Metanoia! (2)

During Lent, we are preaching a new series that we are calling “Metanoia!” Yes, it is a Greek word, the language in which the New Testament was written. And no, we are not trying to be fancy. We are using metanoia because this is probably the worse translation of a single word in the whole of the Bible.

When Jesus returns from the desert, he says “Metanoia!” and traditionally we hear the English verb “Repent!” When we hear “repent” we automatically think of sin. When we hear “repent” we think about something specific we did wrong, for which we show remorse, nothing else necessarily. The word metanoia really means “change,” a “change of heart,” “a change of mentality,” “transformation,” and in religious terms, conversion. All these definitions are wider, and more dynamic—and more what we are called to do during Lent—than repentance. We are not saying that sin does not exist, rather that repentance may be just one step in the process of change, and we may find out that some of the things we need to change are not even sins.

Embracing the centuries-old wisdom of the Church, during Lent we are asked to consider the three Lenten Observances: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As we said in our previous post, they are to become habits (you know, you do them for a period of time and habits form behavior.) As we read—like every year on the 1st Sunday of Lent—the passage of the Temptations, I propose that we understand the Lenten observances as going against three temptations we may all experience.

Prayer goes against the temptation to live as if God did not exist.

Fasting goes against the temptation to live as if the others did not exist.

Almsgiving goes against the temptation to live as if the poor did not exist.

When we say we believe in God but we do not pray to Him, we are falling into the temptation of living as if God did not exist. We worry more than we pray (when, as we have said before, worry is a dialogue with ourselves about things we do not control; prayer is a dialogue with God about things God controls already!) The model of prayer for Lent (directly from the gospel we read on Ash Wednesday) is individual, silent prayer. We do not fill our time of prayer with words we have memorized. It is a very challenging type of prayer because silence is difficult, but only in silence may we hear God communicating with us.

Fasting goes against the temptation to think that others do not exist. The purpose of fasting is to symbolize externally the internal desire to empty ourselves to make room for Christ. Fasting is an invitation to give up self, our sometimes inflated sense of entitlement, our very human tendency to place ourselves first, in the center of our lives. We only fast twice a year—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—but most of us do give up something in Lent. We could explore giving up self-serving behaviors. Fasting reminds us that we do not need as much stuff—material or not—as we provide for ourselves.

In Isaiah we read, “This is the fasting I wish: setting free the oppressed, sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless,” a Biblical citation that helps us to connect fasting with almsgiving. Almsgiving goes against the temptation to live as if the poor did not exist. We have explained this before also: if we give up something material, like many give up desert, sweets, coffee, etc., during Lent, we should give the money we save to the poor. Our fasting at this basic level would be helping someone else. As John Chrysostom said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage to others.” Almsgiving is just a symbol to fight what the Holy Father has recently called “the globalization of indifference.” We fight indifference towards the marginalized learning to feel what Jesus felt with the leper: being moved with tenderness and compassion before someone’s ordeal.

This is part of what the Holy Father preached on Ash Wednesday: “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” “We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

As Jesus proclaims today, “Change!” because the Kingdom of God is at hand. Lent becomes this time of opportunity for us. But we will only change the world, to make it look more like the Kingdom, if we first change ourselves—and we can begin by embracing the prayer, the fasting, and the almsgiving of Holy Lent.

How is your Lent going? How are you praying, fasting and giving this Lent? 

Lent 2015

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Metanoia!

With the celebration of Ash Wednesday we have begun a new season of Lent. A new season in the Church that should be a new season in our lives. Lent is a time to prepare for Holy Week and for Easter, the Passover of our Lord. At Sacred Heart, we begin a series called “Metanoia!” The use of the original Greek word is not an attempt to be fancy. It is because this word, that is central to the Lenten imagination, is probably the worst translated word in the whole of the New Testament.

John first, and then Jesus, called for a personal “metanoia,” not exactly for repentance, as it is traditionally translated. Yes, we are sinners and we are in need of repentance. But metanoia is more aptly translated as change; a change of heart; a change of mentality; a conversion.

I believe the idea behind repentance is more restrictive, perhaps I need to change something that is not exactly a sin; and repentance seems to be more about isolated moments of sin, whereas “change” seems to indicate a more holistic approach, conveying the idea of a journey or a process, future oriented.

As we reflected during our last series on identity, part of what we can do to change our personalities is done through establishing habits. The gospel we read on Ash Wednesday is the scriptural basis for the Church’s centuries-long tradition of the Lenten Observances. They are actually habits: prayer, fasting, alms giving.

As we said during Advent, and in our last post, the prayer mentioned in this gospel is the individual prayer in silence. If we use too many words we may not hear God speaking to us. We are going to need to be intentional about praying, as prayer in silence requires a lot of discipline.

Fasting, which is only to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (the latter technically already outside of the season of Lent) is also a habit, to show restraint and to symbolize that we need to empty ourselves to make room for Jesus Christ.

As a cultural updating to the idea of fasting, traditionally we give up something specific during Lent. People choose to give up desert, alcohol or chocolate, for instance. This is a good symbol, but we should be aware that giving up these things should translate into money we save to fulfill the third Lenten observance: alms giving.

I believe we should give up something at this level, but also something else at a deeper level. If we ask someone who loves us what we should really give up for Lent, I doubt they would say chocolate or sweets. They may point at some negative habit in our personality, perhaps how much we complain, how much we gossip, or how much anger we seem to carry. We should give up something that saves us money that then we can give to the poor, but we can also give up some entrenched behavior, and we may need someone to tell us what that could be (it often is so obvious to everyone except ourselves!)

The personal transformation of Lent can only be accomplished through God’s grace. A cross of ashes on our foreheads reminds us that we can’t accomplish much without God’s help, and those who He keeps sending to our lives.

Lent 2015Blog pic, Ash Wednesday

The Gospel of the Marginalized

Read the gospel again. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a leper in the time of Jesus? Lepers were forbidden from entering towns and from interacting with other people. They had to identify themselves as lepers in the way they dressed, even ringing bells so people would know a leper was coming their way. Lepers were to abandon family and livelihood and live with other lepers in separated colonies. In a society in which the civil and religious spheres were intertwined, and as the text repeats several times today, a leper was declared “unclean.” There was the social understanding that such a cruel illness had to necessarily be God’s punishment for something the leper had done (very convenient!). The leper is an example not only of societal discrimination, but also of marginalization sanctioned by Law. Wasn’t it difficult to add “The Word of the Lord” after the first reading today?

It took courage for the leper to approach Jesus. He had to be apprehensive not only about what would be Jesus’ response, but also about the fact that approaching him was forbidden by law. For the healing to take place, Jesus had to break the law as well. What is interesting in this gospel is that the leper is the one who cannot enter the town at the beginning of the gospel. He is restored to society—as it happens in many of Jesus’ healing miracles, but it is Jesus who can’t openly enter the towns after the healing. Jesus has traded places with the leper—he is now the marginalized one, he has become the outcast. Jesus takes upon himself the leper’s marginalization. This is why Jesus asks the leper not to publicize the event: Jesus knows perfectly what will happen to him if the leper explains how he was healed.

The second reading today concludes with a call to be “imitators of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1.) For us to be imitators of Christ we need first to be able to be “moved by pity” like he was in seeing the dire situation of the leper. And “moved by pity” is a very soft translation. The verb used in the original Greek conveys the idea of compassion, being filled with tenderness, and a total internal discomfort in your gut.

For us to be imitators of Christ we have to be willing to establish the human connection. Did you notice that Jesus touches the leper? He is the Son of God. He could have snapped his fingers and said to the leper, “Be clean.” But he touches him, a gesture that symbolizes that we can’t really help someone unless there is some human connection. Jesus did not act from a safe distance, as the Holy Father has preached today, adding that “contact is the true language of communication.”

Allow me to give an example: In my faith community, the Advent Giving Tree is tremendously successful, and I am very proud of it. During Advent we hang cards on the tree asking for specific gifts for families and children in need. Parishioners can take one card and come back with their gift, which is stored in the church and shipped to those we help. I was very proud to see that we had to replenish the tree on the second weekend! But there was no real contact between the helper and the helped. The same happens when we help charities financially—which is very necessary and very good. But again, there is no contact between the donor and the individual or the group the charity serves.

Finally, in order to be imitators of Christ, we have to be open to “mess” our lives in helping others. Jesus risked his reputation, his own position in society to help someone. He did not have three strategic planning meetings with his disciples before he decided to help the leper. Helping people does not respond to an organized schedule. People are in need beyond Christmas, for instance, when we all feel strongly the need to help. The lives of those in need are often messy, and we have to have the courage to mess our own lives the way Jesus did in today’s gospel.

We cannot be afraid of helping others. We cannot hide ourselves behind laws and social conventions—for instance, think about those who dismiss the immigration issue by just saying that illegal immigrants “broke the law” and ignore the human tragedy. That is not enough, at least not enough for a disciple of Jesus.

This Sunday, the Holy Father has preached that ours is the “Gospel of the Marginalized” before the College of Cardinals. He urged them “to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast … I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is marginalized, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! … Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” (To get to Holy Father’s whole homily, click here.)

Blog pic, the leper

Who Do You Think You Are? (5 and final)

We come to the end of our series Who Do You Think You Are? We started back at the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We said then that at the baptism Jesus strongly feels that he is the Son of God, deeply beloved by him. We said that this was also our ultimate identity. We then said that this final identity is sometimes in tension, even in contradiction, with the identity we often choose for ourselves. Our identities are based on “passing things” when we are called to eternity; our identities are generally based on “partial things” when we are called to wholeness.

We also reflected on how important this sense of identity is, as it drives our actions, shapes what kinds of relationships we establish, and grounds our values (or priorities)—credit to Fr. White from Rebuilt for making this very good point. In the next installment we reflected about one of the ways in which we can fulfill our potential, which is through discipleship. And because we read in church the gospel in which Jesus enters a synagogue and finds a man possessed by demons, we reflected about our identity as a faith community, looking at some of the “demons” that may be at work in our own place.

One of the ideas that has been present in this series is that there is a dynamic sense of identity, that there is a sense of choice and progress. There is a lot of choice in how we decide to present ourselves, what identity we choose to present to others. The framework, the background, the source of our identity is what psychology calls personality. There is some choice in how we present ourselves to others, whereas personality is a set of traits, some learned and some ingrained.

Simplifying a very complex issue, personality has two components: temperament and character. The source of temperament is basically genetics. It is our basic design, the way we were made. For instance, I am my mother’s son. She normally does not filter much: what she thinks and what she says. Again, I am my mother’s son, and if you know me, you know what I am talking about. This is part of my temperament. It is really difficult to modify temperament, for many psychologists it is impossible. (I joked in church that the good looks come from my father…) The second component is character. Character is much more flexible. Its source is habit, and life experience. It is the part of our personalities that we can really change.

In this Sunday’s gospel I see three elements that could help us to modify character and grow. I see them as habits.

The first element I see is that the sign of the miracle is that the woman who has been healed immediately waited on them – in other words, she served them. Jesus’ miracles are often a restoration, a lifting up of a person. The minute a person is restored, the person “gets to work” and serves (which we have insisted is one of the things disciples do: serve.) We should get in the habit of serving. Jesus speaks about service all the time—so doing what Jesus tells us to do should be reason enough. If we need more, we also know that service helps not only those being served, but it also transforms the one serving. Service is good for you. We have insisted at Sacred Heart that one of the pillars of our vision is to provide ample opportunity for service. We have said, “Service begins here.”

The second thing I see in this gospel is that Jesus prays, and we should get in the habit of praying. However, his prayer is not (often) like our prayer. We mostly do intercessory prayer—we pray so that someone is restored to health, for instance. Or we use prayers from the rich reservoir of the church, like the Rosary. Nothing wrong with that. Or we pray for ourselves when we are in trouble, when we fear some bad thing coming our way. However, the prayer of Jesus in this gospel is a different kind of prayer, it is a prayer of discernment. Lots of people follow him, and he is healing many. But he goes to a deserted place by himself and prays before deciding what to do. (Jesus prays even when things seem to go well!)

The third element is that Jesus moves forward. Coming back from praying in solitude, Jesus states, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” For this purpose, to continue fulfilling his identity, Jesus moves forward. Even his disciples wanted him to stay there and just keep doing what he was doing. But Jesus did not settle. We come to a point in our lives where we get comfortable, or lazy, and we do not move on. We should get in the habit of never settling down. A disciple of Jesus should never feel as we have reached a place of comfort, a place to “stay.” This may sound theoretical but there are practical ways to live this out: to continue learning, reading, feeding our curiosity for things; establishing new relationships, trying new things… There are many ways to avoid this very human tendency to just settle.

We have reached the end of the series. Wrapping up, we are called to constant personal transformation. Knowing that we are the beloved children of God should give us the confidence and the strength to undertake this constant, dynamic transformation. I am not who I think I am, not who people think I am. I am not my past; I am not an addition of all my mistakes, of all my sins. I know that God loves me already. He loves me regardless of “where” I am. But all the same, He invites me to move forward, to grow, and to become the best person I can be, the best version of myself. The person, the identity, He created me to be.

Identity FP 2015

Who Do You Think You Are? (Part 4 of 5)

The title of the series for this fourth installment could have been slightly changed, from Who Do You Think You are? To Who Do You Think WE are?

Why? In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum, the “parish” of his time, and he finds a man possessed by a demon. While we all tend to hear “demonic possession” and think of the (great) 1973 movie The Exorcist, demonic possession in this text means that the synagogue was “possessed” by some kind of ideology or tendency that kept the institution from fulfilling its mission.

We could preach today about the demons in our society (materialism, massive social injustice, for instance); or we could preach about our “personal demons”—our personal attitudes, ideologies or behaviors that keep us from being good Christians… But the text today is really about the demons to be found in the religious system of Jesus’ time, a system Jesus constantly criticized. More than speaking about the demons in the Church, I believe the invitation today is to reflect about the demons in the faith community I (try to) shepherd.

Preaching to my congregation, I had to include a disclaimer here: I can speak about the demons at Sacred Heart because in many ways, I am criticizing myself–I am not alone, but I am the pastor; also, because I love this place and I have come to love my parishioners. Also, because I see a lot of potential, but I believe efforts to improve begin by taking a very honest look at our shortcomings.

I also joked that I had a list of thirteen demons, but that given the allotted normal time for a homily, I had reduced the list to four. Here are they:

The Demon of the Faith Consumer Mentality: Here, like in many other faith communities, we come with the influence of a market-place society, in which companies fight for our preference and money. We are more consumers of faith than people striving to become disciples. If we are a client, parish staff (including the pastor) are there to pander to my needs. Financial stewardship is just a membership, and I listen to Father’s homily and I will decide if I like it or not, if I find it interesting or not. I am more about receiving than giving.

The Demon of Faith Privacy: We tend to think that faith is a private matter. Jesus states, “Love one another,” and we have heard it in homilies a million times. But, how are we going to love people if we really do not know them? We can come to church for years and never ever get to know the rest of the people who happen to worship with us. I believe it is part of what we mean when we say that faith is personal, but not private. Here at Sacred Heart we believe that our flagship ministry, FaithGroups, helps to overcome this demon (click here if you want to know more about it.) There is no way you join a group, speak and listen about faith and life with other individuals, and you do not get to love them half-way into the first session.

The Demon of Unfriendliness: Simply stated, we, Churchpeople, are not very friendly. Statistics show that the second most important reason why we do not attract the unchurched (only second to lousy preaching) is because we are not friendly to visitors. There are a lot of grumpy people working in churches. We preach the Gospel of Joy, but we do not opt to make sure we actually live out that joy. The longer we have been in the church business, the grumpier we are (I invite you to read this post by Father White, from Nativity Church, co-author of Rebuilt.) As he says, insider jokes, dirty facilities, fake smiles to guests just because we know we need them to grow…all symptoms of our unfriendliness.

The Demon of Passivity: Perhaps connected to the first demon is that we do not see our faith as a “call to action.” We try to live our faith without the demands living this faith should have in our attitude towards the poor, the marginalized, the excluded. This demon invades us when we come to Mass just because we are fulfilling the Sunday obligation (and we “get it out of the way” as quickly as we can.) It also invades us when we “believe” faith but we don’t “do” faith. My faith is about just fulfilling a few rules (how many times have we discussed this in this blog already,) and little more. Faith also can become a very intellectual effort, it can really stay just in our minds. Many priests preach “knowledge” but here we try to change lives—beginning by mine. The demon in today’s gospel knows who Jesus was, the Holy One of God, even better than his disciples know at that time. But knowledge of who Jesus was, knowledge about the faith will mean nothing if it does not inspire and strengthen us for action.

Is this a pessimistic approach? I do not believe so. But if it is not good news then we are not preaching the Gospel. The Good News with all this is that Jesus wins over the demon, and the possessed man is restored to fullness. We can become better, personally and as a faith community, if we let Jesus and his values take over. This is just one more way to define discipleship. Any faith community has to reflect continuously about its identity, its strengths and its demons.

Who do we think we are? We are a community with many gifts and a few demons that we can surely overcome.

Do you see these demons in your faith community (whether it is Sacred Heart or not)? Do you identify others? Do you have recipes for the demons you see?

Identity FP 2015