Monthly Archives: September 2011

Loving God

“He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep….After this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”  John 21:  17-19.

In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

When I was a young man, back in Odessa, Texas, someone gave me a copy of the album Jesus Christ Superstar and it had a profound impact on my spiritual life for several years thereafter.  I was amazed that these stories that I had grown up with all my life could be told in a way that was, well, relevant.  I can still recall many of the songs well, but especially Yvonne Elliman singing the ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  I think for many of us today that statement remains haunting, or at least it should haunt us:  how well do we know how to love God?

For lots of us, our relationship with God looks a good deal more like that of Jacob.  We know the story of Jacob well, the trickster who stole his brother’s birthright, only to find himself on the business end of a fraud as he sought to marry Leah.  And in the Old Testament lesson we find Jacob on the eve of meeting his brother for the first time after having betrayed him.  And that night, at Peniel,  Jacob spent a sleepless night wrestling with God.

I suspect many of us have spent a night like that, struggling with and against the Almighty Lord of All Creation.  And like Jacob, many of us have been injured in the process.  But that evening, Jacob ended up with two gifts:  he got a blessing; and he got a new name.  Scripture tells us “Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans,and have prevailed.’”  And in a very real sense, the name Israel or Struggles With God, describes the entire history of the people of Israel as told in the Old and New Testament.

The people of Israel are always struggling with God, from the story of the Fall in the garden through to the last prayer or promise of Revelations that “Surely he is coming soon.” The New Testament records that as the Gentiles were baptized into the promises of Israel, the Church continued to wrestle with God’s will. Like Abraham advocating for Sodom, we have all tried to dicker with God, to bargain with the Almighty.  And like Peter standing in the courtyard in the glow of a charcoal fire, we have all denied him.  The simple truth is we don’t know how to love him.

And yet, although we struggle to love, it constantly eludes us, though we know how important it is.  St. Paul reminds us that without love even if we could speak in angelic tongues it would amount to a senseless clanging gong.  Paul says that without love, even our acts of mercy and our faith are meaningless.

How many of us have been impatient with God?  We don’t know how to love him.  When confronted with one of the Lord’s stubborn children, how many of us have failed in our kindness?  We don’t know how to love God.  How many of us feel that we have not gotten our due, that we are not adequately regarded or our work has gone unrecognized?  How many of us have deceived ourselves into thinking that we are doing God’s will when we are chasing after our own goals?  We do not understand how to love God.  Because Paul tells us “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.”  We don’t know how to love him.

I think part of the problem is that we want to understand God.  We are so frail, and so very proud.  We have convinced ourselves that we will love God once we know what He is up to.  Once we understand Him, then we can love Him.  Somehow, I need to understand the Almighty, who knows where the snow is kept in the summer, who knows the number of the ever-dwindling hairs on my head.  Once he makes himself clear to me, then I will love him.  But anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows that real love is not dependent on understanding.  In our frailty, in our brokenness, we will never understand the depth of His love or his wisdom.  Our understanding is inherently flawed.  But as our brother St. Thomas said, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”

We turn, then to the Gospel reading, where we find Jesus on the beach with Peter, who personifies the bumbling, painful difficulty of loving God. After the crucifixion and after Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice, Peter determines that there is only one way to address these deeply spiritual and terribly confusing events: he’s going fishing, going back to work.  And we’ve all been there:  these events are simply too intense, and Peter wants something to feel normal again.

So, there they are, on the beach, and Jesus seeks out Peter with a very specific purpose.  John’s Gospel sets this story in the context of a charcoal fire, and we can almost smell that fire burning on the beach.  Earlier, in the 18th  Chapter of John’s Gospel, Peter had denied Jesus three times as the smoke from a charcoal fire filled the air.  It’s interesting that Jesus refers to him as “Simon,” as though he’s inviting Peter to return to the beginning of their relationship and start with a clean slate.  I think that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind.

