Softening the Hard Heart (John 3:16-18)

Most Holy Trinity (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Gospel for this Sunday — Holy Trinity Sunday, commemorating the Trinity a week after Pentecost’s great celebration of the Holy Spirit — contains a saying so well known that it’s easy to skim over it, and hard to plumb its depths with new eyes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Primarily this verse touches us with its emphasis on God’s radical love for the world and love for us, despite all the suffering the human species inflicts upon itself and on other species. That love means that God is not enthusiastic about condemning. God is enthusiastic about redeeming and forgiving, when the hard heart becomes consumed with remorse and looks to its Creator for forgiveness and love. But God’s respect for our autonomy is such that this is not forced upon us. It is a gift freely offered, and can be freely turned down. Our hearts can soften in the face of God’s love, causing us to follow in the divine way of compassionate kindness; or they can remain hard and intractable, continuing to cause pain to others. 

If “perish” in this passage stands as the opposite of “have eternal life,” then looking more closely at what Jesus means by “eternal life” will help us better understand its opposite. In another passage in John, Jesus asks the Father to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. He then says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus reassures his disciples that simply to know God in an intimate way — and as he told them elsewhere, just to know him is a direct way to know God — leads to eternal life. This is because it is impossible to know God in our depths person-to-Person and yet refuse to love him. And it is that love, which is the greatest transformative force in the world, that brings eternal life. 

It is that gentle yet most powerful-in-its-gentleness force of love that softens our hearts and causes us to see others and all of Creation in the way that God sees. This, in itself, changes our actions and our disposition and leads into the eternal life of which Jesus speaks. We do not need to perform superhuman spiritual acrobatics, he tells us, to inherit eternal life. We do not need to wear ourselves out trying to “earn” it somehow, or prove that we are worthy of it. We will never achieve that. But neither should we relinquish all responsibility to seek and find God, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “well, I’m all good just the way I am, no need to seek God to improve me!” Both such approaches are nonsense. 

When Jesus says, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he is not telling us to ask for the latest hot consumer item, a more luxurious car, or a bigger house. When he encourages us to “seek,” he means seek God, and seek him in earnest, and God will not hide himself but let you find him. When he says “knock,” he means knock on God’s door, and it will always be opened to you.  

Those who are a part of other faiths can truly seek and know God in their own way, for the spark of the Creator dwells deep within each of his creations. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) made this, in fact, a part of doctrine when it wrote that those who are not familiar with Christ and his revelation of God “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16). 

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “It is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, and to see him, and to love him, is the one thing that matters.”

Holy Trinity, triune God, help us always first and foremost to seek you, to knock on your door, to invite you to come and stay with us. By doing so let us open our hearts to be softened and changed by the transformative knowledge of you and your love. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Where We Belong (John 17:1-11)

Seventh Sunday of Easter

We all need to belong. We need to belong somewhere, and the sense of belonging that is ours when we do truly belong brings with it a corresponding sense of peace, of happiness, of security. The need to feel that we truly belong reflects the truth that we are relational beings. We are not created to be individuals in a vacuum; we did not evolve to exist on our own in atomistic self-sufficiency. Our need for belonging springs from an awareness in our depths that we are meant to be part of a larger whole.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they (and his disciples today) “belong” to him, this is music to the world-buffeted soul; eternal warmth to the lonely, misunderstood, or rejected. Whether we feel we belong anywhere here in this world, we always, he tells us, belong to him. In this passage in John, Jesus is praying to the Father before his arrest. These lengthy monologues in John often serve to help reveal the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Father, two Persons of the triune God. In this prayer Jesus speaks about the “belonging” of the disciples to himself and to the Father: “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word… I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (17:6, 26).

So the disciples then and now belonged first to the Father, their Creator, who has now given them into the care of the Son, who is the Logos of the Creator become human. Jesus speaks about his disciples belonging to him in many other passages in John as well — being joined to him, being one with him, and therefore being joined to the Father too, because he says to the Father that “everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine” (17:10). It means that we share in the eternal life of God; and it means that if we ask him he will work with us so that we can be transformed in our depths to become more like him; and it means that our true home is in him.

As Thomas Merton reflects, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name” (New Seeds of Contemplation).

Jesus continues in his prayer before his arrest: “Consecrate them in truth. Your word (logos) is truth… And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (17:17, 19). By his holiness, we are made holy, because we belong to him. By his consecration of himself, he consecrates us, and we are freed from our own darkness, because we belong to him. By his power over death, we are freed from its power over us, and we share in his eternal life, because we belong to him. He embraces us with his encompassing, radically generous acceptance. This is what it means to belong to him who is Love.

