Help Our Unbelief!

Of all the Gospel stories, none illustrates the poignant chasm between one’s professed and operative theologies better than this Sunday’s account of the raising of Lazarus.

I have been intrigued by those technical terms since grad school.  Professed Theology: that which we say we believe–what we even believe we believe.  And Operative Theology: that which–when push comes to shove–it turns out we actually believe.

Martha, in today’s Gospel, articulates a magnificent professed theology.  Confronting Jesus after the death of her brother, she boldly proclaims, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  Amen, sister; preach!

But as soon as they get to the tomb, she changes her tune.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus instructs.  And Martha protests, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days!”

So which is it, sister?  Do you really believe that God will give Jesus whatever he asks?  Or is the inside of that tomb the last thing you want to see . . . or smell?

There’s nothing like a little genuine distress to bring our operative theology zooming to the surface.  That truth is summed up even more succinctly by the father of a possessed boy in Mark’s Gospel (9:14-29) who cries out “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

Which honestly is okay.

People of faith are supposed to be lifelong learners.  We are taught things, and we memorize things, and we repeat things, and often there is no need to examine whether or not we really believe these things–until there is.  The awful beauty of being backed into a theological corner is that we might need to confront what we really believe for the very first time.  (Hence my trouble with the phrase everything happens for a reason!)

But the good news–for Martha today, for the possessed boy’s father another day, and for us every day–is that God doesn’t need our faith in order to work wonders.  Jesus rolled away the stone despite Martha’s apparent disbelief.  He healed the possessed boy despite his father’s acknowledged disbelief.  And God moves in our lives, no matter how far apart our professed and operative theologies may be.

We do believe, Lord.  Help our unbelief!



Walking Out of the Desert

Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.  -Luke 4:1

We only hear about the 40th day.

What happened during the other 39?

Jesus was propelled out into the desert after his baptism, after he heard those life-changing words: You are my beloved son.  Did it take him that long, perhaps, to figure out what it meant to be God’s son, and what on earth he should do next?

And this “devil” – more appropriately translated “opponent” or “obstructor” – what exactly was he trying to oppose and obstruct?  And how?

I believe that, during those 40 days, Jesus wrestled with his understanding of his mission – not just the “why” and the “what” but especially the “how” of his public ministry.  Opposed and obstructed at every step.

And since the good is often the enemy of the best, I suspect that the great obstructor suggested all sorts of tangential issues to care about, alternate strategies to pursue.  Maybe Jesus needed those 40 days (the Biblical number for “a really long time”) to clear his head of all that rubbish, to be calm and focused and purposeful, to learn exactly how to direct his energy.

Here’s how I picture that final day:

It’s over.

Plans and possibilities have been considered and rejected.  Powers, perhaps, have been explored, and reliance on them restricted.  Hungry, weary, yet resolute, Jesus begins to trudge back towards civilization, leaning on his staff.

He is really hungry.

The stones at his feet shimmer in the heat; squint your eyes and they look like bread.

Then that damn voice again.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  If?  If?  Always if!  The Spirit had said so; hadn’t he heard it?  Hadn’t everyone?  He’d just spent 40 days growing into that identity.  Why was the “if” back?  If you are the Son of God … and not some delusional freak!

Turning the stone to bread; would that silence the “if” for good?  The walk back was so long, and he was so hungry.  This was so hard.  What harm would it do?  Who would know?  What was the use of being God’s son, if you couldn’t feed yourself when you were hungry?

As he leans on his staff, he realizes that hunger and weariness are feeding him insecurity and taking him to the brink of unraveling all the resolutions he made when he was feeling stronger.  Mental note – fatigue and hunger are dangerous.  The strongest resolutions can start to slip away under their siege. He must steel himself against such lapses in logic; he cannot use his “magic powers” for his own comfort or convenience.  (And though he does not know it yet, If he can’t resist making bread when he is hungry, how will he resist the jeers of the crowd telling him to come down off that cross … baiting him with that word “if” again?)

More importantly, he can’t cave to the urge to prove himself for the sake of his pride.  That can’t end well.

Once the first temptation is resisted, the subsequent ones get easier. (Probably a good lesson for the rest of us.)  Though they do have their own specific appeal.

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.   The devil said to him … all this shall be yours, if you worship me.  (Luke 4:5-7)

Now that is tempting.  All the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.  Just think of all the places he will never visit in his lifetime.  All the places it will take his followers years … decades … even centuries to reach, and how much his message could be warped in transmission!

