In the wake of the 355th mass shooting—of this year—many politicians sent out condolences in the form of prayers to the people of San Bernadino, CA. Things like, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy,” and “Praying for peace and safety for our first responders today,” were in high number. And there’s nothing wrong with either of these statements: my thoughts and prayers were also focused on those affected by the tragedy, and I too was concerned for the first responders who were putting themselves in danger. These are great sentiments for sure.

God Isn't Fixing ThisAnd yet, prayers like these have caused quite the outrage in recent months. After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on October 1 of this year (at that point, we had only had 294 mass shootings in 274 days), President Obama emphatically remarked, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage being repeated somewhere else in America.” Today, the New York Daily News responded in a similar way with the headline, “God Isn’t Fixing This,” calling a number of politicians “cowards” for their “meaningless platitudes.” In both cases, as with the many people who have suffered at the hands of gun violence, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the prayer.  We cannot depend on God to fix all of our problems, many say. We need to do something ourselves.

What do we as Christians make of this?

In each of these cases—the politicians who Tweeted their condolences, President Obama calling for more than prayer, and the NY Daily News calling for anything but prayer—”prayer” is understood in a rather narrow, private, and disconnected sense. When we pray, it seems to all of them, we present desires or wishes to something or someone outside of ourselves in hopes that they will be granted. In this sense, prayer is a way of expressing what it is most important to an individual, and for those who “believe in the power of prayer,” it offers a sense of comfort that everything will ultimately be alright; God listens to and answers our prayers, we say and believe, so this many people praying must work out in the long run, right?

But I’m not convinced that this is the definition of prayer that we want to rest on. While, yes, intercessory prayer is definitely a component of a full prayer life, by itself, understood as it has been presented, it is a tragically incomplete experience.

Think of it this way. If God is eternal, perfect, and unchanging, how is it that we can change God’s mind about something so as to cause God to intervene? (We can’t!) There is no possible desire or request that we could ever express that God doesn’t already know, hasn’t been thinking about for all eternity, and is currently intervening to the extent God sees fit (how and why God intervenes is a topic for another post…) We may ask for something, but God already knows what’s best for us and will give us all that we need when we need it. In other words, our prayers do not change God’s mind or control God’s actions.

For some, it may sound like I’m saying that we should abandon all intercessory prayer. “If God doesn’t change, why even ask for help? God’s going to do what God’s going to do with or without my prayer.” In a way, yes, this is true: God cannot be “moved” by anything outside of Godself. But that doesn’t mean I’m saying we shouldn’t seek God’s intercession… it means that we should understand prayer in a deeper way. Instead of thinking about prayer as a way for us to change God, why not see it as a opportunity for God to change us?

You see, prayer is more than a one-way communication of “pleases” and “thank-yous” in which we speak and God chooses to answer or not; it is a multi-direction, active experience of God in which we not only communicate our desires or emotions to God, God communicates with us in such a way to transform, convert, and inspire the very desires and emotions we share. Prayer is not a time in which God listens patiently and conforms to our desires (ha!), it is the time when we open ourselves up enough to listen patiently to God and conform ourselves to God‘s desires.  In other words, prayer is an experience that makes us more like God, not God more like us. 

imrs.phpIf this is our understanding of prayer—getting back to politicians dealing with our tragic situation of repeated gun violence—true prayer is not an expression of our sentiments or a way to express our condolences, it is an act that gives us the clarity and motivation to act more like God in the world. True prayer is transformative. It does not end when we say “Amen” and go about the rest of our day. That’s when the prayer truly begins.

And so, while I find president Obama’s speech lacking in nuance and the Daily News’ article misunderstanding the role that prayer can play, their frustrations are rightly directed: “prayer” that does not result in a new way of thinking or acting, that does not seek to reconcile the situation or prevent new tragedies from occurring, is far from the experience that it can and should be. Prayers by politicians that are accompanied by inaction, or worse, action that deliberately works against the prevention of more tragedies, are not enough.

