Joseph and Forgiveness

I just read Stephen Mitchell’s Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son who is sold into slavery by his brothers.  It is a story we are all familiar with, and one that has spawned many books and movies.

In the forward of his book, Mitchell explains that what attracted him to the story was “what it left unsaid” in the sparse, concise narrative.  “It cries out for the ancient Jewish art of midrash, or creative transformation — a way of inhabiting the text in order to deepen your understanding of it.”

I confess a particular fondness for midrash-type narratives that encourage deeper reflections on biblical stories.  And whether one names this book fiction or midrash, it is an engrossing read.  (I read the book in a single sitting.)  The story of forgiveness is powerful, but so too is the depiction of the growth of Joseph’s faith in God (as well as a growth of humility), and his conviction that “a misfortune is a blessing that has not yet been recognized,” that “behind its sometimes fearsome disguises [blessing] was always waiting to be discovered.”

As in any good work, the insights are timeless, transcending the specifics of the story…

…that forgiveness doesn’t have to be deserved or earned, but acceptance of forgiveness requires awareness of wrongdoing and remorse.

…that there is always God’s blessing, even in in our misfortune.

…that in a state of inner alertness we can and will find the voice of God.

You might consider adding this book to your Lent reading.

 

A Fast Acceptable to the Lord

Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the 40-day period of Lent.

The three traditional Lenten practices are fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

For many of us who grew up Catholic, our childhood fasting during Lent took the form of giving up some favorite food item. (“What are you giving up?” was one of the most frequently asked questions of the season.) Giving up chocolate was common. Or soft drinks. The really daring might vow to forego all desserts. The habits of childhood often last well into adulthood; my sister still gives up chocolate every year for Lent and one of my friends gives up beer each Lent.

There is, of course, value to the discipline of fasting, especially if we do more than the current Catholic requirement for fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which is not really all that onerous. (One full meal and two small meals that together are less than one full meal.  And feeling hunger when we fast reminds us of the condition many people live with daily, and not as a matter of choice.

But the Book of Isaiah tells us that that is not necessarily the fasting God seeks of us:

Do you call this a fast acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Here are some other suggestions for meaningful fasting during Lent:

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Some Days Never Come

In his book And the Angels Were Silent, Max Lucado talks about the women who anointed Jesus at the home of Simon – an act that takes place not long before Jesus’ death, calling her act one of “risky love.”

The disciples mock the extravagance of pouring so much expensive perfume over Jesus’ head.  “Why waste that perfume?  It could have been sold for a great deal of money and given to the poor.”

Jesus, however, defends the woman for her act; his message, Lucado suggests, is “as powerful today as it was then.”  The message being: “There is a time for risky love.  There is a time for extravagant gestures.  There is a time to pour out your affections on the one you love.  And when the time comes – seize it, don’t miss it.”

Lucado goes on to give examples that suggest how easy it is to miss it.  The boy who doesn’t defend his younger brother who is being bullied.  The husband who gets his wife a practical gift instead of something she will love, thinking, I’ll buy the other someday.

But there is a problem with someday:

Someday.  The enemy of risky love is a snake whose tongue has mastered the talk of deception.  “Someday,” he hisses.

“Someday, I can take her on the cruise.”

“Someday, I will have time to call and chat.”

“Someday, the children will understand why I was so busy.”

But you know the truth, don’t you?  You now even before I write it.  You could say it better than I.

Some days never come.

And the price of practicality is sometimes higher than extravagance.

The rewards of risky love, however, are always greater than its cost.

What are you putting off?  What opportunity for risky love are you missing?

Growing in Understanding

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus encounters a woman who asks him to drive a demon out of her daughter/  Mark describes the woman as “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.”  In other words, not one of the sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus response to the woman is incredibly harsh: “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  (Although Mark doesn’t elaborate, Matthew’s version of this encounter embellishes the response, with Jesus explaining,”I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”)

The woman, however, does not accept no for an answer. She argues, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Her argument prevails and Jesus heals her daughter.

Jesus was open to growing into a wider understanding of his mission – a growth that led him  to later instruct his disciples to go not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to proclaim the gospel throughout the whole world.

