Jesus (& Mary Magdalen) Rejects the American Work Ethic (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42. 

This week’s Gospel reading is fun. It’s about work and relaxation. It contains Good News for workers that contrasts sharply with the attitude of their employers.

The reading has Jesus and his closest companion, Mary Magdalen, exemplifying the Master’s habitual attitude towards work which is exactly what American capitalists condemn as laziness. Its take-away: forget Martha’s overwork. Instead, be more like Jester Jesus and Lazy Mary.

I’ll explain that in a minute. But before I do, let me offer an amusing reminder of our culture’s deification of work. It came a couple weeks ago in a Fox News interview with Donald Luskin, the CEO of Trend Macrolytics, a prominent Wall Street consulting firm. As such, it’s his job to forecast market trends and offer stock market advice to institutional investors. I imagine he spends his day making phone calls, having three-martini luncheon meetings with clients, or maybe advising them on the golf course or in a luxury suite at the local baseball stadium. For him, that’s work. It ultimately ends in pressing computer keys to implement his momentous decisions to “buy” or “sell.” Whew!

In any case, Luskin was asked on Fox about a recent report showing that retirement is becoming a thing of the past. In fact, nearly one in four Americans will never have enough money to quit the daily grind. When asked if he found the trend worrisome, Luskin said it didn’t concern him personally. On the contrary, and employing theological language, the man actually called it a “blessing” and a “miracle” that people have been relieved of the burden of retirement that workers had to endure in less fortunate times.

He said:

“It doesn’t worry me personally. I guess I’m one of those people who plans never to retire. I mean, I’ve got to tell you, what do people do when they retire? You know, how do you spend a day? I mean, is bowling that interesting? Is fishing that interesting? I mean, I happen to love my work. Why do I want to stop it? You know, it’s not like it hurts. Why would I stop it? This is great. What a great country where we have the opportunity to keep working. What a miracle where our lives are long enough and we’re healthy enough and mentally alert enough, so we don’t have to retire like generations before us. This is a great blessing. You should embrace it.”

Such words need very little comment. What do retired people do? Are you serious? How about: what you always wanted to do but couldn’t while working two or three meaningless jobs involving physical activity, danger, heavy lifting or boring repetitious tasks for clueless employers like Luskin himself. How about: volunteering for Habitat, working for Marianne Williamson‘s campaign (with its commitment to changed political consciousness); how about spending time with your spouse and grandchildren? How about traveling, reading, writing poetry, listening to or playing music, making love, taking naps, meditating, playing checkers or chess, hiking, learning a new skill, painting – and yes, bowling or fishing.

What Luskin reflects is our entire culture that locates “real life” in the shop or market place. In fact, we’re taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of “American” culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our European sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off fewer than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations – 16 ½ weeks per year.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it’s too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ teachings about how we should spend our days.

Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural even about work. We shouldn’t forget that. As Deepak Chopra points out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus’ wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. He actually does! Read it for yourself.

And did you notice the description of the “Just Person” in today’s responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.

But how about, “They lend not money at usury?” Could anything be further from the work Mr. Luskin idealizes? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. [What if all Christians (and Jews) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.]

More to the day’s point: the world would also be different – our lives would not be the same – if we acted like Mary instead of Martha.

The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives – as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha’s sister “choses the better part” like a contemplative “religious” eschewing “the world of work” and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.

I used to think that too – until I read Un Tal Jesus (“A Certain Jesus”) written by Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother, Jose Ignacio. (The book has been translated into English under the title Just Jesus.) The authors are Cuban and now live in Nicaragua. Maria is a former nun; Jose Ignacio, a former priest.

Together the Lopez-Vigils created a series of radio programs broadcast all over Latin America. The shows dramatized the four gospels and presented a very human Jesus – the one who emerges from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus.

In Un Tal Jesus, Jesus is black, has a winning smile, and a very down-to-earth sense of humor. (The photo at the top of this blog entry shows Jesus as depicted in the Lopez-Vigil’s book.) The human Jesus portrayed in that radio series scandalized many and inspired even more throughout the Latin world and beyond.

As the Lopez-Vigils envision it, today’s episode takes place in a Bethany tavern owned by Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. It’s a place of eating, drinking and lodging for travelers. It’s a place of laughter, joking, over-eating and drunkenness. And Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.

