19 January 2008

Sleep, books, Japanese metaphysics

The sleep study was a bust! The sensors wouldn't stay on for some reason. The poor tech had to come into the room several times in the night to reattach sensors and replace broken connectors and wires. I told her it was my Dominican Brain Power (DBP) that was shorting the wires.

I've updated the Phil/Theo Wish List to include several books on the evangelical movement called "Open Theology." I don't know much about it, but it looks like an interesting read of scripture and historical theology. . . not to mention it's use of process philosophy. I think the more orthodox evangelicals have more or less trounced the movement institutionally, but it may prove useful as an example to Catholic liberals who want to rely too heavily on "correlationist" philosophies in theological work.

I ended up using two of my B&N gift cards from Christmas to buy the Japanese metaphysics books. Several faithful readers wrote to express some anxiety about my reading direction: Buddhist metaphysics!!! In my defense: I'm a Dominican. Dominicans read everything with a critical eye. I'm as orthodox now as I have ever been. So, no worries, people!

God bless, Fr. Philip, OP

18 January 2008

Can we be astounded?

1st Week OT (F): 1 Sam 8.4-7, 10-22 and Mark 2.1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass, Church of the Incarnation

The video tape was out there, passing from hand to hand, showing up in one room and then the next, speeding away in another book bag just before I reached it. As a Resident Advisor in the freshmen dorm in the late ‘80’s, my guys were telling me all about this highly sought after video tape. It was the guest of honor at many-a-late-night party; and it was said that those who watched the tape breathlessly concluded, “We have never seen anything like this.” I finally had my chance to see this movie one late night shift in the dorm office. The subject of the movie? Something racy and X-rated? No, on the tape was a documentary called, “Faces of Death”—a collection of real footage from police, fire, emergency departments depicting real people meeting their deaths in a variety of horrible ways: a crocodile, a failed parachute, a police shoot out, an execution in a state prison. No one in 1986 could watch that and not come away astounded and saying, “I have never seen anything like that!” What astonishes us, what changes us, what draws us in to hold us still is very different now.

To show the scribes that he has the authority to forgive sins on earth, Jesus simply looks at the paralyzed man and says, “….rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” And he did. He walked “away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this.’” What exactly had they never seen before? A miraculous healing? A miraculous healing done by merely forgiving the sin of the sick? Or a miraculous healing done in defiance of traditional Jewish theology? Or, all three! Would we be astounded? Would we think that this healing through the forgiveness of sins was miraculous?

Maybe. More than likely we would set aside a judgment until we had more and better evidence. Where’s the doctor’s report, before and after? Are there any X-rays? Let’s see the tape again. Do we have expert testimony from a professionally trained, crime-lab certified videographer that the tape hasn’t been Photo-Shopped? Do we have an unambiguous statement from Jesus’ ministry office that the video isn’t fake? Is there a rebuttal statement from the scribes’ office? And so on. What can astound us in 2008? Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.

Truly, what’s astounding about this gospel tale is that Jesus claims to be the Son of God and the Son of Man with the authority “to forgive sins on earth.” Essentially, he is claiming to possess the license that God alone enjoys to wipe away those offenses against God that bring us to illness, to paralysis, to demonic possession. By speaking, merely speaking, he picks up the paralyzed man and undoes his life of sin, repairing him, reconciling him to the Father. The witnesses at his home see and hear Jesus do that which the scribes argue that God alone can do—bring a creature to health by speaking a word to his disease. And! And, he does so not because of the paralyzed man’s faith, but because of the faith shown by the man’s friends. Another marvel! One more miracle to astound them. Are we astounded? Can we be astounded?

A weary cynicism worries this age. Miraculous healings are simply inadequately explained medical anomalies. Witnesses to miracles are duped pawns, gullible, easily impressed morons. Authority, especially spiritual authority, is an oppressive tactic to maintain institutional power. That which can astound us becomes more and more rare as we eagerly replace our Christian moral imaginations with the mechanical insights of science and the demands of political ideology.
It is impossible for a Christian to live this way. Why? We start with the premise that creation itself is a gift; Christ is a gift; our lives lived with Christ are all gifts. And when we give these gifted lives back to God, we are doubly gifted with their return to us! After this, nothing is beyond our astonishment, everything is a source of amazement! The Good News is that our Father whispers to us daily and all day, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” What malady, what cynicism can worm its way into that gift and spoil our party?

