LOVE— PART 2

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This reflection is the second part of an exploration into the meaning of love in the letters of St. Paul. It is part of a larger collection of my reflections on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ.

The Fruit of the Spirit — Love, Part 2

The most familiar passage in the New Testament about love is perhaps the description we find of it in the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).

In the film “Wedding Crashers” the two main characters, played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, crash the wedding ceremony of an unsuspecting couple. As the pastor invites a reader to the lectern, Wilson whispers to Vaughn: “20 bucks, 1st Corinthians.”  Vaughn replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Then, in the background, the reader begins reading the first verse of 1 Cor. 13 — “Love is patient, love is kind…” — and Vaughn having lost the bet, pays up.

This vignette shows just how popular and well known the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is to the general public, even to folks who may not know much about the contents of the New Testament.

While we immediately see the applicability of this passage from 1st Corinthians to the marriage of two people before God, in its original context this beautiful passage of Scripture was not written to describe Christian marriage.  St. Paul was writing to a Christian community to teach and direct them in the ways that they should love and respect each member of the church.  St. Paul addressed 1st Corinthians to a church divided by factions, each with its own set of conflicting interests, that bore witness to division and not to the mutual love and respect that should have been on display in that particular community.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church members, gently chastising them where necessary, but always with love and great respect.

At the beginning of the letter, he writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10. Throughout the ensuing letter, Paul urges the people of the church in Corinth to treat one another with mutual respect, as for example in 1 Cor. 10:24 when he writes, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”

St. Paul hopes to form a Christian community built on mutual respect and love.  In this community, each person is invaluable and irreplaceable.  For St. Paul, when we respect another person, we not only show respect to our own self, we respect the person of Jesus Christ who has called and incorporated the other into his own body, the Church.  That is why St. Paul can write the following sentences:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it(1 Cor. 12:12; 24-27v).

It might escape our notice, on first reading the beautiful words about the meaning and practice of genuine love in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, that the attributes of love that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13 are those that usually are ascribed to God. St. Paul, however, desires earnestly that this sort of love be embodied in the behavior of the Christians living in the church to which he writes in Corinth.[1]

“Love is patient, love is kind….”  The description of what genuine love looks like on the ground in 1 Corinthians can also be used to flesh out the meaning of the virtues

St. Paul lists in Galatians 5: 22-23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  The fruit of the Spirit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ, and love is first and foremost on that list.

Let’s examine St. Paul’s description of love one more time:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7). One thing that stands out that often runs counter to our own expectations is St. Paul’s statement that love “does not insist on its own way.”  This statement is often overlooked.  We sometimes seem to think that if someone truly loves us that they should agree with us in everything.  Personal relationships often falter on this very point. When we love someone, it does not mean that the other person always has to do things just the way we think they should be done.  Genuine love allows for genuine difference in our relationships. As long as there mutual respect and love exist, people can agree to disagree and still live together in loving relationships with one another.

A church that is faithful to Jesus Christ is a community shaped by the love of Jesus Christ in which people can agree to disagree on some things, but not on the essential character of the church, which is always formed by mutual respect and love for one another.

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13: 13).


[1] Raymond F. Collins; Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1 CorinthiansSacra Pagina Series, volume 7 (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1999), pp. 476 ff.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

This summer I began to re-read one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for his novels Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain  (Der Zauberberg, 1924).

In 1995 a new English translation of the novel was published that I found preferable to the older translation I had first started to read many years ago. So with a new translation in hand, I began reading the book again.  Ι  say I’m reading  the book again because although  I have read a good part of it at least twice,  I have never managed to  finish it. I seem to get to page 300 or so and then move on to other things without finishing it. Mann said that he thought the book properly should be read twice, once to get the overall story and the second time for the symbolism and the deeper meaning.  So this time, I suppose I’m taking his word and I am determined to finish it.

The novel tells the story of the young Hans Castorp who in the years prior to WWI comes for a three-week visit to his cousin Joachim, a patient at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the mountains in Davos, Switzerland. During his first three weeks as a visitor, Castorp is diagnosed with a lesion on his lung and ends up becoming a resident of the sanitarium for the next seven years. Mann envisioned the book as a reflection on two themes. First the novel was a symbolic description of the terminal sickness of Europe in the years prior to the first World War and second it was a reflection on our human experience of the passage of time

Mann’s reflections on time were influenced by Einstein’s theory of  general relativity and his description of our movement through space-time, as well as by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological studies of time consciousness, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will, and numerous other philosophical, psychological, and political  thinkers of the day. The sanitarium serves as the stage on which a wide variety of these ideas and political positions battle for the allegiance of young hero of the novel.

Einstein’s observations about the fourth dimension of time or rather the inseparability of space and time had a profound impact on the structure of the novel. Einstein’s work on general relativity was first published in 1915, seven years prior to the publication of The Magic Mountain. To plot a location at any given time we need the latitude and longitude (the X and Y axes)  and the elevation (the Z axis). That is how three-dimensional space is ordered and accounted for in scientific and mathematical terms. Without accounting for the fourth dimension of time, however, our  location is still indeterminate. If you and I, for example, are in the same location on the X, Y, and Z axes at  different times, then we cannot say in the present moment  that we are in the exact same location. As we move through space we also move through time.

For me, the most remarkable thing about the novel is the way in which Mann in the telling of the story reflects on the way in which we experience the passage of time. Have you ever noticed. when you travel to an entirely different location than that to which you are accustomed in every day life, that time seems to go slower than when were are at home in our usual locales?  In that circumstance a single day can seem like two or three days. In the novel, Castorp’s first day seems almost to last forever. The first week seems to last for weeks. By the third week, looking back it seems as if he has been on the mountain for long, long time and yet the time, the time he has spent there seems to have flown by. The first three hundred pages or so of the novel are devoted to the first three weeks of Castorp’s stay. Or, to look at it another way, the first five chapters narrate the first year of Castorp’s stay, and the last two chapters, the remaining six years. In these last six years, time seems to fly by almost unaccounted for as if in the twinkling of an eye.

I thought a lot about Mann’s reflections on the experience of the passage of time during my trip to Stuttgart in late July to present a paper at an academic conference. The first days of my trip  (after accounting for jet-lag) seemed to last forever but by the end of the conference it seemed as if the time had just flown by. How is that, I wondered, and what, if anything, are we to do about it?

The narrator of the novel gives a partial answer:

Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull. … We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time—and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshlng epìsodes. The few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long-stride— that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable.

As we seek to live rewarding, fulsome lives, we need to structure time and space away from the grind of everyday life in which time seems to contract and in which the hum-drum is the ordinary state. This does not mean that we should never put down roots. Without solid deep roots, like plants in a drought, we would perish.  Our human roots, unlike plants, do not stay in the same location all day. We move around even as we are rooted in homes, families, and communities, including the church. On occasion, however, we seem to need the experience of a new place to slow the passage of time, so that in that new time, we can rediscover ourselves and perhaps come to a new awareness of our passing through time. Castorp, living in a sanitarium in which death was a frequent occurrence, observes that we all are moving endlessly toward death. This memento mori serves to bring our temporal limits to consciousness and to awaken us to ourselves so that in the time we have left (and we never know how much that is), we can make the most of our lives.

Now that I have gotten this off my chest (Castorp might have appreciated this pun), I should get back to my “re-reading.” The enchanted mountain awaits my summiting.  I’m now on page 301….

EUCHARISTIC COMMUNITY


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Note: This is a follow-up to my post “We are Eucharistic Beings” from November 20, 2018.

All of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are important. But the question that always stands out for me as a parish priest is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”

Making this promise puts us in continuity with the earliest church, the church of the apostles. In Acts 2:42 we read that the members of the earliest Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The central aspects of my ministry are shaped by this promise. I strive to teach and proclaim the apostolic faith of the church and to foster a Eucharistic community in which fundamental respect for the dignity of every person is not only welcomed but essential.

