The Common Good
January-February 1996

Ordinary Encounters

by Jim Douglass, Shelley Douglass | January-February 1996


These reflections actually began with Christmas, the incomprehensible
feast celebrating the unbelievable fact: God with us, God loving
us (see "Living the Word," ...

These reflections actually began with Christmas, the incomprehensible feast celebrating the unbelievable fact: God with us, God loving us (see "Living the Word," November-December 1995).

Shelley's meditations, this time the first four, revolve around Jesus' presence in ordinary encounters, calling us to lose ourselves in finding him. Jim's meditations, the second four, center on the results of responding to that presence in suffering people.

These readings lead us into Lent, reflecting always on Jesus' radical challenge to repent and follow him before anything or anyone else. Like the disciples we begin by answering a call we don't understand. Then we encounter both the pain and joy of following the suffering servant. We turn back only to be summoned again.

Where and how is Jesus calling each of us to follow him today?

January 7 (Epiphany): God's Glory Still
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Brother John is a 73-year-old friar who escaped World War II Poland by walking cross-country on bare and bleeding feet. He was a laborer in Hitler's Germany, where he was paradoxically safe, warm, and fed-and where he outwitted the authorities repeatedly.

He told me one day about walking through a devastated city after the Allied carpet bombings. It was all rubble, he said, and there was a thick mud that stuck to his boots, so that every few steps he had to stop and scrape it off. There was a stench. Eventually he realized that he was walking on human debris: the remains of people killed in the bombings. Almost nothing could be recognized, just a piece of bone here and there.

Brother John said that he never forgot that experience: "They were human beings too," he said. "They were people like us."

At Epiphany we remember that we are all human beings together, and all made in God's image. The glory shining in the Christ child, beckoning the wise; the glory smashed into the mud under Brother John's feet-the same glory. God's image, still being smashed, still there to be recognized.

January 14: Beholding the Lamb of God
Psalm 40:1-11; Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

I keep thinking of Christmas and the glory of God's image in us, the incarnation among us. "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" (John 1:29).

Alex came to Mary's House for two weeks. His caregiver was on vacation and he stayed with us during the hottest part of Alabama's summer, nurses attending him 24 hours a day. Alex is 9. He is a spina bifida child and cannot see or control his movements; he is fed through a tube, and he spends his days sitting in a wheelchair or an infant seat. "Look, here is the lamb of God!"

Before Alex arrived, I wondered how I would feel about him, how it would be to have someone so handicapped here at the house. As Alex stayed and we came to know him, I realized that here indeed was a lamb of God.

Alex's face would shine when he heard a familiar voice, felt a gentle touch. He loved music, and would be perfectly still for hours at a time listening to tapes. He especially liked Johnny Clegg and Savuka. When he was unhappy or in pain Alex had a way of letting us know, with moans and cries that reminded me of the psalmists. When he was happy his face radiated his joy.

Alex was a lamb of God in the simplicity of his suffering and his joy. I wonder how many times I have missed God's lambs because I haven't looked carefully for them. How many times have I kept looking, when Jesus was right in front of me? I want to be like Peter, a rock-but like Peter, I turn away from the suffering Jesus.

January 21: Repeated Repentance
Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

"Repent," Jesus said. "Drop everything and follow me. The kingdom of heaven-the reign of God-is at hand." Sometimes we do just that. After we do it, we begin to argue about who has the right road map, and where this realm is, and what it looks like, and what we need to take with us. Who baptized you, and whose teaching did you receive? Not as good as mine! I'm closer to God than you are!

What happens to the first impulse to follow where we are led, not to let anything get in the way? Repentance is always needed, daily. (Hourly, even.) I find that I'm frequently distracted from God's work, from God's image in my neighbor, by my own selfishness and my own prejudices. Jesus is always calling me back to repent, to follow, to open my eyes as Brother John did, and see the image of God in my enemy, in my friend-in the one baptized by a different teacher.

January 28: Being Blessed
Psalm 15; Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

The most powerful life at Mary's House so far was one that ended here. Laura died just over a year ago, just after Christmas, in one of our upstairs rooms. In Laura these scriptures were lived out before my eyes each day, the weak and foolish becoming the strong and wise in the process of dying.

Laura came to us an angry street addict and prostitute, her face turned to the wall, her hand raised against everyone. No one, nothing, could please her. Laura was touched by God's saving power, by the love of community, and when she left us she was at home, at peace. In her life the mourner was indeed comforted, the thirst for righteousness began to be satisfied, the poor in spirit came into the kindom of heaven.

It was nothing we did. It was God's doing. God gave her to us, and God gave us eyes to see the gift and hearts to accept it joyfully.

When I read the beatitudes, or when I read these passages from Paul, I think of the hard and strange things God asks of us sometimes: going to jail, nursing someone with Alzheimer's or AIDS, accompanying people to court, changing diapers, and cooking meals and washing floors! I think of the blessings that are contained in these tasks, the transformation of suffering into joy, so that we embrace the odious gratefully, and wonder why people are surprised.

I think of Brother John, of Alex, of Laura, of myself, and realize that in our struggles and our sufferings we are somehow caught up in God's wisdom. We are indeed blessed.

February 4: If the salt has lost its savor?
Psalm 112; Isaiah 58:1-12; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its savor, with what will it be salted? It is good for nothing and is thrown out and trampled underfoot by humanity" (Matthew 5:13).

In today's gospel from Matthew, whom does Jesus mean by "the salt of the earth"? And what is the savor without which the salt becomes good for nothing?

The preceding verses of the Sermon on the Mount provide the key: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the reign of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad..." (Matthew 5:10-12).

