A New Dimension

Lenten Reflection for 29 March 2019

A young university student told me he has dropped out of the church, because Christians are “self-righteous hypocrites.” I told him I understand his concern but also suggested that he do some reading and reflection not about the church but about Jesus of Nazareth. Church can come later….

First of all, Jesus, the man from Nazareth, was a human being who truly lived at a particular time and in a particular place. The man was not a myth. He remains – for me and for all people inside and outside the church — an historic figure from whom enormous energy flows.

The New Testament epistles and gospels point to Jesus’ life that was truly lived in history, but it was not a collection of historic details about his physical life which really mattered to the biblical writers. It was what Jesus meant and what it was that they believed they had experienced in and through him. Paul, writing before the gospels were written, expressed it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. See everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5: 17).

Jesus brought a new dimension. The Christian Scriptures were written to invite us into the Jesus experience of new life: a new humanity, one not bound by death and one that reaches toward transcendence, because he revealed authentic humanity and genuine divinity. And it is there that we best think deeply about the mystery of God, the mystery of life, the mystery of love, and the mystery of being.

Jesus was not a tribal chief. The spiritually short-sighted always miss this. Jesus invites us to break out of our religious and political tribalism…..The more people sink into tribal attitudes, the more their lives are consumed with hatred and the less human they become. Trust in Jesus brings the empowerment to step into a new consciousness that calls us to break out of old prejudices and stereotypes…

To the Galatians, Paul wrote that for people inside the Christ experience all tribal barriers melted away. In Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” i.e. neither Jew nor Gentile (3: 28).

In this new dimension, Jesus was taught wholeness. He saw humanity from a new perspective. He believed that the humanity in one person could touch the humanity in another and empower that other to step out of old and narrow tribal security systems, with their fears and defining prejudices, behind which people search for an illusive security.

The call of Jesus is for all times: always contemporary. So real and pressing today, when so many people around the globe are becoming infected by toxic tribalism and its fear-promoting group/mob mentality.

We have the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, rising antisemitism across Europe and the United States, and more than a thousand hate groups now active in the USA, most of which espouse some form of white supremacist ideology and a very distorted Christian religion. Tribes demand loyalty, and in return they confer the security of belonging. Toxic tribalism sets in motion a process of degeneration. People with this mindset become angry, bitter, and resentful towards everything and everyone outside of their tribe. Toxic tribal people try to protect themselves, their culture, and their religion by creating rules to specify who is in and who is out. Extreme polarization. The other becomes not just different but evil.

Toxic tribalism is particularly strong in contemporary politics, which threatens to become a perpetual tribal war, in which the ends justify almost any means. Individual citizens are encouraged to ignore the constraints of normal decency. People who, for example, would never tolerate cruelty or lying or even ordinary impoliteness cheer every expression of it in their tribal political leaders.

And of course I could wrote a book about toxic tribalism in the church. The clerical old boys club that uses and abuses and denigrates women. The toxic tribalism of church authorities who, to protect their tribe, abandon their morals and forfeit the safety of vulnerable children and obedient religious women —sisters — by covering up, ignoring, or denying extensive evidence of sexual abuse by priests and bishops.

Belonging is a crucial human need, but it can descend into dangerous tribalism. We continually need the witness of critical observers and prophetic speakers.

In his ministry Jesus moved from exclusive tribalism to the inclusive Reign of God. This is the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan….Who is my neighbor?

The ministry of Jesus was the embodiment of a compassionate love that broke down cultural, ethnic, gender, and religious barriers.

People today have crucial choices to make. Will they live together in harmony, with civility, respect, and empathy? Or choose to live in perpetual animosity and conflict?

May we live in and promote the new dimension in the spirit of Jesus.

An important update from my friend Earlene about “A Franciscan Blessing.”

This blessing has been a favorite of mine since it was first published in a Catholic periodical before the World Wide Web existed. Years later I saw it on the web as “A Franciscan Blessing.” This blessing was written and delivered by Benedictine Sister Ruth Fox of Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton ND about 32 years ago at a Dickinson State University graduation. After some searching, I located Sr. Ruth and was able to contact her. She verified that she did indeed write it. Every time I find it described as Franciscan, I contact the site to request a correction. Sr. Ruth and I are still in touch.

Where Will We End Up?

March 22, 2019

Toward the end of his book SAPIENS, the historian Yuval Noah Harari observes: “To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.”

I was thinking about Harari’s observation this week, following the attacks on Muslims in New Zealand and growing reports of extreme and hardened polarization around the world. Each side is fighting to maintain its identity in a world of change and upheaval. Last Sunday’s destructive Yellow Vest rampage along the Champs Elysees in Paris is another prime example. People wanting to assert their own identity at the expense of — or total destruction of — the OTHER.

History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.

I begin this week’s reflection with a somewhat comical experience, related to contemporary identity issues…..

A couple days ago at my local Belgian grocery store, I was in the check-out lane and a young lady in front of me, probably a student from India, hadn’t weighed the vegetables she wanted to buy. The young fellow at the cash register was polite and told her, in Dutch, she had to weigh the vegetables first. She said in English she didn’t understand what he was saying. In the check-out lane right behind me, a very annoyed lady said to me in Dutch “Just what we need! Another foreigner!” I chuckled and said in Dutch (with my inescapable American accent) “It is a question of perspective. In someone’s eyes, we are all foreigners, even you.” She moved to another check-out lane. Ironically, as fate would have it, when I got to the parking lot I saw her again. Our cars were parked adjacent to each other..

Well, today I have ten brief observations and then a concluding prayer:

(1) If our societies continue on the path of extreme polarization, in which there is no tolerance for the other, we will slip into chaos.

(2) In times of chaos, people surrender to authoritarian rulers. One does not have to think, just follow directives, and without questioning. Let the big boss take control. George Orwell’s Big Brother. Today we see an alarming resurgence of political and religious authoritarianism.

(3) Authoritarian regimes is springing up all around the world, supported and manipulated by people like Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn, in Hungary; President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Turkey; Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro; Brazil’s far-right authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro; and yes his authoritarian good friend in Washington DC.

(4) Authoritarian rulers stress the importance of a national identity, anchored in rigidly extreme and powerful nationalism. Such nationalism is a red flag, because it mirrors Nazism and the other extreme forms nationalism seen in the first half of the twentieth century.

(5) I suggest, however, there is also a good, healthy form of national identity – I prefer to call it patriotism — that accepts the diversity of peoples within a country; that is not exclusive; and is not aggressive. (That by the way, I would say, is what really makes America great.)

(6) This healthy patriotic identity stresses that: we are a democratic community, with shared ideals and political values; and, as a community, we need to work together to support them. We need to integrate people, rather than polarize and divide them according to race, ethnicity, and religion.

(7) Of course Christianity can make a contribution here.

(8) Years ago I was attracted to Jesus of Nazareth because he was strong and courageous and he gave people healing and hope. I was a very religious young man. In high school and college my classmates called “Pious Dick.”

(9) As he grew in his understanding of faith, religion and the world around him, Pious Dick became critical of organized religion and he discovered as well that Jesus was critical of hardened and self-righteous religion.

(10) Religions have many faces. Throughout Christian history, we have had great and heroic men and women. We also have a rogues gallery of men and women who proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and Savior but then contradicted, in the name of their religion, everything Jesus taught and lived. They could talk the Jesus talk but in fact they were cruel, warlike, greedy, racist, and selfish. They could not walk and live as Jesus walked and lived.

To conclude….History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.

My concluding prayer is called “A Franciscan Blessing.” I rediscovered a few days ago thanks to a Facebook post from a good friend, who went to high school with Pious Dick…..

May God bless you with discomfort,

At easy answers, half-truths,

And superficial relationships

So that you may live

Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger

At injustice, oppression,

And exploitation of people,

So that you may work for

Justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,

To shed for those who suffer pain,

Rejection, hunger and war,

So that you may reach out your hand

To comfort them and

To turn their pain to joy

And may God bless you

With enough foolishness

To believe that you can

Make a difference in the world,

So that you can do

What others claim cannot be done

To bring justice and kindness

To all our children and the poor.


Jesus’ Followers Back Then

March 15, 2019

These days, trying to maintain a youthful outlook as I contemplate my upcoming seventy-sixth birthday, I am gathering information about the Post-Millennials, also called Generation Z or Gen Z. They are the demographic cohort after the Millennials, and the Pew Research Center puts their birth years between 1997 and 2012. They make up about 25% of the current U.S. population. This means they are a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers or Millennials.

The Post-Millennials make me optimistic. They have lower teen pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and higher on-time high school graduation rates when compared with the Millennials. I see them as thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young men and women. They really want to create a climate conscious and more humane society.

When I told a friend last week that the Post-Millennials give me hope for the future of Christianity, he replied, with a bit of friendly sarcasm, “I guess they can tweet for Jesus and chat about him on Twitter and Facebook; but Our Blessed Lord at least had the wisdom to pick wise, older men to be his closest disciples.”

I have never doubted Jesus’ wisdom. I suggest however that my friend’s understanding of early Jesus discipleship is too narrow and sexist.

First of all the Scriptures clearly indicate that men AND women were disciples. Jewish women disciples, including Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). The whole point of the account in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary is that Mary indeed is also a disciple and shouldn’t be just relegated to the kitchen, because she is a woman. Even stronger evidence for women disciples comes from the accounts of who first witnessed the empty tomb and testified that Jesus had been raised from the dead. All four gospels report that women were the first disciples to find the tomb of Jesus empty. According to Mark and Luke, the first announcement of Jesus’ being raised from the dead was made to women. According to Mark and John, Jesus appeared first (in Mark 16:9 and John 20:14) to Mary the Magdalene.

When we look at the Christian Scriptures about who were considered early Christian apostles, several women are indicated as well as men. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of people and specifically mentions Priscilla and her husband Aquila. They are mentioned six times as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. Others are Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. There was Phoebe, a leader from the Christian community at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. And of course we have Junia, whom Paul praises as a prominent apostle.

Jesus’ disciples were hardly just a bunch of OLDER men. In fact, contemporary scholarship suggests that Jesus’ disciples may have all been under 20 years old, with some as young as 15. Again, in the days of Jesus a young man, aged 15, was done with his basic training in the Torah. A young fellow who was bright enough, or whose parents were wealthy enough, could find a rabbi to take him on as a student. One had to show proficiency. Many advanced young Jewish students, back then, had large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory. The Apostle Paul’s case may have been like this: a bright Jewish student from Tarsus, who was sent by his wealthy parents to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabbi Gamaliel.

If a Jewish son was unable or did not want to do this, he would enter the workforce by his mid-teens; and in almost every case, he would apprentice under his father in the family trade. Perhaps many of Jesus’ male disciples were apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John, working in the family fishing business. They must have been at least older than 15 but not yet 20. By age 20 most Jewish males were married and on their own.

The age factors! One very remarkable thing scholars tell us about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she would almost certainly have been 12 to 14 years old when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We know this because the common custom at that time was for girls to marry early, at that age. The Bible never gives Mary’s age when she got pregnant or gave birth to Jesus, and that is because when something happened that was common in the culture, nothing was said about it.

The questions! Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 record the people of Nazareth saying of Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The traditional Catholic interpretation has been that the Scriptures here are talking either about Jesus’ cousins or children of Jesus’ father from a previous marriage. These are creative imaginative interpretations, because official Catholic teaching has maintained that Jesus’ mother was always a virgin “before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.” (Here I suggest some Catholic dogmaticians and hierarchs need remedial biology.)

Back to the Post-Millennials….If they knew what contemporary scholarship says about the early followers of Jesus – his disciples – I think many of our contemporary Post-Millennials would find that exciting and inviting. I mean today’s young people, estranged from religion, but who self-identify as being compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young women and men.

About Mary and about Jesus’ extended family perhaps we should simply say: (1) The New Testament writers really didn’t leave a clear picture of what first-century Christians thought about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus or if they had any details at all. (2) Perhaps all one can say for sure is that Jesus’ family tree looks just as complicated as those of many modern families.

– Jack

PS A man who was a friend and very supportive of me over many years died yesterday: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. He was a wonderful man, perhaps not perfect, which he realized. But I must say a very good friend. RIP

A Question of Perspective

March 8, 2019

Reflection for the First Week of Lent

We are busy people. Multitaskers. On our cellphones, iPads, and computers. Always connected it seems. After office hours and on week ends and even on holidays. The need to be connected. Our attention always drawn somewhere.

More and more people are connected 24/7. Yet, too often disconnected from what is really important? A young professor, one of my former students, said it well in an email. “I am very busy; but I often think I am not really connected to reality. I keep waiting for the big moment when I can relax and say now my life makes sense.”

I was thinking last week about the old play that, some years ago, had a big impact on me and my reflections about theology and life: Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot.” Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. When he doesn’t arrive, they get a rope and even contemplate suicide. But then decide to wait yet another day. And on it goes. When the play ends, Godot has still not arrived.

There are many interpretations of what Becket was trying to say, but my interpretation, back then, was that it was about people waiting for their experience of God. I guess I was as well…..back then….but my perspective changed and my vision of reality changed. I began to understand that we have the real and the Real.

I came to realize that one cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally IN the presence of God. What’s absent so often is awareness. It’s a matter of perspective. For busy people it is a contemporary problem. In a post last week, fellow blogger Joris Heise expressed it very well: too many people today have “spiritual glaucoma.”

It is a problem of vision and awareness; and part of that problem is that organized religion is often too concerned about itself and too often skims over the surface of human realities. It tends to prefer and protect either the comfortable status quo or the supposedly wonderful past. What we now see in numerous sexual abuse reports about high-placed religious leaders is that their religion, too often, simply preserved their own power and privilege.

God is deeper than religion. Good religion, however, reveals the Sacred with depth and awareness.

There are certain basic questions that all human beings must come to terms with if they are to take their life experiences seriously: looking and seeing with greater depth and awareness. Questions such as life, death, the meaning of human existence, and the place of God in that existence.

I read last week that toward the end of his career Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said that he was not aware of a single one of his patients in the second half of their lives whose problem could not have been solved by contact with the “numinous” or the Absolute Center. The “numinous” for Jung, who was estranged from organized religion, meant the presence of Divinity, of the Holy, of the Sacred.

We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Contemplation.

Unfortunately, the contemplative mind, over the last five hundred years, has been put on the sidelines. We have become pragmatic and productive. With the “Enlightenment” Western Christianity almost abandoned contemplation in favor of its own form of “rational” thought: we ended up confusing information with enlightenment and confusing thinking with experiencing. People settled for quick and easy doctrinal answers instead of deep perception, which they left to poets, artists, musicians, and philosophers. Yet depth and breadth of perception should have been and should always be the primary focus for all authentic religion. How else could one possibly find God?

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American Trappist monk, mystic, and social activist, felt, toward the end and of his life, that even monastic life had lost the contemplative mindset. He observed that monks just “said prayers.” Frankly, I would suggest that without the contemplative mind — honest and humble perception — religion risks becoming a dangerous enterprise. It does happen.

There are many forms of contemplation such as a reflective walk in stillness without your cellphone, quiet meditation, keeping a daily journal: contemplative writing, yoga, wandering in nature, expressing your feelings in art, or returning to regular reflective Scripture reading.

During Lent, try a practice and stay with it for some time, making it a normal part of your day. Put your phone on airplane mode. Tune in to your inner self and the depth of Reality around you.

“There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments — and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it.” — Richard Rohr

Distorted Belief

1 March 2019

As we prepare for Lent 2019, some thoughts about confronting distorted belief and its implications.

The current number of USA hate groups has risen for the fourth consecutive year, pushed to a record high of 1,020 thanks to political and religious polarization, anti-immigrant sentiment, and technologies that help spread xenophobic and racist propaganda on the Internet. This expansion of American hate groups was launched during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Most hate groups are motivated by “in-group love,” a desire to positively contribute to the group to which one belongs, or by “out-group hatred,” a desire to injure an alien group.

Unfortunately, far too many contemporary hate groups claim to be Christian-inspired, following the example of people like Thomas Robb: American far-right activist, Ku Klux Klan leader, and Christian Identity pastor. Robb is national director of The Knights Party, also known as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He took control of the organization after David Duke. Robb’s “Thomas Robb Ministries” website declares that “the Anglo Saxon, Germanic, Scandinavian, and kindred people are THE people of the Bible.” Strange to say the least.

People like the followers of Thomas Robb place such a high priority on their distorted “Christian” view of human life that they undermine the very values found in ALL great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring. In their overwhelming seriousness about their unhealthy beliefs, they do not hesitate to intervene in political and social life trying to force society to conform to their values and behaviors.

The contemporary challenge is an authentically Christian challenge: healthy Christians must courageously speak out to challenge unhealthy Christians who make a mockery of Christian Belief. This is a genuine Lenten challenge for all of us, and it demands much more than just passive piety.

Authentic Christianity builds bridges between groups. It promotes love not hatred. There are no “losers” in this vision. Distorted Christianity builds walls of prejudice and xenophobia. Distorted Christianity says only people belonging to the particular in-group have a right to freedom and a happy life. Those outside the in-group have no rights because they are basically dangerous and evil. This is, for example, the position of “white Christian supremacists,” who have bibles in one hand and guns in the other.

Distorted belief is like a virus that infects people and weakens their basic sense of trust and relatedness to the people around them. It thrives on falsehood, fear, and unchallenged suspicions. It surrenders personal responsibility to authoritarian commanders in politics and religion. It ignores people in pain. It sacrifices them for the good of the institution. It rewards the egotistical self-righteous.

Distorted belief promotes a kind of unhealthy Christianity that thrives on ignorance and demands unquestioned obedience from the ignorant. Healthy Christians are secure in their belief but realize that we grow and develop in our understandings of ethics and doctrines, as we move toward the fullness of truth. Asking questions, for healthy believers, opens new doors and enhances one’s appreciation for God and humanity: for human growth and understanding. Unhealthy Christians condemn those who question and those who advocate change and development. Their’s is a static view of human life and a rigidly literal interpretation of Sacred Scripture, which they use to condone misogyny, racial superiority, and homophobia.

The English word “Lent” comes from an Old English word meaning “spring season:” a time to move into new life and new hope. The Christian season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday March 6th, is our annual Christian check-up and renewal period. A time to examine our Christian health. We observe. We judge. We act.

What is happening in the society around us? What needs to be critiqued and changed? How do we apply the vision of Jesus in contemporary days?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons and daughters of God.