14 January 2008

Your name is "Servant"

1st Week OT (M): 1 Sam 1.1-18 and Mark 1.14-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

There you are. . .sitting in the library reading. There you are standing all by yourself in Kroger shopping. There you are strolling down a mellow neighborhood street enjoying the breeze. And completely surprised! You hear your name! John. David. Aaron. No other sound. No other voice. Bill. Jackie. Anne. Like a pistol shot out of the blinding dark. Marty. Michael. Christopher. Eddy. You jump. Maybe your heart quickens. You might want to run. And then there is that suspended moment in time between hearing your name and turning to the name-caller, just a single, lonely half sweep of the second hand between recognizing your name and recognizing the voice of the caller; it is just an infinitesimally small dot of not-knowing-who-calls. . .but you turn anyway. And you say, “Yes.” Now, imagine that the voice that calls your name out of a depthless silence, imagine that that voice could belong to anyone, just anyone at all. . .

The sun is high but the wind is cool enough. The fish are almost leaping into the nets. Voices carry over the lazy water. It was almost time to sit down for a small meal. And just as they pull the next net of fish from the Galilee Sea, they hear: Simon. Andrew. James. John. They are fishermen. And when he calls them by name, “they [leave] their nets and [follow] him.” What did these men hear when Christ called to them? Did they hear their names spoken aloud? The gospel just says that Jesus called out his invitation: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Does this sound like “Simon” or “Andrew” or “James” or “John”? If not, why do these sensible working men just leave their nets, their family, their hired help, and follow Jesus? Imagine yourself at work today. A stranger walks into the office, the classroom, the bank, the store, and says to you: “Follow me.” And then walks away. No name. No indication that the person knows you. Just, “Follow me.” Do you leave your desk, your calculator, your books, and follow? In that infinitesimally small dot of not-knowing-who-calls-you, don’t you wonder who calls? Of course you do!

How strange is it that Simon, Andrew, James, and John—not hearing their names from Jesus and apparently not knowing who he is—leave their livelihood and follow him? It is exceedingly strange. . .well, unless, of course, we will say that when Christ calls us to follow him, he simultaneously re-names us with our mission. In other words, what we hear when he calls is not an old name, an “unturned name,” but the name he gives us to turn us to him. Perhaps you will be startled to recognize in this new name of yours an old mission. Or you might find comfort in hearing again why you were made. There could fear or anxiety or abiding pleasure. However you might feel about being renamed when called to your mission, turn and say “Yes, Lord!” Remember: at baptism we took on the life of Christ, adopting his name for our mission. . .there is no moment, no place when we are without the name of Christ; no moment, no place when we are without his prophetic and priestly ministry. Our lives are lives of constant conversion, turning-always back to Christ, turning back to follow him.

Here’s your assignment. When someone calls your name today, turn to them, and say to yourself: “What can I leave behind today to make Christ better known to you?” Or perhaps you can say to yourself: “Yes, Lord! How may I serve?” We prayed the responsorial to the Psalm 116 this morning: “To you, Lord, I will offer a sacrifice of praise.” Will you? When you hear your name called today, offer a sacrifice of praise to God by saying, “O Lord, I am your servant…you have loosed my bonds.”

13 January 2008

Smaller heroes

Baptism of the Lord (A): Isa 42.1-4, 6-7; Acts 10.34-38; Matthew 3.13-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
, Dallas, TX

In almost all of my high school literature classes we were taught that good literature is always about conflict and revelation. Man vs. Man. Man vs. Nature. Man vs. Machine. In these conflicts, the protagonist becomes the main character of a revelatory drama, something-up-until-now-hidden is finally unveiled in the conflict and the now public secret, though immediately applicable to our hero in the drama, is really a revelation for the reader. We as readers learn something about ourselves and thereby grow in our humanity—deepening our communal connections and preparing ourselves more fully for the next conflict. In this way, we are the beneficiaries of an epiphany; we are the smaller heroes of a drama that unveils the veiled, unlocks the locked, and in doing so, moves us into the way of a newer, more profound conflict that itself resolves eventually into another revelation and so on and so on. And the spiral spirals and we spiral with it to our end. That’s what we were taught about how to read literature in high school.

John the Baptist is busy at the Jordan River dunking prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers, all the unwashed and unwanted of Galilee, baptizing them for repentance and preaching the coming of the Lord—the one who will baptize with fire and righteousness! In mid-dunk, John sees Jesus walk up, get in line, and when his turn comes, insists on being baptized like everyone else. John protests! And tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. An altogether sensible move given that Jesus is the Son of God and moves among his Father’s people without sin. Why baptize someone for repentance when they have no sin to repent of? John says in protest, “I need to be baptized by you, Lord, and yet you are coming to me?” This must be similar to your CPA coming to you for tax advice. Or, perhaps your doctor asking you for a second opinion about one of her cancer patients. Does the ignorant amateur safely advise the professional about his or her own profession? John stands conflicted and confused.

Jesus eases the conflict and clears the confusion when he says to John, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus, so as not to be in conflict with his Jewish tradition, presents himself to John for baptism because it is the right thing to do according to the law. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that his baptism is necessary or prudent or a good PR stunt. He says that his baptism is one part of a larger fulfillment of his Father’s expectations for human righteousness. Jesus has done all that is required of an observant Jew in his day: naming day, circumcision, Passover feasts, etc. His baptism is the last ritual obligation he has to complete before starting his public ministry as the Christ. John, either convinced by Jesus’ argument or simply cowed by his authority, “allows” Jesus to be baptized. And here we have the revelation!

But wait! The conflict between John and Jesus in the gospel is resolved in a revelation, but what about all the conflicts out here, outside the text, out here in the real world? Jesus is baptized. The Father reveals Jesus to be His beloved Son. God is pleased with His son. Great revelation, wonderful epiphany. But just today we hear from Peter in Acts that the Jesus went about “healing all those oppressed by the devil…” And this was after his baptism! The devil is still oppressing God’s children even after Jesus’ baptism. How did his baptism in the Jordan by John resolve conflicts with the devil, with ourselves, and with one another? We still have problems.

First, pay attention to the epiphany itself. The Spirit of God came upon him. The voice proclaimed Jesus to be the “beloved Son.” Second, look again at the text from Acts. Peter says in Acts, “You know the word…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” And third, look again at the text from Isaiah, the Lord says, “Here is my servant…my chosen one with whom I am well pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit…” The Lord tells Isaiah that His anointed will not cry out or shout in the streets, not a single blade of grass will he bruise “until he establishes justice on the earth…” We know that the Spirit of the Lord is upon His anointed. We know that His anointed will establish justice—the Lord’s rule on earth. What else do we know about this Christ? We know that he must suffer and die. We know that he must come again.

In the meantime—all the time and times in between then and now, there and here—we, you and I, have promised to follow him. We have promised to make it our lives to follow, our livelihoods to follow, all of our conflicts and all of our revelations are about following him. Jesus was baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” We were baptized to join his righteousness, to cling onto his ministry, his miracles, his teaching and preaching, his betrayals, his sufferings, and his death. We were baptized to graft ourselves onto the branch of David and Jesse, to share in the promised kingdom, the sacrificial priesthood, and the revealing mission of the prophet. We were baptized to transplant ourselves into the Body of Christ and work with him to bring justice to the nations. We were baptized so that we are able to shout with Mary, she who gave birth to the Word, “Let it be done to me according to your Word!”

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John because, if we will become the beloved children of a loving Father, we too must be baptized and the Spirit of God must come upon us and the voice from heaven will say of you and me and our promise to be Christ for others, “I am well pleased.” What happens then? Wars end. Hunger is eliminated. Disease cured. No. Our conflicts with God do not magically cease. My conflicts with myself do not disappear like soap bubbles. Your conflicts with yourself and your neighbors do not vanish into the cold air. What is revealed to us in every conflict, each sign of trouble is power of the Spirit to bring us a patient peace, a constant hope, the love we need to throw off the oppression of hatred and inordinate desire; to unbuckle the leash of sin and to throw ourselves out there as living sacrifices to the justice that we know is coming. We are baptized to follow Christ not to wallow in self-pity; to cry out in the streets and shout the Word in the markets. In short, what is hidden is revealed, what is locked is unlocked b/c we ourselves are revelations of the Spirit!

Will the tax-collectors and prostitutes and Pharisees watch us and say, “Ahhhhh…so that’s who Christ is…that’s exactly, he is exactly who I want to be”?