Theoretical Christians

The fellow in the New Testament who buried his one talent worries me. The whole of this story is found in Matthew 25: 14-30. Basically, a rich merchant was going on a long trip. The merchant was entrusting a significant amount of his fortune to three servants. (A talent was the most valuable coin in New Testament times. It was worth a lot of money. There is disagreement on exactly how much money a talent was worth.) The three servants each in turn receive five, two and one talent respectively. Eventually, the merchant returns and asks for an accounting of the use these talents were put to while he was away. The first two servants had each doubled the value of the money given to them. The third servant had buried his one talent and handed that talent back to the merchant. The merchant was very angry with the third servant. He expected the servant, at a minimum, to have invested the one talent at a bank to draw interest. The merchant took the one talent from the third servant and gave it to the first servant. The conclusion of the story in verses 29-30 is “29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The situation in this story isn’t totally clear. Merchants did go on long trips. They did leave their local funds in the stewardship of trusted servants, if no family was available. There doesn’t seem to be clear instructions about how the money entrusted to the servants should be used. The punishment for the third servant is extreme. And that’s what worries me. I wonder if I fall into the group of people (assuming there is such a group) who deserve this radical punishment.

The Gospel of Matthew continues a discussion of behavior that gets people that causes people to deserve ‘eternal punishment’ in Chapter 25:31-46. The story in verses 31-46 has the Son of Man separating sheep from goats. The separation criteria is simple. The sheep ministered to people who were least capable of doing something for themselves. The ‘goats’ were right there with Jesus but they had no ministry. The goats get eternal punishment.

The Gospel of Matthew forces me to conclude that theoretical Christianity is not an acceptable spiritual path. It’s not enough to go to church each Sunday, sing the posted hymns and make the appropriate responses. If I’m going to be a Christian, I have to have a ministry. I have to have a ministry that brings Christ into the world.

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Love and Marriage

It was supposed to be a sermon on marriage. I looked up and read about twenty-five scriptures on marriage. I looked at a couple of sermons on marriage. And then, I thought of the sermon preached at my own marriage about twenty years ago. In that sermon my wife’s pastor, Bob, described an almost infinite list of actions my wife and I would have to perform for each other over the span of our marriage. The intellectual weight of those two lists (one for me, one for her) is very daunting. Then pastor Bob said that the only way to satisfy the list of actions without being driven crazy by the continuous requests was to engage the lists with the love my wife and I each have for the other. When I look at my list with the love I have for my wife the length of the list doesn’t matter.

Remembering this sermon triggered a memory of a parallel concept in scripture. A scripture search brought me to Romans 13:8 and following.

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

This scripture caused me to re-consider the overall topic of the sermon. I’ve been studying the Bible a long time. That study has had a preconceived idea that the Bible, being a book, should be studied like any other book – as if I were reading it. I suddenly had a new way of looking at the Bible. I laid the Bible on my desk flat on one side with the spine facing me. In this mode, I began to consider how the individual ‘love quotes’ in Holy Scripture stacked up. And I did stack some of those quotes up, one on top of the other, like a stack of pancakes.

The great commandment

For me the great commandment has to be the first scripture in this vertical stack.

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:34-40)

Why did the lawyer ask this particular question? There were 613 mitzvot in the Torah. These 613 commandments (although there is some disagreement over the exact content of the 613 commandments) are what every “righteous” Jew of Jesus’ time felt compelled to keep. These same 613 commandments are what St. Paul is talking about in Phil. 3:6 when he says “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless”. And the same righteousness under the law is what the Pharisees where talking about when they said “…we know that this man is a sinner.”

The first part of Jesus’ reply in verse 37 is a repetition of part of the ‘Shema’ found in Deut. 6:4. The Shema Yisrael (or Sh’ma Yisrael; Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל“Hear, [O] Israel”) are the first two words of a section of the Torah, and is the title (sometimes shortened to simply Shema) of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services.

It would be very difficult for any devout Jew to propose any other solution to the lawyer’s question. The lawyer and his Pharisee friends were intimately involved in keeping the law. Keeping the law as the Pharisees did required a significant investment of time and energy. Jesus was invested in living the law. He had a different point of view.

The great commandment and who is my neighbor

The second scripture in my vertical stack is the story of the Good Samaritan.

In Luke’s gospel, the discussion with the lawyer continues with the lawyer asking another question.

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

(Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus leaves no wiggle room here. The priest and Levite were among the best society had to offer. The Samaritan was among the most despised. The priest and the Levite had good excuses for their behavior. Their position in society required them to be “ritually” pure. If either one of them touched the man who was attacked, in particular if either touched the attacked man’s blood, their ritual purity would be compromised and they would have had to go through a re-purification process.