When we understand the salt of the earth in this context, do we begin to lose our taste for it?

The salt of the earth are those who are persecuted for their active pursuit of justice. The salt's savor is action that inevitably provokes suffering on the actor. Suffering for justice, suffering for Jesus' sake, suffering for the Beloved Community.

"You"-we-are expected to be the salt of the earth: the persecuted for the sake of justice. Without the savor of active love and suffering, we are good...for nothing. Thrown out and trampled underfoot by humanity.

Is that a ruthless perspective from a source where we'd prefer a soft glow on faith?

Jesus' modern disciple Mahatma Gandhi had a similar emphasis on salt and suffering love. Gandhi identified Britain's monopoly on salt as a symbolic key to India's freedom. Every villager needed salt. By marching to the sea and breaking the imperial law by picking up a pinch of salt, Gandhi chose persecution, redemptive suffering, and freedom. His people followed his example. Millions of them made, bought, and sold salt in defiance of British law. Hundreds were beaten as they advanced on salt works, tens of thousands including Gandhi were jailed and Britain's rule over India was in effect ended.

On the eve of this freedom campaign, Gandhi said, "Mass civil disobedience will not come if those who have been hitherto the loudest in their cry for liberty have no action in them. If the salt loses its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?"

February 11: Is my anger innocent?
Psalm 119:1-8; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Nothing tests one's faith more than belonging to a community of faith. In today's readings Paul and Jesus speak to the issue of conflict, especially in faith communities.

For Paul, the question arises from one leader being set off against another: "One says, 'I belong to Paul [substitute here the name of a leader you prefer, A],' and another, 'I belong to Apollos [and here the name of a competing leader, B]'....What then is Apollos [leader B]? What is Paul [leader A]? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 'A' planted, 'B' watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:4-8).

Jesus raises the stakes of conflict by (absurdly?) linking murder with anger: "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:21-22).

Can we believe it? Judgment on our anger? That makes me angry! Wasn't Jesus angry himself? Who is he to judge?

In a recent discussion of youth homicides, it was pointed out that an insult which a generation ago might have provoked a counterinsult or a fistfight may now inspire a gunshot. We are living in a world where anger passes quickly into murder, and not only among armed teen-agers.

In a country possessed by its guns, is my anger innocuous?

Jesus' way out of the impasse puts the need for a disarming reconciliation before everything-before worship and before dealing with the question of who exactly is to blame in a conflict: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).

February 18: God's turning point
Psalm 99; Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The transfiguration is God's turning point. In each of the synoptic gospels, after Jesus predicts his death and prescribes the way of the cross for his disciples, he takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. There God confirms in a vision Jesus' decision to walk into suffering and death.

As Jesus is transfigured in clothing "white like the light," a symbol that fuses martyrdom and divinity, a bright cloud overshadows him, Moses, and Elijah. Through it God says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5).

Listen to him, and see the transfiguration.

Listen to him in the soldier who turns away from war; see the transfiguration.

Listen to him in the unmarried woman who chooses to give birth to her child; see the transfiguration.

Listen to him in the citizen who refuses to pay taxes that pay for nuclear weapons; see the transfiguration.

Listen to him in all who choose their own suffering and death for the sake of others' lives; see the transfiguration.

The transfiguration is God's turning point in Jesus' story and our story. It is God's confirmation in history that suffering love is a divine choice. Humanity's inner life in God is revealed in the light that extends down the mountain to the cross.

Matthew says that as they were coming down that mountain, Jesus ordered Peter, James, and John, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Human Being has been raised from the dead" (Matthew 17:9).

Only by living through the suffering, death, and raised life of Jesus would the disciples be able to say with understanding what they had experienced on the mountain.

Listen to him. And see the light of God in a new humanity.

February 25 (First Sunday of Lent): In the Wilderness with Jesus
Psalm 32; Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is a walk into the wilderness with Jesus. In today's gospel, Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness symbolize Israel's 40 years, and however long our wilderness may last. The scriptures that Jesus cites in response to the devil's temptations refer back to Israel's trials...and ahead to ours.

Jesus' counter to the first temptation, to turn stones into bread, is, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). The way to our daily bread (Israel's manna in the wilderness) is to follow God's will in the desert-40 years of prayer, pilgrimage, and patience.

Our first temptation is to escape hunger by accepting whatever compromise is necessary for the security of turning stones into bread. An economics of Providence is in any case, Satan argues, insane.

The devil's second proposal is: "If you are the son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple]," relying on God's angels "to bear you up" (Matthew 4:6). In Matthew's gospel this challenge foreshadows the mockery of the chief priests, scribes, and elders at the cross: "...let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son'" (Matthew 27:42-43). But God's way of transformation is not spectacle but the patient, enduring suffering of the wilderness and the cross.

Our second temptation is to seek God in the spectacular, not in suffering and dying.

Jesus' and our third temptation is to power: "all the kingdoms of the world." If we will only worship the voice behind that power, "all these I will give you" (Matthew 4:8-9).

Accept the military contract....
Swear to the loyalty oath....
Support the execution....
Trash the poor....
March to the beat of war drums....

"And all these I will give you."

But Jesus said, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God'" (Matthew 4:10). Then the tempter of security, spectacle, and power left him-and will leave us as well, if we pass through that wilderness with Jesus and give the same response.

"And suddenly angels came and waited on him" (Matthew 4:11).

We can expect their help, too.

JIM DOUGLASS is the author, most recently, of The Nonviolent Coming of God (Orbis, 1991). SHELLEY DOUGLASS, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and works at Mary's House, a Catholic Worker community in Birmingham, Alabama.

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