always tell, it isn’t the God of the Christian Tradition either. God promises that we’ll ultimately arrive at the destination of human fulfillment but it’s our train and our ride: we pick the route and choose the speed. To some that’s atheism: if God isn’t driving, then God isn’t real. But it’s not atheism; it’s simply accepting adult responsibility for life and the freedom God gives us that’s necessary for love.

A Necessary And Liberating Humility
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
Pentecost Sunday
Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11

Many Catholics are wrestling with our troubled Church.  They’re shaken by leaders who seem to choose institutional power and image over honesty and care for others.  As one friend put it, “We’re rigid about all the wrong things and, in the face of the clear evidence to the contrary, we seem to think that we’re smarter and more moral than everybody else.  It’s a struggle to believe that we’re acting in good faith and not simply trying to hold on to control.  I’m not proud to be Catholic anymore.”  The man speaking was angry but he had tears in his eyes.

Our current maelstrom is the result of many currents.  One seems to be the hierarchy’s tacit assumption that they don’t slog through the same morass of human weakness and selfishness that bogs down the rest of us.

Paul’s letters and the gospels portray apostles and disciples who were lying, petty, squabbling, grubbing after influence, opinionated, dense and rigid.  These traits haven’t disappeared.  And few people are unaware of that fact.

Describing the Church as the “spotless bride of Christ” and “holy Catholic Church” may protect a certain theological point of view but most folks see it as merely a self-perception out of touch with reality.  As another friend recently noted, “This Church needs a strong dose of humility if it hopes to survive.”

A modest suggestion is that we cease being amazed that our community is seriously flawed throughout and humbly acknowledge that moral weakness effects not only our perceptions but our judgments.   We are wise to be hesitant about accepting moral guidance from those claiming authority but wise as well to be hesitant about assuming that we ourselves see and react to life out of wisdom and selfless love.  The claim to be Christian entails the responsibility to make serious and wise moral judgments not because to fail in this dishonors God but because failing in this harms people and our world.

The weakness of leaders often elicits new responsibility from those accustomed to following.  The Church and the larger community face a series of serious moral decisions.  Whether we’re invited or not, we  must take our places at the table for these conversations.

A Faith For Others
Thoughts on the First Readings - Joe Frankenfield
7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

“The Catholic hierarchy has been disinviting people like me, and especially women like me, for so many years that I finally took the hint.” That’s how the journalist and novelist, Anna Quindlen, in a recent interview explained her decision to leave the Catholic Church. Along with experiencing personal rejection she viewed her mere presence in the pew as sanctioning actions and attitudes that she sees as seriously wrong.

I enjoy and respect Quindlen and her work. I also understand the pain that some Catholics, especially Catholic leaders, cause her and others. I hope her leaving isn’t a permanent departure but I can’t blame her or anyone who decides enough is enough.

There’s something to keep in mind, however. In her interview Quindlen mentioned that she often thinks how “fantastic [the world] is and there’s so many opportunities to do good and to be happy. And I think that comes from some deep-faith place that started in religion and now transcends it.” Such awareness doesn’t arise without guidance from others and it doesn’t survive life’s chaos without others’ support. We depend upon a community for the core of our spirituality.

We may come to a point where we’ve developed a sufficient number of friends who share and sustain our spirituality that we could get along well without formal ties to the institutional Church: we wouldn’t forget who Christ is and who we are; we wouldn’t lose heart in the struggle for justice. If that’s so, we’ve also reached the point in our lives when we have something valuable to share, especially with those younger than ourselves. The Spirit has given us wisdom and fortitude. Those gifts aren’t for our personal satisfaction; they’re given us for the community and, ultimately, for the kingdom of God.

It would be wonderful if the world beat a path to our door seeking what we’ve learned but it won’t. Sharing the Spirit’s gifts is demanding. The complaint that just when I’ve actually got something useful to say nobody wants to listen is time-honored. And it’s inevitable that those we would most like to hear what we have learned are the most difficult to speak with.

The First Book of Kings tells of the prophet Elijah becoming disheartened in his struggle to bring people faith. At his wit’s end he retreats into the desert hoping to die. But the Lord comes to him in a silent, light breeze, the kind that barely rustles leaves let alone makes spectacular changes, and leads the prophet back into his work.

To continue working for God’s world when we see no proof that we make any difference is life’s ultimate challenge. We have received faith from others for others. It’s not our own.

We Give Authority Carefully
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
6th Sunday of Easter
Acts10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

There is a prized item that most authorities would like in their box of tools: the perception, if not of divinity itself, at least of a divine ambassadorship. When I am speaking, God is speaking is a powerful warrant. Parents, princes and popes would all like such clout.

Claims to speak for the Divinity can’t be effectively asserted, however, they can only be granted. Parent, pope or king can give every imaginable reason why he should be viewed as infallibly expressing God’s will but only those who judge his claim reasonable and beneficial will grant him authority.

Social or physical strength may give a person who claims authority great power to enforce his will but it gives him no authority. One who forces others to do his will without communicating to them a truth which they recognize is a tyrant, not an authority.

But, some say, God gives authority. God always has power but God has no authority that is not recognized by creatures. It is astounding to realize that our Creator respects that. Even God’s authority exists within a relationship of freedom.

The point of this observation is not to change the attitudes of those who claim authority. The point is to examine our attitude towards authority.

Our choices of those who possess power over us are limited. Every school child learns that on the playground. Our choices about authority in our lives, however, are another matter entirely.

No one who believes in Jesus’ God questions God’s authority. That authority is first of all and ultimately rooted in the perception that God loves us. The authority of anyone who would speak for God depends on whether she or he reflects God’s love for us.

I judge your authority to be true because I judge you to be loving is the key equation we must make. If we find ourselves troubled at those who claim authority, it’s most likely because we simply do not experience that simple truth with them. If that’s so, we do well to be wary.

The Courage To Love
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
5th Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31

“I’m afraid; I’m simply afraid.” That’s how the young man summed up his feelings towards his girlfriend. “I like her. She’s a good person and lots of fun and we get along great. I just don’t know where she’s – where the whole thing is taking me and it scares me.”

I never found out how their relationship turned out. That’s campus ministry: a library of stories whose endings you never learn. Still, this one had a common but always important theme: fear.

If the core of Jesus’ revelation about God is the absolute love God has for every person, the biggest obstacle to experiencing as well as sharing that love is fear.

Why would the Creator of everything love me? What do I have to offer in return for love? What will love demand of me? Like the young man fearful of the demands his friend’s love might make on him, we all seem to have a fear of love – not just God’s love but of anyone’s love.

A long-married parishioner discussing how he and his wife had overcome their self-centeredness once told me, “We loved each other’s fears away. I don’t know exactly how. I think sometimes we just couldn’t do anything else.”

Thinking about his words many times, I realized that he was explaining something central not only to human relationships but at the core of God’s relationship with us as we’ve come to know it in Jesus. In Jesus, God loved or fears away.

When God loves away our fears, we’re freed to love away the fears of those around us. That’s when things begin to change. That’s when we begin to experience the world Jesus promised.

I often remember that elderly husband’s wisdom when I read of Jesus urging his disciples to forgive one another and enemies just as God forgives them.

We Give As God Gives
Thoughts on the First Readings – Joe Frankenfield
4th Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12

“I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your criticism. I need your support and your help. If you can’t give me those, please leave.” The father of a disabled son spoke those words in a radio interview he gave about his friends’ reactions to his situation. His words struck me because they echoed those I’d heard a few weeks earlier from the political leader of a small, struggling nation.

Giving advice and criticism is easier than rolling up our sleeves and pitching in. Giving advice and criticism keeps us superior to the one in trouble. Wrestling directly with another’s problem means making the problem our own and experiencing our own weakness in its presence.

Too often our world asks us Christians for help only to receive advice and criticism instead. Standing outside of its pain we offer, “Let us explain to you why you are suffering. Let us tell you how you should have avoided your difficulty. We have the answers if you would simply listen to us.”

Too often, as well, our answers are based in ignorance. Too often they serve to justify our assumptions rather than lighten others’ burdens. Too often those in need tolerate our presumptuousness to obtain whatever benefit they can. They damp the flames of their resentment for a later time.

To give in the Spirit of Jesus is to give without strings. To help in the Spirit of Jesus is to enter into another’s problem so deeply that we live it from the perspective of the one seeking our aid.

If we understand Jesus as a human being who was God’s presence rather than God acting as though he were human, we know that he didn’t intervene as an outsider. From within the community he worked with and encouraged people to accomplish what, with God, they were capable of.

Jesus was never made himself better than we are. He was one of us in the struggle for the life God promises. That’s what the world asks of us.

Faith Lives Within History
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
3rd Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 3:13-15, 17-19

Recently a friend told me of a kindness that the members of his family had performed for an acquaintance. “We did it because it was the kind of thing that our parents did and, so the story goes, their parents before them. I guess. It’s just who we are.”

Folks care about what their ancestors have done, not simply out of historical curiosity but because their ancestors form the foundations of their lives. Each builds on the efforts of those who preceded them. To value one’s ancestors is to value one’s self and one’s future.

When Matthew and Luke told the story of Jesus, they began by placing him within his ancestral past. Name after name, century after century they recounted those who made Jesus possible until, nourished by the dreams, faith and work of countless progenitors, he revealed God’s promise of human triumph.

Just as we do, Jesus stood on the shoulders of those who went before him. His promise was the fulfillment of the future they had longed for.

One of the pluses of belonging to a faith tradition is that it constantly reminds us that others have given us faith and that we hold it in trust for those who will follow. The work of faith is inseparable from the work of human history. It’s not about our private lives. Faith’s focus is the common advancement of humanity from its present widespread suffering and injustice to its inheritance of peace and dignity.

It would be nice if our family of faith consisted of perfect people orderly processing into a glowing future. Alas, the old saw, family: you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them, applies as much to the Church as to any other group.

It helps to remember that, without a doubt, we are someone else’s frustration just as certainly as they are ours. Anyone who thinks the journey to God’s Kingdom is smooth and harmonious has been breathing too much incense.

God creates the universe to evolve. The Spirit lives in the dream that drives the process. As much as we complain about Church society, as we do as well about our political and social societies, it’s where we’re challenged, sometimes gently sometimes harshly to become the people we can be.

Wherever We Are, We All Teach
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
2nd Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35

One result of the current debacle facing Catholic teaching authority is the serious lessening of its power to present the core Catholic vision in a way others find believable.

At the heart of our understanding of God, ourselves, salvation and human destiny is the communal nature of life. In Catholic understanding, there is no survival, let alone fulfillment of the individual outside of the community. There isn’t any hope for the community that does not include the dignity and fulfillment of the individual. The economic, social and legal behavior of our society makes it obvious that, regardless of the fine speeches we make about our union, we’ve not embraced this perspective.

If the law doesn’t stop me from getting or doing it, I have a right to it is a common attitude. To one who’s absorbed the Spirit of Jesus this understanding is unworkable and destructive.

Is it any business of religion? Yes. The foundational importance of community to life is a tenet of our faith. If we are committed to our faith, we are committed to the health of the community – the entire community. It’s not a doctrine to believe; it’s a love to share.

We must work for a healthy community and we must speak about a healthy community. We must make the community’s welfare the touchstone of our behavior. We promote the common good in every way we can – by explaining, by convincing, by encouraging, most of all, by modeling our commitment to it.

But some would say it’s not my job as a layperson to influence public opinion or policy. That’s the work of the bishops and cardinals. They testify before congressional hearings. They give speeches. They hold the press conferences.

In America today, the most trusted and powerful voice for our faith, the most valued source for Jesus’ values is the honest, down-to-earth neighbor next door. It’s the reliable person in the next office. It’s the car-pooling dad and the school volunteer mom. It’s the friendly clerk at the store.

You are the voice of the Church today. Don’t be silent.

The Promise God Won’t Let Die
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Easter Sunday
Acts of the Apostles 10:34, 37-43

Ask any Christian school child what Easter is all about and you’ll get the confidant answer: That’s when Jesus rose from the dead. I’ve always wondered how Jesus would respond to that answer if he were the questioner. Given the kind of man he was, I imagine that he’d smile and say, “Very good” but he’d also whisper a quick prayer that the child would come to understand much more as she grew.

Jesus was never a self-promoter. It’s impossible to make the case from the gospels that he ever thought that it was all about him. Throughout his public life he directed his energy to instilling in his listeners an unshakable faith in the Reign of God. He strove to create in his countrymen the guiding hope for the day when the world would finally become the magnificent reality that God had been offering humanity from the start.

Jesus so totally identified himself with God’s New World that he equated his healing, his forgiving, his loving, his assurance with God’s healing, forgiving, loving and assurance. If folks would only reach out and grasp the reality he presented them with, the World of God’s Promise would be theirs. There was no gap between his love for them and God’s love for them. There would be no gap between their love for one another and God’s love for them.

Then everything crashed. There were threats and tension, an arrest and an execution. The dream, the promise died. But it didn’t.

People who had really known Jesus experienced his touch, his forgiveness, his loyalty, his joy – him – as alive as he’d ever been. The promise endured. The New World of God was unstoppable. It was theirs if they would only live it. Nothing could take it away.

Who rose on the first Easter? We did. The world did. God’s fondest hope rose.

Jesus: The God We Need To Know
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Palm Sunday
Isaiah50:4-7

“What difference does it make whether Jesus is God or not. He was an excellent teacher and an amazing moral example. That’s good enough for me. His divinity just isn’t something I think about.” With that my lunch companion took a bite of salad. She viewed her point as unassailable and the issue exhausted.

Many active, committed Catholics doubt or find little need for Jesus’ divine status. Without in any way calling it into question, I agree that the idea of Jesus’ divinity is difficult.

The belief that Jesus was both completely human and truly divine goes back to the earliest days of the gospel. Proving that this belief is true or explaining how it can be true, is beyond us here. It will have to suffice to say that this is our Faith.

The belief in Jesus’ divinity plays a crucial role in Catholic faith, however.

There are huge arguments about how God reacts to human events. If we win a game, God was on our side. If we lose, God either has a plan that we don’t know or God is punishing us for something. If we look at Jesus’ life, we quickly arrive at the realization that God isn’t involved in who wins or loses but cares deeply that the whole experience enhances the lives of all involved.

When we watch Jesus relate to people, we watch God relate to people. Jesus revealed God in his actions. He loved, he forgave, he healed, he listened, he didn’t count costs, he gave himself, he bet everything he had on people. When we see Jesus act, we see God act. When we know Jesus, we know God.

Do we know the totality of God? No. We know the reality of God that we need to live the gift that God gives us. That’s the revelation of Jesus. That’s the work of Jesus setting us free to overcome evil.

Think how often we argue about how God relates to people. Then think how seldom we argue about how Jesus related to people. For those who know Jesus as God-among-us, that’s the point.

Which God Do We Choose
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Years ago a parishioner told me of things he had done in the past that he knew were wrong. He was certain that his actions had hurt God who in return would doubtlessly punish him.

I asked him why he thought that God would punish him. “God cares about us and how we treat one another,” he said. “God has to be upset with me and I’ll have to pay the price.” “In fact,” he continued, “I feel like God has already pulled away from me.”

Our image of God determines how we believe God acts.

If we picture God as a super human being, God will act the way human beings act – only with super-human strength. His patience will wear thin. On occasion he’ll decide that he needs to show who’s boss. He’ll feel ignored or slighted or jealous.

