Apologies for the two-week absence. The following is a reflection on Sunday’s second reading I offered at “Soup & Psalms,” a weekly night of prayer and supper at the Center for FaithJustice. We had a group from THE Ohio State University’s Catholic Campus Ministry last week on an alternative spring break spent serving in the Trenton area. It was great to have them join us for one of our favorite traditions.
Sunday’s second reading is filled with some of St. Paul’s favorite words. There are, on one hand, words of comfort and strength: Faith. Hope. Love. Peace. Glory. Grace. Courage. On the other hand, there are some that seem just a bit less optimistic: Helpless. Ungodly. Difficulty. Sinners. Died.
When I read through the passage for the first time, the nicer words were the ones that stood out. Maybe that’s because these days, I want to grasp on to the idea of a comforting God. These are days of nightmarish earthquakes and tsunamis, tyrants and civil war. On a personal level, these have been days of particular challenge with Gen, with discussions about our future and work and money turning often into hurtful arguments. Indeed, these are days of seeming helplessness and godlessness, difficulty, sin, and death. My prayer in recent weeks has been short and loud: “Dear God, Help me, and help everyone else. Amen.” I crave that comfort.
And there is something comforting in Paul’s words. Even though we sinners stray from the path, and launch attacks with missiles and with words, God still loves us, and Christ still gave his life for us.
But in this message of comfort and salvation is a challenge, because while I like the idea of a comforting God in theory, I really don’t receive comfort from God too well. I’m usually skeptical, sarcastic, too busy for God. The thought that God could actually have something comforting for me, now, here in suburban New Jersey, sent all the way from heaven, seems ridiculous on most days. I say I believe in a God who’s at work in the world, but I don’t live that belief much of the time. I pray “Help!”, but probably more just to cover my bases than due to any sort of belief that comfort from God will actually arrive.
Specifically, the biggest challenge Paul presents me with here is to live in “the grace in which we stand.” This beautiful, famous snippet takes for granted that there’s grace to be standing in. “Hold on a minute,” my empirical side cautions. “Just look around, will you? Maybe there’s some grace out there, or something, but mayhem and pain seem to be the norm.”
The only comeback that’s ever worked against this empirical voice is gratitude. A mentor of mine has talked about gratitude as the bedrock of the spiritual life, and I’m coming to believe that more and more. When I was in college, I struggled with homesickness, as life outside New Jersey turned out to be far less transcendent than life within its borders. Feeling sad, alone, and stuck, I would head to our campus’ grotto and sit on a bench. No prayer came, just a sort of quiet numbness. But I kept walking down there in the cool autumn nights, if only to get out of my dorm. Then, one night in November, I spontaneously prayed: “God, thank you for…” and I began to make a list, a list filled with friends and family members and teachers and my favorite rock bands and certain national parks I had visited and the opportunities I had been given that I had done nothing to deserve. I went on like this for 45 minutes or so, and opened my eyes feeling refreshed, comforted and very loved.
And this is where my empirical side doesn’t stand a chance in hell, because while you can measure earthquakes on a Richter scale, and measure radiation with a Geiger counter, the love and hope and compassion that I have encountered cannot be measured or counted or weighed. These things exist on a different plane, beyond our capacity to understand. Once I acknowledge that there’s immeasurable stuff out there like love and compassion, I’m moving into divine territory. So if it is true that God is love, then we can flip the equation around: Love is God. When I doubt God’s grace, remembering to be grateful for the love I have received wakes me up.
Awakened, I am empowered to recognize our world as grace-filled. Violent and senseless, yes, and perhaps a bit too obsessed with the exploits of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods. But grace-filled nonetheless. May we all stand as grateful witnesses of God’s grace in the midst of our dangerous days.