Wednesday, November 25, 2015


ADVENT WORDS do not flop over and die.
The watch.
They wait.
They wake. 
They warn
Of disaster, destruction, and doom,
Of glory, and guilt, and goodness, and
They tell us
"Reflect and repent;"
"Rejoice and renew:"
These are the words I pass on to you.

                                                            The Tree of Jesse


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Trust the old piece rediscovered

The Gospel of John says "Nicodemus came to Jesus by night." And so must we, groping in darkness for the outlines of an unseen presence.
   On the day this was written I had had a CT-Scan at the hospital. This was to satisfy my doctor's concern over a small spot located in the upper regions of my left lung. "It's probably some old scar tissue," he mused. "Probably nothing to worry about." (It wasn't)
    It is dark inside a lung, I presume, and into that darkness the electronic gadget probes, seeking truth. It's beam passes undeterred through my outer wall and into the cave of my inner self.
    That night the inner truth about my left lung was hovering somewhere in cyber-space, waiting for my doctor to look on the web and retrieve it.
     Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and a favorite spiritual author of mine, says that night is a time for monks to learn to "trust in night". This is because "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." If there were no darkness, how could we perceive the light?
     Does God live in the dark interior of a person's lung? Was God speaking to me through an as-yet-undiagnosed "2mm density" nestled there in the darkness? Brother David believes that God speaks through EVERYTHING, in one way or another. I wondered if God were saying, "Jonathan, I am going remove all your darkness, so that light can fill you up completely? " I thought to my myself, "I wonder if you mean to remove all the parts of me that enclose the dark, like, for instance, my skin and skeleton and things like that. If that is what you propose, I hope you can hold off for awhile, a long while, even." Did I hear God chuckle in the darkness? "Hey, this is not funny!" I exclaimed. "I know you are scared," God hinted, whispered. "Trust the night."
    We follow Nicodemus into the night, seeking Jesus. "You must be born from above," Jesus tells him, and us. New flesh, new bones, new self, new life. We are to become spiritual Neo-Nates, blinded by the light, our outer walls having slipped strangely away.
     "I can do this without having cancer," I pointed out to God. "Thanks for reminding me", God said, and then, once again, "trust the night."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Christ the King of Bullies

I can’t stand bullies. Once, when our daughter Caitlin was in Middle School, I was watching her play soccer and overheard the opposing coach tell his team to “trip those other girls.” (In fact, he said it loud enough so everyone in the stands could hear). Without thinking, I said to Nancy and our other children sitting beside me, “If somebody trips Caitlin I’m going to burn his car.” No one got tripped, and I have never burned anyone’s car, but my violent aversion to bullies remains. Thus, I take great pleasure when, at the end of each episode of “CSI: Miami” or “Criminal Minds”, the depraved bad guys get blown away by Horatio Kane or some other representative of heroic goodness.
I think many people feel a deep-seated urge to see evil brought down and righteousness vindicated for all to see. In the First reading for “Christ the King Sunday”, the Prophet Ezekiel reflects this same concern when he depicts Israel’s vindication in terms of a shepherd who destroys the bullying fat sheep and establishes safe, bully-free pastures for those who had been oppressed.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.” (Ezekiel 34: 20/21, 16)

You might say that God is going to punish the false shepherds of Israel by burning their cars.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The summer I turned 18 I went to work for a church agency in Chicago that ran a summer camp for troubled boys. Some of the campers were the same age as me, and some were expert bullies, but I can state with certainty that all of them had been bullied themselves, some by abusive or negligent parents, some by the system, and some just by life. Knowing these boys as I did, it became impossible for me to demonize them. It seemed clear that, if there was to be any healing, any change in the cycle of violence, it would not be the result of any form of revenge or punishment, much less burning someone’s car.
I would say the same thing about the way God works. If Christ is “King” in any sense, it is because he establishes an entirely different sort of kingship. In Ephesians 1:20, we read how “God put [the divine] power to work to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…[and] put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things…”. That sounds like standard kingship language, except for the part about “far above.” I take this as an indication that the “power” of Christ is of an entirely different sort than that which, as Mao Tse Tung put it, “grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Christ is a king who rules from the cross, without armies or police to enforce his decrees. His authority is exercised in forgiving, healing, and blessing, without coercion, and without revenge.
In one way or another, we are all bullies, and therefore have lost all claim to serve as righteous avengers. Christ the “King” appears among us as a “Good” shepherd, seeking out the lost and restoring the scattered flock. When he himself is scapegoated and bullied, Christ the nonviolent Lamb absorbs the violence and renounces vengeance. When the resurrection occurs, it does not result in some vast public vindication of his kingship, but only in confirmation of what his message had been all along: nonviolent discipleship, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. Christ is a “king” who appears incognito, hungry and in need of food, sick and in need of treatment, homeless and in need of shelter. According to the Gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday, there is only one way to become a citizen of this kingdom, and that is the way of compassion. “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to Christ the King.”
As always, there are ways we can exclude ourselves. We can insist on our prerogative to burn the cars of those we regard as bullies, and then expect that we ourselves be exalted as heroes. We can insist on the standard version of kingship, power, and dominion. It seems clear that God will let us do that, but in the gospels it is even more clear that God will not desist from subverting our violent righteousness, exposing our pretentious rage, and enticing us into a kingdom “prepared before the foundation of the world.”