Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A little leaven goes a long way

Many years ago I decided I was going to learn to bake bread.   I had fond memories of watching my mother bake fresh yeast rolls and beautiful tiered wedding cakes.   It always seemed so easy to transform the basic ingredients into the yeasty goodness that I adored.  A quick search on the internet yielded a recipe for a basic loaf of rustic, crunchy bread.   I dashed to the store to gather the ingredients I would need, already picturing a slice of still steaming bread slavered in butter.   I couldn’t wait to bake my first loaf.

I measured the ingredients carefully and kneaded them diligently for the time prescribed.  Knowing that baking is as much science as it is art, I wanted to leave nothing to chance.  The dough looked just as I remembered and after letting it rise, punching it down, and rising it again, I was beginning to get very excited.  The hardest part was waiting for the loaf to come out of the oven.   The smell was filling the house with that fresh baked bread scent and I didn’t want to eat something else!   So I waited as patiently as a man who likes to eat can wait.  Finally the timer went off and I opened the oven and pulled out the first loaf of bread I had ever made.

It was a strange looking Frankenstein of a creation.   Lumps and bumps covered its surface.  Well, I imagined to myself, I bet it still tastes good.   I was wrong there too.   It was a strange texture and yeasty beyond imagine.   I must have done something wrong.  I ate some of it and then throwing it in the trash went back to the recipe.   After several more runs, several more failed loaves, and even a digital kitchen scale in hopes that it was simply a matter of accuracy, I called in the calvary.   It only took a few minutes on the phone with mom to find out that I didn’t need to add all those ingredients to self rising flour.. It already had the leaven in it.  I needed plain flour or bread flour.   Simply getting the recipe right made all the difference and it wasn’t long before I was making crusty breads, yeasty rolls, and buttery biscuits.

In today’s Gospel that is the message that Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples.  Mark is always hard on them.  In his writings they are always dense and obtuse, they never get it.   They just don’t understand.   He’s trying to teach them about the ways of the world in contrast to the ways of God.  So he gives them two extremes.   The Pharisees and Herod.   They then think he’s angry because they didn’t bring bread.  

The funny part is of the three primary sects of Judaism of first century Palestine, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, Jesus has more in common with the Pharisees belief wise.    Their religion is filled with all the laws of Moses.   They believe in life after death.   They tithe and teach others what it means to be in relationship with God.   Jesus continually points out that they have lost the part that matters most, love.   Their religion has become hollow, empty.  It’s all the on the surface and never actually changes a man.  

Then you have Herod, the king.  Herod was a hedonist who loved pleasure.   Though he was the king by title, he wasn’t setting the example of what old testament kings were supposed to be.  They were supposed to be pillars of strength and leaders of the religious community.  Sure, they made mistakes and were sinners just like the rest of us.. But Herod, he just did what felt good.  He did whatever he enjoyed, even if it meant going completely against what God had given us in the Scriptures.

Jesus taught us a path that is more in the middle.   He did not condemn religion, but rather told people to do what those on the chair of Moses said, but not to act as they did.   He reminded us that our hearts had to be in it.  That it wasn’t enough to hit the bare minimum but to go further, beyond.   That our religious rules were there to guide us to a relationship with God.  “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”   God gave the Israelite people six hundred and thirteen rules to help show the world that they were different.  If you want to be in relationship with me, here is what I will do for you and here is how you will behave to show the world.  Above all though, was the need for love.

A little yeast goes a long way.  It’s tempting to go with the flow.   To do those things which feel good.  To lump in with society.   In the current political realm we no longer argue on facts but we simply go with emotions.  “This feels good.”  “This makes me happy.”   Love is more than that.   Love does have emotions with it, but it’s also an action.. A choice.    Love does not give someone something just to make them feel good, it gives them what they need to be good.   We can’t allow our religion to interfere with the good we can do, and at the same time we can’t simply flow along with our emotions and do whatever we want.   We have to live our religion out in love.   

Saint Valentine knew this.  He lived it.   When he was imprisoned for converting people to Christianity, he could simply have gone along with the rest of society and things would have been fine.   He even formed a relationship with the emperor and became friends.   Shortly after he tried to convert the emperor.    The emperor was enraged and sentenced him to death.   The emperor demanded Valentine renounce his faith and Valentine refused, ending his life.   That’s what it means to live out our faith.  It would be easy to simply become lumpy, to take on all the things that feel good, that reward us emotionally.   It is also easy to go along in a rut, to do things so often that we stumble through our prayers not really paying attention to them.   Both will do us great harm.  

The only way that we can become what God intended us to be, to be fully Human, is to let God do the baking.   To allow our faith, our religion, to show us the way to live in relationship with Him.   That means being in relationship with each other as well.  Our rules are there to guide us through the process, the Church shows us the right ingredients to make the perfect dough, and a life of love gives us the perfect temperature and environment to rise and perfect us.  The Holy Spirit, the flame of love, does the baking.   If we just trust, follow, and obey; oh what an amazing offering of bread God can turn us into.

His servant and yours,

“He must increase, I must decrease.”

A reflection on the readings for February 14, 2017: Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A wound that takes time to heal

I remember as a young child one of our dogs had gotten bitten by a snake.  It had this wound on it's side where the flesh had ripped that just would not heal.   For weeks that wound had to be cleaned out and taken care of.   What I remember most was the smell.   It was festering and foul.  Eventually, with enough care, the dog healed and was fine.   It took diligence though.   If the wound wasn't cared for it would get worse.   Left to it's own devices the infection would have simply killed the poor animal.

Our country has some deep spiritual wounds.   America has become a broken and wounded animal.  We have an infection that runs deep under the surface of our streets.   There is a tension that has become evident in the recent riots, the heated rhetoric, and in our political discourse.  Left to it's own devices it will fester and grow until it eventually kills the animal.   The wound must be tended.   It must be cared for.   It must receive the proper medicine.  To do that we must face the wound head on.  We must know where it is, and what caused it.

This wound too began with a serpent.   As the story goes, it began in a garden with two people and an apple.  It began with pride.   A pride that mankind has been struggling with ever since.  A pride that tells us that one person is better than another.   One which gathers up our own gall, causes us to speak out to the other without recognizing their dignity.  To not trust.   To build up walls, both physical and mental.   A pride that prevents us from going out of our own comfort zone and listening with an earnest and open heart to the other side.   A pride that hides behind it something just as sinister... fear.   Fear of the unknown, the other, 'them.'   A fear that causes us to demonize the opponent until we believe them to be pure evil.  Then in turn they do the same to us, until there is nothing left in common, only anger.

The scripture is clear today what the antidote is to this disease, this festering wound that we bear in our veins.

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed; 
[...]If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

It is really that simple.   The antidote to fear and pride is humility and trust.   Trust in God.  Trust in each other.   Not to label the other as an enemy, but to reach out to all of mankind.   To stop being so angry.  To stop listening to those things which are made up, to the gossip and opinion columns.. but instead to use our own mind and ears to hear what is truly being said.   No more spreading rumors or lies.   Feeding the hungry, receiving the refugee and the orphan, the veteran and the widow.   A man recently revealed that in our country we have trillions of dollars of untapped natural resources... and yet we worry about who is getting taking care of first.   Why not take care of everyone?  To be light of the world is not to choose which darkness to get rid of it... it's to get rid of all of it, for all people.  The ones in our backyard yes!   Yet, also the ones on the other side of the world as well.

His servant and yours,

"He must increase, I must decrease."

A reflection on the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 5th, 2017. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Deserted Place

It is tempting isn't it?  To withdraw and remain inside.  With all the interactions we have in this world of instant communication, sometimes I just want to give up that part.  It would be very easy to get rid of the smart phone, to even exist without a phone at all.   Turning off Facebook would be an easy fix for a great deal of it.   All one has to do is click a few buttons and their account is gone.  Our society encourages us to take time for ourselves.   Often ministry is compared to an adult on a plane with a child, at least I've heard that many times.   If the oxygen mask comes down, put yours on first!  If you were to lose consciousness there would be no one to help the child, right?

Today's Gospel reading even shows Jesus telling his disciples to take some time away from everyone else.   They are so busy from the pressing crowds that they haven't even had time to eat.   So they get in a boat and they begin to head for a deserted place.   A place of rest.   A place of recovery.  That's important from time to time isn't it?  I remember how relaxing it was last year to go on a silent retreat with some of my Diaconate brothers.   To get away from all the technology and pressing needs of my life, and to just sit on the riverbank and listen to God speak to my heart.   It's tempting to want that for every day, is it not?   Every day to be one of joy, contemplation, relaxation.

Except in the Gospel they never get to the deserted place.   By the time they get there all the crowds have already found out where they were going, and have gone there ahead of them.  Jesus doesn't react the way we might.   "Turn the boat around! I'm so tired of these people following me everywhere!"  Celebrities have been known to punch cameramen in the face for their constant intrusions, and most of the time I empathize with the celebrity not the cameraman.  When the 'paparazzi' of Jesus time show up, he instead has a different response.... his heart was moved with pity for them.

Notice the entire Gospel is about Jesus worrying about everyone else.   He didn't leave the first crowd because there was too much going on... he left it out of worry for his disciples.  Come away and rest awhile. Then when he sees the crowd seeking, again his heart is moved with pity for them.   Never once does he think of himself.   That is the challenge isn't it?   For me to stop thinking of my needs, my relaxation, my wants... and to instead think of others first.   I pray that St. Francis prayer every morning:

That I may not seek so much to be consoled, as to console. 
To be understood, as to understand. 
To be loved as to love.

That's the point of the Parent putting the mask on first.   They aren't doing it for themselves.   They are doing it so they can help the child.   They are thinking of the child first.   So yes, get away when you must.. but don't be gone long.  There are those who need you.  Those who are seeking Jesus and you may be the only Bible they ever read.   Don't be upset when you get to your deserted place and find people already waiting... because that's when your heart should move with pity and say "How may I serve you first?"  I am not there.  I want to be... I want to be so poured out that nothing is left in me, but Him.    Run to the Eucharist, that's where you find the strength to do that... Run to confession.   Run to the Sacraments!  Run to Christ!  He'll lead you to the place where verdant pastures fill the horizon and water flows from sacred streams... and that is often right in the middle of our hectic lives.

His servant and yours,

"He must increase, I must decrease."

A reflection for the readings for Mass on Saturday, February 4th, the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time.  Lectionary 328