And yet the devil here has overreached, showed his hand.  He doesn’t have the power.  The kingdoms are not his to give.  Easy to resist.

So the obstructor takes a step back.  Returns to what almost worked the first time.  If you are the Son of God … throw yourself down (from the parapet of the temple).   For he will command his angels to guard you … (Luke 4:9-10).

Again, there is a certain draw.  It would get people’s attention, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t have to struggle against their disbelief in the “carpenter’s son.” Wouldn’t have to take the hard road.  (Might not even wind up on the cross.)

But no.

The devil’s lures are getting tiresome.

This is not the way, and he knows it.  He walks on, feeling stronger, resolute. And so the devil retreats, waiting for Jesus’ defenses to go down again.

To do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason. That’s the challenge that was laid before Jesus, and that lies before each of us every day.

Is Christ Divided?

On the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration I cantored for the vigil Mass at my parish, where I was struck by the second reading (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17).   In it we learn that St. Paul is scandalized by rumors of rivalries that have sprung up in the early Christian community.  He hears that people are saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  Outraged, he asks, Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?

We shake our heads.  Silly Corinthians.  Yet the urge to separate and define ourselves by allegiances is persistent and–especially in today’s political climate–downright poisonous.

Remember when Catholics identified most with a particular religious congregation?  As children we were taught by Mercies or Macs or Joes, and if we went on to college we were formed by Jesuits or Augustinians or Christian Brothers (or Mercies or Macs or Joes).  Those charisms do run deep, but they don’t have the sharp edge of rivalry that Paul alludes to (at least not off the basketball court).  Instead it’s more like the beginning of a good-natured insider joke.  A Franciscan, a Benedictine and a Jesuit are talking about what they do with the Sunday collection . . .

But oy, this election season.

I feel blessed to be a member of St. Vincent DePaul parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, a church proud to be known as “the social justice parish.” We are a diverse and vibrant community.  At Sunday Mass our General Intercessions (written by a small cadre of parishioners) regularly feature prayers for immigrants, prisoners, and LGBT families.  We have a variety of social outreach ministries.  We are about to bless and display a Black Lives Matter banner in front of the church.  It feels as though we have been of one mind this season, and of one heart, and that heart may be broken, but at least we are together.

Some friends in other churches are not so lucky.  One walked out of her parish in late October, perhaps for good, when the pastor told congregants they would be putting their immortal souls in jeopardy if they voted a certain way in the presidential election.  Some walked out with her.  Yet others gave that same pastor a round of applause at the end of his homily.  Fast forward a few months to January 20; some parishioners probably cried when Obama’s helicopter took off, while others cheered.  They are a divided congregation filled with divided families in a divided nation.   And they are the norm these days.

Two days after the Inauguration I attended a Quaker meeting, where everyone who spoke had participated in one of the women’s marches on Saturday.  One man’s words drove home what had been nagging at me since the Corinthians reading.  He said, “In the course of my life I have seen so much suffering and cruelty inflicted on people and nations because of beliefs.”

We don’t belong to people these days (Paul, Apollos, Cephas or even Bernie, Hillary, or Donald), as much as to convictions and worldviews.  So if we are to learn a lesson from that reading from Corinthians, I think we have to ask ourselves what allegiances St. Paul would be shaking his fist at us for, given the chance.  How might he rewrite that bit of the Epistle now?  As tempting as it is to point the finger at those on the other side of the ecclesial aisle, today let me consider the plank in my own eye.  When I say, “I belong to the social justice parish” or “I belong to a welcoming and inclusive community” or “I belong to a parish where people are passionate about the liturgy” or “I belong to a church with a Black Lives Matter banner out front,” what am I really saying?   Is my attachment to those ways of being Catholic more important to me than the faith itself?

Is Christ divided?

It’s a mess.

I am nowhere near over being baffled by and harboring unkind thoughts toward people who believe differently than I do about our new president.  But I want to hold onto this:  we are each tending the light that we believe has been entrusted to us.  We each bring our raw, wounded, caring, imperfect selves up the aisle each week.  And I can only take responsibility for what I bring to the table.  So, in this moment of national turmoil, I want to try to bring equal measures of humility and charity.  When I get all self-righteous about my brand of Catholicism and all judgy about someone else’s, I’m bringing neither.

“On those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” Isaiah proclaimed in this weekend’s first reading (9:1b).  High time, I say.  Enough with this gloom!

But until that great day comes, maybe it’s enough that we try not to add to the darkness.