The Beauty of Emotional Intelligence

 

In Mark’s Gospel, we hear a story about Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. It is easy to overlook a critical aspect of this story ~ the fact that Jesus chooses to travel to an area populated by Gentiles. There, he is confronted by a woman who for two reasons is ‘an outsider’: she is not an Israelite, and her daughter has a demon.

By overlooking Jesus’ choice, it then becomes easy to mishear a vital aspect of this Gospel reading. It’s Jesus’ willingness to be playful —even dangerously playful— as he enlarges our concept of God’s Kingdom. Some contemporary commentators don’t recognize this about Jesus’ journey into the region of Tyre. For they view it as a story about how a Gentile woman enlarges Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom. This follows from the way modern theologians stress the humanity of Jesus over his divinity. In other words, ‘how he was like us’ comes to overshadow ‘how he was different from us.’

This is especially true with our understanding of intellect. We associate ‘intelligence’ with skills like computing numbers and remembering information. Yet, the key to this Gospel story may lie in something different, in what is called “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is relational, and involves feelings, character and temperament. It depends on maturity, and relies on insight about what enhances or hinders well-functioning community. When we overlook these fuller dimensions of ourselves, we limit our concept of what it means to be human.

Think, for example, about humor. We assume humor depends on being witty, and making fun of people and situations. We forget that we also deal with serious things through humor. Humor approaches life indirectly, from the side, instead of straight-on. In medieval times, Christians actually debated whether Jesus ever laughed! We know he wept, but Scripture never records Jesus as laughing. Surely, we can see beyond this narrow assumption that Jesus never laughed or spoke with irony and humor.

Appreciating how Jesus uses playful humor helps us understand his interaction with the Canaanite woman, and how he is compassionate rather than rude in speaking with her. The story displays the beauty of his emotional intelligence instead of a limitation in his perception of his vocation.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 9, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The Egyptian Arabic manuscript illustration above is credited to Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rabib (1684).

The Beauty of Delight

 

Periodically I’m struck by the sudden power of familiar words ~ of words which we are so accustomed to hearing that we hardly attend to them. Last week it happened when I was praying the opening confession in (daily) Morning Prayer. After referring to what ‘we have done and left undone,’ we express our repentance, and ask for God’s mercy. There then follow some remarkable words, which we say to God. With them, we identify why we ask for God’s mercy: it is so “that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.”

I’m sure these words stood out to me because— like many of you—I am still grieved by the horrible Pennsylvania report, charging dozens (if not more) of Roman Catholic clergy with sexual abuse. Even bishops and cardinals have been involved. And then, on the heels of that troubling news, came word that two men close to the President were now convicted felons. And, one of them has implicated the Commander in Chief regarding immoral and possibly illegal activity.

This leaves me wondering about us as a people and nation. How and why have we strayed so far from walking in God’s ways? And then, remembering the words of the confession, I was struck by this realization: maybe it’s because we no longer delight in God’s will. To seek and accept God’s will; to respect and be obedient to it ~ these are fundamentally different from delighting in it. And this may be the key.

In what do I delight? In what do you delight? Probably it is someone or something you love. I recognize this right away when I see a cute picture of one of my grandchildren. I love them. And I greatly delight when I see them happy, having fun and being creative. Closely related to this kind of delighted appreciation for someone or something we love, is joy. We joy in those in whom we delight, and we love them through joyfully delighting in them.

But we face a challenge here. For we live in a culture in which we have lost our appreciation for the important difference between passive feelings, and acts of virtue. If delight, love and joy are merely feelings, and feelings we hope that others will evoke in us, then we have sold these virtues short. For, in the spirituality and ethics of our great tradition, delight, love and joy are noble acts.They are not just feelings, because practicing these virtues builds character, both within ourselves and in our communities. Thomas Aquinas is remembered for saying that “joy is the noblest human act.” How true! He meant that we choose to take joy in the Lord, and in God’s merciful Providence. This helps us delight in God’s will, and live in God’s love.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 26, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The photo above is of my good friend Stuart, who takes great joy in fishing every day for lake trout, and who delights in catching and releasing them.

Literal, Figurative and Mystical Beauty

 

How we move and act, when we celebrate and receive communion, communicates something just as important as the words we use in the same context. Our actions communicate that we take seriously Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel. For Jesus says, “…my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” By how we move and act in our Eucharist together, we show that we know his words are true. Our actions display our belief that we have life in him – that we now share his own life with our Father in heaven.

Along with many Christians we know that bread and wine consecrated in the Eucharist become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This links us, as Anglicans, with Lutherans, the Eastern Orthodox, as well as Roman Catholics. For we all recognize that what we receive in our hands and through our lips is no longer simply bread and wine, even if they may still taste like bread and wine. Something happens in the course of the Eucharistic Prayer. And it happens when we pray in obedience to Jesus’ command, “do this in remembrance of me.” What happens is a real change in the bread and wine, so that they become the risen body and blood of our Lord. And this is the key. For the real change in the bread and the wine happens so that there then can be a real change in us.

We need to notice what many of Jesus’ first followers did not understand. His words are multi-layered, and have at least three meanings: Jesus’ words first have literal meaning; his words also have figurative meaning; and third, his words have mystical meaning. With his words, Jesus tells us he is giving himself to us, and that he is giving himself for us. Jim Janknegt’s painting, The Bread of Life, reproduced above, beautifully captures all three meanings.

Jesus’ words to us are at first literal, in the sense that he really means for us to eat and drink, and that what we eat and drink will really be him.

But Jesus’ words, in addition to being literal, are also figurative or metaphorical. For Jesus was not speaking of his earthly physical body and blood when he literally meant for us to eat and drink him. He was referring to his yet-to-be-revealed, risen, heavenly body. Because – as it soon became apparent – he did not leave his earthly, physical body behind for us to partake of. And so, he means for us literally to eat and drink his heavenly body and blood.

And, in addition to being literal and figurative, Jesus’ words are also mystical. When we literally eat and drink his heavenly body and blood, we abide in him – we live in him and he lives in us. When we eat and drink his risen body and blood, we have eternal life with him in God. And we will live forever in the fullness of life, in a state of blessed flourishing. Having refused Satan’s temptation, Jesus does not turn stones into bread to feed himself; he turns himself into bread to feed the world.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 19, 2018, which be accessed by clicking here. Jim Janknegt’s painting, The Bread of Life, is reproduced here with his permission. His many paintings can be seen on his website, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of the Bread of Life

 

Several biblical images related to the bread of heaven are beautifully illustrated by Peter Koenig in a painting titled, For the Year of the Eucharist.

On the left arm of the cross Koenig depicts Elijah asleep, while Queen Jezebel plots his death. After lying down to sleep an angel awakens him with a gift of bread, providing sustenance for his journey. Restored, he then goes on to holy Mt. Sinai, a place associated with seeing God, and the gift of the Covenant.

At the center of the cross we see Jesus, who is the bread come down from heaven, sharing the bread of life with his friends.

On the right arm we see Jesus as the true vine, and his Father as the vinedresser.

And below we see how we are the ‘ark’ of the Church, and that we are fed with the bread of life. These few references, chosen by Koenig from among so many in the Bible, remind us of the significance of bread as a gift from God, for the life of the world.

These insights help us appreciate how, as we learn from 1st Samuel, God replaces Saul with David as the King of Israel. The Lord tells the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem, where Samuel anoints David as God’s chosen king. The name Bethlehem means ‘the house of bread.’ Of course, this same ‘house of bread’ later becomes the birthplace of Jesus.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” We know that mortals ate the bread of angels in ancient times. Yet, Jesus says that they “ate manna in the wilderness, and … died.” Unlike our spiritual ancestors, when we eat the bread of life today we shall live forever. We eat the bread of life when we gather to give thanks, in the Eucharist. And we partake of the true Vine. In every Eucharist, we join our Lord by offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, to his and our Father, for the life of the world.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 12, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The painting above, by Peter Koenig, is titled, For The Year of the Eucharist, and is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. Please visit the website for the Church of St. Edmund’s, Kettering, England, where this painting and others by him are displayed and available for viewing. Please click here for a link to it, and for further information concerning his fine paintings.

The Beauty of Desert Rest

The apostles have just returned from their mission, into which Jesus had earlier sent them. Naturally, they wanted to tell him everything they had done. Especially since Jesus had sent them out with his own power and authority. Surely, they had much to report. He responds to them by saying, “Come away to a deserted place… and rest a while.”

The wise Gospel teacher, John Shea, suggests that we should not misunderstand Jesus’ invitation to them. It’s not that Jesus was offering them what we would call R&R, or rest and relaxation. Shea helps us see how Jesus was leading them to something more profound. Jesus was inviting the apostles to go deeper with him, into the mystery of his mission. As we have often found, in the biblically sensitive work of the artist James Tissot, the image I share with you above portrays a key moment in Mark’s Gospel. Despite Tissot’s sensitivity, he titled his painting, “Jesus commands the Apostles…” And yet, in Mark’s Gospel, we clearly hear an invitation, rather than a command. Either way, Jesus was urging them to come away ~ a message we can take to heart, as well.

Shea points out two key biblical words in Mark’s story that should catch our attention. Consider first the role of ‘deserted places’ in biblical history. It was in the desert that Israel was brought into covenant with God, when they received the Law at Mt. Sinai. It was in the desert that both Israel and —much later— Jesus, were tested. Whereas Israel failed the test, Jesus prevailed. And it became the doorway to his public ministry, which made manifest God’s Kingdom in a new and personal way. As Jesus himself experienced, the desert was the place where angels ministered to God’s chosen people.

The second key word that Shea points toward is ‘rest,’ also a highly symbolic word. By inviting them to rest, Jesus was not really interrupting what he had earlier sent them to do. Instead, he was giving them an opportunity to fulfill their new vocation, and bring it to completion. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. And it was not because God was tired, or somehow in need of restoration, after six days of creating everything. The seventh day represented the sabbath Shalom, the peace that fulfilled of all of God’s creative purposes. And so, by inviting the apostles into a time of rest, Jesus was inviting them to experience the deeper fulness of God’s mission, and its presence within him. This would best happen apart from the pressures and distractions of ongoing ministry.

In the desert, they would discover the beauty of sabbath fulfillment.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 22, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Commands the Apostles to Rest. John Shea is the author of the three volumes titled, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. Here, I reference his comments in the second volume, for Year B.

The Beauty of True News

 

It may be that I was the first American ‘paperboy’ in Japan, when I worked for the Japanese newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. At least that’s what they told me when writing their story. Like many kids in the States, then and now, with whom I had few things in common, I still shared what may be a universal desire. I hoped to earn money to supplement my small allowance. And I wanted extra money so I could buy a guitar.

We lived in a Japanese neighborhood, and our local contacts were almost entirely Japanese. Having grown up in Japan, and being fairly fluent in Japanese, this led me to a job in our local economy. That’s how I became a ‘paper boy,’ delivering—as I remember it—about 40 or 50 newspapers, every afternoon. Before delivery, I had to insert advertisement fliers in each copy. This could make the whole bundle rather heavy. I slung them under my left arm, using something like a Judo-belt.

Well ~ my plan worked. I was able to buy my dream, my first electric guitar. It was a brilliant red Japanese Gibson knock-off, which I wish I still had.

We all receive ‘news,’ and we count on it. Even when we are frustrated or angry about what we learn. The source of our ‘news’ may be helpful and encouraging. But often, it’s not. Rarely are our news-providers neutral about what they communicate. Various considerations, like politics and commercial interests, affect the results. Yet, in my case, as a 12 year old foreigner, I was delivering a Japanese language newspaper to neighborhood homes that were very different from mine. In the process, I was largely indifferent to what I delivered. And the recipients seemed largely indifferent to me, as compared with how they probably approached their newspaper.

Now, I share all this because what I have observed here may provide a significant clue. It might signal a small but important part of Mark’s Gospel account of when a certain King Herod hears news. And, he hears news that alarms him. Yet, those who communicated it may not have known the significance of what they had told him. And when we, in similar ways, neglect reflectively to consider what we hear, it doesn’t always work out well for us. Especially if we are not attending to nuance, or ideas, or subtle distinctions and other sensitive things that have a real bearing upon our life together.

What makes some types of ‘news’ significant, as compared with some others? Does it make a difference, to consider the source of the ‘news’ we receive? The current rhetorical dismissal of some forms of the media, as ‘fake’ news, tells us something ~ that, just because something is reported, may not mean that it is true or reliable. Also, just because ‘news’ may be true, doesn’t mean it will be reported. And even if true news is reported, this doesn’t mean that we will attend to it, or properly value what it tells us. After all, the Gospel is literally good news, and meant for the whole world and all its people. And yet, consider the extent of our own engagement with it. Also consider how many, who are only somewhat familiar with it, remain indifferent to its meaning, and to its power and purpose.

And so we need to receive, and also attend to, news that is true.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 15, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The news story with photo above is from some time in the spring of 1968.

The Beauty of God’s Beckoning Kingdom

 

Once again, I invite you to join me in some reflective imagining. Doing such helps us live into the Gospels. Stories from Scripture, and the work of many artists, can enable us to engage the Word. So here is our opportunity: We are in Nazareth! Let’s imagine that we are in the little village of Nazareth, in about the year 30 A.D. We are gathered in our local synagogue for worship on the sabbath. And, without any of us expecting it, our young Rabbi with a messianic vocation enters and begins to teach us ~ just as James Tissot portrays in the image above.

Some of us in the synagogue begin to marvel and raise questions about our experience of him. Who is this, we ask. And where did he get this wisdom? After all, he’s from our village… and no one of any account has come out of this place. Don’t we know his family? And aren’t we familiar with his work as a local contractor? So what is he thinking, presuming to teach us, his peers and fellow residents? He then responds to us, sounding more philosophical than angry. He says that ‘wise people are not overlooked, except among those who think they already know them.’ And so he can do no deed of power here, unless perhaps to heal a few needy folks at the margins of our little community.

He looks at us with astonishment. Why? Because, through him, the mystery of God’s Kingdom is being opened before us. And he is beckoning us to enter. Except that we hesitate, and come up with excuses. We find all kinds of reasons why we cannot, or will not, step out of our familiar and largely self-decided assumptions and expectations.

And so, he turns away, and moves on toward a more fruitful field, in which he will plant his tiny seeds of insight. They are like little gleaming pebbles, dropped below the surface of a shallow stream. Unless we notice their glimmering nearness, and reach down to pick them up, they will only tantalize our curiosity. And yet, they 
won’t amount to anything of value until we collect them, and carry them with us. For these are the small smooth stones that have the power to knock down what gets in the way of God’s ongoing mission ~ as we learn from David’s encounter with the Philistine giant, Goliath.

Therefore, if —like some of our fellow villagers— we doubt him… if we hesitate to accept his teaching and overlook what he does, because we discount its apparently human source… we may miss the opportunity to enter, and live into, the beckoning mystery of God’s unfolding Kingdom. This is the Kingdom that is manifest in him, through what he says, and in what he does.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 8, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, titled Jesus Rejected in the Synagogue at Nazareth.

The Beauty of a Gospel Challenge

 

 

Once again, I have gone back to a favorite source for helping us engage in imaginative reflection, through which we might —at least for a moment— feel like we were there, within the story. Through active imagination, we might sense that what happened then and there, can also somehow happen to us now.

James Tissot, who had first been a fashionable society painter, found that his life was turned around by the Jesus story, and then by Jesus himself. And so, he dedicated a good part of the rest of his life to helping us envision what we hear and read in the Gospels. These two images beautifully portray the pivotal moments in two stories ~ or, a story within a story, from Mark’s Gospel.

Look at Jesus walking through a narrow street, heading toward the home of Jairus. A woman raises her hand toward Jesus, in the bustle of a crowd that closely surrounds him. She reaches just to touch the edge of his robe. She wants, as we might put it, a sacrament of his presence.

Who among us has never felt isolated, different from others and, as a result, cut off from them in one way or another? Who has not imagined or experienced social ostracism, seemingly perpetrated by others because we are not like them? Whether rightly or not, we then feel unfit to be with those others, whose company we desire and whose fellowship we hope for. What might change this dynamic? What might transform all these broken or non-existent relationships, which could be so important to us?

Or, look at Jesus, gently reaching down to touch and grasp a girl, whose death has led to vigorous outward mourning. Agonized relatives, and concerned friends, are right at hand, or lurk in the shadows. They want, or at least hope for, a sacrament of Jesus’ presence.

Who among us has never experienced the demise of some aspect of our lives? Who among us has never had a failed dream, a blown opportunity, a bottomed-out investment, whether of ideas and emotions, or of money and time? However these kinds of events may have impacted us, what might help move us forward, and lead us to recover our sense of confidence and efficacy? What might transform how we look at everything, even if our outward circumstances don’t change right away?

Mark’s two stories, about Jairus’ daughter and the woman with an infirmity, are stories about us, just as much as they are about other people from long ago, in faraway place. And they are also stories about how God’s Spirit, through Jesus, can transform us and our lives.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 1, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The two paintings above are by James Tissot; they are titled: The Daughter of Jairus, and The Woman With an Issue of Blood (late 19th century).

The Beauty of Coming to Ourselves

 

In his novel, The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy offers an interesting observation, prompted by the experience of hurricanes. It recurs as a theme in his later writing. Here is how one observer captures it:

At one point, Will (the main character) recalls a date with a girl… The date is a disaster until the two are caught in a hurricane. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case. Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” Percy writes. The hurricane, it turns out, saved the day: “The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and charged up with value…”

In [another book, Percy] asks, “Why do people often feel so bad in good environments, that they prefer bad environments? . . . Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”

This has come to be called Walker Percy’s ‘hurricane theory.’ In a moment of crisis, ‘we come to ourselves,’ and discover our connection with others. Percy’s theory helps me address a lingering question, prompted by Mark’s story about a storm on the Sea of Galilee: why did Jesus go to sleep in the boat? I love the way that Sadao Watanabe so beautifully portrays the scene. Notice how he depicts Jesus’ arm, casually resting upon the edge of the boat, with his eyes peacefully closed, while the disciples look about in alarm.

Jesus —in this image— seems to know what they have not discovered: that he rests in the Father’s hands, as do they. And so, when he says, “Peace! Be still,” he may also be speaking to them, as he clearly is to the storm. In this storm, for at least a moment, they come to themselves.

 

This post is adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 24, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image of Jesus and the Disciples in the Boat is by Sadao Watanabe (1981). The observation about Percy’s ‘Hurricane Theory,’ is by Brett Yates, as quoted by Michael Potemra.

The Beauty of Kingdom Potential

 

What has Jim Janknegt depicted with his painting? Right away, we can see that he portrays the Kingdom mustard seed parable in Mark’s Gospel. With his focus on this parable, we should remember that the Gospels include two kinds of mustard seed teaching. One is in Jesus’ parable ~ about the huge potential of what God can do with apparently small bits of the Kingdom. Jesus’ other teaching is about the tremendous potential of what we might accomplish through personal believing, especially given how personal faith can otherwise be deficient or defective.

To help recognize this difference, between Jesus’ Kingdom parable and his other teaching referring to the size of our personal believing, consider what we see in Janknegt’s painting. In the foreground we see things we usually think of as being big ~ like big cities, their large buildings and the businesses they house. Dwarfing them is a great tree, which may represent the ‘Tree of Life.’ Like the small mustard seed, the great tree that it becomes represents what the Spirit is doing with God’s Kingdom.

Notice the community for which the great tree provides a place of habitation ~ a community characterized by many birds, including both a beautiful peacock and a spoonbill, an owl and a descending dove. In traditional mythology, birds represent communication between the realm of the sky and the realm of the land, or between the heavenly sphere and that of the earth. The Tree of Life provides a context for this communication, and for the Kingdom community that God’s Spirit nurtures between the two.

If we ever worry or despair about the smallness of our faith, we should remember Jesus’ emphasis upon the huge potential of God’s Kingdom power. The seed of this Kingdom potential is planted within us at our Baptism.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, June 17, 208, which can be accessed by clicking here. Jim Janknegt’s painting, Worlds Smallest Seed, is used here with his permission.