01 August 2015

Where's your dancer?

From 2009, by request. . .

St Alphonus Liguori
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Herod hands us a warning —the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Surely, Herod has no idea that this grisly gift to a dancer would serve as a caution twenty centuries down the road. Fearing the anger of the people, he sets aside his own anger at John and enjoys his birthday party. He enjoys it a little too much; so much, in fact, that he foolishly vows to grant the party's exceptional dancer whatever she might wish. At the prompting of her mother—Herod's illegitimate wife—the young woman asks for John's head. For us, twenty-first century Christians, the girl's naivete produces a first-century warning: those in power will not tolerate prophets who speak the truth, especially if the truth spoken risks stinging an unruly conscience and rousing an unjustly ruled people. We are duly warned. But if Christians cannot or will not speak the truth to those who rule, who will? Can we afford to tolerate rulers who will not hear the truth spoken? Are we ready to surrender our heads to the court dancer?

John discovered the hard way that princes and kings do not like God's grubby spokesmen spouting off about truth, justice, and the holy way. Out of fear, Herod allows John to live despite John's harangues against his royal adultery. Watching the daily tracking polls, Herod no doubt sees John's popularity as a prophet of God, a man worthy of the job given to him. Focus groups indicate to the king that beheading John for speaking out would be a very dangerous move poll numbers; so, he refrains. Instead of the calling the axeman, Herod funds a political action committee and begins oppositional research. The negative ads were poised to air the day the dancing girl moved seductively onto the scene. She's the game-changer. In what will become one of history's most notorious political gaffes, Herod promises her the world. She wants and gets John's head. For the next several months nothing else is discussed in media. How will Plattergate play out at the polls? Has Herod hurt himself with the religious demographic? Was the whole affair a set-up by Herod's zealous opponents to embarrass him?

Among the witnesses that day were John's disciples. They collect his body and bury it. Then they tell Jesus that his herald is dead. Hearing this, Jesus goes alone to a deserted place. Does Jesus think that John was foolish to admonish Herod? Would Jesus have advised John to resist speaking the truth to his king? Maybe the better way here is the path of quiet persuasion through earnest dialogue and common ground engagement. After all, the truth is so harsh, so dramatically uncompromising, and impractical. Surely, our Lord would have coached John to be more tolerant, less judgmental, more willing to see both sides of the issue for the sake of staying at the political table. And then there's the whole beheading episode. There's a message for us from our rulers: tell me the truth, and I get your head. What compromise won't get me, the axe will cut away. Negotiate away the truth or die.

Are we ready to surrender our heads to the court dancer? A grim question! One we can hope and pray we never have to answer. Of course, the question will never be put to any of us in exactly those terms. We'll be asked a much more subtle question: are you willing to stop being so stubborn about all those moral and religious issues if we allow you to participate in the democratic process? If not, chop! You're out. Your head won't be on a platter, but your voice will be muffled under the weight of lawsuits and judicial injunctions. If we fall, we fall to the tax-man not the axe-man.

So, what do we do? Negotiate? Engage on “common ground”? Get what we can and thank our secular betters for the scrapes? We are as wise as serpents and gentle as doves, so we could. But too often gentle doves forget that they must sometimes be wise serpents. Fortunately, we are political animals only for a while. The life we have been chosen for and have received is the life of truth lived on the way to an eternal life. There is nothing to fear in speaking the truth, nothing and no one to tremble before when absolute moral virtue needs our voices to be heard. We have been warned. True. But we have also been promised. Warned by a king. Promised by The King. Promised to his Father. The beauty of this promise is that we have already been beheaded, died, buried, and made ready to rise again. Why would we fear the wrath of a king when we truly belong to The King? Besides, who told you that being a prophet was an easy road to fame and riches? Welcome to the Platter! Where's your dancer?

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31 July 2015

Being flowers not weeds

NB. From 2007 by request. . .readings are proper to the feast.

St. Ignatius of Loyola: Exo 33.7-11, 34.5-9, 28 and Mt 13.36-43
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Every gardener, every farmer, every owner of a yard knows that when you till up a patch of ground, fertilize it, water it, sow it carefully with seed, there’s an excellent chance that along with the strong stems and healthy leaves of the desired plants, there will grow choking weeds, undesirable sprouts that steal water, food, and sunlight from the Good Plants you intend to enjoy. Weeds are as inevitable as bugs! No lover of a neat, manicured lawn, however, just leaves the weeds to take root and flourish and flower, seeding all over carefully cultivated ground. Weeds are pulled, poisoned, chopped, hoed out, and cut off. And then these thieves are piled high, allowed to dry, and burned. Jesus tells the disciples that there will be those in his garden who try to steal Life from those who wish to flourish in his Word. These thieves he calls, “The Children of the Evil One” and they are sown by the Devil. What do we do with the weeds among us?

Think back to the parable where Jesus introduces the idea of the weeds among the good plants. The planter’s servants ask their master if they should pull the weeds before the harvest. The master says, “No, let them grow and I will tell the harvesters to cut them, separate them out, and burn them.” Why does he leave the weeds? Why does he let them flourish, potentially damaging the good crop? The master reasons, “Pulling the weeds while the good plants are young might damage the good plants more than the weeds ever could.” So, he lets both the good and the evil mature in his fertile ground, knowing that the evil will be dealt with in the end.

Does this parable need any further explanation? No, I don’t think so. But it does provoke a question for us: for those of us who tend to think of ourselves as Good Plants, how do we deal with the obvious weeds among us? Notice the dangerous assumption in this question: that we know how to identify weeds! Now, there are extreme cases of Weeds Among Us—for example, those who would see us become unitarian-universalists; or, those who would turn us into new-age Buddhists or Mother Goddess worshippers; or those who would the whittle the church into a tiny remnant of apocalyptic survivors. We may also readily point out the self-proclaimed prophets of public dissent and those who mock the sacraments—especially Holy Orders—by play-acting at ordination rites. And there are those who willfully take on the identity of Weeds by throwing themselves in front of any live camera or open mike and denouncing the Church’s centuries old moral tradition in the name of "liberty." Beyond these extremes—few and far between they are!—Good Plants and Weeds can look a lot alike. So, in the end we must humbly submit to the infallible judgment of our Lord in plucking the weeds and leaving the righteous at the time of harvest.

We aren’t helpless against the noxious effects of the weeds right now, however. True, we must be patient in waiting for the weeds to be pulled; but, we can minimize their damage to the garden by carefully tending to that which makes the garden fertile in the first place: God’s gift of growing His love in us. No, this is not some lame deflection or crippled sentimentality put up to serve a faint heart too weak to fight the Weeds! There is nothing faint-hearted or weak or sentimental about God’s love being perfected in us. Jesus says that on the day of harvest, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” No darkness, no shadow, no fleck of sin. Nothing contrary to the brilliance of the Father’s glory. Nothing stands against His end, His means, His perfection. For us then, we need only be living Christs for others in order to show the weeds their fate. While they suck life from the air and poison the ground, the Good Plants must be more deeply rooted, stand taller, produce more and better fruit, and be more beautiful in flower than any weed can.

Being right is not our witness. Being faithful to the end…that’s the testimony that will turn heads and change hearts.

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29 July 2015

No one else can bring us home

NB. From 2009, by request. . .

17th Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Setting aside for the moment a few ugly episodes and outrageous characters from the Order's history, it is safe to say that Dominicans have a well-deserved reputation for preferring to teach folks into heaven rather than scaring them away from Hell. We would rather persuade than cajole, influence rather than frighten. Generally speaking, it is better to touch a rational soul with the Light of Christ than it is to scare the snot out of a sinner with ghastly visions of Hell. But sometimes the rational soul of a sinner might need to be shown a scene or two of eternal life without God—just a brief glimpse into exactly what never-ending torment looks like. Doesn't a soul twisted in folly, unable to choose the Good and come to God, doesn't a soul so injured deserve the mercy of wisdom's most immediate remedy? Jesus, the Master Philosopher, knows that even a mind deeply dedicated to right reason but steeped in sin may need a hot-shock, a whack upside the head in order to see through foolish to wisdom. The “fiery furnace” he refers to so often in Matthew's gospel is just that jolt of reality we sometimes need. It's not pretty, but it sure is helpful.