If we think of God as somehow separate from us – out there somewhere, we can imagine God being, at times, closer to us than at others. We can think of God caring more for some people than others.

A young man once adamantly informed me that he would picture God any way he wanted and no one would push their idea of God on him. He was right, of course. Still, the image of God he chose would affect him and, through him, the people around him. Willy nilly, his choice would have consequences.

Next time you hear someone talk about how God will treat someone they dislike, someone who’s done them wrong or disagrees with them, notice what image of God they turn to. Almost always it will be the super human God; the God “out there.” Rarely will they turn to a God who intimately knows and loves their enemy. Rarely will they turn to a God constantly creating every atom of their enemy’s being.

Christians too often have several gods and they put the one on the altar that gets them the result they want.

The image of God we choose makes a difference. And that brings us to Jesus.

Avoid A Too-Small God
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Forth Sunday of Lent
2Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23

Most folks tend to think of God as the biggest, strongest, all-around best being of us all. But the “of us all” is a problem. God isn’t one of us. There isn’t a hierarchy of beings that starts with atoms and moves up through worms, foxes, chimpanzees and human beings with god at the top of the pyramid. God isn’t another being like us, regardless of how wonderful and powerful we make him. God isn’t part of our pyramid. God is, instead, the reason that everything that we know exists. “So what,” you might ask.

One reason for rejecting the idea that God is in any way one of us lies in the great danger we face of giving God human weaknesses and prejudices. For instance, think how we turn God into someone we must bargain with, trading prayers and good works for things we want. Think of how we make God vengeful and petty. We do this even though we say that God loves everyone completely and perfectly.

Though it is natural to create God in our image, the great religions of the world have fought against it. Judaism has forbidden the word God to be spoken or an image of him made. Islam forbids images of God. Buddhism teaches that God is beyond our ability to know. Christian Tradition has been inconsistent on the matter though it has a deep philosophical tradition of God’s incomprehensibility.

St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of God as Pure Being, though not being as we experience it. St. Paul wrote that God is Love, though not the imperfect love that we give and receive even on our best days.

Who is God? Thomas and Paul were serious when they said God is Being and Love. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around that. But it’s worth the effort. It beats thinking of God as our Uncle Harry – super-sized!

Commandments Of Promise
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus20:1-17

You shall not kill – unless you’re in a war, someone is attacking your spouse or children or you’ve got some other good reason. You shall not steal – unless you are starving and your neighbor, with more than enough food, refuses to share. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor – unless it’s necessary to prevent unjust harm to yourself or other innocent people. Unless I misread our situation, this is how folks really understand the Commandments.

Even though most Christians claim that God in some manner gave these rules to us, we mold and remold them until they fit into what we think is sensible.

What do we honestly think the Commandments are? What practical role do they play in our lives?

Some folks see the commandments as God’s posted warning: Do this thing and I’ll punish you in this life and the next. Others see the commandments as a list of behaviors God dislikes but stands ready to forgive without penalty if we show fitting remorse.

Many view the commandments as fine ideas if you’re religious; however, since they were generated by ancient peoples and situations, they’re not realistic for our lives.

Finally, there are those who view the commandments as essential behaviors, learned under the Spirit’s guidance, that are necessary if humanity is to arrive at the world God promises. Each failure to pursue them delays that world and prolongs the injustice and suffering that we all endure.

Which view of the commandments to adopt? The best of Catholic Tradition uses the fourth.

A Living Faith Is A Changing Faith
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis22:1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18

The story of God asking Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, is repugnant to most of us.

To the Jews who told this story, however, it was a step forward. Its original audience knew of gods who demanded the life of a family’s firstborn in return for great favors. For them the headline was that their God did not want children sacrificed. That was the liberating message. Everything else was detail.

Over the ages the Jews have deepened their understanding of their relationship with God. It didn’t happen easily. It never does in a revelation-based religion because somewhere the words of prior understandings are written and they can’t be simply ignored or tossed cavalierly aside. To do so throws a religion into chaos.

Change in a revealed religion can only come when its members realize that to remain true to their foundational relationship with God and one another they must modify their understanding of both God and themselves. They must admit that they have not yet fully understood their faith. Such an admission tests the strength of a faith. It’s always difficult.

A living faith is vibrant, always flexing and stretching. As all who have been in intimate relationships know, those interactions change and adapt constantly. Only the dullest of people would say to a friend “I totally understand you; I always know how to respond to you”. We will never fully understand our faith because faith is a relationship between individuals, a community and God. It changes.

It would be nice if we could take faith for granted but we can’t. We have to wrestle with it, not simply to believe this or that but to understand just what it is that we need to believe. Faith grows by continually reflecting on our experience of living and believing to make sure that each reflects the other. That’s rarely easy; it’s rarely comfortable. Still, we owe that growth to ourselves and to the world with whom we promise to share the faith.

A God Like Us Isn’t God
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
First Sunday of Lent
Genesis9:8-15

God is all loving. God is angry. God is harsh. God is forgiving. In the Bible or common opinion, Christian writers or daily preaching, God’s moods frequently seem to conform to our moods.

A friend once refused get involved with religion because the God people presented to him was like “a mentally ill lover: warm and tender one moment and murderously violent the next. That kind of person will make you crazy. The only way to stay sane is to stay away. I don’t know whether God is actually like the picture people paint or people paint God to look the way they want Either way, no thanks!”

