Monday, October 29, 2018

Guns, thoughts and prayer

In a reflection on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. John Chrysostom described the custom of the early church: “The gift of prayer used to come into one person in the church, and he would be the person set aside to ask God for the things which would benefit them all.” What should we pray for?  Every week this is on my mind, as I either write or help edit the universal prayers. There are always far more needs than what we can say aloud, which is perhaps the most difficult part of this ministry: to deliberately set out to hear where the world is crying out for God, and then have to set some of these needs to the side, to be caught up in the closing prayer but nonetheless left unsaid.

There has been a shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Cue "thoughts and prayers." Prayer, we keep using that word. I do not think it means what we think it means. As someone who writes regularly about prayer, every time I see this phrase in my Twitter feed or hear it uttered by a politician on the news, I wonder what we all think we’re praying for. Are we offering to make some generic noise in the direction of God’s ear and then move on?  Or do we have something specific in mind that we expect God to come down and take care of.  Perhaps a miracle that restores the lives lost or some divine assurance something this horrific will never happen again — or at least not happen to us.

What are we praying for?  In the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia, says, "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless…It doesn't change God — it changes me.” Are we willing to pray fiercely, even desperately, to be changed?

Remington claims its version of an AR-15 rifle will give you “the confidence and firepower to get the job done.” Are we willing to pray to change the conversation, to dispense with euphemisms and say aloud what the job of a gun is: “This AR-15 will allow you to kill or maim another human being. Many human beings. Quickly.”

Are we willing to think that we can change — that we could imagine ways to reduce if not eliminate the carnage, as other countries have done? Or should we be praying for forgiveness from the families of the classroom’s worth of children who will be shot to death in the next week because we don’t dare to dream that change is possible.

Can we pray for the vision to see how guns change us?  To grasp that we might secretly relish holding the power of life and death in our hands, to consider we sometimes buy guns because they make us feel a little like gods ourselves, or if if not gods, at least like a superhero.  Or a patriot.

We say now is not the time in the wake of a tragedy to think about the solutions, that we should focus on thoughts and prayers for the dead, the dying and those who loved them. But what are the prayers for, if not to change things, above all ourselves? We must go beyond issuing vague petitions in the wake of a tragedy, and instead offer ongoing, concrete prayers for our own change of heart and for the hard, realistic thinking and respectful dialog it will take to change a nation.

Perhaps the next time our president and congressional leaders are offering their thoughts and prayers in the wake of a mass shooting, they might take the lead and say what those prayers and thoughts are. That would be a miracle worth praying for.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Wheeling about

I went to California to see my dad, who's ill and for the moment in a care facility bridging the gap between hospital care and home. Wheelchairs were part of the landscape this trip.  Dotting the hallways, parked in corners, tucked between the curtains in the room. Occupied and not.  I felt tall in this community, where nearly everyone is in bed, or in a wheelchair, some so bent I could not see their faces.

The first night I left my dad's room, but it was late and various doors had been closed and lights turned out. I got turned around in the dark (this would a theme of this trip!) and couldn't find the exit. I walked past a man who seemed to be dozing in a wheelchair parked in the corner.  Suddenly he called out in a loud voice, something I couldn't figure out.  Had he mistaken me for someone else, or this place for somewhere else?  I turned to be sure he didn't need anything, and he looked up and me and repeated firmly, "¡Para alla!" My jet lagged brain flipped a switch into Spanish.  Directions to the exit. He then gave me careful and correct directions, in Spanish, to the main exit.

I came in on Sunday to find a family in one of the corridor alcoves, the elderly mother in a wheelchair, her daughter leaning forward to say, "Mom, you can choose to be happy." Her mother took a breath and replied, "I am sad." I wanted to cry for them both.

And then there was the elderly man in the wheelchair at the end of the offramp for Highway 101 in Salinas. Struggling to hold up a sign, though the inscription was illegible, I had no trouble reading it. Help me. There was no place to pull over and help. Huge trucks came rumbling off that ramp, heading for the coast.  Would they sideswipe him? Who do you call? I had no idea.

My temporary and relative vantage point left me feeling not powerful, but powerless. Reeling from seeing through so many eyes, Christ dancing in ten thousand places, scarred in limb, yet lovely...

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

Monday, October 15, 2018

All who hunger

Interior of Mission San Miguel
On Friday I drove the 163 miles from San Jose Airport to my dad's house outside San Miguel.  The road is achingly familiar, Math Man and I drove it so many time when we were out here on sabbatical 20 years ago. I go past the stand of eucalyptus trees near Gilroy that meant we were finally free of the Bay Area traffic. The old train siding north of Gonzalez, now collapsing. The prison in Soledad, lit up on the night drives and the signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers in that area.  And Salinas, the half way point where we would stop on Sunday drives back up to the Bay Area — the two kids asleep in the back of the car — and get a chocolate milkshake to share.

I stopped at "our" In-N-Out Burger in Salinas on the way down and ate outside on the concrete tables, drinking in the sun that has been so scarce in Philly for the last weeks.  Inside were couples and families and CalTrans workers and EMTs.  Outside, it was me and the homeless guys with their black garbage bags by their sides.  I'd seen them walking along the farm access roads next to 101, backs bent, garbage bags over their shoulders, dust puffing beneath their feet. I was touched by the number of people who  stopped by the tables to ask these guys if they needed anything, if they needed a meal. No one was going hungry in this moment, which warmed me more than the sun.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Hard teachings

I read a column this week in a local Catholic paper about the need for the Church to return to the Gospel - but that then focussed entirely on issues of human sexuality, something that I argue is not the moral core of the Gospel.  These teachings should be "black and white," no nuance, says the author. But the moral core of the Gospel is direct, it is black and white, it's just not focussed solely on these issues: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind. And your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you do for another in need, you do unto me. 

The author notes that young people feel that the Church has nothing to offer them, and that if only we offered clarity they would come. I think they might, but I think the clarity they desire is focussed outward, onto what we have been missioned to do. Who are we to be for the world? How can we do the hard work of loving our neighbor in a culture that considers human dignity to be a luxury?  These questions take us far beyond the issues of human sexuality.

The Sunday readings might seem as if they lend themselves to black and white and "hard teachings," but in a reflection for Give Us This Day a few years ago I wondered if we had missed the hardest teaching of all.  That perhaps God's interest in marriage and fidelity and human love isn't primarily about individual needs and wants or marriage and divorce law, but is pushing for something far deeper. Something that applies to all of us, married or not, divorced or not.  It makes me wonder if young people sense our superficiality when we focus only on the "black and white."

I wrote this:
“Are you trying to tell me that my husband is dead?” I asked the surgeon. “Yes.” In that harrowing moment of my first marriage’s dissolution, I  finally grasped in my bones the reality of these words:  they are no longer two but one flesh. Half of me had been torn off, and what remained was pouring out onto the floor in a pool of tears. 
It is tempting to hear these readings from Genesis and Mark as mere marriage instruction, demanding husbands and wives to cleave to each other no matter the cost. I see in them instead potent images of what it feels like to be one body, not just in marriage but as the People of God: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my  flesh. We proclaim in the Communion Antiphon for this Sunday that we are one body (1 Cor 10:17). But do we feel in our bones that we are one flesh, mingled with Christ in our communion, as the water and wine mingle in the cup we share? One. Inseparable. 
These readings point us to realities beyond marriage, challenging us to deepen our  fidelity to one another and to Christ as members of his One Body.  This indeed is a hard teaching for all of us, not just those struggling with marriage. Are we torn open by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters? Do we weep for each other as we would weep for a beloved spouse? We are no longer two, but one flesh. One Body. Inseparable. Christ.