21 October 2008

Fr. Philip Neri's Top Five of Just About Everything!

As is abundantly evident from my recent posts and comments, I have been in something of a funk lately. I have a Roman cold. I'm not sleeping well (again!). And this $%#@ election is driving me nuts.

BUT none of these is reason enough to stay cranky. So, I've decided to lighten the mood a bit by posting on some of my favorite things. My challenge to bloggers: you do it too!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Fr. Philip Neri's Top Five of Just About Everything!

Top Five Weird Food Combos:

1. blackeyes & mayo on cornbread
2. peanut butter & banana on Ritzs
3. roasted chicken with yogurt & peanuts
4. apple/celery soup with pesto
5. vanilla ice cream with peanut butter and balsamic vinegar

Top Five Fav Halloween Costumes He Has Worn:

1. creepy surgeon with bloody knife
2. albino vampire with handcuffs
3. High Goth magician complete with goatee and earring!
4. Spartacus with sword (my mom's icing spatula)
5. ghost of a gorilla killed by poachers

Top Five Fav Christmas Gifts:

1. a doctor's home visit kit (three years in a row! yes!)
2. a LED digital watch in 1979. . .only kid in school with one of those
3. a tuition check from my parents in 1986
4. Santa's Magical $50 that appears in my stocking annually (yes, I have stocking!)
5. a stereo system with my first ever cassette: Huey Lewis and the News

Top Five Fashion Statements I Wish I Had Never Made:

1. getting my ear pierced in 1990 (ugh)
2. wearing a paisley shirt with poofy sleeves and an antique broach in 1985 (ugh-ugh)
3. letting my hair grow down to my shoulders a la George Michael ca. 1989
4. daily wear of all black--jeans, turtle-neck, boots, overcoat, glasses
5. plaid golf pants, burgundy IZOD shirt, pink IZOD sweater, loafers w/the penny ca. 1982

Top Five Dumb Things I Have Done That I Can Admit to in Public:

1. Frequently going out of town to parties with a drunk friend driving (stupid, stupid)
2. Moving into a large antebellum home with colleagues from my department who eschewed cleanliness and domestic responsibility like a rabid squirrel on crack
3. Agreeing to purchase a package of three-year magazine subscriptions that cost $600 (yea, I got out of it)
4. locking myself out of my apartment minutes after my roommate drives off for the weekend and then breaking the small window on the kitchen door only to realize that the small window is in fact not just a piece of the door but the entire window: $80 for replacement.
5. Helping some friends "clear out" their liquor cabinet before a move (shudder)

Top Five Dumbest Things I Have Ever Said:

1. 1986: the women's bathroom in the lobby of our dorm had no interior door. I was the RA on desk duty during fall sign-in for the freshmen. A mom comes in and asks for the bathroom. I directed her. Not wanting anyone to walk in on her unexpectedly, I offered: "Would like for me to watch?"
2. 1991: I was giving a literature exam, sitting at the desk in front of the class. After about fifteen minutes of quiet, for no apparent reason, I barked out: "KNIFE!"
3. I was at home one Christmas and my mom asked to me mix up some walnut brownies. I read the directions on the box and proceeded to mix. My mom comes into the kitchen and watches me mix the batter with my hand. My defense? "The directions say 'mix by hand'"!
4. To a psychotic patient on the adult unit of a psych hospital: "Are you going to throw that at me or come with us to time out?"
5. To my future housemate wanted to confess something to me before I allowed him to move in. We sat down, and he very solemnly declared, "I'm a Wiccan." I said, "Oh, I thought you were gay."

Top Five Books I Wish I Had Never Read:

1. Creative Visualization
2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull
3. It
4. The Book of Mormon
5. Handbook of Witchcraft

Top Five Things I Would Change in My History:

1. Go to grad school in psychology rather than English
2. Go to teach English in China ten years later than I did
3. Work for several years btw undergrad/grad school
4. Play sports/habituate myself to the gym in high school
5. Never start drinking

Top Five Religious Names that I Rejected in Favor of Philip Neri:

1. Br. Michael Mary of the Five Wounds of Jesus, not including the One on His Shoulder
2. Br. Philippe-Marie of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary
3. Br. Dominic of the Most Holy Face and Most of the Neck
4. Br. Angelo of the Litany to Baby Jesus, Son of Mama Mary
5. Br. Aldred of the Stocial Countenance, Brick of Westhamptonshire.

Title of my autobiography (to be published posthumously): Sittin' in the Shade With the Fat Kids Reading: The Life and Most of the Good Times of Philip Powell

Church is not Wal-Mart (UPDATED)

[NB. Permission to repost/copy with proper attribution is given.]

I had a much longer piece, but I scrapped it for something a lot shorter and more to the point.

1). The Roman Catholic Church isn't WalMart or Burger King; it's the Body of Christ.

2). Catholic priests, nuns, sisters/brothers and laity aren't employees; we are members of the Body of Christ.

3). The doctrine and dogma of the Catholic Church are not consumer products that the Church's employees sell to those who want them; Catholic doctrine and dogma express the unchanging truth of the faith.

4). Life in a Catholic parish is not a trip to Disney Land or Target or McDonald's where your consumer needs and whims are catered to by the whimpering clergy and lay staff; parish life is the life of Christ for the local Catholic family.

5). You do not come into the Catholic Church b/c you like the building better than you like the Methodist chapel; or because the priest at the Catholic parish is cuter than the Baptist preacher; or because you heard that the homilies are shorter at St. Bubba's by the Lake than they are at the Unitarian Church. You come into the Catholic Church because you believe that the Catholic faith is the truth of the gospel taught by Christ himself and given to his apostles.

6). Leaving the Catholic Church because a priest was mean to you, or because sister whacked you with a ruler, or because the church secretary looked at you funny is as stupid as giving up on the truths of math because you hate your high school algebra teacher. Why would anyone let a crazy priest or a cranky nun or anyone else for the matter drive you out of the faith you believe is true? My only conclusion: you never thought it was true to begin with; or, you have a favorite sin the Church teaches against and crazy priests and cranky nuns is as good an excuse as any to leave and pursue your sin all the while feeling justified b/c Father and/or Sister are such jerks.

7). Anyone who comes in the Catholic Church thinking that they will find clouds of angels at Mass dressed as parishioners; hordes of perfect saints kneeling for communion; seminaries packed with angelic young men burning to be priests; a parish hall stacked to the ceiling with morally pure people eager to serve; and a priest without flaw or blemish, well, you're cracked and you probably need to go back and try again. Telling Catholics that they aren't perfect makes as much sense as telling fish they're wet. We know already. Move on.

8). Of the hundreds of priests and religious I know, I know two who could count as saints right now. The rest of us are deeply flawed, impure, struggling creatures who know all too well that we fail utterly to meet the basic standards of holiness. For that matter: so do you. Get in line.

9). The Catholic Church owes no one a revision of her doctrine or dogma. She didn't change to save most of Europe from becoming Protestant, why would you imagine that she would change just to get you in one of her parishes?

10). If you want to become Catholic, do it. But do it because you think the Church teaches the true faith. If a cranky priest on a blogsite is enough to keep you from embracing the truth of the faith, then two things are painfully clear: 1) you do not believe the Church teaches the faith; 2) and you care more about expresssing your hurt consumer feelings than you do for your immortal soul.

Fr. Philip, OP

UPDATE: Yes, I am a priest, and a huge part of my ministry is to console, to be present, to advise, and to try my best to shine out the light of Christ. As a Dominican friar, I do all of that first and best by telling the truth! The best pastoral approach is always to tell the truth, so please, forget the notion that "to be pastoral" is somehow opposed to "telling the truth" or "teaching the faith."

The Truth is Always Pastoral.

19 October 2008

Do NOT test the Lord

29th Sunday OT: Isa 45.1-4-6; 1 Thes 1.1-5; Matt 22.15-21
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

The Pharisees show Jesus a Roman coin and ask whether or not they should pay Caesar’s taxes. Matthew tells us that “knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?... ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar's.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’" Much has been made of this infamous distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. And even more could be made of it during this tense political season. I have preached before that ultimately the distinction is meaningless because everything belongs to God, including Caesar himself. I will not belabor the point. Rather, this morning the more interesting moment in this story is the moment Jesus calls the Pharisees out for questioning him, or more precisely, for “testing” him. According to Jesus, the Pharisees test him out of a malicious hypocrisy; that is, a hateful insincerity, a spiteful duplicity. Their apparently sincere question about paying taxes is really a contrived event to catch him up, a staged incident, choreographed and scripted to force Jesus into either treason against Rome or blasphemy against God. Jesus skillfully dodges the trap with an ultimately meaningless answer, but Jesus teaches his lesson nonetheless: “I am not who you want me to be, Pharisees.”

Let’s get down to the question: who do you want God to be? Father, Mother, Santa Claus, mischievous elf, mythical Ego, Jungian archetype, Ground of Being? Spiritual direction often starts with a question about one’s image of God. Our prayer life tells us volumes about how we understand who God is for us. In desperate times, an image of God emerges. Suffering carves out of us a hard figure of God. When we reach beyond ourselves, beyond the possibilities of easy helps and cheap fixes, we usually reach out toward heaven and call on our God for His care, His rescue. And this is exactly what we ought to do. There is nothing so humbling and spiritually purifying as a moment of desperation, a flash of weakness, or damaging stupidity that drives us to God’s comfort. But we must be careful: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Our God is not our student, every ready to be questioned, every ready to be tested.

Obviously, like most politicians probing an opponents weaknesses, the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up by asking him the “are you still beating your wife?” sort of question. No answer is good, any answer will be vacuous in the end. The point of the exchange is not to find the truth but to expose a hated enemy as worthy of one’s hate. Jesus calls this attempt malicious and hypocritical. Malicious because their intent is evil and hypocritical because they know that they are not asking a real question but setting a trap. Their insincerity is poisonous. But only to themselves. Who do they need him to be? Or perhaps the best question: who do they hope he turns out to be? Given their institutional investments and political commitments, no doubt the Pharisees hope he turns out to be little more than a madman from Nazareth.

Given your institutional investments and political commitments, who do you hope Jesus turns out to be? Jesus says to give to Caesar what is his and give to God what belongs to Him. Of course, this means that we give all things to God in the end b/c all that belongs to Caesar really belongs to God. For a while, while we walk around on the dirt, we give Caesar his due—his taxes, our obedience to his laws within our duties to God, our civic participation. But in giving Caesar his due now our hearts must always be inclined to a longing and a goal well beyond Caesar’s temporary crown; focused fiercely, permanently on the Crown of Heaven. The Pharisees hope to use this apparently split allegiance to force Jesus into a political-religious quagmire. They need for Jesus to be a madman or a traitor or a blasphemer, so they test him in their malicious hypocrisy, rigging the test to give them the result they hope for; and in getting the hoped-for answer, relieving them of any duty to preach his message, teach his word, or offer him their obedience as the Messiah promised by the prophets.

Rather than giving them what they hope for, Jesus says, in essence, “I am not who you want me to be.” Jesus is not a traitor or a blasphemer. Nor is he a revolutionary or an institutional cog. He is not a preacher of flaccid tolerance nor a fire-breathing demagogue. He is neither Democrat nor Republican; he is not Obama nor McCain. He is the Prince of Peace who comes with a death-dealing sword to deal death to our sin. He is the Lamb of God who comes with a scourge to beat the unfaithful faithful for their hypocrisy and out of his temple. He is the Final Judge who died for us, making us clean before the Father’s throne. He is the Lion of David’s House who gently shepherds, protects, and provides. He tells Isaiah: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other.”

And no other is the LORD! Not the state, not a political party, not an institution, not a person or an idea or a theory. Nothing made can save us. Nothing passing can give us eternal life. If it can die, it cannot give Life. If it can change, it cannot impart perfection. If it can fail, it cannot gift us with goodness. That we want a man, a party, a system, or an idea to save us, to give us life, to grant us goodness is a sin as old as Eve’s yes to the serpent’s gift. Like the maliciously hypocritical Pharisees, don’t we often find ourselves testing Jesus to see who he will be for us today? Just poking him a bit to see if he will budge on a favorite issue or yield a bit on a favorite sin? Recently, I watched a youtube video of a Catholic rally for Prop 8 in CA. A woman approached the young men and screamed at them: “Jesus preached tolerance!” Since Prop 8 is designed to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, we can assume that the woman—shown in the video harassing the men—believes that the first-century Jewish rabbi, Jesus, would “tolerate” a marriage among a man, another man, and the first man’s sister. You are either tolerant or you’re not. Tolerance tolerates no intolerance.

Let’s conclude here with this: Jesus fails the Pharisee’s test. Turns out that he is not who they hope he is. He is not the traitor, the blasphemer, the arch-heretic they had hoped for. Neither is he the hippie-dippy feminist peacenik, nor the fiery-eyed God of Righteous Vengeance Come to Smite Our Enemies, nor the sagacious prophet with a stoical temper. He is the Judge, the Lamb, the Prince, the Child, the King, the Seed, the Vine, the Word, the Spirit. He is the LORD. And there is no other and no other is the LORD.