The other promises made in the Baptismal Covenant fall under this “devotion,” this commitment to living in a community formed by the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We can only “respect the dignity of every human being” when we respect the members of our own community, the people we often know best but find most difficult to live with. In my ministry,  I find that people long for genuine community. They long for a place where they can love and be loved in return. This recapitulates the whole story of the Bible: God desires to form a people, first Israel and then the Church, who will love God and whom God will love in return.

In community, we have to learn to love people we do not necessarily like. That is why Christians need the Church. We need its community and fellowship if we are to grow and mature in our Christian lives. Christians need the church to teach them how to love others fully and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”

The response to the baptismal questions is important to keep in mind: “I will with God’s help.” Remaining in communion and fellowship with others is not always easy. We can only do it with God’s help, and God is always present to assist.

When we promise to continue in “the breaking of bread” we acknowledge that we are Eucharistic “companions,” literally, persons with whom we share bread. In a true Eucharistic community, we do not have to agree on everything. We only have to agree to continue to break bread and share it with one another. In a Eucharistic community, I believe, genuine diversity and differences of opinion can live side by side because in community we fundamentally live for one other.

Finally, when we promise to “continue in the prayers” we make a fundamental commitment that we will lift up and honor all of God’s people, and the world in which we live, before God. Prayer reminds us that everything we have comes from God and that nothing we have comes from ourselves alone. We are “Eucharistic beings” who are created by God to give thanks. It is only when we offer prayer and thanks to God and when we care to the utmost for those who are different from ourselves — always respecting the dignity of every human being — that we live into our full humanity.

THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: KINDNESS

Over the past year,  I have written three mediations about what St. Paul calls the “fruit of spirit”:  Resilience” (Patience),” “Gentleness in my Dealings” (Gentleness), and “Joy”(Joy). This month, I would like to focus on Kindness.

The “fruit of the spirit” refers to the virtues that genuine Christians should manifest in their daily lives in word and deed. How should you as a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, live your life in relation to others?  How should you behave? The answer St. Paul gives is that in everything we do and say, we should manifest the “fruit of the spirit” in our lives.

St. Paul is not inventing this metaphor on his own. Jesus himself in numerous places in the gospels urged his followers to live lives that bear fruit. In the gospel of John Jesus, for example, says:

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” and “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name (John 15:8,16).

In his letters, St. Paul continually urges Christians to bear fruit.

…We have not ceased praying for you and asking that…you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God (Col 1:10).

In his letter to the Galatians St. Paul contrast the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the spirit.”

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these (Gal 5: 19-21)….By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness(Gal 5: 22).

It is important to note that the “works of the flesh” are plural, but its opposite, the “fruit of the spirit,” is singular.   St. Paul does not call them the “fruits” of the spirit as if we could display some but not others, but rather groups them into one.  We can’t have one without all the others if we are to manifest signs of the presence of Christ Jesus in our lives.  The fruit of the spirit is made manifest when all together and at the same time are on display in our lives.

The list that enumerates the “fruit of the spirit” in Galatians is not the only listing of moral virtues found in St. Paul’s writings. In Colossians, we find a similar list:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12).

In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul cites the example of his own manner of life and that of his band of fellow evangelists when he writes:

…[A]s servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: …by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left…” (2 Cor 6:4–7).

In the list of the virtues found in Galatians, Colossians, and 2 Corinthians we always find “patience” and “kindness.”

We find those two virtues listed again when in 1 Cor. 13, one of the most renowned passages in all of St. Paul’s writing, he describes the meaning of love (another aspect of the “fruit of the spirit”).   St. Paul begins with these simple words: “Love is patient; love is kind….”

Here again, we see the interrelatedness of the Christian virtues. To describe love, St. Paul turns to patience and kindness. (All three are found in the list of the “fruit of the spirit” in Galatians.) I’m sure that if St. Paul were to describe kindness, he would at a minimum turn to love and patience to give shape to his description. That’s why love, patience, and kindness are elements of the “fruit of the spirit” and not separate fruits of the spirit.

St. Paul goes on to describe how love is kind and patient. “Love,” he continues, “is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:4–6).  Love and kindness are integrally connected, but to exhibit full kindness to someone, we need to embody all the elements that St. Paul lists in his description of the “fruit of the spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness.”

St. Paul compiled the list we find in Galatians to describe how Christians should behave toward one another and as a tool to urge them to live in a manner consistent with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. When we act in accordance with his teaching and example, it can be said that our lives are bearing fruit. St. Paul’s description of the fruit that we who follow Jesus should seek to bear, particularly as it relates to how we live and work with others, gives us both a helpful checklist and a way of discerning whether we are living our lives in accordance with the teaching and example of Jesus.

THE MYSTERY OF LIVING

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“…And take upon’s the mystery of things as if we were God’s spies…”  Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3.

This line from Shakespeare points to an important dimension of human life. Life is filled with mystery and we, like spies, must search out small hints and clues to its variegated facets and meanings.

I’m glad that living is like that. I like mystery. At times it seems that it would be wonderful to know and understand everything, but then I realize that if it were so, I would be bored. There is always something to learn, and there is always room to grow.  There is always a risk that as I learn and grow that I may change. Although that is not always a comforting prospect, I enjoy the pursuit of wisdom and the gradual unfolding of insight it brings.

Perhaps the reason I like to read mystery novels is that they, like any mystery, are full of clues that, with a little insight and the right perspective, become clear. When solved, the mystery, like the pieces of a puzzle, fits together to form a coherent picture. Half the fun, of course, is to see if I can figure out what is going on in the story before the author clearly spells it out for me.

The world isn’t as neat as a puzzle–its pieces don’t always seem to fit together.  It’s hard to get that perfect perspective of a perfect fit.

All of us are like spies—God’s spies. We are spies in pursuit of God’s trail. God, full of grace and mystery, leaves us with plenty of clues, signposts, and markers. We can never fully understand them, but for a start, we can embrace the mystery and take it upon us.  Look for the clues of God’s grace all around you and become one of God’s spies, praying that your eyes be opened and that the path before you be illumined.

THE PROMISE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

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While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Luke 24:4-5

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. Acts 1:9-11

Every few years a blockbuster film is released and we are inundated by the hysteria caused by it.  Long before the release of the film, massive numbers of toys are released to stores and fast food restaurants and the rush to buy Star Wars “collectibles” is on. Today what we call “collectibles” used to be called “souvenirs.”

We human beings have a need to surround ourselves with reminders of where we have been and what we have done. We buy souvenirs, I think, to prove to ourselves and to others that we really were “there” and to impress on ourselves and on others the importance and meaning of the experience we had “then.”

Often we do not fully experience an event because we are trying so hard to preserve it forever. We are trying so hard to remember it, that we forget it all the more easily. Here is an example from my own experience.  At the defense of my dissertation at Duke University, Stanley Hauerwas, a professor on my dissertation committee, asked me to reflect on something Noam Chomsky had written. He read a long passage aloud quickly.  I did not have a copy of what he was reading before me. While he was reading, I was trying to memorize what he was saying so that I could comment on it when he finished.  I remember saying to myself as he read, “remember that, and remember that, and remember that….” When he finished, Dr. Hauerwas said to me: “What do you think about that assessment? I couldn’t remember a thing. I had tried so hard to preserve the memory, that I had remembered nothing. A friend of mine, who faced a similar encounter, a year or so later from the same professor, coolly asked if he could see and read the passage for himself. Why didn’t I think of that?

When the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium, that fantastic arena in which many a great Duke Blue Devil basketball player has played, was replaced, fundraisers at Duke University were no fools. They sold off small pieces of the wooden floor to eager fans who wanted a piece of the place— more particularly a piece of the memories of what had happened in that place, and of all the people who may have played on that floor. Buyers now, for a fee, could hold a souvenir of basketball history in their own hands and own it.

Through the souvenir of a place or event, we hope to remind ourselves of who and where we were and to capture a piece of that experience forever. The living flowing blood that surged through our bodies when we experienced an event or a place first hand, is now in the object of the souvenir, a hardened piece of coagulated memory.

