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10:15 AM   [31 Aug 2012 | Friday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-18

18.

 

Dear Jesus,

  You were sent to show us how to live. What You showed us through Your teachings and the actions of Your life is the God-given foundation of the Church – Your movement. You, Your teachings, and Your life expressed for all time the will of God for mankind. No church or institutional religion can do better than to stick zealously to this. The fact is that most churches say this is exactly what they do – the will if God. But it’s also a fact (and a perturbing one) that the will of God is often unrecognizable in what they teach and what they do. This is one reason why I believe religion is meant to be used as a bridge to transcend itself as we grow spiritually to new levels.

   There is much about organized religion that perpetuates a cocoon of  status quo spirituality – a cocoon meant to be shed and from which a more glorious being can emerge. Whatever is not ignored in what others say and do has consequences. Within ourselves these consequences can be accepted, rejected, enhanced, diminished, modified, praised, slandered, challenged, adopted, etc., etc.

   There have been monumental consequences to what You said and did. These consequences come to us both individually and communally as church. We come to them individually by observing the person(s) we are with at any given time. Communally we are given interpretations of these consequences by those so empowered by an organized religion. Here, inescapably, enter the political aspects. If men like Fr. Eugene Kennedy decry the ineptitudes of institutional religion to meet the needs of its flock, it is because of politicizing the consequences of God’s will.

   Man has a deep longing to be complete, to be fulfilled. It is a lofty goal which we never completely reach because of our humanity; and one consequence of our humanity is what we have made of religion. Thus, that which religion would not do, it often does: it prevents us from higher levels of completeness and fulfillment rather than assisting us on the journey in ways it might otherwise purport. Religion can, indeed, be the opiate of the people when it lulls us into a sleep of complacence and self-satisfaction – and this is what it often does, or what we allow it to do. What the church unwittingly provides is a challenge to overcome its lethargy if one is to move on.

   Is it axiomatic that the more sophisticated organized religion becomes, the more political and less in touch with its people it becomes? There must ultimately be recognition and acceptance of what organized religion is based upon and, too, a recognition and acceptance of what it doesn’t offer. There is sifting to be done because it has grown to contain much that is not of what You said, or did, or taught.

   Religion moves us from point A to point B with varying degrees of effectiveness. It does not venture to guide us to point C. We are on our own for that!

 

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7:35 AM   [29 Aug 2012 | Wednesday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-17

17.

 

Dear Jesus,

   Sometimes it seems those of us who were born and baptized Catholic Christians need, like St. Paul, to be knocked from our horse. The feeling of religious superiority is a dangerous and divisive thing. Yet even when we try to rid ourselves entirely of this feeling there is always some bit of residue. Why would I be a Catholic, or she a Lutheran, or he a Jehovah Witness, or she a Jew, or he a Muslim, etc, if each of us did not think our faith better than the others?

   Part of the answer may be that what is best for us is what we know best. In the case of each of the religions mentioned above, if one has been born and raised in that faith it will seem, if not the best, then at least the most comfortable.

   So then, can it be said that the theological corpus of any religion matters not as much as what we are born and raised with? In a very real sense the answer to that is “yes.” If I as a Catholic look upon Miriam, a Jew; or Hassan, a Muslim, I do not think their religion better than mine; just as each of them, looking at the others, thinks the same. Who’s right? After all, each of us believes our vehicle is the speediest, most secure, reliable, and comfortable to facilitate our travel.

   There can really be only one answer: religion is secondary to the heart and disposition of the individual. Granted that religion helps form this, but somewhere the realization comes that religion is not the goal – it’s simply a means. If one particular religion serves an individual better, even if one is comfortable in it mainly because one was born and raised in it, then so be it! I think the crux of the truth in this matter is that anyone serious about spiritual growth and maturity may use what a particular religion offers in an orthodox manner for awhile but, over time, what evolves is our own approach concocted from the best we know about seeking You from every angle within us. We use the words “Catholic,” or “Jew,” or “Muslim” for a kind of data base identification, but what really matters is the nameless religion we have formed in our hearts.

 

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9:50 AM   [27 Aug 2012 | Monday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-16

16.

 

Dear Jesus,

    The religious movement stemming from Your life and teachings, thereafter known as Christianity or, at various times, The Church, has, in Catholic theology, always been closely associated with the mysterious concept of The Mystical Body of Christ. That the church is, in some sense, Your body, does not stem from a humanly contrived metaphor to explain a communal bond (though that context is common) but from what St. Paul tells us were the actual words spoken to him by You: “Saul. Saul, why do your persecute Me?”

   Your meaning is clear. Saul was engaged in actual persecutions and arrests of the followers of one Jesus, the crucified Nazarene. Saul did not know You the way Your followers did. I tend to think he knew only a little about You. What he, as a Pharisee, did know was that You had given the Pharisees a hard time and that what You taught broke with much of Jewish tradition. Once You were dead it only remained to rid the world of the rest of Your followers. But characterizing the aim of his persecution You used the word Me. Jesus was gone, but this was Him saying: “Why do you persecute Me?”  Saul could have answered, “How could I persecute You? You’re gone. It’s Your followers I’m after.” But that was the point! The followers of Jesus formed His body – they were Him! And it is just this that gives us an inkling of what is meant by The Mystical Body of Christ – us!

   When we are assailed, tempted, pursued, denied, insulted, or persecuted, so are You; not metaphorically but really. Thus it becomes again apparent how great is Your love for us. We form the body of Your movement. We are the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of it. It is we who keep You living in the world. He who hurts us hurts You. What we need is to look every individual in the eye, see You, and say: “You are my chance to love.”

 

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11:24 AM   [25 Aug 2012 | Saturday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-15

15.

 

Dear Jesus,

   We must, in order to understand our relationship to God, grasp the full implications of the shepherd/sheep analogy used by You. The comparison to easily-influenced, self-absorbed sheep who lack guidance is apt. Surely the church uses the same analogy as justification for its existence and for many of its actions as extensions of that.

   The word You used according to Matt. 16:18, when You promised a new covenant, a new order, was not “church” but the Hebrew word quahal  - a gathering or movement of people with something in common. It was an Old Testament word with which the people were familiar, but now it was used in a new context. People would gather and be gathered like flocks before a shepherd. They would be gathered by Your shepherding and the shepherding of Peter, to the Father’s fold. Peter was the appointed leader of the new Israel – the new gathering of the people of God. What You referred to was not a church in the human or denominational sense, but a fellowship of all believers – a Christian flock.

   There is also Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd...” that verifies the analogy of sheep to their guide. What this analogy offers is the guidance of a good and loving shepherd, One who is both a master and a paradigm for all the human flock – even those outside the fold. Indeed, it is just they who are singled out for special attention by the shepherd in scripture. Neither the shepherd nor the flock are concerned with race, sect, or denomination, each of which may harbor sheep lost to the Master’s flock.

   When You said, “I am the Good Shepherd, I know Mine and Mine know Me,” John 10:14, You set forth the primary condition for membership in Your flock – to know You. If one (or more) particular sect, cult, or denomination facilitates this for us – so be it! You gather us in many ways.

 

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9:46 AM   [23 Aug 2012 | Thursday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-14

14.

 

Dear Jesus,

   Authentic worshipers worship the Father in spirit and in truth. [John, 4:23]. Would I be wrong in surmising that this statement of Yours ignores religious denominations and downplays institutionalized religion? Sometimes I think the word church in translations has, in retrospect, become the appellation for what we now consider religion. I sometimes also think that what You intended to give us was a movement, a philosophy of life rather than an institutionalized code of practice. Such an idea transcends church and denomination as we understand them.

   In the sense that we understand the word church, there was no such thing in Your time. Hence, there was probably no word for it. The word ecclesia in Latin or Greek forms was used and later translated into the English word church. But I wondered what the original word was in Hebrew or Aramaic that You used when You said to Peter [Matt. 16:18] that You would, on this rock, build Your church? So, I did a little research and found that the word You used was probably quahal  which meant a fellowship or movement of believers in common; in which case what You taught us and showed us about life and about our relationship with the Father and with each other transcends denominations. No matter what we have done to segment and categorize Christianity, no matter whether we’re Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Quaker, or Holy Roller authentic worshipers worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

   We must seek alone the spiritual nature of our being through which You whisper encouragement and love. We must seek it in ourselves and in others who, themselves, may be seeking it in us. We must, as well, seek what is the truth about ourselves in relation to You, and about Your unconditional love for us. Doing these things, no matter what denomination we choose in which to do them, is all that’s important. In Your great love for every sheep in Your flock I feel that You would welcome with open arms authentic worshipers who worship the Father in spirit and in truth – even those who might not be nominally Christian.

 

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8:54 AM   [21 Aug 2012 | Tuesday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-13

13.

 

Dear Jesus,

   I am in the midst of a barrage of confusion from many fronts. It has come about from my reading of a biography of Martin Luther. His concern that the church of his time had strayed far from Your ideal and was in need of reform has struck an ominous chord in me. It makes me fear that there are still many salient points of “religion” that need to be addressed and reformed 500 years after Luther. Yet it also makes me ponder the relationship between religion and spirituality.

   The credibility of the institutional Catholic Church is, as it was in Luther’s time, at low ebb. If popular culture is factored in, it cannot be seen as doing anything else but getting lower and lower in credibility unless some serious steps are taken. This is a cause for great concern; for while culture and religion each stand alone their influence upon each other is inevitable. Religion and spirituality are also inevitably intertwined, but a mature spirituality may reach a point where it is no longer greatly concerned with institutional religion.

    Man’s intervention in the church, since what is chronicled in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, has evolved into a lethargic treadmill of internal comfort and convenience that was not, I believe, exactly what You had in mind. To many people who affiliate themselves with a particular religion and try to lead good lives according to that religion’s tenets and teachings, this is what the spiritual life is about. Whole lives are lived never getting beyond this point.

   The effect of religious affiliation should be an uplifting of the spirit to heights at which the religion becomes a background to the spirit. The best work of religion is to guide us to the elements of life in the spirit that You taught: love, compassion, forgiveness, sharing, serving, conversion, and union. Because the church operates in a world whose concerns lie elsewhere, it ends up concerning itself with tangential issues that draw attention away from man’s inner spiritual life. It may be helpful, at times, to consider the church as caught in the trap of culture and, in fact, of being human. I suppose subconsciously we all wish the church was purely divine. But if it was, we would probably  criticize it for being unreachable.

   The reform that seems most needed now is in the area of internal direction. Many seem to think that this direction should be swayed strongly by popular culture; but I think this direction should come from the emphatic affirmation of the lessons or Your life and teachings as found in the gospels and by the example of the earliest church as found in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The task of the church then is not so much to be influenced by culture as to influence it. It cannot be denied that the spirit is influenced by our lives and vice versa. Therefore the work of the church or of religion in general should be an instrumentality in the integration of the spiritual and the human and the way to do this has already been given to it by You in Your life and teachings. The pinnacle of success in this endeavor is characterized by the leading of man’s spirit to a point of spirituality that transcends the instrumentality of religion and goes directly to the heart of God.

 

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9:11 AM   [19 Aug 2012 | Sunday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-12

12.

 

Dear Jesus,

    I’m currently reviewing some books I read in the past. Among them is Eugene Kennedy’s, The People are the Church. It stirs up, once again, a life-long concern with seminal Christianity and the institutional church.

   You preached love and forgiveness and that is what the early church was about. But it didn’t take long before guidelines, laws, and guilt became items of daily trade as the church grew. Exterior appearances that could be controlled by law and guilt became de rigueur of being Christian. This promoted and perpetuated a lack of emphasis on a mature interior relationship with You. The law, exterior appearances,  and guilt formed a residue that lingers in my generation.

    The church today has realized, to some degree, what I’m talking about here, but as yet has not come up with a solution for the masses that is capable of counteracting 20 centuries of autocratic posturing. If our worries about Your being with Your church are allayed by Your promise to be with it till the end of time, we should, nonetheless, be worried because the real concern is – are we with You?

   You are with us because You accept and forgive our flawed humanity and all it has done to fashion Your church to our own image. You love us despite our flaws and our well-intentioned (but errant) philosophies for ourselves and others. You are with us always because Your word is church. Your life is church. We muddy it up, but You remain. You are with us. Are we with You?

   Somehow, in the name of growing closer to You, we have, in fact, distanced ourselves from You with our fixations upon exterior appearances and the guilt attached to not keeping them up. There have been many well-intentioned clergy and religious who have spent a lifetime perpetuating this.

   Maybe soon the next milestone in the evolution of the church will turn it more toward an inward relationship with God – one going back to the love and forgiveness of an earlier day.

 

Mood:
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9:20 AM   [17 Aug 2012 | Friday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-11

11.

 

Dear Jesus,

   The grace of insight appears when it will. I suppose if we’re not ready for it, it’s wasted.

   All my life I have participated in the Mass as an individual who is part of a group. However, I have just recently realized that the group at any given Mass is part of me. We are the individual at that Mass. It’s not me, but we!

  Pronouns are very little words whose meaning is often glided over. I have been attempting to give more consideration to each time the words “we” or “us” are used in the Mass. With this effort has come the awareness that my take on “we” or “us” has always been me. Looking around at all the people at a Mass and disposing oneself mentally to being a cell in the whole body imparts a new sense to worship. We individually add what we bring to the people of God, but we gather around Your table as one body. My absence is pretty inconsequential, but my presence builds up the body, and the body sustains me and nourishes me. Sitting more toward the back of the church helps enhance this sense of group oneness. One can see the other people – each one like me, a cell in the body of worship and the body a part of each one.

   The word “I” is seldom used in the ordinary prayers of the Mass except for the penitential rite. The psalms often use “I” or “my” and when scripture readings include quotations from You or others, one hears “I.” In the non-quotation instances where the words “I” or “me” are used I consciously try to insert “we, us,” or “our,” and this too helps in immersing one in the group identity at that liturgy.

   The Liturgy of the Eucharist recalls how You did not just feed one, or a small group, but all who were gathered around You. You feed not just me, but us. St. Paul, in his letters, though often alone, is accustomed to addressing the early church as “we” and “us.” We are alone too, but we are alone together!

 

Mood:
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12:18 PM   [15 Aug 2012 | Wednesday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-10

10.

 

Dear Jesus,

    Human beings seem eminently disposed toward a “turtle shell” concept of religion. It is something we carry around with us into which we can withdraw when trouble approaches. We pull in our heads, hands, and feet, turn out the lights and wait for the problem to go away – then we mosey on. The tendency to wear our religion this way is pretty universal. Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. are each equally guilty.

   One of the biggest problems that comes our way and forces us into our shells is other religions. Withdrawal is an equal opportunity solution. But why do we do this? Is religion a refuge of introverted withdrawal into which we curl up when threatened?

   Beliefs, or systems of belief, are indeed a refuge – a safe haven in which we are comfortable. But the movement You began involved (and still involves) a number of risks that cannot be negotiated from inside a shell. An acceptance of times of discomfort, pain, and doubt that cannot be covered with our shells is fundamental to religious commitment. Also fundamental is openness and understanding of those of other religions who feel similar discomforts, pains, and doubts.

   The turtle shell accomplishes nothing. If I am a Christian and willfully committed to the beliefs of that faith there will come times when, by word or action, I am forced into a situation where I either defend what I believe or pull back into my shell. The shell connotes a status quo  (“don’t rock the boat”) mentality – a mentality which says, ‘I don’t have to display what I believe. I can live it and keep it covered so that others are not offended by it.’

   This is a particularly sensitive area between Christians and Moslems nowadays. But if we have anything at all to offer each other, neither the Christians nor the Moslems can do so from a turtle shell concept of faith. Let the beliefs of believers be seen!

 

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9:52 AM   [13 Aug 2012 | Monday]

Letters to Jesus (Church, Religion, and Sacraments)-9

9.

 

Dear Jesus,

  What is religion? It is a framework for people to place themselves within in order to learn how to direct themselves toward what their spirit urges them. It is an inevitable outcome of our being human – we seek something more.

   Geographically and culturally these frameworks have evolved into many forms. Religions often seem constructed to best serve the needs of those constructing them; hence the broad variance of practice and belief. If one was to search for some strand that runs through all religions it might be “compassion” and some form of the “Golden Rule.” Both of these concepts are based on “the other.” In this sense it might be said that all religions are fundamentally not about ourselves but about another. Extrapolating further from this concept we might say that basic to all religions is a “going out” of ourselves – an abandoning of the selfish for the altruistic. From this we might further derive that this “social” aspect of religion is fundamental. The framework of religion in which we place ourselves is always with others. All else stripped away, we are each seeking the meaning of our being in the context of a world of others.

   Whatever framework we choose, we will eventually bump into impenetrable walls of division which will forever hem us in unless we individually transcend these walls and go outside the framework. This diminishes the social aspect of the framework but does not remove it. Rather it displays the deeper general characteristic that each of us is on our own journey. But to get to this point it would seem that initially some framework would have needed to have been in place.

   The question that gnaws at me is, Why is that framework initially not the same for all?  Has there ever been any one person who expounded more clearly the basic tenet of a “world religion” than You? That tenet of serving rather than being served has been pounded, shaped, and interpreted by hundreds of religions, but so seldom do we return to it and examine it as a common thread of our race. What is simplest is most profound, and it is what is simple that always eludes us.

 

Mood:
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