Yesterday as its editor, I worked on the Sunday by Sunday issues for Advent, Christmas, and after. The Two Feet feature in the issue for the 1st Sunday of Advent recommends observing World AIDS Day, December 1, by visiting UNAIDS. The World Health Organization initiated this day to reduce the shame and spread of AIDS. The AIDS quilt project to remember those who died grew out of this awareness building. At UNAIDS I found current statistics. To date world wide, 60 million have died.

In 2000 the United Nations made halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS one of its eight Millennium Development Goals to achieve by 2015, a year drawing near. New infections are down. Anti-retrovirus drugs allow some 33 million people to live with HIV, five million more surviving than in 2005. About two million people still die each year. Sixteen million children have lost their parents.

A colleague emailed a professor friend finishing up her last two weeks on a Fulbright grant in Zambia. The numbers above are just statistics to most of us in the U.S. but in Zambia it’s daily life. The friend writes,

“The Fulbright evaluation asks what cultural events I attend. All I could reply was to note all the funerals I have attended or contributed money to. So many adults dying—AIDS is always alluded to but never acknowledged.”

How to Help the Hungry

Bread for the World calls attention to new hunger data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released September 7. For the third year in a row a record high 14.5% of American households suffer food insecurity. What is worse, the USDA reports 25% of African-American and 26% of Hispanic households experience food insecurity compared with 10.8% of white households. That’s a lot of folks having trouble putting food on the table.

Sisters Joan and Therese with David BeckmanLast fall I interviewed David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, when he received the World Food Prize for his leadership of this Christian lobbying organization over the past for 20 years. He left a post as an economist at the World Bank to become an advocate for far less salary for the hungry. Beckmann combines three callings in one in his work. He is a Lutheran pastor, an economist who analyzes hunger needs and program effectiveness, and an advocate for the least among us.

In my time as a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph leadership team I got calls from folks that needed food. And, yes, we discovered a group that scammed us for baby formula. Like all who tend the backdoors of rectories or convent, we had to make up our minds about whose need was genuine. Today’s figures testify that unemployment is keeping need high for millions who are using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other nutrition programs to get by.

Bread for the World offers us Christians help in protecting food programs for the least as Congress battles to cut the national deficit. Beckmann urges Christians who give to food pantries to also write to their representatives in Congress. According to Beckmann in his book Exodus from Hunger, all the faith-based feeding programs combined provide only 6% of the assistance needed in our nation. Government helps us do together what we can’t do for the hungry as individual families and parishes. Investigate joining in the work with this ecumenical, nonpartisan organization:

Click here for Bread for the World’s U.S. hunger facts.

A Labor Day Blessing

“Prosper for us the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17)

When all are gathered, the leader lights a center candle and begins.

LEADER: Christ, our Light, has called us to follow his example.
ALL: May our work this week be done in his light and shed his love on those we meet.

LEADER: Let us pause to reflect on how our work can aid others.
Brief pause for reflection.
LEADER: Lord, prosper for us the work of our hands.
ALL: Bless those who work with us.

LEADER: If the Lord is not with us, we labor in vain (Ps 127:1).
ALL: Lord, prosper for us the work of our hands.

PSALM 90:1-2, 13-17
LEADER: Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
ALL: Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

LEADER: Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
ALL: Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.

LEADER: Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.  Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands.
ALL: Prosper for us the work of our hands.

LEADER: We work to provide for what we need.  Jesus teaches us to pray and trust that God’s work is to provide what we truly need.

READER: A reading from Luke 11:2-4, 9-13

Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Abba God, hallowed be your Name! May your reign come. Give us today tomorrow’s bread. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the Test’.
I tell you, keep asking and you’ll receive; keep looking and you’ll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted.  What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child asks for a fish, or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Abba give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?

LEADER: As partners with God who share God’s work in and for our world, let us pray that God will bless all workers who better the world through their labor.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: That the work of the human community, whether in homes or factories, in service or scientific professions, in roles of leadership or in roles of directly caring for others, may bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: That God will bless those who seek work but cannot find it, who are homeless or unable to work, who have no way to obtain daily bread by their own efforts; and that those who have enough share the fruits of their labor with their sisters and brothers in need.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: That God will bless all those whose lives are put at risk by their labor and those who serve their brothers and sisters through the night hours.
ALL: Bless their lives and the work of their hands.

LEADER: Let us pray with thanks for being the work of God’s hands.
ALL: With thanks for the work we have been given to do, we ask that all who do work begin in God’s inspiration, continue in God’s care, and end in God’s love. Amen.

from Blessing Rites for Christian Lives by Shawn Madigan, CSJ.

Exploring Recent Theologies of God

Reading theology is one way to keep faith. Study often leads to insight and sometimes prayer. Theology helps me find words for my small graced moments and recognize the broad trends in which we live.

So I’m teaching a theology course this fall on Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God, Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum 2008). Sister Elizabeth writes this readable book for seekers, doubters keeping faith with their questions, and people nourishing others through teaching and preaching. That takes in a good many of us. It’s the short course on the theologies of the past 60 years.

A lively national dialogue has followed the March 2011 U.S. Catholic bishops’ critique of Quest and Sister Elizabeth’s response. The Committee on Doctrine critiques Quest for not starting with scripture and the Church’s teachings. Sister Elizabeth insists she has written from faith for faith.

Methods differ. To talk about God, we have to make analogies, comparisons. Commonly, many of us construct our idea of God out of the perfections of all that we know as good. God is transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, everlasting, all-loving, all-merciful, unchanging. In this method God is impassable, unable to suffer, because suffering is a negative. Many of us wind up with the question, “If God is all powerful, how can God let bad things happen to good people? “ Or, “How could God permit the Holocaust?”

The contemporary theologies that Quest surveys wrestle with such current questions. In responding to the Committee on Doctrine, Sister Elizabeth talks about lecturing for the South African Catholic Bishops conference in 1987 before apartheid ended. Going in, she assumed the impassibility of God.

When she lectured on the cross, she included the theologies of Edward Schillebeeckx and Johannes Baptist Metz, who hold “God is compassionate toward those who suffer but suffering does not touch the being of God.” She also presented the thinking of Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothy Soelle, who wrestled with the Holocaust and “who hold in different ways that God indeed suffers on the cross and beyond.”

At the end of the lecture Sister Elizabeth asked which theologies resonated with audience. Overwhelmingly these priests and bishops who grieved the killings and violence against them, who mourned and buried too many dead, who faced terrible limits on their lives raised their hands for Moltmann and Soelle. They had experienced God suffering with them, accompanying them in their horrors. As Sister Elizabeth explored the scriptures, she found the bible bears out their experience that God sees and hears pain and come to liberate, for example, in the Exodus.

The Second Vatican Council in its Document on Revelation (Dei Verbum) describes the gospel making progress in the world in three ways—the study and experience of believers (that’s all of us) and the preaching of bishops—or as the document itself says:

  • Through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts.
  • From the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.
  • From the preaching of those who have received along with the right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth. Thus as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her” (#8).

The gospel advances through our study and spiritual experience as well as through officials of the Church. This is a call to listen one another’s insights into words that will nourish our faith today.

If you are close enough to St. Paul, Minnesota, join our seminar and if not join the conversation here online. Start a conversation where you live. Gather a circle of friends who want to keep faith. I’ll let you know what is happening in our group.

Registration Information: 

The course is offered at the Hedgerow Initiative at the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St Paul, MN.

Click here for the syllabus for Here Be Dragons: A Dialogue with Quest for the Living God

You can sign up for the course here — $220 for the entire series or $25 per session. Register for as many as you can attend.

Order the book from Good Ground Press (800-832-5533 or 651-690-7010), Continuum, or wherever you find religious books.

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New Martin Luther King Jr. Statue Dedicated This Week

MLK memorial
Photo courtesy of the Knight Foundation Creative Commons License

A guest post from Good Ground Press, Co-Publisher, Therese Sherlock, CSJ

A new statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was dedicated on the Washington Mall this week.  It got me thinking about the civil rights struggle.  Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., led freedom marchers one week and the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses the next.  It seemed like our nation was going to be torn apart.

But it wasn’t.  Instead historians found that the common man and common woman were being converted.  In his book, There Goes My Everything, Jason Sokol focuses first on the white southerners who opposed integration and voter registration, whose names we know all too well—Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Bull Connor, Sheriff Clark.  But he also gives voice to the confusion, mixed feelings and doubts of many whose names we don’t know.  And many of them changed their minds.

One of Sokol’s examples is a New Orleans woman, the mother of nine.  She supported segregation, but defied the boycott of a newly integrated school because she couldn’t bear the thought of her four grade school children at home with her, making noise and getting into trouble.  After weeks of abuse from fellow whites, this woman said she didn’t feel any freer than the blacks and from then on fought on their side.  The dire threats that the world would end if the races mixed never did materialize.

So what about now?  What can we salvage from our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan?  What will help a neighborhood whose murder rate goes up and up?  How can we learn from new immigrants rather than fear them?

The edge where things seem to be breaking down may be the edge where new growth can come.  What will happen if each of us tries to prune away some old, dead ideas or habits of thinking and speaking?  Poke around a little bit in the spot.  What signs of life are showing?  What looks like it might just work?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below and share this with your friends.

A prayer for the victims of Hurricane Irene

You will have pain and affliction,
trouble and strain and doubt. But you shall
not be overcome and all shall be well.
Yes, all shall be well, and all will be well,
and you shall see yourself that all manner
of things shall be well.

Julian of Norwich

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Peter is a rock; the Sunday after that Peter is a stumbling block

In the gospel for August 21 Peter is a rock; the Sunday after that Peter is a stumbling block.

This Sunday Peter is the heroic first believer, the leader among the disciples, who steps forward to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Next Sunday Peter is the lead antagonist, who rebukes Jesus for suggesting he will face conflict and death in Jerusalem but come through it “on the third day.”

This Sunday Peter is Bar Jonah, son of the prophet, a voice revealing who Jesus is; next Sunday Peter is Satan, open to the glory but not the cost of discipleship.

Only the gospel of Matthew gives us the image of Peter as a rock. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” In all three synoptic gospels Peter answers, “You are the messiah.” Only in Matthew does Jesus add, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” It’s an irony that Peter, the apostle whose failings we know best, gets the image of being a rock.

Peter is all hurrahs that Jesus is messiah but conflict and suffering—no. He doesn’t see the cost of bringing good news to the poor and preaching reform.

Peter, the impetuous, bounds out of the boat at Jesus’ invitation and walks on water until he looks and sinks like a rock.

Peter is certain he will stand by Jesus no matter what, then denies knowing Jesus rather than put his life at risk during Jesus’ trial.

Rock is a pun on Peter’s name but the image is contrary to his character and leadership. Peter is a learner, not a granite head. Peter’s tongue catches fire with a new message on Pentecost. He is fiery and responsive to the Spirit. Peter disregards Jewish law and visits the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. As he tells Jesus’ story, Peter sees the Holy Spirit poured out upon Cornelius and his whole household, so he baptizes and welcomes these outsiders into the Christian community. He is innovative and responsive to the Spirit.

Peter, the learner, approves Paul’s insistence that Gentile Christians need not keep the Jewish law. Far from being an impenetrable blockhead and rock, the Peter of history responds to the transforming power of Jesus and the Spirit in his life.

It is Matthew as he writes 25 years after Peter’s death that attaches this rock saying to the story of Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, making a rock of certainty of this innovative leader who spread the gospel into new frontiers. It is we who must notice that two chapters later in Matthew Jesus gives the authority to lose and bind also to the Christian community.

Today the Spirit pushes us like Peter to new frontiers. Vatican II called forth the people of God to full and active participation in the Church’s worship and life in the world. The rise of the laity—us—but we shouldn’t use that word laity because it means second class and we aren’t. We are baptized and called to holiness. How much participation of the people is too much? Leadership today arises from the grassroots as surely as from the top down. It is our obligation to lead in all the ways we can—to speak out, to act with compassion, to organize for the common good. We live under democratic governance in our country but under monarchial governance in the Church. Where is the Spirit that led Peter to Cornelius beyond the limits of Jewish law leading us? The frontiers hold tensions and conflicts.

Some people inevitably return to past answers and drop anchor in an earlier century. John Allen, the Vatican correspondent, estimates the Church will remain very conservative for 50 years. The Spirit will not let others rest.

We no long live in religious silos. Our neighbors may be Hindu, our coworkers Buddhist practitioners, and our clerk at the store a Muslim. What is the Christian mission in this new context? Who is Jesus in relation to Krishna or Buddha or Confucius?

The new evolutionary cosmology does a job on rocks of unchanging certainty. Now our cosmic history reveals God is creative and dynamic. Evolution happens though both pattern and chance, through law and freedom. We see the holy in all that is. No more do we divide matter and spirit. We have new questions like when does incarnation begin? Nine months before Jesus’ birth or at the big bang when the energy that animates all that is bursts forth and begins to unfold? The work of considering the Christian story within the frame of the evolving universe story is ongoing.

How do we develop skills for cherishing our differences and holding conflicts in tension rather than resolving or eliminating them as we do in competition. What if we trained for dialogue and negotiation the way Olympians do for sports?

Theologian Karl Rahner fifty years ago said that in the future Christians will be mystics or they will not be Christians at all. We have in Peter a model mystic who experienced the living God in Jesus, in the Spirit, in Cornelius, in Paul. Mystics are not weird visionaries but people who must seek the deepest truth for themselves. Mystics live consciously and pay attention to what troubles or torments them and what energizes them and gives them life. A mystic experiences the mystery that opens the future and that religious people call the living God.

I want to suggest a contemporary, organic image that expresses our call as Christians. Recently I visited urban kids working on a farm growing plants from heritage seeds their Native American elders have saved. I am visiting in the kitchen when the director pulls her worm colony out from under a table—a big box. She’s growing worms to help turn her compost heap into new, fertile topsoil.

The same week the newspaper features a friend’s permaculture garden. She, too, has a worm colony. I feel behind, wondering if everyone but me has worm colonies and isn’t telling me. Compost includes grass clippings, unused or rotten parts of vegetables, weeds, leaves, stuff that gets too old. We live immersed in compost, in all the writings, songs, images of the past. We are always making more out of what is. Is it too humble an image of us at the grassroots of our evolving Church to think of ourselves as a worm colony—called to transform all the garbage, the compost, into fertile ground?

Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

We ask ourselves several basic questions repeatedly in our lives. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

The Church answers these questions in regard to Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. Who is she? The Church answers, “The mother of God.”

Where does Mary come from? Nazareth, naturally. But when the Church ponders this question theologically, the Church says, “This woman—full of grace according to the angel—must have been conceived without sin.” This woman comes from God in a special way. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson notes the dogma of the Immaculate Conception has served to distance Mary from being one with the rest of us sinners. But it need not.

“The Immaculate Conception is not so much about the absence of sin as about the presence of grace,” says Johnson, “And about Mary’s vocation in salvation history. This dogma testifies, “God’s grace is more original than sin” (Dangerous Memories, 35).

Where is Mary going? The gospels don’t speak to this question. The Church answers with the Feast we celebrate today, Mary’s Assumption into heaven, a dogma that Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950, a big Marian year some of us may be old enough to remember. This feast seems new but it is as old as our faith that God raised us Jesus to new life. The Assumption celebrates that Mary, Jesus’ mother and model believer, shares Jesus’ victory over death—as we do.

The gospels have no account of Mary’s Assumption. Luke’s gospel describes Jesus’ Ascension by saying simply, “Jesus was carried up to heaven.” As I flew through great thunder clouds recently, I thought what incredible thrones clouds make. How irresistible to picture Mary rising through the clouds to meet Jesus seated on a cloud. But we’ve tamed the skies. Heaven can’t be up anymore. Today we talk of communion in God, of lasting relationship. At death we are stepping into mystery, into faith and promise.

The gospel for this feast is the incredible encounter between two pregnant prophets—between Mary and her older kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth pregnant with John the Baptist, each pregnant with hope for a world God fills with transforming grace as their bodies and words testify.

Mary the prophet walks into the scene from a 75-mile hike along the ridge paths from Nazareth in Galilee to a town near Jerusalem in Judah. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. The Spirit fills Elizabeth with an ecstatic testimony that Mary is three times blessed: blessed are you among women, blessed is the child of your womb, and blessed is she who trusts God’s words will be fulfilled.

Then like Moses’ sister Miriam, like the judge Deborah after saving her people, like Hannah after becoming pregnant with Samuel, like these great women of Israel, Mary sings prophetic praise of God’s saving acts in the history. We know this song as the Magnificat, named as its first word in Latin.

What a dangerous, prophetic prayer we dare to pray when we repeat Mary’s song! She is a singer of justice and liberation. Mary magnifies God’s greatness and declares her spirit finds its joy in God, whom she calls “my Savior.” Then she speaks from her social location: she says God has looked upon her, God’s servant, in her lowliness. This is more than a humble attitude. Mary comes from among the poor. Nazareth is a small farming village where families lived in houses with dirt floors and cooked outside with animals sharing the space. Like the rest of her people she lived under triple taxation, scrapping by at the subsistence level while paying taxes to the Empire, to Herod the local king in charge, and to the temple.

Mary bubbles with enthusiastic praise for the great things God has done for her:

Holy is God’s name.

Great is God’s mercy.

Strong is God’s arm.

Her God is stronger than empire. Mary was a young teen in 4 BC when Herod the Great died and the peasants in Galilee revolted and attacked the city of Sephoris, four miles from Nazareth. It was the center for collecting taxes. Roman soldiers put down the attack and rampaged through the villages of Galilee doing violence. Mary lived through our headlines like our own today. 2,000 men were crucified in Jerusalem.

Remember when Mary and other family members come to see Jesus in Mark 3 when he begins preaching after the Baptist’s death. The gospel says his mother and family thought Jesus must be out of his mind.

The God of Mary’s prophetic song is stronger than empire.

God’s arm scatters the proud and brings down the powerful from their thrones.

God’s arm fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.

This pregnant prophet announces God’s intent to transform history for the poor, the marginalized, the lowly, the abused and violated. In his life and teaching Jesus acts out the reversal this song envisions. The apple did not fall far from the tree. This is a song so subversive that the government of Guatemala forbade its use in the 1980s.

The Mary who sings the Magnificat is not a retiring, obedient handmaid. This is a mother who calls her son into action, who notices they have no wine and organizes the servants to help. This is a prophet we might hear nudging us into action, “They have no jobs, no housing, no food.”

Mary is one of the poor. God’s preference for her is God’s preference for the poor and unprotected in our world. Mary leads an active listening life and acts on the word she hears. She calls us to partner actively with God as she did in repairing the world.

Our Mexican brothers and sisters have shown us Mary as the human face of God in Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her skin is brown like the earth. She promises to hear the prayers of a people utterly defeated by war and disease, to open a future for those without one.

We gather to celebrate her feast and take up her unfinished vision.

Delivered at St. Joan of Arc Minneapolis, MN

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