Monday, January 30, 2012

Being There

The teenager sits before me, her pain overwhelming, of loss, of fear. Her father is terminally ill. I have nothing to offer, nothing but compassion, presence, God. Inside I kneel before the burning bush. A soft flame ignites gently, spreads through me to the youth, unstoppable, irresistible, comforting to both of us. We pray.

It’s like that some days, this sense of God, of the divine, organic and real, like water, fire, and wind.

And then there are the other days.

Most interestingly, the days when God feels most present are not necessarily the easiest. The tearing of the veil of heaven can happen so unexpectedly, confronted by the pain of another, the reality that there is nothing to do but reach out for God with the one who suffers, and just be.

On the mountain, God burned for us, exposed, vulnerable, unconsumed. God always burns for us, and in us, if we allow it. And sends us out like Moses to care for the poor, free the slaves, confront the Pharaoh and simply be there for each other.

It’s difficult, this business of being with God. Not because God makes it so. We do. We crowd our days with things, goals, aspirations and fears. But what is most needful sometimes is just to let go. Be there. Be still. Be.

In the weeks and months ahead, the teenager’s father will enter into his passion, what Ronald Rolheiser calls the passivity before death that Jesus endured, that all of us must endure. Even as we live, we die. Even as we die, we live. The father will have to let go of his life and his child. And his child will have to let go of him.

But in that letting go, in that enforced passivity, in that passion of love and of being there that this family will journey through, God will be present, burning for all of them through the moment of death and ever after. And I hope, in some small way, that God will help me be present for them too.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Puzzle Piece to Puzzle Peace

In the summer months, and sometimes over holidays or weekends, I like to keep a puzzle going under the tablecloth on the kitchen table. I’ll wander in during an idle moment and try to fit a few pieces in here and there. When friends drop by, the puzzle is there for them to whittle away at as we chat. I don’t know why I enjoy it, but I do. I’ve got one on the go right now.

But ever try to complete a puzzle only to find the last piece is missing? It’s a frustrating experience, like missing out on the last page of a book or the last five minutes of a movie.

And yet, if you pick up a random puzzle piece, you’ll notice how innocuous it is, just a jumble of colour, without much shape or obvious purpose. It’s difficult to tell where it belongs when superficially so many other puzzle pieces look similar.

This, of course, is us. It can be difficult sometimes, with people we encounter, to always sense their worth. Admit it, honestly. Some people seem incompetent and ineffectual. Some are just mean. Some use us and abuse us. Some want more than their fair share of the puzzle table, squeezing out the smaller pieces. Some are just plain aggravating.

But the lesson of the puzzle is that everyone belongs. A missing piece is a travesty and a disaster. Without every single one of us, the whole picture can never appear.

This is something that Christ recognized. All life is necessary. All creation is good. Each person is unique, a gift from God, an essential part of the whole. This is why we cannot kill. This is why we cannot injure. When we strive to create a world of justice and peace, a picture that would conform to the Kingdom of God, we are forced to remember that this can never be a solitary pursuit.

As I prepare for tomorrow, I remind myself to try to recognize the unique and essential in the people I meet. Every person is necessary. Every person belongs. Every person can help us to see better a tiny corner of God’s all-embracing love.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Happy Birthday Martin Luther King Jr.: Reflection on Justice

Ninety-three years ago today the world received into its arms a child whose life would teach us what it means to live faith and justice to the core. Martin Luther King Jr. learned from a Hindu (Gandhi), worked with a gay man (Bayard Rustin), and prayed and protested with people of every color, gender and religious affiliation.
There is much to learn from King, but two things hit me especially today as I reflected on what he brought to this world.

The first is the importance of struggling with our faith in order to promote justice and peace in the world. From the time he was a teenager, King found he could not accept unquestioningly the teachings of his Church. Charity and worship simply were not enough if Jesus really was who He said He was. Charity and worship are essential, but they are also the easy, self-fulfilling parts of Christianity. Justice is much, much harder.

To King, Christian faith required wrestling with the challenging biblical call to work for the kingdom now, a place where human dignity does not depend on a handout. As he said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” (Beyond Vietnam).

Christians by and large are comfortable with charity. Justice, on the other hand, is awkward. On a communal and global level, justice calls us to root out poverty and exclusion. It requires us to criticize systems that keep the poor in poverty and the rich in wealth. On a personal level, justice requires admitting that, just as Christ taught us, we don’t get to judge others no matter how tightly we hold our own beliefs. It involves accepting others for who they are. Justice asks us to seek out the oppressed and downtrodden and act in solidarity with them.

King believed that church had to be more than just a closed place where those who follow the rules belong, and those who don’t, or who belong to other faiths, wait outside, unheard and unwelcome. That was where blacks waited for most things in the USA of the 1950s, and King knew how wrong exclusion was. The Hindu, the Jew, the Catholic, all of these and more were not subjects for conversion for King. They were partners in dialogue in learning about God and pursuing peace on earth.

The second important lesson King offers me today is the reminder that the people in power in his day did not thank him for his trouble. He was imprisoned and eventually shot for pursuing social justice and civil rights, and speaking truth to power. He got in trouble with Church leadership for his friendship with Rustin, and his phone line was wiretapped by the US government (because then as in now if you speak about social equality and justice you must be a communist).

King teaches that true faith compels us to promote justice. This may mean becoming involved in non-violent public activism, even though we know from King’s example (not to mention Jesus’) that it will cost us. We will certainly get ridiculed. We could lose our jobs. We might even be jailed. We will lose some friends. But justice laced with faith, hope and love, as lived by Martin Luther King Jr., is no less than what Jesus calls us toward.

King lived the beatitudes. He pursued Matthew 25. He called for transformation and commitment from his companions, to create a world of peace, justice and acceptance. He called on Christianity to be more than a loosy-goosy, feel good, personal salvation, rule-following, unthinking, here’s-a- handout, support-group-social-club for the in-crowd. He called it to be what Jesus meant it to be. And that is a birthday well worth celebrating.