An image of fatherhood for St. Joseph’s day. I picked up this card on a visit to Barcelona. The prayer on the back, which strongly echos the Lord’s Prayer, goes something like this:
“Our Father, I pray thee for my children, your children, that you have given me. Make me sanctify them with my life, my work, my counsel. Let your peace, your love, and your blessing rule in their hearts. May your will be done for them, and not mine, if my will is not as yours.
Help me earn bread for their bodies, teach me to give your nourishment to their souls.
May they love and forgive each other so that you will forgive their weaknesses. Deliver them from all evil, especially from that which they neither see nor fear.
Leon of Modena, a Jewish scholar writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, spoke of prayer as a person pulling a boat back to shore by means of a rope.
“To someone standing far off, it might appear that he is moving the shore closer, but of course it is only the boat that moves. Similarly, Leon explains, people think they are moving God when they are in fact moving themselves. We are the boats and God is the shore.
God does not need our flattery, but we need reminders of God’s greatness. God does not change in response to our prayers, but we do. God remains unfathomable, but with each earnest prayer we come to understand ourselves better. With each pull, we draw closer to God. And if our prayer draws us closer to God, then the prayer has been answered.”
from “Should We Flatter God?” by David J. Wolpe in Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World. Behrman House, 2004.
O my Lord, my Lord, I thank Thee
for that I am,
that I am alive,
that I am rational:
for Thy gifts of grace,
further calling manifold:
long longsuffering towards me,
for all good offices I have received,
good speed I have gotten:
for any good thing done:
for the use of things present,
and my hope
touching the fruition of the good things to come:
for my parents honest and good,
benefactors always to be had in remembrance,
for all who have stood me in good stead
by their writings,
for these things and all other,
which I wot of, which I wot not of,
open and secret,
things I remember, things I have forgotten withal,
things done to me after my will or yet against my will,
I confess to Thee and bless Thee and give thanks unto Thee,
and I will confess and bless and give thanks to Thee
all the days of my life.
What thanks can I render to God again
for all the benefits that He hath done unto me?
“Campfire Pinecone” by Emeldil at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
…real prayer brings us closer to our fellow human beings. Prayer is the first and indispensable discipline of compassion precisely because prayer is also the first expression of human solidarity. Why is this so? Because the Spirit who prays in us is the Spirit by whom all human beings are brought together in unity and community. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of peace, unity, and reconciliation, constantly reveals itself to us as the power through whom people from the most diverse social, political, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds are brought together as sisters and brothers of the same Christ and daughters and sons of the same Father.
To prevent ourselves from slipping into spiritual romanticism or pious sentimentality, we must pay careful attention to the compassionate presence of the Holy Spirit. The intimacy of prayer is the intimacy created by the Holy Spirit who, as the bearer of the new mind and the new time, does not exclude but rather includes our fellow human beings. In the intimacy of prayer, God is revealed to us as the One who loves all members of the human family just as personally and uniquely as God loves us. Therefore, a growing intimacy with God deepens our sense of responsibility for others. It evokes in us an always increasing desire to bring the whole world with all its suffering and pains around the divine fire in our heart and to share the revitalizing heat with all who want to come.
Henri Nouwen from Compassion (Doubleday: 1982) quoted in The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life (Crossroad: 1999, pp.61-62).
The world is full of a number of things, and too many of them, I fear, have found their way into my possession. Some of them cause me to wonder “Why did I buy this?” and “Why am I keeping this?” but in this great world of things there are also a very few others that I wish I had picked up and didn’t. The item above is one of the latter.
I found it on a shelf of “miscellaneous stuff” in the Goodwill store in a small community in Southwest Virginia. At the time, I only knew it was quirky, and I didn’t have a use for it, so I took a picture and left it behind. To my surprise, this curious object kept visiting my mind, and in the years since I snapped that picture, I’ve pondered its significance and charm. Now I think I finally understand what it means.
The treasure I found that day is a handmade, plastic-canvas phone book cover. As I recall, plastic canvas needlepoint was particularly popular during the late 1970s and early ’80s, though it doesn’t appear to have ever really gone away. I can’t date this cover with great specificity, but the plastic canvas, the redesign of the Bell logo in 1969, and the breakup of the Bell System in 1984 suggest a time between the mid-’70s and mid ’80s.
What struck me first about this piece was the juxtaposition of symbols–Jesus and Ma Bell side by side–the sacred and the secular. That’s unusual of course, but as I thought about it more, I also realized how much time and love went into creating this cover. Who would take such care and why?
When this cover was first created, phone books mattered. Back in the day, phone books described and connected communities–particularly small communities. We all had each others’ numbers–it was rare that one should be unlisted. Our phones were attached to the wall, and a telephone directory was always near by. We used them daily–white pages and yellow pages, looking up names, addresses, and phone numbers–the cheap paper becoming dog-eared and torn with heavy use. A phone book might actually wear out! and so a cover like this would protect and personalize year after year, as each new book was slipped inside to replace the old.
But even if we can understand why someone would labor to make a telephone book cover, why would they put a cross on the back? What does Jesus have to do with telephones? What were they thinking?
It was the needlepoint that gave me a clue. Plastic canvas, often used for making tissue box and even iPod cozies, is surely a descendant of the punched paper mottos loved by the Victorians. You’ve probably seen examples of perforated card-board work made possible by new printing technologies. At the turn of the century, framed samplers proclaiming “God Bless This House” and “Give us this Day our Daily Bread” were displayed in many parlors. Perhaps the creator of the needlepoint cover had seen such samplers too, and so need and materials and tradition came together one person’s imagination and a plastic canvas phone book cover was created. A variation, perhaps, on the Bible cover. Probably unique.
I wish I had rescued that homemade cover from the Goodwill. It’s really rather extraordinary if you think about it. Someone once cared about their community, and the book that kept them connected. They wanted to protect the book and probably their neighbors. Someone wanted to make a statement, and they wanted to do it artfully. And this thing is evidence of that desire. I hate to see such things pass, though I know they often must.
Jesus and Ma Bell, wrapping their arms around this small community. Blessed be the ties.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the wilderness this week: Christ in the wilderness for forty days. Moses in the wilderness for forty years. Moses interceding for the people so that God would not destroy them (pointing out to God that destroying his own people would look bad).
“So I lay prostrate before the Lord for these forty days and forty nights, because the Lord had said he would destroy you. And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, destroy not thy people and thy heritage, whom thou hast redeemed through thy greatness, whom thou hast brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember thy servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness, or their sin, lest the land from which thou didst bring us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land which he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to slay them in the wilderness.” For they are thy people and thy heritage, whom thou didst bring out by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm.’ Deurteronomy 9:23-29
I’d been pondering for a few days, and then my sister sent me an article by Kevin P. Emmert called “A Lent that’s Not for Your Spiritual Improvement.” Emmert urges us to look to the example of Christ in the wilderness and use our Lenten disciplines as a means to better serve our neighbors. He argues that we shouldn’t see Lent as merely an occasion for personal holiness or drawing nearer to God.
While I might disagree a bit with Emmert’s use of the term “personal holiness” (I don’t think true holiness can ever be selfish), I do take his point about the social dimensions of Lent. He quotes from Isaiah:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6–7
Now, I have never been a faster, but I am a pray-er, and it occurred to me that I rarely pray for God to forgive others’ sins. I ask on my own behalf all the time (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”), but how often do I intercede for others in this way? Truth to tell, it feels a little cheeky, if you know what I mean. Judgmental. It feels like taking on something that’s not my job.
In Hebrews we read about the office of the high priest
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.
And we know that Jesus prayed for us, “Father, forgive them…”
I am not called to the priesthood. I am certainly not Jesus, but I wonder if, as we are all called to imitate Christ, we might not include in our intercessory prayers a request for forgiveness. Not just comfort and healing, not just the “let-this-cup-pass” kind of mercy, and not just “Spare thou those who are penitent.” More like “Spare thou those who are making the world a miserable place and who care nothing about you. Spare the ignorant and wayward and hateful. Forgive them.”
The one thing I know know I have in common with the high priest is that I am beset with weakness. (Perhaps that knowledge will grant me the possibility of dealing gently with the clergy, as with all fellow Christians.) But here in this Lenten wilderness I am wondering about Moses and Jesus and praying for others.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…and please, God, will you forgive them too?
I suspect that for many people, that question is the first theological issue they tackle. It was certainly a topic for discussion among my middle school peers. We’d heard this phrase “the Unforgivable Sin” and the idea that there could be any sin so bad that God wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive it was mind-blowing. What could it be? Of course, it never occurred to us to look in the Bible, so we just talked about it. Usually we decided that it must be suicide–figuring that if you were dead you couldn’t ask God to forgive you and that was the crux of the problem.
The question is a good one, but middle-school theology is about as reliable as middle-school explanations of sex, so having reached adulthood, let’s take a look at the two places in the gospels that mention this sin. You’ll find it in Matthew 12 and Mark 3. I’ll excerpt from Mark:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Hero′di-ans against him, how to destroy him….
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el′zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
When Jesus heals people in the gospels, those actions are called “signs.” That word is important, because the purpose of these acts of power is to indicate the source and nature of authority. Signs are proof that someone speaks for God. They point to God, not to the power of the person who performs the act, which is why people glorify God and not Jesus after these signs. Think about Moses asking God “How am I going to convince the people that You sent me?” Think about the passage in 1 Corinthians 1 “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom” where Paul contrasts the various types of proof.
In Mark and in Matthew the scribes and the Pharisees see the signs of Jesus’ authority and the Holy Spirit’s actions and they are not confused. They know this is God’s work. But their hearts are hard, and knowing it is the Spirit, they name it Satan. And that’s their sin.
Calling the Spirit evil is blasphemy, but it seems to me that there’s even a bit more to the story than that. The Pharisees and the scribes are turning spiritual matters into political ones–and by “political” I mean issues of power and control. What they want most of all is to retain their own authority and power, and so they will not yield even to God. They would lie about the nature of God (and it is a lie, for they are learned) rather than lose control.
We could stop there, feeling superior, and then move on some other theological question, but I want to linger a moment, and think some more about that rhetorical move: the use of the spiritual for political purposes.
These are dangerous times. All times have their dangers, but just as they did in the first half of the twentieth century, there are people today seeking to impose their will on the rest of the world through violent means. It’s terrifying.
I came to understand more about one aspect of these struggles through an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Terry Gross interviewed Maajid Nawaz, a most insightful and articulate man. Nawaz became an Islamic extremist at the age of 16, but by profound study and contemplation while imprisoned, and by considering George Orwell’s Animal Farm, he came to believe that the creation of a theocratic utopia was impossible. He is now the co-founder of a think tank called Quilliam, which is dedicated to countering extremist beliefs.
In the interview, Nawaz explains clearly the difference between an Islamist and a jihadist, and also the logic behind what seem like inexplicable actions to those of us living in democratic societies. Though they differ in their methods, both the Islamist and the jihadist believe that a theocracy must be established–that spiritual power must be made into earthly political power in order to preserve their religion and do the will of God.
Now in these dangerous times, the President of the United States spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast about the two sides of faith. His remarks were immediately greeted with outrage by people who would have criticized him no matter what he said. No surprises there, but this time the nature of the criticism hit me in slightly different way. It reminded me of the Pharisees and the Islamists and the other religious people in history who have believed that their understanding of the Divine (or whatever they call the Nature of Reality) must be The Understanding for the world. Those people talk about protecting religion, but it’s really about politics and power–and not even religion’s power, but their power. The Romans set out to conquer too, but they were at least honest about their motives.
So having wandered our way from middle school to the present day, where have we arrived? What have we learned? How then do we live?
…how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends?
…as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
The Telephone Switchboard Operator 1905 Photograph by E.C. Blomeyer From The Texas Collection, Baylor University
“How can God hear everyone praying at the same time?”
It’s a reasonable question if you’re trying to figure out exactly what it means to say that God is God. Trying to figure out what eternity means. Thinking about faith.
Of course, being human, we can’t really every understand the “how” and have to settle for something more like
“Does God hear everyone praying at the same time?”
I believe that he does. It’s one of the reasons I keep praying. I also think he knows it’s me praying and he knows who I am. “His eye is on the sparrow” and all that means.
But the other day I was reading a familiar story in the gospel of Mark and it struck me how the story was an earthly, God-incarnate version of the same theological question of scale as the familiar wondering about multiple simultaneous prayers.
How does He do it? I don’t know. Maybe a better question is “Do I believe that He wants to?” The psalmist said, “Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.”
Here’s the story. Many people touched him, but one touch was a prayer.
And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”Mark 5:25-34
My Jesus and I is another educational work from the Salesian order, written in 1949 by the Most Rev. Louis LaRavoire Morrow to help elementary age children prepare for their First Communion. It was originally intended for use in a classroom with an instructional poster set, both of which are still in print.
The book is gentle and directly emotional. Each page has a line of a prayer with a question or commentary underneath it, and a picture from either a Bible story or from a child’s daily life as he or she is accompanied by good and bad angels, Mary, and Jesus.
A letter printed inside the back cover explains:
My Dear Child:
I have made this little book for you, because I want you to know Jesus better and better each day. He is a good Friend, who loves little children like you….
Jesus wants little boys and girls to know how He lived, and what He taught. He wants us all to be good, loving one another, and obeying our teachers and parents.
My Jesus and I is both sweet and strange. I find I’ve grown quite fond of the helpful little angels in these illustrations. They are so busy! Sometimes they are happy, sometimes dismayed, but always present, even if they are just tending the garden while you play.
On another page, Mother Mary wakes a sleeping child while Jesus points the way to church. These are some of my favorite angels–one holding the ringing alarm clock (see the jagged sound lines!) and the other digging a shoe out from under the bed. Oh, that Sunday morning always brought such attendants!
If you look at a lot of Christian children’s books you’ll find that many of them are written by women, but My Jesus and I was written by a Catholic Bishop. Who was he? I wondered.
Born in Weatherford, Texas in 1892, Louis LaRavoire Morrow grew up in Mexico (his double surname follows Hispanic custom) and, after becoming a priest, lived in the Philippines and India. He became bishop of Krishnagar in West Bengal, India and his ministry spanned World War II, the Bengal famine of 1943 and the Partition of India. He was also a Council Father to the Second Vatican Council. The Sisters of Mary Immaculate (an order which he founded) describe him as a “staunch believer and supporter of the Human Rights Programme of the United Nations; and also an ardent advocate of women’s rights.” He was a prolific writer of educational materials.
As I mentioned, My Jesus and I is still in print, and there is some discussion surrounding its depiction of evil. The current edition has apparently replaced several of the images of Satan with something more modern and less-affecting, but judging from the comments on Amazon, not everyone is in favor of the change. They are wild images, but no scarier than the Ghost of Christmas Future, and always presented within an atmosphere of calm.
Sometimes temptation actually looks rather friendly. “Do you want candy?” The kindly devil has brought a chair to help the child reach that forbidden treat while the good angel gently pulls the child towards a picture book.
One final note: while she is not credited, many of the illustrations in My Jesus and I are signed by Anita Magsaysay (later Magsaysay-Ho), an important Philippine modernist painter. I imagine all the original images are her work.
In her biography (written by Alfredo Roces) Magsaysay-Ho said,
“In my works I always celebrate the women of the Philippines. I regard them with deep admiration and they continue to inspire me—their movements and gestures, their expressions of happiness and frustration; their diligence and shortcomings; their joy of living. I know very well the strength, hard work and quiet dignity of Philippine women, for I am one of them.”
Today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians is captioned “Final Exhortations, Greetings, and Benediction” and it made me smile. The passage reminded me of myself and all those other mothers trying to give their kids a long list of things to remember before launching them out into some new adventure that they’ll have to take on their own. Think about the moms in Freaky Friday or Almost Famous shouting out the car window to their children’s embarrassment, “Make good choices!” “Don’t take drugs!”
…we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.
Then you send them off with a prayer for a blessing (usually silent so as to avoid further embarrassment)…
May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.