Unjust Judges and Widows

crosswButterfliesThe introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Judge tells us that we should keep on praying and never give up. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that we should keep on praying even when our prayers go unanswered for so long that we think we are praying to one who does not care and perhaps is not even just.

It happens that in life, nagging and nagging is often the only way to get justice, or what we think is justice. There are some people who are eager to help and will hop to a request as soon as it is spoken, but many people are rather slow to do what is asked of them, and many people have vested interests in denying pleas for justice. These are the people who have more power than others and they usually use that power to take advantage of those who are weaker. Do the people with power take an initiative in renouncing their power for the benefit of others? Do people with power renounce it when politely requested to do so? We all know that doesn’t happen very often. Even in the top-down case of Czar Alexander II freeing the serfs in Russia, the class structure in Russia didn’t change very much.

Most of us instinctively identify with the widow who is trying to get justice. As widows, we expect that God’s granting of justice involves God strong-arming the unjust judges of the world until all of us widows get our rights. But that is not what happened with Jesus. Far from dismantling the unjust rule of the Romans, Jesus himself was condemned to death by the unjust judges among the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor, and the rest of us in the crowd. As the culmination of the persecuted prophets, Jesus reveals God to be the widow who is pleading with us, for justice.

That is. we are the unjust judges. Even people with little power overall tend to be unjust judges over those (such as children) who have even less power. This portrait of humanity raises the question as to whether it is God who delays justice. If humans act unjustly and delay justice to the point that injustice is a longstanding epidemic, then God could have been working overtime since the dawn of civilization and still have no hope of keeping up with the injustice.

Jesus as the crucified widow who died at our hands, the unjust judges, is not what we were looking for when we thought of ourselves as widows. But that is what we got. Not only that, but we also got the resurrected widow who still pleads for justice without ceasing. As the resurrected widow, Jesus has offered us, the unjust judges, forgiveness and the offer to enter into the kingship of Jesus. The parable suggests that we enter as importunate widows who plead with forgiveness and love for the unjust judges as some of our greatest leaders have done, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu. But we also enter the kingship of Heaven as repentant unjust judges. In the parable, the Unjust Judge only relents because he is more miserable from being hassled by the widow than he is with any power he might lose by giving her justice. But at least the Unjust Judge finally does the right thing, even if his motives are as selfish as those of the Dishonest Steward in the earlier parable. (Lk. 16: 10–13) Maybe if we start to do the right thing, however grudgingly, we might find that doing the right thing, of granting justice to those weaker than we, isn’t so bad after all. Maybe giving justice can become a habit.

What does this parable teach us about prayer? It surely teaches us to pray constantly like the importunate widow, and to thirst for justice, as the Sermon on the Mount would have us do. However, we are not praying to a strong man who will manhandle the bad guys for us. (We would be among those so manhandled in that case.) We are praying with God the Crucified and Risen Widow who offers us freedom from our own injustice so that we can spread justice to others with a burning desire.

See also Jesus the Helpless Widow for another post developing the same ideas with a different slant or two.

On Hearing God’s Silence in the Storm

Jesus walking on waterIt is highly significant that Elijah did not find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but only in a “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kg 19:12) It happens that Elijah had just run away from fire and storm when he heard this sound of silence. Since Elijah had just “won” the battle with the priests of Baal, one might have thought that God had spoken through wind and fire that time, but the result of “winning” that contest was needing to run for his life because Jezebel was out to get him. So it seems God had not spoken in the wind and fire on Mount Carmel after all. If we stop the story with the “sound of sheer silence,” we are edified, but when we read on to the words Elijah heard, we are seriously troubled. At least I am. Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to be his successor prophet. So far so good. But Elijah is also told to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel. The narrative of Jehu’s cold-blooded coup d’état is chilling to say the least. (2 Kg. 9) More chilling are the words Elijah heard: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” (1 Kg. 19: 17) After the violent rivalry between Elijah and the priests of Baal, we get the crossfire of the violent rivalry between Hazael and the House of Ahab: more storm and fire. I have a hard time hearing this storm in the “sound of sheer silence.”

We have more storms in the story of Jesus’ disciples taking a boat across the lake. As almost always with Jesus, there were some human storms. Jesus had just learned of the ignominious death of John the Baptist as a result of a sophisticated mob violence at court. Afterwards, Jesus fed a mob of people who were hungry both for food and God’s Word. Matthew doesn’t mention this mob’s attempt to take Jesus by force to make him king but one can’t help but think that Jesus went off alone to pray because he needed to center himself again on his heavenly Abba after what had just happened. I’m inclined to see in the storm at sea not only a natural phenomena but an interpersonal phenomena as well. I wrote in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: “The story of Peter walking on water — or trying to — also illustrates this aiming [to be centered on God]. (Mt. 14:28-33) The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, Peter was pulled into the boat and the sea grew calm.”

[Tom and Laura Truby develop these thoughts with excellence in their sermon The Raging Storm of Our Own Making.”]

Both of these scripture readings make it dramatically clear that being truly focused on God and God’s peace beyond human understanding is very difficult. Elijah shows how it is very possible to hear the “sheer silence” and yet also “hear” the violence unfolding in his generation. That Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, makes it understandable that Elijah would hear, even in the “sheer silence,” his own anger and fear towards Ahab’s royal house. Likewise, the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea are so caught up both in the natural storm and the storm of their own disputatiousness that even Jesus himself appears as an object of horror rather than peace. We should take this as a warning of how our prayer in trying times can be distorted by our own anger and anxiety.

There is no simple solution I can offer for this difficulty we all face. In principle, it seems simple to say that we should turn to Jesus and stay turned to him. The problem is that this “simple” solution is difficult minute by minute, second by second. We look at the chaotic waves of the water and sink back into our fears, resentment, and rage. It is a huge help if we remain aware of this weakness and don’t mistake the storms inside ourselves for the word of God. When we fall into our rage, the storm continues, for Jesus calms the waters; he does not stir them up. It takes time and discipline to keep even enough focus on the “sheer silence” to help us see the rage we keep hearing for what it is. Imitating Peter by crying for mercy is essential as this is a cry of repentance of our violence that is the first step to living in the peace of Christ.

On Being Living Stones

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Sermon for the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, May 9

The abbey church has been a profound delight for me to pray in since I first visited here to discern if I had a monastic vocation. I’m still here, so maybe I do. I missed out on the Anglo-Catholic setup we once had which I am sure was also beautiful, but I deeply appreciate the simplicity of our worship space that has nurtured me and many others for many years. Our church is something to celebrate.

Much as I love this building and its space, I think the best way to celebrate it is to reflect on how we can be the Church with the help of this Church building. Solomon admitted that the temple could not contain God since not even the heavens can contain God. Moreover, we hope we don’t need Jesus’ ministry of throwing money changers out of our church. Peter gives us a powerful image for how we can be the church: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) In being living stones, we imitate Jesus who was the stone rejected by the builders. This reference to Psalm 118 is used many times in the New Testament, often by Jesus himself. It means that the life and teaching of Jesus that was rejected by nailing Jesus to the cross has become the basis of a whole new culture and way of life in Jesus. We are called to be living stones built by the Holy Spirit into a new temple supported by Jesus, the cornerstone.

Stones are solid and surely we are to be solid in our commitment to Christ and to each other. It is the solidity of stones that makes them strong enough to support each other. We need to be as strong  as that if we are going to support one another. Stones, however, can be rigid and rigidity makes them hard and cold. Such stones are dead. But Living stones are vibrant so that they resonate deeply with each other. Unlike dead, rigid, stones, living stones are permeable to each other and most importantly to Christ.

Although our abbey church isn’t built with actual stones, but is mostly built of wood and brick, may this church that we celebrate today open us to each other and to Christ so as to transform us into living stones receiving life from the rejected cornerstone.

The Five Kinds of Prayer (5): Adoration

abyssAdoration is the one form of prayer where are not concerned with ourselves but with God alone.  When we praise another person just for being that person, we are expressing an appreciation that transcends any tangible benefits we may have received or ever will receive from the one we are praising.  Likewise, the highest praise we can offer God is to praise God just for being God.  Praise is an ecstatic liberation from all self-preoccupation.
Praise is an ecstatic rocketing into God’s Desire; mimetic Desire at its most glorious. Nothing could be further from mimetic rivalry than praise. Praise has nothing to do with wanting what other people want except for wanting God for Godself. As thanksgiving moves towards praise, praise continues what thanksgiving started: it removes mimetic rivalry, all competition with everybody. Once thanksgiving is plunged into praise, gratitude and joy blend into one. Praise is the great unifier that brings all of us together
Since adoration is so totally centered on God, there is very little we can do on our own to praise God.  Praise is not a commodity we can pull out of our inner selves at will.  We can only open ourselves up to a flow of praise that comes from without but penetrates deeply within us and flows back out of us to God.  Praise is a gift from God; it is the water welling up within us unto Eternal Life.
Praise may be as exciting as blaring trumpets or as silent as the still small voice the prophet Elijah heard.  In fact, we praise God most deeply in silence.  When we are silently directing our attention to the God, we can gently lay our preoccupations to one side and simply enjoy God’s presence.  In silence, we come to appreciate more deeply the Person God is. Since praise transcends words and dissolves them, praise takes us far beyond rational thought. In doing this, praise is moving into contemplation where we rest in God for the sake of resting in God with no thought about what God will get out of it, let alone what we will get out of it.
Just as the praise of lovers for each other turns into babbling, baby talk, so does praise of God as we is shouted out in Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!

Next thing we know, all of creation gets into the act of praising the Creator:

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

The mountains and hills and stormy winds and sea monsters all join in. When all of creation, including earthly rulers, are praising God, any covetous desires for anything vanishes.
Most important, praise is the light of God on earth.  In Heaven God is praised continuously, so when we offer praise, we are anticipating life in Heaven.  Praise is not an escape from earthly life but an enrichment of it. Praise gives us the strength to face life with the conviction that God will bring all creation into God’s eternal glory.  No matter how much we fear the ways we can destroy God’s world, the praise we allow to flow through our hearts and our bodies remains a light that no darkness can overcome.

This series begins with The Five Kinds of Prayer (1): Petitionary Prayer

The Five Kinds of Prayer (4): Thanksgiving

yellowTulips1Thanksgiving differs from petition and intercession in that we focus on what we have and how grateful we are that we have it. Actually, thanksgiving should accompany all of our petitionary and intercessory prayer because we should be thankful in the act of asking. Usually, we prefer to wait until a request has been granted before thanking the donor. Here, however, when we pray with thanksgiving, we thank the donor in advance. This does not mean asking God for something with confidence that the request will be granted in precisely the way we asked for it. Thanksgiving is gratitude for whatever is given us in whatever way it is given. In short, gratitude is an ongoing attitude that permeates our requests.

When Jesus tells us not to worry about what we are to wear or what we will eat, Jesus says that “it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (Mt. 6:32) The key word here is “strive.” It is one thing to need certain things and quite another to strive for them. Striving, of course, implies mimetic rivalry; wanting things because other people want them or you think want them. Striving after goods is the quickest way to lose any sense of thanksgiving. If mimetic rivalry destroys gratitude, then gratitude quells mimetic rivalry.

Gratitude entails receiving what we receive as a free gift rather than something we have earned. In his speech before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses warned them: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deut. 8:12-14) We exalt ourselves by thinking that: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17). When we think that we have earned what we have received, then we feel no gratitude for it. If we had what he have coming to us, there is nobody to thank for it but ourselves. We don’t write a thank you note to our employer for paying us our salary. Likewise, if we feel that God owes us what God gives us as the just payment for the prayers or for acts of service, then we don’t thank God for it. On the contrary, if “the wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey” fall short of our standards, we complain to God about them. It is important, then, to realize that a covenant between God and humanity it is not a contract where God gives us a pre-established “salary” for what we do for God. Rather, a covenant sets in motion a circle of giving. We give free gifts to God and God gives free gifts to us.

Jesus’ counsel that we not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” (Mt. 6: 34) is vital to an attitude of thanksgiving. When we are thankful, we focus on what we already have rather than on what we do not have. More important, when we are thankful, we are content with what we have. When we strive for what we do not have, we are focused on what we lack and so we do not even think about what we have already, let alone give thanks for it. This attitude is also important in our human relationships as well. When we are thankful for what the people in our lives do for us and for what they mean to us, we are content with them as they are, even if there is room for them to grow in virtue and holiness. Striving to change another person easily becomes a contest against that person where change for the better becomes a “victory.” Being content with the other person as that person is can lead to complacency, but it is also a condition with great potential for encouraging a person to change.

Contentment with what we have does not deny the intrinsic value of those goods we desire but do not have already. It only means that we can be patient about what we do not have because we appreciate the intrinsic value of what we have already. This is the key to letting our requests known to God” with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6). This does not mean that we pray with thankful hearts because we assume we are going to get what we want when we want it. Rather, this is a matter of praying out of contentment in the present where “today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Jesus gives us the true focus for gratitude when he goes on to admonish us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt. 6:33) Note that the word “strive” is used again here to show us that striving in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters is the object of our striving. If we strive for God’s kingdom, then we do not strive for “all these things” like the “Gentiles.” Striving for God’s kingdom, of course, entails striving to provide the needs and wants of other people, i.e. being “doers of the word” rather than hearers only (James 1:22). When we strive for God’s kingdom, it becomes immediately apparent that our efforts cannot earn the good we are striving for. Our efforts fall far short and we can only receive God’s kingdom as a gift. When we know that we cannot earn the kingdom, then we don’t require other people to earn it either. We become free of worry over whether or not the widows and orphans are worthy of the aid we give them Likewise, we become free from the need to grumble like the workers in the vineyard who didn’t like it when the master was generous with his money to other people (Mt. 20:15). This freedom from worry encourages us to become more open-handed and open-hearted towards other people in their needs. The more we open our hands and hearts to others, the more we receive to be thankful for.

This series begins with The Five Kinds of Prayer (1): Petitionary Prayer

Continue on to The Five Kinds of Prayer (5) Adoration

The Five Kinds of Prayer (2): Intercession

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Intercessory prayer is asking God to give something to another person rather than to oneself. In this respect it seems much more generous than petitionary prayer and often it is. But not necessarily. Our resonance with each other’s desires makes it difficult to know where our personal desires end and where another’s desires begin. There is inevitably some overlap and the considerations we made for petitionary prayer hold for intercessory prayer as well. Actually, the problem can be more insidious when praying for others than with praying for ourselves.

The biggest pitfall in intercessory prayer is praying to God to meet our needs in relationship to that person rather than to that person’s needs. That is, we project our desires, our needs, on the other and pray for that. More seriously, there is a chance of there being a hidden rivalry in intercessory prayer where we pray against somebody in a self-serving manner. The most common way to clothe concern for others in this way is to pray judgmentally, which is to put ourselves in the “superior” position. This soon falls into the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God for being better than that publican. Years ago, at a prayer meeting I attended, one man prayed to God to cure his brother of his “dirty, stinking habits.” I’m sure that if the man’s brother being prayed for (or against) really had one or more destructive habits, God would want that person to be cured. The thing is, God would be much more gracious in entering that person’s deepest self and offering strength to that person.

When we pray for others, we are, as when we pray for ourselves, entering into God’s Desire, only now we have expanded the field to include other people in their need besides ourselves and our own needs. Praying for ourselves opens us to the deep love God has for each of us. Praying for others opens us up to the deep love God has for other people. There is no room for judgmentalism in prayer since prayer is about humbling ourselves before God and before others.

At its best, intercessory prayer is a powerful participation in the desires of other people in a constructive way. Better still, it is a participation in God’s Desire for others as well as for ourselves. We share what is best in ourselves with the other for the good of the other and for the sake of the other. When we pray for others in this way and they pray for us in this same way, we create an expanding web of prayer that reaches out to everybody. This is what our built-in mimetic desire is for.

Continue to part 3: Penance

The Five Kinds of Prayer 1: Petitionary Prayer

FrJudeInChoir - CopySimply put: prayer is the meeting of our desires with God’s Desire.  Although God meets us with an infinitely simple Desire, we are not simple. That is why more than one approach to God is necessary for us.  There are five fundamental ways of prayer which Church tradition teaches, ways that give us a deeper immersion of our desires into God’s Desire. My professor of ascetical theology, Donald Parsons said that just as we need a balanced diet in our eating habits, we need a balanced diet of prayer. The five kinds of prayer give us this balanced diet.

I. Petition.

Petitionary prayer is about asking God to give us something for ourselves.  This is often considered the lowest form of prayer because it is considered selfish. Why should I want anything for me, myself and I? Well, God wants to give gifts to those of us who knock for the door to be opened. For that matter, God wants to give us gifts even when we don’t knock at all.

The thing is, we are filled with what James Alison calls our “smelly” desires whether we like it or not because we are made that way by God. Since we have these desires, we have to do something with them. Renouncing them is one of the things we can do, but we aren’t renouncing anything if we don’t know what we are renouncing.

The importance of petitionary prayer is that we bring our desires to God. In so doing, we increase our awareness of what these desires are, those that are smelly, those that smell like roses, and those that really stink. We may not like having our stinkier desires but we all have them and if we don’t become aware of them, they will rule our lives without our knowing it.  Of course, bringing our desires to God is tricky because we don’t always know what we want. What we think we want does not always turn out to be what we really wanted as all of us have found out many times when we did get what we wanted.

Knowing our desires is further complicated by mimetic desire, our tendency to desire through the desires of others. As we notice how our desires are entwined with those of others, we also become more aware of their rivalrous elements. For example, if we pray for our favorite baseball team to win the championship, we quickly realize that God is not going to play favorites and the best and/or luckiest team is going to win. That is, God’s Desire is not for one team or the other win but for everybody to enjoy the game no matter who wins and who loses. If we can’t enjoy a game when we lose, that’s our problem. The same applies to more serious issues in life such as personal relationships, especially those of a romantic nature. As we bring petitionary prayers of this sort to God, we find at the base of God’s Desire a will toward freedom. This is the freedom for the baseball to bounce the way it chooses and the freedom for people to react to us as they choose. It is often said that God answers a prayer with “No” and that can be the case, but not necessarily. Since God gives the rest of the world the same freedom God gives us, not everything is going to pan out the way God’s Desire might have it. The bombs dropping all over the world in spite of all our prayers that they cease are clear evidence of that.

Avoiding petitionary prayer for fear of being greedy may prove a greater danger than asking for the wrong things.  It could mean we give less import­ance to our­selves than God does.  If we think we are beyond caring about what we get in life, it is all the more important to search our hearts.  Chances are we are hoping for many things, but are denying these very hopes and then congratulating ourselves on our detachment.  More serious, we may be depending on ourselves for getting things in life, and not depending on God.

If we bring our desires to God in prayer, and let God sort them out, we gain some freedom from these desires.  God gives us a handle to make freer choices as to what we really want and how they can more constructively interact with the desires of others.  We might start out asking for a DVD Player and end up asking for help with a deeper need. That is, God educates us in learning to live with our desires when we bring ourselves close to God’s Desire in prayer. Far from being self-centered, petitionary prayer brings us out of the closed world of our natural desires and the even more tightly closed world of our rivalrous desires into the open Desires of God.

Continue to The Five Kinds of Prayer (2): Intercession

Essay on spiritual renewal

buddingTree1I have just posted the text of a talked that I gave at a Theology & Peace conference in Chicago a few years ago called Living by the Breath of God: a Spirituality of God’s Desire. It collects many of the ideas of I have working with on my recent blog posts & it might help some of you get a more coherent view of the vision I continue to develop. You can read this essay here.

Gathering to Give Life to Victims

eucharist1Since the dawn of humanity, humans have gathered most quickly and powerfully around a victim. (See Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.) Just think of how quickly we gravitate around whoever is currently seen to be to blame for whatever is going wrong in the world today. This gathering, however, is always at the expense of at least one person or group of people. A similar and yet very different gathering around a victim occurred when the eleven disciples saw the risen Jesus in Galilee and “worshiped him.” (Mt. 28:17) The huge, even infinite difference in this gathering is that the victim is alive and is gathering people around victims, “the least of those who are members of [his] family.” (Mt. 25:40) Ever since, Christians have gathered in worship around Jesus and his fellow victims, primarily in the Divine Office and the Eucharist.

The Divine Office is structured prayer that is uses the Psalter and other biblical canticles as the primary vehicle of prayer. Much can be said of the psalms but the thing that jumps out at anyone who prays them with any frequency is the many outcries of victims. “They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.” (Ps. 118: 11-13) Verses such as these raise the question of whether we gather “like bees” around another person, or if we are entering the circle of bees in solidarity with the victim. Being a victim tempts us to anger, bitterness and violence. “Cutting off” our assailants in “the name of the Lord” is the reflex reaction, but is the opposite of what Jesus himself did in the same position. These rough verses help us renew our awareness of our own violent reactions to being victimized, even (especially!) petty matters such as being slighted by another. If we focus on Jesus when we are in the place of the victim, we find that the Lord has made the rejected stone the “chief cornerstone” that is “marvelous in our eyes.”

In the Eucharist, we gather around an altar which has been transformed into a table where, instead of laying out a sacrificial victim for slaughter, we place a piece of bread and a cup of wine to share among those present. We do this in memory of Jesus’ Last Supper, suffering, death, and Resurrection. The Greek word anamnesis does not mean a mere memory but to make present. That is, we enter the place of the victim with Jesus when we gather around the table. In so gathering, we feed on Jesus’ forgiveness of us for our own victimization are our challenged by this forgiveness to give this same life to others, both in terms of physical needs and emotional and spiritual sustenance. (See Miserable Gospel)

In his Rule, St. Benedict says that prayer should be made with “utmost humility and sincere devotion.” Entering the place of the victim with Jesus leads to both humility and devotion, attitudes that allow us to follow Benedict’s admonition that we sing the psalms (and also break bread in the Eucharist) “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” (I develop these thoughts on the Divine Office in Tools for Peace)