Is He Not the Carpenter’s Son?

In many working class families, there’s often a strange dynamic at play. Parent’s want their children to succeed, but they also don’t want them to succeed so much that it brings a certain haughtiness to their demeanor. As an example, my Chemistry teacher in high school, Tom Ferraiola, once told me a story about how his family would make their own wine, a typical Italian tradition. Tom, a working class kid, did well in school and ended up studying chemistry at Manhattan College and later at Niagara University, a stone’s throw from where I am now in Buffalo. When he’d come home the parents would invite him to come make wine with them.

During the fermentation process, the liquid would start to bubble, a sign that the yeast was feeding on the sugar and producing alcohol, a typical chemical reaction, known well by Tom.

“Now it’s boiling.” Tom’s father would say.

“Dad,” Tom would counter, “It’s not boiling, it’s fermenting.”

“Hey who the hell do you think you ARE, college BOY? I’ve been making wine for 35 years and YOU’RE going to tell me about it?”

“But Dad, it’s NOT boiling. It’s just not.”

“Get the hell out of here. I’m making wine.”

I’m sure Tom just threw his hands up in the air and gave up, knowing he was right but not feeling the need to own that. He laughed a bit when he told us the story, showing no ill will towards his dad. But in many ways something deeper is going on here, something that is often ingrained in cultures of working class people that works against them.

Pride. And sometimes that’s a good thing. People hold on to what little they have. In Tom’s case, his father was a proud winemaker, and a good one. It was delicious and he’d share his wine with the neighbors and they always looked forward to it. He was proud of the place in the community that he held as “the wine guy.”

And Tom’s comment threatened his status because he knew how to make wine but he really didn’t know what was going on in the chemical process. And when pride is threatened, people often need to defend themselves, or otherwise they will feel stupid or silly.

Or they’ll be jealous that someone like them, is a bit smarter than they ever thought they could be.

Jesus, also grew up in a similar working class environment. Joseph, a carpenter was well-known in his community. He probably made most of the furniture for people in the neighborhood. Jesus, worked alongside him and probably had the same reputation as dear old dad.

So when he begins to teach with great authority, there is the air of “Who the hell does he think he is?” in the community. “He’s no better than us! Didn’t we teach HIM the scriptures from when he was a little kid?”

You can just hear the defensiveness. He can’t be better than us.

When, in fact, he’s better than us all.

The interesting thing is that when this happens, when this pride seeps into the community, the one who has learned much often mutes their own abilities so that others won’t feel bad. It’s another defense mechanism at play. One does this to “keep the peace” and perhaps even to show a bit of respect to those who care much about them.

And in today’s gospel, we see this very dynamic at play. Jesus is unable to do any “mighty deed there. Apart from curing a few sick people.”

Oh is that all. He just cured a few people. No big deal.

It seems to me that the mighty deeds that others in the community didn’t mind was when he’d cure a relative or someone close to them.

But perhaps if he went and found a leper and tried to break the ritual purity law–then perhaps he was met with much resistance.

Who does he think he is?

Pride runs deep. Paul even talks about “not becoming too elated” in our second reading. Jesus doesn’t have an inability to perform a mighty deed, but the pride of the community keeps his mighty deeds at bay. Can’t you just hear a crazy uncle saying:

“Don’t you go an touch that leper…he’s dirty. And leave that crazy woman alone. She has a demon in her!”

And Jesus, who knows better…who knows more about these people than anyone else, Jesus, can’t shake off what is ingrained in the hearts of the community.

Pride.

We don’t have much, but we’re sure as hell better than those lepers. Those dirty bastards.

What about us? Where does our pride get in the way? Do we sometimes shudder when someone young points out our own hypocrisy and show him or her the door? Or do we notice our own humbleness and admit that we are not perfect people?

I remember a service trip where I brought people to New York City and at one point I thought I’d give them a tour of St. Paul the Apostle, the Paulist mother church where Marion and I were married and where I had spent so much time as a parishioner and of course, at BustedHalo which was housed in the rectory next door.

I pointed out some of the more unique pieces of the church…a center ambo, the tomb of Isaac Hecker, the Paulist founder, and a hopeful saint one day and more. I encouraged them to walk around and look at the various side altars where there were tons of descriptions of the artwork and the history. I then snuck into the bookstore to chat with an old colleague for a few minutes. When I returned, there were all of my students, kneeling in prayer in various pews scattered throughout the church.

“Well they certainly didn’t learn that from me.” I said to my colleague who was quite impressed with them.

“Guess they have something to teach me, too, huh?”

And they do. Constantly. And I am humbled often and sometimes pride gets in my way too.

Today, let us pray for the gift of grace. The grace to be able to see God working in others to make them all they can be. That might mean that they have much to teach us, even if we have taught them in the past. God isn’t finished with any of us…if we remember that…we just might be able to see God standing right in front of us.

And if we don’t, we might mute the power of God, who needs us to cooperate with Him so that God might do mighty deeds in each of our lives and through even the least of us in our communities.

May we be humble enough to see the Carpenter’s Son and to know that He has much to teach us.

Looking for a Fun Way to Explore Scripture?

Here’s a great new book by my colleague, Mary Sperry called Bible Top Tens: 40 Fun and Intriguing Lists to Inspire by Our Sunday Visitor.

It’s a fun listing of 40 different topics. We all like to put things into lists. It makes things easier to remember and fun to categorize and Mary’s done a heap of work in compiling these together.

From the listing on OSV:

Discover the top ten Bible misunderstandings, the top ten things to know about the Bible, the top ten animal stories, the top ten angelic appearances, or the top ten miracles.

Get introduced to the top ten women with attitude, the top sibling rivalries, the heroes, the villains, or even the top ten people you should know but probably don’t.

Explore the top ten parables, promises, or challenges from Jesus.

Those all sound interesting. Mary’s got me intrigued. I’m already sold. And I hope you will be too.

We Are Invited

Imagine an angel appearing to you in the midst of the busiest time of the year and saying to you that while you haven’t had sex with anyone, you’re going to be pregnant.

My initial thought is: that’s an incredibly raw deal.

But more seriously, if we thought that our advent was busy with the shopping and the parties and the end-of-the-year financials and all the other things that need to get done….

Imagine what life must have been like for Mary.

But perhaps that is the lesson of advent. We are supposed to long for God to be with us…and I reckon that most of the time we don’t, until God pulls the rug out from underneath our feet.

Just as God did to Mary.

Advent is really about unexpected joy in expected chaos. Noticing God in the every day rhythms of our hectic lives. Perhaps Mary is a lot like us. While keeping house she finds this message from God that she is to be with child.

While traditional readings of the Annunciation story often point towards a pious Mary who humbly accepts God’s invitation, I hear a more hesitant Mary, perhaps even an exasperated one.

Doubt: “How can this be? For I have not had relations with a man.”

Fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Exasperation: “I am the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

That last piece almost as a ring of “whatever” to it. If we read that first part with a hint of sarcasm to it, Mary’s reply is much like our own. “Well, what else could happen to me today? Guess I’ll just have to roll with it.”

And roll with it she did. A young, unmarried woman, now pregnant in a culture that did not take kindly to women who had relations out of wedlock. The taunts may have been “Sure, sure…God made you pregnant.”
Even initially the man who she was betrothed to considered calling it quits.

The truth of today’s Gospel is that sometimes when God interacts with us and asks something of us, it may very well not be a pleasant situation. And yet, each time we “roll with it” and accept that God just might be able to see us through to the other side of a difficult time, we grow into the person that God knows we can be.

We can indeed stretch much farther than we expect.

Somehow we get the shopping done and find our families overjoyed at our thoughtfulness. Somehow we visit those relatives that might drive us bonkers only to find that they are touched by our presence. Somehow we give a bit more to others and find our hearts more open than usual.

Somehow, God knows that we are capable of much more than what we think will only bring us exasperation.

What is your burdensome invitation? What is God beckoning to you to handle this advent? What might God be asking you to carry in the coming year?

While it may sound daunting at first, God reminds us, as he reminded Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

And while it may seem like we are in over our heads, God is with us in our fear, our doubt and our exasperation. And more importantly, God reminds us that He knows our hearts can stretch much father than we think that they can.

All we have to do is believe that.

Are We Doing Enough?

I often think that I don’t do enough. This Sunday’s gospel begs that question of each of us. Are we feeding the hungry enough? Visit any prisoners lately? Clean out the closet of those clothes that don’t fit anymore and give to the poor?

But this kind of self-reflection while good at heart can be taxing as well. It’s not necessarily how MUCH we give (after all, the widow gave 2 cents in another gospel!) but rather the fact that we are able to do SOMETHING often enough.

My experience in Nicaragua gave me a lot of new ways to think about this. Because we really don’t know poverty in our country, for the most part. Granted there are poor people but I’ve never seen such devastating poverty as I did as when I visited the garbage dump where people made their homes. Imagine having to do that! A watch a young high schooler jump into a hammock, exhausted from the heat of the day, that was filled with bugs–and he thought nothing of it.

I played with orphans all day and was a “good tired” by days end. One in particular who couldn’t walk captured my heart. We sat in the chapel in the mornings–Elvira and I. She would smile at me and we’d listen to music. It was there that I think I saw how vulnerable we both were. I couldn’t change her situation. I couldn’t fix her legs or give her a better situation—and yet I was still enough for her in that moment and her for me. Feeling this kind of helplessness placed me in solidarity with Elvira–to the point where I realized just how important human connection is above all else. Perhaps the poor will never have enough and perhaps there is something that lingers in us that deprives us of thinking that we are enough as well?

This experience with Elvira allowed me to understand a bit of what it’s like to be helpless–something little Elvira faces every day. How can we simply be someone who helps others realize that we stand with them in the midst of their suffering. We may not be able to change things much–but what little relief that we can provide in that moment is often something that can change us—change our way of life.

That is where God calls us–to be changed for the better. To be mindful of the poor and more importantly of what is enough for us. We may find that we live with great excess and that we need a lot less than we already have. That friends, may be exactly where our reflection takes us and it may just give us the opportunity to …

Give the hungry a bit more.
Provide relief for the thirsty
Clothe the naked.
Have time to visit the imprisoned and those who don’t have visitors.
Take time for those who are ill.

All it takes is a bit of time to ask ourselves—do we have enough?

No, perhaps the question to ask is…Don’t I already have too much?

And when we do may we find more time to do more for others.

Kinship

At our awards ceremony at Fordham, Fr. Greg Boyle talked much on kinship, the idea that we’re all brothers and sisters and therefore responsible to and for one another.

Fr. Greg is able to transmit that idea to the gang members he works with and it helps in getting them end their violence against one another. One cannot shoot their brother.

Kinship runs quite deep, if we only choose to embrace it. Could we look that deeply into someone else’s eyes and not see merely them, but Jesus? Could we live in a world that stops labeling but instead looks towards one another with a sense of responsibility, especially when one of our own is destitute?

The truth is that we don’t do kinship very well as a society. We often take care of our immediate families first and If we get around to it, then we care for others in need. After all, they’re not MY responsibility.

This coming weekend Jesus challenges the Pharisees to do exactly that. You see, I think we’re a lot like the Pharisees. We place “heavy burdens” on people that are impossible for them to overcome. Fr. Greg talks about gang members that are labelled “good for nothings” and once they believe that then all is nearly lost for them until someone like him comes along and gets them to believe in their own self-worth again.

And for that matter, the worth of those around them.

I know I label people sometimes…especially these days when we often place people in categories to protect ourselves. “Well, she’s a fundamentalist…so I know who she is. And don’t want to associate with her, because it’s just too hard.” Or, “My mother will just say X if I tell her Y. So I’ll just avoid the issue altogether.”

Perhaps a good rule to live by is “Assume nothing.” Keeping the conversation and our charity as open as possible gives another the chance to respond as they see fit. Giving them the freedom to do so, is our choice and responding as we see fit gives us the opportunity not to defend ourselves, but to allow others to see our perspective.

I know…that’s easier said, than done. And we have to guard ourselves against being a doormat-person.

The Catholic Volunteers last year were always teaching me new things. When it came to community, they truly lived it despite the struggle to do so. Their key was to drop how thought things SHOULD be and to accept things as they are. They assumed nothing and responded with great freedom to one another. In doing so, they even learned much about themselves and helped me discover some new things about me too.

One particular volunteer, Anna and I are similar in that we both don’t like it when someone is mad at us or when someone doesn’t like us. When people in community didn’t see things eye-to-eye, especially early, Anna would be upset when the rift would hit the community. I know I’m the same way in relationships–with my wife, with my co-workers, family and friends. Harmony is often far more important than a divided excellence to me. One good project that everyone does together is far better than 12 half-hearted ones that someone does on their own. The boundaries often go up because we get too scared to let someone else in, for fear that they’ll take credit or uncover something about us that we don’t want them to know. Risking our own vulnerability and comfort often takes courage.

Or because we think they won’t like us anymore. Could we dare to let go of that crutch and live just a bit more radically?

So how would it look if we were to do this? A good example comes from a friend would offer living space to people who he knew needed a cheap place to stay regardless of their status. One time he got robbed by someone who took advantage of him. Colleagues thought his generosity would now be more limited. But he would have none of it. “If I’m going to have to be so careful about what I do that someone DOESN’T take advantage of me once in awhile, then I’m probably not living the gospel.” was his most famous response.

And so it is with us. How might we NOT be careful to the point where we can offer our lives as a free gift to those around us?

If we do, we just might be Christians.

Biblical Fundamentalism and Catholics: an excellent 9/11 reflection

America Magazine takes up the problem of a growing (if not, constant) Biblical fundamentalism amongst Catholics. Brian Pinter the director of Campus Ministry at Regis High School recently taught a course on scripture and reported what his fairly sophisticated class had to say.

…a number of individuals were shocked at the suggestion that the first and second chapters of Genesis did not contain literal, historically accurate accounts of creation. One woman protested, saying, “How do you know the world wasn’t made that way? You can’t prove otherwise!” Another was flabbergasted that I did not affirm the historicity of the talking serpent in Genesis 3: “Are you saying that God can’t create a talking snake?” Finally, an irate young man sent me e-mail to tell me, among other things, that my treatment of Genesis had no place in a Catholic parish and that I should consider becoming Protestant.

I attempted to reassure those who took exception to my nonliteralist approach by emphasizing that the ideas I taught were based not on my personal opinions but on the best of contemporary Catholic scholarship and on the tradition of the church. A few asked me, “If this is Catholic teaching, how come I’ve never heard it before?”

Most people have never taken a scripture course and I’m astounded often how little people know about scripture (and tradition too, while we’re at it). Catholic high schools and Universities should indeed be much better at exposing people to the intricacies of scripture, rather than waiting for graduate school for most people to delve into.

Here’s the real problem though–political culture wars where the game’s rules are often drawn up by Protestant fundamentalist alongside a unwritten rule that if you know your Bible, then you’re on a different religious plane than others who don’t. The problem is that the fundamentalists can quote the bible but don’t understand it. It’s the equivalent of knowing dates in history but not the causes of the Civil War. Pinter continues:

In the public square, one’s religiosity is often judged by how well one knows the Bible. The media are fond of pitting biblical fundamentalists who defend the “truth” of Scripture against those who see the Bible as nothing more than a collection of ancient fables and myths. One need only recall the publicity surrounding the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which challenged a school’s policy of teaching intelligent design in science classes, or Alabama gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne, who was lambasted by his opponents for suggesting that not all the Bible was meant to be read literally. Many Catholics, fearing a secular attack on the inerrancy of Scripture, see literalism as the only way to protect the sanctity of the Bible.

In short, in this post 9/11 world we need to do all we can to combat fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism is just as bad as Catholic or Protestant fundamentalism. Literalism is stupidity masked as cheap knowledge. We’re better than that and need to distance ourselves as Catholics and promote a more critical rendering of Biblical scholarship that others have access to as well. This is not just for Master’s level theologians but should be given to high schoolers and maybe even middle schoolers. We wouldn’t be happy if our students stopped learning math with long division, or didn’t read beyond The Cat in the Hat, or only learned biology but not chemistry. And yet, when we see much of the textbooks that teach younger people about the Bible, we should be horrified. Often they are the equivalent of comic books.

The same can be said of tradition and of the great Catholic books that should be read. How many have read The Seven Storey Mountain, or Orthodoxy, or the Summa? How many have had their faith challenged by Dante or Chaucer and then enriched again by Aquinas, Augustine, Rahner, Balthazar and Tracy? Can any of my college students tell me about Ignatius or Francis of Assisi or Dominic or Benedict’s rule–beyond some superficial knowledge?

A religious educator of children I know once said to me, “We barely have any time with the kids as it is to go beyond the basics and parents don’t know this stuff themselves–so they’re not re-enforcing this themselves!”

I challenged her and said, “Well, that means we’ve got to do more not merely accept that ‘God is love’ is all they need to know.”

She challenged back, “If THAT’S the one thing they take away from the experience of religious education, we could be doing a whole lot worse!”

After I peeled myself off the ceiling I calmly said, “Yes, but isn’t it our job to make sure that they learn more than ONE THING!? If they learned one thing in math, we’d be angry! If they read one book in 8 years we’d be furious! If they picked up only one of the symbols of the elements, we’d have the teacher fired. We’ve got to step this up.”

Or else, fundamentalism is bound to rule the day.

And that friends is not a good scene. It leads to violence. Always. And everywhere.

We have to merely look back 10 years to see what kind of destruction fundamentalism can truly bring us.

Read more at America.