Horizons: Are we afraid?
(POSTED: 9/17/12) Dr. James Loder was teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. On a free day, he, his wife, Arlene and their two daughters were driving near Kingston, New York. They noticed that an elderly woman was on the side of the road with a flat tire. Loder pulled over to help the woman change her tire. As he was working on the woman’s car, another car whose driver had fallen asleep crashed into the car Dr. Loder was fixing, and shoved it on top of his chest. He was pinned beneath a 3,000 pound Oldsmobile, which rested on his chest. His wife Arlene, a petite woman, approached the car resting on her husband. She said several times: “By the power of Jesus Christ… By the power of Jesus Christ… By the power of Jesus Christ…” She then picked up the car off of her husband’s chest and he shuffled from under it. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he required immediate surgery. As he was being wheeled into surgery, he invited the surgical staff to join him as he sang a few lines of the hymn, Fairest Lord Jesus. Loder recovered from his injuries.
Dr. Loder shared that story in his book The Transforming Moment. In recent decades, there has been much research into the developmental stages of both faith and morality. While Loder would say there is truth in the stage theory, he is much more of the opinion that faith grows and deepens through transforming moments like he had on that roadside. He wrote that in human experience, we often find ourselves in crises, conflicts, or difficult/dark void experiences. In such moments, the imagination searches for help and meaning. For many people, the imagination eventually jumps to God or a higher power who provides help, healing, and strength to endure the apparently impossible or to do the apparently impossible. That is what happened to his wife, Arlene; and that is what happened to him. In such transforming moments, as the imagination jumps to God, faith, which before the transforming moment might have been tepid or intellectual, becomes conviction. Loder describes faith as convictional knowing: we become convinced of God’s presence, activity, and providential love in our lives. I invite us to reflect on transforming moments in our lives that have become convictional knowing.
The great theologian, Paul Tillich, described faith and growth in faith in a similar way. He explained that often when we talk about conversion, we emphasize metanoia or our minds and hearts turning toward God. Tillich felt that before we ever turn to God, we have been grasped by God; and this occurs through human experiences. Having been grasped by God, we then turn to God. Tillich used the story of St. Paul’s conversion, and the awakening of the two people on the road to Emmaus in these terms.
Another theologian Richard Niebuhr had similar thoughts, and shared them in his study Experiential Religion. He said, speaking metaphorically, that life often gives us the experience of shipwreck. Life’s mysteries toss us into the cold chaotic waters of living. We feel we are drowning, going underwater, dying. Yet amid this chaos, there is another experience, the experience of being washed ashore by a power greater than the self. Notice Niebuhr does not speak of swimming ashore. No — the experience of deepening conversion is that of being washed ashore. Finding oneself onshore, a person is filled with gladness and amazement that he or she not only still is, but has been transformed. Maturing faith is learning to trust the process, for it surely will happen again and again.
Martin Luther spoke of faith in two categories: theoretical faith and fiduciary faith. Theoretical faith is intellectual: it articulates the doctrine or creed we have come to believe in. On the other hand, fiduciary faith is radical trust in God’s love and power. With fiduciary faith, we literally throw ourselves into God, surrendering into God, and becoming ever more reliant on God’s mercy, grace, and love. Luther felt that only God can save us.
The kind of faith that I have been describing so far is found in the first reading from Isaiah, and in the gospel from the eighth chapter of Mark. In the Isaiah passage, we are in the second section of Isaiah, known as the Book of Consolation, addressed to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. This passage is one of four Servant Songs that are found in Deutero Isaiah. This Servant Song is from chapter 50, verses 4 to 9. The three others are chapter 42:1 to 7; chapter 49:1 to 7; and 52:13 – 53:12. It is not clear who the Suffering Servant is in these passages. Some say the author is speaking about himself; others say he is speaking about the whole Jewish people, who were suffering in exile. What is common to all four of the songs is convictional faith. The person speaking is not asking the question “why?” regarding pain and suffering. The pain and suffering of life are accepted. The author is saying despite any pain, he believes that God is with us in the pain of being human, helping us, defending us, and leading us to new life. He writes: “The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear, and I have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord God is my help… I shall not be put to shame. He is near… The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?” Through transforming moments, the author’s imagination jumped to conviction.
Jesus manifests convictional knowing and faith in a recent gospel. The first chapters of Mark’s Gospel build up to the crescendo we find in chapter 8. Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter responds: “You are the Christ!” But then Jesus clarifies what being Christ will involve: great suffering, rejection, being killed – but then rising after three days. Jesus was convinced that God would validate him in his mission. Jesus concluded: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
Some years ago I heard Sr. Joan Chittister give a talk on faith. She distinguished three kinds of faith: relational faith, that is a relationship with God; intellectual faith, or that which we intellectually believe in; and performative faith, or putting our faith into actions of love, mercy, and justice. This is what the second reading from the Letter of St. James is about. The author says: “… Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead… Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”
A theme that runs through this reflection, is that often faith and growth in faith involve pain, struggle, and suffering. I believe that this is often true. Certainly the experience of joy and ecstasy can also lead us to God, but often it is struggle that reminds us we are not God, and we are in need of God.
Dr. James Loder, in his teaching and writing, says that convictional faith and knowing demand verification. Anyone can claim to be convictional, but the convictions can be delusional or connected with mental illness. Verification simply means we need other people that we can go to, and share with them how we have experienced God. In a sense, we say to each other: “I think I have met God on the journey of my life.” Other people affirm us in our conviction and experience. For many of us who are Catholic, this takes place in the community of faith and liturgy.
Let us continue to be secure in the experience of being lovingly grasped by a power greater than ourselves.
Be Strong; Fear not!
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, an influential progressive thinker and writer in the Roman Catholic Church, died on August 31, 2012. He was 85. He had been Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Milan for 22 years before he retired in 2002. In the later years of Pope John Paul II’s tenure, Cardinal Martini was frequently mentioned as the possible next pope. In 2005, at the conclave after the pope’s death, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen, becoming Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Martini expressed an openness to a married priesthood as well as to the ordination of women as deacons. He felt that human sexuality and all matters of the body, including the right to die and not use extraordinary means when there is no hope, should be discussed more. On a regular basis, he attracted young people to the Church for a series of forums in which believers, atheists, and agnostics met to discuss matters of shared concern. He felt that the Catholic Church had to be in deeper dialogue with the Jewish faith, since Christianity flowed from Judaism.
On August 8, 2012, the Cardinal gave a final interview which has become a final testimony to who he was as a religious leader. He described the Church in Europe and in America as tired and out of date. He said that Catholic rituals and vestments had become pompous, that the Church was emphasizing too much bureaucracy. He said that the Church is like burning embers lying beneath masses of ashes. The ashes have to be cleaned off, so that the embers can be fanned into flames. He said that Church leadership needs to find people around the world like the Good Samaritan, the Roman centurion, John the Baptist, St. Paul, and Mary Magdalene to provide the Church with passionate leadership. He said that to heal the Church’s fatigue, the Church needs to make a commitment to three realities: ongoing conversion and life change toward the Reign of God, beginning with the Pope, cardinals, and bishops; a greater commitment to praying, studying, and living the Scriptural Word of God; and more effective celebration of sacraments, not as a way of disciplining people, but rather to help heal people.
He closed the article with these words: “The Church is 200 years behind. Why is it not being stirred? Are we afraid? Afraid, instead of courageous? Faith is the Church’s foundation — faith, confidence, courage.”
The question that stays with me from Cardinal Martini’s interview is: “Are we afraid?” Is the Church afraid of necessary changes that must come? Let us look at the issue of fear beyond the context of Church. Fear is a painful reality that many of us deal with. Fear usually has a target: we know what we are afraid of. Sometimes fear is diffuse: we do not know exactly why we are afraid. This is what anxiety is. Sometimes fear is prolonged and begins to negatively impact us physically: fear can become stress; we can live stressful lives. A new study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimates that Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects 6 percent of the national population. In this disorder, the brain does not know how to shut down fear and worry. Through cognitive and behavioral therapy, people with this disorder need to practice calming themselves, an activity similar to exercising and building up a muscle.
In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah we hear: “Thus says the Lord: say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not…. Here is your God… He comes to save you… The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared… The lame will leap….Then you will sing… Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe… The burning sand will become pools, the thirsty ground, springs of water.” This beautiful passage reminds me that one very important therapeutic response to fear and anxiety is practicing faith and practicing the presence of God with us. No matter what the fearful circumstance, we are never alone. The Holy Spirit of God is always with us. The reference to God wanting to save us in Isaiah means at least in part God wants to heal us. If we let go into this loving, saving presence or Spirit, our perception will be changed: we will begin to see life, perceive life, communicate, and behave in new, healthier ways. Attending to God in the midst of our fears gives us power, strength, peace, and calm.
Some years ago, I wrote a book entitled Spirituality for an Anxious Age. I was doing graduate studies in psychology at the time, so the book contained a lot of research into anxiety and its causes. But the book contained a great deal of wisdom that I had gained in dealing with anxiety in my own life, and having to seek help for it. A basic thing that I learned was the importance of listening to myself each day, to get in touch with my thoughts and feelings. I began to listen especially to anxiety related feelings and thoughts. I began to understand that my vision or approach to life had been an anxious, worried one since the time I was a child. Taking time to get in touch with oneself, is now called mindfulness, by the Positive Psychology movement. The feelings and thoughts that I listened to and named became a big part of what I shared with God in prayer. I became aware of Twelve-Step Spirituality and its emphasis on developing a personal, unique spiritual program that placed me in daily conscious contact with God. I began to live out of a mantra: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit; into your hands, I hand over my life.” Those are words that Jesus prayed as he died on the cross, expressing total trust in Abba’s love for him, despite the awful circumstances of his life. Jesus was actually praying Psalm 31, as he died. For years now that mantra has brought me great peace, confidence, and courage despite my fearful nature.
In a recent reading, from the Letter of James, we are reminded that our God is constantly reversing our expectations. Those who are poor in the eyes of many are rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom. I never thought that anxiety would be my primary path to God; but it has been. In the poverty of my emotions, I have discovered a rich faith and the Reign of God. For this I am most grateful.
In a recent gospel from the seventh chapter of Mark, we are told that Jesus very deliberately traveled through non-Jewish, Gentile territory. Though Jesus valued the temple and the synagogue, he did not spend all of his time in these two sacred spaces. He very much ministered out of a sense of mission: he was sent to and for all people – especially the broken, sick, and sinful. He spent time with and touched people whom others would judge to be unclean, thus rendering other people unclean. In this week’s gospel story, people brought a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus. We are told that Jesus took the man off by himself, put his finger into the man’s ears, and spitting, touched his tongue. We are told that Jesus looked up to heaven and groaned. He was praying with great compassion for the afflicted man. In two other passages, Mark 8 and John 9, we are told that Jesus used his saliva for a kind of anointing that led to healing. Some scholars have said that the anointing at Baptism is rooted in these gestures of Jesus, suggesting that Baptism into Jesus changes, heals, and liberates us. Jesus said to the man, “Ephphatha!” or “Be opened!” The man was suddenly able to speak and hear.
Wherever we are closed with fear, worry, or stress Jesus says to us today, “Be opened!” Jesus is still walking through Gentile territories looking for imperfect, flawed, weak, rejected people who are in need of his healing. Let us not carry any burdens alone; let us carry them with the help of Jesus.
Something that we experience re-currently in the gospel of Mark is what is called The Messianic Secret. After a miracle, Jesus told his followers not to tell other people about the miracle. It seems that he was concerned that people would develop erroneous views as to the nature of the Messiah. It also seems that he had a growing consciousness that what it meant to be the Messiah would only be fully revealed and understood through the mystery of his cross and resurrection. It would be in those moments that the glory of God would be fully experienced in Jesus.
I gave a morning of reflection for a parish staff recently. The pastor asked me to engage the staff on mega-trends in Church and society. I presented the research and thinking of two authors to begin the morning. I first mentioned Father Gerald Arbuckle, who wrote the book Refounding the Church. Arbuckle maintains that if an organization is going to flourish and continue to help people, it must engage in a process of refounding for the present and the future. Refounding involves going back to the founder of the movement to recapture his or her original vision and mission. Having retrieved that essence of the founder’s intentionality, the organization then needs to re-imagine and re-strategize for a new age and contemporary people. Obviously, Arbuckle challenges the Church to engage in this refounding work. He warns that there is a tendency within organizations, including the Church. This tendency is restorationism.
Refounding is messy, chaotic. It involves the death of some realities, so that people can move on to new life. Refounding necessitates grief and mourning. Refounding is difficult. Rather than refound, some people choose restorationism. Restorationism is a nostalgia for the way an organization used to be. It is an attempt to go back, not to the founder, but rather a previous stage and time that was characterized by comfort and stability. While restorationism can appear to be correct and noble, it actually blocks the rebirth or refounding of the organization. Specifically, Gerald Arbuckle warned about these dynamics in his book. His challenge is that the Church always needs to be in a process of re-founding; but he feels too often we fall into a pattern of restorationism. He feels that this is happening in the Church now, as some Catholics seek to re-create the church in a pre-Vatican II style.
I spoke at this morning of reflection also about the liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. Boff, in his speaking and writing, makes a distinction between the traditional and the traditionalistic. The traditional refers to the very fonts of our faith – the way the early Christian movement was in the first centuries of Christianity. The traditionalistic, on the other hand, is similar to what Arbuckle means when he speaks of restorationism. It refers to a way of being and doing Church that is time bound, trying to replicate a style of Church that was comfortable and pleasing to some people, but quite far from the vision and praxis of our founder, Jesus. The traditionalistic emphasizes hierarchy, the institutional dimension of the Church, pomp and circumstance. Arbuckle and Boff warn us that restorationism and a return to the traditionalistic can lead us away from what Jesus intended, when he called us to help with the emergence of the Reign of God.
I mention these two authors because what they talk about is quite similar to what Jesus confronted in the story we hear from the seventh chapter of Mark. There were 613 laws in the Jewish Torah, or the Pentateuch. These 613 laws came to be known simply as “the Law.” The Pharisees, a lay movement within Judaism, very much emphasized a strict adherence to the law. In this particular passage, it seems that the Pharisees were trying to demand that purification rites to be observed by priests were to be practiced by all Jewish people. The Pharisees and some scribes challenged Jesus as to why his followers were not practicing such purification rites. Jesus responded strongly, calling them hypocrites – preoccupied with time bound, human precepts and customs, while missing listening for and keeping God’s commandment. He criticized them, quoting Isaiah, saying that they are people who honor God with their lips while their hearts are far from God. Rather than being preoccupied with laws and rituals, Jesus taught that people ought to be focused on the purification of their hearts. In this passage the heart represents the deepest, most interior dimension of a human being. Like Arbuckle and Boff, Jesus warned about the dangers of religion.
These readings can be very confusing, for in the first reading from Deuteronomy, we are given a completely different approach to Jewish law. What does Deuteronomy mean? It refers to a second proclamation of the law. The law was first proclaimed by God, through Moses, on Mount Sinai. The Jewish people would go through periods when they would completely disregard the law. Deuteronomy was probably written in the seventh century before Christ. This second book of the law was found in the temple as it was being restored by King Josiah. It was given to Josiah who attempted to persuade the Jewish people to embrace the law anew. Josiah died before his reform could take place. Thus, Deuteronomy was written centuries after the time of Moses. But its content is placed in story form at the time of Moses, calling people to embrace the law. Moses called the people to observe the law. The law was a sign of the closeness that God had toward his people. Possessing God’s law was a sign of the uniqueness of Israel among all the other nations. The book of Deuteronomy repeats, explains, and completes the law as it was given at Sinai. There are four elements that are key in the spirituality of Deuteronomy: the people are God’s people; God is their Creator and parent; they are to observe the law; and they will be blessed with the Promised Land.
So the first reading is saying that the law is a good thing. But when we get to the ministry of Jesus, and the writings of St. Paul we are taught that this emphasis on the law became distorted. It became a kind of religious ideology that actually blocked closeness and intimacy with God, and alienated people from each other as they sat in judgment of one another concerning how they were observing the law. St. Paul taught that the law had a place, a role in the evolution of God’s plan. It was instructive concerning how to be a good person. But the time came when people no longer needed that kind of instruction. Both Jesus and Paul taught that the law has been replaced by Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. If we want to be good people, living God’s way, we need to take our instruction from and be imitators of Jesus.
The second reading from the letter of James summarizes well the themes of this week’s Scripture. It is not clear who the writer of this letter really was. It seems he was a leader in the early church who took on the name James to compose this letter. His intention was to teach the followers of Jesus that they are not to just have a “head faith,” that is pious, intellectual, and theoretical. Rather faith ought to be action oriented. James speaks that message to us also. We are to welcome God’s word into our hearts, but then to be doers of the word and not just hearers. If we fail to do God’s word, we are deluding ourselves regarding the quality of our faith and spirituality. Faith ought to lead to mercy and justice – “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction.”
God’s word calls us to be cautious that we are not caught up in the delusions of empty religion. We are called to a heartfelt faith and spirituality that leads us to become not just hearers of the word, but also doers. Let us work to always refound the church, and break through the traditionalistic to rediscover and live the truly traditional.
Food for the Journey
A new national survey of 1,029 people, ages 18 to 29, reports that 60 percent of those polled say “… that adulthood will be more enjoyable than my life is now.” Obviously those polled are reporting that despite their chronological age, they do not yet feel as if they are adults. The survey is part of an ongoing study of what has been called “emerging adulthood.” 56 percent of those polled say that they often feel anxious. 33 percent often feel depressed. 65 percent say that this time of their lives is full of uncertainty. 52 percent have daily or almost daily contact with parents. 34 percent say “…My parents are more involved in my life than I really want them to be.” The study revealed that young people are putting together their careers at later ages than previous young adults did. They also are delaying marriage and parenthood more than their predecessors.
Young adults are going through what all adults, children and teens, experience many times throughout a lifetime: transition. The journey of life is characterized by multiple transition processes and experiences. I have written about William Bridges’ work on transition before. Bridges says that people in transition experience painful endings. They go on to a surprisingly more painful process, the neutral zone. In the neutral zone people do not have a good sense of where they are going or what is happening to them. It is an extremely painful experience. However in this uncomfortable period, there are multiple opportunities for creativity, experimentation, and growth in wisdom. Often in the midst of the neutral zone, a new beginning has already begun to emerge. However often people are in too much painful struggle to notice the new beginning. Young adults are in transition. People in midlife are in transition. Seniors are in transition. Besides aging, transition can be experienced relative to work, health, relationships, and many other human realities.
