God speaks to us in our wilderness

December 10, 2017

While we live in a culture and a world which seems to have ceased to look for God our Advent season invites us to continue to actively search for God in our lives or in the words of Jesus to “stay awake”, to be open and still, to actively wait in prayer and in action for the rebirth of Christ in our hearts, in our world. Isaiah (40:1-11) calls on us “in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Well, we have some road construction work to do in our lives because that wilderness is first of all ourselves! I invite each one of us in a moment of silence to connect with our own personal wilderness. After all, we all live at times in human situations of loneliness, of barrenness and emptiness, of emotional and spiritual chaos. We all go through desert experiences: the death or absence of a loved one; a sudden unexplained or maybe a long-lasting illness; an accident; the loss of a job; separation or divorce; an uncertain future; or maybe simply the maturing as a teenager or as someone entering that supposedly “golden” age. And since the approval by our country’s Supreme Court of “Assisted Suicide” (now called MAID or “Medical Assistance in Dying”), we are now faced with decisions regarding how to die, our own or how to cope with decisions made by loved ones or friends. Well, God spoke to the Hebrew people in the wilderness, in their exile far away from home when everything seemed to be lost. He did so through messengers such as Isaiah, John the Baptist. In the same way God speaks to us in our own wilderness, in our deserts, in our moments of desolation. And again God uses messengers to reach out to us wherever we are. These can be parents, children, friends, strangers, events in our lives as well as the Word of God spoken, broken open for us each Sunday or at other life-giving moments. God also certainly speaks to us in the events of our time, whether these are joyful or full of ambiguity or of sadness or full of outright evil ! However, we need to be open and to listen and to discern. It is amazing how God finds some surprising ways to reach out to us. I suspect that God uses Twitter and Facebook ! I am sure God is into all those fancy ways of communicating ! After all, isn’t God the ultimate source of all these wonderful creations which we as humans are capable of ?  I know for sure that God comes to us especially in the wilderness of our lives. The Protestant theologian Howard Rice was asked: “How is it that you have become so wise?” He fell silent, eyes filled with tears. Then, grabbing the sides of his wheelchair, Rice choked out these words: “MS mm ss, multiple sclerosis! I was pastor in Chicago, doing great. Things were going well. But you know what I was doing? I was living on talents. I was preaching on talent. I was ministering on talent. I was administrating, doing pastoral care and all the things that I had learned … all on my talent, with God’s blessing of course! But when I got MS, I could not handle it because I couldn’t walk anymore. I had to give up a lot; suddenly I stopped living on my talent and started to live in trust and it changed my life. I thank God (as he grabbed his wheelchair), I thank God for my multiple sclerosis. God didn’t bring it to me, but he sure used it to help me mature in my faith, to find him and to trust him !”   We all have our own stories, our own moments of truth or we will have sooner or later, you can be sure! In this Advent season God invites us to recognize him, not somewhere outside, but rather within the wilderness of our lives. It is there that we are challenged to respond and to act or re-act concretely. Christmas time brings us to reflect on many things. Isn’t it amazing how God finds surprising ways to come back into our lives again and again? If only we could recognize them, learn from them, discover in them the presence of God who calls us forward, who challenges us to find a deeper meaning in whatever happens to us. Yes, God is like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:1-11who cares and comforts us, who is faithful to his promises, all the while entering into our pains to transform them into new life. Let us in all humility allow God to do just that! A new road is being cut through the desert and it is Jesus who will help us deal with hills and valleys too difficult for us to overcome alone.   On Gaudete (“Rejoice!”) Sunday let us rejoice because God is near, because we are willing to come before God the way we are with all our faults and blemishes in order to be liberated from sadness, to be freed of all that encumbers our lives. So come to St. Elizabeth this Thurs. Dec. 14 at 7:00 pm when we will all approach our God with humility and ask for forgiveness during our communal celebration of reconciliation (confession).    Micah 6:8: “What God wants of you. Only this, to do what is right, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Shalom

To speak of fear of God in terms of hellfire is against the Gospel

November 26, 2017

As we are coming to the end of another Liturgical Year and as we hear calls to hear more about purgatory and hell, I like to reproduce an article written by Ron Rolheiser OMI in the Prairie Messenger of Oct. 11, 2017. Unfortunately, like other Catholic publications which contain articles which are thought-provoking and nourishing intellectually, the  Prairie Messenger is slated to cease publication next year and we will miss Ron Rolheiser !  To speak of fear of God in terms of hellfire is against the Gospel, by Ron Rolheiser, OMI “As a theologian, priest, and preacher, I often get asked: “Why isn’t the church preaching more fear of God anymore? Why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of going to hell? Why aren’t we preaching more about God’s anger and hellfire?” It’s not hard to answer that. We aren’t preaching a lot about fear because, to do so, unless we are extremely careful in our message, is simply wrong. Admittedly fear can cause people to change their behaviour, but so can intimidation and brainwashing. Just because something is effective doesn’t mean it is right. Fear of God may only be preached within a context of love. Scripture itself seemingly gives us a mixed message. On the one hand, it tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” even as it tells us that virtually every time God  appears in human history, the first words from God are always: “Don’t be afraid!” That phrase, coming from the mouth of God or from the mouth of God’s messenger, appears more than 300 times in Scripture. The first words we will hear every time God appears in our lives are: “Don’t be afraid!” So we must be careful when we preach fear of God. Fear of punishment is not the real message we hear when God enters our lives. Then how is fear of God the beginning of wisdom? In our relationship with God, just as in our relationships with each other, there are both healthy and un - healthy fears. What’s a healthy fear? Healthy fear is love’s fear: When we love someone our love will contain a number of healthy fears, a number of areas within which we will be healthily cautious and reticent. We will fear being disrespectful, fear despoiling the gift, fear being selfish, fear being irreverent. All healthy love contains the fear of not letting the other person be fully free. Reverence, awe, and respect are a form of fear. But that kind of fear is not to be confused with being frightened, intimidated, or dreading some kind of punishment. Metaphorically, love’s fear is the fear that God challenges Moses with before the burning bush: Take off your shoes because the ground you are standing on is holy ground! How are we to understand fear of God as the beginning of wisdom? We are wise and on the right path when we stand before the mystery of God (and of love) with our shoes off, namely, in reverence, in awe, in respect, in unknowing, without undue pride, humble before an infinity that dwarfs us, and open to let that great mystery shape us for its own eternal purposes. But that is far different, almost the antithesis, of the fear we experience when we are frightened of someone or something that threatens us because the person or thing is perceived as being mercilessly exacting or as being arbitrary and punitive. There is too a healthy fear of God that’s felt in our fear of violating what’s good, true, and beautiful in this world. Some religions call this a fear before the “law of karma.” Jesus, for his part, invites us to this kind of holy fear when he warns us that the measure we measure out is the measure that will be given back to us. There’s a moral structure inherent in the universe, within life, and within each of us. Everything has a moral contour that needs to be respected. It’s healthy to be afraid of violating any goodness, truth, or beauty. We need to preach this kind of healthy fear rather than that God needs to be feared because of the punishment God might eventually deal out in some legalistic and exacting fashion. Whenever we preach this kind of fear, of a God who deals out hellfire, we are almost always also preaching a God who isn’t very intelligent, compassionate, understanding, or forgiving. A God who is to be feared for his punitive threats is a God with whom we will never find a warm intimacy. Threat has no place within love, except if it is a holy fear of doing something that will disrespect and despoil. To preach hellfire may be effective as a tactic to help change behaviour, but it is wrong in terms of the Gospel. Fear is a gift. It is also one of the deepest, life-preserving instincts within you. Without fear, you won’t live very long. But fear is a complex, multi-faced phenomenon. Some fears help you stay alive, while others deform and imprison you. There are things in life that you need to fear. A playground bully or the arbitrary tyrant can kill you, even if they are all wrong. Lots of things can kill you, and they merit fear. But God is not one of those things. God is neither a playground bully nor an arbitrary tyrant. God is love and a perpetual invitation to intimacy. There is a lot to be feared in this, but nothing of which to be afraid.”

More on MAID (“Medical Assistance in Dying”)

November 12, 2017

In the past few years I devoted several pastor’s corners to the topic of euthanasia, assisted suicide or MAID, the term being used at the moment. It is obvious that there continues to exist among Christians and others a great deal of confusion around this very important issue. MAID is another word for euthanasia which is (and all the words are important) an act or omission of an act that is done to directly and intentionally cause the death of another person or to end suffering.  It is a form of homicide that is usually done by lethal injection. Some people continue to equate MAID/ euthanasia with withholding or withdrawing medical treatment. They say that when a doctor withholds or withdraws treatment and the person dies, that is the same as MAID. That is not the case! People have a right to refuse medical treatment and when the person then dies, it is because of their medical condition, not because of an act by another person, a doctor or a nurse. There is a very clear difference between killing a person directly and intentionally and allowing death to occur. In one case, the person is intentionally killed; in the other, the person may die but the intention is to allow death to occur naturally, not to hasten death. In moral theology this is called the principle of double effect: an action is permitted, such as withdrawing treatment or relieving a patient’s pain, even if it may shorten life. # 2278 of our Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate: it is the refusal of “overzealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it, is merely accepted.”  Providing large doses to control pain or manage symptoms or the proper use of sedation techniques, these are not euthanasia, but good medical care. The doctor intends to kill the pain, not the person. Our respect for the human person demands that we take care of the sick but it also demands that we avoid imposing treatments that are overly burdensome, unnecessary and futile; it ultimately demands that we let go. As Christians we believe that God’s love is at the source of creation and of all living things and beings. Life is God’s gift to us and we live our life accompanied by God and by our loved ones and by the community which surrounds us. Caring for and comforting the sick and the dying has always been an essential element of living the Gospel. Jesus gave us the example: he reached out to the sick, the lonely, the abandoned, the persons who felt the loss of their basic dignity as human beings and he tried to tell and show them by example that God cared for them, that God journeyed with them in life, that they did not need to be afraid, that God wished them to live because he was the God of life, not of death. Each time he healed or comforted a person he healed them not just physically but especially spiritually and socially because he restored them to the dignity as a human and social being, loved and cared for by their loved ones and by the community as a whole. Jesus also showed by the acceptance of his own suffering and dying that we can be a source of hope, of renewed life for others even beyond death. Jesus showed us that we can be in support of the common good, voluntary pain bearers. Jesus showed us that good can come from the evil which is suffering and death. That is the redemptive value of suffering and of the cross in human life. For us Christians the cross is a symbol of the triumph of the love and faithfulness of God in Jesus, the triumph of Christ over evil and sin. Our own crosses can move us beyond bitterness and anger so as to become truly life-giving.  Unfortunately, in our modern world we are so enamoured by so preoccupied with the technological/medical advances that we forget that death is part of life. We even think that we can control and overcome all suffering and that we can avoid death. No, suffering and death are part of nature, are part of life, are part of all life and can be life-giving. So, as Christians, we accept the human process of dying including the dependence and the loss of control, the pain and suffering and loneliness and questions which go with it. That is why it is so important that we accompany the dying person and their loved ones by our compassionate presence, by our stories and prayers and gestures and music and laughter; and yes, by alleviating the suffering and pain wherever possible but also by respecting nature, by respecting that we are not in control. True palliative care, whether at home or in an institution or in a hospital, has always been seen as doing just that and many nurses, care-givers, volunteers and pastoral workers wish to make sure that it will continue to do so. Let us also continue to support it !