Creator and Redeemer God, help us always remember that you are our home; that our place of eternal belonging is in you; and that your love is imprinted on all your creations forever.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

I Don’t Have to Like You to Love You (and You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me Either)

Yes, it’s a truism that we can love someone without liking them. Usually when we hear of this happening, it’s a case within families. Someone has a family member — spouse, sibling, parent, whoever — who’s put them through hell, and it’s hard to muster up a cozy affection for this person. Or it’s an old friend that’s just gotten a little hard to like lately. Yet you love these people anyway, because you just do. It’s a given. You want what’s best for them, even if they’re not your first pick when you think about going for that nice nature walk in the woods.

But there is a whole other dimension, too, in which this can happen. At our Catholic parish, we’re fortunate enough to have two grace-filled, down-to-earth, insightful priests. One of them gave his homily this Sunday on what it means to love in the way that Christ taught. He mentioned that St. Thomas Aquinas defined this kind of love as being rooted in the will, not just (or not so much) the emotions. Then he went on to clarify that this kind of love, simply put, wants what is best for the other person.

It seems to me that one obvious way to see this is to realize that loving another person in Christ-love doesn’t require believing that they’re a great person or even a good person, especially when it’s quite clear that they’re not. It doesn’t require “feeling” the same kind of affection we feel for our spouse when we’re in a happy marriage, or for a family member with whom we get along swimmingly. What Christ-love requires is that we recognize the other person as another child of God, whom God loves, and that we therefore want what is good for them. This is a liberating realization, and it’s one that can be applied to everyone — not just to the person we already know we love, but also to the colleague or co-worker or neighbor who makes life difficult.

And most significant of all from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemy”: we can apply this understanding of love even to people who commit the worst kinds of sins, without ever thinking that loving them in this way implies any kind of validation, justification, or understanding of what they’ve done. When St. Paul said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” this is what he meant. He didn’t mean that by loving the sinner, they’re your natural go-to person for dinner and a movie (and yes, I know they didn’t have movies in the first century A.D.). He meant that you don’t want evil to befall them; you don’t want vengeance; you don’t want them to suffer for the sake of it; you can feel compassion for them. You want what’s best for them despite their actions, because you know that this is the love of Christ and you cannot wish against it. What’s best for them doesn’t mean they should never have to face up to their sins, and just go blithely along through life getting whatever they want — in fact, that’s very far from what is best for them. What is best for them is whatever God thinks is best for them, and that’s not for us to know. But it is for us to want, and if we can, to pray for.

This concept of love isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. I think immediately of Buddhism with its central teaching on compassion for everyone and everything, including one’s own enemy. It has been scientifically proven that Buddhist monks meditating on compassion, while their brains are monitored with a PET scan, register the highest levels of happiness that we’ve been able to record. Not long ago, I read a book by the Dalai Lama in which he explicated many Buddhist teachings, including the teaching to cultivate universal compassion. Acknowledging that jumping immediately to universal compassion is an impossibly tall order, the Dalai Lama said it must be approached in small steps if one is to achieve it. These small steps include first imagining something or someone for whom it’s quite easy to have compassion: a young child, for example, or an injured bird. When imagining this category, it shouldn’t take long for a feeling of compassion to arise. We can then continue on gradually and over time, in small steps, to imagine other, less sympathetic entities: a person whom we find irritating, for example. Meditating on compassion for that person then opens us up even more to the next level, and so on and so forth, until eventually we find ourselves capable of having compassion (and therefore love) on a universal level. Compassion is the door to love.

You don’t have to like someone in order to love them in the way that Christ taught. Practicing love in this way might or might not change another person; but it will, without a doubt, change the one who loves. We too can be like those Buddhist monks who experience the highest levels of happiness on the planet.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

 

Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

A Human Identity

Whenever I tell anyone that my work involves the study of the Old Testament within its context of ancient Israel and the Near East, this is the question that often follows: “Oh, are you Jewish?” Or, the occasional bewildered variation: “But you’re not Jewish, are you?” When I inevitably answer “no” to these questions, the follow-up is usually: “That’s so interesting — then what made you want to do that?” My answer  typically goes somewhere along these lines: “I’ve always loved history, particularly ancient history, and I’ve always been very interested in religion. As a Christian, I was already exposed to the Old Testament, so the combination of the ancient history and religion was a natural thing for me.”

I often wondered about the source of the query as to whether I am Jewish, and of the follow-up question to figure out why I am so interested. The assumption seems to be that if I’m so interested in the Old Testament and the Hebrew language, I am probably Jewish. I think that the source of these questions speaks to the matter of individual and cultural identity, and what causes us as humans to claim certain identities for ourselves; how we view the identities of others; how we define what constitutes “my” identity, and the identities of those who are “not-me.” This does not necessarily mean that we look with fear or condescension on the identities of “not-me,” but simply that we are aware of the distinction, whether that awareness is accepting, non-accepting, or neutral.

The identities at hand are cultural and religious identities. These are often, but not always, linked. In the modern world we see much more frequent breakage of that link than was the norm in the ancient world. In that world, your culture contained your religion, as it did for your neighbors, and that was that. If you were Egyptian you worshiped the Egyptian gods and practiced the appropriate prayers and rituals; if you were Sumerian, the Sumerian ones; if Babylonian or Assyrian, then those respective pantheons (though these often contained similar or the same deities and rituals going by different names). The same rule was true for the collection of small countries and peoples often termed “Canaanites.”

This is not to say that people did not move from one place to another, or that cosmopolitan centers did not contain foreigners passing through or sojourning. But for the most part, if you were born in a certain place, your religion was the religion of that place. Conversion did not begin to happen on a grand scale until the growth of the Christian religion; this caused problems for many families in the Greek-speaking world when one of their members left the family identity by converting to another religion.

But what determines identity for us humans? Not just religious identity, but any identity? What makes us decide to stay within an identity and consciously operate within it, defining ourselves within it, taking pride in it? Or to cross over into another identity? How much of our former identity do we keep? If one is of Italian heritage, one is likely to have been raised Catholic, but one can choose either to commit to or change that identity. If one lives in Asia, there is a good possibility one may be Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian; if southeast Asia, Buddhist but also Hindu or Muslim. And so on. A person can decide to leave any of these identities and adopt another one, and sometimes not only a religious change but a change of culture as well. Or that person can choose to adopt wholeheartedly and thrive in the identity to which (s)he was born, accepting this as a given fact. In America, which has a culture that is formed from the co-existence of many subcultures with immigrant heritage, these lines can be especially permeable.

Still, the lines do exist. People may cross over cultural or religious identities, but the concept of one’s identity — as distinct from some other identity — will likely always exist. People can contain more than one cultural or religious identity within themselves, of course, especially in a country like the United States. But if one’s sense of identity becomes too dominant, then conflict with others and even war on a national scale can occur, as history and experience consistently show us. But without a sense of identity, we feel rudderless, a lack of belonging, and a longing to belong to some smaller subgroup within humanity. What would happen if we all only identified ourselves as human, as individual members of a vast human family? Would that ever happen, or is our desire for the existence of a smaller group to which to belong, a smaller and more well-defined identity than simply “human,” too strong?

I think that such a desire is too powerful ever to leave the human psyche. We crave some level of distinctiveness, something that makes us “us.” But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing only when one’s sense of identity becomes so fundamental that one becomes inclined to fight, scorn, or avoid others simply because they have a different identity from one’s own. “I am a [insert any kind of identity here] and therefore am above you.” The ideal state of being for all our desire for our own identity, for all our desire to belong to a smaller group within the category “human,” should be that we own our identities and thrive within them while dwelling alongside those who claim a different identity. Dwelling with respect, love, and regard for fellow humanity.

The Old Testament contains a story of a woman who left her old identity and adopted a new. Her choice was that the people to whom her late husband belonged — the Israelites — were more important to her than the Moabite culture that was native to herself. So after her Israelite husband died, the woman Ruth returned to her husband’s people with her beloved mother-in-law Naomi and chose an Israelite man named Boaz. When Naomi had initially urged Ruth to return to her own people the Moabites and to their gods, Ruth had pledged to her this famous vow: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s name seems to derive from the Hebrew word for (female) “friend.” This story also marks her as a direct ancestor of King David. Although the book of Ruth contains far more complicated elements than I’ve mentioned here, one of its primary elements speaks to the importance of friendship and love over all else.

Our identities are often, and often should be, very important to us. But I think we only better ourselves as people if we choose to give pride of place to love — love for all those who, just by existing, share with us our most basic identity: human.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

A Hijacked God

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest American Lutheran body and member of the Lutheran World Federation, rewrote its policy. Under the old policy, openly gay persons could be ordained to ministry, but could only serve if they remained celibate — if they refused all possibility of love in a committed relationship. After years of review, countless meetings of task forces and councils, and collected input from congregations across the country (including dissenting input), the new policy states that gay ministers will now be permitted the same rights to human companionship — to love — as heterosexuals, provided that their relationship is monogamous and committed. Their committed partners will be entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of married clergy because in most states, gay people do not have the right to marry. For those who would like to read the news release, here is a link: http://bit.ly/anmgiZ

The above is a contentious issue for many people, but basic human decency and humility — respect and love for other human beings as beings created in the image of God — should endure regardless of ideological and theological disputes. I think of this particularly after hearing not for the first time about the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist church based in Topeka, which pickets (among other things) the funerals of our soldiers killed in the line of duty. This church is open about its hatred for gay people, and proclaims that God purposefully causes our soldiers to die as punishment for America’s “tolerance” of homosexuality. They appear at soldiers’ funerals (gay or not) holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “God Hates You.” For a recent article on a late soldier’s father’s efforts to fight them, click here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36449471/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts//

I will grant no further space to this “church.” They may be particularly radical, yet they are certainly not the only people who hold such signs or chant such slogans of hatred. But the issue here is not where one stands with regard to homosexuality or even gay people in ministry. The issue is how we conduct ourselves in relation to our fellow humans. I cannot help noticing that many people who quote the Bible the loudest are often using it to keep at bay some kind of “other” — mostly people who are different in some way from themselves. And the person doing the quoting is always so thoroughly convinced that God is on their side, and that God is against the other guy. It seems to me that this constitutes a hijacking of God. Why do people always quote the Bible to disenfranchise some other group (gays, women, African-Americans, Jews, etc.), but never themselves? How is it that the target is always somebody else and never oneself?

We so easily hijack God to glorify ourselves and make less of others. We can pick an issue, find a quote in the Bible, and then beat everybody over the head with it — oblivious to the amount of pain we may cause another human being — because after all, God is on our side and that justifies everything. Never mind that Jesus identified the greatest commandment as: “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength,” and the second one as: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If we are to take the Bible seriously, is it not imperative to give these words, identified as the greatest commandments, more than casual lip service? Nor can one claim that these are only New Testament ordinances. Jesus quoted those words from Deuteronomy, after all. Other words attributed to Jesus that are often passed over: “Judge not, lest you be judged,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.”

If love is the greatest commandment, how does it serve love to denigrate and to inflict pain with our words upon fellow human beings, who are as much God’s children as ourselves? Does God love only some of us? Does God think only some of us worthy of being treated with respect and compassion? On the surface, few people of faith would agree with such statements. But when it comes to the crucible of practice, many of us behave as if the answer to those questions is yes. If we’re going to quote the Bible, we are then obliged to be aware of the Bible as a whole, not just whatever verse(s) we are currently inclined to use to make other people look bad. The Bible is not a weapon to be wielded against God’s other children. This is a dishonor.

I also notice that many people who quote Leviticus on the matter of homosexuality fail to quote Leviticus on anything else — like the prohibition on wearing clothes made from two different fabrics. You mean we can’t wear our cotton/polyester blends? You can also forget about shellfish, and don’t even think about those nice ham or bologna sandwiches for lunch. This is not to say anything against Leviticus per se or the practice of keeping kosher; I love the Hebrew Bible. But it is to say that we cannot divorce Leviticus’ one ordinance concerning homosexuality from the myriad ordinances among which it appears. Leviticus does nothing to single out its words on homosexuality as any more important than any of the other things that surround it. Yet most people who cite the verse on homosexuality neglect to observe most of the other rules in the same book.

A discussion of what may be the reasons for many of the Levitical ordinances would lead us astray for this particular post. But it is certainly true, and overtly stated in the text, that the Levitical regulations are concerned with ritual purity and the need at the time for the Israelites as a fledgling people to separate themselves from other Canaanites.

But one glaring fact remains. We are mortals. We are finite in our understanding of the universe and of God. We are the created, and cannot hope to penetrate the depths of the mind of the Creator. We may only fling our arms wide open to that Creator’s mercy and love. Lest I be judged by the same harsh measure that I might give to someone else — I prefer to err on the side of love, which is the only thing we know for certain pleases God.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010