Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rich Man – Poor Man

(Exodus 22:24-26)
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”

My early faith formation was shaped through a flawed or distorted lens creating a warped view of reality. It has taken years to focus the lens to see a more realistic view of the world and its heartbreak, but also the power of God -- especially as spoken in Sacred Scripture.

Growing up in Bellevue, Washington, I experienced excess wealth and was clueless to true human struggle on the planet. As a Catholic kid living in one of the wealthiest areas of the wealthiest nation on earth, exposure to poverty was limited at best. My personal experience with wealth was non-existent. But so was my experience with abject poverty. My family was of limited means. My father sold restaurant equipment and tended bar sometimes working three jobs to feed a family of six. My mother was a stay at home mom. We were your typical 60’s-era lower-middle income family living in the U.S. The big difference was that we lived among the richest of the rich. The wealth I was exposed to distorted reality and affected how I experienced the world. While I did not come from money, the families of many of my friends did.

My father was a proud Democrat living in a land of wealthy Republicans. I can remember spirited debates about politics in the driveways of neighbors and friends growing up. The issues discussed were poverty and race. My father had strong opinions on everything. His working class mindset shaped by growing up the poorest of the poor during the Depression in Miles City, Montana, gave him a strong sense of social justice.

His death when I was fourteen changed my personal reality. My mother was left to raise three boys on her own. We were poor at a time when I was becoming aware of the wealth that surrounded me. It was about this time that my prodigal period began and I fell away from my faith.

I longed to be just like my Bellevue friends. As a young man, I became inspired by Reagan Republicanism and saw it as my way to get ahead in life. I focused on being a success and achieved beyond my wildest dreams. But in chasing the American Dream I never found personal happiness. In fact, I found quite the opposite. The wealthier I became, the unhappier I was.

The lyrics to a popular Bruce Hornsby song in the 1980s always haunted me from the first time I heard them: “Standing in line marking time, waiting for the welfare dime, 'cause they can't buy a job. The man in the silk suit hurries by. As he catches the poor old ladies' eye, just for fun he says ‘get a job.’” I remember thinking, “I’m that guy in the silk suit, but I’m not heartless.” I chalked up the line to liberal angst raging against conservative success. But the line ate at me every time I heard it. What was it that bothered me so? Did I hear some truth in the line that was ringing loud and clear? Was the material wealth I was striving for negatively impacting my grasp of reality? Was God trying to get my attention?

The above passage from Exodus begins a thought by God that is continued in the Gospels when Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, shares the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-4) Or “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6: 20-21).

God provides special protection for his privileged hearers of the Word. The lowly, marginalized and poor “get it.” After all, women were the first to recognize the resurrection. When I think of this revelation I finally "get it." The reason it took me so long for God to get through to me was because I never needed a savior. I lived a life of privilege. The privilege insulated me from God’s Word.

My wife was the one who urged me back to church. With a background as a radio news anchor, she signed me up to be a lector. I resisted at first, but wanting to raise our young boys in the Church, I hesitantly agreed. In college, I performed oral interpretation (Reader’s Theatre) and learned to be mindful of the author’s intent. From Shakespeare to O. Henry, I was able to nail it because I understood what the author was trying to convey and infused this into my reading. Little did I know at the time that God was shaping me to be his Voice someday. As a lector, I began to attend Mass regularly.

In Vatican II's Dei Verbum, it says, “the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” in the sacred books. As I interpreted the Word and listened to others read the Word, I started to see my life differently and hear God’s call to true conversion. Over time, my eyes were opened to the Power of God as seen through the resurrection of the living Christ. I began to recognize the presence of Christ in His Word, “for it is He Himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7)

As I ponder the state of the Catholic faith and where it is thriving in the world today, it is in the poorest of nations. The power of Christ’s vision accurately predicted in the Beatitudes two thousand years ago is what is living out and thriving in the Catholic Church today. “Theirs is the kingdom of God.”

Our times are experiencing a cataclysmic shift. Wealth and greed that has driven the past nearly 30 years has run us off the cliff of prosperity. We all may experience being poor in our lifetimes. The 401K we were so proud of and the home equity we were so eager to tap are vanishing before our very eyes. Wealth was an illusion. The god of money worshipped for years by so many has become a lifeless, empty god.

In these troubled times, I find peace and joy in serving God. The power of God burns within me when living out the Gospel. And He reveals Himself to me in breathtaking ways. One of the groups I volunteer for is the Salvation Army. This past summer, I was bell ringing for school supplies for the low-income families in our area. On a hot July afternoon (99 degrees), a young man who was clearly a disabled Iraq War vet approached the kettle. With his right hand, he awkwardly pulled some cash from his pocket. The exercise was challenged by the fact that he had no left hand. A prosthetic hook was all he had for a left hand. Christ’s words rang out in my head, "But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matthew 5:3) “Their hearts can ‘burn within them’ as they pray and prayerfully study Scripture with the context of their own personal lives.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission)

I am awe-struck by a thought about the Greatest Commandments as shared by Christ as being vertical – “You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – and horizontal – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). As I envision these words the following thought comes to mind. The cross of Christ has one vertical line and one horizontal line. That is all. This simple icon of our faith and is clearly a reflection of Christ’s Greatest Commandments.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. God is too big a concept for my tiny mind to grasp. So is the universe for that matter. I stand in awe of both. If you have ever seen the pictures from the Hubble Telescope there are two I find most amazing. One is of the Cone Nebula. The other is of the “Perfect Storm” in the Swan Nebula. Whether or not it is real or imagined, I see the silhouette of Christ praying in one and the Virgin Mary in her traditional blue color in the other. Each seems to have a halo.

The beauty of the universe, just as the resurrection of the Living Christ, is a reflection of the Power of God that gives life to the dead and calls into existence that that does not exist, raising Jesus from the dead and changing the cosmos. The lens here is the Hubble Telescope. Enjoy the view!

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