Tag Archives: Salvation

Exit Wounds

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”  2 Samuel 11:1-15.

The story of David and Bathsheba offers us an insight into our nature and the abuse of power.  Moreover, it offers us an insight into the nature of sin and the things that separate us from the Living God.  It illustrates a theory I have about the nature of sin.

I think many of us find, as David found, that sin operates much like an exit wound in the forensic sciences.  Often, when one is shot with a firearm, the exit wounds are much larger than the entrance wounds.  That happens because as the round moves through the body of the victim it slows down and explodes within the tissue and surrounding muscle.  I think sin works much the same way.

The story begins with David remaining behind while his armies are at war.  He sees a beautiful woman, which leads to lust and envy, which this leads to an adulterous encounter, which leads to rape, which leads to an embarrassing pregnancy, which leads to deception and ultimately to the intent to have Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband) killed.  So, that one glance off from the rooftop spiralled out of control, tearing through the spiritual lives of three people and ultimately, a kingdom.

I think we miss the point if we simply conclude “David was a really bad guy” or “Look what a pickle he got himself into.” I don’t think sin operates any differently in your life, or mine, that it did in David’s.  Yes, David exploited and abused his power.  Yes, I have, too.  While we might for a moment get a chuckle at what a damn fool David was, it will fade quickly when we take a look at some of the foolish things we’ve done ourselves.

While we may not intend the consequences, or even foresee them, we can pretty much rest assured that sin will leave a much larger hole going out than it did on the way in. And although we’d like to think that the guilty, and only the guilty will suffer the consequences, we know that’s just not true.  In the story of David, as in many of our own stories, lots of innocent people get hurt, get their hearts broken, and are destroyed.

On occasion, Scripture doesn’t leave us any room for pretense, doesn’t leave us any room for the little self-justifying illusions to which we become so accustomed.  Sometimes, as in today’s Old Testament reading Scripture gives us a box of darkness.  It takes a good long while, sometimes a lifetime, to recognize that this, too, is a gift.

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

Building a House

When David, the king, was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.”

But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.  2 Samuel 7:1-14a.

Today’s Lectionary reading from the Old Testament provides us with a pivotal and grace-filled passage.  David has bested the Philistines, conquered Jerusalem, and established his royal court. Having overcome his enemies, David seems posed to work on his legacy.  He seeks to consolidate political power and religious authority in this new capital city. To further that goal, David wants to raise a temple, and within its Holy of Holies, to create a repository for the ark of the covenant.  He wants to ensure the availability of God and divine power in the midst of the people of Israel.

David turns for approval to the prophet Nathan, who initially agrees that this would be a grand idea.  (Nathan does so, however, without consulting the Almighty.)  That night, however, Nathan receives “the word of the Lord”:  God doesn’t think much of this idea.  Since the beginning of time, God has accompanied his people freely, without being subjected to a location of human choosing.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that she will see Aslan again.  When she asks when, Mr. Tummus replies:  “In time.  One day he’ll be here and the next he won’t.  But you must not press him.  After all, he’s not a tame lion.”  Like Lucy, David would discover that God would not be domesticated.  Perhaps we, and our churches, should remember that lesson.

God’s refusal to be contained, however, does not suggest that He is abandoning David (nor us).  Rather, the Lord notes, “I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.”  I wonder if we can hear God saying that to us today?

Rather than David erecting a house for the Lord, God promises that He will build a house for David.  From David’s offspring, the Lord will raise up a kingdom.  And speaking of this offspring, God offers David a rich abundance of good news:  “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”  We Christians read this to speak of the one we call Savior, and boldly claim that we are His body.  While David was concerned with architecture, God was concerned with His people and raising up their Redeemer.  Holiness cannot and will not be contained; despite our efforts, we cannot tame the Spirit.

I think the message remains the same for us today.  Despite our reductionist impulses, God will not fit into the benign structures we create.  The more important question, is will we make room for God among His people?  Will we structure our lives so as to accommodate God’s immense capacity to create and recreate?  I pray we will.  And I also pray we may have the wisdom to recognize that God’s “No” usually contains a hidden blessing beyond our imagination.  We call that “grace.”

Shabbat Shalom,

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

Loving Everyone

Do all you can to love everyone.  If you are not yet able to, at the very least don’t hate anyone.  Yet you won’t even manage this if you have not reached detachment from the things of this world.
You must love everyone with all your soul, hoping, however, only in God and honouring him with all your heart.
Christ’s friends are not loved by all, they sincerely love all.  The friends of this world are not loved by all, but neither do they love all.
 Christ’s friends persevere in their love right to the end.  The friends of this world persevere only so long as they do not find themselves in disagreement over worldly matters….
 This is the Love about which it is written:  “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” [I Cor. 13:2]
Whoever has love has God, because God is love.  [1 John 4:16].

                                       –Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity

I found this wonderful bit of wisdom in the reading for today in Thomas Spidlik’s book, Drinking From the Hidden Fountain.  I have previously written about Maximus the Confessor (see here), and won’t repeat that discussion in this post. I have, however, always found Maximus to be a source of great wisdom.

Perhaps no part of the Christian life challenges us more than Jesus’ injunction that we are to love all of God’s children.  This means loving the clerk in the grocery store who really perturbs me, the fellow in the gym who seems so full of himself, and the horrible gossip at Church.  It means loving the people who’ve wounded me, even those who remain unrepentant.