This encounter provides a good lesson for us. When we are so sure that we have it right, it is good to remember that even Jesus needed to grow into an understanding of his mission. It was not fully clear to him from the get-go. Fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus had to grow in knowledge and understanding.

And if he had to grow, surely we do as well.

Silence and the Word

One of the books I am currently reading is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, written while he taught in an underground seminary during the Nazi period in Germany.  In it Bonhoeffer talks about many matters related to Christian community,  as well as the role of personal prayer.

Bonhoeffer addresses what he perceives to be a “negative attitude toward silence which sees it as a disparagement of God’s revelation in the Word.”  His response seeing silence as “a mystical desire to get beyond the Word” misinterprets silence.  He writes

This [view] is to miss the essential relationship of silence to the Word.  Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God.  We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room.  We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us.  We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God.  We keep silence solely for the sake of the Word, and therefore not to show disregard for the Word but rather to honor and receive it.

He goes on to describe Christian silence as “humble stillness, that may be interrupted at any time for the sake of humility.  it is silence in conjunction with the Word.”

Bonhoeffer’s words are a reminder that the Word matters, but so also does the stillness that allows the Word to speak to us, to know what it is that God’s Word has to say to us individually.

Simone Weil’s Experience of God

Last night I gave a presentation on Simone Weil, as part of a teaching series on mystics offered by the Episcopal House of Prayer.

During her lifetime, Weil was known to relatively narrow circles.  It was in the first decade after her death that she rapidly became famous, attracting attention throughout the West.  Yet, Pope Paul VI regarded her as one of the greatest influences on his intellectual development.  Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”, and he meditated in her Paris room before leaving for Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize.  And Andre Gide called her “the most spiritual writer of this century.”

For a long time, Weil viewed herself as an agnostic, having concluded that nothing could be known about the existence of God.  In the letter that is called her Spiritual Autobiography, she wrote

I must say that never at any moment in my life have I “sought for God.”  For this reason, which is probably too subjective, I do not like this expression and it strikes me as false.  As soon as I reached adolescence I saw the problem of God as a problem the data of which could not be obtained here below, and I decided that the only way of being sure not to reach a wrong solution, which seemed to me the greatest possible evil, was to leave it alone.

Hence her agnosticism.  Nonetheless, Weil records in her Spiritual Autobiography that she always had a Christian outlook, taking to heart from her earliest childhood the idea of loving one’s neighbor.  Indeed, she saw no other outlook as possible.

Weil became an agnostic because she could not intellectually address the idea of God.  What changed her from her agnosticism was her encounter with God.  She wrote, “In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.  I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never really believed in them.”

The experience changed everything.   I have often expresses the conviction that conversion is an experience of the heart not the head, by which I mean to convey precisely this: what transforms us is not intellectual knowledge but heart-felt experience of God.  And Weil is a wonderful example of that.

Weil, by the way, had a very simple understanding of prayer.  “Prayer,” she wrote in one essay, “is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”  And “attention”, she wrote, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.”

She wrote in Waiting for God

Prayer consists of attention…Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer.

Given Weil’s definition of prayer as attentiveness to God, turning toward God, I like the way she talks about sin.  She wrote that, “Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction.”

Makes it all pretty simple: Gaze in the right direction.

 

God’s Plans for Saul – and All of Us

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St. Paul.

If we met Saul today, we might be tempted to think he was beyond redemption.  Saul was a Christian killer.  He took an active part in the martyrdom of Stephen.  At one point he confessed that “beyond measure” (his words) he persecuted the Church.  This is not a person harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler.  But a murderous persecutor of Christians.

Yet, God is not through with this Saul.  Instead, he has great plans for him.  This murderer will become one of the principal persons to proclaim the Gospel.

Today’s first Mass reading gives us one of the accounts of how God accomplished this.  When Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”

If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” (Alternatively: “it is too late for that person.  God can’t possibly have any use for them.”) The story of the conversion of St. Paul is a vivid demonstration of the fallacy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.

Conversion is always possible – for everyone.