Thursday, October 26, 2006

Theologian Karl Rahner has an axiom that states, dependence on God and human freedom are in a relationship of direct proportion, not inverse proportion. In other words, freedom does not decrease, but rather increases when we surrender to God. This statement is contrary to what one might normally presume, that the more you surrender to God's will, the less freedom you have. For Rahner freedom is the freedom to be what we were created to be, the freedom to be in love with God. If you think about the analogy of a healthy marriage relationship, your relationship with the person you love, while inevitably involving some compromise, should ultimately bring out the best in you and foster your growth and development as a human being. Remember the famous line from the movie, As Good as it Gets? Jack Nicholson's character says to Helen Hunt's character, "You make me want to be a better person." (This line is, in my opinion, a much healthier concept for a relationship than the famous Jerry Maguire line, "You complete me," which smacks of co-dependence!) Another example is the line from a wedding homily in Gail Godwin's novel Evensong, in which the priest says of the couple, "May their having each other make more of them both." Our relationship with God should be this way - it should make us want to be better people. In loving surrender to God, we discover that God is the one that enables our freedom, the freedom that lets us become who we want to be.

The difficulty is balancing this tremendous freedom and dependence on God. Surrendering to God's will does not necessarily mean accepting things as they are, surrendering to the status quo. We use our freedom to co-create (with God) the reality in which we live. There is a joke about a pastor who prayed day after day to win the lottery to help the poor of his parish, and when he died he was expressing his anger at God for not answering his prayer. God says to the man, "Give me a break, you could have at least bought a ticket!" With freedom and faith there comes a responsibility to see the opportunities we are given and to act on them. At the same time, one must be careful not to use the "God helps those who help themselves" mentality to blame the victim.

The relationship between freedom and surrender means using freedom to try to act in accordance with God's will, but how do we know God's will? While there are many different ways and traditions of discernment in Christianity, the bottom line is we never know with absolute certainty that our actions are in accordance with the will of God. Presuming to know God's will is a dangerous business. The uncertainty with which we live is part of that to which we surrender. I have always taken comfort in the humble words of a prayer by Thomas Merton:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this
you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Last week I addressed the spiral of violence that I see in our society. This week I want to mention the shining example (an example I was remiss not to mention last week) that exemplifies the very Scripture passages I referenced in that entry. There have been many stories and reflections in the news about the Amish community's loving forgiveness in word and deed of the man, Charles Roberts, who murdered their children. I am adding my own reflections because I don't think enough can be said about their extraordinary reaction. In addition to expressing their forgiveness of the shooter, the Amish community reached out to Roberts' wife and children in the midst of their grief. The Amish community responded to violence with love and goodness by visiting the Roberts' family to bring food and express their condolences, inviting the Roberts' wife and family to attend the funerals of the children killed, and attending Roberts' funeral themselves. They have set up a fund for Roberts' children and have expressed the hope that the family will stay in the area as opposed to moving away, assuring them that if they stay, they will have friendship and support. I must add my disappointment in reading the news report that vandals had disturbed Roberts' grave, an act that can only add to the grief of Roberts' innocent family and can only be seen in stark contrast to the loving and forgiving reaction of the families of the victims themselves.

I stand in awe of a community that practices what they believe with a sincerity that I doubt I could match in similar circumstances. While I would not wish ill on the family members who are certainly not to blame for the tragedy and are undoubtedly suffering themselves, I would probably not wish to see or interact with those who would be such a vivid reminder of my own suffering were something similar to happen in my community. The Amish community took the exact opposite approach, reaching out to them in a way that expresses profound graciousness. They say that they forgive because they believe they are forgiven. They grieve, but also believe that their children are in a better place, and so are able to respond with love instead of bitterness. The Amish that live among us have always been a strong counter-cultural witness to what it means to live simply and with humility. At the time of their most public and mournful moment, they have also been a witness to what it means to live the principles of non-violence.

One of the reasons I love working in a parish is because I learn so much from the people with whom I work. A woman at our parish spoke the other night about how it can be difficult to see Jesus as an example for our own behavior and reactions, because while we believe he was fully human, we can also use his divinity as an excuse not to do as he did (well of course he could forgive, he was divine!). She said that when you look at a human person who does live as Jesus lived, it takes away the excuse. If the Amish community can imitate Jesus' own love and forgiveness in such a vivid way, the rest of us have no excuse not to do the same.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Hearing all of the reports of school shootings this past week, I have been reflecting on the prevalence of violence in our society. It seems to me that we are teaching our children to deal with conflict through violence. Popular sentiment all too often seems to favor responding to violence with violence, from war to the death penalty. Why are we then surprised when our children respond to conflict in their own lives with violence? Yet for those of us who are supposed to be witnesses for the Christian tradition in this world, this is not what our tradition teaches us. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. . . . You have heard it said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. (Cf. Mt. 5:38-48 and Lk. 6: 27-36)

Paul also says in the Letter to the Romans, "Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good." (Cf. Romans 12: 9-21; Paul is drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures in this passage, cf. Proverbs 25:21-22) How can we, as Christians, witness to this ideal of non-violence in our society? Could we stop the cycle of violence by responding with goodness and love?

I saw the movie Crash last year, a movie that is explicitly about racism, but I really thought the underlying theme of the movie was anger. It made me reflect on how angry people seem to be in our society. That anger seems to bubble to the surface at the slightest provocation, such as someone cutting someone off in traffic. Where is this anger coming from? The tagline from the movie website is "Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other." Is it the speed of life, the stress we are feeling from being stretched too thin too much of the time that is a source of this anger? While I don't think that is the entire answer, I think it might be part of the answer. I think many people fall into a pattern of living life on the edge of their breaking point.

Going back to where this reflection started, a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that our children do not have enough down time or unstructured playtime in their lives. As a result, more of our children are going to the doctor with medical problems related to stress. Rather than us being more childlike (as Jesus suggests we need to be to enter the kingdom of heaven), it seems we are making our children more adultlike. Perhaps we all need a little more down time. Maybe then, we can do as Paul tells us in the Letter to the Ephesians,
And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. (And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. (Eph. 4:30-32)

Imagine what the world would look like if even just those of us who profess a Christian belief managed to live in this way!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of prayer lately, partially because in my own life I have run up against the realization that God is not The Great Wish Granter in the sky. I knew this, of course, on an intellectual level, but to sincerely pray for things and not have them come to pass makes it necessary for me to re-examine my understanding of prayer and my image of God. I am reminded of the line from the movie Shadowlands, where C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) says to his friend, "I do not pray because it changes God; I pray because it changes me. I pray because the need flows out of me constantly." And so I have to ask myself in what ways my prayer changes me.

If I was asked what prayer is, I would respond that prayer is my relationship with God. Prayer is my way of being with God, sometimes spilling out what is in my heart, sometimes listening, sometimes just sitting in silence. Like any relationship, there are times when I feel very connected to God and in sync with God, and there are times when I feel a disconnect between God and myself. Teresa of Avila, a great mystic who tells of experiencing three years of dryness or disconnectedness in her relationship with God, says that in the midst of that dryness one should never stop praying, never cut off the relationship altogether. I have tried to hold true to that advice, praying even when I feel lost and alone, even when I wonder if God is really listening.

Prayer is also about my relationships with other people, about our interconnectedness with one another. Prayer is my solidarity with others in their joys and sufferings, sharing that solidarity with God who is in solidarity with us. As I imagine is true for many people, I generally do want God to "fix things" for me and for those I care about. That doesn't always happen. Returning to prayer as a way of "being with" God and others, I place those I care for in the presence of God. I pray that they feel the love and support and peace of God's presence in their lives. Sometimes I pray for those who cannot pray for themselves, either because they don't believe in God or because they are too angry with God, etc., placing them in the presence of God so that they may somehow experience God's presence through my experience of God's presence. They may not call what they experience "God," but I do believe that they may experience the love, peace, joy, etc., that is what I understand to be God.

In his book of prayers, Encounters with Silence, Karl Rahner writes about experiencing God's silence in prayer. He says,
Isn't Your Silence a sure sign that You're not listening? Or do You really
listen quite attentively, do You perhaps listen my whole life long, until I have
told You everything, until I have spoken out my entire self to You? Do You
remain so silent precisely because You are waiting until I am really finished,
so that You can then speak Your word to me, the word of Your eternity?

Rahner says prayer is giving oneself to God. He says that running from prayer is often running from oneself, from one's own superficiality. And still God patiently waits. Ultimately he says that it is God who opens that deepest part of ourselves to us, the place within us where we encounter God, and so all of our daily prayer is a preparation and a waiting for that moment when we find God at the center of our hearts. Prayer does not change God; it changes me.