Tag Archives: Love

Sown in Peace for Those Who Make Peace

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But 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. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a.

Within today’s Lectionary, the New Testament offers us this wonderful passage from the Epistle of St. James.  We think, but are not certain, that this letter was written sometime around 48-50 A.D. In many ways, James is one of the most “Jewish” books of the New Testament, and echoes with themes and language of the Wisdom literature. Clearly, at this time, Christians were being persecuted by the Gentiles (including the Romans), the Jewish authorities, and sometimes by others within the Christian community.

As to the conflicts within the Church, James observed that many who boastfully claimed to have the authority of truth were motivated by “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Real wisdom and understanding, writes James, manifest themselves through gentleness and peace.

Many of us today find ourselves embroiled in conflict and controversy within our churches.  James doesn’t suggest we resolve that the way the world does, through power and banging a few heads together until people learn how to behave. Rather than the wisdom that comes from the Father, James calls that way of resolving conflict earthly, unspiritual,  and devilish.

James offers a vision of God that suggests a gentle Lord, the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace. Reading James, we might think of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. He outlines the attributes of divine wisdom: first purity, “then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17. That’s the kind of wisdom which might pray “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34.

What would our churches look like if we recognized the willingness to yield as real wisdom?  How would our churches operate differently if we saw gentleness as a quality of Christian leadership?

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The followers of Christ have been called to peace .… And they must not only have peace but also make it.” James suggests that, as Christians, we must not only live in peace; we must create peace. When we decide to live without a trace of hypocrisy, we can no longer preach Christ while engaging in conflict. He calls us to set aside some of our personal righteousness, choosing divine righteousness instead.

If we surrender to God and resist the devil, James tells us, the devil will flee from us.  Our ancient enemy always calls us toward the idea of our own merit, our own righteousness.  In the Book of Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would not die.  Rather, “‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”  Gen. 3:5. In the temptation in the desert, Satan offered Jesus the glory and authority of all the earth’s kingdoms.  Luke 4:6.

James suggests quite a different path:  surrendering to God.  Walking with God in all humility may lead us to a quite different destination than that to which the world points. If we follow it, the world may yet see a sign of hope in the Church, a sign of hope in those who call themselves the friends of God.  And if we draw ourselves closer to the Living God, James tells us that God will draw Himself closer to us.

My Dominican brother Thomas Aquinas instructed us that we were created for just such a purpose: we were made for intimacy with God.  We cannot achieve that kind of intimacy while we are bickering with each other. And we might just discover that a pure love of God leads to an unmixed love of His children.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Evidence of Our Inhumanity

It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard the indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand.
You say, “But that fellow there is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.” So what?  If that poor fellow is putting it on, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty.  Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity.  You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting.
If it were not for necessity compelling him, why should be behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread?
The made-up take of a beggar is evidence of your inhumanity.  His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on.
That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part. But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you.
He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution.  You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.
John Chrysostom, On the First Letter to the Corinthians, 21, 5.

I found this passage in today’s reading from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: a Patristic Breviary.  The passage is taken from St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople who lived from around 347 through 407 A.D. He was a marvelous preacher and public speaker, who was given the nickname chrysostomos, meaning “golden mouthed.” He regularly spoke out against the abuse of authority by both political and church leaders. Because of this, he was arrested, exiled and banished several times.

In today’s reading, St. Chrysostom criticizes our lack of charity, our lack of concern and love for the poor among us.  He characterizes this as “madness.” He teaches that our treatment of the poor, our indifference toward them, reflects an indifference toward God. While our wardrobes are full, we ignore these images of God who are naked and shivering in the cold.

Regarding the suggestion that the poor might be exaggerating their plight, Chrysostom turns that argument back on us.  He suggests that the poor would not do so but for our cold-heartedness.  (We still hear a related version of this suggestion today: that the poor do not merit our help because they are lazy or comfortable and have chosen their life.) St. Chrysostom responds that it’s unlikely that people voluntarily chose to surrender their dignity.  More likely, he says, any exaggeration is simply meant to overcome our natural indifference.

On occasion, I’m at the my church kind of late.  Now and then, someone will come in asking for money.  I have to admit that I sometimes confront a voice in my head that says, “You’re being played for a sucker here.”  But I think St. Chrysostom would remind me that even if that’s true, that’s none of my affair.  That’s between them and God.  The choice before me, rather, is whether I want to overcome that skepticism with charity.  I hope I’m willing to run the risk that, when I die, someone might write in my obituary that I sometimes loved foolishly. I hope you are willing to take that risk too.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Spiritual Danger of Loose Talk

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. James 3:1-12.

In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, Jesus warned us that we are defiled, not by the things we put in our bodies, but by the things that come from within.  Mark 7: 20-23. In the Epistle reading from last week, James cautioned us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. James 1: 19. Today, St. James amplifies on the grave dangers of our speech, especially for preachers and teachers.  We can almost hear the echo of Isaiah, who spoken of himself as lost, “a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips….”  Isaiah 6:5.

St. James uses three powerful metaphors to describe the power our speech possesses.  He compares it to a bridle which can take control of a powerful horse, a rudder which can set the course for a large ship, and a tiny spark that can consume an entire forest.  He calls our tongues “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

James particularly abhors our duplicity. He notes the scandal of using our tongues to praise God and yet curse the children made in His image. In the following chapter, James describes this dangerous deceit as being “two souled” (dipsychos).  James 4:8. Elsewhere, he calls this being “double-minded”. James 1:8. We find examples of this in Christians (perhaps ourselves) who use speech to malign, to gossip, to attack, to humiliate and to condemn. In recent events in the Middle East, we have all seen the consequences of hateful speech, and counted the costs associated with it.

Rather than such duplicity, James calls us into “the word of truth.”  James 1:18. Such words (words of healing, encouragement, forgiveness and reconciliation) call us back from the brink, and back to a sacramental style of living. The Epistle to the Ephesians called this speaking “the truth in love.” Eph. 4:15.

We need to be aware of the toxic power of speech to separate us from God’s children and from the Source of all holiness.  It’s worth noting that, in the Book of Genesis, God spoke the world into creation.  We might wonder what sort of world we are speaking into existence.  Those who follow Christ must immerse themselves in the vocabulary of grace and the grammar blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Our Common Prayer

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the human soul.  We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community of prayer.
It is not safe to pray alone.  Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of community; that public worship is preferable to private worship.  Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other.  To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both….
[The] truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety….Our relationship to [God] is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a devotee of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  One of the most profound thinkers on prayer and spirituality in the last century, perhaps in any century, Heschel always leaves me with a sense of wonder. I took this reading from his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God. He observed that prayer constituted “our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

In this reading, Rabbi Heschel suggests that our spiritual lives depend on our common prayer, and our prayers remain somehow incomplete when we restrict ourselves to private prayer. That good rabbi argues that private prayer and prayer actually depend upon each other.  He calls this a spiritual symbiosis; private prayer and prayer in community need each other for either to be able to thrive.

This offers an answer for both those whose prayer life consists merely of attending church on Sunday morning, and for many (if not most) of those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” (In my experience, many of the latter are those who’ve been wounded or hurt by the Church at some point, and have simply decided that their spirituality is safer in private.)

In the final section, Heschel clearly offers a gloss to Martin Buber’s classic work, I and Thou. Rabbi Heschel suggests that the really important relationship is We and Thou. Most of us belong to many communities of faith. We’re members of churches or parishes, prayer groups, study groups, families, religious orders or just people who gather together for prayer, study and accountability.  Each of these support, enhance, complete and inform our private prayer and our spiritual lives.

In one sense, our collective prayer and our private prayer are like the two levers on a pair of pliers.  Neither of them have a great deal of utility alone; together, they combine to achieve their purpose.

We not only enrich each other; we come to depend upon each other.  And somewhere in that process, we discover that these relationships are icons for the relationship which really sustains us: our relationship with the Living God.

Be blessed today, and be a blessing,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Interpreting the Law

How must we interpret this law of God?  How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”  Listen to Paul:  “The whole law,” he declares, “is summed up in love”; and again: “Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” the law of Christ–does anything other than love more fittingly describe it?  Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother or sister in trouble.

But we are told that this law is manifold.  Why?  Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues.  It begins with two commands, but soon embraces many more.  Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects.  “Love is patient,” he says, “and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.” Moral Reflections on Job by Gregory the Great.

I ran across this passage earlier this week in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. St. Gregory makes a number of powerful observations that help us understand Holy Scripture.  Principally, he enjoins us to read the Torah (the Law) through the lens of love.  Jesus taught that all of the law and all of the prophets hung on the commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Matt. 22:40.

In Jesus’ day (just as in ours), some argued that the scriptures should be read as an exclusionary document.  Thus, many (lepers, those with physical infirmities, women, and outsiders) were excluded from the Temple.  Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What have you done to help them inside?” Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus brought many back within the circle of faith.  The Pharisees used the scriptures as a club to beat people away from the gates of the church.  Jesus, interpreting the scriptures through the template of love, showed us how to welcome God’s children back home.

