Daily Bread and Dependence on God

“In the morning a dew lay all about the camp,
and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert
were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground.
On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?”
for they did not know what it was.
But Moses told them,
“This is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:12-15)

In this reading from Exodus, the Hebrew people wandering in the desert are still on their way to the promised land. They are grumbling because there is not enough to eat. God listens to their grumbling and provides them with manna that appears on the ground like dew, every morning. Moses instructs them that the Lord provides enough for everyone to have each day but not to save up any for the next day. Some people try to save it anyway, and they find that the manna becomes full of maggots, inedible.

Many interpreters read the period of wandering in the desert as a time that the people are learning to trust and to depend on God again, after years of slavery. When Moses first goes to them in Egypt and says that God has sent him, they ask, What name does this God have, indicating that they are more distant from them since the days of their forefathers and foremothers. The name of being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the miracles that God performs, are enough to get them to follow Moses into the desert. But they are still not ready to go into the promised land and to live lives wholly in accord with the Lord. Thus a time of wandering in the desert and getting to know the Lord again.

The daily manna is part of their learning process. The people learn their daily dependency on God rather than on themselves. When they try to stockpile up their goods, they may think that they are just being practical—just as many people who try to stockpile wealth also think it’s best kept for the sake of security and safety–and yet this paradoxically only leads to decay. Although the passage does not offer details, I imagine people so concerned to collect manna that they forget to enjoy the gifts of one another, or to be grateful, in striving for “more.”

Jesus is named as the bread of life in John’s gospel. The Eucharist is our daily food, and in a larger sense, so too is learning to depend on the Lord here and now, rather than putting our trust in changeable things. For most of us–we who are not hungry, homeless, or fighting for survival in war–our basic daily needs are already met. Yet many people strive for a sense of even more security. Instead, Jesus encourages us to stay with the here and now. We are encouraged to stay in our relationships of today, to strive to love God and to love one another, rather than to strive for our own security. Love always involves some risk of self, yet it’s how we are called to live, day by day, depending on the Lord in all that we do.

Love one another as I have loved you

“Jesus said to his disciples:
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Remain in my love.” (Jn 15:9)

Jesus asks us to love one another in the same way that Jesus loves us. All the readings today are about love; the language is repeated as if to bring us back to what matters: in the end, our lives are about Love.

We can also look to Jesus as a model for love. Here are some things I notice about how Jesus loves:

1. All love is grounded in being loved by God. Jesus says that his own love is grounded in being loved by the Father. Our capacity to love others is also grounded in our knowing that we are loved unconditionally. If we remain in the love of Jesus, that love flows out from us toward others, a love working in and through us.

2. “Love is patient and kind,” as St Paul says. Love responds to difficulties and stumbling blocks with patience and kindness. Consider Jesus with the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, or the thieves on the cross. His love is responsive and embracing, not recriminatory.

3. Love is communicative and speaks the truth. Jesus tells Peter “get behind me, Satan” when Peter refuses to acknowledge that Jesus will suffer. Peter resists entering into Jesus’s suffering and so refuses an aspect of friendship with Jesus. So Jesus openly tells Peter that he is acting in an adversarial way. Love doesn’t mean avoiding all conflict but communicates.

4. Love seeks out those in the margins of society. Jesus constantly goes to those who are marginalized and even despised in his society and works to heal them and to restore them to community: tax collectors, adulterers, Samaritans, roadside beggars, a Roman soldier identified with the oppressor, lepers.

5. Love is always reconciling. Jesus refuses reconciliation with no one, and we are to do the same with one another.

6. Love is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the good of another. Today is Mother’s Day and for me there is no better model of sacrificial love than that of a mother (my mom is a very loving mom). I recall holding my firstborn when she was a newborn infant and realizing I truly loved someone else more than myself. There was no question in my mind that I’d sacrifice even my own life in order to protect the life of that child–and nearly every mom would say the same.

