Failing with High Ideals
October 5, 2003
There are two ways to ruin your life, and they pull in different directions. Unless we aim high, unless we strive for what is best, it is unlikely that our life will amount to very much, or that we will really make any difference in the lives of others. If we are going to live well then, we must live with high ideals. But high ideals are not in themselves the whole picture. We must also have hope in times of failure. Because all of us, at one time or another, will fail. We will all make mistakes. Some of us will make disastrous ones. In those moments, our future hangs upon our ability to find hope, to rally our courage and begin again.
Therefore, unless we want to ruin our lives, we need to develop two rather distinct ways of living: striving for high ideals and resolving to find hope in times of failure. Both of these abilities are important for us to embrace as Christians. Jesus in today’s gospel centers on marriage as a prime example of the call to a high ideal. Even in a society where the divorce rate is 50%, we as a community continue to follow Jesus’ teaching and believe that a life long commitment in marriage is possible. Even though our society denigrates the value of sexuality, we continue to hold that marriage is a sacred union, a life-giving relationship, not only for husband and wife, but for the family and the community that surrounds them and witnesses their faithfulness.
We know that marriage is founded on love, but we also know that marriage is much more than love. Marriage entails more than physical attraction. Sam Levinson, the Jewish humorist, says, “Love at first sight is easy to explain. It’s when people have been looking at one another for 40 years that love becomes a miracle.” We are a community that believes in that miracle. We believe that life-long growth and faithfulness are possible. Yet to reach that possibility, the high ideals of patience and forgiveness and sacrifice must be embraced. We are proud to recognize that there are people here this morning, people that we know in our family and friends who have taken on those high ideals and have made them real.
Marriage then, calls us to live with high ideals. But this is not the whole story. We also know that in this assembly this morning there are those who have tried to live those high ideals and failed. For them, nothing is more important than to find hope in such failure. Our call is to assist them in finding that hope. Our role is to be there for those who have failed in marriage and remind them that even though divorce seems like a death blow, there can and will be life again, and love again, and perhaps even another marriage in which to live the high ideals of lifelong fidelity and love.
We need to be a community that assures those whose marriages fail that God does not reject them, nor does the church excommunicate them, and that there are ways in which we can pastorally resolve a second marriage, and invite them to full Eucharistic fellowship. Marriage then, is a clear example of how we as a Catholic community hold to the highest ideals and are still willing to support one another to find hope in times of failure.
But this dual focus of high ideals and hope in failure is not simply limited to marriage. It applies to many aspects of our life. We are right to set high ideals for our children, to lead them to lives of honesty and responsibility; to persuade them that they can live full lives without dependence on alcohol and drugs. We should have no hesitation to place those high ideals before them. But when they fail, our place is to be at their side, giving them our love and helping them to find hope.
We should have no hesitation to set high ideals for ourselves, to discover our talents and our abilities, to identify the areas where we need to grow. We should not fear to believe that we can be a more assertive, more independent person. We can strive to be someone who is more humble, more caring, less judgmental. We can aim for those high ideals. But when we fail, we must learn from our experience and begin again.
Our faith in Jesus Christ gives us a deep perspective on both ideals and failures. Christians believe in high ideals, because we know that God has created us good and we have the dignity of God’s own sons and daughters. Therefore, we can strive for all that God calls us to be. Yet we as Christians also understand the cross of Christ. The cross tells us that there is always hope, even in our darkest moments, even in our deepest failures. We believe that the final word is not death but life. So let us aim high. Let us never think that failure eliminates hope. Let us strive to excel, but never despair in our disappointments. Let us leap for the stars, always believing that if we fall, God will be there to catch us.
Relating to All God Has Made
October 4, 2009
Today’s first reading is a creation story. It comes from the second chapter of the book of Genesis. Usually when we listen to creation stories, we look backwards. We try to imagine how things were at the beginning of history, to picture how God began to set all things into place. While we are looking backwards, Christians sometimes engage the scientific community to see if we can square our belief in God as creator with the Big Bang theory or the teaching of evolution.
