A Call to Empathy & Solidarity

World events, and those more locally, are reminding me of this universal truth: Each of us matters. Regardless of race, creed, social standing, sexual preference, religious affiliation, political views, we matter to God, we matter to our families, we matter to our friends, and we matter to ourselves. Our lives and livelihoods are intended to serve and honor Almighty God and our fellow humans. Creation declares the glory of God. Scripture repeats this mantra in myriad ways and forms. From time immemorial across any number of geographical and political boundaries, God has provided evidence of that glory. And humanity becomes the crowning jewel of that glory.

If Creation declares God’s glory and humanity is God’s crowning achievement, why do human beings effectively make a distinction between human beings, as if they have the right to critique the choices made by humanity’s Creator. This posturing doesn’t make any sense.

Humans may speak of each other as if they are somehow different from one another, perhaps to advertise some quality about themselves worthy of being loved. Humans may also speak ill of others to highlight something they consider worthy in themselves. Yet, this kind of human advertisement is misleading. Consider: a human being speaking ill of another human being may as well be speaking of herself, the essential elements of self being scrutinized in the critique or advertisement. The advertisement may as well read, “I am not being loved because no one finds me worthy. But I am worthy, because of _______.”

The truth of the matter is that humans are inherently worthy of honor and dignity, not because of their own doing or their own set of qualities, but because the Creator of human beings has thought highly enough of them to create them in the first place. Consider: When a human being invents something new, or creates a product, there must (necessarily) be some value in doing so. Otherwise, the energy infused into the invention or product is wasted and unnecessary, which, when truly thought through, means there would not be any logical reason for it to be created at all. Are human beings just so much rubbish? Nonsense. Any creative energy needed to produce a product or invention inherently denotes value, even if that value is only in the eye of the creator. It follows that human beings are conceived with some inherent worth, with no other strings necessarily attached. One cannot help but think this is what Jesus is admonishing his followers to consider when he says in the Scriptures, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

If all life is worthy of creation, then all life matters, no matter how fragile or strong. Thus it follows that the dignity of God’s creation, and ultimately the dignity of the human being, comes not from any merit or genetic disposition, but because human beings possess an otherness created in light of the Creator’s choice to love creation. The default setting of life, then, is one based on love and providence. Humans begin life desiring love and nurture, and the humans caring for it provide for its survival. Love is ultimately what a baby desires from its caregiver, often reciprocated by the caregiver. Unfortunately, as humans grow and learn, this insatiable desire for love is violated by other love-seeking human beings through ignorance, carelessness or malicious intent. Learning empathy helps one see the reality of the human condition, and assists in restoring the delicate balance of love in the world. Empathy may lead to sympathy — or solidarity — with the hurting and marginalized, or it may provide a means to that end. And when we humans align our sympathies with each other, we come to recognize that our differences pale in comparison to our common traits; we recognize the Immanuel living within, gifted to us from the beginning. May we never forget this truth: Each of us matters. Each of us is called to love.

Feeding the Hungry; Feeding on God

In the readings for today at Mass, Jesus charges the disciples with feeding 5,000 men. That would, we assume, not include the women and children who might have also accompanied them to listen to the teacher from Nazareth. With only 5 loaves (the approximate equivalent of 5 dinner rolls) and 2 fish (likely smaller than the fish filets we are used to eating), the disciples wondered how they could feed this large of a group. Jesus accepts the gift of food offered.

4holybreadNow, miracles are miracles no matter how they occur. And rampant speculation has swirled around how, exactly, this miracle occurred.  Some argue that, perhaps people added their own meagre lunches to the basket of loaves and fish. Others support the idea of the supernatural multiplication of bread and fish.The first explanation doesn’t really make sense to some, especially given that people were hungry. And if hungry, could have consumed what they had in their own pouches to sate that hunger. The second explanation does not resonate well with a rational mind, and so is often seen as an allegorical tale. Loaves and fish just don’t naturally multiply exponentially after we pray over them. Or do they?

Consider the following:

If the disciples grumbled, Luke doesn’t record it. But they certainly were indecisive. Jesus was decisive. Instead of sending people away at a time of great need (hunger and frustration can go hand in hand), Jesus takes the matter (literally) into his own hands. He takes the little, and makes a big difference in the lives of the many people he serves. The disciples wanted the people to go home; Jesus wanted them to stay. Why? Ah…the lesson for the disciples begins!

Jesus gets the disciples to have the people sit in groups of 50 — a sure way to build a small community. It is, in Luke, the image of the Church with its small, individual congregations within the larger context of what would become the Christian religion. Jesus then blesses the food and then gives it to the disciples to distribute.

Food, that which nourishes, can well be said in the Gospels and elsewhere to be equated with God’s word or even God’s Law (Torah). Of course, in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life. The distribution of this food foreshadows the means by which the disciples, as apostles, would distribute the Word of God to feed the many congregations that constitute the Church. The one curiosity of this is that Jesus prays over the food, get’s God’s stamp of approval, then gives it to his disciples to distribute. God is the source; Jesus is the catalyst. The disciples are the means of distribution. In true managerial style, God (through Jesus) gets his disciples out of their complacency and into a mode of service that potentially grows the Kingdom of God. Had the disciples gotten their way, the Kingdom of God would have been impossible for the masses assembled to experience first hand.

If we look at our own small deeds, our own meagre works of charity which we will call (for lack of a better term) our proverbial lunch, others see the good at work in us. Some are jealous because they do not believe they have the ability to do those good works, or deny that they have gifts to offer the group. Others rejoice; some even help those who are jealous to see the gifts in them as valuable and edifying to the group. Whatever the case, all, even the jealous ones, know deep down that they have talents and gifts that God has given them to share with the greater community — be it spiritual gifts or temporal ones. Sometimes one just needs to find the niche within the community where their talents can be used. And sometimes, it takes some motivation (a hunger) to move toward a positive end.

The joy that emerges from this kind of agape-driven charity is multiplied, appreciated, satisfying, and infectious to the point of continued agape-driven charity. The charity of one person is multiplied by those receiving it joyfully, so much so that they in turn become charitable. They give what little they have in charity or good works, and the cycle of joy and charity continues. All of this in the context of community.

And what happens afterward? Twelve baskets filled with extra bits. What did the disciples do with all of that extra?! My guess — they were nourished by it, giving them enough food to eat for days.

Just as a work of charity nourishes those we serve, so they return the favor — in most cases, innumerably so.

So…is the miracle the rational one of exponential sharing within a group? Or one of a supernatural intervention, by which the impossible becomes possible? Or is it both? Whatever the factual nature may be, the truth of the miracle is borne out in the miraculous, exponential spread of Christianity throughout the world, the vast dissemination of God’s word to nearly every country, and the deep and abiding faith of those committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness

Jesus is consistent in calling his disciples to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus asks the Heavenly Father to forgive “as we forgive” others. This becomes a rather informative phrase for those of us who are not quick to forgive others, or even consistent in who we forgive or what we forgive.

Do we forgive those closest to us more often than those on the margins of our acquaintance? Do we forgive the privileged more than the underprivileged? Do we forgive the child more readily than the adult? And what do we forgive — a debt? a tresspass? a sin? a minor slight? a major upheaval? These are not easy to answer, and may vary in our experience.

One easily engages in verbal barbs with a colleague over something rather ridiculous, without thought of forgiving them. Why? The same occurs in traffic when someone’s impulsive driving causes us frustration. Do we forgive then? And what of the mistakes that cost a spouse, a IMG_20150730_115706child, a loved one, an employee, an employer time or money or dignity? Do we forgive these?

“Forgive us… as we forgive…”

All sins, debts, and trespasses encroach on someone else’s life journey; they affect more than just the sinner, debtor, or trespasser. In some cases, the effect is enormous, in others light. The Lord’s prayer teaches us that our forgiveness of small misdeeds allows God and others to forgive our small misdeeds. Forgiveness of larger misdeeds allows God and others to forgive our large misdeeds. Notice that the prayer of forgiveness rises to God first with a covenantal caveat. Inasmuch as we are forgiven by God, so we must forgive others. For those of us baptized for the remission of all our sins — original and personal — we see in the Lord’s Prayer the need for continual conversion of heart and mind in a spirit in an attitude of forgiveness. Otherwise, our so-called salvation is no salvation at all and puts into question our relationship to God and his Christ.

The call to forgiveness is a call to reconciliation through love. We forgive because we love. Without active love, there is no possibility of forgiveness. Beyond this comes a catharsis borne of that love:  When we forgive, we release the burden of the misdeed weighing on our minds. We give ourselves the right and privilege to be free of its torment —  and pass the right and privilege on to others to also be free from the guilt and shame of the misdeed. May we all learn to forgive each other more readily.

Easter: A New Beginning

Photo taken 2015 of a Mosaic at The Athenaeum, Cincinnati, OH
The Risen Christ

The Resurrection of Jesus ought to bring overwhelming joy to those who claim Jesus Christ as savior. Jesus’ crucifixion — the epitome of human indignity — does not stop the God of Life. By overcoming Death, God through Jesus shows humankind the ultimate power and resilience of life and offers a more powerful alternative to Death in all of its manifestations.

God undermines all the myths and lies of Hell by tearing the proverbial door of Death off of its hinges. Jesus’ crucifixion becomes itself an act that paradoxically spotlight’s humanity’s inherent dignity in the face of utter indignity against it. In Scripture, Jesus’ lived humility, charity, suffering, and grace endure through the tortures and indignities he suffers. And in rising, Jesus shows his followers a new way, a new beginning, a renewed sense of dignity that they have always had.

Some of Jesus’ own disciples viewed his death as an unfair ending to a righteously lived life. It took an empty tomb and more than a few appearances to shift the disciples (followers) — women and men — into apostles (those sent forth). Our lives may not be anywhere near righteous, but if we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, the Resurrection graces us with the promise of regeneration of body and spirit. This promise teaches us that we are more than by-standers and more than followers. We are apostles, called to bring others to this life-giving, resurrected Jesus.

Sometimes, we focus only on the ending of a season in our lives, whatever that may be. Instead, we ought to shift our focus to the new beginning such an ending affords. The ending forces us to examine our lives, to scrutinize our behaviors and mindsets; the resurrection allows us to draw from within the courage to claim a new path, to draw a fresh breath, to erase the past and start over. It is truly what Baptism does sacramentally and symbolically, and is why Christians around the world welcome new members into the faith through baptism — at Easter, or at any time of year.

Isn’t that what is truly meant by the ancient Latin phrase Ite Missa Est? “Go, It’s the Dismissal.” We are dismissed to be no longer disciples only, but apostles proclaiming the Good News. The end of every worship service, every Mass, every solemn assembly, every season, is a new beginning.