Reverse Catch-22

I think that, too often, intellectual, theological, and scientific debate regarding the existence of God and the role of religion, as it is perceived in our culture, misses the point. When one lines up the different cultures, religions, and denominations of the world, what sticks out as a real indicator of truth and goodness? Is there some characteristic that might indicate a god, religion, or culture that really is good, in the truest sense of the word? That characteristic that we can look for, I believe, is compassion.

The woman who sacrifices her lunch hour to deliver a warm meal to an elderly shut-in without telling anyone else. The person who routinely devotes his personal time to visiting residents of a nursing home. The married couple that adopts a Down syndrome child knowing of the extra challenges that lie ahead of them. Please note that none of these examples seem to be examples of religious life. There is no mention here of giving money to the preacher on television, attending confession, or teaching a Sunday scchool class, but, instead, examples of sacrifice and the simple practice of putting somebody else’s needs before one’s own.

Today’s American culture is rightfully cynical when it comes to how they view Christianity. The evidence is hard to ignore. Televangelists who spend more time begging for donations than they do sharing the good news, wealth and prosperity preachers, and sexually-abusive priests. It is this crooked reputation that has developed as a result of imperfect people and it has effectively drowned out the core message that the Christ of Christianity stated was most important: loving and serving others in a selfless manner and with a humble demeanor.

What could indicate more sincere goodness than somebody serving the needs of somebody else knowing that they will not recieve compensation and doing so discreetly? I know that, too often, when I do something for somebody else that there is a part of me that wants to slide the fact into conversation with others so that might get a pat on the back. But, I contend that the truest mark of goodness is the person who gives and does so quietly.  Someone who is compassionate, not in the sense of political campaign compassionate conservatism, but in the sense of humble, selfless sacrifice for the needs of others leaves no doubt that their act of kindness was pure and true.

Mark 12:28-31
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him “of all the commandments, which is the most important?“ The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this; ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

James 1:27
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Matthew 6:1-4
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them…So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.

John 15:13
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Matthew 25:34-40
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and
you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

This is the true mark of God and it exists to this day despite the fact that so many of us don’t recognize it. If more of us did, then more of us would want it and take the steps necessary to have it. Then, more faithless would see it and become faithful. The cynics would lay down their weapons and more of the world’s needy would have enough.

Jesus gave us this key to full life, but, too many of us are wasting our time focusing on self-centered, fruitless ventures. Some of us fill our lonely moments just trying to rationalize our decisions not to follow Him saying that we’re already good and honest and fair. But do we selflessly serve the needs of others without putting our own needs and desires first?

The gap between the ideal put forth by Jesus Christ and the reality of our daily lives is wide. It may even feel, to some of us, like its too wide to even consider lifting a finger to change. But, Jesus has given us the key to that problem, too: His grace. His unmerited favor. It is a gift and requires nothing on our part but the realization that we are less than we should be and that we possess an emptiness that, on our own, we cannot fill. Once we understand our place, in the light of His grace, we find that our desire to sacrifice more for the sake of others increases in direct proportion to our own increasing humility.

From Devotions For Ragamuffins, by Brennan Manning, Pp.15
The measure of our compassion for others lies in proportion to our capacity for self-acceptance and self-affirmation. When the compassion of Christ is interiorized and appropriated to self, the breakthrough into being for others occurs. In the reverse of a catch-22 situation, the way of compassionate caring for others brings healing to ourselves, and compassionate caring for ourselves brings healing to others. Solidarity with human suffering frees the one who receives and liberates the one who gives through the conscious awareness “I am the other.”

Whats Love Got To Do With It?

When I decided that I would write this piece on the idea of love, my first inclination was to emphasize the contrast between biblical love as defined in 1Corinthians 13:1-13, and love as defined by the world in romance stories, television commercials, and pop radio songs. While such a juxtaposition really is worthwhile, one that I believe is less worn and more necessary focuses the action of love.

Love becomes more than a stretched-thin combination of vowels and consonants when it is treated as a verb and lived out. I can tell my wife that I love her, but, it means a lot more to her when I make it a point to spend time with her in the evening instead of sitting in another room squandering my time away on the computer. Likewise, singing the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love,” while being a fine and enjoyable thing to do, is wholly insignificant compared to taking advantage of the daily opportunities that we all have to affirm and support somebody else through a kind word, an open ear, or a lent hand.

God defines Love as sacrifice for others. Sacrifice means putting the needs of others before our own.

What do you love? Who do you love? Whose needs do you place before your own? Who are you willing to die for? Family? Friends? Neighbors?

Who is your neighbor?

30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:30-32
12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command.
John 15:12-14

You Are Among The Wealthiest In The World…

…if you are able to view this video:

36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?

Matthew 25:36-38

Broken Christmas

It was just a couple of hours ago that I was watching “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” with my four-year-old daughter and I realized another way to answer a question that a friend asked me months ago. In reference to a quote from Brennan Manning (“To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace,”) he asked, “What does it mean to be broken?”

Part of the answer is at least hinted at by the process of Scrooge facing his past, present, and future demons, but, realizing he deserves nothing more than death, but, then realizing that he’s been given a second chance which he takes advantage of, humbly looking beyond himself and recognizing the needs of others.