After 355 mass shootings in less than a year and thousands of more fatalities as a result of gun violence, it’s clear that something needs to change. Some have suggested that, “Our prayers are not enough.” And I agree. But the problem is not that we pray. It’s that we don’t let our prayer transform us into the people of action and justice we need to be. Prayer that only asks God to fix our problems, without allowing God to transform us in the process, is not enough.

I was tempted to have this reaction on more than one occasion this summer.

I was tempted to have this reaction on more than one occasion this summer.

I love debate. There are few things to me better than a good argument, presenting one’s case and rebutting the other. It’s a great way to refine one’s own opinion and to learn the perspective of another. That is, if it is a good debate.

This summer has been witness to quite a few bad ones, I have to say. Divisive and inflammatory issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, gun control, the Affordable Care Act, Deflategate, the confederate flag, ISIL, Israel and Palestine, Cuba, immigration, Planned Parenthood, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, and the Iran nuclear deal, to name just a few, have dominated discussions and infuriated so many in the past few months. On any given day, my Facebook news feed exploded with impassioned, and often offensive, articles and opinions that left me angry and deflated. “Really? Why would you say that about that person? What is wrong with the world?”

Part of the problem is definitely the opinions themselves. Research done by the Pew Research Center (found here, with lots of infographics and great information so check it out!) shows that the United States is becoming increasingly extreme in its opinions and further divided on issues than in the past. The number of people that hold moderate opinions, able to bridge the gap between extremes, is diminishing while the extreme conservative and liberal stances are gaining support.

The real issue, though, has less to do with the opinions themselves and more to do with how we react to them. This same study found that an alarming number of people are beginning to see those of the opposing political party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” Compared to ten years ago, both sides moved away from the other: conservatives in this category more than doubled while liberals increased by a third. This is a major problem. Not only are we moving away from the other in what we hold true, we are much more likely to label and belittle the other as our enemy, becoming more comfortable with the notion that we don’t need the other. “Oh, those people? Who cares what they think? They’re ruining America.” This is not good debate for the sake of the truth. This is bad debate which seeks to destroy the enemy.

Anecdotally, my daily experience on Facebook and in general conversations has shown me that most of us simply don’t know how to talk with one another about difficult issues without becoming angry or taking things personally. Conversations about simple governmental policies or social issues quickly escalate with emotions and even offensive behavior. Why does this happen? How is it that opinions such as these can get us so angry that we are willing to post hateful articles, show disrespect to another, or even choose to end a relationship?

In my experience, the biggest problem is that we struggle to make a distinction between someone disagreeing with our idea and someone attacking our person. I had an experience like this once in a planning meeting. Throwing around ideas, I disagreed with one person in particular:  “I see what you’re saying, but I just don’t agree. I think it would be better to do X, for these reasons…” Respectful, direct, and clearly thought out. After the meeting, though, this person came up to me upset and actually hurt: “What do you have against me?” he asked. What? I just disagreed with you. I don’t hate you! For him, he was so tied to his opinion, had allowed it to become intertwined with his identity, that a simple disagreement felt like an attack on him personally.

The problem with this is that our political rhetoric and smear campaigns are actually designed to do this. “He believes X, so he’s a bad person.” A quick look at any television ad shows what I mean: the pro-candidate is always in color with smiling faces while the one with a different stance is in black and white with dramatic or sad music. By attacking the person’s character with cheap emotional tricks, these ads try to convince us that, “If s/he is a bad person, her/his idea must also be bad, and vice-versa.” This sort of thinking leaves us unable to disagree with a candidate we respect or to like an idea from people we don’t get along with.

We as Catholics need not fall into this trap of bad debate, though. We know that every single human being is created in the image of God, and that the opinion one holds, even if completely idiotic at times, has absolutely no effect on the respect we must give to this God-given dignity. Yes someone may be severely misinformed, but we are called to love everyone, not because of what they believe, but because of what we believe, that they are created in the image of God. 