7. Love can be shown in the smallest actions. I love St Therese of Lisieux, who demonstrated great love even while living isolated in a convent. While she could not live an active life in her society or live out the life of a missionary (though she supported missionary priests in prayer and with letters), she sought to love in every action of her day. She wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

8. Love passes on gifts received to others. We receive many gifts in our lives: perhaps it’s a good education or a particular skill someone taught us; being received and cared for in a time of crisis; or material goods. Love shares what we have by passing on what has been received to others in the wider community. Like trees that produce seeds to grow new seedlings, when we pass on the gifts that we receive, our love becomes generative.

Of course, we often fail to love well. In the reading from Acts, Peter makes Cornelius get up and says, I’m only human, as you are. Often we stumble and fall in our efforts to love, but then we try again, and help each other to get back onto our feet once more.

Dominican sisters of St Catherine of Siena

“Remember the word I spoke to you,
‘No slave is greater than his master.’
If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (Jn 15: 20)

Jesus here speaks of the persecution of Christians that will come for those who follow him. Scholars almost universally see in these words the community of those who surrounded John, the apostle, reflecting on their own persecution in the late 1st century, when the Christian communities split with Jewish synagogues. This concern is resonant with many of readings in Acts that we have heard in past weeks, where the early Christians endured persecution for their faith and sought to clarify and define their identities in light of that conflict.

We see today in other regions of the world Christians who endure persecution for the sake of their faith, often suffering alongside those of other faiths—for example, Shi’ite Muslims who are the vast majority of those being persecuted in Iraq by ISIS. The Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena are a group of Dominican nuns whose challenges I’ve been following online for the year or so, since they had to flee Mosul where they once lived and prayed. The Dominicans have been in Iraq since the late 12th century, and this order of nuns first arrived in the late 19th. They have worked as nurses, running maternity hospitals and ten schools that served more than 2,500 students. (See http://www.op.org/en/content/dominican-sisters-iraq-tale-devotion-and-courage). When ISIS took over the region, the sisters initially stayed behind to pray and to serve those whom they nursed and educated. However, in August 2014 they fled amidst terrible violence. A letter circulating that I received via an email network that spread among the Dominican family describes the mass exodus of 500,000 people from Mosul, including the sisters:

“When we arrived to the intersession of Mosul-Erbil, we were shocked to see a huge mess of cars driving very chaotically to Erbil. The view was beyond describing, as words cannot fully capture it. Men, pregnant women, children, handicaps and elderly were moving toward Erbil. There were Christians, Muslims Shiites, Yezeds and Shabak; some people were on foot, some were riding trunks of pick-up, lorry trunks, and motorcycles. There are three checkpoints to arrive in Erbil. It took us five hours, from mid-night to five o’clock, to pass the first one; we reached the second one at seven o’clock and the third one at eight thirty. We arrived the convent at 9:30 exhausted emotionally, physically and mentally. What we saw was unbearable; people were suffering for no reason but because of their sect, religion and trace. We felt like we were in a nightmare wishing that someone would waken us up or that when the sun comes out it will be all over. But it was not the case, we were actually living a hard reality. It usually takes an hour and 15 minutes to drive from Karakosh to Erbil, but the day before yesterday, it took us 10 hours. It was very hot that night, and because it was very crowed many cars were taking side routes.

