Sunday, August 18, 2019

Constructive Conflicts

Dali's Sacrament of the Last Supper
In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus speaks about conflict. Jesus preached a clearly divisive message. He will burn or destroy everything that is false and evil. You’re either with Jesus or against him.

Church history shows times of disagreement about various things. Imagine, instead of divisiveness, if Christians had continued walking together, putting unity first.

Every one of us faces conflict or confrontation of one kind or another. Such experiences are not only inevitable, they can make for better human relationships. They can be an opportunity to set a relationship on a healthy course, if we commit to keeping first things first, for constructive solutions and stronger relationships.

I like to share the following guidelines, so that conflicts can be a healing rather than a hurting, a constructive rather than a destructive experience:

1. When we have a bone to pick with someone, we need to set up a time to settle the issue as soon as possible. We don’t want to “bottle up” anger indefinitely. Setting an agreeable time and place allows us to cool off and sort out the crux of the issue.

2. Clarify the particular behavior that annoys us. For example, dirty clothes on the floor makes more work for me. Always make “I” statements, not “you” statements. “I” statements avoid name-calling (“you’re” inconsiderate), generalizations (“you” never think of anyone else), abusive language (“listen, you airhead”). Avoid negative judgment. For example, someone is late. A negative judgment would be: you never think about anyone but yourself. The actual behavior is: you’re late; maybe there was an unavoidable delay.

3. Express your feelings honestly. Disguising our feelings can be dangerous, like using the silent treatment. Feelings are neither positive nor negative; they are facts. As aches and pain alert us to physical problems, feelings alert us to our relationship. There’s nothing wrong with expressing feelings honestly and calmly.

4. Lastly, come up with creative solutions. The goal is to resolve a problem in a way that is agreeable to both parties. We may have a specific request that will resolve the issue. Many times, we cannot think of a solution. Then we brainstorm together: the more ideas, the better. Sometimes, we may come up with a new creative solution. Other times we may simply agree to disagree.
All the while, we continue living and working together. All relationships call for nurturing if they are to become stronger.

St. Paul wrote that love “does not brood over injury.” If we do things together and communicate regularly, then we create a climate of love, respect, and trust.

In chapter 6 of St. Luke, Jesus advises: Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Seize Every Opportunity to Do Good

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac
It’s “back-to-school time.” I’m going to give you a brief two-part quiz.
Part one: Name the last two movies to win the Oscar for best picture.
Part two: Think of a teacher who made a positive difference in your life, and a friend or mentor who helped you learn something worthwhile.

The point is simple: we often forget “headlines.” However, “heroes and heroines” like teachers and mentors, family and friends, can truly make a difference for the better.

The word of God heard today recalls the first Passover meal, when the ancient Hebrews celebrated liberation from their oppressors, and notes: That same provident God, always faithful to his promises, eventually will send the Messiah who will usher in God’s kingdom of peace and justice and truth and freedom.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says that we are to be like servants who await their master’s return, ready to welcome him. Be alert; be prepared; focus on what truly matters—eternal life with God. We will be accountable for the person we become with the time and talent God gives us.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be fundamentally a man or woman of faith, someone who trusts completely in God throughout all the opportunities and threats and disappointments of life, someone who desires to do what God wants even though we can’t always precisely figure out what that is.

The letter to the Hebrews tells of two faith-filled people, Abraham and Sarah: trusting completely in God, in a foreign land, among strangers, in shelters, believing that Sarah would at last have a child. They are models of faith.

The story invites us to reflect upon the dimensions of our own faith: a gift from God whereby we begin a right relationship with the triune God, nurtured through prayer and especially through the Eucharist, the source and summit of Catholic life. It is the acceptance of God’s promises as true and a commitment to live accordingly. Faith includes the essential truths we profess every Sunday in our Nicene Creed, from the fourth century.

Faith is living in a right relationship with God. And there can be various stages in our faith development. We either grow into a relationship with God, or we fall out of it.

This faith compels us to be missionary disciples. Many of us share our faith even though we may not realize it, teaching the virtues of prayer, generosity, fairness, honesty, and service. Teachers develop virtues or habits of heart and skills of mind that will enable students to become good citizens. So do medical professionals. And, so do citizens when they urge their elected officials to set legislation that promotes human dignity.

We especially share our faith when we do our best to stand up for what is right and true and good. Never forget that the only “Gospel” some people may ever see is ourselves. Every day, we have so many little opportunities to be fully awake, to do good for others.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

What Matters to God

Dore's Sketch of the Rich Man and Lazarus
In today’s Gospel, Jesus advises us to “Take care to guard against all greed.” He calls one who only accumulates things for him/herself a fool, forgetting one’s absolute dependency upon God, and forgetting one’s mortality.

Yes, we need things in order to live, but all we can take with us in death are our good deeds. As the saying goes, you never see a U-Haul trailer following a hearse to the cemetery.

The reality of death challenges us to answer the most important questions in life: how shall we live and what shall we do? And so, Jesus urges us to make sure we have our priorities straight. Seek first the things of God.

The so-called last things—hell, purgatory, and heaven—are challenging beliefs in Christianity. How can we say at the same time there’s an all-good God, and there’s a hell? Think about it.  Yes, scripture describes the last things.

But Dante’s The Divine Comedy also imaginatively reveals how he awoke in a dark wood (perhaps a midlife crisis) where Virgil led him through earth to hell (remember Dante’s famous line, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”). They saw sinners going to the abode of Satan. Then Dante ascended to purgatory, and finally, with his beloved Beatrice, he climbed the spheres of paradise and into the dazzling vision of the Triune God.

The Divine Comedy is a masterpiece in poetry, not easily readable but profoundly instructive about life. Heaven and hell answer the question of justice. Many good people die without receiving in this life a reward for their goodness, and many wicked people die without paying for their wickedness. If there’s justice, there has to be someplace where wrongs are righted, and someplace where good is rewarded.

So what are hell, purgatory, and heaven? The language is best understood symbolically. God does not “send” us to hell; we freely choose to go (unwisely). Also, while accepting the possibility of hell (in light of the dynamic between God's unconditional love for us and our human freedom to reject that love), we don’t have to believe that human beings are actually “in” such a “place.” In fact, we hope all human beings will find salvation.

If we peel away its fiery imagery, hell can be described as the absence of God, the failure to realize our true selves, whereas heaven is the ultimate fulfillment of our true selves. In heaven, we participate in the mystery of God.

Purgatory then is a “purification” in which we become our true selves.  And judgment is our own recognition of what is right and wrong in ourselves.

Finally, we believe that in the mystery of death, God will transform our earthly selves, like Jesus, into a new, indescribable heavenly reality. St. Paul put it well: “No eye has seen, no mind has ever imagined … what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Yes, Jesus wants us to be indescribably rich: “rich in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:21)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Seeking Forgiveness

Nelson Mandela sought forgiveness with one another
In today’s news, we sometimes hear of corruption: for example, funds sent for disaster relief, yet rebuilding seems mysteriously slow.

The word of God today takes us back to Abraham, who is talking/praying with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah: cities symbolizing corruption. Abraham engages in a spirited conversation with God about justice: why should the innocent suffer? Abraham’s openness indicates his close relationship with God.

We know the end of those two corrupt cities. Some scholars say they were destroyed in a catastrophe, probably an earthquake. Anyway, the story challenges us to ask ourselves about our relationship with God. How do we pray? As a close friend? A distant relative? A stranger?

Paul, in his letter to the Christian community at Colossae, speaks of the new identity we have through baptism. We have become sons and daughters of God our Father, heirs to the kingdom of God, graced by God. Paul may be asking whether we live a life worthy of our calling.

In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples ask how Jesus talks to his heavenly Father. Jesus speaks to God like a trusting son or daughter with a parent, like a close friend. Jesus urges us to be persistent in prayer, to go on asking, seeking, knocking, even though our heavenly Father knows what we need. God likes to hear our voice.

There’s a pattern to prayer that Jesus taught us. Here’s a paraphrase:
Our Father, because we are family, heirs to God’s kingdom; Your name be honored and reverenced; May your kingdom of justice and peace and freedom permeate everyone; May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Satisfy our basic needs. Forgive us for the things we do wrong as we forgive those who wrong us. And protect us from evils that jeopardize our relationship with you.
This is the pattern Jesus gave us.

When I think of modern examples of forgiveness, I recall Nelson Mandela. For nineteen years as a political prisoner in South Africa, he was forced to do hard labor, ate little and slept in a six by five cell. That he overcame hardship, that he saw the glory of God in his fellow prisoners and in his jailers was remarkable. When Mandela was released, he asked all South Africans to seek not vengeance but to seek reconciliation and forgiveness with one another.

We are all sinners, Pope Francis reminds us. The third chapter from the book of Genesis, the so-called fall from grace, is a sketch about how we sin: through ingratitude, self-absorption/narcissism, the arrogance that believes that we can get along without God.

It’s interesting that the people who really upset Jesus were not sinners but hypocrites, those who refused to see anything wrong with their own prejudices, those who had no sense of a need for repentance, those who were smug.

But Jesus offered forgiveness aplenty to those who admitted they needed it. May that forgiving hand change us. And may our active forgiveness change our fellow human beings.