Being broken is when we come face to face with the stark reality that we are self-centered, self-righteous, damned people. It is when we realize that all that we have that is good has been given to us and, in a knee-jerk, natural, and instinctual response, we desire nothing more than to be able to give to and serve others.

The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death grip to one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything…They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it! All the time they were battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they were being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional, and physical depravation has weaned them from themselves and made them reexamine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess, but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
                    ~Brennan Manning, Devotionals for Ragamuffins, Pp.357

I wish you a broken Christmas.
I wish you a broken Christmas.
I wish you a broken Christmas,
and a broken new year.

Christmas In Perspective

December 15-18, 2007

Its difficult, for me, to keep my mind from wandering down the road that, instead of having Christmas light-decorated houses, is cluttered with the contradictions of the Christmas season. Even though I am definitely one to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of the holidays, I know that the “magic” that I experienced as a child was just that: magic. Likewise, I know that David Copperfield can most accurately be described as an illusionist rather than a magician and that the “magic” that I remember was not really magic at all, but, ignorance.

The groundlessness of the nostalgic, ideal childhood Christmases in my mind is made even more so when juxtaposed against the reality of what the majority of other children in the world were experiencing at the very moment that I was unwrapping my new G.I. Joe motorized tank: the absence of clean drinking water, the absence of enough food for a meal, the pain of cancer, the limitations of muscular dystrophy, and the loneliness of orphanhood. Unlike the diminishing of my childhood ignorance over the years, however, these real human tragedies and their resulting despair have endured and progressed to new levels.

To contemplate this reality, for me, is to experience the disappointment that comes from being let down by the fabricated stories that I now feed my own daughter. My wife and I had considered, briefly, the possibility of not going through with the whole Santa charade with my daughter, but, ended up doing so anyway. Granted, I still enjoy singing and reading about Santa and Rudolph, but, anticipating when and how Julia will learn that he’s not real isn’t something that I enjoy. She’ll be disappointed someday, too.

And what kind of precedent does this set? What is to keep her from thinking that if we lied by telling her that Santa was real, but, he turned out fake, that Jesus is fake, too? That is my biggest fear and it is restrained only by the fact that my life is dependent upon Christ now, even though I spent my first several years thinking there was a Santa.

I’d like to be able to write in an ending paragraph to this post here with some grand conclusion about the best way to handle this at this point, but, the truth is that I haven’t come to one. The significant problems and realities of this world remain, as does the saving grace of Christ that this day is supposedly intended to celebrate (though Christ was not likely born on December 25). I do believe the celebration of the fact that he came is very legitimate and worthwhile and, deep down, I feel like we should be more honest with my daughter. Instead of focusing on Santa and getting we could fully focus on Christ and giving and I could rest knowing that she has and will continue to experience the real joy that comes from helping others in need, especially during the holidays. It would be a holiday tradition that would never disappoint.

One of my brightest new memories of this season, so far, came the other night when my family was out caroling at a local nursing home with a few people from my church. We were really focusing on older members of the church that were in the home, but, another older woman, not a member of our church, invited us to her door to sing for her. She asked that we sing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and proceeded to explain to my four-year-old daughter (who was looking at the woman in a puzzled manner) that she didn’t plan on being at the home, but, that sometimes life gives us “bumps in the road,” and that God would help her through.

This was an obviously coherent woman (unlike many residents at the home) facing, undoubtedly, a very difficult and dark time in her life. It is something I can’t really fathom at this point – the idea of living my whole life and then spending the end of my time in a cold, sterile nursing home. But, after we finished stumbling through the song (we weren’t 100% sure of the words at the time) this woman took such care to express to us her appreciation and gratefulness for our visit. I can’t help but to believe that the resulting gratification that I felt from the interaction is just a taste of the real joy that could be experienced if I focused more on the giving aspect of Christmas.

One reason I think that Christ was born the way that he was, in a barn occupied by livestock, is that God wanted us to understand that it is not up to us to climb insurmountable mountains in order to reach some higher level and live up to His high and holy standard. Instead, he came down and into the world as a vulnerable, dependent, homeless child. He taught, healed, sacrificed, suffered, and continues to serve as deliverer of the free and unmerited favor of God.

We do have the opportunity to experience the real joy of Christmas on a daily basis throughout the year by serving those in need. So, maybe the question here shouldn’t even be about whether or not to celebrate the idea of Santa during Christmas, but, instead, how can we do more to help others every day of the year?

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”~Matthew 25:40

True Religion

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and windows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27 NIV 

Rich Young Ruler

All the wisdom necessary to unlock my soul,
But, my feet are fixed in cement
The young, rich ruler has taken residence in this fragile jar
It was once filled with prodigal clay
Too proud to yield the the truth that permeates their guilt-inducing pleas
My comfort has not left me blind,
But, instead inclined me to ignore the least of these
In doing so,
I ignore Him
And become poor
Again

Luke 18:18-29

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 19“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’[b]

 21“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

 26Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

 27Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

 28Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

 29“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

 Matthew 25:31-46

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

 37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

 41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

 46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”