For me, this is a non-negotiable for a good debate. No matter how much I may disagree with someone on the most fundamental of principles, there is never an excuse to confuse the idea with the person, attacking both indiscriminately. Who wins from that? If our goal is to actually convince people of our side, namely that the love of Christ is freely given to all and is fueling our mission in the world, hatred and impatience is not going to do a great job at expressing that! And we all struggle with this, I’m sure! I know that when I’m faced with certain opinions, it is really hard to show the respect that Christ shows me. But here’s the thing: that is exactly the moment we need to show it most. It is in those debates with those who agree with us least, say…a pro-abortion pedophile Nazi who worships trees and burns the American flag for fun… that we need to be at our absolute best, arguing not only with good logic and reason, but with the way we treat them.

It is why I would love to see more Catholics on inflammatory shows like Rush Limbaugh preaching peaceful and balanced dialogue, conservative news sources like Fox News speaking about climate change and immigration, and liberal news stations like MSNBC defending the life of the unborn. If done with respect and intelligence, those are the places we need to be entering the debate. And we need to be entering. Some opinions should make us angry. They should infuriate us. It is not only appropriate to hate an idea and stand against it at times, it is our Christian responsibility to do so. As long as we do so as Christians. Our anger should always be proportionate to the gravity of the situation and rightly directly, aimed at the opinion and never the person professing it. What is the purpose of winning an argument if it as the expense of belittling our brother or sister? We all lose in that situation. Instead, let us debate with one another like Christians, with respect for the other, and with the goal not of beating our opponent, but of challenging them (and letting them challenge us) to discover greater truth from which we can ALL benefit. That, I say, is a debate with dignity, and there are few things I like more in the world.

Restoring Our Relationships

In Christ, we recover what was once perfect: true love in our relationships

In Christ, we recover what was once perfect: true love in our relationships

On Thursday, women took center stage in our readings mass, from the story of woman being created from the rib of man to the Syrophoenician woman convincing Jesus to heal her daughter. I’ve seen homilists go a number of directions with these readings: “God works through unexpected people” (a little condescending), “Jesus changed his mind,” (a little problematic), and “This is the way marriage should be, man and woman loving one another with man as the head” (very complicated). Having studied both readings in my scripture classes this year, I wanted to offer a slightly different perspective.

Let’s start with the often-misunderstood Genesis reading. Unlike the first creation story (Gn 1:1-2:3) in which “male and female he created them,” humanity is created in procession in the second creation story (Gn 2:4-25): God created man from the earth, and then from the man’s rib, he created woman. Many have interpreted this as a sign of subordination, including the Apostle Paul, arguing that woman came from man, not man from woman, so woman is subject to man (See 1 Cor 11:8; 1 Tim 2:13).

But is this really what the story is saying? In fact, quite the opposite: God has set up a radically egalitarian, perfect relationship between man and woman. In her very purpose for being created, woman was intended to be a “partner” of the man, a “helper” in the same way that God is Israel’s helper throughout the Old Testament (the Hebrew word is the same). Is God subordinate to Israel because he is its helper? Of course not! Look, then, at how the woman is made: man had nothing to do with it. He was asleep! (Typical…) Just as God created man, so God created woman. The man declares, “This one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In other words, they are the same, of one essence, perfectly equal in their intended creation. Because of this, man has no claim over the woman, and so unlike the animals (for which he gave names to signify his authority over them), he does not “name” woman as much as he describes their relationship to one another: “for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” He understands who she is in light of him and who he is in light of her. (It is not until chapter 3, after they sin, that the man names her Eve, marking the distortion of their relationship.) The passage concludes that they live naked with one another with no shame, signifying their perfect respect for one another, having nothing to hide, no distortions, and no manipulations. This is what God created.