Upon arriving in Erbil, we saw a big number of people from doomed towns that we mentioned above; there were a lot of people in the streets in the heat of summer sun, with temperature rising over 45 degrees waiting to find a place to stay. Many family welcomed people in their homes and churches but still so many people are staying in parks even in streets and under every tree for shading. These people are way more than Erbil can house, neither can the church meet their needs. We also learned that there were about a hundred people left in Karakosh who decided not to leave and we learned from them that the ISIS entered and took some houses as a center for them. They also walked in the street saying the Muslim prayer “Allahu Akbar”.   Since there was no room for all sisters who came from Karakosh and Bartela to stay in the convent, about half of us are staying in the Chaldean Seminary for which we are really grateful. At the same time, many families preferred to stay in the garden of the convent rather then staying in the street so we provided tents for them. Our sisters from other doomed towns also left their convents and headed to other Kurdish towns. We cannot what will happen or until when people will stay like this nor what the ISIS will do to our towns, nor if we will ever be able to get back home. Everything is so unclear. The situation is extremely difficult. For the time being people have some money to support themselves, but no one knows how long they will endure with the little they have.  As for the safety, Erbil is a Kurdish city and most refugees are staying in Ankawa that is a Christian suburb and protected by Peshmerga. It is hard for people to believe that even this city is safe that’s why they are thinking more and more to leave the whole country.

You may ask what the world can do for us. We would say, stop the blood, stop the oppression, and stop violence. We are human beings here; stop making us target for your weapon. The world needs to stand as one to protect minority against the evil and injustice. People want to live normal life in peace and dignity. Please help us out to stop the evil.  Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena –Iraq ”

That was last August. In the meantime, the sisters are displaced but working in Erbil, continuing their ministries there. One, Sr. Diana Momeka, sought to come to the US but was initially denied a visa by the US administration on the ground of being a displaced person (the worry being that such people might seek to stay in the US rather than to return). (See http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/state-department-under-fire-about-iraqi-nuns-visa-denial/) Thankfully, her visa was just approved and the decision reversed, so that she may meet with the State and department and Foreign Relations committees in the US Senate and House.

I will be interested to learn what she has to say, since the voices of nuns and sisters who work “on the ground” in the Middle East are among some of the most important ones to which we can listen. Unlike the earliest persecuted Christians, who defined their identities largely through contrast to the faiths of others around them, these Dominican Christians have been working largely in solidarity with Shi’ite Muslims, Yazidis, and other now-persecuted faiths, with whom they have lived, worked, and engaged in ministries for many years. We have much to learn from these sisters who live and work alongside people of many faiths while enduring persecution.

Peace, listening, and recognition

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” (Jn 14:27)

Jesus offers the disciples peace and adds that he gives peace in a different way than the world offers it. It’s interesting to reflect on what some of those differences might be.

Certainly one contrast between Jesus’s offer of peace and that of the world is that we find our world full of war, violence, racism, divisions within and among nations, and divisions in families. We could use more peace, in general. Still, Jesus’s words contrast the manner in which he and “the world” offer peace.

When the world ordinarily offers peace, it’s often full of conditions: one country ceases war with another so long as terms are reached of mutual agreement, or at least one country is bowed into submission. The terms of peace are only reached after a certain rational agreement that everyone shares the same views of justice—and this is one reason that peace is so hard to come by, because countries like Israel–Palestine, Ireland, Iraq, etc have such different narratives of the past and different visions of what is just or fair that finding shared ground is difficult.  Peace in interpersonal interactions and relationships also often falters because each party holds his or her own ground inflexibly, often to avoid being vulnerable to the truth of the other’s point of view. We see ourselves and our own point of view rather than really listening to what another is saying and letting it in.

Jesus’s words about peace come in the Last Supper Discourses where he reflects in advance on his own death. His is a peace that comes through self-gift and vulnerability. He offers his own life to others in order to offer peace and reconciliation to others. He experiences a vulnerability that leads even to his own suffering and death as a means of peace and reconciliation. He says that he can do this because his actions are all grounded in a love and obedience to the Father. His peace is a peace that originates from God and knowing that he is loved by God.

We have seen examples of peacemaking and justice building among public figures in the past such as King or Gandhi, whose methods of peacemaking included non-violent resistance and self-gift, and a willingness to suffer to bring others to the truth. We see this also in those who peacefully resist racism in Baltimore and Ferguson despite many barriers to recognition—especially in an age where media prefers to give attention to sensationalized violence instead of everyday acts of violence against black men, or to give attention to the looting of a CVS over the march of 10,000 peaceful protesters. Jesus’ words point to the origin of peacemaking to be in something deep and interior that provides energy for peace and for the building up of justice.

In interpersonal interactions, too, Jesus is advocating being grounded in God as the origin and energy for peace. We could contrast this to peacemaking that begins and ends only in getting to the “right,” mutually agreed upon terms. Peace requires mutual recognition, and here Jesus’s words suggest that mutual recognition—seeing one another as we truly are—is grounded in the love of God that recognizes the goodness and dignity of each person. When we are in conflict with one another, we have to draw upon the interior wellspring of being recognized and loved by God, so that we are non-defensive in how we listen to others and receive what they have to say. We have to be willing to be vulnerable with one another. Then we are better able to see each other, and to hear each other. Just as Jesus drew upon the love of the Father in how he interacted with others, we also are invited to draw on God’s love for us as the source and origin of our own peacemaking efforts.

Pruning down to Love

“Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.” (Jn 15: 1-3)

Jesus uses the imagery of vines and branches that remain, grow, and are pruned to talk about life in God. Not many of us grow vines any more, but the agricultural imagery would have been more familiar in Jesus’s own time. Here, Jesus sets up a series of relationships: those who remain in Christ are part of a larger vine, branches on a vine. But remaining in Christ is also about Christ remaining in each person. There is an interconnectedness of being that speaks of an underlying unity.

I find this to be beautiful imagery of the idea of union with God. St Teresa of Avila spoke of different degrees of union with God in prayer. Although they are sometimes spoken about as stages, the experiences can be quite varied. However, they are all about a kind of union with God in love that is found through a deepening of interior life, and a discovery that God is in the “innermost chamber” of one’s own being. This is not to say that one is God, any more than a branch is the Gardener or even the Vine, but rather that the being of the Vine—upon which the branch depends for its existence—infuses everything that the branch is. This union of the branches to the Vine also shows us that all people are also united to one another, not through a unity of absolute identity, but through a unity in Christ.

Pruning is an activity that gardeners undertake in order to care for their plants. If a large vine is left to grow wild, eventually it won’t bear any fruit, because all the energy is expended on growing new leaves. Pruning helps to re-orient the energy of the vine into bearing fruit. Our own experiences of being pruned by God are also like this. One of the most important ways that God can prune us is by removing aspects of a “false” sense of self that stand in the way of knowing this true, underlying self that is interconnected to God and to others in God.

For example, a person who thinks that winning the lottery will make him happy has a a false view of himself and does not recognize himself as a creature of Love who is made to love. He not only is mistaken about the value of money. He is mistaken about who he really is, and places his identity outside of himself and God into money.

This can be true of other goods, too, for example, relationships (marriages, friendships, family relationships). The pruning of relationships is a little more complex, because Love really is at the heart of life in God. But relationships also can be in need of being pruned down to genuine love, rather a love that is encumbered by the unwieldy growth of false views. For example, thinking that another person’s actions can make me fundamentally happy places false expectations on him or her. It’s not true that others’ actions have very much to do with my interior joy or lack of it. Rather, other people’s actions and how they affect me have a lot more to do with my own belief systems, my cognitions, and how I respond to my own ways of thinking. This is why one person can be so irate at another person who cuts them off while driving, and another person shrugs her shoulders and says, “ah, well, he must be having a bad day.”

Genuine love cares only for the good of the other and finds its origin and energy in the more fundamental Love that grounds all other loves. That interior Love transforms all of our other loves and relationships, to people, to the natural world, to all that is the object of care. As we allow God to transform our desires, the Divine Gardener prunes us of extraneous, wild, unwieldy growth so that we are pruned down to Love itself.

Prayer and Preparation to Love

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.” (Jn 14: 2-4)

Among all the passages in Jesus’s Last Supper Discourses, this is among my favorites. The idea of living “in God’s house” has much to offer as an image. Here Jesus addresses both the universality and the particularity of God’s love. There are many dwelling places in the Father’s home; for me, this emphasizes that God embraces the diversity of different personalities, cultures, attitudes, and characters. There is a place for everyone, as in the image Jesus offers of a tree that grows from a mustard seed and has many branches for the “birds of the air” to rest upon (Luke 13:19). At the same time, Jesus assures his friends that God prepares a place for “you,” for these particular friends of his. God’s love is both universal and particular. We see those two dimensions of love reflected in our everyday human loves, too: we’re both called to love other people agapically, to love everyone simply because we are all part of the same human family and all loved by God, and we are called to love some people in our lives in a more particular way: family, friends, mentors, neighbors, those whom God has placed on our path in some special way. When we love other people, we are also loving the Lord and when we love the Lord we cannot help but love others whom He loves.

I also like the language of “preparation” here. Teresa of Avila spoke about a mansion of many houses in her work on prayer. Prayer is both an act of loving and a preparation for loving. We pray to God because we love God. We pray for others because we love them in God. But we also pray to address those incomplete, not yet formed, or confused places in our lives and our selves that need healing, formation, or re-structuring. For example, we pray in the Lord’s prayer to be fed, and to know and to offer forgiveness–but these are things that take time in prayer and arise like the grace of a wind on a hot summer’s day, after time.

Prayer is how God prepares us to love, and already an act of love. When we pray, we are brought closer to being where Jesus is, through Jesus showing us the way.

Belief, trust, and moving past ideology

“So they said to him,
‘What can we do to accomplish the works of God?’
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.’ ” (Jn 6:29)

Jesus’s words here are intriguing. His followers have asked him how they can accomplish God’s works and he answers with the idea of belief in the one whom he sent.

What is meant by belief? In English, we might say, “I believe you” as a way to affirm assent to a person’s ideas. The Greek here suggests something a little different, as Jesus talks about belief in a person, not in an idea. The verb for “believe” here is pisteuete in the Greek, which  is closely connected to the verb peitho, or to persuade. Someone who believes has been persuaded. The word for belief (pistis) also connotes the idea of something being trustworthy or reliable. So, essentially, the passage affirms the importance of trust in Jesus as a person who can be relied upon. It is much deeper than stating a creed of words, or belief in concepts, and goes to the idea of trusting in a person.

We see this kind of trust in Stephen in the reading from Acts (Acts 6: 8-15), when Stephen is engaged in his mission despite the anger being raised against him, which the author of Acts attributes to people clinging to their customs and to the way “things have always been.” Despite all the anger around him,  Stephen’s face is describes as being like that of an angel, perhaps suggesting that he has peace in his mission and is not too deeply perturbed by those who are fearful. In the comparison to angels, I imagine not someone flashing power, but someone who is really “grounded,” who has an interior calm that is not thrown off by the forces swirling around him.

Interestingly, the people who are angry at Stephen are the ones who are very focused on belief in terms of preserving the “correct” ideology. They are upset that the Christians are changing the customs that have been handed down to them from the past. Stephen, though, relies on the Spirit, suggesting a kind of flexibility of learning something new, and knowing what to say next, that is dependent on the Spirit and not on custom. Stephen is open to new possibilities because he trusts not in ideas, but in a person, Jesus.

This is a good model for us, too, as we try to problem solve across difficult cultural divides in the US over issues of religion and culture–not so much to lock ourselves into custom or ideology but rather to be open to the Spirit and to a trust that God can accomplish something new, if unfamiliar, in our midst. That requires a certain degree of trust, not only in God but also in one another.

Service and the Multiplication of Loaves

Today’s reading is one of the accounts of the multiplication of loaves (Jn 6:1-15). Jesus is being followed by many people because of his healing of the sick, and the people are hungry. Jesus asks Phillip to find the people some food. Phillip replies that there is no way that they have sufficient funds to buy food for so many people. Andrew then says that a boy has five barley loaves and two fishes to contribute, and Jesus takes  what they have and multiplies it so that it is plentiful. There are twelve baskets full of fragments left over after all have eaten.

At the end of each spring semester, I have a lot of goodbyes to say to students who are finishing a class with me,  graduating, or otherwise moving along. This semester, many of my students are also finishing up service work that they have committed to for the past year, and saying goodbye to their own clients, students, guests, at various non-profits around the city. They wonder and ponder what the effect of their actions will be long term on people who are still homeless, or living in poverty, or perhaps still struggling with addictions, or adjusting to life as a recent immigrant. The students will be returning to their home cities and states soon but their students’ and clients’ lives go on.

There is something analogous here to the loaves and fishes story. Two of the disciples respond a bit differently from one another. Phillip wonders if what they have could ever be enough for the need that is present, while Andrew offers what they have. In fact, Andrew doesn’t even offer from his own resources alone, but seeks out other resources to assist the crowd; it’s already a cooperative venture when he offers the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Andrew must know that this amount of food will not be “enough” but he has faith that it is still worth offering. And Jesus multiplies the loaves.

In service work (and in teaching), each one of us offers relatively little but as part of larger communities that effect is multiplicative. Each student’s individual service work matters, and can have profound effects. Still, the larger effect is from the hundreds of students each year who offer their time and their selves to the city in a cooperative way. For me, it is also important to have faith that whatever we start can multiply in ways beyond our own imagination. As an educator, I plant the seeds but don’t myself get to see the effects of teaching a class. Instead, I must trust that my work will come to fruition in some way, through God’s efforts than my own.

In the multiplication of loaves story, there is an invitation to cooperation and friendship with God, and also a kind of letting go of ourselves and of our work and placing it into God’s hands.

Light and Re-creation

In the Gospel reading for today at Mass, we hear much about the metaphor of light:

“And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn. 3:19-21)

The Gospel according to John compares Jesus to light and evil to darkness. This metaphor began in the very opening of John’s gospel when he named Jesus as the Word of God that creates (as when God creates the cosmos through speech in Genesis). God’s first creation is to create light, and then to separate light from darkness (Genesis 1:3-5). Here, the gospel extends this metaphor further to show us that creation is not yet finished.

God’s creation is still ongoing in Christ. God’s creative and re-creative work is not yet done. As we see in Acts, Jesus’s followers are still being persecuted after the Resurrection, and evil has not been completely wiped away. In our world, too, we witness material greed of some and consequent poverty for others,  war, racism, oppression, ecological disasters, religious persecution, and many other evils. Most commentators think that the Gospel according to John was written to an audience of persecuted Christians, who also suffered.

The passage suggests that Light is creative in at least three ways.

First, Light exposes. When we come closer to Christ, we are exposed and vulnerable. The author says this is why  people tend to avoid the light: we can be defensive and would prefer that others see us only in the best light. But when we are willing to feel more exposed and fully seen by the Lord, growth is possible. For example, when we go to the sacrament of reconciliation and confess our shortcomings, aloud and to another person, we are a more honest people. Being self-aware is humbling, and humble people are capable of being re-created into something new.

Second, Light is connected to truth. Light is illuminative and shows us new dimensions of what exists, remedying our tendency to see things in a partial or short-sighted way. Light helps us to see more. In the other, synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus heal blind men. Such healing is both a literal healing, and an image for healing as seeing.

Third, Light is attractive. John describes those who live in truth as coming to the light. Jesus is attractive and his goodness calls others to an authenticity of soul and action. Repeatedly, we see instances of people who leave behind their more superficial concerns to follow Jesus: Peter and James put down their nets; Zacchaeus promises to return money to the people; Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’s feet.

God creates not through force, but through attraction, illumination, and the exposing power of light. When we go toward the Light and surrender our sometimes vulnerable selves to God, that we will be humbled, healed, and strengthened to seek the good.