Early on Easter morning, a few women drawn from the group of Jesus’ disciples arrived at the tomb where Jesus had been hastily buried on the previous Friday just before the beginning of Passover. They had come at the first opportunity after the end of the Sabbath to anoint and prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Angels (literally “messengers”) of God ask them why they are looking amidst the past for Jesus. “He is not here, but has risen,” the angels remind the women.

After his crucifixion, the disciples fled Jerusalem, where their Lord had been crucified, and returned to the safety of the Galilean countryside. There they resumed fishing and their several occupations. At Jesus’ ascension into the heavens, the disciples are told to return to Jerusalem, a place of uncertain risk and danger, and to wait for their mutual empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Then they are to proclaim the good news of what God had done in Jesus to “the ends of the earth.”

At the tomb and at his Ascension, the attention of the disciples was fixed on what Jesus had already done and on the places where they had known him. The task of the angels, God’s messengers, was to move the attention of the disciples from the past on to what they must now do in the present. Only when this was accomplished, could they continue the ministry that Jesus had begun, but now in places the historical Jesus had never been.

The disciples easily could have held on to the places in which Jesus had done this or that, or to objects Jesus had touched or held. In other words, they could have remained in Galilee. To be faithful to the ministry to which Jesus had called them, they had to give up the “souvenirs” which might have held them to the past and its demands, and move towards Jerusalem.  If they had held on to the past, they would have missed new opportunities for lively mission and ministry.

Think of the ways in your life in which you may be holding on to the souvenirs of the past. Would you be willing, if God called you in a similar manner to move from the safety of Galilee to the risky and uncertain Jerusalem, knowing that there you would be empowered and your life renewed and restored by God’s holy and life-giving spirit?  God’s promise to us is that we can let go of everything from the past that hinders us and that God will renew, reform, and restore us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What would it take for you to step forward in faith?

 

“FOR GENTLENESS IN MY DEALINGS”

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A long time ago in high school, I bought a very small paperback book of 102 short prayers.  They were written by Malcolm L. Playfoot, “Sometime Administrator of the Society of the Companions of St. Francis.” A Saint Francis Prayer Book was published by the Society for the Preservation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in London in 1941. I carried it with me for years until I lost it. Then in the early 1990s, the book was reprinted and I bought another copy that I carry with me to this day.

The book contains prayers for all sorts of occasions and occurrences in our lives. There is one for “On hearing Bad News,” another “Before reading a Serious Book,” one “Before Going Shopping,” and another for “Square Pegs in round holes.”

The prayer that has most stuck in my mind, ever since I first encountered this book, is the one “For Gentleness in My Dealings.” The prayer, written long before inclusive language was the norm, goes like this:

Grant me, Lord, to be so much thine that I may fitly show thy presence in all my dealings. Give me thy patience, thy sympathy, and thy love, that wherever I may be men may see, not me, but thee.

It is not surprising that this prayer is included in a book inspired by the witness of St. Francis to the Christian virtues and manner of life. Francis endeavored to live his life in imitation of Jesus Christ. At the heart of this manner of life is a certain gentleness and peacefulness.

Each of us is created in the image of God and in the image of Christ. The reminder implicitly posed to each of us by this prayer is that each of us who endeavors to live the Christian life should also reflect the presence of Christ that is within us to those around us, that wherever we may be others may see not [you] but the presence of Christ within you.

In the letter that St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he urges Christians to “Let [their] gentleness be known to everyone”(Phil. 4:5). We find descriptions of what that gentleness looks like in other places in the New Testament. It is, for example, tolerant and willing to take into consideration the opinions of others: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”(James 3:17). Living this manner of life, we are also “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Titus 3:2).  That is because true, genuine love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1Cor. 13:5).  Finally, St. Paul sums it up when he writes: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:9-10).

In a genuine Christian community, each person acts with gentleness to the other, each recognizes the presence of Christ in the other, and each reflects the presence of Christ back to the other.  This reciprocity of gentleness and kindness, in imitation of Christ, is at the core of Christian ethics. Christian ethics is at its core about how we can act as Christ’s representatives in the world. Gentleness in our dealings with one another is a good place to start.