Now these discussions about the beginning of time are valuable and important. But it is clear that today’s first reading does not primarily look backwards. It is not so much about what happened at the beginning of creation as what is happening now. Its focus is not God’s past action, but our present relationships. The tip-off comes at the end of the passage. After the man finds a suitable partner in woman, the author says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
The focus of this story, then, is God’s presence in our relationships. It is less concerned with the Garden of Eden and more concerned with the sanctity of marriage. It is less concerned with the seven days of creation and more concerned with how we can discern God’s presence in our world. Because we believe that God is creator, we also believe that all created things can speak to us about God. The world around us, the things which are most valuable to us, the goodness within us, all tell us something of the God who made them.
A second grade class was preparing for their confirmation and first communion, and the children were taking this preparation very seriously. They were working with their parents to put together scrapbooks and to do works of service. They were paying particular attention whenever they would get together with their teacher for faith formation. One day when they gathered together, the teacher said, “Today’s lesson is very important. Here’s how I’d like to begin. I want to ask you a question. What is small, gray or brown, furry with a big tail, lives in the trees, and gathers nuts to bury in the ground?” There was silence in the room. Finally a little girl raised her hand and said, “Teacher, I know that the answer is ‘Jesus,’ but it seems an awful lot like a squirrel to me.”
That little girl, in her own way, got it right. Anything in creation can point us to Jesus and through Jesus to God. Because God made all things, then all things have something to tell us about God. Husbands and wives should see one another as God’s gift. Their marriage, at its best, can speak deeply about God’s love and commitment. All of us should see in our friends, in the joy and unity they provide, a sign of the God who knew that it was not good for us to be alone. We come closest to understanding the love of God when we see unity, commitment, and love in one another—in our spouses, in our children, in our parents, and in our friends. That is why this story of creation tells us that a relationship between two people is the ultimate fulfillment of life.
But there’s more to the story. Even though a relationship between two people is the summit of life, the story tells us that God also created the animals of the field and the birds of the air in an attempt to provide partnership and help to the human person. Even though these creatures of God are not given the same value as humans, the text still tells us that they are meant to show us God’s presence and to be in partnership with us in life. This truth was crystallized in the Christian tradition by Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast is today. Francis saw himself in relationship with all of creation. He spoke of “sister cow” and “brother wolf,” of “sister moon” and “brother sun.” Francis saw all of creation as a family, a family of which he was a part.
We would do well today, to see the world through Francis’ eyes, recognizing that all material world is not so much stuff that we can do with as we wish, but rather a part of us. A squirrel can lead us to Jesus. A marriage can reveal the love of God. Our belief in creation does not ask us to look back. It asks us to look around, to see in the world around us a family to which we belong, to see ourselves in relationship with everything that God has made.
The Witness of Marriage
October 7, 2012
A husband and wife who had been married quite a number of years were having a quick breakfast. As they were cleaning up the wife said to her husband, “I bet you don’t remember what today is”. Put off and a bit insulted he said, “Of course, honey, I remember.” He then gathered up his things quickly and left for work. About ten o’clock, a dozen red roses arrived at the house. At noon a box of the wife’s favorite chocolates was delivered. That was followed at three o’clock by a new dress from one of her favorite boutiques. The woman was very excited and could not wait for her husband to come home. When he entered, she ran up to him, gave him a hug and said, “Thank you so much! First the roses, then the chocolates, then the dress! I never had a better Groundhog’s Day!”
A wedding is different than a marriage. A wedding is an intense celebration that takes months to plan. A marriage is a commitment of faithfulness that takes years to fulfill. A wedding is about the music, the dress, the gifts, the parties. A marriage is about compromise, forgiveness, listening, and remembering your anniversary. A wedding is a challenge but one that most people can pull off. A marriage is the difficult work of a lifetime.
This is why Jesus’ words are so important. He tells his disciples that from the beginning of creation God had a plan and a purpose for marriage. That purpose was not simply for the mutual love of a man and woman. It was not simply to create a home where children could thrive. Marriage was meant to be a witness, a witness to others.
This is another way that a wedding differs from a marriage: A wedding is for the couple. A marriage is for others. The very fact that marriage is difficult increases its power as a witness. When any of us see a couple who year after year work together, changing and adapting, patiently listening to and respecting one another, that is a witness to us that we might be capable of changing and adapting. Their marriage calls us to recognize the importance of others in our lives and strengthen our own relationships with them. When we see a couple who time and again forgive one another so that they can put the past behind them and begin to love in a new way, that is a witness to us that we, too, can forgive and keep some our relationships alive. We believe in the power of that witness. Marriage is difficult. But precisely because it is difficult, it is able to be a witness to others of faithfulness, patience, and forgiveness.
This is why another aspect of the gospel is most important. Jesus says, “Let no one separate what God has joined.” We believe that God has joined a man and a woman in marriage. Therefore, the man and the woman are not alone. The God who has joined them is with them to give them the strength to let their love continue.
Now, of course, not all marriages do continue. When they fail, none of us should make any judgments. It is only the people within the marriage who understand what is possible and what is not. But when marriages do continue, when the vows are lived out over a lifetime, that relationship becomes a witness to everyone else.
Now there clearly are no husbands and wives who are perfect witnesses. You might be able to pull off a perfect wedding. But pulling off a perfect marriage is next to impossible. There are always flaws and mistakes, ways in which the couple needs to adjust and start over again. But this is what is to be expected. This is why marriage can be such a strong witness to the world. This is why God has promised to be with husbands and wives all the days of their lives.
Marriage, Divorce, and Children
October 4, 2015
Jewish rabbis often begin their interpretation of the scriptures with a question. I would like to borrow their method to understand today’s gospel. Here is the question I would pose: Why does today’s gospel have two scenes? There is a first scene in which Jesus discusses with the Pharisees the issues of marriage and divorce, and it is followed by another scene in which Jesus blesses children. At first, these scenes do not seem to have much to do with one another. But I would like to suggest an approach that makes them work together.
Jesus held a very high view of marriage. Other rabbis would permit divorce under certain circumstances, but Jesus did not. To him, the commitment made by two people for a lifelong relationship of love reflected God’s intention from the beginning of creation: The two were to become one flesh. This is a high and noble ideal. I am sure that many of you here today who are living marriage would be quick to add: It might be a high ideal, but it is often not very pretty. Every marriage includes misunderstandings, arguments, mistakes, and hurts. Marriage is a high road, but it is often a rough road. Despite all its blessings, marriage requires communication, patience, and sacrifice. In light of this, Jesus asserts that the married life is worth living, that it is a holy union reflecting the very love of God. In the first scene of today’s gospel Jesus calls those who enter into the marriage life to persevere in a lifelong and faithful union.
What about the second scene when Jesus blesses the children? Children in this scene do not represent innocence or purity. Children in the ancient world were the marginalized, the broken, the fragile who had to depend on others for survival. When Jesus blesses and welcomes the children, Jesus is blessing and welcoming the weak and the broken. Once we understand this, we can also understand how the two scenes in today’s gospel work together. The first presents a high ideal. The second recognizes a hard reality. The first lays out a lifelong commitment of love. The second shows us how God reacts when we are unable to live that ideal. I have dealt with hundreds of people going through divorce. I do not know of one who ended a marriage in a position of strength. They were all broken, their dreams dashed, their future uncertain. In their brokenness, they become the children who Jesus welcomes.
Jesus is not afraid to challenge us to a high ideal, to call us to a lifelong commitment of love. But when a marriage fails because of infidelity or abuse, because of incompatibility or the lack of love, Jesus is the first to reach out and welcome those who are broken.
We are called to follow Jesus’ example. We should not be afraid to hold up marriage as a valued and holy state, both in our families and in our society. But when a marriage fails, we should be the first to welcome a divorced parent, child, brother, or sister. Others may judge them. Others (like the disciples in today’s gospel) might try to keep them away. But we should echo the words of Jesus and say: Let them come to me. Do not prevent them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.