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Yesterday was the second session of the four-session Lent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this year.  During our first session last week, my talk focused on the traditional Lenten observances of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Since Lent is a time of renewal, a time during which we deepen our commitment to making decisions in and through Christ, yesterday’s subject was sin – our need to honestly and soberly reflect on both our own personal sins and our participation in what we refer to as social sin, recognizing our need for God’s help and opening ourself to God’s love and grace.

Sin is not something we particularly like to talk about. It is much easier to focus on God’s love for us. But we need to see ourselves not just as loved, but as loved sinners.  And we need to recognize our patterns of sinfulness in order to be able to overcome those patterns.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 29:28.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants, which I talk about near the end of my talk is here.

There are certain passages of the Bible – Hebrew and New Testament – that have an immediate deep impact on me when I hear them.  One of those is today’s first mass reading from Isaiah.  The prophet conveys to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah God’s instruction to turn away from their evil ways.  After the instruction come the words that touch me so deeply.

Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they may be crimson red, they may become white as wool.

I hear those words in a warm and encouraging (almost cajoling) tone.  I feel in them God’s desire for our reconciliation.

And in those words is the comforting assurance we all need from time to time: The promise that no matter what God is there to welcome us back.  No matter how far we may have strayed, how down we may be feeling about our actions (or inactions), God always invites us: Come…let us set things right.

I hear these words and I experience peace and joy.  I hope they have the same effect for you.

Silence

One of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, but which I finally sat down to read this Lent is Silence, by Shusaku Endo.

Shusaku Endo was one of Japan’s foremost novelists, and he wrote from the perspective of a Japanese Roman Catholic.  Sometimes referred to as  Japan’s Graham Greene, Endo’s novels engage in questions such as how Christians should engage a culture when that culture is foreign.

That he addressed such questions is not surprising; I read in one piece about him that “The Christian faith never did rest easily on Endo’s shoulders. Ever since his baptism at the age of 11 at the behest of his mother, Endo often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes. ‘This clothing did not suit me,’ he later wrote. ‘The clothes and my body were not made for each other.'”  In the novel, he has a Japanese officer argue to the protagonist that  “A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed.  As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and not bud appears.”  (Later in the book, a former Catholic priest makes the same argument to the protagonist.)

A novel of historical fiction, Silence is the story of a Jesuit missionary who endured persecution in Japan, and most of the book is written in the form of a letter written by him. As many people know, although early efforts to bring Christianity to Japan met with some success, Christianity was outlawed in the early part of the 17th Century, ushering in a period of great persecution of Christians.  The priest is presented (or at least sees himself), particularly in the latter part of the book as a Christ figure, and Endo gives us a Judas figure in the form of the Japanese man who betrays the priest and other Japanese Christians.

The “silence” of the title is the silence of God in the face of suffering.  God’s silence is remarked on a various times, but becomes almost unbearable when the priest is in prison hearing the sounds of Japanese Christians who are being tortured.  They are being tortured, not so that they will renounce Christianity – they have already done so under the strain of the torture, but so that he will.  If the missionary is willing to step on an image of Christ, they will be released.

In the pain of that situation, the priest prays, “Lord, it is not that you should break the silence.  You must not remain silent.  Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love.  You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.”  As his mind remembers others who have died in Japan for their faith, he recalls that then, too, God was silent.  Why, he asks, “Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?”  As question that has been asked at so many times by so many people who suffer or witness suffering.

In fact, the silence goes on.  God’s silence is not broken until the moment when the priest is led to the image of Christ and encouraged to step on it.  At that point, as he looks at the image, “the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It is to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”  And so the priest placed his foot on the image.

Was his act of apostatsy a sin?  The priest does not believe so, although he knows he will be judged harshly by those that hear of his act.  I suspect Endo himself does not believe so.  Earlier in the book we read, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies.  Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

Whatever one’s judgment of the protagonist’s actions, the book will offer much to reflect about – with respect to faith, suffering and the effect to spread Christianity to other cultures.

Today’s first Mass reading is one I always have difficulty with (and I know I’m not alone in this): the passage in Genesis where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God says to Abraham “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

Rabbi Marc Gelman has an interesting interpretation of this passage.  He suggests that one can only understand what happens in this episode by considering what preceded it – not subtly hinted by the fact that Genesis 22:1 says “And so it was that after these things, God tested Abraham.”

“These things” refers to Abraham’s response to Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar when Hagar became pregnant. Abraham allows Sarah to mistreat Hagar, causing Hagar to flee into the desert. Rabbi Gelman observes that “God saw how Abraham was willing to abandon Hagar and his future son just because his favored wife was jealous of her new standing in the family. God saw that Abraham was morally blind.” Although Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael, after Sara gives birth to Isaac, Sara demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out, a demand Abraham complies with.

Abraham is troubled at what he does, but God tells him, “through Isaac shall your seed be named, and I will also transform the son of the slave woman into a nation, for he is also your seed.”

Rabbi Gelman says this:

So Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael, but did he do it because he believed that God would protect both his wives and both his sons, or because this was a good way to get rid of an unwanted wife and unwanted child? There was only one way to know for certain. God would have to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to see if Abraham truly believed in both promises.

If Abraham believed that Ishmael would survive the desert, he would believe that Isaac would survive Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his least loved son, left God no other choice but to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his best loved son. The story is not about a morally insensitive God, but about a morally insensitive servant of God.

“After these things,” God had no misgivings about choosing Abraham.

“After these things,” Abraham could be the father of two nations because he had learned at last what it meant to be the father of two sons.

“After these things,” Abraham was free.

You can read Rabbi Gelman’s full comment on the passage here.

As I wrote yesterday, I am in Malibu, where I am participating in the annual conference of Pepperdine Law School’s Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics.   The theme for this year’s conference is Wisdom Law and Lawyers.  I was very excited about this conference and not only to escape the winter cold of the Twin Cities or because some of my good friends are among the other speakers.

Yesterday morning began with a wonderful keynote address by Jonathan Burnside, who spoke about the relationship between law and wisdom.  The first panel of the morning addressed Practical Reason, Wisdom and the Law.

I spoke on the second panel of the morning on the subject of Religious Traditions and Wisdom.  My talk addressed the Buddhist understanding of wisdom and how that might speak to issues of law, lawyers and justice.  Specifically, I addressed questions such as: What does Buddhism teach about the nature of wisdom?  How, if at all, do those teachings relate to, or perhaps enrich, a Christian understanding of wisdom?  And how does a Buddhist understanding of wisdom impact our view of the law and the legal profession?

One of the reasons I was excited to be part of this panel is that, by and large, the study of law and religion is a field that has been dominated by discussions focused on the western religious traditions. Theologians and legal scholars have devoted attention to law and religion in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic contexts. Only recently have some scholars started focusing on law from a Buddhist perspective. (Indeed the first comprehensive book on Buddhism and Law was only published last year.)

One of the the points I made in my talk is that Buddhism embodies a preference for resolving conflict in a way that recognizes the interconnectedness/ interdependence of all beings. Rebecca French, who has devoted significant attention to Buddhist conception of law, suggests that the US legal system, which tends to produce winners and losers, gives “little thought” to the interconnectedness of people and how the decision affects all the individuals involved in the case.” In contrast, she writes, “Buddhists believe that you can’t have closure in a case unless all parties are in agreement with the decision, and unless the whole network of people affected by the case is compensated. From this process, you have a social catharsis; you have a feeling that society has been healed.” The Dalai Lama, speaking at a program on law, Buddhism and social changes several years ago, spoke of the need to employ reconciliation and mediation before going to court.  While I don’t think this is the only, and maybe not even the most important, thing Buddhism contributes to how we think about law and justice, I do think it is something worth thinking about.

I hope to share some more thoughts about the conference in subsequent posts.

God in the Ocean

Yesterday morning I flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, where we picked up a rental car to drive up to Malibu, where we’re staying for three nights in connection with a conference at Pepperdine Law School that I will be speaking at this morning.

I frequently joke about all of the ways Minneapolis is not like New York, things like the lack of good bagels.  But one of the things I miss most about living in the mid-west is not living near an ocean.  Minnesota may be the land of a thousand lakes but that is not the same as the ocean.

The first thing we did after arriving at our hotel (after the drive on the Pacific Coast Highway) was to walk along the beach.  Staring at the ocean – water as far as the eye can see, I breathe more easily and I feel, at one and the same time, a sense of calm and a feeling of awe.

I can find God anywhere, I know, but one can’t stand at the ocean and not see God.  I understand deeply what Frederick Buechner expressed about it:

They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time a near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.

I think Tillich caught “a glimpse of the One he was praying to.”  Perhaps more than a glimpse.

[In his comment, my friend Richard reminds me Minnesota is the land of ten thousand lakes, not a thousand.]

Yesterday was a busy day.  In the late afternoon, I led a lovingkindness (metta) meditation sponsored by the UST Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation.  Earlier in the day, I led the sixth session of the program I am offering at UST Law School during this academic year on Discerning my Place in the World. In our prior sessions we’ve addressed a number aspects of discerning vocation, including getting in touch with our giftedness, identifying what brings us joy, prioritizing our values,  reflecting on our deepest desires, and growing in our appreciation that we are each individually called by God.

Yesterday’s session, and the next one (in March) are focused more directly on how we approach decisions, both drawing on learnings from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  Yesterday’s focus was on growing in internal freedom to make choices free from disordered attachments.

During my talk I spoke about three key meditations in Week 2 of the Spiritaul Exercises, all designed to lead to internal freedom for decisionmaking: Three Classes of Persons, Three Degrees of Humility and the Two Standards.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 34:52. The three handouts I refer to are from Joseph Tetlow’s Choosing Christ in the World.)

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