Christ asks Peter three times to confirm his love, echoing Peter’s earlier three-fold denial.  We can almost hear the pain in Peter’s voice as he assures Jesus, “Lord, you know I love you.”  That pain arises from a clear recollection of his earlier failures, his earlier inability to love God fearlessly.

You see, John’s Gospel teaches us that this is not the sort of love we encounter in our modern culture:  this is not about rainbows and kittens and smiley faces.  This is the kind of love that will break your heart. But in this moment of radical redemption, Simon Peter’s prior deprivation and failure will be transfigured into a feast.

Jesus shows Peter the way forward, telling him “Feed my sheep.”  If we want to understand how to love, this passage is terribly important.  How does a good shepherd tend to his sheep?  He takes them to where the grass is deep and green, and keeps them away from the wolves.  Our care for the people of God arises from one simple and yet terribly difficult source: we do this for the love of God.

John Henry Newman once noted that love contains all of the virtues, all of the graces. He said “Love is the material (so to speak) out of which all graces are made, the quality of mind which is the fruit of regeneration, and in which the Spirit dwells, according to St. John’s words, ‘he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.'”  It was love, and love alone, that worked the regeneration of Peter.

John’s Gospel teaches us that God does not love us because we are a holy people; rather, we are a holy people because God loves us.  And because He loves us, and because we were made in his image, we have the capacity for love.  Our love for each other constitutes a defining characteristic of the faith: Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” Love is the uniform we wear, by which the world will know we follow Christ.

 It is my hope, no it is my prayer for us all that we Feed His Sheep with the love that “bears all things,believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Life and Death Decisions

On August 19, 1989, Mark MacPhail, a former Army Ranger, worked for the Savannah Police Deparment. That night, with his wife and baby daughter at home, MacPhail was working as an off-duty as a security guard in a Burger King restaurant. When MacPhail learned of a man being assaulted in the parking lot, he intervened to defend the victim. Seven witnesses testified that they had seen Troy Anthony Davis shoot MacPhail, and two others testified that Davis had confessed to the murder. Davis, a black man, stood accused of killing MacPhail, a white police officer.

Some of the witnesses who testified at trial later recanted their sworn statements. Two of the jurors indicated that had they known 20 years ago of the facts that have surfaced since then, they would have voted differently. Nonetheless, some 20 years after he was originally sentenced to receive the death penalty, the State of Georgia ended Troy Davis’ life on September 21, 2011.

Sometimes, history entangles strange stories together. You see, back on June 7, 1998 James Byrd accepted a ride home from Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King. Mr. Byrd knew the driver, Shawn Berry, from around town. But instead of taking him home, the three men took Mr. Byrd out into the country. They beat him viciously, urinated on him, chained his ankles to their pickup truck and dragged him for three miles. They then went to a barbeque. As you probably know, the incident took place in Jasper, Texas.

In one of those historical ironies, the State of Texas executed Lawrence Brewer on the same day Georgia executed Troy Davis. Brewer, a white supremacist, had previously served time for drug possession and burglary. He had apparently joined a white supremacist gang during this earlier prison term, and it was there that he met John King. When interviewed by the media the day before his execution and asked if he had any remorse, he said “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”

As a lawyer, I think I understand the legal issues in most of these cases, and it’s hard for me to avoid the notion that the death penalty is constitutional. There are also a number of practical issues involved, like the question of deterrence and the relative cost of life imprisonment versus the total costs of carrying out the death penalty. One of those practical issues is the remarkable disparity in the racial application of the death penalty. There’s also the question, in fact the probability, that we have executed several people who were innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. But I don’t think that answers the question, the bedrock question I’d like us to consider this morning: what kind of people do we want to be?

The scriptural witness in this regard is somewhat ambiguous, forcing us, as Scripture so often does, to struggle with the text and its meaning. Proponents of the death penalty find solace in the commandment of Leviticus: “Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). (It’s worth noting, however, that the Old Testament similarly provides for the execution of those who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15) or for one who curses one’s parent (Exodus 21:17) and even for a rebellious teenager (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).)

