Monday, December 7, 2015

Year of Mercy: Reconciliation: Mission Talk #1

The Year of Mercy asks us to stretch ourselves to new limits so that we reconcile with our brothers and sisters. Truth be told, we all want forgiveness and reconciliation, but truth also be told, we want to control how it is done. We want the other person to conform to our expectations and to say things in the manner we want to hear. If we don’t get just what we want, we storm off in a huff. Besides that, we may carry tremendous hurt and anger because we are victims of someone else’s betrayal and we cannot be the first one to initiate the process of reconciliation. The game changer though, the mysterious element, the transformative agent, is the mercy we receive when we are forgiven and when we forgive. The effects of reconciliation are much more powerful than we can realize. Once love is restored to broken relationships, we find that a part of our true selves has returned and we are lighter and happier because something fundamental is back in balance.
Pope Francis, because of his Jesuit training, knows something fundamental about who we are. He would say that we are loved sinners, with the emphasis on the qualifying adjective: loved, forgiven, cherished, honored. We may know it intellectually, but we have to really feel that we are loved and forgiven. We might have to update our definition of sin to something like this: Sin is a failure to bother to love. The sin is in not even trying.
Typically, when we go to the sacrament of reconciliation, we tend to gravitate to negative ways of thinking. Two such examples are: (1.) I did something wrong, I harbored anger, I yelled at someone, therefore I am not a good person, or (2.) someone did something awful to me or treated me poorly, therefore I caused it and I must be a bad person.  Point One: I want you to hear this: Your sins are forgiven. The ones you committed 20 years ago, the ones you do today, and the ones you will commit in the future have all cancelled out by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. You are already forgiven because God has already chosen you, has fundamentally and unequivocally decided to love and honor you. You are free, and nothing can take that away. And the anger that you feel, that is good. Anger is very good because it tells us something is out of balance, like a boundary being crossed. We get down on ourselves because we do not express our anger or our feelings well. This is our growing edge: to express our anger in a positive way that reveals to others what we feel and think. Point Two: Often we are the victims of other people’s violations, but somehow we think we did something wrong. As a victim, we are powerless and we are deprived of the opportunity to speak our voices adequately. We assess we are to blame. This is false. We cannot let others have that power over us. Christ does not want us to be debilitated. We wants us to free us of the chaos that lies under the surface of our consciousness. If there is one thing I want you to know, it is that you are lovable, forgiven, respected, saved. Christ has already chosen you to be in a special friendship with him. I want you to feel his love.
You know, we haven’t been taught how to pray well at all. We were once told, not directly, but through example, that we were the ones responsible for prayer and if God did not answer us, we must be doing something wrong, that God must not really care for us, that there is something fundamentally so flawed with us that God won’t even bother with us. Ugh! I want that thinking to change.
Let me tell you how I begin my prayer because it is probably different from the way you enter into it. I call to mind the Rock Opera, Tommy, composed and sung by The Who way back in 1969. The blind, deaf, and dumb Tommy sang, “See Me, Feel Me, Hear Me,” because he was deprived of his senses. I suggest that this is the way we enter into each prayer, even the Liturgy of the Mass. Before all else, we stand before Christ, The Spirit, The Creating God, and we say, “O God, I want you to see me, feel me, hear me, know what I am feeling.” The point is not that we look for God, but that God gazes upon us. We ask God to behold us and to simply direct God’s gentle eyes on our soul. Everyone wants to be seen and heard and known by others. We most basically want to be seen and heard and known by God. It is a paradigm shift for many. We simply stand before the warm, loving gaze of God and we let ourselves be known. In other words, we receive God’s mercy. If prayer continues, great. If it ends here, well, that is terrific too. If it continues, we have to tell God how we feel. The problem is that we have so many feelings we do not know where to begin and we don’t want to share the negative ones. Well, we are what we feel, and God wants us to tell all. Open yourselves up a bit and let yourself feel vulnerable. Tell God the thirty-three competing, complex feelings you hold within yourself. Refrain from evaluating them. Just list out your feelings and the incidences that caused them. Go slowly enough so that God might feel with you as your feelings emerge.
Let me give you an image to contemplate. Imagine a newborn in her parents’ arms. All the parents can do is look upon the child for hours at a time and gasp at the miracle before them. Parents spend hours just amazed at the new life in their arms. A friend once wrote me an email saying, “Fr. John. I just can’t express it. I look at my grandson for hours at a time and the time passes so quickly. He cannot love me back yet, but all I can do is share my love with him.” This is the perfect way to begin prayer. We realize we are simply in the hands of God, and the only possible thing God can do is to spend hours looking at us while we take God’s breath away. God showers love and wonder at us and we feel what God gives us. That’s not a bad way to begin prayer. This is an appropriate way to begin prayer.
I want to enlarge this image with another example because some of us may not be able to feel as vulnerable as a child in the arms of God. So, this story comes from an experience in Jamaica when I was a teacher in a ghetto inner-city school. A student of the school had an extraordinary mother who taught me about prayer. She had a routine with her daughter that taught me how to really give and receive love and mercy. Through an ordinary day, the mother’s routine helped the daughter walk tall and straight through the dangerous streets of town. Every morning, the mother would make sure her daughter’s lunch was packed and breakfast provided. When the girl went to brush her teeth, her mother would sit in her winged-back chair. When the girl came out of the bathroom, put on her backpack, she would go over to her mother’s outstretched arms. She said, “Daughter, I love you so much and I’m going to miss you all day long. Hurry home from school because I can’t wait to see your face later today. You are so beautiful and you are part of my heart.”
The girl would then wriggle out of her arms, knowing she is loved, but as she headed towards the door the mother would say, “Daughter, stop right there. Turn to me. Let me see your face again. I want your face in my memory all day long. I’m going to miss you. Hurry home now. You take my breath away. You have such a beautiful face.”
This is how God sees us. Each day when we rise, God’s warm gaze is fixed upon us and we give God such amazement and wonder. I sense that God pauses to catch his breath because God is stunned by who we are and who we are becoming. I feel God’s pride as God just says, “Wow, you are so beautiful, and all I want to do all day long is to gaze upon you, the one I created and formed. I can’t take my eyes off of you. You have such a beautiful face and I want the image of your face in my memory all day long. Hurry back and see me later because I’m going to miss you.”

How’s that for a way to begin prayer? And that is just the start. From my experience, this is a prayer that provides peace, serenity, and comfort. I can walk down the street taller and straighter knowing that God is in radical solidarity with me. It begins with God’s mercy upon me. It begins by knowing that when God looks at me, God sees my whole person and not merely my sins. I feel whole. I feel restored. I feel as if God has my back through all the day’s tribulations. God teaches me to see the world more like God sees it. Mercy is the bridge that connects God to us, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. May our prayer this evening be that we can receive undeserved mercy from God just to know how profoundly God loves us.