Newborn Beginning . . . after Caesar

An Advent prayer by Walter Brueggemann

The Christ Child is about to be born,

            the one promised by the angel. 

     Mary’s “fullness of time” has arrived. 

Except that the birth is scheduled

            according to the emperor:

     A decree went out that all should be numbered. 

Caesar decreed a census, everyone counted;

Caesar intended to have up-to-date data for the tax rolls;

Caesar intended to have current lists of draft eligibility;

Caesar intended taxes to support armies,

     because the emperor, in whatever era,

            is always about money and power, 

                 about power and force,      

                 about force and control, 

                        and eventually violence. 

And while we wait for the Christ Child,

     we are enthralled by the things of Caesar– 

            money . . . power . . . control,

                 and all the well-being that comes from 

                 such control, even if it requires a little violence. 

But in the midst of the decree

     will come this long-expected Jesus, 

            innocent, vulnerable,

            full of grace and truth,

            grace and not power, 

            truth and not money, 

            mercy and not control. 

We also dwell in the land of Caesar;

     we pray for the gift of your spirit, 

     that we may loosen our grip on the things of Caesar,

     that we may turn out eyes toward the baby, 

            our ears toward the newness,

            our hearts towards the gentleness,

            our power and money and control

                 toward your new governance. 

We crave the newness. 

     And while the decree of the emperor

            rings in our ears with such authority, 

     give us newness that we may start again

                 at the beginning,

     that the innocence of the baby may

                 intrude upon our ambiguity, 

     that the vulnerability of the child may

                 veto our lust for control, 

     that we may be filled with wonder 

                 and so less of anxiety,

            in the blessed name of the baby we pray. 

Walter Brueggemann. Prayers for a Privileged People. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008. 

Too Eager to Become Babylonians

The Hebrew Bible is a mirror that can help us discern if we are faithful to God’s calling as His holy people.

Marc Chagall, Isaiah

When I was younger, I would often get frustrated reading the First Testament. It was upsetting to see so much faithlessness, idolatry and sheer stubbornness. The older I get, the more I see myself. I begin to discern my own lack of faith, idolatry and yes, how I often insist that I am right when I am clearly not.

I find it interesting that in the New Testament, so many of Paul’s ethical arguments begin with baptism (i.e., Col 2:20). When Paul wants to argue that we are not living lives worthy of the Gospel, he reminds us of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.

Because of the hardness of their hearts, Judah was taken off to exile in Babylon. God had not abandoned His purposes for them but they had to learn the hard way what it meant to be His people, to be a light for the nations. But this time, they had to be taught this lesson far away from home.

They were tempted, as they had always been, to want to be like the other nations. They envied their apparent prosperity and their forms of government. Numerous times God warned them that they were better off being God’s people among the nations. Their uniqueness was part of God’s promise to them and part of God’s blessing to the nations.

It seems that even in exile they had not learned their lesson. God warned them through His prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon
(55:6–7 NRSV).

In his Lenten meditations, Walter Brueggemann writes:

“These verses are a familiar call to worship or a call to repentance, not a bad accent for Lent. . . . The imperative is around four verbs, ‘seek, call, forsake, return,’ good Lenten verbs. But this is not about generic repentance for generic sins. I believe, rather, the sin addressed concerns for Jews too eager to become Babylonians, too easy to compromise Jewish identity, Jewish faith, Jewish discipline — in order to get along in a Babylonian empire that had faith in other gods with other disciplines. The imperatives are summons to come back to an original identity, an elemental discipline, a primal faith.”

Brueggemann continues his meditation of this prophetic text and makes observations about the American church. He could have easily been writing about the Latin American or European church.

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.

“The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism . . . ‘child of the promise,’ . . . ‘to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism; overheated consumerism; easy, conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.”

Maybe we’ve missed the mark trying to be something we’re not. Maybe we’ve forgotten that our sole allegiance belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Quite possibly the narrative that most excites us and rises our blood pressure is that which appears on the nightly news and not that which we read from Genesis to Revelation.

I certainly do not have all the answers. But repentance, turning back to God and away from false identities and loyalties is always a good place to start.

A Coronavirus Prayer

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann. Virus as Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

The Giver of Bread and Fish
Walter Brueggemann

Matthew 7:7–11

We do “thoughts and prayers” easily and glibly;
we do “thoughts” without thinking;
we do “prayers” without praying.

We commit that glib act
because it is what we know how to do with an anemic god, or
because we are embarrassed to do more, or
because it is convenient and costs us nothing.

Now, however, we are driven to unthinkable thoughts, about
all that is ending, and
all this we have lost, and
all that leaves us with a sinking feeling.

Now, however, we are driven, some of us, to unutterable prayers.
We are driven to such prayer
by awareness that our usual reliabilities are gone.
We are driven to you, the abiding God
when other helpers fail and comforts flee.

Thus we are bold to pray:

We are bold to ask, because it will be given!
So we pray for the end of this virus,
for the health of the neighborhood,
for the recovery of the economy.

We are bold to seek, because you will be found!
We seek your mercy and your goodness and your generosity,
so let yourself be found by us.

We are bold to knock, because it will be opened.
We know many doors slammed shut,
doors of health and safety and comfort and fun.
Open to us the door of life, and love, and peace, and joy.

Here we are in your presence:

We ask for bread:
the bread of life,
the bread of abundance,
the bread of neighborly sharing.
Do not give us a stone or a crumb.

We ask for fish:
the fish of a good diet,
the fish of your abundant waters,
the fish that signs the gospel,
Do not give us a snake or the hiss of poison.

We dare to pray, not because we are at our wits end,
but because you are at the center of our life.
Our hope is in no other save in thee alone!
So hear, heal, save, restore!
Be the God you have promised to be. Amen.

Swept to Big Purposes

A subversive prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Hosea & Jonah by Raffaello — prophets with odd callings and vocations

Swept to Big Purposes

You call and we have a vocation.
You send and we have an identity.
You accompany us and we are swept to
big purposes: 
chosen race,
royal priesthood,
your own people,
receiving mercy.

But we, in our restlnesness, 
do not want to be so peculiar.

We would rather be like the others, 
eager for their wealth,
their wisdom,
their power. 
Eager to be like them, comfortable,

We yearn to be like the others, 
and you make us odd and peculiar and different.

Grant that we may find joy in our baptism,
freedom in our obedience,
delight in our vocation.

The same joy, freedom, and delight
that so market our Lord
whom we follow in oddness.

— Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008.

God of My Vocation

A prayer by Karl Rahner and a painting by Giovanni Bellini

“God of my Vocation” A Prayer from Gebete des Lebens
by Karl Rahner, translated by James M. Demske, S.J.

Agony in the Garden, Giovanni Bellini (1459–1465)

O God my Father, You are the God of free favors, of grace freely given. You who Your mercy to whomever You please, where and when You choose.

If it’s true that Your calling of human beings to share in Your own Life is a completely free gift, then, as I well understand, this summons is not something given to every man along with his nature. Man finds You only where You choose to be found.

And as proof that Your salvation is a gratuitous gift, every man’s road to eternal life, even though it leads to Your Infinity which is everywhere, must still take the “detour” through that definite human being who was born in Palestine under Emperor Augustus and died under the Governor, Pontius Pilate. We must take the “indirect route” leading through Your Son Who became man. Your grace comes to us not in the “always and everywhere” of Your all-pervasive Spirit, but in the “here and now” of Jesus Christ.

Your Holy Spirit blows where He will — where He will, not where I will. He is not simply always there, whenever and wherever a man wants Him to be. We must go to Him, there where He chooses to give His grace. And that’s why Your salvation is bound up with Your visible Church. That’s why Your grace comes to us in visible signs.

This is all quite clear to me, Lord, and I’m very happy about this distinctive characteristic of Your grace. It’s comforting to know that I can approach You not merely in the realm of “pure spirit” — this “pure spirit” about which the philosophers talk, when they start founding religions, has always struck me as being not spirit, but a pure ghost, anyway — but in concrete, tangible, visible signs. It warms my heart to know that I can be sure of Your power and presence in my life through the water of baptism, or by the audible word of forgiveness spoken by the priest, or in the holy bread of the altar.

For my part I want no religion or pure spirit, or pure internal experience. Basically, such a religion is a mere human invention, in which man ends up grasping only himself, instead of You. He plumbs only the shallow waters of his own spirit, and penetrates only his own poverty-stricken interior, instead of sounds the depths opened up by Your free word. And Your word tells us more of You than You could ever write in the narrow pages of Your creation.

But, my God, this arrangement of combined internal and external worship has brought something into my life which often lies heavily on my soul. You have made me Your priest, and have thus chosen me to be an earthly sign of Your grace to others. You have put Your grace into my hands, Your truth into my mouth. And although it doesn’t surprise me that men should recognized You when You come to meet them in Your only-begotten Son, or in the chaste water of baptism, or in the silent form of the host, or in the words of Scripture so simple and yet so profound, still I find it all but incredible that You desire to come into Your Kingdom in the hearts of men through me. How can people possibly recognize You in me?

Indeed You have gone so far as to give me, along with my priesthood, also all the other mans You use to convey Your loving greeting to men. You have equipped me with Your word, Your truth, Your sacraments. And You have attached these things to my ministry in such a way that they penetrate into the inmost regions of free souls only when these souls accept me, only when they take me along in the bargain.

Can people really recognize You in me? Or can they at least grasp the fact that You have sent me as the ambassador of Your truth, the bearer of Your mercy? When this question occurs to me, it seems that Your Gospel of joy and for my brethren is to me, the messenger, only a crushing burden.

I realize that You have sent me, that I am Your messenger — maybe a very pitiful one, but for all that still Your messenger, a man sent by You and stamped with Your ineffaceable seal. Your truth does not become false just because I preach it, even though I too am a sinful man, to whom the dictum can be applied: omnis homo mendax, “every man is a liar.”

Your grace remains pure, even when it is dispensed through my hands. Your Gospel is still the good tidings of great joy, even when it’s not particularly noticeable that my soul is exulting in God my Savior. And Your light continues to shine forth, changing the dark death-shadows of our earth into the brilliant noonday of Your grace, even when this light has to find its way to human beings through the cracked and dusty panes of my tiny lantern.

I know, Lord, that as a priest of Your true Church, I should not let the sense of my vocation, and the courage to preach Your Gospel in season and out of season, depend on the consciousness of my own personal worth. Your priest does not approach people as a revivalist or an enthusiast, not as a purveyor of mystic wisdom or gnostic or Pentecostal prophet, or whatever else such persons may call themselves. These can communicate to others no more of You than they have themselves. But as a priest, I come as Your legate, as a messenger sent by Your Son, our Lord. And that is at the same time less and more, a thousand times more than anything else.

But, O God of my calling, it would be so much easier if I could just deliver Your message and then, when Your work is done, go back to living my own life. Then the burden of being Your messenger would be no heavier than that of any other messenger or administrator who does his job and is done with it. But Your charge to me, Your commission itself has become my very life. It ruthlessly claims all my energies for itself, it lives from my own life.

As Your messenger, I can live my own personal life only by passing on Your word. I am Your messenger and nothing more. Your lamp — excuse me for being so bold, Lord — burns with the oil of my life. In Your service there are no office hours after which a man can closeup show and be his own master again. I can never forget that I am Your servant and go back to being a mere “private citizen.”

Truly it’s an unspeakable honor and privilege to be able to serve You with all one’s energy. I must thank You that You have turned my life to Your service, that I have no other “profession” that conveying the message of Your salvation. I must be eternally grateful that, in my life, profession and devotion are completely identical — there is no distinction between what I do out of duty and what I do out of love.

And yet, if it were only possible in Your service, as in every other, to separate official business from one’s private life! How much easier it would be! And I don’t say this because I would prefer to give You only a few hours’ service a day, and spend more time communicating to others my own religious experiences and inspirations, setting them on fire with my own enthusiasm and conviction. On the contrary, I want to be Your messenger, the transmitter of Your truth and Your grace, and nothing more. And precisely because that’s what I want, I sometimes with that people could better distinguish my official position from my private life.

Can one pass on Your truth without having fully grasped it himself? Can I preach Your Gospel, if it has not struck deep roots in my own heart? Can I pass on Your Life, if I am not alive with it myself? Your holy signs can produce grace of their own power, it’s true. But would my fellow men allow me to mark them with these signs, unless my own countenance were to them a sign that You had sent me? It’s unavoidable: Your official business and my private life cannot be separated.

And that is precisely the burden of my life. For look, Lord: even when I announce Your pure truth, I’m still preaching my own narrowness and mediocrity along with it. I’m still presenting myself, the “average man.” How can I bring my hearers to distinguish between You and me in the frightful mixture of You and me that I call my sermons? How can I teach them to take Your word to their hearts, and forget me, the preacher?

I want to be a transmitter of Your light, and to do so, I must nourish it with the oil of my life. And yet I can’t avoid placing myself before the lantern, coming between Your light and the searching eyes of my fellow men. I seem to be good for nothing at all but making the already-dark shadows of this world even darker and longer.

I understand all too well that, at the end of my priestly life, I shall have only Your poor, unprofitable servant. I shall have been the messenger whom You have sent on ahead, who, instead of cleaning the way for You, more often succeeds only in being a roadblock. Any grace that goes out from me is Yourgrace. Whatever of mine goes out from me is nothing, only a hindrance or, at best, a means You employ to test my fellow men, to see whether their instinctive love can recognize You, even when You disguise Yourself, almost beyond all recognition, by appearing to them in me.

O God of my vocation, when I consider these things, I must confess that I don’t at all feel like taking my place in the proud ranks of Your confident and conquering apostles. I rather feel that I should be on my way, simply and humbly, walking in fear and trembling. I don’t mean to criticize those among my brethren who can be so happily sure of themselves, those of Your servants who do so unmistakably reflect the inner confidence that they are coming in the name of the Lord God of Hosts, and who are quite amazed if anyone does not immediately recognize in them the ambassadors of the Almighty.

I cannot belong to that fortunate group, O Lord. Grant me rather the grace to belong to the number of Your lowly servants who are rather amazed when they are received by their fellow human beings. Let my heart tremble again and again in grateful surprise at the miracles of Your grace, which is mighty in the midst of weakness. Let me continue to marvel that I meet so many persons who allow me, poor sinner that I am, to enter into the secret chamber of their hearts, because they have been able to recognize You hidden in me.

Thus I shall be happy to set out again and again on my messenger’s rounds to my fellow human beings. You have sent me, and so I go in Your name, not my own. Let Your power triumph through my weakness, whenever You desire it to do so.

As I proceed with Your message along the pathway of my life, I shall no doubt often experience what befell Your prophet of long ago: I shall be disillusioned with Yahweh, laughed to scorn by people, a man of contention before the whole world. Then I must speak out — and woe is me, if I do not — I must speak of You, the One whom it is more fitting to honor by silence. I must speak, even with the tormenting feeling of being mere sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. For who can really know for certain whether or not he possesses the love without which everything else is just hollow noise?

In the strength of Your word I shall march continually around the Jericho of human souls, even with their laughter ringing in my ears, until You bring its walls crashing down. You will do this of Your own power, so that no one can boast before You of his prowess over souls. Thus will my mission be fulfilled, in the same way as was that of Your Son, my crucified Master. And for this, may You be praised for all eternity.

O God of my vocation, I am only a poor mask, behind which You have chosen to approach human beings as the hidden God. Grant me the grace day by day to be ever more free from sin and self-seeking. Even then I shall remain what I can’t help being. Your disguise and Your unprofitable servant. But then at least I shall grow ever more like Your Son, Who also had to envelop the eternal light of His divinity in the form of a servant, to be found in the garb and livery of a man.

When I bear the burden of Your calling, when Your mission weighs down heavily upon me, when Your Majesty humbles me, and my weakness is taken up into that of Your Son, then I may confidently trust that the hindrance which I have been to Your coming may still turn out to be a blessing to my brothers. Then perhaps You will transubstantiate my servitude — for only You could work such a change, unseen by me and my fellow human beings — into a somehow sacramental form, under whose poverty You will be the bread of life for my brethren.

O God of my vocation, let my life be consumed as the Sacred Host, so that my brothers and I may live in You, and You in us, for all eternity.

Karl Rahner. Prayers for a Lifetime. Albert Raffelt, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1995.

My Two Favorite Books

My first all-time favorite book is the Holy Bible. It is made up of Old and New Testaments that give testimony to God’s redeeming action on behalf of all creation. It is the account of God’s love and mercy with a rebellious people who do not deserve His grace. It is through the Scriptures that I can hear God’s voice, learn who I am, what my vocation is and what it means to be like Jesus in His Kingdom while I anxiously await His second coming.

My second all-time favorite book is my passport. It is small but it allows me countless adventures that have shaped who I am today. This book has taken me places I never dreamed of going – rural towns in the Andes Mountains, indigenous villages in the Brazilian Amazon, South American shantytowns, gigantic Latin American capitals. Thanks to this little book, I have learned to communicate in four languages. I have met and interacted with people from literally all over the planet.

I will continue to give away copies of the Bible whenever I can. But sadly, I cannot give anyone a copy of my passport – it would useless to anyone else.

IMG_3732Thanks to my reading of book 1 and my frequent use of book 2, I have spent much time reflecting on what it means for Jonathan Hanegan to be Jesus in today’s world. This Spirit-guided reflection is born out of the reading of Scripture and an experience-with-God. It is also shaped by the living testimony of other brothers and sisters in Christ.

Some people I dearly love have shown some concern regarding the way I see the world. For the moment, we have arrived at different interpretations of Jesus’s exhortation to love our neighbors. We disagree on what it means to pledge allegiance solely to God’s Kingdom. We understand differently our call to be peacemakers in a war-torn world.

I appreciate your concern. I appreciate your patience with me. And I solicit your prayers as I continue to wrestle with what it looks like to be Jesus to everyone I meet.

My website and my Facebook profile are a microcosm of what I think “the good life” is. I share pictures of my family, friends, church activities, books I am reading as well as essays and news articles that I think are important. If you disagree with what I write or post, I ask that you comment respectfully and help me understand what you believe and why it is important to you. If at all possible, let’s do it over coffee!

My prayer is that all I say, do and represent rings true with Jesus’ person, ministry and message of peace, love and reconciliation that our world desperately needs.

Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation

“Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted.” These are the words written by Flannery O’Connor in her prayer journal sometime between January 1946 and September 1947. At this point, she did not know just how much of her work was to published and cherished by so many!

This past Thursday we learned about the great American author, Flannery O’Connor. We read her short stories “The Artificial Nigger”, “Good Country People”, “Revelation” and “Judgment Day”. Here’s the handout we shared with the group:

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor is able to arouse our sense of justice but at the same time draw us toward a greater self-awareness of who we are and how we see and treat “the other”. Her stories often mention prejudice and race in the Southern United States. Despite living in a different time and place, her words still speak clearly today and call us dwell upon what kind of people we are today. O’Connor’s revelation story can lead us to our own revelation, if we allow it to.