24 February 2006

Patience. Perseverance. Permanence.

7th Week OT(F): James 5.9-12; Mark 10.1-12
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory & Church of the Incarnation, Univ. of Dallas
Hear it!

The first few jobs I had after I left grad school had a theme: I kept families apart. My job was to keep husbands away from their wives, to keep children away from their mothers and fathers. I worked for Child and Family Services in the battered women’s shelter and in the treatment facility for children and teens who had been sexually abused by family members. My job as an employee of the county was to help these folks provide for themselves what they couldn’t, wouldn’t provide for themselves without help: stable, drug-free, abuse free family lives. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we didn’t. Whether we won or lost, I saw over and over again the hopeless choices people were making, sometimes forced to make, in the struggle to get along, to just make it. And it was almost always the case that what drove them to a debilitating despair was the false Spirit of Choices Without Consequences. What I saw acted out again and again was the farce of the human person believing that his or her choices were utterly free from prior commitment, utterly free from consequence, and utterly free from any sort of moral evaluation. Of course, this particular farce was written long ago and is, quite possibly, the longest running show in human history. And, if I had to guess, we’ve all played a part at one time or another, large or small.

Both James and Jesus direct their evangelical spirit to the question of forming lasting friendships, unbreakable familial and social bonds. And neither one of them say much that we want to hear. James tells us that we must look to the prophets who persevered in the face of constant hardship, working out of an enduring patience against opposition and oppression. Patience. He says that we call “blessed” those who managed to stick with it to the end, those who persevered like Job. Perseverance. Jesus tells us that marriage is more than a convenient social relationship based on mutual attraction for the other’s cool stuff. It is a permanent bond, two becoming one flesh, a bond made by God that cannot be put aside. Permanence.

There are two pieces of Good News today. The first is that the Lord is compassionate and merciful. The second is that our Yes and our No will mean precisely that when given in the spirit of patience, perseverance, and permanence that James and Jesus preach.

Against the vanities of the age, this age of disposal relationships, Instant Message Marriages, and quickie “hook-ups,” our Yes and No in Christ witnesses to the truth of the existence of the absolute, the universal, the enduring, the permanent, and the unambiguous. Our Yes and No in Christ stands as testimony to the possibilities and the power of surrender, sacrifice, and emptying out to be filled again with the Spirit. The mercy and compassion of God toward us and with us and through us transform our daily commitments into gifts of service, gifts of patience and, yes, oftentimes, into gifts of trial and grief. But it is precisely because we have said Yes and No in Christ that these trials will not always be trails and grief will not always be grief.

We have seen the purpose of the Lord: our life in the Kingdom right now and our life with Him eternally.

Sure, we have all played some role or another in the longest running farce in human history—the script plotted to make us believe that we can act without commitment, without consequence, free from all moral evaluation. Our Yes and No in Christ has closed that show. Demolished the theatre. We play on a new stage now in a play directed by the mercy and compassion of the Lord.

20 February 2006

Risking against the impossible

7th Week OT (M): James 3.13-18; Mark 9.14-29
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!
Not a very impressive exorcism. Great show before the main event though: foaming at the mouth, gnashing of teeth, flailing about. But not a very impressive exorcism. A simple command made in faith through prayer, a few more jerks and shouts, and, “It came out.” Done. No twisty head, no spewing split-pea soup, no cryptic messages pressed against the flesh from inside the boy’s body, no rattling off quotes from long-forgotten texts in longer-forgotten languages. Not impressive at all. Boring, in fact.

I wonder why Jesus bothered. He had a great crowd gathered. According to Mark the crowd was growing by the second. Jesus has time for a few loud supplications to the Father, time for a couple of florid thanksgivings and elaborate praises. He even had time for a quick garment-rending and maybe a dramatic fall to his knees (if he hurried). He had more than enough time to tap up the drama, to milk the crowd, to show off and make a point. But he didn’t. Instead, upon seeing the rapidly growing crowd, he concluded the real drama of this scene and cast out the demon tormenting the boy. What was the real drama? The Father’s struggle with belief and unbelief.

You can almost see the distress on the father’s face. There’s torment there and love and a sort of dreadful hope, the kind of hope that one needs to feel in order to keep going, but at the same time the kind that is often broken against the impossible, too often made into a lie by the improbable. Just imagine that barely above a whisper, the father, with great reluctance and equally powerful expectation, says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And then there is that long moment between giving his hope words, the long wait between expressing his trust in the power of a stranger and the stranger’s answer, “’If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Is it relief? Or joy? Or more desperation? The father cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Wise man. He understands that his unbelief is at the root of his often dashed hope. And he understands that it is his belief that will give that hope healing power.

“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom.” James could be writing about the father of the demon possessed boy. The drama of his admission of faithfulness, of belief, to Jesus (I do believe!) and then his plea for help, his admission of faithlessness, of unbelief, (Help my unbelief!) is wisdom. This is an act of true humility, a confession of total trust now and a confession of debilitating doubt then, a historic doubt that daily killed his hope. The fruit of his righteous belief sows peace for himself and his son.

The boy’s father makes a humble admission in wisdom: “I trust you, heal my distrust.” And Jesus works with this prayer to cast out the demon. Like this father’s faith, our faith is never about quantity, about having “enough faith.” We don’t “have faith” in the way that we “have money.” Faith is the habit of trusting God to do what He says He will do. Our faith, our habit of trust in God, can be measured in depth, strength, endurance, or sincerity, but never quantity. Nor will we often find our faith on stage, at the center of a drama, and so publicly tested. But there is in us a virtue, a habit of being, that makes it possible for us to reach out to God and say without fear, “I believe, Lord!” and confess without fear, “Help my unbelief!” This is wisdom from above, full of mercy and good fruits.

The drama of our faith is the risk we take when we hope against the impossible.