Passover is approaching, and the inn is full of pilgrims. It’s steamy, noisy, and loud. Martha is on the job, waiting on tables and controlling the rest of the staff. Meanwhile Mary (whom scholars increasingly identify with Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female companion) is distracted by conversation with Jesus, who is bantering with his friends.

And what are they talking about? Religion? God? Spirituality? No, they’re joking. Jesus is posing riddle after riddle. And Mary finds it completely entertaining. In part, their dialog goes like this:

Jesus: What’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!

Well, Mary and Jesus might have found that sort of patter entertaining, but Martha did not. She’s in charge of the inn and is worried about her guests waiting impatiently for their food while bread is burning in the oven. So, she makes her complaint to Jesus: “Stop your chatter and let my sister do her job!” It’s then that Jesus makes that remark about Mary’s choosing the better part. She’s chosen socializing and play over work.

Does that scandalize you – Jesus distancing himself from work? Well, it seems completely consistent with what I said about Jesus earlier. It coincides with his general approach to work, money, profit, saving, and anxiety about the future.

What difference would it make in our own lives if we accepted that message: socializing, community, and fun are more important than the work people like Donald Luskin would have us devote our entire lives to?

What difference would it make in our culture if, in a context of underpaid labor and long hours on the job we elected candidates advocating “spreading the work around,” spreading the money around, shortening the work week, and affording us more time with friends and family, eating, drinking, joking, and playing?

That’s the message of today’s Gospel reading: we need more free time, more vacations, and assured dignified retirement.

Wake up, Mr. Luskin! Wake up, American workers: You have nothing to lose but your chains.

P.S. Here’s the actual interview with Donald Luskin along with commentary by TYT‘s John Iadarola

Re-Firement: Five Years On . . .

Cincinnatus_in_retirement

Just this morning I had a conversation about retirement with a neighbor who is a very good friend of mine. “How’s retirement going for you?” he asked. “A lot better,” I answered.

And It has.

Fact is: up until recently, I’ve had a hard time finding my legs in this new phase of my life. With my family not exactly on board with my decision to leave teaching, I’ve experienced some discomfort and second-guessing on my part.

And then too there’s the element that since retiring (five years ago), I haven’t really left the classroom. I taught in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica for several semesters. And then I did some filling-in for a couple of terms at Berea College on behalf of a colleague who had fallen ill. Last year at this time I taught a course there called “Poverty and Social Justice.” (And that was nice, since it brought my number of years teaching at Berea to exactly 40.)

The bottom line is that since my retirement, I’ve been out of the saddle for only two semesters – other than my time spent traveling.

And the traveling has been extensive. I’ve been all over the map – to Mexico (two summers), Cuba (three weeks), India (five months), South Africa (six months), and Italy (twice for three weeks at a time) – and then those months in Costa Rica I mentioned.

It was in South Africa that I started my blog. And that’s been fun – hundreds of entries published. A hundred and twenty-nine of them have appeared in OpEdNews – an alternative on-line news source I recommend to everyone.  And over the past year or so some of those pieces have crept into the Lexington Herald-Leader about every four to six weeks.

In India I discovered yoga, weight lifting and Vipassana meditation. (See my reflections on Vipassana here.)  Yes, I had been meditating twice a day since 1998.  But the method I learned in India challenged so much of what I had been doing – moved it to a deeper level. And that started me on the road to rethinking everything about the spirituality and theology I’ve developed over my 75 years of life.

The works of Ken Wilber, A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson, and Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God have all played a part in that. Walsch’s three-volume work has been especially influential; I’m finishing its close reading for the second time. In many ways it has turned my world upside down.  It has surprised me at some turns, confirmed what I’ve long believed at others, and simply evoked my denial-reflex at still others. In every case Conversations with God has caused me to wrestle with questions I thought long since resolved. Very exciting!

My latest project has been writing a study-guide for Pope Francis’ new encyclical. The 150 page book will be ready for distribution in about two weeks. That’s exciting for me since my approach to Laudato Si’ is to understand it in the context of Latin American history and liberation theology. Laudato Si’ is terrific, as is Evangelii Gaudium. Francis is asking us, I’m arguing, to re-think not only climate change, but capitalism, American history, theology, and understandings of church.

Everything I’ve just mentioned has led me to become more comfortable with retirement. At times lately I find myself thinking that life for me has turned more interesting, engaging and productive than ever before in its new stage.