We see this same tension played out in the book of Job.  Job endures calamity upon catastrophe without blaming God for what’s happened to him.  His three “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) arrive to convince him that God always punishes evil and rewards good, so somehow, Job must’ve sinned. Job’s friends do have a superficial understanding of the scriptures; they just don’t understand much about love, or God for that matter.  (A very good friend of mine observes that Job’s friends did everything right: until they open their mouths.)

Those who follow Christ know that all scripture, the Old Testament and the New, must be read with eyes of love. If we love God and His children, we cannot leave those in need behind.  And once we recognize that love provides the Rosetta Stone by which we interpret all the teachings of Scripture, we find ourselves compelled to love more broadly and more deeply.  We find ourselves breathing in a climate of grace, and we begin to  learn the language of blessing.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Doing the Word

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:17-27.

I have always loved today’s Lectionary reading from James, for a number of reasons. He reminds us that following Jesus requires living into our beliefs, rather than merely accepting certain concepts or propositions. I love good, challenging theology, but that’s not James’ purpose. This is deep, richly practical Christianity.

James begins with the remarkable statement that all our works of love come down from the Father of lights. All of our charity, all of our generosity, all of our love: James tell us these come from heaven. This means, of course, that God constantly works to better this world.

James then cautions the believers to be quick to listen, although slow to speak and slow to anger. As I listen to squabbles within my own denomination, or heaven forbid read the flaming posts that carry on religious debates on the blogosphere, I understand why the Church thought James’ epistle needed to be in the Bible.

James advises us all to stop and think a few moments before we respond with a quick anger and find ourselves regretting patiently. Mother Teresa once made a powerful observation about the genuine function of Christian speech.  She said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

He warns us against fooling ourselves: all our piety, if we can’t bridle our tongues and live into the life of Christ, is nothing more than self-deception. At that time, the most vulnerable members of society were widows and orphans. They lived on the margins of first century Palestine.  James cautions the Church: real religion consists of taking care of God’s children when they can’t take care of themselves and avoiding the stain if sin.  James calls that the “pure religion,”and everything else is just holy smoke.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

To Whom Can We Go?

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:56-69.

The Lectionary brings us now to the final and critical passage from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. To place it in context, Jesus has fed the five thousand, has walked on water, and now tries to teach the crowd about his flesh and blood as the road to eternal life.  That message does not go over so well.

John reports that many in the crowd could not accept this “difficult” teaching. Even some of his disciples muttered and complained.  As we hear about the disciples grumbling about this teaching, we hear the echo of God’s people grumbling about bread in the wilderness during the Exodus.  Jesus knew the crowd found His teaching offensive; his words were scandalous and incendiary, and the crowd began to turn away.

We shouldn’t judge those who turned away too harshly; Jesus’ teachings ran contrary to scripture. Leviticus clearly instructed, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.” Lev. 17:10.  We find the same prohibition in the Book of Genesis:  “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Genesis 9:3-4.

Leviticus reveals the reasons for this prohibition: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. Lev. 17: 14. Moreover, this is one of the “I Am” passages in John’s gospel in which Jesus identifies himself with YHWH (“I am who am”). Thus, the crowd would have struggled with Jesus’ teaching on several levels.

Jesus instructs the crowd to consider the ways of heaven, and turn away from their focus on the ways of this world. He tells them, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Scripture taught them not to eat blood because it contained the essence of life.  Jesus tells us that He wants His very life coursing though our veins, through our lives. His spirit will become our food, the life force animating and running through us.

John tells us that many in the crowd turned away from Jesus, turned back into “the things of the past” (eis ta opiso in the Greek). They returned to a spiritual life that was more traditional comfortable, more comfortable. They returned to a religious life that seemed much more safe.

Now we reach the climax, the fulcrum upon which the entire sixth chapter of John (in which we’ve spent several weeks) turns. Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “Are you going to leave me, too?”  And Peter (stumbling, clumsy Peter) responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter’s answer, in one sense, is heartbreaking:  “Where else are we going to go?”  It’s a question we sometimes ask ourselves as we confront the heartbreaking moments in our lives.

The disciples have come to that remarkable point at which there’s really no turning back for them.  Wherever Jesus is going, no matter how difficult, that’s their path as well. Whatever they’ve found in Jesus is beyond this world, beyond the Temple, and yes, beyond “religion”. They are coloring outside the lines now, because the life of Christ has begun to run through them.