As helpful as images of Hell may be, we tend to shy away from preaching about eternal damnation these days. Too 1950's. Too fundamentalist. Very “pre-Vatican Two”—whatever that means. But if we are going to preach the gospel, there is simply no way to avoid the subject given the lectionary readings! These last two weeks alone Jesus has separated the goats from the sheep; pulled the weeds from among the flowers; culled the good fish from the bad; and his angels have set the midden-heap of pruned branches ablaze. The wicked and the righteous are well and truly labeled, properly queued up, and ready to receive their eternal itineraries. So, let's not mince words; let's study the truth as Jesus presents it to us: make a choice—goat or sheep, flower or weed, good fish or bad, fertile soil or barren dirt. All you need to do is make the right choice. The consequences of making the wrong choice are—shall we say—extremely unpleasant! In the best sense, the choices before us really are just this stark and the consequences of our choices just this easy to discern. Few of us, however, experience the choices in such stark terms.

So why is Jesus presenting the choices in such glaring black and white terms? Why the threat of eternal punishment in the fiery furnace for making the wrong choice? Jesus is a Master Philosopher and a Master Psychologist. Think about how Jesus preaches and teaches. He uses parables, scriptural allusions, conversation, examples, even miracles. Sometimes he interrogates and cajoles. Rarely does he argue like a Greek philosopher or a Pharisee. The people in the crowds respond to him b/c he sparks to life their intuitions about what is true and good and beautiful about being well-loved creatures. He knows that his very presence jump-starts that nagging desire for God that we are born with and strive to satisfy in this life. And he knows that without God's help we will consistently fail to reach high enough when reaching for our happiness. Settling for imitation happiness, faux-joy—this might impress the neighbors, but it takes the real-deal to enter the kingdom. And if Jesus has to scare the snot out of us to get us to pay attention to our eternal choices, then get the hankie ready—here comes the scare!

If you were frightened into the faith, you might not be particularly proud of the fact. It would be more embarrassing, however, to remain faithful out of fear, to remain a believer because the fiery furnace looms large in the imagination. The threat of the furnace is meant to scald a foolish soul into seeing the light of reason, to awake a sleepy desire for God. Clearly, Hell is a very real option for anyone who chooses to live without God for eternity. But Hell is not the be-all and end-all of the gospel. Once the furnace-option has been rejected and we have joined the flowers, the sheep, the good fish, and the fertile soil, Hell might linger as a whiff of smoke to remind us of our wise choice, but the daily life of a Christian is not dominated by the fear of an already and always defeated enemy. We chose to receive the extravagant graces poured out from the cross and the empty tomb. Though the heat of the furnace may have turned us from its punishing flames, setting us on the right course, we stay the course for Christ b/c nothing else, no one else can bring us home. For us, no one else is home.

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Coffee Cup Browsing (Wed)

If your child's school brings in an "anti-bullying" group, check and double-check their program. (NB. graphic language) 

$15/hr minimum wage in Seattle leads workers to demand fewer hrs. Why? They aren't eligible for welfare benefits any longer. . .

Why the co-founder of Greenpeace left the group. . .Hint: anti-human ideology.

Big Gov't: left vs. right 

Adjusting the temp to support The Narrative: all the facts made to fit

Trump and the revenge of the Radical Middle. . . 

Ouch. A pic that pretty much says it all.


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28 July 2015

Do you believe?

NB. From 2009, by request. . .

