I was reading last night one of the short stories in a collection of several stories by Stefan Zwerg (one of the books Dave brought on vacation). The story is titled The Burning Secret.
The first character introduced in the story is a young Austrian baron. He is described this way:
He was popular and welcome in all circles, and was well known for his dislike of being alone. He has not taste for his own company and avoided such an encounter as much as possible, for the last thing he wanted was to make close acquaintance with himself.
I was struck by the description because I know many people who fit that description. People who always want/need to be with others so they are not alone – who avoid being alone at all costs. People who, when they are alone, always have on the TV or the internet or some other distraction to keep them from the silence of being alone, from being only with themselves.
Yet making close acquaintance with ourselves is necessary if we are to make close acquaintance with God. I am convinced we cannot know God without knowing ourselves.
The other day we hiked around Mount Jenner, in the Berchtesgaden area of Germany. It was a glorious clear, day – a perfect day for hiking.
At one point I looked up to see a mountain top with a cloud hanging over it. My first thought was Jesus on the moutaintop during the Transfiguration. My next was Moses on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commmandments.
Whatever the image, it was awesome. Majestic. Wonderful.
As we walked, I commented to Dave that I recognized that there were some people who could look at what I saw during our hike and not see God. But me, it is not possible for me to see what I saw and not see God.
God in the mountain. God everwhere.
I just finished reading Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. As the subtitle of the book suggests, Moss’ central thesis is that the traditional and popular belief that early Christians were systematically persecuted is a fiction.
Moss does a good job in explaining that stories of persecution in the early church have been exaggerated. Contrary to a story line of several hundred years of efforts to destroy Christianity, what persecution there was seems to have been episodic, local and often for reasons other than religion. Moss’ research suggests that many of the popular stories of early church martyrs have no historical basis.
Apart from historical accuracy, why does it matter? What difference would it make to abandon the fiction?
Moss argues that it would make a big difference. Defining oneself as a persecuted people has an effect on how one behaves in the world. I think Moss is correct that the more one believes one is persecuted, the less one feels obliged to debate with and understand those who one labels as the one doing the persecuting (particularly because of the identification in the early chuch of persecutors and evil). As Archbishop Desmond Tutu commented in talkind about the book, “the popular misconception about martyrdom in the early church still creates real barriers to compassion and dialogue today.”
The book is a worthwhile read.
I recently read a meditation adapted from Richard Rohr’s Radical Grace: Daily Meditations reminding us of the meaning of Jesus’ command that we tend to the needs of “the least of the brothers and sisters.” What Jesus taught, what he demands of us is a radical includion of those who seem to us the most difficult for us to include.
When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be the Christ. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.
Only as the People of God receive the stranger, the sinner, and the immigrant, those who don’t play our game our way, do we discover not only the hidden, feared, and hated parts of our own souls, but the fullness of Jesus himself. We need them for our own conversion.
The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited back into the temple. You see this in Jesus’ commonly sending marginalized people that he has healed back into the village, back to their family, or back to the temple to “show themselves to the priests.” It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance, but actually for the group itself to be renewed.
The outcasts may be different for each of us. Even with the same church, we don’t all have the same view of who is the stranger.
But the message is the same for each of us: a message of radical inclusion, a place at the table for all. All are invited. And each of us has to be part of extending that invitation.
Yesterday we were on the hiking trail in the Berchtesgaden area for nine hours. The hike ascended to a fairly high elevation pretty quickly and the views were spectaculular. (My internet connection here is pretty limited so I can’t easily post pictures.)
Early on in the hike, I looked to the top of the peak and thought to myself, “I can’t do this.” Almost immediately after the thought arose, I heard in my mind the voice of Jitamaro, who directed me in my long vipassana retreat in Thailand. Jitamaro was saying: “All such thoughts as ‘I can’t do this’ are illusions. Games the mind plays. It is your choice whether to follow the illusion or not.”
So I let the thought that I couldn’t do it go. And I did it.
I’m not saying the hike wasn’t difficult – it was. But I hiked up the mountain and down and enjoyed every minute of it. The day truly was an experience of God’s grandeur! And I am very grateful for it.
Jesus told his disciples that he was sending them out as lambs among wolves. Since we are commissioned as were the disciples to go forth and preach the Gospel, it might be worth reflecting on what it means to be sent out as lambs to wolves.
As lambs. I read a reflection recently that raised the question of what lambs were used for during biblical times. The minister observed that some were used for food; some would be raised to provide milk; some of the flock’s wool would be made into warm clothing; some lambs would be bred to increase the herd; and some would serve as a reminder of the Passover. In addition, sheepskin would also be used to prevent and heal open ulcers.
That is actually quite helpful. If we are sent as lambs, we want to use our lives to feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, clothe the naked, bring healing to the sick, bring others to Jesus. flock, recall your mighty deeds of deliverance, bring healing to the sick.
As wolves. Here we might ask what are the wolves we face as we go forth to preach the Gospel? My friend and colleague Fr. Dan Griffith offered some thoughts on this in a recent sermon. It is easy to name some of the wolves. Cynicism. Relativism. Materialism. But if you spend some time reflecting, I’m guessing you will come up with some other, perhaps ones that are particularly dangerous wolves for you.
We are all sent like lambs among wolves. It is good to be prepared.
Yesterday we attended Mass at Michaelskirke, a Jeruit church in Munich. It was High Mass, with lots of incense and beautiful music. (I mean really beautiful music; Elena was in heaven.)
I couldn’t understand a word that was said – my German doesn’t extend beyond “Danke.” But Mass is beautiful in any language and I simply prayed along the Mass parts.
Here is a shot I took of Michaelskirke after Mass was over. It really is a beautiful church, although hard to capture in a picture.
The final panel of the monument that stands at what was the roll-call square at Dachau reads “Never Again.”
How many times have we said “never again”?
How many more times will we say it again before we mean it?
One of the reconstructed barracks
The gate leading to the crematorium
The old crematorium (When the old crematorium got too small to handle the volume, “Barrack X” was constructed, with another crematorium and a gas chamber, although it is not clear the gas chamber was used. Near the end, the crematoriums were used night and day.)
One of the monuments behind the crematorium, where ashes were buried. “Do Not Forget.”
One of the places we visited in Amseterdam was the Jewish history museum. The museum itself did a wonderful job of conveying the history of the Jewish population of Amsterdam.
As part of our visit to the museum, we visited the Portugese Synagogue, still a functioning synagogue. Jews who fled from Catholic persecution in Spain and Portugal found a more congenial home in Amsterdam. Conegenial, that is, until the arrival of the Nazis.
After the end of World War II, a very small percentage of the Portugese Jews survived the Holocaust and returned to Amsterdam. Those who did found their homes destroyed and their possessions stolen by former non-Jewish friends.
Yet on the first service at the Portugese Synagogue after the war, the service began with a form of the traditional prayer: “Blessed are you Lord God, king of the universe, through whose goodness we are here today and have what we have.”
I was enormously touched by the prayer. (I listened to the recording twice as I imagined the seats populated by a fraction of the pre-war population. In the midst of death and loss, heartache and grief, still the recognition of God’s presence and blessing.
Can we (most of whom have suffered far less) do the same? Offer praise and blessing for what we have, in spite of what we don’t?
I just spent several days in Amsterdam. There are many striking things about the city – the buildings, the canals, the diversity of the population.
One of the most striking things about Amsterdam for someone coming from a large city in the United States is the number of bicycles. I read in a pamphlet in the apartment we stayed in that in Amsterdam there are 880,000 bicycles and 220,000 cars. Yes, you read that correctly: four times the number of bicycles as cars! People ride to school, to work, to the market and pretty much any other place they have to go.
There are at least two obvious benefits of greater use of bicycles rather than cars. The first is environmental. We have an obligation to be good stewards of the environment, and most of us don’t simply aren’t very good stewards. The United States, in particular, uses enormous amounts of oil. Greater bicycle use means less use of oil and less pollution from cars.
The second is health. Despite the number of people with health club memberships, many of us are far too sedentary. A bicycle ride to and from work or to and from the market is a good way to get daily exercise. (And you can donate the cost of that health club membership to your favorite charity.)
It is true Amsterdam is a lot smaller than a lot of cities in which I’ve lived and so getting everywhere by bicycle may not always be practical. Some US cities (Minneapolis is one) are starting to promote greater bicycle use by making rentals available (which can be returned to any number of designated stands, not necessarily the one the bicycle was picked up), but we could be doing a whole lot more.