Bridges has written that a powerful example of transition is the journey of the Israelite people out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. After passing through the Red Sea – an ending, the people experienced a long wandering in the desert, a long painful neutral zone. Bridges says that Moses is an archetypal example of a good leader for people in transition. In Exodus 16, we get a glimpse of the Israelites’ transition. They had become so tired and hungry on the journey they began to grumble against Moses and Aaron. They really were grumbling against God. They went so far as to say they would prefer being back in Egypt than continuing on this confusing, apparently endless journey. Note – it was in the neutral zone that the people initially entered into covenant with God and received the commandments. The Israelites were growing in the neutral zone, though they did not know or understand. Their official new beginning would not come until years later. Moses died before the new beginning. It was Joshua who led the people Into the Promised Land, as recorded in the Book of Joshua. So on a psychological level, we get a glimpse of people in transition.
However, the Exodus passage offers more than just a psychological picture. There is a beautiful spiritual message in the story. God heard the grumblings and cries of the people. He knew their pain, and he came to their aid. He provided the Israelites with quail and a unique kind of bread, manna, to help with their hunger, and to give them strength. When we are in times of transition it is important to keep in mind that we are not walking alone; rather God is always with us, caring for us, leading us on, as a community and as individuals. In many different ways, as we journey through transition, God wants to give us “bread from heaven.”
The reading is obviously connected to the sixth chapter of John. Recently we heard the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. We reflected on how Jesus satisfies some of the deepest hungers and thirsts involved in being human. That story line continues now. God blesses all of us with unique bread from heaven for our transitions, and life journey – Jesus. Jesus is referred to as the Bread of Life in two different ways. In this week’s passage, in verse 35, Jesus tells us: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” The people speaking with Jesus were obsessively concerned with what they must do to accomplish the works of God. Jesus tried to change the conversation. He communicated that religious doing was not as important as belief in him, coming to him. The primary step in the spiritual journey is coming to Jesus in a personal and communal relationship.
Jesus refers to himself as the Bread of Life a second time in verse 51. In that verse, the central verb is not to come, but to eat. Jesus said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” In the second reference, Jesus is referring to his real presence in the holy meal of the Eucharist.
In John’s spirituality, there are two important movements: we are come to Jesus, the Bread of Life. Only after this has happened can we meaningfully eat the Bread of Life, in the Eucharist. This passage critiques what I have called “the Catholic problem.” Down through history, whether it is the Eucharist or anyone of the other sacraments, we have had people doing sacraments without first coming to Jesus in conversion. We have sacramentalized without evangelization and conversion. That is why for so many people sacraments have not been life changing experiences. Without evangelization and conversion preceding them, sacraments have become empty rituals. Relative to the Eucharist, we should come to the Bread of Life, and then eat the Bread that promises us eternal life.
How do we come to Jesus? I do not think it is a one-time event. Rather it is a lifelong process of trying to be intentional about our relationship with Jesus Christ. As with other relationships, so also with Jesus, without deliberate attention to a relationship with Jesus, the relationship can get away from us. We come to Jesus through lives of prayer. There is a banner outside of my office at Mayslake which has a quotation from The Awakening Call, by James Finley. Finley wrote: “… the inner journey has to do with being in love with God… One’s whole life… depends on being faithful to God in prayer.” We come to Jesus through prayerful use and reading of the sacred Scriptures. Coming to Jesus involves discipline. That discipline is beautifully spoken of in the second reading from the Ephesians, chapter 4. The Pauline writer encourages us to learn Christ. He reminds us that truth is in Jesus. We are to put away the old self and put on a new self, created in God’s way. We are to hear about Jesus and be taught about Jesus.
In all the endings, neutral zones, new beginnings, transitions, and grumblings that we experience as we journey through life, we have a wonderful food for the journey of life: a relationship with Jesus. Let his words be etched into our minds and hearts: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
The Rev. Pat Brennan, a longtime priest, has earned doctorates in pastoral ministry and psychology, and teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola and at the College of DuPage. He is the author of 15 books and co-host of the radio program Horizons for 31 years, now on 560 AM at 6:30 a.m. and 1160 AM at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.