Try saying this simple short prayer for “Gentleness in my Dealings” each day. See if it begins to change the way you deal with others in your daily life.

 

AWAKE, SLEEPER

“So teach us to number our days that we apply our hearts to wisdom” — Psalm 90: 12

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we are reminded that we are formed out of the dust of the earth and that unto that dust we shall return. Even when we live our lives in faith, trusting God each and every day, we cannot know the exact hour of our death. One day, your life and mine will end. That is not idle speculation, but a truth we cannot avoid.

It is possible, of course, to live much of our lives blissfully unaware of our own mortality, that is until someone close to us dies and we are harshly reminded of our own finitude.  We live in a culture that, for the most part, acts as if life goes on and on forever. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that the fear of death is the mainspring of human activity. The rush of our activity is the very mechanism that we employ to deny the reality of our own mortality.

Ten or twelve years ago as I was reading, an unexpected quote from the French literary theorist Roland Barthes struck a chord within me. I still remember it. In a lecture Barthes gave in 1978, he remarked:

The middle of my life is nothing other than the moment when I discover death as real.  And then all of a sudden is produced this evidence, on the one hand, that I no longer have time to try several lives.  I have to choose my last life, my new life, my vita nuova; and on the other hand, I must leave this tenebrous state where the wear and tear of repeated work and mourning have conducted me.

Barthes’ words spoke to me in a number of ways. The first was to remind me that I am beyond middle-aged. To this time, I have lived the life of parish priest and professor and, like most people I know, I still wonder at times what it might be like to try a completely different profession. When I was young, I could dream of all my possible futures, now in the years past middle-age I must endeavor to live the life I now have — the only life I have — to its fullest.

Second, I realized how important is it to take time to reflect on the life we now are living. When we purposely remind ourselves of our own mortality, it helps us to become better stewards of the life that we have been given.  Because we have a limited life on this earth, we must learn, as the psalmist says, “to number our days,” striving each day to live the best life that we can with what we have been given.

The good news of the gospel is that death is not our final end.  The resurrection of Jesus from the dead inaugurates the possibility of both a “vita nuova,” a new life, in the present and of eternal life with God in our future.  St. Paul recognized this when he wrote, “…If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”(2 Cor. 5:17).

What would it look like if you were to claim the new life that God has in store for you? What would it take for you to live the life that God has given you to the fullest? “

“Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Eph. 5: 14) and life.

 

GIVE THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

 

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In June of 2013, I flew to Belgrade, Serbia to take part in a four-day ecumenical conference in Belgrade, Serbia organized by the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network. The conference, entitled “Religion, Authority and the State: From Constantine to the Secular and Beyond,” brought together theologians, religious scholars, and clergy from a variety of religious traditions. The conference commemorated the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. That was the edict in which the Emperor, Constantine and Licinius, his co-Emperor at the time, proclaimed religious tolerance in the empire, allowing Christians to practice their faith openly.

Belgrade was chosen as the site for the conference because Constantine was born in the ancient city Naissus in the Roman province of Moesia, the area on the south side of the Danube River, in what today is the modern Serbian city of Nis, located about 125 miles southeast of Belgrade.

At the conference, I presented a paper entitled, “Theo-political Visions: Post-secular Politics and Messianic Discourse” in which I discussed a variety of secular philosophers in Europe who are interested in the writings of St. Paul primarily for the form of their argument and not for their religious content. (The paper later was published in the academic journal, Ecclesiology.*)

I packed my bags so that I could take my suitcase onto the airplane with me. For reasons still inexplicable to me, Air France required me to check my suitcase at the last minute.   My flight arrived late in Paris leaving me with less than forty minutes to get to another terminal and board my flight on the former Yugoslav National Airline, JAT.  JAT stands for Jugoslovenski Aerotransport. The troubled politics of the Balkans are still evident in little things such as the name of the airline. Yugoslavia ceased to exist more than twenty years ago, but Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia, is now the capital of Serbia.  The Serbians have not given up their past and cling resolutely to whatever they can of their former pride.

When I arrived early on Monday morning in Belgrade my bag had not made my connecting flight. Fortunately, I had the medicine I needed, my phone, and a few electronic devices in my carry-on but some of the power cords and adapters were still in my suitcase.  If I had planned to lose my bag, I might have made some different decisions about what I packed and where I packed it.  (I might also have gotten some insurance to cover lost or delayed baggage.) As it turned out the only clothes I had on arrival were the clothes I was wearing— blue jeans and a long-sleeved dress shirt with black dress shoes.   That might have been fine if it had not been ninety-five-plus degrees with high humidity for the entire week I was there.  The heat index made it even hotter than it was at home that week, and it was pretty hot at home.

Without my suitcase, I tried to make the best of it. On Monday, I was fine. Tuesday, my shirt was thoroughly soaked with perspiration and I was miserable whenever I ventured outside. On Wednesday I bought a short-sleeved black t-shirt for around 5 dollars and a pair of sandals. On Thursday, my bag finally arrived in the afternoon, just one half-hour before I was scheduled to present my paper. I was thankful to have my baggage with a few changes of clothes to wear over the next two day until I departed Belgrade for Dulles International Airport early on Sunday morning.

Reflecting on my trip, I realized once again, in case I really hadn’t already learned this lesson, that “things do not always go as planned.” I also was reminded that it is possible to live with very little.  I do not have to have all the things that I have to live a full abundant life. In Belgrade, I did not need a full wardrobe of clothes, or even a small suitcase full of them, to enjoy the company of friends and fellow travelers. The same is true when I am home with all with which God has blessed me. These things are easy to forget.

When things do not go as planned, we can get angry, despair, or move on as best we can.  It is better, I have found if we can do so thankfully and happily rather than in disgust and bitterness.  I find great assurance in words written by St. Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5).

You might ask, “how can Paul really say that I should learn to “give thanks to God in all circumstances.” In all circumstances?  That’s what Paul says and that is what he meant.  In another letter, this time to the Philippians Paul wrote the following:

…For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12).

Next time you find yourself in a situation in which things do not go as planned, remember the admonitions of Holy Scripture and try as best you can to give thanks to God in every circumstance in which you find yourself.

 

* Craig A. Phillips, “Theo-political visions: Post-secular Politics and Messianic Discourse,” Ecclesiology 10 (2014), 337-354.

JOY

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I taught myself to play guitar in 9th grade so that I could play at the 12:30PM folk mass at my home parish in Tulsa, OK. It was the fourth worship service of the day. Often I served as an acolyte at one or two of the previous services before playing guitar and singing at the folk mass.

One of the first songs I learned to play was quite simple. It only had three chords. The 8 words of the chorus of the song, “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” were taken from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah (Neh. 8:10). The melody is nothing special, but I find the words difficult to forget. How is it that I find joy in the Lord? Where and when do I find this?  If I don’t find it or feel it, is something wrong with me? These are but a few of the questions that arise whenever this verse comes to mind. I am sure that the words are true, but I often wish that I could find that joy more often than I do.

Holy Scripture exhorts us in numerous places to find joy in our relationship with God and with one another. Saint Paul, for example, exhorts the Christians living in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He even goes on to say that we should be thankful in all circumstances. What does he really mean by that? How can we be joyful and thankful to God for everything that happens?

St. Paul provides a hint. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always…. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4: 4-5). To experience joy, in other words, we have to let go. Joy is perfect freedom from worry and anxiety and at the same time thanksgiving and gratitude for what God already has given us. To find joy we have to learn to be thankful for what we have, not for what we don’t have. This flies in the face of our consumer culture in which advertisers continually remind us of what we don’t have and what we have to have to be happy. True joy comes from letting go of worry and learning to be happy with what we have. This takes practice.  That is why we learn to do this only as we grow and mature in the Christian faith.

Relax, count your blessings, be thankful to God for what you have and you will find that the joy of the Lord is your strength.