Those who oppose the death penalty can look to the notion that God has reserved vengeance for himself (Rom. 12:19). We find in the Biblical story of the first murder that God spared Cain’s life, although Abel certainly seems like an innocent victim. Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel records the only time our Savior’s encounter with capital punishment in the case of the woman caught in adultery; and Jesus put a stop to it.

It’s worth observing that there are good people, and there are people of faith, on both sides of this issue. As so often happens, we find that we must struggle with the biblical text on this issue. I think that’s a good thing, because the Bible isn’t a book of recipes that will teach us how to prepare a good life, nor is it an encyclopedia where we can go to look up the “right” answer. In Holy Scripture, God speaks to us in a collection of stories, a narrative about how people struggle to find their sanctification and how we struggle to find ours.

Three overarching themes, however, strongly suggest to me that capital punishment is the wrong answer. The first of these is an understanding of what it means to be human. We are told that we were made imago Dei, “in the image of God.” That probably doesn’t mean that our elbow looks like God’s elbow. But I think it means that all of us have some spark of the divine within, no matter how well we try to hide it. In other words, we are all instances (no matter how blurred) of something sacred and holy.

Secondly, we have the Biblical meta-narrative of God’s reaching again and again to redeem people, not because of their merit but because of His love. This happens over and over in the Bible, often enough that I believe God is trying to tell us something. We see it in the story of Cain, in the Exodus (which remains the overarching narrative for the Jewish people), in the story of David, and in the story of Christ’s calling St. Paul. Jesus preached “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1.) While I’m not smart enough to have considered all of the implications of that commandment, I think at a minimum that we are not to judge the content and character of another man’s soul. God knows who can be redeemed, and I do not.

Finally, I oppose the death penalty because I honor the Christian virtue of hope. I am hopeful that God can redeem the even the shame of the murder of James Byrd, and the horror Lawrence Brewer’s unrepentant racism. I am hopeful that God’s love can reach into Brewer’s life, and into mine. I believe in “the means of grace and the hope of glory.” I think capital punishment reflects a despair at the possibility of Christ’s redemptive love reaching into the very darkest places of the human heart, and I am compelled to reject that.

In the final analysis, I think the real question is one posed by Sister Helen Prejean: “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?'” I pray the answer is no, just as I pray for Mark MacPhail, for James Byrd, for Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Laying Down Our Arms

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Luke 15: 18-19.

Without a doubt, the story of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, in part because it provides a well from which I can always drink.

In the last post, we considered the many ways we try to bargain with God. I believe our sin provides one of the clearest examples of this. We try and dicker with the Almighty: “Well, I may have fudged on my taxes, but look at how often I’ve gone to church.” Or, “I may have driven my car when I was drunk, but no one got hurt, and that’s not something you really care about, is it God?” Part of the problem here is that we’ve begun to see sin as doing something naughty, or as a minor punch list item that we need to tend to before we can consider our lives complete. That vision of sin overlooks its fundamental nature: sin separates us from God. We need to re-think the nature of sin, regarding it as something that moves us further away from the source of our lives, making it harder and harder to return home.

The story of the prodigal son teaches exactly that lesson. The son wrongfully asks his father for inheritance while the father is still living. (In the culture of that day, such a request would amount to telling your father, “I wish you were dead.”) The son then goes to “a distant country.” I don’t think that’s a coincidence, nor do I think Jesus is just using a narrative device. I think Jesus is teaching us something fundamental about the nature of sin. Our sin always drives us away from our heavenly Father. And one of the truly horrific things about sin lies in how easy it is, once we’ve taken that first step, to keep moving further and further away. We find ourselves in places where it seems truly impossible to ever get back home.