Sometimes the unpredictable, dangerous picture of God arises because folks naively imagine God as simply a super-human being, giving him familiar qualities so that he is, by turns, heroic and mean, loving and hateful – like we are. But there’s a deeper difficulty.

God loves and wants to give joy to everyone. How do we portray God who loves everyone but observes some of his loved ones inflicting pain on others of his loved ones? If I, as a kid, whacked my brother, my mom would comfort the victim of my nastiness and tend to his hurt. Turning to me she would yell, “Joseph, go to your room and stay there till I get to you.” I was about to feel several things; love wasn’t one of them. We’ve few images to portray God loving those who hurt his beloved.

Great world religions try to avoid ascribing human weakness to God. Christians have the revelation of Jesus which should have protected us from such a failure. It hasn’t. By the second century the Book of Revelation portrayed Christ wreaking vengeance upon Rome for its persecutions of the Church.

A God who loves our enemies and us alike challenges everything: who we are, who our enemies are, who God is and what our lives are about. We assume that God wants what we want. And on the deepest level that must be true. Yet we’re missing something basic.

A fourth grader once observed to me with some agitation, “If we love our enemies, they won’t be our enemies anymore! We won’t have any enemies. How can we do that!?” We have much to learn.

The Kingdom Is A Group Project
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24-25

All of us trying to follow Jesus want the world he promised: a good, abundant, loving life for everyone; problems arise, however, when we begin to examine the changes that vision entails. The first problem is that there will have to be changes and most of us have constructed fairly secure lives in the world the way it is. The second problem is that, even if we’re willing to accept disquieting change in pursuit of God’s promise, we still must deal with the fact that there’s no single, generally accepted, practical path leading to the world Jesus promised. There are many competing paths, most of which originate from deep intellectual and emotional commitments within their proponents.

Our faith offers a panoply of virtues to help us place our own security and contentment on hold for the sake of universal justice. It offers us far fewer resources, however, for overcoming the tension inherent in our widely divergent views about the best way to realize God’s vision.

How can Catholics who are convinced that Scripture should be understood literally cooperate with those who believe that its vision and spirit must be adapted to the language and experience of each new generation? How can people convinced that the Pope speaks the faith that God’s Spirit places in the entire community work with those convinced that the Spirit reveals only to the Pope who, in turn, tells everyone else what to believe?

Until we learn how to cooperate with such differences we’re like people walking past a starving man while arguing whether they should feed him home-made or store-bought bread. The situation would be comic were it not so critical.

There was a time when Church authority, at least in theory, solved such tensions by simply declaring one way or opinion correct. That day, if it ever existed, is gone. Modern education, mobility, communication and respect for individual autonomy has ended it.

Unless the different groups within the Church are to naively believe that they can accomplish God’s work without the cooperation of other groups, we must find the single Spirit that unites us and discover a way to work together for the vision that God gives us in Jesus.

Right Or Wrong: It Matters
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus13:1-2, 44-446

Communities have long equated God’s will with what they believed best for their common welfare. Sure that God loves them, they are sure that he wants what’s best for them.

To know God’s will entails either receiving God’s direct revelation or observing how life functions best and inferring God’s desire from those observations. Ancient Jews believed, as do many contemporary Jews, that God directly revealed The Law. Most Christians believe the same. Catholic teaching has emphasized a way of understanding how folks should act called natural law. This consists of observations of life that yield a set of practical best practices for living, e.g., to treat our bodies in ways that do them needless harm is wrong because healthy bodies contribute to a full human life. It seems reasonable to assume that these best practices are God’s will for us though we don’t claim that he has directly spoken of them.

Today the awareness that various successful civilizations have lived by different understandings of what God has spoken has made our contemporaries cautious about claiming to possess a uniquely true revelation. Biblical and historical research has made others slow to accept that every claim of direct revelation is accurate. A deepening understanding of how the world and people function and difficulties involved in arriving at a single norm of human thriving makes many leery of generalities about human nature.

All this being said, making moral and ethical judgments is at once a necessary and an extremely high stakes activity. The issue involved isn’t whether God will reward or punish us for our decisions. The issue is whether we will do ourselves and others good or harm, whether we’ll make our world a better or worse place to live in and to hand on to our children.

We can’t cede responsibility for our decisions to others who make judgments we simply follow. I do what I’m told is a tragically inadequate moral response; so is I do it because it feels right.

Moral judgments are inescapable for those living the way of Jesus. The wise approach them with maturity, honesty, humility and in dialogue with others whose judgment and integrity they trust.

The Church’s Essential Service
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 7:1-4,6-7

It’s easy to talk about loving others and being committed to the stranger’s welfare. It’s anything but easy to move from the rhetoric to the reality.

Modern communication and transportation allow us to jog in shoes from Taiwan and enjoy fresh vegetables from California or Florida all winter. But they have other consequences. We hear about a ship sinking off an Italian island within minutes of its running aground. We see same-day video of soldiers shooting anti-government demonstrators in Syria. We hear the cries of mothers holding their starving children in the Sudan and watch the earthquake tragedy drag on month after month in Haiti. As a result we wonder if relatives cruising the Caribbean will be okay, whether we should send more money to Haiti, if our government ought to intervene in Syria. So much information is overwhelming. It’s understandable that we want to ignore world news and obsess over what star is dating whom and whether the Tigers have signed a new reliever.

Modern communication and mobility provide us the opportunity to respond to an entire world rather than just the twenty square miles around us. They leave unanswered, however, the question of how we want to deal with that response-ability?

Do I believe that God will actually end this world’s injustice? Do I believe that my actions contribute to that process? Where does God’s goal fall in my list of priorities? What sacrifice am I willing to ask of myself and those I love for a just world? What assurance of success do I need before I can risk my time and energy for such a world? Faith alone answers these questions. Faith alone allows us to embrace the promise of life. Our response is ultimately a matter of love.

What we need most from our Church is not a new liturgical style or firmer directions about how to behave; we need strong, reliable support to love freely – to love beyond the point that our fearful and security-centered world judges “good enough.”

The Voice Of God Is Everywhere
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Who speaks for God? When I was a child, my grandmother told me that my mother and father spoke for God. In grade school, the sisters told me that the priest spoke for God. High school teachers told me that the pope spoke for God. In college my professors assured me that Scripture, the Church and whoever spoke truth spoke for God. I began to sense a direction in these conversations.

Today many people listening closely for the word of God have come to accept that God speaks through life: all life but, most powerfully, human life – everyone’s life. Life reflects God most fully and in the longing for life reflects the longing for God at its most intense.

The more carefully folks attend to human life, the more clearly they see that it can’t be detached from the earth in which it dwells in and of which it’s a part. Seeing this, they have come to think of the entire earth and, to the extent we understand it, the universe beyond, as God speaking to us.

Christians may wonder if this experience of God in all of creation supersedes the experience of God in our Tradition. It doesn’t. What it does do is place the Word of God that the Church has conveyed to us into a context beyond measure.

Today we have to re-hear the story of Jesus. Christians of the New Testament era had to translate the story of Jesus from its Jewish context into the culture of the Greek and Roman world. We have to hear Jesus with the ears of world-wide humanity, of the planet itself and the universe beyond. If just moving the experience of Jesus from the world of first century Judaism into the Greco-Roman world pushed our faith to the edge of its breaking point, what will happen as we immerse it in the world that science and communication is opening up today! No wonder the Church feels so unsettled; God is drastically widening the horizons of our faith.

As our grade school teachers said when we had to cross a dangerous street, “Hold tight to the hand of the boy or girl next to you.”

We Listen For The Voice Of God
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jonah 3:1-5, 10

In recent comments for a Commonweal article Luke Timothy Johnson, a respected scripture scholar, observed that every theologian’s first question has to be, what is God doing in the world? I’d add, that’s the first question every Christian has to ask!

Many Catholics today struggle to maintain confidence in authority’s ability to provide them a useful answer to that question. It seems sometimes that our leaders fear the messiness of the new experiences and situations within which faith must operate and are simply attempting to mandate attitudes and solutions from a previous age. We view this as a dead end. Accepting that life and faith-life are always lived in a fumbling, insecure and restless world we choose to move ahead bringing what ancient treasures we can carry and counting on the Holy Spirit and our sense of the Tradition to help us construct what we need as we proceed. As we journey, we hold tightly to two basic elements of Catholic life.

First, we are a Eucharistic community. This means much more than that we go to Mass. It means that we’re committed to the promise of Jesus. It means that we’re confident that the Holy Spirit works through our lives. It means we believe that God will accomplish through us the just world that he promised. We celebrate the renewal of that promise every time we pray the Eucharist. We unite ourselves to God’s work and one another’s when we share Christ in Communion.

Next, the world that we live in, as unfulfilled and painful as it often is, is the gift God gives for our joy and fulfillment. It is a sacrament; it is God’s realm. God didn’t enter this world because there was no other way to communicate his love for us. He entered it because it’s his gift to us and he loves it as he loves us. Our world is not intended to be a vale of tears but a wondrous home. Our faith is not to flee this world but to immerse ourselves in it and complete it.

If we know where we’re going, if we’re committed to the journey, if we know what to carry, we’ll arrive in God’s time. We have his promise.

The God In Front Of Our Noses
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
I Samuel 3:3-10, 19

My dad wore reading glasses. One day he couldn’t find them. He searched the house high and low certain that someone, probably my mom, had moved them from their usual place. Complaining loudly, he finally walked into the kitchen demanding to know why my mother had moved his glasses and where she had put them. She looked up from her work and, giving him her best you poor dumb man look said, “For God’s sake, Walter, they’re on your nose.”

Missing the obvious is common. It happens in our faith lives. We hear repeated admonitions to practice some behavior or virtue and it becomes part of the wallpaper: always there, rarely noticed. Jesus agreed with the common rabbinical teaching that the central commandment of Jewish Law was to love God and one’s neighbor. We hear those words thousands of times and yet they sit hidden on our noses.

Part of the trouble is the unfortunate use of the word commandment referring to Jewish Law. We tend to react to law as an imposition on our freedom. What’s the fine for its infringement? How can we circumvent it? Jews, on the other hand, viewed The Law, at least in theory, as the road map for successful living. God had given it to them as their most precious possession. It advanced them above every other nation.

Loving God above all else meant recognizing that a Benevolent Being was behind all reality giving it meaning and direction. Aligning oneself with this Being was traveling the road to success. It was the height of common sense. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself was simply recognizing the fact that the Creator constructs life as a web in which, ultimately, for one to thrive all must thrive. The admonishment to love God and one another was like an admonishment to breathe: not some extraneous regulation but the simple encouragement to commit to life.

We spend a lot of time storming about our world looking for lost peace, misplaced civility, vanished resources sorely needed by millions. The solution isn’t missing. It’s Love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves. What’s missing is the courage to acknowledge it.
Pray for courage.

Faith’s Focus
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6

Once arriving home from school for the holidays I was overcome by rare feelings of generosity and asked my mother how I could help her get ready for the festivities. Casting an amused look around the pre-Christmas chaos she quipped, “Gee, I don’t know; just look around and see if anything catches your eye in.” So much for my grand gesture!

Some folks are convinced that it’s crucial to return elements of the mystical to our world. They are certain that the Church has lost its sense of the sacred and has discarded our rich spiritual heritage creating a trivial, feeble, boring religion focused only on what we can see and measure. An earnest young man once informed me that we needed to move past worldly preoccupations and promote what Celtic religion refers to as the thin spots in life, where the sacred world is near at hand and easily grasped. We should stress the wonder of the sacraments, especially the mystery of the Eucharist, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We should emphasize the world’s holy places like the Vatican, Lourdes, cathedrals and shrines. “Folks today have lost their grasp of the spiritual and divine, they’re drowning in the ordinary,” he informed me. This thinking is strong in many circles and carries significant official backing. Still, it misses a huge point. The sacred is not the other-worldly.

Jewish Scripture repeatedly points out that the world is full of God’s goodness and splendor (e.g., Num. 14:20, Is. 6:3, Hab. 2:14). In the gospel Jesus bluntly points out that those who feed and care for others, especially the needy, feed and care for him (Mt. 25:35). At the heart of our every Eucharist prayer the priest raises his hands over the bread and wine that ordinary folks make in ordinary wineries and bakeries. He asks the Holy Spirit to transform these symbols of our efforts for the life God promises into the divine guarantee that is Christ.

It’s tempting to seek the sacred and meaningful in a sphere where, by our beliefs, we control the demands and their fulfillment. In the everyday world the demands and consequences of our action or inaction are objective, immediate and measurable: sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail and often we get exasperatingly mixed results. That’s a lot different; a lot tougher. Still, this is the world God gives us and promises to transform into his Kingdom. This is the arena of our faith lives.

Giving God’s Image Room to Grow
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Feast of Mary, the Mother of God
Numbers 6:22-27

The young woman in my office was upset, nearly in tears. “My professor said I was stupid and naïve for believing in God. It felt like he was accusing me of believing in the tooth fairy or something.” I happened to know the professor she was speaking of and, though he didn’t personally believe in God, he held others’ beliefs in great respect. The student and I had a long talk about her childhood beliefs and her current confusion about them.

When we begin thinking about God, it’s understandably in human terms. That’s our experience. We know reward and punishment so God rewards and punishes. We know jealousy and anger so God gets jealous and angry. We control things to get what we want so God controls things to get his way. We respond to those who are attentive to us and ignore those who discount us; so we understand God.

Later in life, when we’ve lived more and acquired a deeper wonder, we begin to find the super-human image of God unsatisfying. The Being underlying all being isn’t like us yet is as close to us, as one with us, as we are with ourselves. God becomes impossible to imagine apart from our selves yet equally united with every other being. How can we ask more of the Being who’s the foundation of being. How can we ask for love from Love itself. We begin to know God at once indescribably other and incredibly intimate.

When our faith makes this leap, the childlike ease of explaining and encompassing God is gone, gone as well is the need and desire to do so. In its place is a new, deeper union – one that can be neither limited nor lost.

This was the source of disquiet in the student’s life. This was changing her way of viewing Jesus. This was changing her way of praying. She was secretly excited about her growth but unsure of it and anxious about relinquishing the God of her childhood. Growth, not her professor, stirred her unease. She was young to experience this much growth but it’s there for all of us.

God Is Here
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Christmas Day
1 Isaiah 52: 7-10

“I am worried about my grandson leaving for college. He’s young and immature. He doesn’t think. Anybody can talk him into anything. I’m afraid for him and so is his mother. I constantly pray that God will watch over him. I just never feel I’ve prayed enough.” This is one of countless conversations I’ve had with people worried that their prayers weren’t sufficient to turn God’s attention from heaven to earth.

Why do we speak of God as being out there? For thousands of years people have spoken of God existing in another realm. God may occasionally break into our realm to take care of some situation or other but this isn’t his natural milieu. Even though our faith teaches that God is constantly involved with us, creating our entire universe, we continue to speak of him as external to us. This assumption is so deeply woven into Christian cosmology that it seems inextricable from the faith. But Is it?

What happens if we don’t posit a unique sphere for God? What if we view God existing within our realm, giving it life and direction rather than entering our world from the outside? Are we reducing God to the stuff around us? Certainly not. Our faith is that the universe is meaningful, destined for fulfillment. Everything that exists is good and purposeful. From black holes to kitty cats, with us in that continuum, we give ourselves neither existence nor promise. God alone gives goodness and promise to creation.

Can we speak of God as independent of but inseparable from creation?
Isn’t this the underlying revelation of the Incarnation? Doesn’t this illuminate the enormity of God’s becoming human? Christians have a chronic problem: we’re prone to envisioning God as creating us and sitting back to see if we’ll achieve our destiny. We sometimes speak even of the Incarnation as though it were merely an exception in which God visited our world to straighten us out then returned to his “out there” to observe the results. This isn’t our faith.

We need to know that God is closer to human life than our breath, more involved with material creation than gravity. God is not “out there” somewhere; God is not and refuses to be separate from our lives. We celebrate that every Christmas.

Everyday Messiahs
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11

Late one recent evening I stopped in a local store to pick up several things I needed for a home repair. The person who waited on me was friendly and very helpful, going out of his way to make sure he understood my needs and guided me to the right items. We didn’t know one another but for the few minutes that we were together he was caring and pleasant. When he got home later he probably complained about tired feet and having to mother-hen clueless folks like me about home repair. Still, however tired and frustrated he may have been, he went out of his way to assist me and let me know that I was worth his time and energy.

Isaiah anticipated a political Messiah because the oppression his people faced was political. Jesus’ vision was also political but not in the sense of managing power to get people to do what he wanted. Jesus understood that the first step toward peace and justice was to want peace and justice for everyone including those who oppose us. If that isn’t our ultimate goal, we’ll never attain the world we long for; without that goal we can’t accept the world God offers. What does that have to do with a tired, foot-sore clerk in a hardware store?

There’s a mocking element in saying that someone views herself as a messiah. It calls to mind the image of a person who believes that she has all the answers to how the world should act and is willing to do most anything to drag others in her schemes. We generally view would-be messiahs as ludicrous, even dangerous, people. Yet the primary aim of everyone seriously claiming to be Christian is to be Christ for the world. Christ means Messiah.

The core work of Jesus was to free people from fear. He used his life to reveal that whatever their weaknesses, whatever their failures, whatever their history the Creator of the universe stands with folks – without question. Experiencing this divine commitment, each person is free to join with every other in the search for life. It is the work of all who take up Jesus’ mantel to free others from fear, not by intellectual brilliance or the force of an amazing personality but by standing with them, respecting them, loving them – without question.

We begin with the person in front of us, not with the Taliban or drug cartels or some other enemy-of-the-day. We begin with the guy looking for the thingamajig when our feet hurt too much and our day’s been too long. We show that person honest care and respect. We make ourselves one with him and his needs. Our faith promises that this will change us and change our world.

God Busy Here
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

Early one morning when I was very small, my mother and I stood looking out of our front window at a bright red dawn. “Why’s the sky so red,” I asked. Because, mom replied, “God’s making cotton candy today.” I’d eaten cotton candy but had no idea where it came from or how it was made. But grown-ups said that God gave us good things and cotton candy was good. For a long time I imagined God busy up in the sky making things, among them bright red cotton candy. It just seemed right, though I never figured out how he got it from “up there” to “down here”. It was a letdown, several years later, to watch a sweaty, grumpy woman in a dirty apron making cotton candy at the county fair.

Giving up the idea that God is somewhere out there acting directly on our world comes at a price. Some folks will accuse us of losing our faith – and we may wonder ourselves. If God isn’t directing things, what’s God doing? If God doesn’t control when good and bad things happen, why do we pray? If God isn’t pulling the strings, who is? Anybody?

When Jesus was beginning his ministry, he referred to himself as accomplishing the work of the Messiah; he was announcing the good news of God’s love to the disabled and disenfranchised. He then spent the rest of his life convincing his followers that they had the ability and the responsibility to bring healing and justice to those in need.

God is the living force bringing everything to fulfillment. God is the reality within growth and change, never forcing, never relenting, searching out the way forward. We sense it within ourselves. We thrill to it when we’re strong; we crave it when we’re weak. We are cynical about it when our progress is overwhelmed and we’re thrown back at every turn. We find it getting up and shaking itself back into life when we can see no way forward simply because, for God, not to rise up isn’t an option.

All life evolves as it struggles against the obstacles it faces. We say that Jesus revealed God in his life and death. We know that Jesus’ life was a struggle from his conception to his resurrection. Why can’t we accept that his struggle revealed God – as much as his resurrection.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to see the saint in the sweaty cotton candy lady with the dirty apron. When we do, she’ll be less grumpy.

Striving For The Politics Of God’s Promise
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 there can exist a chasm that 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 just people,” responds the politician; “we look for security and prosperity. Life is short and dicey; we do what we must to survive. Beliefs and promises about God are fine but first 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 when they discuss the Kingdom of God. On the one hand Jesus proclaimed that 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 privations of living a life of loving-justice in a world not yet embracing God’s promise (Mt 5, 6 & 7).

This tension has always plagued the Church. It 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 within each of us our own political and prophetic sides struggle. We have to acknowledge that they often accomplish no more than an awkward truce.

Yet, it is the challenge of faith to develop our own politics that embodies the prophesy of Jesus: the vision that the world will not stay as it is and God’s vision of peace with justice will become reality. We cannot allow that hope to fade, either for our own lives or for the world at large.

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