Tag Archives: Love

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

No Hands But Ours

“God aids the valiant…both to you and to me He will give the help needed.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

Not all that long ago, I went through a very dispiriting week.  Three of my friends had been struggling with cancer.  The husband of my oldest friend in the world was being treated for bladder cancer at M.D. Anderson.  Another very close friend had just been diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.  That same week, my cousin was treated for the fourth reoccurrence of thyroid cancer.

Each of them had endured that ghastly, medieval horror we so unhelpfully call a “treatment”: chemotherapy.  Two had adopted children and taken them into their homes.  One of them is a single parent.  One of them had no insurance, so I had a little skin in the health care debate and I was terrified about what this might mean for my friend and the family.

I’m not sure why, but way too often the people I love and terminal illness have intersected.  All of that provides the backdrop for the week I was telling you about.  That Thursday morning I got a call that a friend of mine, a law school classmate with whom I played lots of golf and lots of 42 (a poor man’s bridge played with dominos), had been killed while riding his bicycle with his 17-year-old son.  The son had gotten winded and stopped to rest, while Larry rode ahead.  A few moments later, his son rode up on the scene of the accident where his father lay dying.  My friend Larry was struck by a car driven by a 22-year-old girl, and we’re not sure why she veered out of her lane of traffic.  Then on that Friday morning, I got another early morning phone call.  Another law school classmate of mine lost his 27-year-old son in a bizarre accident.

I reached a couple of thoughts about the gut wrenching kaleidoscope of these events.  The first of these is that I may be a bit of a Jonah, and would understand perfectly if folks were to scootch away or avert their eyes when they see me walking toward them.  Second, I think being a friend, being a Christian, is a contact sport.

As Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”  Nothing in this world is harder, or more essential to the Christian life, than being present while someone you love suffers and bearing witness to their pain with them.  I think that’s part of the power of the image of Mary at the Cross, watching and aching as her son gave up his life.  Seeing these events unfold around me, I’m reminded of something the Tin Man said in the Wizard of Oz: “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”

Third, when I heard about my friend Larry’s accident, I actually found the strength, through God’s grace alone and no achievement of mine, to immediately say a prayer for the young woman who had struck him.  I have no idea how this accident will change her life or the life of her family, but I know she needs God’s presence through this.  And somehow, I felt better myself after praying for her.

A couple of years ago, I was asked if I was involved in pastoral care at the church, and I answered that no, I was not.  While my answer was honest, I’m not sure that it was accurate.  I think all of us are called upon, regardless of what we consider to be our ministry, to be the hands and face of Christ from time to time.  Maybe these events were just some sort of coincidence.  Or maybe, as Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

I think that what might pass in the secular world for caring and compassion is, for us Christians, a statement of our faith.  It is our way of cursing the darkness with which this world confronts us, and speaking to the love of Christ and the promise of Easter.  As the chaplain of Austin College recently observed, “Easter is not about denial, it’s about defiance.” Our caring for one another speaks to the power of love to overshadow pain.

Depending on the circumstance, as I have confronted these events, I may not have even mentioned Jesus or faith or prayer.  I tend to follow St. Francis’ advice in these circumstances, that we should preach the gospel in all times and in all places, but only use the words when necessary.  I hope that I won’t hear Jesus telling me someday that I did it wrong, that he won’t recognize me because I didn’t recognize him in this context.  I know that it is only through my faith that I can stand to watch people I love suffer, and that I can go on living without making sense of these events.  I’ve begun to believe that, for those of us who follow Jesus, the work of bearing witness to the love of God through moments of pain may be the real cost of taking up the cross.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Cup of Poison

The first monks who tried to live under Benedict’s direction hated his regimen, so much so they plotted to kill their abbot. They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict. Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom. According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict’s biographer), when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered, and the wine spilled to the floor.

Benedict, Gregory wrote, “perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death,” called his monks together, said he forgave them, reminded them that he doubted from the beginning whether he was a suitable abbot for them, and concluded, “Go your ways, and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you.”

                                                                                                                Christianity Today

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in about 480, as the Roman Empire began to crumble.  The son of a Roman nobleman, he left his home and his studies around the age of 20.  He established about a dozen monastic houses, but is most widely known for founding Monte Cassino, an abbey which to this day remains the mother house of the Benedictine Order.  Benedict died around 547, according to legend while standing in prayer to God.

Benedict is sometimes considered the founder of western monasticism.  The effects of the monastic movement, including the Benedictines, has been enormous. Largely as a result of their patience and painstaking labors, the Holy Scriptures were preserved through the Dark Ages.  They contributed greatly to science, literacy, and culture at a time when all of these were threatened.

As I reflect upon the story above, it seems to me to have a deeper meaning than first appears.  There’s nothing unusual about those of us in the religious life experiencing profound frustration, and even anger, with our brothers and sisters.  (I’m glad to report, however,  that I’m unaware of any conspiracy to poison my Prior or any of the leaders of my Order.)  According to legend, as Benedict made the sign of the Cross over the poisoned cup, it shattered.  It seems to me that the Cross has a remarkable way of breaking through anger and resentment, and that may be the point of this story.

Benedict’s response to that poison cup offers us another insight.  He forgave the brother’s responsible.  He teaches us something terribly important:  having been saved by the Cross, we cannot withhold from others the same forgiveness Christ displayed on the Cross.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis