Thursday, September 5, 2013

Death By a Thousand Cuts: Bleeding Syria

The images are heart-breaking and deeply disturbing.  They are also seemingly coming at us in steady supply.  Since the civil war within Syria erupted in March 2011, estimates place the death toll at over 100,00 and rising.  Over 2 million have been driven from their homes.  The litany of horrific atrocities committed by all sides in this conflict read like a slasher movie plot.  The dead are not just combatants, but innocent men, women, and children purposely butchered in many almost psychotically induced ways.  Christianity is being eradicated and strongly persecuted as it is in Egypt and Iraq.  Alawite and Kurd minorities are also suffering greatly.  There are no good guys in  this struggle, just a variety of different murderers.  There is no real end in sight.  One wonders what will be left when the smoke does start to clear.

What to do?  This seems to be the big question nowadays.  Our government and other other world governments are debating this after chemical weapons were used.  It was called crossing a red line.  It was barbaric that such weapons were used, to be sure.  How, though, are those 1400 or so deaths any more outrageous and barbaric than the 100,000 who were shot, beheaded, blown up , beaten and tortured, or any of the other hosts of ways the people of Syria have been butchered?  How will adding to the bloodshed by adding our weapons to the mix either through giving them one side ( a side aligned with those behind the 9/11 attacks) or by cutting out the middle man and just launching them ourselves help at all?  Has not the last 12 years of war in the Middle east assured us that violence begets violence?  Is there any sane indication that our bombing Syria will stem the crimson tide of blood already washing over Syria?  Will our involvement cause one side to cease and desist?  Will it not, perhaps, be like lacing a stick of dynamite and spilling this civil war beyond the borders of Syria?  There has got to be a better way.  We need to search for it and search quickly.  We have tried battles, war, military action, sanctions, and endless negotiations.  We have exhausted every human form of solution only to watch this endless cycle of violence continue.

Pope Francis has asked Catholics to fast and pray this Saturday with the intent of peace in Syria.  Seems simplistic doesn't it?  Not at all!  Prayer and fasting are a way of admitting our own helplessness in this matter and seeking divine answers.  After the Transfiguration account in the Gospel of Mark (9:14-29), as Jesus, Peter, James, and John are coming down from the mountain they encounter the other apostles struggling with a possessed boy who is possessed by a very violent spirit.  They are unable to exorcise the demon.  After Jesus does so, he tells them that some demons (and hence demonic activity..and what is happening in Syria is nothing short of demonic) can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.  In short we are called to face great evil with great love.  Taking the time out to be conscious enough to disrupt our eating cycles through fasting and allowing those hunger pangs and disruptions to remind us to pray and lead us to pray are acts of selfless love.  We move beyond ourselves for the sake of others.  Such prayer can have a profound affect on the the person and grant grace to clarify the right path or options.  I can assure you that the people in Syria, especially our Christian brothers and sisters need this more than more weapons and bombs!  It will definitely help to achieve more than yet more killing and maiming will ever do.

As Catholics, we are supposed to stand for that which is of peace and love.  We cannot engage in the vicious cycle of revenge.  Not in international relations.  Not is our own personal relations.  Not in Syria.  Not in our homes.  A day of prayer and fasting goes in the right direction.  Actively helping those who have been driven from their lands and homes is a step in the right direction.  Encouraging our leaders to refrain from adding yet more violence to the mix is a step in the right direction. I cannot encourage you enough to heed our Pope's call to fast and pray.  For those who are brother and sister Christian, prayer and fasting is appropriate as well.  For those who are of other faiths or no faith at all: I believe we can all agree that the current state of affairs must cease and that violence as an answer will not help this situation in the slightest.  At some point, the good have no put their foot down and say "no more".   

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Other Unnecessary Yoke: Revenge

If you have not caught on yet, I really love Zion National Park.  A lot.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life.  It is an appropriately named park.  ‘Zion’ is from the Hebrew the name of a mount on which Jerusalem was built.  It was a sanctuary in that it was highly and easily defendable.  With its towering walls, the city of Jerusalem which was set on Mount Zion was practically unbeatable.  In both the Old and New Testament, Mount Zion became an image of God’s Kingdom and its protection.  The nations of the world were to steam towards it. At the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelations, the new Jerusalem appears as the fulfillment of heaven.  Entrance to the city is offered but never guaranteed.  In fact, Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate.  Why? Because only the unyoked could pass through the narrow gate.  Last post, I wrote about how the yoke of self-centeredness prohibits us from entering heaven.  There is another yoke, born from self-centeredness that is even more deadly.  This yoke is the grudges and lack of forgiveness we carry about needlessly.

This yoke is properly called, I would suppose, the yoke of wrath.  Wrath is anger that seeks revenge.  Anger of itself is merely an emotion that alerts us that we have been hurt.  At that moment we have one of two options.  We can either dismiss the anger through forgiveness or we can allow the anger to fester into a yoke that will crush us.  That yoke then leads us to bitterness, vengeance, and further away from God.  In Dante’s poem, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, the wrathful occupy the 5th  circle of Hell, wallowing in a swamp where the angry forever are at war with one another and those who hold grudges or repressed anger drown for eternity in the venom of their own anger. Does not sound pleasant.  Nonetheless, this effectively happens when we do engage in wrath and why it becomes an iron yoke which keeps us from entering the narrow gate.

    In my continued reading of Fr Larry Richards’ book, “Surrender: The Life Changing Power of Doing God’s Will”, he talks about how the hurt and anger we carry hurts us and everyone else around us.  Mostly it hurts the individual insistent on carrying it.  The only way to relieve ourselves is to forgive.  It is the only way to throw this particularly cruel yoke from our backs.  In fact, when we act on the anger, passively or actively, we only press down harder on our own yoke.  Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.  It has an eternal consequence.  A consequence we actually pray for every time we pray the Our Father.

    Every time we pray the Our Father, we are either making a profession of faith or are actively condemning ourselves.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Read that line over and over again.  Spend some time praying about it!  Either this line will awash over us with great consolation or it will terrify us to our core!  That line becomes a standard.  Why would God set such a standard?  Doesn’t He understand the great harm and hurt others have done and even continue to do to us?!   What about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?

    In Matthew 5: 38-42, Jesus addresses this. “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you…turn the other cheek.”  Why?  First, He knows His Father is not primarily about the revenge business.  Jesus’ presence among us itself speaks to this.  Were the Father interested in revenge against those who try to hurt Him through rebellion (sin), there would be no Jesus.  There would be nothing but divine wrath constantly tormenting us.  There would be no hope.  The Father sends the Son specifically because He is NOT interested in revenge; one who loves is not one who is enslaved by the hurts inflicted by others!  Love naturally leads to mercy.  One who is without mercy or is quick to judge is one in whom love has not fully found a home.  If God is not interested in revenge then neither can we be.

    The second reason is that God wants us to be joyful.  There can be no lasting joy where there is anger and a desire for revenge.  Jesus wants to remove such awful weights from our shoulders and enable to free us to walk uprightly and in true freedom and joy.  We benefit from our own exercise of mercy!  We know from physiology that anger has drastic negative affects on the individual: ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, and a whole host of physical and psychological disorders which diminish the quality of our lives.  Why would any sane person want to carry around such things?!   Mercy to the benefit of all!  A loving God wants us free from such constraints, such burdensome yokes!  There is no sane reason to keep this yoke.

    It comes down to our own oftentimes heroic decision: to no longer hold against others the damage and harm they have done.  Humility makes us realize it is not a standard we want other to hold to us and certainly not a standard we want God to hold with us.  There is no necessity to carry the yoke nor drink the poison.  None at all!  Step into the sanctuary of Zion and allow God’s mercy to wash upon you and free you.  Let go of the weight and burden of grudges and anger!  God wants better for you.  He will not pry the yoke from you.  He will, however, lift it off your shoulders should you allow Him to.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Unnecessary Yoke


In Matthew 11:28-30, we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Come to me , all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me , for I am gentle and humble of heart.  Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”  A yoke, for those who do not know, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is a ‘wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals (oxen for example)are joined at the head or the neck for working together or an arched device formerly  laid on the neck of a defeated person.  It was a sign of servitude or slavery.  A person yoked, unlike an animal, was enslaved and defeated.  This passage come at the end of chapter 11 in which Jesus both chastised those who fail to put faith in Him and to thank His Father for those who do.  There are two yokes: one the people are currently wearing and one that he wishes to give us that alleviates the burden presented by the first yoke.

    So what are the yokes?  For the last month, I have been reading Fr Larry Richard’s book, “Surrender, the Life-Changing Power of Doing God’s Will.”  For the last several weeks I have also been studying humility.  In all this, it occurred to me in a much deeper way than before that the two yokes are self-centeredness and love.  Two yokes diametrically opposed to one another.  I would imagine that if one becomes accustomed to a weight, even a crushing weight, one adapts.  The yoke of this world, self-centeredness, is indeed a crushing weight.  It is a yoke that no Christian is called nor created to carry, it is an unnecessary yoke.

    It is easy to imagine that it suffices to claim the name of Christian to so many even though they still posses this yoke of iron.  This yoke tells us that happiness and peace come from self-satisfaction.  It is the primary message of this world and of our society.  It is highly destructive and wholly enslaving.  It is a perpetual drug that tells us if we just keep taking more hits that eventually we will find happiness in a lasting fashion.  But it never really works, does it?  One of the greater epiphanies I ever had happened to me when I was 24.  I realized that no amount of money would ever be enough.  I realized that no promotion or power would ever be enough.  I realized that no amount of worldly good, toys, and pleasure would ever be enough.  I realized I was living a life of perpetual want with no way to win.  It is the inevitable conclusion when we focus on the self, it leads to a profound emptiness that no worldly thing can fulfill.
    The yoke of Jesus removes the blinders from our eyes and gives us true clarity of vision.  Because it is bound in truth, it is easier and satisfying.  Selfless love is its own reward.  Love gives us the joy and contentment our hearts so desire.  It gives us peace in this life (despite the storms that rage around us) and becomes a  wellspring of God’s grace to eternal life.  In Matthew 6: 19- 20, Jesus reminds us to not accrue treasure for ourselves that by their nature can and will be destroyed, but to accrue treasure in heaven that can never be taken away nor wither away.  This yoke, because it is the yoke Christ Himself carries, is mostly carried by Him.

    I am finding, in my own life, that the more I allow the yoke of Christ to be the only yoke, the happier I am.  It comes down to a choice.  Which yoke?  The yoke that oppresses me and leads me to fields that will never satisfy?  Or the yoke carried by Christ that leads to the fulfillment of all our deepest and worthiest hopes and desires.  Christ does not make this decision for us.  We have to make it for ourselves.  Our choice determines our destiny in this life and the life to come.  I would imagine there are so many who do feel weary and tired.  I would imagine that we want to be free of worry and a slavish devotion to desires that will always remained unfulfilled.  Selfless love, in the person of Christ, is the way that breaks those fetters.

This concept is not foreign to the people of Jesus’ time.  Like the people of today, they wanted the basics, they wanted freedom from the Roman Empire, they wanted life as good as it gets.  Even among those who were satiated in the world’s goods, even these could not find rest for their souls.  They chased after anyone who said they could provide a better life.  When Jesus comes, he also says he can lead them to a better way, a better life.  But not in the way they were looking for.  They were looking for a physical satiation.  Anyone who does so is locked in self-involvement.  Self-involvement is the yoke of a defeated person; a yoke that can only crush under the weight of its undoable expectations.  What Jesus came to do was remove that yoke and give us a much lighter constraint to our actions.  His yoke was the yoke to selflessly love as God selflessly loves.  He came to utterly change the focus of each person. 

  The yoke of this world, because it is bound in selfish desire, can only lead to sin.  The yoke of this world leads the person to act as if all in this world is for their disposal.  Other persons becomes means to an end to self-gratification.  It leads to various addictions because the high afforded always goes away and needs to be re-engaged with. The yoke of this world keeps us in constant worry, seeking to hoard as much as we can for ourselves, while others suffer.  This yoke is necessary for all of the seven deadly sins. The yoke of the world can so blind us that we become like the rich man of  Luke 16: 19-31, who is so self-absorbed that he fails to even notice (let alone help) Lazarus, the beggar who laid at his door.  It causes to withhold our time, energy, and resources from God in fear that we won’t have enough.  It fills us so much that we can do all this and still demand that God give us more and become indignant and doubtful of God when more is not given.

It might sound like a weird thing to call selfless love a yoke.  Yokes do provide the person driving the team a way of maintaining direction.  The one who selflessly loves has to continually lay their own self-interest aside.  As was pointed out in the homily last week,  the humble person (without humility we cannot selflessly love) is set free from worry about oneself as is able to completely give themselves as a gift to others and to God.  It was also pointed out that without this love and humility we could never be exalted by God to the Kingdom of Heaven.  As God gives us the grace to love, to be humble, and to be freed from the shackles of selfishness, He rightly expects that we will utilize this grace and take His own yoke, that is, His own love, and make it our way of life.