But this is not the world we live in, is it? We live in a world of human trafficking, pornography, and sexual exploitation. We live in a very “sexist” world in which women are harassed, paid less than men, and subordinated to second class. Just this week Sports Illustrated sent me their annual Swimsuit edition. Today, “50 Shades of Grey” hits theatres. How can we look at these things as say that we are respecting each other as equals? How would we feel if it was our mother, our best friend, our sister, in these situations? We would never treat our loved ones this way, but we subordinate others all of the time, intentionally or unintentionally. We live in a world of distorted relationships, a world that has lost sense of the “partnership” God created, the perfect relationship the he intended.

Now within this distorted world, we jump to the Gospel (Mk 7:24-30), and are confronted with an odd interaction between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman. Falling to Jesus’ feet in worship for him to save her daughter, Jesus initially refuses to help her, and then worse yet, he calls her a dog! Not politically correct Jesus! He does end up curing the woman’s daughter because of her great faith, but the reader is left a little baffled. Was Jesus serious in calling her that? If so, does that mean that Jesus’ mind was changed?

My own reflection on the passage is that Jesus’ mind was not changed. Look at what precedes it: He has already cured non-Jews, he has cured and interacted with women, and in this case, specifically went out of his way to go to Gentile territory. From the start of his ministry, Jesus understood his mission. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God to all people. In light of the first story, Jesus came to restore the relationship God had intended between all of humanity.

So why did he call her a dog then? Was he serious? This question is a bit more complicated, but certainly understandable in a human sense. While fully divine, Jesus was also fully human. He came into the world like us, was formed as a child by cultural structures, norms related to interaction with women, and a way of speaking. If Jesus truly took on our humanity, its foolish to think that he would not be unaffected by it, at least externally. What he said, although not what we would hope for, is indicative of the subordination of women in their culture (if not ours as well.) We live in a broken world, and Jesus became a part of that.

But he didn’t come to simply experience it, he came to transform it. He came to restore relationships. Like all of us, (and forgive me if this begins to project my own experience onto Jesus), it is entirely possible that Jesus knew exactly what he was to do, restore humanity to its intended perfect relationship, and simply got caught off guard, letting his human weakness revert to the way he had seen men treat woman his entire life. I have an example. This year, I’ve started going downtown DC in my habit looking for homeless people to talk to, to find out what they need, and to offer them little things like hand-warmers and protein bars. It is clear that I know my mission: I am here to serve and respect the poor and marginalized of society. Sometimes I do it well. And yet, a few weekends ago, I was downtown with some people going to a restaurant and a homeless man reached out a cup asking for help as we walked by. Did I treat him with respect as I know I am here to do? No. I walked by, ignored him, and hoped he wouldn’t notice me. In essence, I called him a dog. I realized that my “relationships” with the ones I served were nowhere close to the type of relationship God intended. I had subordinated him to a person in need of my help, and since I had nothing that day to offer (or was too disinterested to try), I did not interact with him. In my mind, it was a one-way relationship, one in which he could not offer me anything, and so I didn’t stop. I knew my mission, I knew who I was, and yet reverted to the way I had see others treat homeless people my entire life.

While women take center stage in Thursday’s readings, I think the focus is really on how we relate to all of humanity. Do we treat each other with respect or do we degrade? Do we lift each other up to see each others as equals or do we subordinate? Do we attempt to return to what God intended or do we further the distortion, manipulation, and condescension of this world? On this Valentine’s Day, on this day that the Lord has made, I think that our only answer is Jesus, the God who came down from heaven to be equal to us and to restore us to that perfect union we once knew. It is only in relationship to him, in becoming one flesh with the one who gave of himself, that we are able to enter into relationship with those around us in the way it was always intended.

Light in the Darkness

 

 

This morning I had the opportunity to preach at our house mass. Here is a rough recollection of what I had to say, expanded a bit for the sake of the blog. The readings that this was based on can be found here.

