Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Commanding vs. Teaching


LUKE 2: 1-14

“Eat your spinach,” my mother would say to me when I was a little boy. I looked at the green mass of vegetable. It did not look very appealing. I obeyed my mother. I ate my spinach. Mom gave an order. Eating spinach was one of her rules. She did not teach me anything about spinach. I just ate it. When I grew up and moved away from home, I said, “To heck with spinach!” I stopped eating it, along with other green vegetables. One day I befriended a person who was a nutritionist. I told her I did not eat spinach. I was a competitive athlete at the time. She told me all about vitamins and minerals and which ones did what for the body of an athlete. Then she said, “And by the way, spinach has all these things.” She never told me to eat spinach. She educated me. She was teaching me, not commanding me. I began to eat spinach again.

The difference between commanding or rule giving, and teaching, though clear, are often blurred, especially by authority figures. In the gospel, the emperor is not a teacher. He is a commander, a rule giver. There will be a census says the emperor’s decree. No discussion. Go to your tribal home and be registered. Joseph goes. No one cares to teach Joseph why there is a census or what good it might do for Joseph. It is simply a rule to be obeyed. When I was a boy I heard the command, “Go to mass on Sunday or burn.” It was a command, a rule. No one bothered to explain it to me. Maybe I was too little to benefit by an explanation. When I got to my adolescence in school, I said I had questions about this Sunday mass rule. Whack! Came the ruler from the teacher. No questions on that one.

Was I going to learn to be a good Catholic by following a rule with no explanation? If someone wanted to learn how to play a sport, would you simply give them a rule book? Do rules alone teach skills? No. A good coach is a teacher. They show you how to do something, and explain why. Unless you understand and can make something your own, you do not really learn a skill or sport. Sometimes the church says it is teaching when in fact it is simply giving rules. Recovering Catholics are not people who have left the church. They are people who left a church of too many rules and too little teaching. Teaching includes listening and responding to questions, trying to come up with ways to help understanding. Jesus was a teacher. God only gave ten commandments. When someone asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story or parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus took the question seriously. He never yelled at the person. He never condemned. At the end of the story, Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man beat up by robbers?” Jesus let the questioner, the searcher, draw a conclusion. This is teaching.

In Genesis, when Adam and Eve messed up, God came to find them and asked, “Where are you?” God knew where they were. God is God. The question is one of a teacher. “Where are you at? What are you about? Who are you?” Adam and Eve are full of guilt and do not respond. They blame one another or the serpent. If a parent brings dirty dishes into the kitchen from the dining room and the child tries to help by bringing in the same number of dishes in their little hands and drops them, the parent can yell or give a rule, or use it as an opportunity to teach. The parent says, “Look at my hands and compare them to the size of your hands. Are not mine bigger? (Child agrees). Do you think it might be a good idea if you carry fewer dishes in your little hands then I do in my big hands?” This is a teachable moment.

At the Annunciation God’s angel did not tell Mary to do something or else. The angel announced a plan and when Mary had a question, the angel gave her an answer. Then heaven waited. God did not demand a yes. Mary made the response her “Yes” and not something she thought God wanted to hear. In the gospel, the shepherds too are visited by an angel and given some information about God’s plan. They are told that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger would be a sign for them. They were never told to go to the stable lest they burn in hell. They were left to decide for themselves. God waits. Rulers rule and wait for no one.

So when I grew up and moved away from home I gave up going to mass along with eating spinach. Then I realized I missed the Eucharist. I began to go back to mass, but on weekdays, when there were no sermons telling me what to do with all the rules and punishments. Why give up the Eucharist simply because we don’t like a sermon? Why punish myself? Would I stay at home all the time because there was too much traffic or the whether was cold? I would see these as inconveniences to put up with to get something or somewhere I wanted to be. People who do nothing but give rules in church are inconveniences. I want the Eucharist. God waits for me in the host, body and blood, just like Jesus in the manger waits for the shepherds. Both the host and the baby are tiny and unassuming. God does not overwhelm us. God waits.

Monday, December 20, 2010

God in the inconvenient

MATTHEW 1: 18-24

DECEMBER 19, 2010

I moved from the Bronx in New York City, to White Plains, in the suburbs. I was 12 and going into the 7th grade. For me the transition was not that difficult. I had not yet bonded all that deeply with guys in the Bronx. I was able to make new friends in school. But my big sister Maureen was 16 and going into her junior year in high school. That is a very difficult time for a girl to leave a life in which she has some sense of control and knows how she fits into the social fabric. Maureen could have resisted the whole transition by becoming very negative and isolated.

Years later, after she died and went to purgatory...Oh you are shocked at her going to purgatory? Well, she was the big sister, mean and bossy. Does God not have standards? How low can we put the bar of entrance into heaven? Anyway, when she died and went to purgatory, her friends called me to share the sadness of her dying, and to tell me what a wonderful person Maureen was. All these friends who called or wrote were friends that Maureen had made after she moved to White Plains. She made the most of her life that she had not chosen.

Maureen reminds me of Joseph. He was doing well in his hometown of Nazareth. He took a wife when he was about the age of Maureen when we moved to White Plains. They married young in Joseph’s day. He had customers for his carpentry business. He had some control over his life. Suddenly, everything seemed to change without his permission. His wife was pregnant. He was not the dad. He could have gone the route of capital punishment, and had her stoned to death. So much for God’s plan for our salvation! He could have divorced her. But in a dream he was asked to do something that would change his life forever. He gave up control and then lots of inconveniences came into his life.

Joseph opened himself to new ways outside of the normal social rules. He let himself be guided in each difficulty that was presented to him. He had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. Then he had to go off to Egypt. What did he know about Egypt? He had to make new friends, and find new customers, new routines in a strange land. Joseph could have sulked, resisted, punished Mary, or just had the attitude, “Nothing is right.” Joseph was open to new events and with this attitude he learned that God comes when we least expect it.

We are waiting for the coming of Jesus. Once a year, at Christmas, we focus on Jesus coming into our life. We have the four weeks of Advent to get our minds and hearts wrapped around this coming, so that we are not surprised when Christmas comes. Christmas generally is a good time of joy because we are ready for it. But God comes into our lives at many other times when we are not ready, times that are inconvenient for us, when we don’t have control. We might say at those times, “Where is God?” God is right here in the inconvenient, out of control, unexpected times in our lives. Pray to St. Joseph, and my big sister St. Maureen. God comes when we least expect God to come.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent has four weeks

MT. 24: 37-44


I had an advent mentality, the time when we look forward to something. I was looking forward to Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving. I planned ahead, so to to begin shopping on the day before Thanksgiving. I read ads, and checked emails from the stores. I was ready. I found great bargains on the things I was looking for. I ignored the Mac Computer and Nike Sports Gear stores. They rarely have good sales. I knew which stores to go to and where they were. I was in LA with my sister Jane. There were lots of people just like me, looking for those bargains. Some people worked in teams so they could get to stores simultaneously, when sales were the deepest. Some sales ended at 4 AM and some began at 4 AM. One store ended its best sales at 10 AM. But I did OK.

Afterwards, I sat down to open the scriptures for the first Sunday in Advent. I was condemned by the Gospel! I was not waiting and planning on the coming of Jesus. I was focused on shopping. I had not been spending weeks thinking about the coming of Jesus. I was like the people who were not ready for the flood in Noah’s day. It is not that shopping for bargains is wrong. It is that I was out of balance. I was not thinking at all about Jesus, and thinking a whole lot about shopping.

What is the Good News here? Well, Advent has four weeks. I have some time to get my priorities balanced. Christmas can be a nice balance of gifts and the coming of Jesus as gift in my life. I can still go about my day to include shopping. In the gospel it says two people were doing the same thing. One was taken and the other was left. Was there someone in the stores with me who seemed to be doing just what I was doing, but was also focused interiorly on the coming of Jesus into their life?

I hope I can become as good at welcoming Jesus as I am in welcoming a great bargain in the store. Maybe, in time, I can become even more welcoming of Jesus into my daily life, and little concerned about having more “stuff.”