And I don’t think that’s true only for me.  I mean: what about you? Don’t you think that these are especially exciting, extraordinarily creative, and unusually challenging times? As I see them, they are nearly as exciting and promising as the 1960s, which I was so blessed to live through.

There’s something going on in the world. The positive forces of evolution are aligning on one side and becoming not only more vociferous, but are finding more receptive audiences everywhere. And by the same token, the less-evolved opponents of those positive forces are engaged in a death-struggle they are bound eventually to lose.

More about that next time . . .

What Is Retirement (and Life) for Anyway?

retirement

Last night Peggy and I had some dear friends over for drinks and conversation. Our friends retired two years ago – about a year after I did so myself. So more or less naturally, our conversation turned to retirement and its ups and downs – and to Florida and warmer climes.

The ups of retirement are obvious. They include not having to show up at the office any more. They entail being free each day to decide what to do. Travel, movies, hobbies like golf and tennis can be pursued freely in retirement. There’s more time to spend with children and grandchildren. And there’s space to think, write, study and pray. All of that is what people dream about doing in their golden years.

And so far, even though Peggy has not yet retired (and probably won’t for 3 or 4 years), my first years of retirement have been filled to overflowing with more of the expected ups than I can count. I’ve spent parts of 3 semesters in Costa Rica teaching in a Latin American Studies Program that was completely enjoyable and fun. The program served North American students from a large number of Christian colleges and universities. It was their “term abroad.” And it introduced them to the realities of the underdeveloped world, taking them to impoverished parts of Costa Rica, living with local families in Nicaragua and investigating first-hand the successes and shortcomings of socialist revolution in Cuba.

My part in the program was to introduce our Evangelical (and Republican) students to liberation theology. On the whole, the students were surprisingly open and receptive. And though I’ve always loved teaching, I’ve never found it as enjoyable as in Costa Rica.

Then last spring Peggy and I used her sabbatical to spend five months in Cape Town, South Africa – or, as they say, in the heart of “whitest Africa.” We were completely captivated by Cape Town which we agreed is the most beautiful city we’ve ever seen. We loved Table Mountain and the beautiful sea vistas everywhere we traveled. We also learned a great deal in South Africa, not only about politics and history, but about African spirituality and the powerful energy of rock formations subtly transformed by the San and Koi-Koi Peoples to track the movements of the heavens.

We traveled South Africa’s “Wine Route” and visited game parks with our grandchildren and their parents. I played golf with my son Brendan on a few of South Africa’s best courses. We passed a day on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 17 of his 28 years of punishment in South African jails. We also spent weeks with Ann Hope and Sally Timmel, colleagues of Steve Biko with a life-long commitment to activism and the struggle against apartheid. We compared notes with them about common experiences, shared friendships, theology and spirituality. What a privilege that was!

With South Africa behind us, we’re now looking forward to five months in India. Can you imagine that? My Peggy has won her second Fulbright Fellowship (the other having brought us to Zimbabwe for a year back in ’97-’98). During this Fulbright term, Peggy will be teaching in Mysore. This will be our second trip to India. In 2004 we attended the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

This time we’ll be living in India with our daughter Maggie, our son-in-law, Kerry, and their three small children, Eva (4), Oscar (2), and Orlando (10 months). Kerry is taking his own sabbatical from his work in finance. So this will be an extraordinary opportunity not only to learn from a deeply spiritual culture, but to bond deeply with our grandchildren.

And then there’s this blog. It’s been unexpectedly fulfilling. I’ve never written as much as I have over these past three years, not only on my blog site, but on OpEdNews and in our local newspaper. Writing a homily each week has kept me grappling with my life-long commitment to spirituality, faith and theology. It’s all helped me think more clearly about life and its purpose.

Actually I’ve thought of the blog as a vehicle for reclaiming the formal priesthood I left more than 36 years ago – as has my involvement in the planning committee of a local Ecumenical Table Fellowship. I’ve seen this new work as a demonstration of the fact that Christian faith isn’t synonymous with fundamentalism. Approaching faith historically and contextually can recover the authentic teaching of Yeshua the Nazarene (the opposite of fundamentalism) and engage and animate radicals and progressives in the process.

How are those for retirement ups? At some level, I couldn’t ask for more.

But then there have been unexpected downs. With retirement comes a loss of identity. With my particular work as a college teacher, I had one of the best jobs I could think of. Imagine getting paid to read, study, write, and travel – all so that you might have hours of interesting conversations with young people?

Yes there was drudgery involved – papers to grade, committees, endless meetings, “administrivia.” But there was no heavy lifting. And there were those long vacations – three weeks at Christmas, three months in the summer, and mid-term breaks fall and spring. The “pay” for teaching went way beyond a monthly check. It involved those conversations I mentioned, but also the resulting life-long friendships, “turning on” students to life’s big questions, seeing that “light” go on, and watching students take their places as agents of transformation in the world.

Most of that (except the now-endless vacation) disappeared with retirement. And whereas previously I could walk across Berea’s campus and meet my students and former students at virtually every turn, I now find students (and myself!) largely anonymous. I miss the interactions with young people. I even have to show my identity card when I enter the Seabury Athletic Center to do my morning exercises. “Mike who. . .?”

On the one hand I find the question liberating, but also a little depressing. It means my identity is gradually slipping away. It all reminds me of the inevitable: the final slipping away, and the complete loss of identity and of any conscious trace of having been here at all. That’s not a morbid thought. It’s simply a fact. Following our deaths and within a generation or less, virtually anyone I know will disappear entirely from everyone’s memory.

And that brings me to my question: what is life for anyway? Truth is: I don’t know for sure.

And that’s where faith comes in. I’ve come to understand faith as taking a leap into what we don’t know for sure. I mean life might be just about family, travel, good food and drink, getting strokes from grateful students, breaking par or watching movies. However, I don’t think it is.

Instead, I’ve come to agree with the great mystics of all traditions – Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian. At their highest peak, all of those traditions come together on the following points:

1. There’s a spark of the divine within each of us – our deepest identity.
2. Each human being is called to live from that divine place – to actualize God’s love in the world.
3. And that’s the purpose of life.
4. Gradually, as one strives for such actualization, s/he begins to see divine presence in everything, in all of creation.

So that’s what life is about for me – seeing God everywhere and responding accordingly. That’s what retirement is about. Sixteen years ago I decided to leap in that direction. My jump has involved the daily practice of meditation, repetition of my mantram, training the senses, spiritual reading from the mystics, spiritual companionship, slowing down, and one-pointed attention – the eight-point program of Eknath Easwaran, the great meditation teacher from Kerala state in India. In retirement I finally have time to follow Easwaran’s program more wholeheartedly than ever.

None of this excludes the other activities I’ve mentioned. Peggy and I will still travel, and spend time with our children and grandchildren. I’ll still hack around on the golf course, study, write, and give the occasional class. And I’ll continue learning to grapple with and mostly enjoy my anonymity and nobody-ness.

But meditation and its allied disciplines puts all those things in perspective. And it gets me ready for my next incarnation. [Oh yes, I’ve come to agree with the mystics (including Yeshua) that life won’t end for me or anyone else when those last memories fade . . . .]

Do you agree?

ReFirement Not Retirement

I have a friend who like me walked away from his job in 2010. Here in Kentucky, where people talk about retirement as being “retarred,” my friend likes to refer to himself as “retarded.” Despite its political incorrectness, his line usually draws a laugh or at least a smile.

Last week when he was speaking at Berea College, the great spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox, had a better line. He said the adjective “retired” should itself be retired. It should be replaced, Fox said, with the word “refired.” Of course, he meant that the “third age” should not be characterized by withdrawal from the struggle for peace and justice. Rather it should represent a time for refocusing, re-evaluating and re-committing.

Matthew’s redefinition reminded me of another friend of mine (also a former priest and one of my colleagues in the Columban ordination class of 1966). A few years ago when we were both attending a reunion of former members of the Society of St. Columban, I had made a couple of public remarks – I forget about what. Afterwards my classmate said, “I can see you still have ‘the fire;’ I just don’t feel it anymore.” And yet as I spoke with him and his wife, it was clear to me that they both had as much “fire” as I did. They were both engaged, reading, thinking, discussing, and trying to be the change we’d all like to see in the world and in the church. They were refired but didn’t see it.

The fire in their bellies and in mine could be called “enthusiasm” in its etymological sense. The word comes from the Greek phrase “en Theos” – being “in God.”  A person who lives “on fire” lives in God; she or he is enthusiastic. She or he recognizes the spark of the divine in herself, in others, and in all of creation. As a result, she lives accordingly. To do so as never before is my refirement aspiration.

So I’m going to stop thinking of myself as retired. Instead I’m now thinking in terms refirement. It’s a time when as never before I’m free to go where the spirit leads me. Doing this blog is part of it. So is being faithful to the daily practice of meditation which by definition is immersion en Theos. Through both the blog and meditation I’m trying do my small part to rescue Jesus’ radical vision of a world with room for everyone (he called it the Kingdom of God).

Retirement Notes II

I had a revealing dream last night. It woke me up with a start and gave me the clearest feeling that I’ve got to finally grow up! There I was 72 years of age and trying out for the basketball team at the local high school all three of our children attended years ago.

Now, in “real life” (as they say), I used to be a pretty good basketball player. And in my dream, I was thinking that I still was, even though I was having trouble making my jump shot.

Then the moment of truth came. The coach was selecting the starting five. I was sure I’d be picked. To my surprise, I wasn’t. Next he started calling out names to fill out the roster. You guessed it; my name wasn’t called. So there I was at 72 left on the bench all alone and watching very inept, out-of-shape high schoolers taking “my place.”

All of a sudden I found myself wearing a suit and tie instead of my basketball stuff. Now, I hardly ever wear a suit. And one of the next times I do, I’ll probably be laid out in a coffin. Hmm.

I think the dream depicted my feelings about retirement – and perhaps life’s approaching end. I feel I’ve been told in several different and important (to me) venues that I’m not really wanted the way I used to be, and that the world can get along quite well without me.

Well, duh!

But even if it’s obvious, I’m the sort that has a hard time stomaching the message and accepting the gift of retirement and “declining years” with the grace, gratitude, and relief most people associate with leaving formal employment behind.

It’s what I have to work on. I suspect there’s a lot of “Catholic guilt” lurking somewhere here. And there’s a whole lot of “letting go” that I’ll have to work through. I’ll be reflecting on such issues here over the coming weeks.

Retirement Reflections: Lots of Travel So Far …

I turned 72 the other day. I’ve been officially “retired” for about 26 months. It’s time to assess my new status. I’ll try to do that in a series of postings on retirement. No doubt there are few who will care. And why should they? No, I don’t expect that many will read these postings.  I’m thinking of them more or less as therapy for me.

To begin with, I can’t tell you how many times friends and former colleagues have asked me “. . . and how do you like retirement?” The lilt of their question and the look on their faces suggests that they expect me to say “It’s been terrific. I’ve never been happier.”

However, it’s been more complicated than that. For one thing, I don’t think my retirement really began till about two months ago. That’s because since my end-of-career party in May of 2010 I’ve been teaching off and on in Costa Rica – in a Latin American Studies Program. Even apart from that, my bride of 36 years, Peggy, and I have been traveling almost non-stop. So I feel the jury’s still out on my particular retirement – at least if you think of it as kicking back, slowing down and withdrawing from the fray.

Let me get more specific. Travel-wise, here’s the way I’ve been spending my time for the past 26 months:

  • Three eight-week stints in Costa Rica teaching in a Latin American Studies program = 6 months
  • Five months in South Africa accompanying Peggy on her sabbatical in Cape Town.
  • Ten weeks with Peggy in Mexico while she researched her forthcoming book.
  • Three weeks in Costa Rica for Christmas with our entire immediate family (2011)
  • Two weeks with our daughter Maggie’s family on a Mexico vacation (2010)
  • Two weeks with Maggie’s family on a Mexico vacation (2011)
  • Five day visit with our eldest son, Brendan in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where he’s stationed in the U.S. Embassy (2011)
  • Four visits with Maggie in her home in Westport, CT = 2 ½ months total
  • Three visits with our youngest son, Patrick in New Orleans where he taught first grade in the Teach for America program = 1 week total
  • Two summers in Canadian Lakes, MI – in the lake cottage we purchased from the estate of Peggy’s recently deceased father = 3 months.

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: about 21.25 of 26 months or well more than the majority of my first two years + of retirement has been spent on the road.

I’m feeling it’s about time to settle down and find out what leaving employment behind is really like.

But so far It hasn’t been all travel. At the beginning, I set some definite goals for myself that covered areas of my life I wanted to grow in. Looking back, I can see that I’ve met some of those goals. Others . . . not so much. . . .  More about that in my next retirement posting.