Knowing We Are the Beloved

At UST Law School, we have a common worship period at noon. In addition to daily Mass, a couple of times a week there are also other worship services. Yesterday I attended our Soma group’s worship gathering.

The student who ran the service included as part of the service a wonderful passage from Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, one of Nouwen’s works I had not before read.

Talking about the story of the Baptism of Jesus, during which Jesus heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved…”, Nouwen writes that he grew in the “inner conviction that the words ‘You are my Beloved’ revealed the most intimate truth about all human beings.” Nouwen’s words for the person for whose benefit he is writing this book are words we all need to hear and take to heart.

My suggestion is to hear God speak Nouwen’s words to you:

[A]ll I want to say to you is “You are the Beloved,” and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – “You are the Beloved.”

This is the voice we must listen to – the voice that tells us we are the Beloved. We don’t always hear that voice, because we hear so many other voices that fill us with doubt. The temptation to listen to those voices – what Nouwen calls the trap of self-rejection” can be very strong. Yet, says Nouwen, “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

Can you hear God say those words to you? Can you believe them?


Saints, Not Superheroes

After writing my post yesterday morning, I continued to think of John the Baptist. What I realized was that thinking of John sitting in prison with some uncertainty made him more human to me.

John the Baptist has always been one of my heroes. But the problem with heroes is that they often become idealized in our minds. And if they become too, too bigger than life, their achievements and qualities seem unattainable to us. The way superheroes seem to us – something we could never aspire to be because they are just so much out of our reach.

When I saw John in my mind this morning – with the uncertainty I spoke of in yesterday’s post – he seemed less idealized and more real to me. He still has all of the wonderful qualities that make him my hero (many of which I’ve talked about in prior posts), but seeing him as more real, more human, makes him more meaningful as a model.

Like the others who occupy front and center in my visualization of the communion of saints, John is a saint, not a superhero. And that is a good thing.

The Last Days of John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist. Although today’s Gospel reading is St. Mark’s account of the the beheading of John, the passage that came to mind as I was reflecting on John and on his death comes from Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew tells us that when John heard in prison of the woks of Jesus, “he sent his disciples to him with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?'”

As I sat in prayer, I wondered what it must have been like for John during those last few days. He must have known that he had so offended Herod that being put to death was at least a possibility, if not a likelihood. And here he was. He had devoted his life to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, and yet in these final days the man who had told his disciples that he must decrease while Jesus increased, had some doubts about whether Jesus was the one. He wondered whether (to use the words given to Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar) he had backed the right horse.

Even at this late date, this great prophet still needed to grow in faith. Pope Benedict observed that “even in his prison cell [John] had to respond once again and anew to his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognize his God in the night in which all earthly things exist.”

John’s question to his disciples is a good reminder that, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey, we all face uncertainties and we all need to grow in our faith.

Honor They Mother and Father

As I was driving to our local co-op to do some shopping yesterday, I flipped to NPR on the car radio. I tuned into the middle of a segment involving an interview with someone giving financial advice to the families of students about to go off to college. Since we will be driving my daughter to Lawrence University for her first year of college a week from Monday I started listening.

At the end of some discussion about credit cards, the interviewer asked the guest if she had anything to say to the students. Yes, she said, “be nice to your parents.” In elaboration she said that she understood everyone had dreams about where they wanted to go to school. However, she said, if going to the school of your choice would require one’s parents to dig deeply into their retirement savings or take on personal debt, one should be going elsewhere. She encouraged students to be part of discussions with their parents about options. And, she said, students need to understand that going to a particular college should not be considered an entitlement.

So far so good. I do think far too many people (including many young people) have a sense of entitlement about far too many things. Encouraging discussion about whether one’s dreams are realistic and avoiding making unsound decisions struck me as sound advice.

It was what came next that I found troubling. The next line out of her mouth – by way of explaining why one should not demand decisions that require one’s parents to spend money they don’t have was, “After all, you don’t want to have to take care of your parents. I know I don’t want to have to do that.”

Now, it may be that what she really meant to say was that it would be difficult for one’s parents to later have to feel like they were a burden on their children. But my fear is the message heard was how horrible it would be to have to have some responsibility for the well-being of one’s parents.

I recognize that two or three generations of a family living in a single homestead is no longer a reality for most people. I also know that for some people, having to care for elderly family members can be a great burden.

Nonetheless, I don’t think the message we want to convey to our young people is that they have (or should feel) no responsibility for their parents.

The Courage to Use our Gifts

Today’s first Mass reading is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable of the talents, a passage I speak about frequently.

The story is one we are all very familiar with. A man going on a journey entrusts his possessions to his three servants. “To one he gave five talents; to another two; to a third, one – to each according to his ability.” While he is away, two of the servants use the talents they are given in a way that doubles them. The third, however “out of fear went off and buried [the] talent in the ground so as not to lose it. Not surprisingly, when the master returns, he is pleased with the first two servants and angry at the third.

The third servant acted – or, rather, didn’t act – out of fear. When we hear the story, we probably judge him as harshly as his master did. But the truth is that it takes courage to use our gifts for the life of the world rather than to bury them the way the third servant did. We run the risk we will fail. We run the risk we will be criticized. We run the risk we will look foolish. It is easy to understand the temptation of the third servant. It is far easier to sit back, to not put ourselves on the line.

But, like the master and his servants, God gifts us according to our ability. And we are given our gifts to use, not to bury. Let us pray to overcome whatever fears prevent us from fully utilizing the gifts we have been given.

Finding Purpose in Your Life and Career

Our first year law students are in Orientation Week at the Law School. As part of that, I offered a mid-day reflection on the theme of Finding Purpose in your Life and Career. Since I like to think of law school as a three-year process of discerning who the students will be int he world, it seemed a good topic for them to reflect on during these first days of their life as law students.

I talked about the meaning of vocation and about the difference between “discernment” and “deciding.” I also talked about three questions (which I borrow from Michael Himes) that are useful in helping to filter out other voices from the call of God as they move through the discernment process. The questions are: What are my gifts? What brings my joy? and What does the world need form me?

After my talk, I invited the students to spend some time reflecting on the first of those questions: What are my gifts? After that period of reflection, we had some small group sharing and then a discussion among the whole group.

You can access a recording of the talk here. (The podcast runs for 21:01). You can find all Creo en Dios! podcasts here.

Faith in the Human Spirit

The other day we had a powerful debate at the Law School on the subject of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. My colleague, Mark Osler, who is a former prosecutor, takes the position that such a sentence is never justified. His “opponent” in the debate, Jeanne Bishop, a public defender in Chicago, believes that under some circumstances, the sentence is justified.

There is emotional appeal to Jeanne’s claim. She approaches the issue as someone who, 20 years ago, suffered the loss of her sister (then pregnant with her first child) and her husband. The two (three counting the unborn child) were killed – executed is a better description – by a sixteen year old who had broken into their house and sat waiting for them to come home (from a birthday dinner for the sisters’ father) so he could kill them. Jeanne’s description of the killing was chilling. And, none of the things that sometimes minimize the horror of such crimes were present – the killer was an intelligent, well-educated, well-to-do young man…who happened to be a sociopath. If there is a case for life without parole, notwithstanding the killer’s age, this was is.

Nonetheless, I find myself unable to come to that conclusion. I think my friend Mark is right in saying that consigning a juvenile to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole requires a cynical loss of faith in the human spirit, a loss of faith in one’s ability to get past one’s worst moment. Like the death penalty, life imprisonment without parole abandons the possibility of love transforming a person.

It may be that some people are beyond transformation, although I confess I resist that conclusion even when talking about adults. (Christ, after all, did not think Paul beyond redemption when he struck him blind on the road to Damascus.)

But when we are talking about children, juveniles, the conclusion is even more difficult. We know that a person’s intellectual and moral development is not complete until they are in their twenties. It is for that reason that we treat children different from adults in all sorts of situations (not letting them drink, for example).

Leaving aside the particulars of the debate between Mark and Jeanne, what I’m left with is the feeling that as Christians, we can’t give up on the possibility of transformation through love. That, no matter what the situation, we can’t lose faith in the human spirit, and the ability of love to triumph over evil.

What Christians Communicate to the Broader Culture

I am catching up on some periodical reading and one of the pieces I came across in Commonweal referenced some findings from a Barna Group report titled UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity.

The Barna group surveyed Christians and non-Christians to discover what it is that people most associate with Christianity. What is troubling to me about the findings is that people are significantly more apt to describe Christianity as “antihomosexual” than things like “has good values and principles” or “people you trust” or other such positive statements. Barna Group president David Kinnaman was quoted as observing “when you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic.”

Whatever one’s views on the morality of homosexual behavior, Christians ought to be worried if the first and primary message we are conveying to people about what it means to be a Christian is homophobia and anti-homosexuality.

Doubtless some will blame the media for creating this perception and it may be that media coverage plays some part. But one of the things my high school debate coach taught me well is the danger of blaming others for our failures. (We were never permitted to blame a loss in a debate round on bad judging…even though some of the judges we had were quite poor.) Doing so makes it too easy to avoid examining how we might improve.

The best Christian reaction to findings like, in my view, is to ask oneself: What do I do to convey to the world what it means to be a Christian? How well do I model Christ to all with whom I come in contact?

Living at the Cost of Others’ Lives

One of the CD’s currently in the player in my car is Danielle Rose’s Mysteries of the Rosary, a two-CD set sent to my some time ago by my dear friend Maria.

As I listened to the CD the other day, I focused on the opening lines of the song titled Crucify Him. The lines, although phrased as a question, are really an accusation the can be leveled against most if not all of us:

We wash our hands of the thoughts that slip through our minds.
Like Pontius Pilate, we blame others for the atrocities of our times.
Do we stay silent while the world screams out its lies?
Sell your body, buy your beauty, live at the cost of others’ lives.

The line that most affected me was the last one. What passed though my mind in an instant was all of the ways we live at the cost of others’ lives.

When we purchase cheaply an item produced by child labor, we live at the cost of the lives of those children.

When we support an industrial agriculture system that distorts food production in lesser developed countries in ways that actually increase hunger, we live at the cost of the lives of starving people.

I could list other examples, but the point is simple: Every decision we make has consequences. Every choice we make affects the lives of others – positively or negatively.

And when we live at the cost of others’ lives because doing so is easier…less costly…more convenient, we are no better than, no different from, Pontius Pilate.

God Blessed The Broken Road

Yesterday morning, we had the closing session of our weekend vocation retreat for law students. We began with a prayer service, during which participants were invited to share a prayer, scripture passage, piece of poetry, song, story that had meaning for them. This is always a beautiful service.

One of the students shared a country-western song I had not heard before, Bless the Broken Road by Rascal Flats. (Not only had I not heard of the song, but I have no idea who Rascal Flats is or are.) The chorus of the song goes, “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.”

Although the song is a love song to a woman, the student explained that, as someone who identified with the Prodigal Son, for him it spoke of the return to God. For him, the line prayed: God blessed the broken road that brought me back to God.

I was powerfully moved by that image. We are all broken. And we can all look back at the path that brought us to God, much of which is indeed broken.

But, do we stop to recognize God’s blessing at each step of the way? That in each misstep, there was blessing? I suspect that we look back with such embarrassment, pain, shame, etc. that we miss the blessing.

Every step of our journey is part of what brought us to where we are by God. And each step is filled with God’s blessing.

God blessed the broken road that brought us back to him.