Hometown Welcome!

Hometown-Nazareth-Sign-e1428950184677 Mark moves us back to Nazareth in today’s Gospel reading. And it’s far from a pleasant visit.

It would not be unusual should a hometown boy return and be asked by the locals to speak in the synagogue. That being the case, the reaction of the people surprises us, though at least initially it should not. After all, what would one expect of a carpenter or general construction worker?

They are taken aback by the power of this man’s words. And they define it as “wisdom” curiously, suggesting that they realize that Jesus speaks with some power. Moreover, they recognize that his words are not his own creation but result from wisdom “given” him. The question then becomes who–God or satan?

Apparently the people decide it is the latter. They insult him greatly by referring to him as “Mary’s son” rather than the proper appellation, Joseph’s. Various explanations ensue, but in the end, most agree; it was meant and received as a direct insult.

It was probably worse than that. People in the profession of carpenter, stonemason, and such were often required to travel in order to seek employment and make a viable living. This allowed that their families were left unattended and more importantly unprotected. Such workers can be “shamed” by their very occupations.

Thus Jesus goes about his usual business of teaching and healing. He finds the response to his actions lukewarm at best and dismissive at worst. He counters by insulting them first. He quotes a well-known phrase: “no prophet is ever welcome in his own country.”

It is apparent that he cannot heal under these conditions, and only a few healings occur, rather than the “mighty” deeds done elsewhere.

Herein lies a problem.

Jesus remarks at the lack of faith in his hometown and equates that with his powerlessness to do “mighty” deeds. Forever more, people who pray long and hard for help that never comes,  conclude that their faith is insufficient to invoke God’s mercy and assistance.

And this is surely not the point of the periscope, nor do we find it in the commentaries. It seems more directed toward the growing theme in Mark that Jesus is not understood, least of all by his own disciples. We the readers are the only ones “in on” the true nature of Jesus. Others misunderstand him, and thus fail to gain all that he has to offer. He can only “lay hands” on them, and offer some paltry healings.

Of course not understanding Jesus is the point and it leads inexorably to the cross.

Similarly I think, when our faith is tepid, trotted out once a week for public display in churches throughout the land, we are getting only the laying on of hands sort of infusion from our faith, instead of the full cleansing breath of renewal that faith truly offers us.

If we would work “mighty deeds” on behalf of our fellow humans, our faith must be real and solid, touchable, close as a caressing breeze in the garden. If God is in all, sustainer of all, the energy that infuses the universe at every moment, than only by immersing ourselves fully in that light of love can we too project the power given to us in every moment. We must seize it, and use it.

No doubt a good many of us will also be rejected by our hometowns–who is she but the daughter of that woman who worked in the factory? Who is he but that son of a mechanic? How can they saying these things? Who are they?

More importantly, the real point of the question is not who is the prophet, but why did God not favor me with the task? Why that neighbor and not me? I am surely better, brighter, a superior speaker. Yet, they speak with authority and nobody listens to me. Let me remind everyone that they came from nothing!

Can we not see ourselves and our families in all this?

What might we do if we believed in ourselves the way God does?

What might we do if we stopped believing in what they say about us?

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Religion vs Spirituality

A friend of mine posted this a few days ago on Facebook. religionspirituality

I commented that “I could agree with that.”

And I can.

But like all memes it suffers from simplicity.

Often memes are just plain wrong upon further reflection. Sometimes they are right “most” of the time. Maybe they are mostly wrong except in a few circumstances.

This one I think is mostly right, but with a few caveats.

First of all, most religions are not “someone else’s experience.” They are a lot of someone elses. Where Christianity is concerned that numbers in the dozens. And that only relates to its scriptural base, the bible. If you add all the other writings not canonized, but still reflective of how people of generally the same time frame came to see the Jesus experience, then it grows substantially.

And of course, that says nothing to all the theologians and biblical scholars that have expanded our knowledge of exactly what that experience was, and how it should be conceived of. They number in the thousands over the years. And of course the mystical writers have their own experiences to relate.

So we actually have a lot to dig through in discerning what that “experience” is. Much the same could be said I suspect of most other religions. The end belief system is the product of hundreds if not thousands of minds. And of course, there is much conflict between minds.

But religions have surely set dogma and told believers that they should adhere to those beliefs. They divide them often into those that “must” be adhered to, those that should be, and perhaps those that are “up to your conscious”. And these change too, moving from one category to another. That is where the trouble begins.

Do we dare question the insights of a St. John of the Cross? Or The little Flower Theresa? Are their visions and spiritual deductions sacrosanct because of their sainthood? Is mine less so because I lack the imprimatur of the Church? That is where one’s spirituality conflicts it seems to me. And it is where the Church, standing for religion errs.

For the Church seeks, based upon its self-defined expertise, to tell the parishioner  what she must believe to remain within the good graces of said institution. An institution made by humans I might add, whatever your current theology might be about what Jesus intended when he laid the mantle upon Peter’s shoulders. This is error as I see it.

The Church has a serious and important role. That role is to nurture, care for, and raise up the individual who comes seeking. It can and should not judge, but only facilitate  with love and forgiveness, warmth and understanding, that relationship between God and creature. It should in no way be a barrier, EVER. When it does so, well as Jesus said, better tie a millstone around its neck and drown it.

And of course many would do just that. In the name of God.

And they are just as wrong as those who see the Church as God, speaking for, judging for, and forgiving for God.

For that purpose of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and ministering to all who are suffering, is the primary goal and purpose of religion, or Church. And if, I would argue, it limited itself to that purpose, it might well effectively reduce suffering in the world in a degree that would stupefy modern governments.

That is not it’s only purpose however. It serves to be the gathering forum for believers, and that is of no small importance. For the scriptures make clear to us, throughout them, that the gathering of the people in “church” is valuable and necessary. In some sense the Trinity teaches us that–one God in three forms operating in perfect community. We are communal creatures, and Church can and should mirror that perfect community. We are called to act selflessly, and no better place to learn it SHOULD be the Church.

Instead of course, we find nothing but judgment and rejection for so many. As if God needs humans to prevent other humans from approaching the altar. As if somehow the Church sanctifies and not God.

Spirituality is not a substitute for church in this sense. All too many people are walking around proclaiming their spirituality and their self-interpretation of scripture. The trouble is, scripture is not something that one can “just understand with an IQ of 100” as a self-proclaimed atheist recently told me. Although not a believer, he insisted that our “debate” be limited to the four corners of the bible, and using the common sense meaning of the words themselves. Of course such a notion is absurd.

Millions of unchurched Christianists proclaim what God wants, needs,  and hates. They then insist that we conform to their beliefs. Church can and should be the counterpoint to this sort of self-serving Christianity. If it is wrong for a church to speak for God, how much more so when an individual seeks to tell another what God wills or punishes? Here faith is simply used as a defense to calls of bigotry. We hear, “I personally don’t care about _______, but God is against it in the bible, and it’s my Christian duty to speak up.”

This is what comes from unfettered “spirituality” absent the restraints religion heterodoxy. But heterodoxy is in the end a human endeavor, and should never be confused with God, now with eternal truth. It is the best of what we understand now, and not what we may realize tomorrow.

Smart churches do this. All churches should do this.

Churches should be spending more time helping its members explore and think. As in all things, critical thinking skills apply. The dogma of the present church should but serve to start the discussion, and the exploration. God gave us these marvelous thinking instruments and they are meant to be used. Only by the deepest and broadest searching will we be rewarded with the most meaningful experience of God.

So, it’s not all one, or all the other. Each goes wrong by itself. It is the blending of both, and the value of both that enriches the individual.

Amen.

Explaining the Inexplicable

hidden-3d.com-gallery-x-3Dimka_Chel_CamelIt is surely true that one of the greatest lessons I learned as I ventured into the blogosphere is something that cannot be learned easily in the real world, unless over long periods of time.

It is that everyone’s brain does not work the same. We tend to think that they do. When we come up against a person who seems unreasonable and without logic in their thinking, we tend to say “it’s just them”, as in something is wrong with them individually.

But when, via the Internet, you meet dozens and then more dozens of people who have this same “problem”, you realize that there must be really different ways to organize thinking.

The two groups that have frustrated me the most are fundamentalists and atheists. I probably should subdivide that somewhat because not all atheists are the same, nor probably all fundamentalists. Let us just say that the most fervent among either group share this trait–a perfectly ironclad belief that they are right, and a perfectly ironclad belief that there is no fact out there that can change their mind. They basically don’t acknowledge the latter of course.

Fundamentalists insist that I suspend all my senses and the accompanying logical deductions that seem to support conclusions in accord with those senses and believe that for whatever reason God wants us to believe a completely different scenario of “how things came to be”.  Our senses serve double duty–allowing us to function in a natural world, yet designed apparently to lead us terribly astray if we follow them to their logical ends. In other words, see the dangerous animal ahead, but don’t look much further into what composes the animal.

Atheists, at least the vocal ones nowadays, say all such God-talk is utter nonsense, and there is no point in trying to debate a fantasy. No one who believes in God, whatever their education can be other than a dolt. They are reduced to making fun of believers, mining the Bible for quote after quote, ridiculing the logic and implications. If you try to point out history, context, literary genre, or anything similar, they point out that “progressive” explanations are merely attempts to not dump the baby out with the bath water.

Atheists reduce all religion to fundamentalist definitions because that is the easy target. It is would be akin to defining and then criticizing all political parties using only the Tea Party model.

It is frustrating to “explain” belief to a non-believer. It is hard to explain because if you have not had that “moment” its hard to make it understandable. It requires a willingness to think outside the box I guess.

I have no answer for the fundamentalist. Mostly life either throws them a curve that upsets their apple cart or it doesn’t. For those to whom that happens, they discard fundamentalism rapidly thereafter, and alas often any belief in God at all. This is the unfortunately reality. The Internet abounds with various “help” blogs for “recovering fundamentalists”.

But there are a vast number of atheists out there who are not of the vocal and hysterical variety. They are just quietly what they are, much as I was for many years. Contrary to the “new” atheists who claim they are discriminated against, I and I dare say most atheists have never felt this. Frankly it’s something that seldom comes up in any conversation.

Among my atheist or agnostic friends, still the subject of “why do you believe in God” does arise in a friendly way, and as I said, it is hard to explain.

This is all to say, that I have found what I believe is the most cogent and helpful explanation of what believing is all about. And it’s all about stereograms.

Stereograms are pictures that contain other images within. For some, the other picture is apparent almost immediately. For others, it takes some minutes, maybe longer. For some few, it never happens. The beauty here is that even those that “never can”, can at least recognize that others can.

Thus belief is seen as “another way of thinking” or “another way of seeing”. Some can “see” this way easily, some after a while, some only after a long while, and some never. But the nevers (atheists) can at least know that others can see this different way.

If that all sounds confusing, then I urge you to go to Making the Spiritual World Real. I’m quite sure that David Flowers explains it much better than I. If we can make inroads in our differences, at least to understand each other, then we have moved miles.

Blessings this day.

Letters to Pope Francis

LetterstoPopeFrancis-cover-224x359One might start with the premise that this book, written by a former priest and Dominican to the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, Francis, and about what is wrong with the institutional church, would appeal only to Catholics. One would be wrong, quite simply.

Matthew Fox delves into the rot at the center of the Catholic Church with the precision of a surgeon, and cuts out the cancer with deft sure hands. Yet what he speaks of, with slight alteration can be laid at the doorstep of much of Christendom. If I were more familiar with other faith systems, no doubt his criticisms would also find purchase.

Fox starts with charging that the two previous papacies, that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were schismatic. He makes this claim since both quite obviously tried to roll back the progress of Vatican II, and as he rightly suggests, “a council takes precedence over papal directives.” In other words, to the degree that both worked to ignore or undue reforms of the Second Vatican Council, their work was illegal and should be ignored.

Fox goes on from there, and he leaves no area of the church’s dirty little secrets left unaired. From the utterly disgusting coverup by church hierarchy of the pedophilia scandal, to the Vatican bank, to the vile treatment of religious women under Benedict, they are all unmasked. Curia members buy “sainthood” and known fascists find canonization while true martyrs of the church such as Oscar Romero are “held up” due to false charges of Marxism.

Matthew Fox who is now deeply involved in his own spiritual enterprise of bringing people to the Cosmic Jesus, urges Pope Francis to return theology to true theologians, replace suspect organizations such as Opus Dei from their powerful positions, stop the war on women, end required celibacy, and the simple end of Catholic obsession with sexual matters. It is a call to recognize the basic intelligence of lay people. It is a recognition that if the Church is losing adherents at an astounding pace, it is largely because the church is failing to be relevant to today’s problems and the needs of its people.

With tenderness but with firmness, Fox employs the Pope’s own words and is relentless in drawing the parallel between today and the Pope’s chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi, who, Fox makes out the case, would dismiss the great wealth of the Vatican, converting it to food for the poor, and would speak out loudly and insistently on issues of income inequality, working conditions for workers, and our rape of the environment.

He offers real solutions, the obvious and those which deal more with the inner workings of the Vatican, a subject that many lay persons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, it is these revelations that so shake the reader. How could such evil and behavior be tolerated in the Church?

This is a call to justice. It is a call to the Pope and the Church to return to its beginnings. It is a call to return to Jesus. Relentlessly, Fox recounts that Jesus was about the poor. He was about justice. He was about speaking truth to power. He indicts the Church as becoming the very things that Jesus gave his life for, and that if we can drop the mantra of individual salvation and return to demands for justice, work for justice, this church and others like it can be saved.

This a call to recognize that religion is the not same thing as faith. Fox sees faith as alive and well, and it is religion that has lost its way. It has become part of the ruling portion of humanity. It no longer serves people. Moreover he makes it quite clear that the only way for religion to continue must come through a recognition that ecumenism is the solution. We must get off this crazy notion that there is only One way to salvation, which each and every (or most) faith traditions claiming that they are that ONE.

This is a disheartening book if you are a Catholic, but refreshing too, as we recognize that the movement to re-vision what it means to be “church” is being led, not by hierarchies within institutional structures, but among common every day people. They are the true leadership and those institutionalized “leaders” had best get on board, or be left behind to burnish their gold and buff their Prada slippers in empty cathedrals everywhere.

Read this. Read it and join the growing legions who seek Jesus and His Way, the one that was intended.

Things are Not Set in Stone

sodomThere is a tension that exists in our faith.

On the one hand, we are told that God has a plan. Often when tragedy strikes and we wonder at how this or that thing has befallen us, others are quick to point out “God works in mysterious ways” and the platitude that “we can’t know the full plan of God”.

This all leads to the conclusion that on the one hand it’s all ordained. Life is nothing more than our living out what has already been decided. Taken to its logical conclusion, we don’t have to feel responsible for anything we do, for “it’s all part of God’s plan”.

Yet we are told that we have free will.

And the two seem in utter conflict. Either we decide our own fate on a daily basis or we don’t. God announces his intent, and Abraham begins to dicker with God.  By the end of his discourse, Abraham has whittled down those to save Sodom to ten. In the end there are only four.  God has changed his mind.

These are amazing things in and of themselves. This God of ours doesn’t know everything! He can be reasoned with! He can be led to change his mind!

What kind of God is this?

It’s hard to know. We are not asked to dwell on those questions of course. We are rather to dwell on how wonderful it is that we have a God that we can talk to and we can “make our case to”. We have a God who responds to calls for justice, and if our cause is just, and if we make it fairly and honestly, we will be heard! Our God is not arbitrary nor capricious.

In the Gospel reading, we are told exactly how to go about that. Jesus gives us the Our Father prayer, the one perfect introduction to discourse with God. Not only that, we are told that far from being wrong, persistence is favored by God. As we read of Abraham’s continuing to push at God over Sodom, we winced, silently saying, “oh goodness Abraham, stop now. Don’t make God mad! It’s enough that you got him to twenty! Don’t push your luck!”

Yet Jesus tells us that God doesn’t get angry at our persistence, quite the contrary. He is impressed perhaps by our willingness to not give up. Will he repay our persistence with with a scorpion? No Jesus insists. The squeaky wheel gets the grease it calls out for.

By our persistence we show to God our commitment. And by our commitment, we show our sincerity. We aren’t just giving our weekly laundry list of desires. We mean it! Needless to say, this is not always enough. If our desires are still frivolous we may find an unhearing ear in God. Wish for a million dollars because you want to be rich, and I’m thinking you won’t get a very positive reception. Saint Monica, it is said, prayed for years for the conversion of her son Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine, by his own admissions, was not a poster child of piety. Yet, he became one of the churches most revered doctors. He speaks to many exactly because of his personal story of what God can do to change one’s life. He is proof of the efficacy of prayer.

It has always been the case that humans have struggled with “fate” versus human control. We have established elaborate priesthoods, investing these people with special abilities to talk to God on our behalf. Jesus brings this down to each of us, and says, no, you too, by your humble asking will be heard and answered. If you are sincere and persistent, God will hear you. He will answer you. If you think that you are not Abraham and will be ignored, you are simply wrong. God doesn’t define worthiness in that way. Humans do.

The door is only closed because we have failed to realize that God waits with even greater patience than we can ever exhibit in our waiting. He will wait infinitely for us to knock. Will you wait another moment?

Amen.

Jesuit

A friend posted this on Facebook. It is compelling. It says what I feel. This is why this Church means so much to me still. Because within it are those who are moved by the Spirit of God to stand forth come what may and speak truth to power.

This is simply awesome.

 

Bert Thelen’s Letter of Resignation
June 2013

TO : Family, Relatives, and Friends, Colleagues and Partners in Ministry, CLC Members, Ignatian Associates, Project Mankind, Parishioners of St. John’s, St Benedict the Moor, Sacred Heart, Jesuit Classmates and Companions
FROM: Bert Thelen, S.J., June, 2013

Dearly Beloved,

May the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Peace of the Holy Spirit be with you! I am writing to tell you about what may be the most important decision of my life since entering the Jesuits. With God’s help, at the behest of my religious superiors and the patient support and wise encouragement of my CLC group and closest friends, I have decided to leave ordained Jesuit ministry and return to the lay state, the priesthood of the faithful bestowed on me by my Baptism nearly 80 years ago. I do this with confidence and humility, clarity and wonder, gratitude and hope, joy and sorrow. No bitterness, no recrimination, no guilt, no regrets.

It has been a wonderful journey, a surprising adventure, an exploration into the God Who dwells mysteriously in all of our hearts. I will always be deeply grateful to the Society of Jesus for the formation, education, companionship, and ministry it has provided, and to my family for their constant support. I can never thank God enough for the loving and loyal presence in my life of each and every one of you.

Why am I doing this? How did I reach this decision? I will try to tell you now. That is the purpose of this letter. For about 15 years now, as many of you have noticed, I have had a “Lover’s Quarrel” with the Catholic Church. I am a cradle Catholic and grew up as Catholic as anyone can, with Priests and even Bishops in our household, and 17 years of Catholic education at St. Monica’s Grade School, Milwaukee Messmer High School, and Marquette University. I took First Vows at Oshkosh in the Society of Jesus at age 25 and was ordained at Gesu Church to the priesthood ten years later in 1968. I have served the Church as a Jesuit priest in Milwaukee, Omaha, and Pine Ridge for 45 years, including 18 years on the Province Staff culminating in my being the Wisconsin Provincial for six years and attending the 34th General Congregation in Rome.

My last 14 years at Creighton and St. John’s have been the best years of my life. I have truly enjoyed and flourished serving as pastor of St. John’s. I cannot even put into words how graced and loved and supported I have been by the parishioners, parish staff, campus ministry, Ignatian Associates, and CLC members! It is you who have freed, inspired, and encouraged me to the New Life to which I am now saying a strong and joyful “Yes.” You have done this by challenging me to be my best self as a disciple of Jesus, to proclaim boldly His Gospel of Love, and to widen the horizons of my heart to embrace the One New World we are called to serve in partnership with each other and our Triune God. It is the Risen Christ Who beckons me now toward a more universal connection with the Cosmos, the infinitely large eco-system we are all part of, the abundance and vastness of what Jesus called “the Reign of God.”

Why does this “YES” to embrace the call of our cosmic inter-connectedness mean saying “NO” to ordained ministry? My answer is simple but true. All mystical traditions, as well as modern science, teach us that we humans cannot be fully ourselves without being in communion with all that exists. Lasting justice for Earth and all her inhabitants is only possible within this sacred communion of being. We need conversion – conversion from the prevailing consciousness that views reality in terms of separateness, dualism, and even hierarchy, to a new awareness of ourselves as inter-dependent partners , sharing in one Earth-Human community. In plainer words, we need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity. As Jesus commanded so succinctly, “Don’t Lord it over anyone … serve one another in love.” As an institution, the Church is not even close to that idea; its leadership works through domination, control, and punishment. So, following my call to serve this One World requires me to stop benefiting from the privilege, security, and prestige ordination has given me. I am doing this primarily out of the necessity and consequence of my new call, but, secondarily, as a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same- sex couples.

I have become convinced that the Catholic Church will never give up its clerical privilege until and unless we priests (and bishops) willingly step down from our pedestals. Doing this would also put me in solidarity with my friend, Roy Bourgeois, my fellow Jesuit, Fr. Bill Brennan, the late Bernard Cooke, and many other men who have been “de-frocked” by the reigning hierarchy. It will also support the religious and lay women, former Catholics, and gay and lesbian couples marginalized by our church. I want to stand with and for them. I am, if you will, choosing to de-frock myself in order to serve God more faithfully, truly, and universally.

But why leave the Jesuits? Make no mistake about it: the Society of Jesus shares in and benefits from this patriarchal and clerical way of proceeding. We still regard ourselves as the shepherds and those to whom and with whom we minister as sheep. I discovered this painfully when the Society of Jesus decided against having Associate members. We are not prepared for co-membership or even, it seems at times, for collaboration, though we pay lip service to it. “Father knows best” remains the hallmark of our way of proceeding. I can no longer, in conscience, do that. But I still honor and love my fellow Jesuits who work from that model of power over. It is still where we all are as a company, a Society, a community of vowed religious in the Roman Catholic church. Leaving behind that companionship is not easy for me, but it is the right thing for me to do at this time in my life. When I went through a formal discernment process with my CLC group, one member whose brilliance and integrity I have always admired and whose love and loyalty to the Jesuits is beyond question, said of my decision, “You cannot NOT do this!” He had recognized God’s call in me.

A few other considerations may help clarify my path. The Church is in transition – actually in exile. In the Biblical tradition, the Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian captivities led to great religious reforms and the creation of renewed covenants. Think of Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. I think a similar reform is happening in our Catholic faith (as well as other traditions). We have come through far-reaching, earth-shaking evolutionary changes, and a new (Universal) Church as well as a new (One) World is emerging. My decision is a baby step in that Great Emergence, a step God is asking me to take.

Consider this. Being a Lay Catholic has sometimes been caricatured as “Pray, pay, and obey.” Of course, that is a caricature, an exaggeration, a jibe. But it does point to a real problem. Recently, the hierarchical church mandated the so-called revision of the Roman Missal without consulting the People of God. It was both a foolish and a self-serving effort to increase the authority of Ordained men, damaging and even in some ways taking away the “Pray” part of “Pray, pay, and obey.” No wonder more and more Catholics are worshipping elsewhere, and some enlightened priests feel compromised in their roles. I, for one, feel that this so-called renewal , though licit, is not valid. It is not pleasing to God, and I feel compromised in trying to do it.

Now, consider this. All of this liturgical, ecclesial, and religious change is located in and strongly influenced by what both science and spirituality have revealed as happening to our world, our planet, our universe. The very earth we are rooted and grounded in, as well as the air we breathe and the water we drink, are being damaged and destroyed even beyond (some say) our capacity to survive. And, as Fr. John Surette, S.J., has so wisely observed, “Injustice for the human and destruction of Earth’s ecosystem are not two separate injustices. They are one.” Biocide is even more devastating than genocide, because it also kills future inhabitants of our precious Earth.

It is time. It is time to abandon our refusal to see that our very environment is central to the survival and well being of ALL earthlings. It is time for the Church to turn her attention from saving face to saving the earth, from saving souls to saving the planet. It is time to focus on the sacred bond that exists between us and the earth. It is time to join the Cosmic Christ in the Great Work of mending, repairing, nurturing, and protecting our evolving creation. It is time for a new vision of a universal Church whose all-inclusive justice and unconditional love, an expression of Christ consciousness and the work of the Holy Spirit, empowers ALL and can lead to a future that preserves the true right to life of all of God’s creatures. This includes future generations who will bless us for allowing them to live, evolve, and flourish. Can’t you hear them crying out, “I want to live, I want to grow, I want to be, I want to know?”

In light of all this, how can I not respond to the call both Isaiah and Jesus heard, the call of our Baptism? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and sent me to bring Good News to the oppressed.” All creation will be freed, and all people will know the freedom and glory of the Children of God. Yes, Lord, I will go. Please send me.

And that is why I am leaving Jesuit priesthood. Since first vows I have always thought and hoped and prayed that I would live and die in this least Society of Jesus. But now, something unexpected! A real surprise! I HAVE lived and died in the Society of Jesus, but, now, nearly 80, I have been raised to new life. I am born again – into a much larger world, a much newer creation. I have greatly benefited from the spiritual freedom given in and by the Society of Jesus. I feel no longer chained, limited, bound, by the shackles of a judicial, institutional, clerical, hierarchical system. As St. Paul once reminded the early Christians, “It is for freedom that you have been set free.” And as St. Peter, the first Pope, learned when he said to Jesus, “You know that I love you,” love is all about surrender and servanthood.

Thank you for your attention to this self presentation. I am grateful that you have followed me in the journey described here, and I am sorry for whatever sadness, disappointment, or hurt this may have caused you. But what I have written here is my truth, and I can’t not do it! If you want to discuss this with me, ask questions, or give me feedback, I welcome your response, either by letter, e-mail or phone.
(402-305-2665). Please pray for me, as I do for all of you, the beloved of my heart and soul.

Yours in the Risen Christ, Bert Thelen

More Questions

72If you are at all like me, you often have more questions than answers. I think that is a good thing. I’m always leery of anyone who seems to always have “the” answer.

Nothing in life is simple. I’m fairly sure at this point that it’s not meant to be. Puzzling seems to be a very human trait. We’re good at it.

So I confront the readings today and I find myself with more questions that answers.

Isaiah trumpets to the Hebrews who are returning from exile that Jerusalem awaits them. She awaits as a welcoming mother who will comfort in every way her children. She will care for their every want and need. We need only think of our own youth and the sweet comfort of a mother’s arms to soothe our bruised knees and our frightened minds at approaching thunder and lightning.

God, we understand, loves and cares for us in much the same way. God never is not Mother to us.

Paul tells us that he has died to all that is secular in the world. He lives in the Crucified Lord. Nothing else matters, not the Law certainly. Only this new person who has risen in the Risen Lord. No more will Paul concern himself with the mundane matters of earthly living.

Jesus speaks to his followers, selecting seventy-two to go in pairs to the towns he will later visit. They are in some sense to “prepare his way”. A whole series of instructions attach. They are confusing.

I struggle with what these readings are to mean to me.

In Paul I see a man, who by a revelation, has utterly turned about his life. He is poster child for the person who says A today and B tomorrow. The law enforcer now claims that the Law does not matter. He urges radical change, radical rethinking of what once was considered true. Are we to do the same? Are we to look at Church in some new ways? Are we to be thought blasphemer like Paul was?

Where is God in all this? How are we to know?

Paul seems to suggest that only by living utterly in the Cross can we be sure to make these radical changes rightly. Is that what he suggests?

And what of Jesus?

Why seventy-two?

Why in twos?

Why, why, why we ask.

What was it about these particular seventy-two? What of those not chosen? Why not the apostles? What made the seventy-two different? Better? Worse?

Jesus is at pains to make it clear that God is the actor, they merely the vehicle. Why should they greet no one along the way? Why burden only one household in the community for your entire stay? Why announce to the rejecting town that they are rejected? Is the point the teaching of the seventy-two or the work they will do on their travels? I wonder.

These questions puzzle me for nothing I read seems satisfying.

Surely there are answers to parts of the instructions. Jesus seems to want to make it clear that you are not the “main attraction” in these towns. No celebrations. No special foods. Go to them appearing as the poorest of the poor.

You are lambs. Not just sheep mind you, but lambs, the most vulnerable of the flock. You are laborers, God is the Master sending you. The message seems to be one of trust. Trust expressed in Isaiah and by Paul. Trust in God, all will be well.

Don’t trouble me or you with human things. Don’t worry about feeding yourselves, housing yourselves, petty squabbles about this or that. Trust.

That appears to be the only common thread I can see.

Or is it all about freedom from bondage? Are all these lessons in the freedom we find in Christ?

Yet the readings are rich in other things that call out for a deeper meaning.

I am unable to see it. And perhaps for me, that is my message today.

What am I blinded to by the logs that have created a log jam in my mind?

The readings seem to offer tantalizing ideas of greater and deeper truths.

It is a lot to ponder.

Do you have thoughts to offer?

I would be so pleased if you can give me an answer or two.

This Is Love

MagdalenThe readings this week are amongst the richest of any we have I think. There are so many directions one can go.

In the first, from 2 Samuel, Nathan, who has, as prophet, anointed David as king,  finds his young king having committed great sin in the killing of Uriah in order to marry his wife Bathsheba. When David faces his sin, he laments, only to be told by Nathan, that his sin has already been forgiven by God.

In Galatians, Paul sets out what will become one of the major points of argument between Catholic and Protestant with the discussion of faith by works or by faith alone. Central to that discussion is the great love Jesus has for us, a love that is unwarranted given our sinful nature.

And then of course we have the great story in Luke of Mary, the sinful woman, who enters in upon a private dinner and becomes the subject of yet another lesson in love and forgiveness.

What is central to all, is that forgiveness is given first. Love follows.

As David comes to the awful realization of his sin, Nathan assures  him:

“The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin:
you shall not die.”

Similarly, Paul says:

I live by faith in the Son of God
who has loved me and given himself up for me.

Yet, it reaches it nadir in the in Luke:

Which of them will love him more?”
Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”

Debt was a serious issue in Jesus’ time. In fact the poor often lived under crushing debt. Often the end of that was the loss of the land and the peasant and his family had to find other means to secure a living. In fact we know that Jesus’ father was a carpenter or stone worker as was Jesus, so in fact this may have happened to his family. In any case, it was a situation which would have been well understood among those that listened to Jesus’ parable.

To forgive debt, then, was a very great deal. It could and often would mean the very survival of a person or family. It was no small thing. No doubt such a person, forgiven of a significant debt would feel the deepest of gratitude and love to the one who had saved them from such a life of hardship and uncertainty.

It is this context through which we view Mary’s actions.

Scholars widely believe that this Mary was the great Magdalen, the one whom many  believe Jesus ultimately entrusted much of his teaching to, and who in a very real sense is a true apostle, one but barely acknowledged by the Church.

Mary bursts into the room, uninvited and proceeds to do some rather amazing things. First, she has entered a private dinner, not to serve, but to disrupt, something women were not to do in that culture. Further, she touches a man not her husband in the most intimate of ways, bathing his feet with her tears and kisses. She wipes them with her hair, obviously let down, another taboo in her culture. Finally she anoints him with a rich oil, pouring it over his head. In this way she acts as both prophet and priestess in anointing the king.

Simon, the Pharisee is shocked and taken aback. No doubt he is ready to call the guard and have her thrown violently into the street. Yet, of course this doesn’t happened since Jesus now uses the event as a teaching moment.

Jesus juxtaposes Mary’s treatment of him to that of Simon himself. For in failing to give him the appropriate welcome into his house, Simon has indeed shown his disrespect for Jesus and what he believes Jesus stands for. In fact Simon questions Jesus being a prophet, since he believes he was unaware of the sinful nature of the woman before him.

So Jesus explains that Mary has done for him what Simon was unwilling to do, give him the hospitality that Simon neglected.

And we learn something very important as well. And that something is that the love flows from the forgiveness already given.

This is a lesson that we miss, and translation is everything here. The NRSV translates the passage thusly:

So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.

Yet, the American Bible translates thusly:

Her many sins have been forgiven, hence she has shown great love.

The difference is so important. For in the second, we see that it falls in line with the words given in both 2 Samuel and in Galatians.

Mary does not love Jesus in order for her sins to be forgiven. Mary loves Jesus because her sins were forgiven.

That is the great lesson to us. We do not love God in order to go to heaven, or in order to be lovable by God, we love God because God has loved us despite what most no human would do–our grievous sins for which we have as yet not been even repentant! To say nothing of making reparations for. This is LOVE! This is what makes Jesus so worthy of our deepest love and obedience. For he has loved us in spite of ourselves, when nobody would or perhaps should.

This is the lesson too of 2 Samuel, for Nathan assures David who has just realized his great sin, that it has already been forgiven. Of course Paul says essentially the same thing. Jesus died once and for all for all of our sins, present and future, and to all those born thereafter. We are loved in spite of what we have done or will do.

Such love is beyond the pale for most humans. It is “unconditioned”.

Imagine the likes of Mary, a woman who apparently was alone, perhaps shunned by all, suddenly aware that she is loved beyond measure simply because she exists! Is it any wonder that her tears “bathed” Jesus’ feet?

May we all answer the love of Christ with such an acclamation and proclamation as she.

Amen.

mary-washing-jesus-feetI am greatly indebted to the following for some ideas and facts regarding this reflection:

Tender Protection, by John Foley, S.J.

Move Over Pope Francis and Bring on FrancEs! by Mike Rivage-Seul

And What of Love?

anewI’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham lately.

Specifically the story of Abraham and Isaac. More specifically, about Abraham’s call by God to sacrifice Isaac. The so-called “test.”

I’m as bothered by this as I am about God inflicting Job with all his woes as the object of a wager with Satan.

This is not my God, this God who uses and abuses his very own.

It is one of the reasons why any rational person should rebel at the demand that scripture be taken literally. For the God portrayed in these examples is not a God to love or worship. It is only a God to be ignored at one’s peril.

But of course, most of us aren’t literalists. We see that scripture is the reflection of those who came before us on how they came to recognize and live with this transcendent God. How they came to see their relationship to this all-powerful deity. How they came to enter into the grace of faith and understanding.

As is so often the case with scripture, because surely it is divinely inspired, scripture often informs scripture. We find answers to the deeply agonizing questions offered up by one text in another.

Such is the case today, at least for me. Today John tells us that in those final hours in the life of the Master, he said some amazing things. Among them, he issued his own commandment, a “new” one as he said.

love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

Go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Think about it from the point of view of today. Your neighbor comes to you, a pious woman, one who you know goes to church regularly. You see a worn bible next to her favorite chair in her living room when you visit. She often makes reference to biblical passages in your conversations. She is known for her commitment to acts of charity.  She says to you:

“God spoke to me last night. It was the clearest thing you can imagine. He told me that he wants me to take my dearest child, my youngest, and offer her as a sacrifice to him. Please say goodbye to my darling girl, for you will see her no more.”

What would you do? Well, quite obviously, you would either alert the woman’s husband or call the authorities. In any case, you would do all you could to prevent her from this act. If you learned of the act after it had been done, you would expect the woman to be taken into custody and either held for treatment or otherwise confined. Many would of course dispute her “vision” and claim her either mad or a murderer.

That would be the sane response.

Yet we read the story of Abraham and Isaac as if it all makes perfect sense. In the story, Abraham, known to love Isaac as his long-awaited son by Sarah, makes not a single objection. He offers no mental reservation, no agony of decision whatsoever. Is this even normal?

Of course it is not. And the story is just that, a story. God does not and would not ask such a thing of his creatures. The story illustrates in some crude fashion, how important it is to put God first in one’s life. It suggests that God means more than anything else. God’s desires come first. And it is crude, let’s be clear.

As is often the case with a teaching moment, we go way over the top to make a point. This the writer did. If you think you know what loving God means, well let me tell you what it REALLY means, the writer suggests. It’s hyperbole in its extreme form.

God would never ask such a thing. No rational person would do such a thing. It it meant to instruct us on what it means to love God, and of course to show us how very very short of the mark we really are. We cannot comprehend even how to love God like this.

Yet, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shows us exactly and perfectly how to love God. He simplifies it for us. Love your neighbor as I have loved you.

AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

Jesus, in his time with his disciples has shown them again and again the meaning of love. This willingness to think of others first, this willingness to get up when tired, and offer help, this willingness to bear the condemnation of others for the “company you keep”. Jesus showed his disciples that to lead, indeed to love, meant being last, being the servant, making sure that each and every person one encountered was brought into wholeness. Jesus was about to show them ultimately that life itself was worth sacrificing for a principle–not someone else’s life, but his own.

The principle of course was that being true to God in one’s heart, and living that out no matter what the personal sacrifice might entail was the way to bring heaven and earth into an embrace. Jesus answers the dilemma we face in the gruesome story of Abraham and his efforts to commit infanticide.  He shows us what the love that the ancient writer was attempting to define actually is in real and practical terms.

Scripture informs scripture, and forever teaches us that the stories are just that, stories which help us jump into the cloudy waters of our minds, to yet peel away another layer of darkness on the journey to the light.

Amen.

Do You Know His Voice?

shepherd-in-wildernessIt’s undeniable that Jesus often made reference to us as “his sheep”.

Just last week, Jesus instructed Peter to take care of his sheep, and today in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that his sheep know him, know his voice, and they follow.

There is something of course quite troubling about this if you think about it.

It is now common in the political world to refer to those on either side of the political spectrum who are, shall we say, passionate in their feelings, “sheeple”. It is not a compliment. It refers to people who are acting like sheep, blindly following without independent thought. Think Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats jumping off the docks into the water and their deaths.

And indeed, as I am told by those who claim to know, it was common when a shepherd came into Jerusalem that he brought his flock of sheep to a common holding area. In those times, sheep were not marked in any way to define who belonged to who. Not only was the shepherd intimately familiar with his sheep, but the sheep “knew” the shepherd’s voice, and when he called, those that were his,  they, and only they, followed and separated themselves out again.

There is some comfort in this explanation, for we believe that Jesus indeed does KNOW us that intimately. As is said in the scriptures, God knows us down to the number of hairs upon our heads.

But are we blind followers, responding only to the superficial “voice”?

Skeptics and those who refer to themselves as atheists surely do account us as “sheeple”, blinding adhering to things that are fantastical and at times conflicting and brutal. They pepper us with isolated passages of biblical fare that present a God who is merciless, arbitrary, and cruel. How can you believe such things they say as they look on with disdain?

Worse they extract stories out of context and make jokes, taunting “do you read this to your child as a bedtime story? What kind of parent are you?”

They lay our faith down to being so fearful of the specter of death that we perpetuate a created sky God to save us.

It is both troubling and painful to be portrayed this way. In that sense, the sheep metaphor is particularly unwelcome  and uncomfortable.

Again I ask, are we dumb followers? Are we so terrified of death?

A bit of thought of course resets our compass. Of course we are not. Surely, if our goal was to comfort ourselves we could come up with a story that held together much better than this! We would not be confronted with the twists and conflicts, the contradictions and real errors that exist in the collection of writings that we lump together into a “book” and call scripture.

The charge of following dumbly can be laid at the foot of some believers it is true. Some do actually think of faith as the ability to believe in a set of precepts without any wavering or any deep thinking. The idea of doubt is to them akin to slapping God across the face!

But I think that true faith is full of doubt. That doubt drives us into deeper contemplation and study. It is that practice that deepens and broadens our faith into maturity, one that is ever ongoing.

Our lives are, so we think anyway, more complicated and busy than those of people before us. We are pulled and pushed by many forces. The cacophony of life threatens to drown us at times. As a retired person, I find my life so much busier than it used to be. I now have the choice of how to spend my time each day, and the calls to do “this” or “this” or “that” or “that” are nearly overwhelming.

Yet, in the chaos that is every life, we can, if we listen carefully, hear his voice.

We indeed do recognize HIS voice. And that voice causes us to pause, and recalculate who we are, where we are going, and what matters most. It is the beacon that draws us to the path once more, and guides us to listen to the voice as we interact with the world, basing our decisions and actions on principles that HE announced to us.

Like the sheep, we can cut our way through the herd of humanity that we find ourselves in, and maintain a steady course toward the way of living that we believe is both moral and efficacious for us as humans.

Rather than following out of fear, we follow out of hope, for ourselves and for humanity. We follow, believing that this way of life, with this shepherd lead to an expansion of our humanity individually and collectively. We are not sheeple. We have the keen awareness to discriminate between our shepherd and all the others calling to us.

Do you know his voice?

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