Monday, February 23, 2009

Bike Crash

Ten days ago, I crashed on my road bike in the local park. I was going down a staightaway, moving fast, and came up to a hard right turn with a bridge that dips down. I started braking a little too late and so I laid it on the brakes. There must have been some loose dirt on the cement path because the rear wheel locked up and I started to skid. It was just a matter of time before I went down on the ground. As I fell, I landed on my right side. Four square inches of skin on my lower leg was scraped off, my favorite bike shorts were torn and my hip felt bruised (no bruise has ever appeared since the crash). The worst part is that the brunt of the fall was on my right arm and shoulder, which has already hurt for about a year.
Eventually, I was able to see the doctor, who said that the effects of the crash would go away after a few weeks. He advised an MRI, however, since the shoulder has been hurting for a year. I am hoping that there will be no surgery involved. But I must admit that the arm and shoulder hurts badly and I am ready for some relief. Maybe he will give me me exercises or advise therapy that will improve things. We shall see.
There is a silver lining, however. Last week I was riding at the lake (it does not hurt to bicycle, just to stand, sit, or lie down). It was a warm day, but windy. It was a wonderful day to ride. Let me say that it is very nice to pass someone while sporting a large area of road rash.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tearing the Roof Apart

1. It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more (Isaiah 43:25). A sin is an offense against God, a disobedience of His commands. Sin harms our relationship with God, and our relationship with other people. Sin can even be so deadly as to cause us to lose our destiny in heaven. (In other words go to hell). One might imagine that God could just let all those things go and let people do whatever they wanted to with no consequences. (God loves us after all, how could He bear to punish us with Hell?) But really, even if those with deadly sin entered into glory, they would be miserable being surrounded on every side by the love of God and in the presence of those who do all in their power to serve the Lord. Those who prefer darkness shrink from the light.
2. What the Lord is talking about in the prophet Isaiah is not simply to acquit us of crimes of which we are truly guilty, to pretend that we have done nothing wrong or say it simply does not matter. Rather if the Lord forgets something, then it does not exist. By forgetting our sins, the Lord does not simply declare us to be innocent, but He makes us innocent. Observe the paralytic in the Gospel of Mark: Jesus did not simply declare the man’s sins forgiven, He took away his paralysis which was a consequence of those sins. Jesus made him whole. And as a result of this great sign, all those present glorified God.
3. A notable feature of this healing miracle is that the paralyzed man could not come to Jesus on his own. But his friends desired his healing so much that they tore open the roof and let him down in front of Jesus. And Jesus did not heal the paralytic simply because of the paralytic’s faith. Rather, it was the faith of his friends that motivated Jesus to heal. Jesus saw their faith. We are called to imitate these wonderful friends. Sometimes others are simply unable to come to Jesus on their own. Maybe they are afraid, maybe they believe they are not worthy, maybe sin has paralyzed them. In that case, we must place them before Jesus in faith, begging Him to heal the sins that paralyze them. We must never give up. If the friends of the paralytic did not have an active faith, he would have remained not only paralyzed, but oppressed by his sins. In the same way, there are many areas of our lives which we must bind together to be effective. We need our family, we need our friends, we need our parish, we need our diocese, we need the whole Church.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (link to the Bible readings)
The Law of Moses stipulated that certain kinds of skin conditions were to be considered leprous. Those who suffered from these conditions were ritually unclean. Furthermore, they had to separate themselves from the general community. Probably not all of these had the illness now known as Hansen’s disease, but there was sufficient fear in the community that separation seemed right. We may look at such behavior as barbarous but we really have to understand that anti-biotics and other such treatments are relatively recent in the history of the world, in fact less than 100 years ago. Even in our own country there were leper colonies. There was one in Louisiana and the most famous one was on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. From the point of view of the community, separation of the lepers was a means to protect the community from the spread of the disease. The advanced forms were terrible to behold.

Although the treatments available for Hansen’s disease has made leper colonies a thing of the past, there may be other diseases or problems which are met with the same fear. When I was about to begin training in a hospital chaplaincy program, I had the Tuberculosis test as part of the general course. My skin test came back positive and immediately the manner in which I was treated by the hospital staff changed. They were terrified of me and in fact treated me rudely. (A chest x-ray revealed that I did not have the disease).

In the ancient world, leprosy was the kind of disease which people knew that only God could cure. If someone did in fact become well, they were instructed to present themselves to the priests who would declare them clean. Then they were to offer a special sacrifice to God in thanksgiving.

The general attitude of the People of God was that all diseases or illnesses or physical malfunctions or even problems were the result of sin. Indeed this belief is not foreign to us as Christians. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve brought corruption to the whole universe. Yet we know that not every problem is the result of a particular sin. Because leprosy was visibly corrupting the skin, and because of fear of contagion, leprosy was a sign of sin. The separation of the lepers from the community and the requirement that they shout Unclean, unclean and go about in torn clothes further added to sorrow. Only God could heal it, only God could really integrate someone back into the community.

The leper approached Jesus to ask for healing (Mark 1:40) because he believed that Jesus had the power to heal this dread disease. All that was lacking was the will of Jesus to accomplish it. And Jesus responded I do will it, be made clean (Mark 1:41). It is a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. He not only heals the man of a terrible ailment, but He provides for his reintegration into the community.

Note that Jesus does not simply accept the leper as a leper. I mean, Jesus did accept him and did not reject his entreaties. Jesus loved him. But in His love, Jesus did not leave him a leper. Nor did Jesus force the priests of the temple to accept the leper as clean when he was in fact, unclean. Rather, Jesus healed the man. Jesus made him clean. Such is the power of God.

Leprosy is a pretty good sign for sin (Although to suffer from leprosy itself is not sinful). When a person disobeys God, it just does not affect them alone, it affects the whole community. Lies and theft destroy trust. Murder destroys not only human lives, but often evokes the desire for revenge. Adultery and other sins of the flesh turns others into objects and is a sin against the family. Of course the worship of false gods puts a person’s whole life in disorder. There are sins which are so grave that they prevent a Christian from receiving Holy Communion. We do not require them to shout Unclean, but certainly that is how many people feel.

Although some sins make it inadvisable to receive communion, there is no sin for which we cannot receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. All we have to do is repent and ask God’s help. As well they should. We ought to return to him for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of our souls. Jesus indeed has the power to heal us. And just like He said to the leper I do will it, be made clean, Jesus has a healing will for our sins.

And the forgiveness we receive can be a great sign for others. When the leper told everyone what Jesus did for him, many others were convinced to come to Jesus to experience His mercy. So too, when others see and hear what Jesus has done for us, they will want to experience the healing of their souls too.

*A great book to read is the biography of Saint Damien, called "Damien the Leper" by John Farrow.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Meaning of Suffering

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year B.
1. Job was an upright man whom the Lord permitted to be tested through personal disaster, the death of his children, and through grave illness. Although Job strove to remain righteous by recognizing everything that he had was a gift from God, he nevertheless arrived at the point which we hear about in the first reading. The days were going by fast, the nights slowly. We may have the benefit of all kinds of technology, but Job’s experience is a universal human experience of suffering. We too may have had times in which the seconds seem to drag by, but the days pass all too quickly and there is no rest from our troubles.
2. The problem of suffering of whatever kind is the subject matter of the book of Job. The friends of Job try to convince him that he is guilty of some sin. Shall you say: "My teaching is pure, and I am clean in your sight"? But oh, that God would speak, and open his lips against you, And tell you that the secrets of wisdom are twice as effective: So you might learn that God will make you answer for your guilt (Job 11:4-6) But Job cannot identify any such sin. When Job breaks down and asks God to explain why things are the way they are, God does not answer his question. Instead God asks Job to explain the universe, which of course Job cannot. In the end of the Book, God restores Job to his previous happiness. The philosophical conclusion of the book is that suffering is a mystery not fully comprehensible.
3. At the time of Jesus most people held that illness and other disastrous problems were a direct result of sin, much like the friends of Job tried to convince him. Jesus does not denounce all of this kind of thinking, but neither does He go with it. (To the Paralyzed man, Jesus said your sins are forgiven (Mark 2:5); but regarding the man born blind Jesus said Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him (John 9:3) As Catholics, we believe that in the big picture, suffering entered the world through sin. Nevertheless not all suffering is the result of a particular sin. As human beings however, we must admit that we often try to explain our suffering in that regard. We ask God “Why me? What did I do to deserve this...?” And there is not always an answer. It is true that God permits the suffering. Nothing continues to exist without at least God’s silent permission. But He does not cause it. Scripture says Because God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living (Wisdom 1:13).
4. With the advent of Jesus, however, suffering undergoes a change. When Jesus confronts suffering or illness, He heals the person. Regardless of what is the cause, sin or a natural problem, He heals it, such as He did for Simon Peter’s mother in law and all the others who came to the house (see Mark 1:29-34). Jesus’ mercy went out to those who were oppressed or possessed by evil spirits. It only took a word from Him and the demons left people alone.
5. When we read of these miraculous healings we might be amazed. In our modern, scientific manner we might be convinced that there are perfectly natural explanations to all these miracles. But miracles still happen. I saw someone on her deathbed with cancer. Her organs were failing, her skin color was bright orange, and she burning up with the fever that often precedes death. I anointed her and left fully expecting to never see her alive again. But two weeks later she was back in Church completely well and no trace of cancer in her body.
6. Likewise I knew someone so oppressed by evil that even saying the prayer Come Holy Spirit caused him great distress, and being sprinkled with Holy Water made him become as stiff as a board. Yet later, through the power of Jesus he was freed from the oppression and able to praise God freely.
7. The change that overtook suffering when Jesus appeared is not simply that He exercised authority and power to free people from their pain and sorrow and shared that power with others. Rather Jesus , in His own Passion and Death Jesus gave suffering a new meaning. Previously, suffering was for the most part a sign of sin, a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. But now, it has become a means of being united with God. It does not indicate that suffering is never the result of sin, it means that Jesus has taken the curse and turned it into a blessing because in our crosses, we become like Jesus Himself.
8. Our world is in great need of the transformation of suffering. The suffering of the innocent often leads to people rejecting God, whereas in Christ we can turn to God for healing. And despair over suffering has lead many people to embrace such sins as suicide and euthanasia. I am not speaking only in terms of their interior acceptance, but in practice. For example in some places, it is possible for a doctor to administer poisons to an elderly or sick person. Such attitudes and behavior have severe consequences for our society. Could a doctor remain committed to health if he or she regularly administered death? Would not the insurance industry be tempted to require the death of certain types of patients in order to avoid costly treatment? (It has not happened, but what if it did?) And what would happen to us, if we as Christians rejected the Cross or refused our share in the cross of Christ? (Make no mistake that is what it would be. ) Would our sufferings truly be over because we avoided them in this world? Are we to become so short sighted that we would fail to see the big picture of eternity? We are not made only for this life, but forever.
9. On the other hand, those who unite themselves to Christ, even if they suffer have hope, for there is nothing which can separate from God’s love in Jesus Christ. There is hope that the Lord can cure us, and He can. But there is still hope if the Lord chooses to delay our healing until the resurrection on the Last Day, when every tear will be wiped away. Suffering is indeed a mystery, but it is not without meaning and grace. The cross is the instrument of our salvation and it is the means of our union with the entire Jesus Christ. Through Christ, through His passion and death, suffering has been transformed into power and thus been overcome.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Prophet To Whom We Shall Listen

1. A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen (Deuteronomy 18:15). We understand and believe that this statement is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19-23). God had sent the prophets to the Israelites to announce His Word to them. After the Lord had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt, He was intending to speak to each of them and all of them. But they begged God not to speak to them because they were afraid that they would die if He did.
2. All these prophets whom the Lord sent to His people, however, were types of the prophet to come. Even John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest man born of woman, was a precursor to Jesus. Whereas the other prophets announced the word of the Lord, Jesus is the Living Word of God- God Himself. Jesus is the One who knows the Father from all eternity. As the Son of God, Jesus has received everything from the Father (see John 12:49-50). For this reason, Saint Mark tells us that Jesus spoke with authority (Mark 1:21-28). He had no need to quote the opinions of others about the meaning of the Scriptures. He spoke on His own behalf as God.
3. And Jesus’ words have power. Just previously to this scene in Mark, Jesus called Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. They left their fishing boats on the shore and followed him. Matthew and the others would also leave their occupations to follow just because He asked. In the Gospel this morning, we hear about Jesus power over the unclean spirits. Just one word from our Lord is sufficient to cause the demon to leave the man alone. This display of authority and power certainly attracted the attention of the people in Jesus’ day. He obviously is one to whom we should pay attention.
4. As Christians, however, we are called to do more than simply pay attention. Certainly we must begin with that. But God is calling us to do much more. Once, Moses told Joshua Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all! (Numbers 11:29). In baptism this is exactly what has happened. The Lord has bestowed His Spirit on us. It is His intention and will that we be prophets in the world. The basic characteristic of a prophet is to speak the word of God. In the Old Testament, the prophets prepared God’s people for the coming of the Messiah. Now Jesus has fulfilled all these expectations and prophecies. Jesus alone is the Holy One who leads us to the Father (John 14:6). So we do not have to prepare people for the coming Messiah (although in a sense we do, since He is coming again).
5. But the Prophets of Old also corrected others in their faults. And that task is never going to go away. Every one of us is in constant need of deeper conversion to Christ. And our world desperately needs prophetic witness with regard to the Law of God especially the Living Law which is Jesus. Prophecy however, is not about standing apart, pointing fingers, and condemning. It is a service given for the good of others and the community. It requires involvement so that the prophet is not simple saying what is wrong, but participating in the solution. For example, Nathan the prophet rebuked David the King when David committed adultery and then had Uriah killed (2 Samuel 12:7-12). But Nathan was an advisor to the King and continued to serve him. Similarly, when we correct others it cannot flow from our arrogance, but from our desire that others be holy. Of course, the prophetic person has to humble himself or herself and accept correction also. We all need to repent of our particular sins. If we proclaim the desire for mercy, or justice, if we seek to benefit from the generosity of others, we must strive to be merciful, just, and generous ourselves. As prophets of the Lord, we cannot forget that it is Christ whom we proclaim. And Jesus Christ our Lord is merciful, is just, is generous and loving and all good.
6. It seems a little unusual then, if it is Jesus Christ whom we are called to proclaim that Jesus would command the unclean spirit to be silent (see Mark 1:25 etc). He would not let the demon tell others who He was. Why? Possibly because demons have a tendency to tell lies. Or maybe another reason. Jesus’ exercise of authority and power got many people to follow Him around. But Jesus was not there merely to preach with authority or to cast out the evil spirits or heal the sick. He was there to save us from our sins by dying on the Cross. Unless we accept the Cross, we are not accepting the whole Christ. Unless we proclaim that, we are not proclaiming the whole Christ.