But Jesus teaches us about the way home in the story of the Prodigal Son. It starts with his recognition, while still in that distant country, that he nothing about his life works anymore, and that he has become a stranger even to himself. He tells himself to get up and return to his father and tell him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” The recognition of his own betrayal of his father leads the prodigal to a humility and a recognition of broken bonds. He makes no excuses for himself; he offers no defenses for what he has done.

The parable teaches us that the path back home begins with the recognition that our sins aren’t minor flaws that require a few slight adjustments. Rather, as Newman observed, through the sins which separate us from God, we have become rebels and must “lay down [our] arms.” As Newman also noted, “The most noble repentance (if a fallen being can be noble in his fall), the most decorous conduct in a conscious sinner, is an unconditional surrender of himself to God—not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming (so to call it) to be received back again, but an instant surrender of himself in the first instance.” J.H. Newman, Parochial & Plain Sermons (vol. 3, Sermon 7).

There’s nothing easy about this. None of us wants to give up on the notion of defending ourselves, of building a case for what we did and why. We want to convince God that it wasn’t so bad or that we had good reasons for what we’ve done: that we really are good people. That’s part of the reason why the Church has stressed the virtue of humility for centuries. It’s the only way we’ll learn to trust God, and trust that He will always take us back. The Psalmist noted that we can’t bargain or dicker with God; we can’t earn our way back into our home with our sacrifices. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. ” Ps. 51.

My prayer for you and for me is that we learn to trust God and lay down our arms. What would the world look like if we did that? I suspect it would look a lot more like the Kingdom.


James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis


A God We Can Do Business With

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of  them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Matthew 20: 9-16

The parable of the laborers challenges us to our very core, because here Jesus is asking us to re-think something very fundamental:  our idea of fairness.  This is hard for us, because having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have a pretty good idea of what is fair and what isn’t.  And there’s something about the notion of people who worked all day being paid the same as those who worked for just an hour that just doesn’t seem right.  But Jesus is doing something more than simply challenging our notion of justice:  he’s challenging our very notion of God.

Because one of the things we want, perhaps more than anything else, is a God we with whom we can strike a bargain.  We want a God we can do business with.  I want to agree with God that if  He will take away my receding hairline, then I will pray every night.  Or we want to tell God that if we lead reasonably holy lives, then He will take good care of us and nothing much bad will happen.  Or we want to cut a deal that if we don’t do anything really bad, and go to church most Sundays, then he’ll let us into heaven.  We want a God we can understand, dicker with, and hold to a particular set of rules.  We want a God with whom we can do business.

Jesus teaches us, however, that this is not the sort of God we have.  He teaches us that the normal rules don’t apply here, that the first will be last and the last will be first.  He teaches that our notion of fairness doesn’t even come close to God’s mercy.  This is one of the problems with the prosperity gospel and with preachers who suggest that hurricanes are God’s judgment on certain places or that diseases like AIDS are God’s judgment on a given community.  Jesus regularly taught that God doesn’t work that way.  He said:  “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  Luke 13:4.  This is just one of the ways, as a dear friend of mine observed, in which biblical fundamentalism is fundamentally un-biblical.  Even the parable of the prodigal son calls upon us to re-think what fairness really looks like to a God of limitless compassion.

Jesus teaches that our notion of fairness deeply underestimates the Kingdom, where the first will be last and the last will be first.  We don’t have a God we can do business with, or a God we can hold to a given set of contractual obligations.  Instead, we have a God who calls us into a covenant which is based on a loving relationship rather than a set of contractual rights to which we can hold the Almighty to when things aren’t “fair.”  Rather than a God we can do business with, Jesus teaches that we will find a God of infinite mercy and grace.  I think that’s probably a better deal anyway.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

The Feast of the Holy Cross

Today, on the Feast of the Holy Cross, I thought I’d share a thought from one of our Franciscan brothers.

“God wants useable instruments who will carry the mystery, the weight of glory, and the burden of sin simultaneously, who can bear the darkness and the light, who can hold the paradox of incarnation–flesh and spirit, human and divine, joy and suffering at the same time, just as Jesus did.”

–Fr. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden


James R. Dennis, O.P.

September 11

It was, by all accounts, a beautiful late summer morning.  The temperatures were in the upper sixties, and the sun shone brightly against a brilliant blue sky.  At 8:46, American flight 11 traveling from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the North Tower.  There were 91 passengers aboard.  At 9:03, United Airlines flight number 175 flew into the South Tower.  It carried 65 passengers, as it travelled from Logan Airport to  Los Angeles.  Then, at 9:30, American Airlines flight 77, which carried 64 passengers, crashed into the Pentagon. A total 2,996 people died, including the 19 hijackers.  At 10:10 a.m., United Airlines flight 93 crashed in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all 44 passengers aboard.

I thought we might consider those events ten years ago, about the consequences of that day, and particularly the changes in our spiritual lives as a result of that morning.  Among those consequences, our nation has been at war for the last ten years.  4,442 soldiers gave their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and over 1,600 died in Operation Enduring Freedom.  It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of civilian casualties of these wars, but most calculations range somewhere between 150,000 and 1.2 million.  Estimates of the costs of these wars range between one and three trillion dollars, and they continue to mount.

We mourn the deaths of the 2,996 Americans who lost their lives ten years ago, and we may also mourn the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have died since then.  We might also mourn the shameless treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the wisdom of a place like Guantanamo Bay.  We might mourn the loss of our civil liberties in the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Services Act, which now authorizes searches of emails and wiretapping without judicial review.  We actually engaged in a national debate about whether torture was acceptable, and somehow that debate seemed to hinge on a cost-benefit analysis.

The September 11 attacks led to a remarkable resurgence of faith, or at least faithful activity.  People across the nation filled our churches and rediscovered a need for a spiritual answer to a very worldly problem.  We are right to wonder why people turn to God in times of crisis, but cannot sustain that conversion.  The biblical witness, however, teaches that we have been doing that for thousands of years.  Somehow, as our fears are calmed and our wounds are bound, our spiritual indifference resumes.  While time has healed some of those wounds, we have also acquired a sort of national amnesia about how sorrowful, broken and vulnerable we felt.

One of the other consequences of that day is our national fear, and perhaps prejudice, of those who practice the Muslim faith.  I’m not sure who the boogeyman was on September the 10th, but after September 11, he clearly had a middle-eastern face.  Somehow, these men became “Muslim terrorists,” although we did not use the term “Christian terrorists” to describe the Ku Klux Klan.  As Kofi Anan, has observed so wisely, the problem lies “not with the faith but with the faithful.”

We might look to the reflection of the Archbishop of Washington on this subject.  He said:

All violent acts of injustice, acts of destruction, and the taking of innocent life find their origin in the attitudes of the human heart. Evil dwells within. Jesus told us it is not what enters in from outside that defiles a person but the things that come from within are what defile. (Mark 7:15).

The great cosmic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between peace and war, between harmony and violence, between love and hatred, begins first in each human heart, is waged there – and true peace depends on the outcome.

I am deeply troubled by the observation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “We failed the biggest test posed by the 9/11 outrage: In our anger and dismay we failed to recognize our common humanity, that we are made for love and that acts such as those committed on that day are an aberration.”

There’s a certain irony in the name of the massive bureaucracy we created in the wake of September 11:  the Department of Homeland Security.  To create that department and fund our wars, we have incurred a national debt of trillions of dollars.  We might well ask about the security risks posed by that debt.  I suspect the people of Jericho felt very secure behind their walls, and the Philistines probably felt very safe with Goliath on their side.  The Egyptians probably rightly thought of themselves as a superpower as they approached the Red Sea.

I wonder if we really ever will achieve security, and I think the Scriptural witness suggests that our only security, our only real safety, lies in God.   Our spiritual efforts to move forward and get past that day may require us to take a great many risks.  Then again, the Cross is full of just such risks.


James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis