Art as worship

I have known the title of this post for a long time but I didn’t know if there would be any words to go with it.

Today, I felt the words come to me.

For some time, I have been both fascinated and puzzled by the word, “worship”. I know that I am to worship God and God alone – but what does that mean? How do I know if I am doing it?

I can consult the online dictionary as I am wont to do, but it only gives me similarly puzzling terms in response. To show “reverence” and “adoration” for a deity (quotation marks mine). But what is adoration? And reverence? I can find definitions for these words as well but they are of no help.

I need something more.

Memories from my childhood religious education conjure up images of people bowing down before God in heaven – endlessly. Scriptural accounts of the people of God “bowing down” before idols – or refusing to do so – likely fostered this notion. It does not make worship seem very attractive.

It also has little to do with true worship.

Having grown spiritually, at least a little, since then, I am aware that worship has much more to do with love – responding to God’s love with love. But how do I love what my senses cannot register? I cannot see or touch or hear God. Sometimes it feels like I am just trying to love a word or the air around me.

Perhaps what makes it so hard to define worship in its truest sense is that when worship emerges from an unseen place deep within my being, I know what it is. But I also know that I cannot make it happen.

I am to worship God but true worship is beyond my control. 

I can go through the motions of religious ritual (the “bowing down”) but that in and of itself is not true worship. At best, it is a longing for worship and seeking the gift that creates the deep movement within that I can only recognize through experience.

As I have ventured into art and iconography in particular, I have discovered worship anew. Certainly I do not worship icons – my own or others’. No, it is in the process of drawing or painting the holy that I am moved beyond the artistic ritual and into the presence of God.

Of course, God has always been here, ever within me, ever surrounding me, but something is uncovered – revealed. It is as though for a moment the scales fall from my eyes, as they did for Saul of Tarsus, enabling me to see a loving Truth so clearly that I cannot help but worship. I find myself in love.

God is no longer seems a mere word or idea. God is, God reveals. And the only response to God’s Presence is worship.

But, of course, I cannot make this happen through art anymore than I can make it happen through religious ritual.

I can gild much gold and paint many images and get lost in all the distractions of technique and human notions of beauty. But, having once tasted true worship, I hunger for more and cannot stop, even when it seems I am lost in a merely human pursuit that has little to do with God.

At other times, while compelled to continue, I feel afraid. Who am I to paint the Son of God? Or His holy Mother or the saints? I only dare create such images because the Lord took on flesh in history, thus giving us permission to see and experience Him as human.

Today, I was given the gift of worship. I do not know why – I have done nothing whatsoever to deserve it. It is grace – pure and holy and loving.

I rejoice. I worship.

To Him be all praise and glory forever.

Amen. Amen.

(This image, drawn with pastels, is based on detail from an ancient icon of the Crucifixion housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert.)

There is no God, you say?

Believing in God is going out of style these days. This trend is nothing terribly new, I imagine. It’s just that people now feel free to be more open about their doubts.

After all, we are a modern, scientific people. There is so much that we know, that we can study and prove.

This business about God was likely made up by primitive people to explain things that they didn’t understand. We don’t need to do that. We can’t explain everything – yet. But eventually, given enough time, we’ll figure it out.

Besides, God was just invented to justify religion. And we know that religion was invented to control people.

I mean, it’s all right if God is your thing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But that’s all it is – an opinion. You have yours and I have mine. Quit trying to control me and I won’t try to control you. Everyone will get along fine and there will be no reason to fight wars.

That’s another thing God and religion are good for – justifying wars. Quit trying to control others with your “god” and soon we will have peace.

Speaking of peace, I know a lot of people get all emotional when they see a sunset or a rainbow and mistake this sentimentality for proof that God exists. But now that we know what causes all these colors, we don’t need to invent God.

Go ahead, enjoy the pretty colors. But remember – that’s all it is. Pretty colors and stuff. When it’s over, it’s over. No need for fancy explanations as to why we’re here.

A few billion years and some natural selection. Poof! We’re here.

And then we’re not. It is what it is.

No big deal.

(This post is continued at https://wordpress.com/post/oholyearth.wordpress.com/653…)

Reflections on Trinity

There is something in us that longs for union.

At the most basic level, this is found not only in humans but in a vast number of species as the union, however brief, of one to another is the foundation for the most fundamental of life functions: reproduction.

If we look beyond reproduction, we see that the biology of all living things and even their component particles are based on a sort of “relationship”, an attraction, an interaction, an interdependence, without which higher life forms would not be possible.

This drive toward union suggests that the very building blocks of life are love in its simplest forms.

Thus, it is not surprising that we long for union. It is hardwired into our very cells.

But, for the believer, all of this is but a hinting at a much greater truth.

We believe that we were created to share in the divine life of God which is a life of complete and perfect union in love. We are not only physically driven to unite but we are spiritually designed for a union far beyond the biological.

Still, as much as we humans long for union, we also long to remain ourselves. Whether uniting in physical love or in a transcendent spiritual love, the very act of loving implies a separateness of sorts.

If there were no separateness, how could we call it union? A singularity that is one with itself remains a singularity. Love requires an “other”.

And thus we have a portrait of the Holy Trinity: complete and perfect union that retains the “otherness” necessary for love.

As simple as this concept sounds, it is very hard for us humans to comprehend. How can there be one God (perfect union) while there is still the otherness of three Persons within that very Being?

We do not understand, of course, because we do not understand perfect love. Our human attempts at love and union are, at best, mere attempts to imitate the Being in whose image we were created. At worst… well we know how those attempts turn out. We are a broken species.

There are many in our world who genuinely seek God and yet cannot accept the notion of Trinity.

In Islam, for example, it is taught that there is only one God and that Christians are worshipping three. To worship Jesus, whom they consider a human prophet, is an act of idolatry because one can only worship the one true God, not a human. This idolatrous act leads straight to hell.

Others, among them Jehovah Witnesses, believe in the goodness of Jesus but deny the Trinity. How can God have a son?

This is a valid question. If God has always existed and is pure Spirit, what sense does it make to say that He has a son? A son, by all human definitions, is the result of a reproductive act and necessarily implies that the son exists after his father, not simultaneously throughout time.

The problem with this line of reasoning, in my mind, is that it reasons backwards, i.e. it begins with human life and uses it as a basis for describing God. More correctly, we should begin with God as the model for understanding ourselves. We are made in God’s image, not the other way around.

Put another way, if it is true that Jesus is risen from the dead, we ought not dispute anything that he taught. He spoke of God as his Father and explained at the Last Supper that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father and that he and the Father are one.

Why did Jesus use this particular terminology, one that seems at odds with our understanding of parent-child relationships? I do not know, of course, but I do know that there are no human words that could make it any more understandable to us. Words inevitably fail. Yet I know this descriptor can be painful for those who have a negative association with the word, “father”.

Similarly, sometimes I find myself squirming mentally when I hear Jesus described as God’s “only begotten Son”. The term “begotten” or to “beget” is defined in our language as bringing a child into the world through an act of reproduction. This doesn’t sound right to my ears. By all human understanding, God doesn’t do that sort of thing.

But, in this dissonance, I find a clue emerging from my own notion of our backward reasoning. We reproduce. God “produces”, or better, “creates”. Our participation in the en-fleshing of soul (person) into body is a sort of copying, on a simple biological level, of God’s creative action.

Through human sexuality, God permits us, through the loving union of our bodies, to be co-creators with Him, our physical act a participation in His en-fleshing of a soul into a new body. A new person is created (ideally) through the synergy of human love and Divine love.

Sadly, we have cheapened this process through the corruption of our sexuality. But our sin does not stop God’s glorious design. Indeed, He responds to it with more love.

In the case of Jesus, eternal Word of the Father, there is also an “en-fleshing” of soul into human body. This act is different from what occurs in our human “begetting” in that it is the result of perfect love, a perfect love within God and a perfect love of God for His people. While the human body of the Virgin Mother receives the Son, no sexual act is needed. This is not a “reproduction”. The Son does not come into existence by the mixing of human DNA. He already is.

The Father’s act of “en-fleshing” His Son is the prototypical act of “begetting”. Our begetting of offspring is a but participation or imitation of that prototype. Jesus was truly and completely “begotten” as the result of divine Love. I was merely begotten by the love of my parents. I was begotten by a single act in time. Jesus was begotten in eternity through an eternal act of love.

I suspect we do not have a different word for these two types of begetting because the divine begetting is completely unique (“the only begotten Son”) and we typically do not have words that have only one usage, especially when we do not really understand the meaning we are trying to convey.

I’m afraid I’ve wandered off into theological territory about which I have no right to speculate. What do I know?

All I can say is that I believe: I believe in God the Father of all, in Jesus, His only begotten Son, and in the Holy Spirit, one God, eternally loving, endlessly merciful.

May He have mercy on me, a sinner.

The dangers of theology

Someone once told me that I was a theologian. I laughed, incredulous. With all due respect to theologians, it is not something I aspire to.

How does one study God?

To attempt to do so is a perilous path. When I think how many things I have said or written about God, I tremble at my hubris.

Who am I to say anything about God, as though I know all about Him? As though He were an object that I could examine and explain to others?

The problem with any area of study is that it is too easy, at the end of the day, to think you know something.

I have a PhD in Clinical Psychology and have worked as a psychologist for over 25 years. It would thus be tempting to think that I know a lot about the human mind and its relationship to behavior.

Yet each person I encounter is a mystery. A unique blend of biology and experiences and choices unlike any other, with the image of God stamped deep within.

In my work and study, I learn to identify patterns in people. As unique as each is, there is also a commonality among humans. It is both helpful and unhelpful to see such patterns.

It is helpful to not have to start at the very beginning with each person I meet. My mind has stored up a wide variety of shortcuts that will lead me to understanding more quickly than if it were my first time encountering another human being.

On the other hand, my shortcuts can easily be erroneous. I can, consciously or unconsciously, attribute patterns to an individual that do not belong to them but are just the product my own experiences or projections.

It is, in fact, so easy to be wrong, that I must approach each person with the assumption that I will be wrong – or at least not completely right – much of the time. It is for this reason that listening with openness is so very important.

If I consider the study of God, how much more probable is it that my thoughts and beliefs and conjectures will be incorrect? God “occupies” (if one can even use that word) a totally different ontological reality than everyone and everything else that exists. God is eternal Creator. Everything else, including me, is temporal and created.

I cannot see God or examine God using any of my senses or by employing any created instruments. God is above all of these. (“Above” in the sense that St. Augustine used the term, “above me because He created me”.) I cannot prove God’s existence or nonexistence. I cannot truly know God as God is.

But, the believer asks, what about revelation? What about Jesus who lived among us and, we are told, was one with the Father? What about the Church, its Tradition, and the holy Fathers (and Mothers) of the ancient Church who, guided by the Spirit, passed on to us so much wisdom?

These, of course, are what keep me from despair. From thinking that I cannot possibly know God. If I cannot know God, life is a dark, swirling chaos without meaning, leading to an inevitable death and, ultimately, nonexistence.

So why then, with this rich source of information about God, would I consider the study of God to be perilous? Should it not be the source of my hope and joy? What value would the Church, Tradition, Scripture, the writings of the ancients have if not to help me know God?

Sometimes the source of our hope and joy is something we must approach with fear and trembling. In undertaking the study of God, we, poor sinners that we are, may make the mistake of thinking that we know the truth of God when perhaps we have merely discovered our own emotional desires and mental projections.

None of us want to think this true of ourselves, of course.

But when we delve into even the seemingly most basic teachings of Christianity, we encounter disagreement about how to interpret what we have been given. Not only do theologians disagree, writing extensive articles and books defending a certain notion about God, but whole groups of people turn their backs on one another because of their belief that they are the ones who “know” God.

Thus, with the help of the evil one, the source of our salvation becomes twisted into a path toward perdition. Do any of our sources tell us that mistaken beliefs about God will result in condemnation? It is not poor theology that Jesus warns us about but a lack of love for our neighbor.

How ironic that the study of God can so readily become a trigger point for division, for hatred, for war – even for rejection of God Himself.

It is, for me, far better to acknowledge what I do not know – and that is almost everything.

If the mystery of my patient bids me to “listen with openness” lest my brain’s shortcuts lead me astray, how much more need I listen in silence when I stand before the mystery of God?

It is not wrong to study God, of course, nor is it wrong to study Scripture, Church Tradition or the writings of the holy ones of old. It is simply dangerous to conclude that I know anything as a result.

If I have learned anything at all thus far in my life, it is that God wants me to discover Him – to experience Him and to delight in His love – and to delight even more in being formed into the unique vessel of His love that He created me to be.

And everything He wants for me, He also wants for you and for everyone He created out of His loving goodness.

But how do I discover Him, you ask?

I listen with openness. I embrace silence. I seek to attain nothing but trust that He will lead me to Himself, sending me whatever I need.

I watch for His gifts and unwrap them with glee, even when they hurt. Because they are from Him and He knows what I need.

And in the end, I practice love. I don’t know how and am not very good at it, but I ask Him to help me.

He’s been waiting for me to ask. Why have I not asked before or more often?

Because I am afraid. Love is not easy. As Dostoyevsky wrote, “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing”.

Love will lead me to the Cross.

I am afraid. But I ask anyway.

It is only in this way that I can discover God – and keep discovering Him through every moment of life and death and beyond.

This is what I live for. Amen. Amen.

Crazy Stuff

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

For many of us, this has been perhaps one of the darkest years of our lives. Each of us has been impacted in different ways but it has been a year in which it has been virtually impossible to ignore the darkness that surrounds us.

I need not explain what darkness the pandemic has brought. People have died alone, terrified. Healthcare workers have been overwhelmed. Millions have been very sick and some will never be the same. Massive numbers of people have lost their jobs and have been dependent on stopgap measures that may run out any day.

Devastating fires terrorized the west coast, with more ferocity than any other year. Wild storms of all kinds have raged throughout our country and around the world, as climate change accelerates and not nearly enough is being done to slow it down.

Egregious acts of violence against people of color, often perpetrated by police, have left tragedy in their wake and spurred millions throughout the world to protest – with some looting and burning, others getting tear-gassed for peacefully proclaiming that Black Lives matter. (How could they not matter?)

And then there was the presidential election and all of the craziness before, during, and after it. Deep divisions seem to only grow deeper and conspiracy theories abound – still. In a year with so much tragedy, we have not been united for we cannot even agree on the facts.

Perhaps one of the hardest parts for me has been seeing growing numbers of people spew forth ideas that I can only describe as crazy. And I’m not talking about mental illness but what appears to be more akin to the brainwashing of cult behavior. People ready to fight to the death for notions that are patently absurd.

What is happening to us? How can people become so lost in hate and lies and irrationality? Is the world going crazy?

As I’ve sat here typing, it has become Christmas. It has become Christmas so slowly, so silently, so gently that I would not know if I had not looked at the clock.

A pure white snow is falling outside, creating deep piles I need not fight with. I hear nothing but the occasional snowplow and click of my furnace.

Silent night. Holy night.

I am reminded that I too believe some pretty crazy stuff.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe that all that exists, from the billions of galaxies in the universe to the trillions of cells in my body, have come forth from the love who is Father, Son and Spirit.

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. How is it that God can beget a Son who is as eternal as He is? How can a Virgin conceive “by the Holy Spirit”? How can she bear a Son and remain a virgin? I cannot understand this any more than I can understand the billions and trillions.

I believe some pretty crazy stuff. And there are many people who are prepared to tell me just how crazy I am for believing in such “fairy tales”.

But I believe.

I believe what I cannot understand but what has been revealed in my heart.

I believe that love is stronger than death and that the light has conquered the darkness, even when it seems that all I see are death and darkness.

I believe because I love. I believe because I have been loved.

I believe because I have seen over and over how a love greater than myself pours itself out for me and through me without my ever deserving it.

I believe that the Word was made flesh, that He made His dwelling among us and that we have seen His glory (John 1:14).

Through Him and in Him, we have received His fullness, grace upon grace, that we might share in His divine life.

Yes, it is pretty crazy stuff. But I gaze upon Him and all I can do is believe…

+++

To Him be all glory and praise, forever. Amen.

In my driveway, at my door

One of the greatest blessings for me during this pandemic was the reopening of the churches. While I agreed with the need to close early on, given how little was known about the coronavirus, the inability to find sanctuary in my spiritual home left a huge void.

I remember having discussions about “sacred places” with a friend years ago. Certainly these are not all church buildings but some of them are. They are sacred because of the holy Sacrifice offered there but also because of the people who have gathered there to pray, to hug, to laugh and talk – to share values and meals and raise funds for the poor.

Much of the time I do not mind being alone so I have fared better than many during these times of social distancing. Yet having my sacred place closed to me was about more than being alone. It was as though someone bolted the door to my heart’s home and said, “You cannot live here anymore”.

Hence, the return to my home has been a joy – even if we are all wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart, neither touching nor talking to one another with the casual intimacy we once shared. It remains a sacred place because we are in it together – we bear the hardships and inconveniences of the pandemic as a community, not as individuals.

In any event, I was backing out of my driveway today, on my way to celebrate the Eucharist at this holy place, when I saw a pedestrian approaching on the sidewalk. I have learned that I must be watchful when backing out as there is a lot of foot traffic in front of my house.

As the man approached, I saw him peer in my car window from behind his mask. There was a pleading look in his eyes and he made a motion, rubbing his belly. Being less late for church than usual, I pulled up my mask and lowered my window.

His name was José and he was hungry.

Without me asking, he told me that he doesn’t use drugs. He explained that he came to be in this position because the house where he and his wife lived got closed down. They are now living in a tent. I didn’t ask just what happened to his home but felt a deep pang of sorrow for this couple. They had lost their home and, unlike my loss of spiritual home, it wasn’t temporary.

They had joined the ranks of the homeless.

José voiced a hearty “God bless you” when I gave him something. I told him I was on my way to church and would pray for him. It was the only way I knew to help him feel that he is not alone, that he is part of our community. He thanked me.

If you have been reading my recent posts, you will understand when I say that it seems that I have been given a mission. The money or meal that I provide is truly a drop in a bucket so huge that it might seem hopeless that there will ever have enough to fill it.

But the mission is not about the money, as important as that is. It is about the encounter – the encounter that says I care about who you are and the troubles you are having.

In a small but vital way it communicates that, indeed, I am in this with you. I cannot see you homeless and hungry and be indifferent to who you are or what suffering has led you to beg from total strangers.

I cannot imagine how hard it must be to approach another and admit that you have nowhere to go and no food to eat.

+++

On different note, some of you may remember a post of mine from more than 5 years ago, “Letter to a lost soul” (https://apricelessthing.com/2015/02/01/letter-to-a-lost-soul/). This post has had more views than any other I have written and it continues to have a steady readership.

For those who aren’t familiar, I wrote this missive to the anonymous person who had burglarized my house in what turned out to be the first of three consecutive break-ins within a four week span.

Though I did not write of it, it eventually became fairly obvious who had perpetrated the crimes. Months before, I had given work to a young man who, freshly out of prison, came to my door seeking odd jobs. I knew it was a risk but he seemed earnest and I knew that someone had to give him a chance if he was to meet his goal of staying out of trouble.

He was an excellent worker, completing jobs quickly and thoroughly. We sometimes talked about his life and I continued to find more tasks that he could help me with. We had what seemed to be an amiable relationship but, before long, red flags began to pop up.

It soon became obvious that he needed too much money. I suspected drugs but he denied it. I offered him referrals for employment or substance abuse assistance and he did not accept them. He continued to do good work but a tension built as he kept needing more and more.

When the first break-in occurred, he was ready to rush over and help me clean up but, strangely, did not want to make an appearance until the police had left. When I found another task he could do, he would call me and ask me if I was home so he could come over and do it. I learned to be vague about where I was and when.

I never felt threatened by him but it was clear that something had to change. I simply did not have that much work to give him and his need to earn money was getting increasingly desperate.

Then one evening I got a tearful phone call from his girlfriend, informing me that he was in jail. He was facing three felony charges, none of them related to me. He had eventually told me that his girlfriend was the one with the drug problem. I wanted to believe him but I suspected it was both of them.

After crying for a bit, she asked me for money, even though we had never met. (You will be pleased to know that I am capable of saying “no”.)

It took me some time but eventually I decided to talk to the police, to let them know of my dealings with him. I was still concerned about him but did not want to remain silent about the possibility that he was responsible for the break-ins. A few things seemed too coincidental.

I learned that they had hard evidence in the charges against him and that he had, indeed, been addicted to heroin. The police did a heroic job in retrieving one of the items that had been taken from my house. Its whereabouts pointed to him but there was no proof. For his three other cases, he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Since then, I have prayed for him – every day. I wondered if I would ever see him again – and wasn’t sure that I wanted to. Would I confront him? Would he admit it? Would any of that matter?

Yesterday, my doorbell rang, accompanied by enthusiastic knocking. I wasn’t expecting anyone – no one has come to my door uninvited since the pandemic took over our lives.

I opened the door – and there he was.

He said he was driving by and, seeing the leaves piled up in my yard, wanted to stop by and see how I was doing. (He offered to rake them for me but accepted it when I said I’d hired someone else.) He asked me if I was okay and told me that he had been released eight months ago.

He told me about his job and showed me a picture of his wife, noting that his old girlfriend had been bad news. He nodded at his truck in my driveway that I had not even noticed. We chatted a bit, my locked storm door between us, and then he went on his way.

I told him I was glad he was doing better. And I am.

My instincts, however, tell me that he is not entirely out of the woods yet so I don’t plan to stop praying anytime soon.

For all his problems and mistakes, he is still beloved of God.

I pray that God never gives up on me, poor sinner that I am. Hence, I must never give up on another who remains afflicted. Our stories may differ – and I will not hire him again – but we are both beset by the same disease.

May God have mercy on us all.

Encounters with my King

I’ve been thinking of obtaining my prescriptions through a mail order pharmacy. I would save a fair amount and it would be so much easier and more convenient. Instead of navigating around the torn up streets, donning a mask, and entering a store to wait in line during a pandemic, I could just go to my mailbox. Why not?

The only problem is that the life of the Christian is not meant to be one of ease and convenience. What feels good is not necessary what is good.

I was leaving Walgreen’s with my prescription today when the Lord Jesus stopped me in my tracks. I had imagined for a moment that I was going to make it to my car without encountering a panhandler and I felt a sense of relief. That is, until I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He had spoken so softly that I wasn’t sure he had actually addressed me. It would have been easy to keep walking as though I hadn’t heard him. However, in my heart, I knew I had.

He was a tall, thin young man with a beard, carrying a satchel over his shoulder. His clothes appeared nicer, cleaner, than many of those on the street. Hesitantly, he asked me if I could spare some change.

I asked him what he needed and how he came to be in this position and out spilled his story. He had been living a small city one county over, taking care of his mother. She recently went into a nursing home, tying up the assets that had supported them both. He had held jobs previously but left them to take care of her.

Now, he had nowhere to go, no money to live on. He had packed up what things he could carry and found his way to 2100, Cleveland’s largest homeless shelter for men. After his things were stolen, he took his leave to try to make it on the streets. He had panhandled enough to stay in a cheap hotel one night.

The weather had been mild for the last couple of days but, last night, the temperature had dropped down into the forties and never came back up. He hadn’t slept in 48 hours and had hung around the county hospital as long as he could. Then he rode the bus all night, trying to doze off a little and keep warm.

His name was Brad and he shook my gloved hand.

He explained that he had applied for food stamps and was awaiting their arrival, knowing that he would probably have to sell them for cash. He denied any addictions or problems with the law. He simply had nowhere to go.

After I gave him some help and drove away, I felt like crying. He was so immensely grateful but, in the end, it felt like there was so little I could do for him while standing in a chilly parking lot on a Saturday afternoon.

He wasn’t just glad for the money I gave him. He was relieved to be able to afford a small break from being sworn at and insulted as he asked for help. I don’t know how anyone could have looked at Brad and been so cruel but our world has become a harsh and dangerous place. But wouldn’t I have been cruel too if I had just kept on walking?

Brad doesn’t know it but he gave me something in return this afternoon.

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King this weekend, he reminded me that each and every person who stands outside of Walgreen’s and begs is a person with a story. Each of them has desperate need, not just for food or shelter or medicine, but for compassion, for some restoration of dignity lost.

I might as well have been walking by the crucified Christ when the evil one whispered in my ear: “Walk by. Pretend you didn’t hear him.” Did He not warn me what He will say when He appears in His glory? How could I even consider walking past one of “these least ones”? Could I walk by my Lord as He hung from the Cross?

Do I imagine that I can speak of caring for the poor and then can justify myself with excuses as to why I did not stop when they called on me – explaining to my King “but it wasn’t safe, he wasn’t wearing a mask”, “he was probably going to spend it on drugs”, “he needs to get a job and have a better plan than this”?

It is frighteningly easy to be drawn into what is easy. A couple of phone calls or clicks on my computer and I can avoid going to Walgreen’s altogether. I can escape that tension within that makes me want to hide from my crucified Savior. I can stay warm and safe and secure in my privilege and not have to see His wounds. I can convince myself that I already do enough.

No – no mail order pharmacy for me, at least not now. Winter approaches, the shelters will soon be overflowing, and COVID-19 rages on. I will look for these “least ones” now when I go to Walgreen’s. I will keep some cash handy and some extra face masks to give away to help protect them. But most of all, I will listen and let them know they matter. It isn’t much but it’s more than nothing.

May God have mercy on my wretched soul…

Remembering Earl

A story rises up in me tonight, needing to be told. I am not sure why but I must follow the inner prompting.

Late last week, I was heading into Walgreen’s to pick up a prescription when I met him. I had just left church, my heart still warmed by Eucharist.

It had been a while since I had encountered anyone on my way into the pharmacy and I had wondered if they were cracking down on the panhandlers. Part of me secretly hoped they were. Another part (a better part, I hope) wondered where the poor were going during the pandemic.

Are there no places left to beg?

In any event, on this cool evening, I saw a young man lingering by the door. I braced myself, both knowing and not knowing what was to come.

As I reached the entrance, he apologized for stopping me and said that he wasn’t going to ask me for money. “Could you just buy me something to eat? I’m so hungry. I already have a dollar.”

“My name is Earl.”

This last part surprised me. Usually I am the one to initiate the introductions.

When I didn’t immediately say no, he continued, “I’ll wait until you take care of your business inside. I don’t care how long it takes.” Looking over his shoulder, he added, “I shouldn’t be standing here.”

Apparently they were cracking down. Undoubtedly people had complained at regularly being accosted by the poor.

Having agreed to help him, I was not surprised to find him waiting when I emerged ten minutes later.

Part of me just wanted to give him some money and be on my way. But I knew that was not what I was called to do. It would be easier – but not right.

It was not quite dark and the street was well lit. Normally it is a busy street but for many weeks it has been largely torn up in perpetual construction. I assessed the risks.

He chose a carry out pizza place within view and we set off walking, giving us an opportunity to talk.

“Pull up your face mask,” I repeatedly chided him, though clearly the mask had seen better days. “For your protection.”

He grumbled and complied.

I asked him how he came to be asking strangers to buy him food.

“My mother won’t have me anymore,” he replied without rancor. “I’m on probation.”

The charge had been assault. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask him to. When I asked his age, I was surprised to learn that he was 27. I would have believed him if he had said 17.

He appeared so young, so thin, so lost.

His eyes were bloodshot. From drugs? Or perhaps from the exhaustion of living on the street? It didn’t really matter. He was hungry.

He didn’t have much body to hold up his pants and he tugged at them as they slipped.

“I don’t have a gun,” he assured me. “My pants just won’t stay up.”

We arrived at the shop where pizzas were basking under warming lights, waiting for someone to claim them.

Earl asked for a small cheese pizza. The worker, who also needed to pull his mask up, produced the pizza and looked a bit puzzled when it was time for money to be produced.

“I’m buying,” I filled the awkward moment, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Earl momentarily looked alarmed when tax was added, thinking perhaps it was going to cost more than I would pay. I assured him and paid it. (Probably a “tip” for the worker given that carryout food is not taxable in Ohio.)

Sniffing and caressing the box, Earl seemed to relax for a moment, anticipating relief.

As we left the pizza place, Earl paused. Inwardly sighing, I sensed what was coming next.

“Could I have $3 to pay this guy so I can stay at his house tonight? It’s going to be cold tonight.”

He was right. The temperature was predicted to drop into the 40’s. His clothes were thin. Two or three dollars seems to be the going rate for a night on someone’s couch.

I thought of how many things I buy that I don’t really need.

I gave him ten and we parted ways.

But he lingers in my memory. How will he ever survive?

+++

I know I’m a fool. You don’t have to tell me.

All the things that could have happened to me.

How he probably used the money for drugs or alcohol.

That I’m reinforcing panhandling.

Yes, I know.

But, having just received Christ our Savior into my heart, could I possibly have said no? Can I claim communion with the Lord but ignore His lost child?

I cannot help but call to mind the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, often cited as “evidence” that there is a hell, a place of eternal damnation.

Whether one accepts this notion or the more merciful universalism I have previously defended, the utter gravity of the Lord’s warning cannot be ignored.

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.

Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?

He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.

St. Matthew (25: 31-45)

I cannot fail to note that our Savior only issues this dire warning once in all of Scripture. He does not address this warning to those who have abortions or are homosexual, much less those who lie or steal or covet or murder.

It is not that He condones these disordered behaviors.

Rather, He is making it abundantly clear that we cannot claim righteousness before Him by simply keeping the Law.

In the end, it is not the Law that truly matters. We are broken and it is not the Law that saves us.

We are saved only by the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ – a love that not only keeps the Law but fulfills it in self-emptying sacrifice.

We who believe know that Jesus was not merely a wise man who lived 2000+ years ago. He is the anointed One, the eternal Son of the Father.

In His eternity, He is not gone from our midst.

He walks the streets. He is hungry. He is sick. He is naked. He is in prison.

Indeed, I am a fool. I do not write this to justify myself but to condemn myself.

I did not do nearly enough.

Forgive me, Earl.

May God in His mercy walk with you and guide you and protect you.

Amen.

Dangerous times

I have wrestled with whether to write this piece. I do not want to seem to be using my blog, a place that I have considered a sacred space, as a political tool. I begin writing now with the prayer of discernment that I often offer at such times: speak through me – or make it not work out so that I will know that it is not Your will.

I have chosen to write because I consider these highly dangerous times. Those of you who know me know that I am anything but a conspiracy theorist. Hence, I do not sound the alarm casually. However, when I see disaster on the horizon, I cannot not remain silent. It is not that I believe my voice has any real power in the world but I still must make it clear which side I am on when the battle gets fierce.

There are many dangerous things going on in our world today. There is a pandemic that is resulting in suffering and death for hundreds of thousands around the world. There are signs of great disturbances in the health of our planet, as each year we see not only increasingly devastating hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires, but we receive dire reports of habitats permanently changing as a result of human activity.

Beginning in our country, we see widespread outrage over racial inequalities and brutality against people who are different by race, gender, orientation, status, etc. While the protests were triggered by a brutal act by police in Minnesota, around the world there are too many outrageous acts to keep track of. I just read yesterday how a woman of lower caste in India died after being gang raped by men of a (so-called) higher caste.

I could go on. But the danger I wish to write about rests not so much in these events but in the spiritual warfare that underlies them. I have written about spiritual warfare before and there is nothing new about the fierce battle between good and evil that plagues our planet. But I sense that we are on the brink of something different, a turning point in the battle from which, if we ignore it, there may be no turning back. That our nation, indeed our world, is so polarized is but a sign that we are reaching a critical juncture.

I am not about to claim that one political party in the upcoming election is good and the other is evil. We are all corrupted by evil, even when we believe we are behind the “right” cause. But I must say that I see many signs that Donald Trump is a dangerous man. While this sounds like it cannot be anything but a political comment, please bear with me. Please know that I regularly pray for his redemption. I do not hate him – but I believe that, knowingly or not, he has become a tool of the evil one.

While many people may have voted for him in 2016 because they believed he would represent conservative values or defend the right to life of the unborn, he brought with him considerable spiritual baggage that should have been alarming to people of faith. It is not my place to list or judge his sins – the media has done that job thoroughly. But it is very concerning that he has developed what seems to be a cult-like following of people who say they will support him no matter what he does. Indeed, he has even bragged of this – that he could shoot someone point blank in public and not lose a voter.

This is dangerous. He speaks of himself in superlatives, while denying all of the dangers around us – denying the seriousness of the pandemic, of climate change, of racial oppression. Publicly given a direct invitation, he failed to distance himself from white supremacists who support him. A good many of his supporters speak of him as though he were the messiah, sent by God to preserve Christianity in our nation. It seems to not matter that so much of his personal and political behavior stands in direct opposition to Christian values. Need I point out that it has been said that the antichrist will present himself in this way?

I am not suggesting that Mr. Trump is THE antichrist. I would have no way of knowing who that is or when that figure will appear. But it is not hard, looking at the evidence, to hypothesize whose side he fights for. It is not the Lord’s.

But many will argue: but what about abortion? Of all of the prominent politicians (i.e. those who have a chance of winning an election), he has taken the strongest stance against this evil. Because the respect for life is such a core value among many Christians, this value seems to supersede all others. Some feel they have no choice but to vote for Mr. Trump because of this issue, despite the many warning signs of deep corruption in his soul.

And respect for life should be our core value. Life is God’s gift to us and when we stop respecting it, we separate ourselves from the God who is the source of all Life and Love.

So what are we do to?

First, we must consider what it means to respect life. Simply being opposed to legal abortion does not mean a person respects life. Case in point: under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, abortion was outlawed in the Soviet Union after having been legal, with Stalin proclaiming that “giving birth was a great and honorable duty” and “not a private affair but one of great social importance.” Yet I cannot imagine anyone looking back on Stalin’s regime claiming that he respected life, given that he was responsible for 6 million noncombatant deaths, many his own countrymen.

So clearly respecting life is a more complex matter than simply opposing abortion.

A second point to consider: can sin save us from sin? Certainly not. Obviously, anyone we elect to public office is going to be a sinner. But there is a difference between one who arrogantly flaunts their sinfulness and one who attempts repentance, even if imperfectly. In just one example, Mr. Trump bragged about how he could grab women’s genitals because he was famous. I use this example, not because it is the most egregious of his misdeeds, but because he publicly bragged about this sinful behavior. One who publicly brags of their sins and lies day after day with no expression of regret cannot be trusted to do the Lord’s work. One does not hire an enemy to lead the battle against the enemy.

Having made these points, I recognize that some cannot bring themselves to vote for a candidate who is tolerant of legal abortion. I myself find it distasteful, even if that candidate shows more respect for life on virtually every other social issue. Some may argue that I am doing the very thing that I argue against: proposing to vote for a sinner – one who publicly accepts legal abortion, while personally opposing it – a stance unacceptable to the Church. Am I not also engaging the enemy to do the Lord’s work?

Mr. Trump’s most prominent opponent is a Catholic by faith and by baptism. He has suffered many tragedies in his life and he has publicly spoken of how important his faith has been to him. Yet he is regarded by some as “not in good standing” because of his political stance on abortion – and that is a valid point. He too is a sinner and, based on his public platform, it could be argued that he is not a fully repentant one either. He is compromising his spiritual values, very likely because of political pressure.

Must I vote? Must I choose one sinner over another?

We are at war. I cannot stand by and do nothing.

If Stalin were running for president, would I do nothing, say nothing, refuse to vote in an attempt to defeat him?

God forbid that I say nothing.

And so I speak out, here and now, against evil. Abortion is evil and it stems from a deeper evil festering in the post-modern soul. Capital punishment is evil, depriving a sinner of the opportunity to repent. Turning away the homeless and hungry who flee from violence is evil, as is separating families and putting children in cages. Destroying the environment, recklessly removing efforts to protect it, endangering all generations to come is a grave evil. Lying to the people about a deadly virus, pretending it is harmless while knowing that it is not, discouraging people from protecting themselves from this scourge – this too is a great evil.

I eschew it all.

But in the end, I must vote. I must take a stand.

Will I choose the arrogant and dangerous sinner with messianic fantasies and little regard for the suffering of others? Or will I choose the weak sinner who compromises his values in hopes of still accomplishing some good?

I will vote for the sinner who is most like me – the one who is weak, who compromises, but who still speaks out against injustice and has compassion for the poor and suffering.

May God have mercy on us all.