The Samaritan, free from all such constraints, performed a splendid act of charity. The Samaritan’s actions have echoed down the centuries as each Christian tries to define who comes within the reach of a neighborly care.

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of the most loved scripture selections in the whole Bible. I’m putting it third on the vertical stack of scriptures. This selection needs no explanation.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

To hear the love in the 23rd Psalm, it’s not necessary to go beyond the end of the first verse. “I shall not be in want” pretty much says it all. The Lord is going to take care of everything.

Hosea and Gomer

In terms of popularity similar to the 23 Psalm, Hosea and Gomer are are at the other end of the scale. Hosea’s story is fascinating. Hosea is fourth on my vertical scripture array.

Hosea was a prophet. His story is found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. Hosea heard the Word of God and spoke that word to his contemporaries with a fearless abandon.

The situation with Hosea and Gomer is that Hosea married a woman who was a prostitute. The Lord told Hosea to marry Gomer. When she started having sex with other men, Homer asked the Lord to let him divorce Gomer. The Lord said “no”. The relationship between Hosea and Gomer has been compared to God’s relationship with Israel. On a more general level, this relationship can be compared to God’s relationship to human beings. We wander. He’s constant and faithful.

Love and discipleship

A description of how Christians are supposed to enter into relationships with one another is my fifth vertical scripture selection.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

(John 13:34-35)

One of my continuing interests has been the nascent Christian community. My ministry partner pointed out the other day that before they were called Christians, members of the early Christian church were called disciples. Christian disciples love each other. This is the New Testament Greek word (agape) for self-sacrificial love.

We’re supposed to love each other with the kind of love Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Jesus redeems Peter

My final selection for the vertical scripture array is the story of the resurrected Jesus asking Peter to ‘tend my sheep’.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.…

(John 21:16)

This scripture tells the story of Jesus’ interaction with Peter after Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. It’s also important to remember that Peter denied Jesus three times before Jesus went to the cross. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. It’s hard to make sense of this scripture without a little New Testament Greek.

There are three words for three different types of love used in the kind of Greek found in the New Testament. Eros is sexual love. This term for love isn’t found in the New Testament itself. Phileo, the word used by Peter to respond to Jesus is the word used for brotherly love. Agapao, the word Jesus uses to talk to Peter is the term for self-sacrificial love.

Once again, we have that statement of an unequal love. It doesn’t matter that Peter can’t come up to Jesus’ level of love. Jesus replies all three times by pointing Peter toward the ministry that Jesus wants Peter to take up.

Peter did take up the leadership role in the early Christian church. He also died on a cross, in Rome some thirty years later.

Our understanding of God’s love is expanding

A former pastor of mine once pointed out that the Christian church changed it’s corporate mind on the topic of slavery. St. Paul has two differing scriptures on slavery. One says “Slaves obey your masters”

(Col. 3:22). Another says “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:27,28)

It’s took the Church almost 1900 years to come to the conclusion that slavery was wrong. But we did reach that conclusion. This was the first time that the Church didn’t take the Bible as written, but it chose one interpretation over another.

In our current age Christians are struggling with issues of human sexuality. The Episcopal church has decided that homosexual members can participate in all levels of ordained ministry and are eligible to receive all the other sacraments as well, including the sacrament of marriage. It’s not clear how much longer the world wide Church will take to see the wisdom of these actions. Hopefully, it won’t take 1900 years. There are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion

These vertical scripture selections don’t in any way begin to exhaust the descriptions of God’s love for the human race. Three scriptures not mentioned immediately come to mind – John 3:16, I Cor. 13 and 1 John 3:8. Looking at some of the scriptures about love in the Bible from this different perspective opens a new insight into how wonderful and deep God’s love is for us.

It seems appropriate to return to the subject of marriage. The scriptures describe marriage as “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) And “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9)

Without these two very strong scripture references, we somehow instinctively know that marriage is different from all other human activities. The popular press is full of ideas on how to meet the right person to marry, how to stay married once married and how to survive a divorce.

Our instincts tell us there is a potential for a profound love in marriage — love that deepens and broadens as the days and years go by.

Marriage is another gift from God that shows us how God loves us and how we should love each other. The horizontal scripture concept and marriage say the same thing.

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The Mustard Seed

The thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew contains a number of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. Elsewhere, this kingdom is described as the Kingdom of God, a term that will be used in the continuing discussion. The Kingdom of God came to the front of some modern theological discussions due to a group of theologians who started a seminar that was supposed to bring progressive and conservative points of view together on the nature of Christ. This seminar has since been named the ‘Jesus Seminar’.

Among other things discussed by the Jesus Seminar was the application of a double attribution rule to the gospel record. The double attribution rule is the same rule used by newspaper reporters. If a reporter can find two different sources for the same story that provide the same information, the reporter can make a reasonable assumption that the information is true. The double attribution rule was proposed as a method to determine the ‘true’ words of Jesus. Things went downhill from there.

My background is in computer science, specifically in database design and implementation. From a database perspective, if the New Testament is the data source, the double attribution rule is simply a filter. Filters are used every day on databases to make sense out of vast amounts of data. When the application of the double attribution rule to the New Testament brought the Kingdom of God concept to the fore, I was very interested.

In my mind, the Kingdom of God is Jesus’ practical efforts to create a new social system. All the descriptions of the Kingdom of God are in parables. The use of parables keeps Christian disciples from putting the Kingdom of God in a box and marketing it. In my experience these parables apply to the modern life of Christians in wonderful, liberating ways.

The mustard seed parable in Matthew 13:31-32 is as follows:

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

At the beginning of my jail ministry, it seemed that my ministry partner was going to preach and I was going to pray for him and the inmates as he preached. I thought I could add something to our chapel service by bringing some simple songs that wouldn’t require a hymnal or even written words. One such song is this:

Bless the Lord my soul
And bless God’s holy Name
Bless the Lord my soul
Who leads me into life.

One day as my ministry partner and I were coming into the room in which the chapel service is held, one of the inmates, named John, just started singing this song to me. He stopped me in my tracks.

John is the mustard seed.

I felt the Holy Spirit was asking me to take up a song leader ministry. And I have done so. I print out the lyrics of an old Baptist hymn and take it with me to the jail. We’ve sung ‘On Christ the Solid Rock’, ‘Amazing Grace’,’Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know’ and ‘Higher Ground’. This week we’re singing ‘Standing on the Promises’.

The community of inmates singing hymns is the mustard tree.

I have an aural memory.
I can hear my mother singing these songs from back when I was a child.
She has a unique voice, a very high soprano.

My mother and I don’t get along very well. She wants me to be a Baptist and I’m not.
She seems to have a number of other agendas that I also don’t feel good about.

But, yesterday I called her up and told her that I was taking her into the jail in my heart because I have all these old Baptist hymns with her singing them in my aural memory.

Taking my mother into the jail in my heart is the birds making a nest in the mustard tree.

Dr. Menninger, the one of the most famous psychiatrists of the previous century, is reported to have said that he wished he could bottle up the essence of choir practice so he could use it when he practiced therapy. Something wonderful has happened to our jail chapel service as a result of the singing.

John, the inmate that started the whole process, has a horrible voice. I, myself, have never lead the singing in any church that I’ve ever attended. My mother is a painful presence in my life. And yet, something wonderful has happened.

The Kingdom of God is not a theory. It’s not a piece of the Apocalypse – as in ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth’.
The Kingdom of God is among us.

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Truth in the Jail

The brazen truth
The painful truth
An inconvenient truth
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
The absolute truth
A hard truth
The peaceful, prescient, lovely truth
The truth that passes understanding
The unfiltered, unadulterated truth
The ultimate truth

Jesus said “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Pilate said “What is truth?”

I tend to look for ultimate truth in religious sources. Religious sources appeal to me because of a mystical experience I had at age twenty. The problem with religious truth is that it’s not completely rational. Religious truth feeds the soul. For someone who is trying their best to live a rational life, religious truth is not the truth.

We do have people making valiant efforts to explain mystical realities in rational terms. In my opinion that’s a effort doomed to failure. A large number of Christians look for truth in the Eucharist. I like Richard Hooker, a famous Anglican theologian of the reformation years who said that neither transubstantiation or consubstantiation gave a satisfactory explanation of the Eucharist. And, that in any case, we should be looking at the effect the Eucharist has on peoples’ souls, not the accuracy of a definition.

Hooker wrote this opinion when Lutherans and Roman Catholics were killing each other over the difference between these two definitions.

I’m a Christian. I look to Jesus for the truth. I don’t look for black and white categories. Jesus was a human being. The very best of us can answer the same question in nearly opposite ways depending on the context. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the context of Jesus’ ministry. I do get glimmerings of rational insight from time to time.

I pray a lot. I find peace and certainty in prayer. Spiritual certainty is not the same as rational, intellectual certainty. I do have glimmerings of mystical insight from time to time.

My hope is that the glimmerings I have and the grace of God will keep me on the path that leads home.

In the chapel service at the 4th Avenue Jail, the inmates are serious about the truth. My years of searching are directly applicable to this ministry. The inmates have a seriously different set of ultimate concerns based on their life experiences. They are hungry for the truth. A hunger for the truth is something they and I share.

The inmates and I are a good match.

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Jail Ministry

I am trying to come to a place where a new essay is posted every month. February is missing in action as far as publishing some new material. I did write an essay about the Blessed Virgin Mary, mostly writing in February. Writing is hard work. Next to going to the jail to minister to inmates, writing is the hardest thing I’ve done that I do on a regular basis.

The jail ministry is very different from anything I’ve ever done – and I’ve done a lot of different things in the last fifty years. It seems there is always a group of inmates who want to hear the Word of God. But when the Word requires them to change their lives, such change is not acceptable on a personal level. An inmate who makes a spiritual change in his or her life becomes vulnerable while that change is being integrated into their personality. A person who demonstrates vulnerably in the jail will be assaulted one way or another. All the inmates have found a way to exhibit an external toughness that defends them against attack.

My ministry partner is a very charismatic preacher. He has a spiritual way of getting around the inmates’ defenses. There is no doubt in my mind we are providing spiritual food for the inmates.

For myself, there are yet more strange events going on in my spiritual life. I’ve had some kind of ‘Yes’ about every ten days since beginning this ministry. I’m used to special coincidences that raise my level of spiritual consciousness. I see these coincidences as evidences of God working in my life. These coincidences usually happen about once every six months — not every ten days. I asked The Virgin what was going on with the special coincidences and She said that these were meant as encouragement.
The jail ministry has taught me things about prayer that I didn’t know. Since I’ve been serious about my prayer life for almost fifty years I was surprised that I had new things to learn. Such new knowledge is a fact of life for anyone who seriously takes up teaching.

I gave my inmate brothers a very simple prayer.

Bless the Lord my soul
And bless God’s Holy Name
Bless the Lord my soul
Who leads me into life

I pointed out that there are no bars on the vertical, holy dimension. I told them they didn’t have to say this prayer out loud. It works perfectly well as a quiet soul-prayer.

And then I realized that while I use this soul-prayer all the time, I’m just saying the words, I haven’t been connecting on that vertical dimension. The words have served me well. They are powerful words. But now I say the words and connect. It’s a very different prayer.

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A Story From the Jail Ministry

I have a story I’ve told to the inmates in the jail about a young man who lived in South Central Los Angeles. This young man’s name was Miguel. Miguel’s older brother was the head of a local gang and was very successful as a gangster. He was so successful that his gang territory was slowly expanding. The head gangster in the neighboring territory decided Miguel’s older brother had to go. Shortly after that decision Miguel’s older brother was shot and killed. In addition, Miguel himself was marked for execution. There was some justifiable fear that Miguel would grow up and look for vengeance.

Miguel’s grandmother heard that Miguel had been marked. She gave Miguel some money and told him to leave. Miguel got on the bus, rode over to the beach and sat on a bench looking at the ocean for several hours. Then he got back on the bus and went back home. Within a year Miguel was dead.

Miguel’s story has an obvious conclusion. If I’m an inmate in the jail and I get out of jail and go back to the same neighborhood, hangout with the same guys and do the same things that got me into the jail the first time, I’m coming back to the jail as a repeat offender.

The repeat offender issue isn’t the most interesting fact that falls out of this story. The most interesting fact is that Miguel went back home. I asked the inmates why Miguel went back. They said he missed his home, his friends and his grandmother. My bet is that Miguel’s grandmother was the only point of sanity and love in his life.

I suggested to the inmates that Miguel had put his grandmother in the place in his heart that God had created for Jesus. If an inmate wants a new life, Jesus needs to be in that special place in a person’s heart.

One very positive result of putting Jesus in that special place is freedom. This kind of freedom can’t be taken away – ever.

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Open Commensality

There’s more about my personal journey in the ‘About’ section. I’ve flipped the order of that section so that the newest input is at the top.

An essay written in July didn’t make it past the editor for a variety of reasons. That essay was about ‘Open Commensality’. I first ran into this idea in John Dominic Crossan’s book ‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant’. Basically, commensality is the formal, theological and anthropological name for how people eat.

It seems my interest in this subject has been well investigated elsewhere. See the following link.

https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/meals.html

My conclusion is that Jesus used commensality to further his spiritual goals. That matches the rest of what has been reported about how he lived his life. A very simple explanation for Jesus’ behavior at dinner time is that he wanted to meet people.

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Modern Franciscan Stories

This essay contains several modern Franciscan stories. The main content is a pair of stories told by the Rev. Dr. Remus F. Muray (1913-1994). In the middle of writing this essay, my own spiritual journey brought me to a deeper understanding of how important Franciscan stories are to the Franciscan charism. Remus had internalized Franciscan spirituality in a way that I’ve seldom encountered.

Remus was born in Hungary. His family had a large number of children – I believe Remus was the eighth child. Very early on, it was apparent that Remus was an intellectually gifted child. Remus’ parents didn’t have the means to educate their gifted son, so at an early age, Remus was encouraged to join the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). The OFM saw Remus’ intellectual talent and sent him to Rome to study. In the early 1930’s Remus was awarded a PhD in Theology (Summa Cum Laude). The Franciscan ministers who managed the OFM in Hungary could see another war was coming, so they encouraged every Friar who could get an advanced degree to get one. Remus went to Rome once more and got another PhD, this time in Philosophy (Cum Laude).

The two Franciscan stories Remus told me that I would like to share were both from sometime around the late 1920’s. In the first story, Remus was either a newly professed Friar or a novice. An older Friar-priest required Remus to help him with a prison ministry. Remus was to go down to the Friary’s kitchen and pick up two large baskets of food. The older Friar and Remus then walked to a nearby prison. The prison guard didn’t question the older Friar nor did he ask to see inside the baskets Remus was carrying.

Remus and the older Friar went to the prison chapel where the older Friar was going to say mass. The prison guards gathered up a group of prisoners and filled the chapel. The Friar began the mass and when he came to the sermon he started encouraging the prisoners to repent and turn back to God. After about twenty minutes of telling the prisoners the consequences of their behavior in a rather relentless fashion and how important repentance was, the older Friar suggested that the guard at the back of the room could leave the chapel, because there was another forty minutes of similar sermon material coming. The guard left, and after about ten more minutes of preaching, the older Friar stopped preaching, cleared off the alter and asked Remus to help him unpack the food in the baskets. The food was wonderful, the best the Friary kitchen had to offer, far better than prison fare. The older Friar invited the prisoners to ‘come to the altar and help themselves’.

Remus said the hardened criminals in this prison came to the alter and ate the wonderful food and many of them started crying because someone had treated them as human beings for the first time in a very long time. I asked Remus if the older friar had continued the mass after all the food was eaten and he paused, a peaceful expression came to his face and he said, “No.”

The second story that Remus told happened after he was life professed in the OFM. He was still in Hungary and the date was probably in the early 1930’s.

The bishop of one of the dioceses that bordered the diocese in which Remus’ friary was located was a prince bishop. A prince bishop had fealty from both the church property and the secular property in the diocese. The early 1930’s in Hungary weren’t that far removed from medieval feudalism, so a prince bishop was the absolute power in the lands that constituted his diocese.

The prince bishop decided that he could make more money if he shut down the churches and had his serfs work six days a week and rest on Sundays. Remus heard of this situation and he was scandalized. He and another friar walked to the neighboring diocese and went to the steps of the closed cathedral on Sunday morning and preached. In my own experience, Remus was a very passionate, dynamic preacher. Without a doubt, he and the other friar drew a big crowd. When they were finished preaching, they walked back to their friary.

The prince bishop was furious. Remus and his friend didn’t ask permission to preach. Indeed, they never had intended to ask permission; they just wanted to make a point – and to preach the gospel.

The problem for the prince bishop was that he had no way to discipline Remus and his friend. Friars report through a Franciscan hierarchy to the pope. The prince bishop had to appeal to the pope through his normal church hierarchy. Then the pope would send the reprimand down through the Franciscan hierarchy where it finally reached the guardian of Remus’ friary. In the 1930’s this kind of communication took a very long time – years.

A couple of years after Remus’ preaching adventure, his guardian called him and his friend into the guardian’s office and told them that they were officially reprimanded. The guardian shook his finger at them and said “Don’t do that any more”.

Remus’ personal story continued in a dramatic fashion. The war did come to Hungary. When the Russians occupied Hungary after the war, they dissolved all the religious communities. Remus became a protestant pastor. One of his fellow protestant pastors was an informer to the state police. The informer pastor told the state police that Remus was preaching against the Russian sponsored government. This was not true, but the police came and took Remus to the jail for political prisoners. While Remus was in the jail, he was beaten every day for a year. Then, without giving a reason, the police let him go.

Eventually, Remus was able to escape from Hungary. He lived in Paris, France, for a while before coming to America and finally to Phoenix, Arizona. Along the way, he acquired a wife and a son.

My story intersects with Remus’ story here in Phoenix. At the beginning of my personal Franciscan journey, when I was a novice, my pastor suggested I ask Remus to be my spiritual director. The T.S.S.F novitiate requires twenty-four monthly reports that describe how the novice in question has kept his or her rule of life. I would drive over to Remus’ house and give him my report. He would read it and invariably say “Good Andy”. I would ask him questions about my Franciscan journey and about spiritual topics in general. He gave wonderful answers to my awkward questions.

Some time later, I studied New Testament Greek with him. A little later still, when I was in Education for Ministry and Remus’ son Les was the mentor for our group, Remus accompanied his son to our meetings. I remember one of the first meetings he came to – he said he would just sit on the other side of the room and listen. And that didn’t work very well because when the group started to soulfully struggle with theological questions, Remus was totally incapable of sitting quietly on the other side of the room. He had to be part of the discussion.

I have had an insight into why Franciscan stories are so important. Benedictines deepen their spiritual lives by studying the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict has practical spirit-filled solutions for all kinds of human problems. Franciscans don’t have such a wonderful document. St. Francis tried his best not to write a rule for the Franciscan Order. His advice to the brothers was to read the Bible and obey their superiors.

In order to deepen their spiritual lives, Franciscans retell the stories of St. Francis’ life and ministry. The Franciscan story that has come to the fore of my life is the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers. He would throw money at them from a distance. One day, on meeting a solitary leper on the road, he got off his horse, embraced and kissed him. Francis turned back to get on his horse and when he was facing the leper again, the leper had disappeared.

St. Francis’ attitude toward lepers changed from that day forward. He said “What was previously nauseous and revolting became a source of sweetness.”

As a Third Order Franciscan of some thirty years now, I believe I’ve been in a prayerful discussion of what it means to kiss a leper at least once a year for each of those thirty years. Every Franciscan has a different answer to this question. Every answer is valid and useful. And I want to hear every answer. Each answer helps me refine and deepen my own answer.

The introduction to this essay mentions several Franciscan stories. Three of those stories are Remus’ stories. Remus was wonderful. My own story intersected with Remus’ story by the grace of God. At the end of his life, Francis said “I’ve done my part; now it’s time for you to do yours.”

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Our common life together: the public good

The twenty-five cent word for ‘the public good’ is commonweal. It seems to me that the commonweal is under threat. If the commonweal were a large piece of cloth (like those huge American flags you sometimes see at sports events) and we the people are standing at the edges of the cloth, trying to hold the flag off the ground while the cloth itself is tearing. The source of the tearing, emblematic of the commonweal under threat, is the topic of this essay as well as what a Christian answer to the problem might be.

On the healthy side, the commonweal is people taking care of each other. The commonweal is made up of people who believe unconventional processes produce positive outcomes. The commonweal supports people who work hard in the hope of bettering themselves. At its best, the commonweal is tolerant of different races, beliefs and behaviors.

At its best, the commonweal also contains people who express widely divergent opinions on serious issues of belief and behaviors. When the commonweal is working, we are accept each others’ failures. When the commonweal is working we are all part of a diffuse love relationship.

We live in a time of revolutionary change, mostly created by and with computers. Living in such a stressful environment is painful. It’s painful even for the people who are successful at using computer tools to promote themselves and their careers.

The radical change has crept up on us in an incremental fashion. There are computer chips running car engines, refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, all kinds of robotic manufacturing machines. This change didn’t happen all at once, but it has happened. The most amazingly powerful computer change has been in cellular phones. Cellular phones have gone from something laughingly called a ‘brick’ to smart phones. Computer addiction and smart phone addiction sound like urban legends but are none the less true.

Radical change is coming to us down the internet. There is sufficient evidence to believe that the internet is the radical change itself. And this has been a popular point of view. But recently, someone used a three dimensional printer to print a gun. Someone else used a three dimensional printer to print a bullet. I don’t know if the bullet worked, but the gun actually fired a bullet. The printer generated gun is a very poor gun. The amazing thing is this – the file set used to make the printer generated gun was downloaded over 100,000 times before the government shut down the site.

The printer-generated gun ends the discussion about the meaning of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Printer-generated guns are going to get better the same way computers have improved over the years. At the same time, three-dimensional printers are going to improve in a similar way. I’ve seen three-dimensional solutions for robots, mechanic’s tools and food. The possibilities are endless.

The government shut down the web sites that posted the three-dimensional gun and bullet, but it’s really naive to expect the government to control three-dimensional guns. The government ends up playing ‘Whac-A-Mole’ with new web sites and new three-dimensional gun files popping up all over the internet.

And so we react. We want something, perhaps we want almost anything, to be the same. But things continue to change. The most visionary thinkers repeatedly fail to understand where we will be in just ten years, much less in a generation.

People are reacting to radical change in violent ways. America has this fascination with guns. This facilitation is not helpful. I understand that a gun is the ultimate way of controlling another person’s behavior. The people in the gun culture don’t seem to be thinking beyond the fact that they will have that special kind of power over someone else.

If you think beyond the reality of “stop or I’ll shoot”, there are some nasty consequences. Even if the situation begs for the use of lethal force, when someone is dead the person holding the gun that caused the death becomes a different person. Those kinds of justifiable homicides are rare. What’s more common is accidental homicide. This is the ordinary gun owner who then accidentally shoots his family member or his neighbor.

Look at George Zimmerman. Even if George is found not guilty, not guilty is not the same as innocent. Beyond the ultimate loss of innocence is the fact that George’s life has changed forever. He has the kind of celebrity that no one would want.

Guns aren’t the solution to the kind of radical change our society is experiencing. Guns aren’t going to stop the evolution of three-dimensional printers or any of the other fundamental and radical changes going on in our society.

Besides the fact that the gun solution can’t practically effect the radical changes we see happening, the gun solution is a fear-based solution. Basically, it says “I can’t trust my neighbor and I may have to shoot him.” Fear-based solutions don’t have the depth needed to create a new future.

Of all the fear-based reactions to radical change, believing in an imminent apocalypse is the most unusual. A number of apocalyptic theories are present in today’s world. The zombie apocalypse is a light-hearted effort to portray the results of radical change in a way that we can see, understand and dismiss.

A large number of books and movies portray a science-fiction post-apocalyptic world. I don’t give the zombie apocalypse much credibility. I don’t think a zombie apocalypse is very possible. Some of the ideas presented in science-fiction, however, hold a frightening grain of truth. There could be a global viral infection that defies our best attempts to cure it. There could be a catastrophic asteroid impact. We could blow everyone up with nuclear bombs. Dr. Stephen Hawkins has been pushing the colonization of Mars because he believes the human race will do itself in. He makes good sense to me.

Among the several apocalyptic theories the religious apocalypse is to me one of the most interesting. The people who champion an apocalyptic point of view usually lack a historical perspective. They typically take up the Book of Revelations from the Christian New Testament and apply allegorical and numerological verses to the present time – basically the Book of Revelations is written in code. The Book of Revelations is written in code because a straightforward presentation of the political content of the Book of Revelations would have resulted in an increased persecution of Christians. Reputable biblical scholars have an explanation for the various coded sections of the Book of Revelations. But even these scholars will not commit to the idea that their interpretations are correct. There is no way to know what’s correct. The writer of the Book of Revelations didn’t provide a translation key for the coded sections.

A fundamentalist evangelist like Hal Lindsey has specific translations for all these coded sections. And surprise, surprise the translations Hal supplies are pointed to the present age instead of the first century Roman Empire. Hal uses the Book of Revelations to scare people to death. Hal has made a very nice living off his books and DVDs.

The problem with Hal’s approach, other than the misinterpretation of scripture is that every generation has produced a prophet or two in Hal’s mode. In St. Francis’ time there was a fellow named Joachim. In the mid 1800s there was a fellow named William Miller. All of these self-styled prophets pointed to explanations of the Book of Revelation found in their own time. Many such prophets even pick out specific dates when Jesus will return. Miller picked October 22, 1844. All these dates so far have come and gone.

The truth about the apocalypse is that we are living in a time when everything changes almost at once. Things certainly change faster than the normal person can absorb the change. The apocalypse promises an end to life as we know it. An end to life as we know it is happening as this is written.

In contemplating what a Christian response would be, I found myself asking what Jesus would do in the face of radical change. When Jesus was asked what the most important law in the Bible was, he answered with two commandments: “Love God,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). The person asking the question then wanted to know, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30). The parable offers a very radical definition of who my neighbor is. There is no way to escape the description of a neighbor presented in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In all the back and forth about Trayvor Martin and George Zimmerman, the fact that George shot and killed his neighbor has been lost. I don’t believe that George set out to perform such an unchristian act. Our lives are full of unintended results. Sometimes the things we do produce unintended consequences. I’m very certain that George didn’t foresee that he might end up on trial for second degree murder.

St. Francis gave expression to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” with his life. Once he entered his ministry, St. Francis spent every waking moment trying to be a better Christian by ministering to the common good. The product of that effort is clearly stated in a prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Other scriptures are also relevant to understanding a Christian response to radical change. One scripture is from the Gospel of John (12:25). “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” These words are difficult. They speak of people being separated into righteous and unrighteous and no one wants to be lumped with the unrighteous. The fear-based responses to radical change are trying to hold on to life the way it is, but we continuously move forward into a new life. There is no salvation in trying to preserve things as they are. It’s best to honor what was and give thanks for it and move on.

Scripture also says perfect love casts out fear. From 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The path away from a fearful response to radical change is through love. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Posted in Christian Fundamentalism, Christianity, personal spiritual journey, St. Francis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jesus looks at a sinner

There is a new entry at the bottom of the ‘About’ page if you want to know more about me.

Sin is such an interesting topic. It has captured the attention of the greatest of Christian writers down through the centuries. Who can forget St. Augustine of Hippo’s “Lord grant me chastity – but not yet”. The first century expert on sin is St. Paul. It’s difficult to talk about sin without involving St. Paul either as a protagonist or antagonist. St. Paul’s famous quote is “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) . My impression of Jesus and the topic of sin shows him forgiving sin. I’m glad to have my sins forgiven. Jesus didn’t usually stop with forgiving sins. He usually continued with an admonition to “go and sin no more”.

It seems unfair to look at sin without looking at the context in which a particular sin exists. The context for sin most people are familiar with is a context of human frailty. Christian fundamentalists address the subject of sin with what they call the plan of salvation. The plan of salvation is a set of scripture verses (mostly taken out of context) that form the talking points for the conversion of a non-believer. The first scripture verse in the plan of salvation is “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This statement on sin from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is completely true but taken out of context, it is designed to crush someone whose only context for sin is human frailty. I don’t see Jesus crushing anyone in the gospels, except for the moneychangers in the temple. In each situation where Jesus is one-on-one with sinners he’s healing infirmities and forgiving sins. There’s no crushing.

There are some very large Christian institutions built around the concepts of Sin, Sinners and Sinning. I don’t think this is Christian. I think it comes from a desire to control the behavior of other people. If you can convince someone they are a miserable sinner, the control of their behavior is assured.

St. Paul gets a lot of criticism for changing the focus of Christianity. It’s probably more accurate to say that the force of world events changed the focus of Christianity. In the year 70 BCE, the Roman general Vespasian began the process of putting down a Jewish rebellion that ended up with sacking Jerusalem and destroying the temple. Jerusalem was the center of the new Christian faith at that time. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the focus of the Christian faith moved to the Christian churches in the Greco-Roman world. St. Paul was the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles. The kind of Christianity that St. Paul preached and lived eventually became the dominant expression of the new religion. What St. Paul has to say about sin becomes very important.

St. Paul’s converts lived in a society that was very promiscuous. St. Paul was brought up as a Pharisee and studied in Jerusalem in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 23). The large difference between the morals of a Pharisee and the morals of an ordinary member of the Roman Empire is the context for St. Paul’s writing about sin. St. Paul is trying to save his converts from what would be normal Roman practice so that he can bring them to the love of God present in Jesus. St. Paul is waging a war of words against sexual immorality. Considering the social context his converts existed in, this makes perfect sense.

The social context for Jesus was different from both St. Paul’s situation and our own modern one. One very interesting quote from the scripture about Jesus and sin is “We know this man is a sinner.” (John 9:24). The ‘We’ in this sentence is a group of Jewish authorities. The ‘man’ is Jesus. The reason they know Jesus is a sinner is he wasn’t one of the small group of Jewish men who ‘kept the law’. It was very difficult to keep the law as that process was interpreted by these same Jewish authorities. Basically, a person had to be independently wealthy to have the time and resources needed to keep the law. The independently wealthy constituted about one percent of first century society. The Jewish authorities considered the rest of the Jewish population to be sinners.

The gospel record shows Jesus forgiving sins. There is some disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish authorities about the fact that Jesus forgives sins. However, since the first century theory of sickness blamed the debilitating illnesses Jesus healed as being the result of sin, it was very hard for his contemporaries to deny that he was forgiving sins.

The larger question here is ‘why was Jesus forgiving sins’. In my many years of Bible study I’ve never heard that question asked. For the people who are sick, Jesus is obviously freeing them from their sickness. For the rest of us who are ordinary sinners, Jesus wants us to be free from the constraints of our past sinful behavior. The catch, the price of this extraordinary freedom is that Jesus wants us to live up to the total capability of our human potential. We are, each and every one of us, supposed to be ‘full of grace and truth’.

The social context for sin and the forgiveness of sin in the Kingdom of God isn’t about human frailty. Neither is it about the problems St. Paul was having with his promiscuous converts. It’s certainly not about controlling the behavior of other people through guilt and shame. When Jesus looks at a sinner, the sin is incidental. Jesus is looking a the totality of that person’s potential, should that person be freed from every kind of hindrance.

The Kingdom of God, the new social order Jesus gave his life to create, isn’t about sin, sinners or sinning. It’s about the human potential for love. Jesus loves us in an unrestrained, uncomplicated, unlimited fashion. He wants us to love the people who come into our lives in the same way.

Posted in Christianity, Kingdom of God, personal spiritual journey, Sin | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments