Thursday, December 30, 2010

Predictions & Providence

The end of the year invites review.

Those who chronicle 2010 will record disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti (230,000 dead), the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and a world-wide economic downturn.

They will recall the introduction of the iPad, the first 24-hour nonstop flight of a solar powered plane, and the end of the H1N1 flu pandemic.

They will remember the rescue of 33 miners in Chile, the deaths of J. D. Salinger, Tony Curtis and Lena Horne, and Obamacare.

Looking back they will register for future generations the memorable events of MMX.

But the end of the year also invites looking ahead.

I am not a Nostradamus, but I enjoy predicting the future as much as he did. (I really suspect his "prophecies" were fillers for the almanacs he published just as proverbs filled in the pages of Benjamin Franklin's almanacs centuries later.)

With feigned solemnity I predict that over the next two years (I give myself leeway to extend into 2012) the following will occur:

1) President Barack Hussein Obama will announce that he will not seek re-election as President of the United States.

2) Former President William Jefferson Clinton will announce his candidacy for President of the United States and he will float the idea of choosing Hillary Rodham Clinton as his running mate.

3) Pope Benedict XVI will announce his retirement and will offer a recommendation about who should be his successor.

4) Environmentalist Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., will warn that continued green-house gas emissions will cause the onset of a new ice age.

5) Both the Cincinnati Reds and the Cincinnati Bengals will have winning seasons.

Remember! You read it here first!

Part of Nostradamus' lasting appeal is our curiosity and fear about the future. We want to know. And yet predicting the future is somewhat like forecasting the weather. There are signs and probabilities about what might happen, but nobody knows for sure.

Jesus made some predictions. He told his contemporaries that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed; it was razed by the Romans in 70 AD. He spoke of the end time, when, following great tribulations, the Son of Man will come with great power and glory, but he went on to add, "Of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).

Jesus' advice in the face of the unknown was simple: "Be watchful! Be alert!"

But neither his dire prediction nor his sobering advice were meant to leave his audience anxious, distraught or despairing. Heaven is forever telling us, "Do not be afraid!" (Franciscan friar and spiritual writer Richard Rohr says, "'Be not afraid' is the most common single line in the Bible.")

Ours is a loving God, a Father solicitous for his children, capable of bringing good out of evil, always assuring us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. He does not necessarily keep bad things from happening, but he does find a way for goodness to triumph. Ours is a savior who knows his way out of the grave.

I don't know what the future holds. I can suggest that there will be continuing hostility between Arabs and Jews, between Muslims and Christians, between North Korea and South Korea. I am sure terrorist threats and bombings will continue. I predict that commercial television programming will get worse before it gets better.

But in truth I do not know what, when, how or even if these things will happen. All I can have is the assurance that God is the ultimate Master of history and things will turn out as divine providence directs. In the meantime I am to be at peace, not afraid. I am to be alert but not anxious. I am to have faith in God and not worry about tomorrow.

Looking ahead means looking toward God.

Heaven's best blessings to you in the new year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Poetry in Christmas

Some things defy pure reason. I suspect that's why human beings resort to poetry.

Who would send a Valentine card that said, "I have 'a profoundly tender, passionate affection' for you?" The italicized words are the definition of love according to my dictionary. Accurate enough, I suppose, but somehow lacking.

Even a first-grader prefers something less prosaic: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, And so are you!

And if the spirit of Valentine's Day is elusive in prose which is the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure (another dictionary definition), how much more the mood or ardor of Christmas!

Matthew could not tell the story of Jesus' birth without resorting to mystery and mysticism: Joseph's quandary, a surprisingly mobile star, and astrologers from the east: and Luke had his angelic visitations, a manger for a crib, and shepherds who travel to Bethlehem.

John's account is the most mystical of all: the Word was God, the Word took flesh, and the Word "pitched his tent among us!"

When our ancestors tried to describe God's intrusion into their history, they resorted to all kinds of literary forms: they used myths and folklore, letters and hymns, proverbs and prophecy --prose and poetry.

Jesus too used various literary devices to convey the truth: sermons, miracles, predictions, prayers, and his favorite: parables.

The Church also employs many forms: commandments, homilies, the magisterium, and her favorite: liturgy.

Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of Jesus' birth in prose ("Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event." #525), but quickly launches into a sixth century hymn by a Greek saint known as Romanos the Melodist:

The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal
And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible.
The angels and shepherds praise him
And the magi advance with the star,
For you are born for us,
Little Child, God eternal.

I have always wanted to preach my best on Christmas but have never come close to matching the occasion. One reason I fail is simple: I am more prose than poetry.

Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver describes writing poetry as a love affair between the heart ("that courageous but also shy factory of emotion") and the learned skills of the conscious mind. The two of them must come together at the same time, she says, or nothing happens.

The heart part "exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious." It's that part, as Miss Oliver puts it, which "supplies a necessary part of the poem --the heat of the star as opposed to the shape of a star."

If, as I propose, some things defy pure reason, Christmas must be at the top of the list. And if, as Mary Oliver suggests, "Poets are born and not made in school," I shall never adequately move Christmas from my lumbering prose into passionate poetry.

On the other hand, my just knowing that this very special holyday defies logic and appeals to the more sentimental and spiritual part of my nature gives me comfort and hope. For the time being I am content to revel in the Gospel revelation: "He pitched his tent among us" (John 1:14).

It's nice to know that God is so near, and on Christmas morning, after Midnight Mass, I'll listen for Jesus' ever so mundane and prosaic invitation, "Come, have breakfast" (John 21:12). And once again it'll be a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Power of Blessing

In one of his books (it might have been Life of the Beloved) Henri Nouwen wrote about the power of blessing.

By blessing he meant saying a good word. He proposed that a benediction (the term means "good word") can counter negativity and raise people's spirits.

The Church offers blessings. In fact it has a whole book of them: blessings for people, blessings related to buildings and human activity, blessings for religious articles, blessings related to feasts and seasons, and blessings for various needs and occasions.

The priest-presider may offer several blessings during Mass: for holy water, the deacon, incense, and, of course, for the people before the dismissal. He blesses the body at a funeral, the rings at a wedding, and a baby at its Baptism.

We ask a blessing before we eat a meal. We have a benediction before an assembly or meeting. We bless ourselves with holy water when we enter a church.

Liturgical blessings are, next to the seven sacraments, the chief sacramental activity of the Church.

Some of the blessings are profound and soul-stirring; others sound as if the blesser is at a loss for words.

The blessing of the sick moves the soul: "Lord, you watch over your creatures with unfailing love; keep us in the safe embrace of your love. With your strong right hand raise up your servants...minister to them and heal their illnesses."

The blessing for airplanes is less inspired: "Grant that this airplane, built by human skill and talent, may make its flights in calm weather."

One frequently told story is about the atheist who insisted that the pope give him a blessing. Trying to come up with appropriate good words, the pontiff at last said (in Latin) the blessing for charcoal: "May you be blessed by Him in whose honor you shall be burned."

Nouwen, however, wasn't thinking of church or liturgical blessings; he was thinking of the kind words, good wishes, and thoughtful praises people can offer to one another.

Someone sneezes, and you say, "God bless you!" Someone does you a favor, and you respond, "Thanks! That was very kind." Someone is hurting or embarrassed, and you say,"It'll be OK."

Sometimes a gesture, like the wave of the hand or a smile on the face, speaks volumes of good words. A driver lets you change lanes, and you signal your gratitude.

In Nouwen's mind, the simple ritual of a blessing (using words and/or signs) makes heaven come down on earth and eases the pain of a broken world.

Every child and most adults like to hear, "Good job!" The affirmation allows the one so blessed to feel for at least a moment, "Hey, I'm OK."

"Thank you" to the cashier at Wal-Mart may over-turn the rudeness of a previous customer. "Good afternoon" may raise the spirits of a tired neighbor or a heart-broken passer-by.

Remarkable to say, a word of blessing to God must delight his loving heart: "Praise the Lord! Alleluia! Thank you, Jesus!"

And the season for freely given blessings is at hand. "Happy Holidays" to the next person you meet would be great, and "Merry Christmas" would be even greater.

My "Thanks" to you too for reading this blog.

And "God bless us everyone!" said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vatican II's Golden Anniversary

There is the perception among some Catholics that the Church's leadership wants to take the Church back to what it was before the Second Vatican Council.

Some clergy lean toward the theology, dress, liturgical style and clericalism of the pre-Vatican II Church.

Pope Benedict XVI decides, on his personal initiative (motu proprio), to allow a return to use of the Tridentine (Latin) liturgy.

The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments requires English-speaking Catholics to use a new (and highly criticized) English translation of the Sacramentary (the book of prayers for Mass) beginning in Advent of 2011.

The meetings of Synods of Bishops at the Vatican fall far short of the hope for collegiality raised by the Council fathers.

I once asked a priest/historian if it is possible that the spirit and change of Vatican II might be just a momentary blip on the screen of Church history. Will we go back to the way it was?

He said, "No," and went on to explain that the pattern of history shows a period of reaction following significant change. He told me that we should expect to find people who want to return to the seeming security of the pre-Vatican II Church, but once a change has taken place history does not allow restoration to the past.

The Church has been promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus has assured us, "I will be with you always." The theology and renewal reflected in the documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council cannot be rendered void; those decisions were instructed for the good of the Church and the promotion of the Gospel.

In his book Receiving the Council, canon lawyer Ladislaus Orsy, SJ, reminded his readers that when the Council fathers gathered in St. Peter's Basilica they prayed the traditional acclamation Adsumus, "we are present and listening."

Orsy proposes that the years 2012 to 2015 should be solemnly declared the years of the Council, that the entire people of God ("from the bishops to the last of the faithful," Lumen Gentium 12, quoting St. Augustine) should observe this golden anniversary with that same prayer. He pleads, "Let the cry Adsumus, 'we are present and attentive,' resound --not within the walls of St. Peter's Basilica but throughout the face of the earth."

And I would add a suggestion for still another prayer, namely, that the Church be set free from fear. The Bible is replete with heaven's plea, "Do not be afraid." 1 John 4:18 teaches, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love." I suspect that efforts to restore the Church to what it was prior to Vatican II are motivated largely by fear.

Going back to old ways does not ensure preservation of dogma nor reclamation of devotion. It is paradoxical but true that things must change to stay the same. That is what Pope John XXIII meant when he made the distinction between the truths of dogma and the language that is used to present them.

Calling a refrigerator "the ice-box" or an automobile "a machine" may have a certain nostalgic appeal, but as descriptions they are antiquated and inadequate for this age.

Vatican II set a course for the future. Lay participation in the mission and ministry of the Church is sanctioned and here to stay. Recognition of and cooperation with other religions and churches in the ecumenical movement do not pose a threat to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

When Father Orsy suggests that "For communities and individuals to enter into the dynamics of the Council is to expose themselves to the ever-surprising action of the Spirit," I say, "From your mouth to God's ears."

Let preparations for the golden anniversary begin! And do not be afraid!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tenth Parallel - Nigeria

I’ve just started reading Eliza Griswold’s book The Tenth Parallel, and already I doubt that the jihad of Muslim extremists and the resistance of the Western world will ever be peacefully resolved.

Griswold is a journalist who has for the past seven years traveled along the tenth parallel (the seven hundred mile wide band of land north of the equator, which includes Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) to investigate and report on the ongoing bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims.

So far I’ve read only about the situation in Nigeria which she describes as “sub-Saharan Africa’s major petroleum producer,” “America’s fifth-largest supplier of oil,” and “one of the continent’s wealthiest and most influential powers…(and) one of its most corrupt democracies.”

Part of the conflict is about whose beliefs are sanctioned by God: Muslims’ or Christians’? Another part is economic. Some non-Muslims have converted to Christianity as a way of combating Muslim oppression. Christian Pentecostalism is growing fast, and one form of Pentecostalism focusing on a “prosperity Gospel” (i.e., the belief that God blesses Christians with economic prosperity) has proved to be a threat to the spread of Islam.

Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi puts it bluntly, “In Nigeria both sides are growing, and that growth engenders competition.” Kwashi likes to say, “For Christians, God has moved his work to Africa.” He believes that the western world is guilty of relativizing the Gospel, that mainline Protestant churches have moved away from a strict interpretation of the Bible and are leaving to Christians in Africa and Asia the job of spreading the Gospel. According to Kwashi this is where America in particular has gone wrong.

Author Griswold recounts the story of a February, 2004, attack by Muslims against Christian worshippers in the town of Yelwa. Jihadists, shouting "Allahu Akhbar," set fire to a church, shot those who tried to escape, and burned a nursery school, killing at least 78 people that day. Two months later Christians surrounded the town and over a period of two days, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, massacred over 600 Muslims. By 2006 Yelwa was a ghost town.

Abdullahi Abdullahi, a Muslim human rights lawyer, explained to Griswold that the conflicts in Nigeria did not begin with religious differences, but with shrinking natural resources. Muslims then bought into the rumor that Christians were plotting to eliminate them. “If someone attacks you, you have the right to defend yourself –call it jihad or whatever you want—but this was Christian attacking Muslim,” a school’s headmaster told Griswold. “The Christians came in the sense of crusade.”

Archbishop Peter Akinola, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, formerly from a southwestern corner of Nigeria where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully, faults western Christians for abandoning conservative morals which in turn weakens the global Church in its struggle against Islam.

“People are thinking that Islam is an issue in Africa and Asia,” Akinola told Griswold, “but you in the West are sitting on explosives. What Islam failed to accomplish by the sword in the eighth century, it’s trying to do by immigration so that Muslims become citizens and demand their rights.”

(Bishop Akinol was once a colleague of author Griswold’s father, also a bishop of the Anglican Church.)

I have much more of The Tenth Parallel to read, as Griswold reports on the situation in the Sudan in Africa, and then about Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in Asia. I do not know whether she sees any light at the end of this long dark tunnel of religious, economic, ethnic, and cultural conflict. At this point in her expose I am not especially optimistic.

The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010, $27.