November 5, Burdens vs Compassion

Some thoughts on what the Gospel Story says to me at this point on my journey. In the Story (Mt 23:1-12) Jesus is criticizing the temple officials for laying heavy burdens on the people, reducing God’s love to laws and regulations. Pope Francis has been saying the same thing, cautioning against legalism (reducing the Gospel to laws and rules) and rigidity: “Christians must stand firm in their faith but that is not the same as being rigid and unwilling to bend out of compassion for another”. Jesus changed the focus from observing laws to making love and compassion the basis for all we do. This passage is disturbing since it shows me I am far from what Jesus is calling me to be and to do.

50+ years ago I was a new young priest who thought he had all the answers, especially about moral theology. Thanks to my unexpected active duty in the Army, I had the opportunity to learn and grow. A neat thing about being with soldiers is they are not afraid to question. I owe a great deal to a young soldier in Vietnam whom I met when we were waiting for the helicopters to take us to what soon became a very bad place. While we were waiting I celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation with him, and in so doing came to experience Jesus in a whole new way, as someone who, in the midst of all the chaos, loved and cared for this soldier, for me, and for all of us. Later I began to sense God cared for the VC, too. It was becoming dramatically clear to me that my understanding of how to be a priest was wrong and self-serving. I have spent the rest of my life since then, often in fits and starts, trying to grow into what I had experienced, and just accepting that I see things differently. I owe that soldier, and many others over the years, a lot. 

Those were the days when anti-Vietnam war sentiments were on the rise. As I was preparing to go on active duty, many well-meaning older priests repeatedly told me that I could not “save my soul” in the Army. I learned that is not so. The closeness to others that I experienced, the lack of a parish/rectory structure, as well as the experience of combat up close and personal which changed everything in me, made it easier, even necessary, to go beyond the stereotypical images of a priest and begin to see God in real life as I knew it then. Basically, take care of your people, of the guys on your right and left, do what you gotta do, deal with what is, and keep going. Granted, the insights I have now were not what I had  then, but in retrospect I was growing. It might be that my age helps me reflect on my youth, and so be aware of what probably I was not aware of then. Maybe recognize a pattern, a journey.

With the happenings in the church these days I have to be careful that I don’t fall into the habit of thinking I have the answers. I don’t want the answers, I want the questioning, the wondering, the growing. I’m not that young priest anymore, and the questions I had the answers to nobody was asking then, and certainly isn’t asking now. I have to do my best, often failing, to make living Jesus’ love and compassion the basis of all my dealings with folks however they happen. I don’t want to “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders”, or “love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi”. There’s already enough of that going on. The humility Jesus talks about might reflect what happens in me when I realize I don’t know, and have questions that are meaningful to me but make no sense and are of no interest to others. It’s kinda like going on patrol and walking point, always on the alert for booby traps, punji sticks (nasty things), and ambushes that cause harm to others. Walking point is always a great responsibility, and can feel real dangerous because of my responsibility to and for others. If I miss something, what I do or say can hurt others, not something I want. How do I live this here and now?

There is a lot going on these days, especially in the CLE with the bishop’s LGBTQ stance. I have to be careful I don’t make it all about me, which I could do easily and without thinking. How can I be sure that helping Jesus live our compassion and love with all I meet really is the basis for everything I do, and not just me acting out of my ego? Jesus says, “The greatest among you must be your servant”. How do I live this? What does it mean to be a servant? How might I support the bishop even though I don’t go along with what he’s done? How do I relate to all this from the perspective of pastoral love? How do I support the many folks who are hurting because of what he did? Yesterday outside a public mass a number of high school students demonstrated against the policy, so how do I support them and their growth and questioning? What is the Spirit saying to me in all this, even as I’m writing this stuff now, and wondering why I’m doing it? How do I avoid imposing my ways on others? How do I continue to support the various LGBTQ programs, something I intend to keep on doing? I think God isn’t finished revealing who God is, and I’m willing to go with that, hoping to listen, learn, and grow. Each of us is an image of God. I believe this, but how do I live it?

Maybe my cardiac situation is helping me here. It certainly is a lot to think about. It has led me to meet many wonderful folks who have had, and are having, profound impact on me. How can I can I learn from them and help Jesus live our love and compassion as I watch them showing me their loving and caring faces of God? How can I help them know their healing grace and goodness? This whole thing is helping me realign my priorities. I’m not always sure how, but it is happening. My prayer and thinking are changing, and something is going on. I’m aware of it, but I don’t understand it or know where it’s going, and this is ok. More wandering and wondering. Grace is real, and we never know where it will take us. Wouldn’t change a thing. Just sayin  . .  .