The Christian life demands that we love without regard to the question of who deserves our affection, without regard to their kindness, without regard to their history, and without regard to their merit.  That’s no small part of what underlies the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and it certainly  provides the foundation for Jesus’ teaching:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matt. 5:43-46.

Those of us who follow Jesus walk down a difficult path, especially the road of loving our enemies.  Too often, I hear people make the Faith sound easier than it is.  Following Christ is hard; it is as hard as the nails on the Cross.  St. Maximus urges us take the discipline of the Christian life seriously.  I need to hear his voice more often.

I wish you a safe and happy holiday, and may the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

So That She May Be Made Well, and Live

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.  Mark 5:21-43.

In today’s Gospel, Mark offers two portrayals of Jesus as a healer.  The first concerns the story of a man named Jairus whose daughter is dying.  Mark describes Jairus as a leader of the synogogue, which also reveals that some Jewish authorities looked up to and relied on Jesus.  While Jesus is on the way to help Jairus’ little girl, something remarkable happens.

Mark breaks into the story of Jairus and his daughter with an interlude, a story about a woman with a blood disorder.  This woman approaches Jesus, a woman who who had “suffered” and “endured” a lot.  Her disease had isolated her, hurt her, and left her penniless.  And yet, she believes that merely touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak will make her well.  She is cured, and moreover, Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well.

By the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the mourner’s announce that He has come to late and the child has already died.  Jesus counsels Jairus, “Do not fear, but trust.”  Jesus tells them that the child is not dead, but merely sleeping.  Jesus takes the little girl by her hand and tells her to get up, and she rises and begins to walk.

At the time of these events, Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old.  The woman had suffered from her hemoraging for twelve years.  These two are linked together, as the life flows out of them.  We might certainly read these stories in the light of the people of Israel (the twelve tribes).  One is a daughter of a man of honor and prestige, the other an “unclean” woman lost in her desperation.  Both the woman with the blood disorder and the little girl who had died are impure; by touching them, Jesus will share in this impurity.  And yet, through the touch of this unique Rabbi, both will find new life.

I think we miss the point of this narrative if we merely read it as a story about how Jesus was really good at conquering disease and even death.  I don’t think the message of the Incarnation was to simply to show us that God could work miracles.  Rather, God became man to show us how deeply he loved us and how he wanted to heal the wounds that separated us from Him.

Both Jairus and the woman with the blood disorder ask “to be made well” (sozo in the Greek).  This implies not just a curing them from their physical ailments, but also making them whole, restoring them, saving them.  Both Jairus’ daughter and the hemoraging woman were made well.  But Jesus offered them more than simply restoration of their health; He offered them life.

I don’t think these two stories are simply about Jesus’ remarkable power, or even about miracles.  Jesus didn’t come to show us how powerful He was; He came to show us how much God loved us.  He came to teach us about the extraordinary power of faith, and about the limitless compassion of the Living God.  And if we will reach out to touch His Son, we also will be made well, and live.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Laboring in the Soul’s Vineyard

All rational creatures have their own vineyard, their souls, their wills being the laborers appointed to work in them with freedom of choice, and in time, that is, for as long as they live.  Once this time is past they can work no more, whether well or ill, but while they live they can work at their vineyards in which I had placed them.  And these laborers in the soul have been given a strength no devil or any other creature can take from them unless they choose; for their baptism made them strong and equipped them with a knife of love and virtue and hatred of sin.

                              St. Catherine of Siena, from the Dialogue of Divine Providence

I found this wonderful little reflection in Fr. Robert Wright’s work, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.  It’s particularly meaningful for me because Saint Catherine of Sienna was also a member of the Dominican Order.  She lived from 1347 until 1380, is one of the two patron saints of Italy, and has been named a Doctor of the Church.

Although a mystic, she was also a theologian and a Scholastic philosopher.  She lived during the time when the black death ravaged Europe.  Her parents had 25 children, although only about half of them survived to adulthood.  She worked very hard to bring unity and peace to the Roman Catholic Church, deeply loved the poor, and both befriended and occasionally chided Popes and clergy.  The Dialogue of Divine Providence treats the whole of our spiritual lives as a series of colloquies between the Father and the human soul.

In this profound passage, St. Catherine compares the soul to a vineyard.  We might immediately think of Jesus’ description of us as branches of a vine.  See John 15:5.  We might also think of the parable of the vineyard workers set out in Matt. 20:1-6.  With regard to this vineyard of the soul, Catherine observes that we have been given a specific time within which to complete our work.  Once our time is past, she observes, we “can work no more”.  St. Catherine reminds us that our time is relatively short, and that we must be about our spiritual work while we can.

To accomplish this work, our Father has provided us with powerful tools: the sacraments (and baptism in particular).  Catherine compares them to a knife (such as one might use to prune a vine), but this is no ordinary blade.  God has provided us with a “knife of love and virtue and hatred of sin.”  With these, the Almighty has equipped us to work in the soul’s vineyard.  Important work awaits you and me, and The Lord has given us tools that neither the devil nor anyone else can take away from us without our consent.  For the work of the soul, we have everything we need.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis