I’m Sorry For What I Said When I Was Hungry

A friend of mine posted a picture of a t shirt on Facebook yesterday that read: “I’m Sorry For What I Said When I Was Hungry.”

I recognize that the shirt’s message is intended as a joke, but underneath the joke is the, at least half-serious suggestion, that I ought to be excused for what I say when I haven’t been fed well. That others should understand that when our stomachs are growling, and we are distracted by our desire for food, we should be given some slack. It doesn’t express true sorrow, remorse or repentance, so much as offer an excuse for what we might say or do in the face of our hunger.

What makes it really a joke, in my mind, is that most of the people who would wear such a t-shirt or post a picture with its message are never really hungry the way people who can’t afford enough food are. By hungry we tend to mean, I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch so I’m feeling a bit peckish. Or, I’m dieting and so am a bit irritable because the yogurt or fruit I had for breakfast wore off a few hours ago. And so we exclaim, “I’m starving to death.” That is not the hunger of those who live in abject poverty.

The first thought that came to mind when I saw the picture of the t-shirt was: I wonder whether we would give the same slack to the poor. Do we forgive the homeless beggar on the corner who says something abrupt or rude to a passerby, recognizing his hunger means he is not at his best? You can substitute various versions of the question, but I fear they would all be answered the same.

And not in a way that is to our credit.


God Doesn’t Have a Plan B

I received an e-mail from one of my former UST law students, a woman with a deep commitment to social justice, sharing some wonderful and challenging resources.

The title and description of the second is a good reminder for all of us who claim to take our faith seriously: We are God’s plan for justice, and he doesn’t have a Plan B.  We’re it.

With her permission, I share the contents of her e-mail with you.

(1) Re-Imagine the Law audio lecture with Q&A, Dr. Timothy Keller, Center for Faith & Work. He discusses:

  • Our call to “cultivate the garden,” i.e., using raw materials skillfully to bring about human flourishing
  • How obeying, applying, & producing the law leads to flourishing
  • Discerning and repenting of our own idols
  • Our need to understand the history of the secularization of the profession and the myth of “neutrality”
  • Several other good books/articles that Christian attorneys should read
  • His reflections on practical questions about living out our faith, such as in the realm of political activism

(2) “We are God’s plan for justice” audio lecture by Gary Haugen, International Justice Mission (IJM). He discusses:

  • How believers are God’s instruments for bringing justice, and he does not have a Plan B
  • The importance of obedience in giving our efforts and resources (small as they may seem) when faced with overwhelming tasks
  • The importance of exposing ourselves to suffering and connecting with people in need
  • Why a reasonably functioning public justice system is a great need in the developing world

(3) The Locust Effect  (book) by Gary Haugen, IJM, and Victor Boutros, DOJ. They discuss:

  • Why the world’s efforts to alleviate poverty are seriously undermined by our failure to address the global crisis of violence against the poor
  • Four major categories of pervasive violence against the poor, with many specific examples
  • How reasonably functioning justice systems were once highly unlikely everywhere, but now they exist for some people in the world–and how this should give us hope and a starting point toward strengthening the rule of law elsewhere

What’s In Between the Roses?

I had an absolutely wonderful day yesterday at the Seattle University Search for Meaning Book Festival. The two keynotes – one by journalist Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and the second by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, were tremendously powerful; my own talk on Growing in Love and Wisdom played to a full room, went very well and, as usual, provoked some great questions; the other sessions I attended were great; and I got to spend time (and have a great Thai dinner) with my friend and former colleague Chato, who drove up from Vancouver, Washington to spend the day with me here at the festival. I also got to see my friend Joshua, who lives here in Seattle, as well as to meet a number of other authors with whom I share interests.

There is much I could write about the day, but there is one line that haunted and that continues to haunt me, and it came early in the day, during the morning keynote by Katherine Boo. Boo’s book tells the stories of people living in Annawadi, a poor, makeshift settlement in the shadows of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. At one point, the brother of a Muslim teenager who is falsely accused of a crime describes himself and the other residents of the settlement in this way: “Everything around is roses and we are the shit in between.”

“We are the shit in between.” He wasn’t being sarcastic. He wasn’t trying to shock. He was simply expressing the truth as he saw it. This is how he viewed himself. This is how a beloved child of God thinks of himself!

The entirety of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church begins with the recognition of the inviolable dignity of the human person, a dignity that stems from our creation in the image of God. That all humans are created in the image and likeness of God makes them equally sacred and precious and invests them with a dignity which they cannot lose. In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote that “no one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s] boundless and unfailing love.”

No one can strip another of the dignity bestowed upon him or her, but what does it mean for some people to believe they have no dignity?

What does it do to someone’s ability to flourish to believe that they are the shit between the roses?

And what does it say about how seriously we take our obligation to our brothers and sisters that we allow to exist the conditions that cause a young man view himself as so lacking in human dignity?

Update: My Facebook friend John Donaghy, who works among the poor in Honduras, wrote this comment in response to my post, which I re-post here for those who may not look at the comments:

Thanks for a post that touches the reality of the poor.

In places like Mumbai and Honduras, the poor do see themselves as “the shit between the roses.” This has been engrained in them by the society around them.

In many ways I see that the role of the missionary and the church in general is to help the people see that they are not the shit in between the roses but that they are the rich fertile soil that makes possible roses and much more.

Upholding the dignity of people is part of our mission, our way of accompanying the poor.

It’s Not Just About the Miracle

I was reflecting during my prayer this morning on today’s Gospel, St. Mark’s account of the feeding of the multitude. Jesus has been teaching a large crowd and realizes they are hungry. With seven loaves of bread, he feeds all four thousand of them.

We tend to focus on the miracle aspect of this – how do we explain how four thousand (five thousand in other accounts) were fed with so few loaves. And that has certainly been true of me when I’ve focused on this passage in the past. But this morning when I read the passage, what struck me was not the miracle, but simply the feeding. People were hungry and Jesus fed them.

He didn’t say, “My teaching is more important than food. It won’t hurt them to go hungry for a while.”

He didn’t say, “They should have thought ahead and packed some food with them. If they had been more responsible they wouldn’t be hungry, so let them live with the consequences of their lack of foresight.”

He didn’t say, “Some of these people are freeloaders who just came for a free meal.”

He didn’t say, “There are a lot of people here with a lot more money than we have. Send them to find food.”

He didn’t say any of the things we might have been tempted to say in such a situation to avoid having to trouble ourselves with the need of others. And he didn’t ask any payment from anyone. He just fed them.

People were hungry and Jesus fed them.

Perhaps we ought to focus a bit more on that aspect of this reading and what it tells us about what it means to be as Jesus in the world.

Spiritualization of the Gospel

Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not generally remembered for his preaching, he believed that proclaiming the Word of God was the heart of Christian life.

On the plane to Seattle yesterday, I began reading a book of Bonhoeffer’s collected sermons. Thus far, I haven’t read one that is not worthy of serious and prayerful reflection. One that struck me was a sermon he gave on the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel. He began that sermon with a statement that challenges not only homilists, but all of us, since we are all called to proclaim the Gospel.

A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. People should run and not be able to rest when the gospel is talked about, as long ago the sick ran to Christ to be healed when he was going around healing… Shouldn’t it really be that way wherever the good news of God is spoken of? But it just isn’t that way – we all know that.

As if that were not enough of a rebuke, Bonhoeffer goes on to criticize our failure to accept that “the gospel is as concrete, as close to life, as it is” – our “spiritualization of the gospel,” which, he claims, lightens it up.

Bonhoeffer illustrates his point with a discussion of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which he suggests is typically treated solely as an admonition that the rich should help the poor. We do not treat the story as a very concrete proclamation of the good news itself – a promise of salvation for the sick, the poor, the outcasts. (He recognizes and addresses the criticisms that might be launched against his concrete reading.) The frightening thing about the story, he suggests, is that “there is no moralizing here at all, but simply talk of poor and rich and of the promise and threat given to the one and the other.”

If Bonhoeffer is right, then he is also right that “We must end this audacious, sanctimonious spiritualization of the gospel. Take it as it is, or hate it honestly!”

Open My Ears

What do I not hear? Who do I not hear?

A deaf man approaches Jesus in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, asking him to lay his hand on him. Jesus “put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be, opened!”) And immediately the man’s ears were opened.”

Open my ears too, Lord. Help me to hear. Help me to hear your voice. And help me to hear the voices of those around me. Help me to hear…

…the call of the homeless man I pass in the street

…the pain underneath a seemingly innocuous comment of a student or colleague

…the need of a friend for my presence

…the invitation in another’s criticism of me to grow

Say to me, as you said to the deaf man, “Ephphatha!”, so that my ears may be always opened to you and to others.

Please Lord. Open my ears. Open my eyes. Open my heart.

That Everything Be What It Is

My friend and colleague Joel Nichols opened our Weekly Manna gathering this week by reading a short passage from Michael Himes’ Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service.

I love Michael Himes and had read this book some time ago, but had forgotten about this passage that Joel read, in which Himes talks about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. He writes

Gradually I came to see that the Lord’s Prayer really comes down to two statements repeated in a number of parallel ways. The fist half of the prayer, when we pray that God’s name be hallowed, that God’s kingdom come, and that God’s will be done in heaven and on earth, is simply the petition that God be everything God is: may God be God. The second half of the prayer, when we pray for physical sustenance, for forgiveness, and to be preserved from temptation and delivered from evil, is simply the request the I amy be what I am: may I be your creature. The Lord’s Prayer may be paraphrased, I think, “May God be God, and may I be a creature.”

The more I thought about this, the more I recognized that the great petition of all Christian prayer is that everything be what it is. We pray that God be the fullness of God, and that we may be what it is to be creatures, i.e., fully dependent upon God. And that is the purpose of prayer: to celebrate the goodness, the rightness of precisely what we find so frightening – being a creature. We must come to the point of accepting that we are creatures, and prayer is the celebration of the fact.

There is something so simple and basic in Himes’ words. Let everything be what it is. As I sometimes quip (quoting a line Himes uses elsewhere), God is God and I am not. If we can accept that, everything else becomes so much easier.

Following Joel’ opening of our session, my friend Lynn Arnal gave a beautiful reflection on the love relationship between us and God. It was a blessed gathering!

The Guesthouse

At this week’s session of the Buddhist Christian Interspirituality Discussion Group I facilitate, we discussed equanimity. Yesterday, one of the participants in the group shared with me this poem of Rumi’s, which our discussion reminded her of. The poem, which I had read many years ago but was happy to be reminded of, is titled The Guesthouse.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Be grateful for whatever comes. As St. Ignatius would say, it all has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper repsonse to our life in God.

Hope’s Children

Robert Maloney, C.M., former superior general of the Congregation of the Mission has a piece in the current issue of America Magazine on hope.

In it, he cites a quote attributable to Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Expounding on the quote, Maloney writes

Anger, Hope’s first daughter, reacts spontaneously in the face of evil, refusing to accept unjust social and economic structures that deprive the poor of life: unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive or corrupt governments and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Then Hope’s second daughter, Courage, standing at Anger’s side and singing out persistently, searches for ways “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” as Tennyson put it.

The union of the two is important. Too often, we see one daughter – Anger – unaccompanied by the second – Courage. After all, the anger part is a lot easier. It doesn’t take much effort to sit around and talk about how angry things make us. But anger without the courage (and energy) to act is unproductive.

By all means, be angry at the injustice in the world. But then ask yourself: what can I do to help address it?

God’s Covenant With Us

Yesterday I gave an RCIA talk at Our Lady of Lourdes on the first three commandments, the first of three sessions on the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments contain the terms of the covenant concluded between God and his people. They express the implications of belonging to God through the establishment of the covenant. Although they precede Christ, the Catholic Church has always acknowledged their importance to the moral life.

It is possible to think of the Ten Commandments in a very narrow and literal way. By that I mean both thinking of them as primarily a list of “thou shalt nots” – things I had better comply with because not doing so is a big sin, and limiting them to their literal meaning. In that sense, they don’t really challenge people already on a spiritual path. Chances are pretty good that if people are, e.g., showing up for Mass and attending an RCIA classes afterwards, they are not going around killing people, committing adultery, stealing other people’s cars or other possessions.

But, thought of more broadly and deeply, the Ten Commandments help us explore the contours of right relationship with God (the primary focus of the first three commandments) and right relationship with one another (the primary focus of the last seven commandments), although obviously there is a strong interrelationship between those two in all of the commandments. This is the sense in which I encouraged participants to reflect on the commandments.

As I said, the focus of today’s talk was the commandments that focus primarily on right relationship with God. You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 41:57.