Don't underestimate the power of even a candle in a dark place!

Don’t underestimate the power of even a candle in a dark place!

In light of the recent (and weak) allegations against the New England Patriots over the past week, I began thinking about some of the famous scandals I have witnessed in my life.

Mark Sanford “hiking in the Appalachian mountains”;

Lance Armstrong admitting doing steroids;

Enron going bankrupt and shredding all of its files.

In a way, stories like these are all the same: someone with a lot of power tries to abuse that power thinking that they will never get caught…until they get caught. It happens almost everyday in politics, sports, and entertainment. Clearly there are many in the world that have never heard our Gospel passage for today: “There is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.” Sooner or later, it seems, justice is served. Someone is going to talk; evidence is going to leak; words are going to slip. One way or another, the secret gets out and the rest of us are left wondering, “Did he really think he was going to get away with that?” “What was she thinking?” In a way, there is a sense of comfort in reading this passage, in knowing that those who lie and cheat will always get caught; that in the end, you can’t hide from justice. Everyone gets what they deserve.

But our experience seems to show the opposite as well, doesn’t it? Crimes aren’t always solved and injustice continues. Sometimes the bad guy gets away and the truth is left hidden. I have two such examples from my life:

The first is high school Spanish class. I would sit there during daily quizzes and think, “How can I really be expected to memorize so many words each night?” It was just ridiculous for my little brain. So what did I do? Well, a little peak here… a little peak there… Maybe I’d be lucky enough to get an answer or two. One time, a student was caught cheating during a quiz, had his paper ripped in half, and was chastised for the rest of the class. Thank God it wasn’t me, I thought. But it could have been, maybe should have been. Maybe it was because I didn’t do it very often or because I wasn’t all that blatant about it, but the fact is, what he did was brought to light while what I did was kept secret.  He was labeled a cheater, and I was simply an average student. And unless you go tell my Spanish teacher, that will never change.

I faced a similar situation on my baseball team in high school. Playing for a man insistent on conditioning, we would regularly end practice by running a lap around the campus, stopping on the far side to run up and down the hill ten times. My first practice as a sophomore, I found that I was the only player that took this seriously. “What are you doing? Coach isn’t going to know. Just relax for 5 minutes and we’ll run back.” I couldn’t do it. Even if the other guys, including the senior captains, didn’t care about conditioning and working hard, I was going to do them anyway. Why? Because I wanted to get better; my success was in no way tied to what they, or coach, thought about me. Ultimately, nothing came of it. I never received an award, never gained the admiration of my teammates, and I’m sure to this day my coach still talks about how hard of a worker one of those seniors was (we heard about him for two more years after he graduated.)

And so, there are two things that I want to highlight today.

The first is that we are men called to integrity. There will come a day when, after spending our whole lives “longing to see his face,” we will stand before our God in hopes that He longs to see our face as well. No one else’s opinion matters at that point. But when we think about it, isn’t that always the case? As Francis writes in his Admonitions: “Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more.” In this way, we are called to clear out the clutter from our lives, the distractions and facades we put before us, in order to know very clearly who we are before our God. It is in that moment that we are able to enter fully into the Eucharist, to receive the light and life of Christ to make all things known between us.

But it doesn’t stop there. For fear of over-spiritualizing the matter, thinking only of the life to come, it’s important to remember that our Eucharistic celebration demands that we take what Christ has given us and share it with the world. While all will eventually be revealed by God on our day of judgment, some things need to be revealed now. As God’s hands and feet, we are called to bring the light of Christ to the darkness, to challenge injustice, to stand up against the evil and corruption that dehumanizes our human family. As baptized Christians, we are all given many skills and charisms to be shared with the world: “Is a lamp brought to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed?” Absolutely not. Our gifts need to be used for the sake of the world, to bring the light of Christ to the places of darkness

Today, may we be able to see clearly, in our lives and in our world, what the light of Christ has revealed to us.