In the past, I’ve written about the tremendous mystery of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.  In this passage, we see the Twelve drawn into perhaps the greatest mystery of all: God’s deep and abiding love for us. I pray that we will all be drawn by the Father into that mystery, until the life of the Holy One flows in and through us.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Thoughts On the Church

We are “peculiar”.   We have chosen not to go with the majority.  We shall pray and reflect on the life of Christ:  most people don’t do this.  We shall worship and receive God’s gifts in His sacraments: most people don’t do this.  We shall be in a minority: we shall be odd. There will be no danger for us in that, as long as we don’t begin actually to like being odd.  We can see there, of course, the danger of wanting to withdraw into the small group of like-minded people, and to build the barricades to keep out those who are not sufficiently odd in our variety of oddness.  That is the way to create sects and divisions, in which each is sure of his own chosenness and pours scorn on that of the others.  In fact, we have to find a balance.  It is our faith that God loves all, and all to Him are welcome.  But there has probably never been a time in history when the majority of people were seriously seeking Him.
–Kate Tristam

I ran across this passage in Celtic Daily Prayer.  The author, Kate Tristam, was one of the first ordained women in the Anglican Church. She was the Deaconess of the Church on the island of Lindisfarne, one of the earliest Christian monastic communities  in the British isles.  (St. Aidan founded the monastery there in about 635 A.D.)

I think this passage contains two terribly important messages for the Church.  First, the Church must, of necessity, seem “odd” to the world.  Our values are not the same as the values of the world.  The Church values prayer, contemplation, and spiritual growth.  The world values power, and wealth, success. The world calls for clarity and certainty ; our faith calls us into mystery. Thus, St. Paul cautioned, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Romans 12:2.

The Church’s message must always remain counter-cultural.  Ever since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (in 380 A.D.), the Church has struggled with the lure of culture. The problem wasn’t that the Empire began to take on the attributes of Christianity; the problem was that the Church began to look a lot like the Empire.

Our church’s must recover their focus on spiritual growth and discipleship, rather than budgets and average Sunday attendance. The world compels us toward comfort; Christianity pushes us toward change.  The world calls us to love those who are good or kind or pretty; Christ calls us to love those who do evil, those who are cruel, and those who are scarred. Thus, C.W. Lewis wrote, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly wouldn’t recommend Christianity.” Conversely, when we’re feeling really very much at ease in our churches, and when our churches are feeling really comfortable with themselves, we need to question just how authentically Christian they are.

The passage then offers us another  admonition.  Amma Tristam cautions us against withdrawing into “small group of like-minded people, and to build the barricades to keep out those who are not sufficiently odd in our variety of oddness.” In other words, she rightly warns us against the schismatic impulse, teaching about the danger of dividing into ever-smaller groups until our churches become echo chambers where the only voice we can hear is our own.

The Church must constantly welcome new voices, new insights, and thus the ancient virtue of hospitality becomes so critical.  We need the constant reminder that our idea of sanctification, of holiness, does not offer the exclusive path to God.  The Spirit works through us, but can work through those who differ from us, too.  Here, we learn the virtues of patience and forbearance.

I welcome this wisdom, and hope you do, too.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Living In Love

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

The New Testament reading from the Lectionary is taken from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Most scholars date this letter between 80 and 100 A.D., as the Church is maturing and struggling to practice a Christian life in community. The writer (perhaps Paul or perhaps one of his disciples) is deeply concerned with the notion of relationships, and the idea that our relationships with each other mirror our relationships with God.

The lesson begins with the notion of truth, of “putting away falsehoods.” Deception inhibits any chance for real love, and dealing with each other honestly provides the foundation for our relationship with God.  The call to the Christian life is more than a call to avoid lying or manipulation; God calls us to live our lives transparently.

Ephesians offers a unique theology behind this call to the truth–not simply that deception makes God angry or will keep us out of heaven.  Rather, Christ calls us into the truth because our lives are intertwined, because we are each other’s limbs. Deception infects the entire body, of which we are a part.  By setting aside falsehood and deception, therefore, we avoid self-mutilation, the destruction of the body of which we are a constituent part.

Ephesians then warns us against anger, and against allowing it to fester. The text cautions us against letting the sun go down on our anger because allowing resentment to build up makes “room for the devil.”  In my family, we used to joke about Irish Alzheimer’s:  that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.  Ephesians cautions us to work out our difficulties with our brothers and sisters quickly, before the infection of rage and resentment begins to spread.

The writer of Ephesians cautions us about our speech, warning us to avoid quarreling and slander.  The language of encouragement should provide the fundamental grammar of Christians. Rather than gossip, criticism or idle speech, we should immerse ourselves in the vocabulary of comfort and inspiration. We must all become wildly proficient in the language of blessing.

Ephesians then directs us:  “be kind to another.” There’s nothing new in this message; Jesus gave the same direction regularly. For the Christian, compassion and forgiveness are the fundamental currency of our economy. Grace must become our lingua franca: the basis of all our relationships. The text calls us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with each other.  We are called into a kind of profligate, extravagant love in Christ.  As the Dalai Lama has said:  “Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”

The Letter to the Ephesians teaches us about the profound correlation between this new relationship the early Church had discovered with Christ and the everyday, concrete relationships in the world.  It teaches that we can never divorce the our spiritual lives from our workaday associations in our families and communities.  Authentic Christian spirituality is never simply ethereal or private: we live it out every single day, with every person we meet and with every word we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Imagining Heaven

The only preparation which multitudes seem to make for heaven is for its judgment bar.  What will they do in its streets?  What have they practised of love?  How like are they to its Lord?  Earth is the rehearsal for heaven.  The eternal beyond is the eternal here.  The street-life, the home-life, the business-life, the city-life in all the varied range of its activity, are an apprenticeship for the city of God.  There is no other apprenticeship for it.

I found this wonderful reflection in today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer.  While our churches do a wonderful job of many things, I think they often neglect a critical aspect of their role: the Church must prepare God’s children for their death.  Our lives here are very short, some far too short, and the Church must not overlook the essential function of bracing people to spend eternity in the presence of the Eternal.

In part, I think the Church has allowed people to carry on with several deeply flawed paradigms.  When we think about our deaths, if we think about them at all, many have a sort of childish view of paradise.  We might imagine an antiseptic place where everyone sits around on clouds, playing harps and admiring our bright, shining white robes.  Or we sometimes picture a sort of Big Rock Candy Mountain, like recess in elementary school with lots of playing and big mounds of ice cream.  While these metaphors are culturally ingrained, we won’t get very far travelling down those roads and they don’t really compel us to do very much.

Part of the reason these images don’t impel us toward conversion is another paradigm we have worked with for so long that it has lost its impact.  Too often, the Church has viewed our lives here on earth as a sort of pass/fail examination. We have tacitly approved an understanding that upon our deaths we will face God’s judgment, and will then be directed to either Door Number One or Door Number Two. By the time we face the examination, however, it’s already too late to do anything about it.

If we have been “good” we will go to heaven, and if we have been “bad” God will consign us to the fiery lake for all time.  The trick, therefore, lies in avoiding the really bad sins, and trying to rack up enough bonus points so that the Lord will (perhaps reluctantly) give us a room in His eternal home.  In certain quarters, the Church has really stressed this vision of the afterlife, particularly focussing on that conduct which will result in our banishment to Hell. This paradigm, of course, rests upon a foundation of fear rather than genuine conversion of our hearts.  (My father used to refer to that sort of faith as a kind of “fire insurance”.)

Now, there’s nothing that’s stunningly wrong with any of these traditional metaphors.  I think, however, we may treat them too simplistically, and may have overlooked the metaphorical nature of this truth.  It’s kind of like an icon, which may offer us a genuine pathway into a spiritual reality.  But when we’ve become too attached to the icon itself rather than the spiritual insight it offers, the icon can become an idol.

The reading today suggests another approach.  Rather than our lives being a kind of mine-field we must avoid to pass the test, the reading suggests that we view this life as a place to learn how to live in heaven.  Today, we are each rehearsing for eternity: we are learning how to love, how to give fearlessly, learning compassion, learning forbearance, and learning how to imitate Christ.

There’s a wonderful old spiritual exercise in which we try to imagine our time with the Father in paradise.  What parts of our lives just don’t seem to fit there?  What attachments or addictions will I have to release for my life in heaven to make sense? Will that bit of gossip I found so interesting in the lunchroom move me closer to God’s presence or further away? That old resentment I held onto, will that stick out like a sore thumb when I’m bathed in the light of God’s presence?

The passage teaches:  “The eternal beyond is the eternal here.”  Jesus put it a little differently, saying “The kingdom of God is within you now.” Luke 17:21.  Both passages reveal a deep, spiritual relationship between how we live today and the reality we’ll encounter in the afterlife.  Mother Teresa noted that relationship when she said, “Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself.  Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”

The Church must again take seriously its role in preparing us for our deaths, and we must take that preparation of ourselves as our sacred and solemn work.  Paraphrasing Billy Graham, our home is in heaven; we’re just travelling through this world to get there.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis