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Shepherdless?

‘When Jesus saw the crowd, He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’ (MK 6:34).

If the wise-men are any example, then Epiphany is about the worship of Jesus manifesting itself in loving people most in need of it. Our new neighborhood is full of possibilities, including a rainbow house full of gender-benders, sweet and clueless as to the purpose of their sexuality. I ask Jesus to help me show them His love. He is faithful. The other day I helped one housemate change a tire. I pray for them always, awaiting the chance to know and love them more; I believe that the King of heaven wants to dwell there and embrace any willing heart among them.

They have no guides, just a string of well-intentioned, misdirected relationships (if the revolving door of tenants is any indication). And I wonder; how are our churches inclined to welcome and shepherd them into true happiness?

I keep going back to a disturbing article I read in the New York Times last month about the mess our Church is in concerning ‘good news’ for the LGBT+ set. It seems Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego wants to reach gender-benders but has lost his way; this Catholic shepherd of the tenth biggest city in the USA allowed a ‘gay-married’ man (we’ll call him Steve) to pastor a parish in the thick of the ‘gay’ community there. The priest overseeing Steve got promoted, leaving Steve to do the job. The effect was disastrous: a man redefining/defying Catholic marriage and sexual ethics taught ‘gay’-seekers accordingly, thereby presenting a Gospel falsified by cheap grace.

Worst still, reactionary persons hurled all kinds of at poor Steve, who although deceived (and deceiving) did not deserve the slurs and even life threats he received for his service. First and foremost, Steve is a man under authority, and his authority is Bishop McElroy. I ascribe primary blame to the good bishop for putting a man on the firing line who shouldn’t have been there.

The greater problem? A brand of traditionalism that has no vision or authority to welcome persons into Jesus’ Church in a way that is merciful, mighty, and transformational. If the article is correct (and few are, entirely), many of the ‘faithful’ opposed to Steve acted as if LGBT+ reality had more power than Jesus Christ to define His Church. They responded with a fearful, vengeful spirit rather than with a robust Gospel that declares to all who seek: ‘The time has come—the Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the Gospel!’ (MK 1:15) In this, every Christian is a shepherd in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, called by Him to bear witness of the One who takes us as we are then shakes us down to our very foundations in order to establish a new creation.

Sexual ethics in light of King Jesus? Forego your lovers, and faddish self-assessments! He gives all and demands nothing less of us. Only the Gospel, empowered by the Spirit and declared through broken, blessed people like us, can make Him known in a way that commands repentance.

Shepherds confuse today: guides driven by a worldly, feel-good Gospel (McElroy) or by traditional exclusionary attitudes that frighten off rebels. Conservatives cannot afford the latter! Either we cultivate merciful vision and passion for persons caught in a web of lies or we will be spit out of Jesus’ mouth for upholding a form of godliness but denying its power to transform lives (2 Tim. 3:5; Col. 2: 20-23).

That must be our call—every one of us standing in the gap as a pretty good under-‘shepherd’, praying for and inviting the hurting into holy family.

“‘I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 34:16)

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Holy Family?

I prepared myself for the worst last Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Family. I prophesied a dismal homily on the too-radiant-to-be-believed triad: you know, ‘be holy as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are holy’, piercing neither the surface of family nor holiness.

Wrong on all counts. My pastor pointed out the disparity between our generosity to family members and to strangers. We write big checks to orphans then all but get restraining orders on family members who ‘trigger’ us. Overly sensitive to those we love so much we hate, many of us are anything but holy in how emotionally stingy we are toward family members.

It’s our nature to defend ourselves when loved ones frustrate us. Or take some disturbing turn that frightens us. Jesus stressed Mary out by ditching the clan for some temple time. It was the first sign of Him distancing Himself from her for reasons not yet clear. To be sure, the analogy breaks down with our families: confusing members are messianic only in their own darkened minds. Yet it can help to remember everyone has a subtext that only God ‘gets’ as well as a noble destiny we may have forgotten.

This holy week I had the privilege of responding to an emergency call from colleagues in marital crisis. That holy family nearly blew up as they walked onto a landmine of familiar suspicions and judgments. But they surrendered together to the Father who calmed the storm; holy peace helped them to hear each other so they could glimpse his or her goodness once more. Another couple met with us to seek wisdom on how to best love a son in the throes of an identity crisis. (It’s hard to love a 36-year-old acting 16.) But these parents are digging deep into the Father’s love for their child and his best. However painful, the only way is down– on one’s knees–where love and wisdom are distilled. Generous, tempered care for the other’s good can result from such prayer.

Mary shows us the way here. After her anxiety over Jesus’ disappearance, she does something we all can do—she ‘treasured these things in her heart’ (LK 2:51). That word for ‘treasure’ means to reflect, to conceive something new out of the brooding. It provides sacred space for entrusting the beloved to the Father who sees all (LK 2:51); it may also grant one inspired sight. You could say that Mary’s prayer transformed her fear into marvel. May such prayer make our families holy this year too; may we love our members wisely, generously, in 2019.

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Home Fires

OK, OK, I love my wife and kids and dogs and house. But I am most at home before the One. During these days of Christmas, my eyes are fixed on the little baby in the cow stall; I bow in worship. He is the Lord. He is no mere extension of my religious imagination, nor a sentimental reminder of Christmases past. From the manger He burns with fire that unites crib to charismatic signs to cross. He is God, I am not, and as I bow I find peace. I am at home.

True worship results from gratitude but requires holy fear. My welcome of Jesus’ coming espouses me to His Father in an intimate bond of love and at the same time makes me His son (Gal. 4:3-7). Only God could do that. A wise-man said that reverencing the Christ-child celebrates our own new birth. Yet if I fail to realize that this babe is the Creator/Redeemer of all then my worship is in vain. My ‘home’ becomes a house built on sand.

Godly fear is a forgotten value. Whiners who cry injustice selfishly trivialize real trauma, abuse and harassment; they lose their home. A real homecoming requires that we deny our demands and give Him highest place. We unruly sheep need to stop bleating and bow. Hear Fr Alfred Delp on godly fear: ‘Man must learn again–really, personally, practically, and daily—to reckon God as the ultimate category of reality, as the decisive judgment of all that exists….We have lost this category [of godly fear]. We are no longer a people of clarity who know about this one Lord and who stand in simplicity without usurping the Lord’s rights, without betraying our duty to Him, or bargaining. Fear of God…means knowing the absolute, inalienable dominion of the Lord of all.’

Only out of godly fear can we grasp the miracle of Him drawing near to us. The other day in Adoration (when Catholics adore Jesus in the Eucharist) I felt led to meditate on John 6:53-55 where Jesus makes explicit how He becomes our home: ‘I tell you the truth, unless eat the flesh of Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you…For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides/dwells/remains in Me and I abide/dwell/remain in him.’

Wow. Adoring Jesus in tears over the abuse scandalizing the Church, I experienced a new power, a burning in my belly as if Christ-in-me was intensifying and would not be diminished by the devils of a few. Rather than forsake my Church home, Jesus was becoming my home in order to fight for His bride. I recalled Jesus’ words ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (JN 15:5b) then joyfully realized the converse: ‘With Him I can do everything [He asks]!’

I prayed with new authority for the Church in her season of shaking. Delp again: ‘The time of the great intercessors has come. Prayer does not mean some Quietist approach dispensing us from action and responsibility. To the contrary, this is a much harder principle of action. The time of pure action, consecrated from within has come. The precept of Ignatius…says that the interior life must fill and support the exterior life and make it fruitful….Today more than ever, action, commitment and achievement must unfold from devoted worship.’

Let His burning love infuse ours as we pray. Never alone, we can bear what He asks. And burn. Nothing less than His fiery love will grant us peace and pierce the darkness.

‘We should not avoid the burdens God gives us. They lead us into the blessing of God. To those who remain faithful to the hard life, the interior springs of reality will be unsealed…The silver threads of God’s mysteries within everything that is real begin sparkling and singing…

God becomes man. Man does not become God. The human order remains and continues to be our duty, but it is consecrated. And man has become something more, something mightier. Let us trust life because this night must lead to light. Let us trust life because we do not have to live it alone. God lives it with us.’
Fr. Alfred Delp’s last Christmas meditation from prison, 1944.

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Almost Home

‘No-one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. Only those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us…Without poverty of spirit, there can be no abundance of God.’ St. Oscar Romero

Christmas is for people in need. All of us. No matter how seasoned the saint, each of us possess an ache only Jesus can fill. In other words, knowing the One who is our home doesn’t mean we have arrived home; we are still on the way. Christmas can be a good time to recall resistance en route, and receive afresh from Jesus and His members.

No two people demonstrate this better than Mary and Elizabeth. Their ‘visitation’ highlights what we can be for each other as we seek to bring Jesus into the world (LK 1:39-45). If you recall, pregnant Mary, compelled by the Spirit, rushes to see her cousin Elizabeth, nearly bursting with John the Baptist. I’ve been dismayed by homilies that portray Mary as composed and selfless, matron on a mission to care for Elizabeth. Not evident in the text—just one of many ways we drain the blood from the saints then bleach them unnaturally white.

I prefer to think of immaculate Mary as a stressed-out teenager who needs God’s Word spoken to her; the burden is huge, and she needs solidarity with someone who ‘gets’ her load—not platitudes from a priest or husband but another woman swelling at the seams who may well share her temptation to doubt the marvels at hand.

And wow. Elizabeth delivers with the most astute prophetic greeting one can imagine: Hail, Mother of my Lord! I am not worthy of this visit! Bless you for believing that what God says will be done! The words of her friend loose Mary’s tongue and she scats one of the most beautiful songs ever (LK 1: 46-55).

Maybe your efforts to bring forth Christ this year have been frustrated by doubts or loneliness or failure or misunderstanding. Celebrating His coming reminds you; it hurts. You are right where Jesus wants you to be. He comes for the empty, not the self-possessed. Open to the One who is coming and who comes now through His Spirit. Welcome Him in quiet. Then hurry to a friend. May the Spirit of Elizabeth prophesy through us to each other: Blessed are you who believe!

‘It may well be, as Jesus says, more blessed to give than to receive. But it is more difficult to receive…In Jesus, God wanted to do something for us so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination or projection that He had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky. We didn’t think of it, understand it, or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it.’ William Willimon

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Cry of the True Self

‘I know that only the LordGod can and will loose my fetters and open my door, and that only His creative storm will unfurl my flag once again…’ FR Alfred Delp

In the film ‘Before Sunset’, Ethan Hawke muses to an ex-lover as to why he left her for another in order to become a husband then father: ‘I chose my best self over my honest one.’ Moments later, ‘honesty’ overtakes him and he tumbles into bed with his old flame.

Much is made today about such ‘honesty’—as if getting real with your bad self is virtuous. We portray ‘best’ selves as sexless and stodgy; ‘honest’ selves warrant sweeping sound-tracks and soft porn montages. Raising the banner of authenticity, men and women break their vows to God and each other in order to fuse with a sweeter fix. ‘To thine own self be true’ is the adulterer’s creed–forsaking all others for a better conversation or orgasm.

So Sue ditches husband and kids for Jim. Or for Jenny. Gender does not matter much here; what does is waking up for a few mornings with someone who ‘gets you’ and is happy for you ‘to get’him or her, sensationally.

Authentic adultery. We’ve all encountered it with close friends and possibly came close to agreeing with:‘That marriage died a long time ago; finally she found her soul-mate’, or ‘He’s always been gay and now is free…’ When we romanticize the needs of one to the exclusion of others, we contribute to the abandonment of a host of dependents who actually need Mom and Dad to reach for their best.

Advent provokes us to become our best. John the Baptist heralds the true self based wholly on the person of Jesus Christ. He cries out three times and urges us to do the same:‘In your desert, prepare the way of the Lord…In your withering, the Word of God stands forever…Here is your God; He comes with power!’ (IS 40:3-10)

The Baptist, inflamed by the soon-coming King, implored his followers to turn from sin and toward the One who incinerates all falsehood to expose gleaming truth (LK 3: 16, 17). That self emerges only through authentic encounter with Jesus Christ. Jesus forges a true self out of our temptations; He summons our best from honest confession of our lower possibilities.

John confronts us with a glimpse of Glory, before whom we flee or surrender. Jesus gives us the choice to agree with Him before He knocks us off our high horse of disordered dreams—myths of contours that complement ours perfectly.

He levels us to the ground in order to raise us according to His best for our lives. This is the authentic self who lives for Him and who endures whatever limits us creatures impose on each other. Love frees us for serving others gratefully. We are most real—mostalive to the truth of who we are–when we live from His wellspring in order to help quench the thirst of others.

From a prison cell on theeve of his execution, Advent ’44, Delp wrote:

‘Human honesty requires man to see himself as a servant and perceive his reality as a mission and an assignment. The idea of authentic service and authentic duty belongs to the essence of man’s self-concept. Anyone who undermines this has smeared his own image and corrupted his own self-knowledge…

What man contributes to his own great liberation into a fulfilled life consists of honest humility, willing openness, readiness to serve, authentic testimony, and praise. If man sets out upon his Advent road, he will be granted the great encounter, for man’s liberation happens as an encounter. God works a multi-faceted liberation within him, meeting him when he rises beyond self in a lived experience of being comforted and uplifted.’ (Advent of the Heart, Ignatius Press)

Please take time to watch our new video and become ‘Chaste Together.’

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