St Martha
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

In the presence of the people, Moses veils his face, shielding them from God's radiance even while sharing with them the Lord's commands; in the presence of the Lord himself, Martha unveils her face, revealing her grief to Jesus even while confessing her belief in him. Moses must hide God's brilliance so that the people will hear what the Lord has to say. Martha must show Jesus her mourning so that he will ask of her, “Do you believe?” Both Moses and Martha see the Lord face-to-face. Both hear him and converse with him. Moses speaks with God for the sake of His people. Martha speaks with Jesus for the sake of her deceased brother, Lazarus. Moses is the anointed prophet of God and leader of His people. Martha is sister to Mary; friend to Jesus; and no one has anointed her to be a prophet or herald, yet she believes that Jesus is the promised one to come; she proclaims his arrival among us; and names him, she names him Christ, the Messiah. What Moses must hide so that others might see, Martha announces so that all may hear.

If you have ever mourned, you know how wholly consuming the pain can be. The gravity of loss drags against every offer of comfort, any possibility of relief. Nothing, no one can lift the ruinous pressure that squeezes your guts and chokes your heart. There is nothing to see behind you anymore and nothing of promise for tomorrow. There is only more defeat in the futile hours that circle around. . .again and again. Martha and Mary mourn the death of Lazarus, their brother. They do not grieve alone—neighbors, friends, family visit with them. Martha goes out to meet Jesus on his way. Finding him, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. . .” She “says” this? Or does she scream it? Is she accusing Jesus of neglect? Is she merely disappointed in him, or just annoyed? Do you hear grief in her voice? “Lord, if you had been here. . .” If only, you had been here. . .

What we could easily take to be Martha's accusation against Jesus, quickly turns into something else entirely: “...my brother would not have died [had you been here, Lord]. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” From accusatory outburst to faith-filled profession, Martha moves from being a grieving sister to speaking as a holy prophet of God. Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise. And Martha, in tone that could put steel in the weakest stomach, answers, “I know he will rise. . .” The strength of her conviction almost overshadows Jesus' moment of glory: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. . .” We can safely assume that Jesus never sputtered when he spoke, but it is not too much to imagine that he may have been both a little surprised and greatly pleased by Martha's faith. Nonetheless, he must ask. . .

Do you believe this? Do you believe that if you believe in Christ Jesus, you will never die, and if you die, you will live again? Martha says in answer to this question, “I have come to believe. . .” In other words, not always fully convinced of your name or mission, over time I have found belief, arrived at faith, been convicted in the spirit that you are the Christ. Martha is our prophet of progressing belief, of unfolding faith. She is our patron saint of those who Come to Believe despite their anger, their grief; despite all the evidence and argument against believing; over the objections of family, friends, colleagues; and, overriding disappointment and accusation, come to know that all will be made well—even death—all will be made well. But first we must believe. We must watch what cannot clearly be seen, reach for what cannot be grasped. Only by watching and reaching do we ever see or grasp.

Martha wants to know, “Do you believe?


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27 July 2015

Pull the weeds! Or not. . .

NB. From 2009, by request. . .

17th Week OT (Tues): Ex 33.7-11, 34.5-9, 28; Matt 13.36-43
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Jesus fell for it! His disciples ask for the meaning of the sower's parable and Jesus caves. Just yesterday, I was praising our Lord for having the proper teacherly attitude toward the use of parables. Up until today, he has resisted the temptation to dissect his stories, to take them apart for close inspection and risk killing them for the sake of ever-elusive clarity. But today his students want to know what the sower's parable “means.” They ask Jesus, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” Jesus explains his story by matching each image or action in the parable with a parallel image or action from scripture: “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom,” and so on. For the disciples and probably most of those reading this passage centuries later, Jesus has the last word on the meaning of this parable. And why not? It's his story, so he gets to interpret it. Even if we accept as definitive the meaning he gives to this parable, we can still ask why he gave it an explanation in the first place. Well, the Psalmist sings this morning, “The Lord is kind and merciful,” so maybe Jesus is taking pity on the metaphor-challenged. But doesn't Jesus say in earlier readings that only those who are graced with insight can understand the parables? If the disciples need to be taught the correct interpretation, does that mean that they don't have graced insight? Or is Jesus doing something here other than what it at first appears he is doing? The Lord can be very sneaky when he wants to be. . .

The disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable to them. Does Jesus do this; does he explain the parable? More or less. What he does is give them the interpretative keys to the story; he lays out for them how to give the parable meaning by giving it one meaning—the sower is the Son of Man; the field is the world, etc. So, one way of explaining the parables is to replace story elements (images, characters) with complementary elements from scripture and then work out how these elements tell a new story. The explanation that Jesus gives is not The Explanation for All Ages; it is what we could call a hermeneutical pattern, or an interpretative model. For example, the sower of seed could be the Church; the field could be missionary territories; the seeds could be fired-up catechists and their families, etc. Are their limits to this sort of interpretative model? Oh yes. I used to warn my students away from hermeneutical relativism by telling them, “There may be no one right interpretation of this poem, but there are millions of wrong ones!”

In the case of the sower's parable, Jesus enlightens his disciples with an explanation that cracks open a cosmic story, an end-time tale of how All This ends in a harvest of souls for heaven and a midden-heap of sinners for the fiery furnaces of hell. Though we might tinker with the details and shift around the storyline, what we cannot avoid in the sower's parable is the rather straightforward teaching that our choices as loved-creatures have eternal consequences. We are animals gifted with reason; set above the angels because we are free to love or not. To love as we ought is to measure our share in the divine life; to fail to love as we ought is to measure our grave for an eternal abode. With a face set in stone and a heart to match, the anti-lover will burn—maybe it will be the furnace fires of hell, or maybe it will be the scalding freeze of a deathless void. Whatever else hell may be, it is to be eternally abandoned. And the most appalling part is that it is freely chosen abandonment.

Jesus explains the parable to the disciples, but he doesn't refine his explanation into a full-blown interpretation. He gives them and us a way to understand what our glorious or inglorious end looks like. There is a choice to make. As always-loved creatures, we receive Christ's wisdom to the limits of our capacity. Augustine liked to (unknowingly) misquote Isaiah, “Unless you will have believed, you will not understand” (Isa 7.9). First comes our assent to the Good News of God's mercy, then comes our understanding of what that mercy means for us eternally. If, as Aquinas teaches us, we receive according to our natures, then make sure your nature is properly graced in belief to receive the truth of a parable—even if the details escape your less-than-poetical imagination. Remember: parables do the teaching; Jesus does the saving.


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26 July 2015

God provides all that we need

17th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Divine providence: God provides. We are asked this evening to acknowledge and receive all that our Father has to give us. And all that God has to give us is God Himself. Our Father takes care of us so that we might come to Him in love and live with Him eternally. When it comes to providing for His people our God is never stingy, never thrifty. By nature, He is always generous, abundantly gracious, even extravagant. But here's the thing. . .He provides in copious amounts all that we need to come to Him in love. Not all that we might want. Not all that we think we deserve. But all that we need to come to Him in love. What God knows we need to thrive is not always what we think we need to survive. Our daily challenge is ask for and receive from God all that we truly need and not worry over the stuff that cannot bring us closer to Him. 
How do we even begin to tackle this task? How do we effectively separate what we truly need from what we merely want? One way to do this is to think about The Basics for Survival. Ask yourself: what can I not live without? Literally, not live without. Meaning, if I didn't have this, I would die. Food and water come to mind. Some sort of shelter from the elements. Clothing would be good. For some of us, we could add this or that medication. With access to these things we could keep body and soul together. That's a good start but our goal here is not mere survival. Yes, we need to be alive in order to get closer to God in this life but just getting by isn't the same as thriving under His care. We need more than the material necessities to fulfill our goal, our end in love. Remember the purpose of creation is “that all creatures should manifest the glory of God”* and for us in particular it is to attain “the full development of [our human] nature and to eternal happiness in God.” What do we need on a daily basis to assist us in fully developing our human nature so that we might attain eternal happiness in God? The one thing we need more than anything else is God Himself. We cannot become the men and women we were made to be w/o Him. And we certainly cannot attain eternal happiness w/o the source of that happiness working in our lives.

If you knew this already, then you know that merely surviving as an intelligent animal is not your reason for being. If you didn't know this, then hear it again: we need God not only to exist, to survive as we are, we also need Him to thrive, to grow, and to become perfectly human, perfectly happy as Christ himself was perfectly human and perfectly happy. God's providence, His loving-care for us, comes to us as graces, gifts, freely given. Our tradition tells us that “Providence is God Himself,” God gives Himself to us for our spiritual provision. He gives Himself to us in our existence – that we exist at all is His gift. He gives Himself to us in our ability to love one another – that we are capable of loving is His gift. He gives Himself to us in our desire to return to Him – that we long for happiness, peace, consolation is His gift. He gives Himself to us in His sacraments, His Church, His Word—that we are one Body in Christ is His gift. He gives Himself to us in faith, hope, charity – that we are able to trust Him and His promises is a gift. All we need to flourish and grow toward happiness is provided; freely, abundantly, extravagantly given. Why then do we find ourselves so often wallowing in unhappiness? It's not for lack for divine provision. It's b/c we have yet to find a workable way of separating what we truly need from we merely want. When we are unhappy, we are dwelling on what we do not have. We have locked ourselves in the prison of scarcity, a self-made spiritual illusion.

Paul is in prison – a real prison – for preaching the Good News. He writes a letter to the Church in Ephesus, urging them “to live in a manner worthy of the call [they] have received. . .” What call have they received? They were called to Christ by Paul to live lives of repentance and sacrificial love. This sort of life must be lived with “all humility and gentleness, with patience. . .” There's no mention here of a new car, a better paying job, a better-looking spouse, smarter kids, the latest electronic gadget, or an off-shore tax shelter. Humility, gentleness, and patience. All divinely provided free of charge. Have you received these gifts so that you might be happy? If you have received them, do you use them? How should we live together? Paul writes that living lives worthy of our call means “bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.” No mention of liking one another; agreeing with one another politically; being thrilled to bump into one another at Mass; or going to the movies together. Bear with one another in love; strive to be one in the spirit b/c we all want peace. Also, all divinely provided. Have you received these gifts and do you use them if you have? From the prison-cell of scarcity, all we can ever see is what we do not have. Wanting is not needing. If you need it to grow in holiness, it has already been given to you.

Look at the 5,000 who gather around Jesus to hear him preach and watch him heal. When Jesus sees the crowd, he wants to feed them. He turns to his disciples and asks a perfectly reasonable question: can we afford to feed this many with what we have? Philip, avoiding the question, anxiously notes that even if they spent the wages earned over 200 days, they wouldn’t have enough food. Andrew pushes forward a boy who has some food, but gloomily notes that the little he has won’t be enough for the crowd. Can’t you hear and see Jesus sigh and roll of the eyes!? At this late date, these two still don’t get it! Philip and Andrew see only scarcity; they see only what they don't have or how little they have. Jesus doesn’t berate them. He teaches them: “Have the people recline.” Have the people prepare to feast. And they do. And afterward Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the excesses of the feast, what’s leftover, the abundant remainder of what they could only see at first as scarcity. Is this a lesson about how to stretch a meal on a budget? No. Jesus feeds us with the bread of eternal life – all that we need to attain perfect happiness. Philip and Andrew do not see the possibilities packed into the bread Christ offers the crowd. Not only is there enough for everyone, there's an abundance of leftovers. In other words, there is mercy and love and trust enough for everyone to attain their happiness and leftovers besides. God provides in copious amounts all that we need to come to Him in love. What He knows we need to thrive is not always what we think we need to survive. 
Our daily challenge is to ask for and receive all that we truly need and not worry about the stuff that cannot bring us closer to God. We are free from the prison of sin; do not lock yourself up in the prison-cell of scarcity. Receive what God has given you – all that you truly need – and thrive onto eternal happiness in Him! 

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