Saturday, February 21, 2015

Surprise! Not Stuffing Your Face Every Day is Healthy

Yesterday, while sharing a lenten seafood meal, a friend claimed that true fasting (only one reasonable meal per day, rather than the pretend-fasting of most Catholics) was "very unhealthy."

I mentioned that most people in the world live on far less than our three enormous American meals (in fact, around 15% live on $1.25/day). She said those people were malnourished (which I must admit is true).

The conversation did not carry on much longer but it made me realize that many do not know about the significant physical and mental health benefits of periodically Not Stuffing Your Face.

In case the subject comes up in your life, you should know that fasting is actually very good for the body. Hopefully this also encourages you to hold your fast with fervor!

The Scientific American says that "from an evolutionary perspective, three meals a day is a strange modern invention." Studies that backed this up included one in which "60 elderly men and women fasted and feasted on alternate days for three years. The 60 participants spent 123 days in the infirmary, and six died. Meanwhile 60 nonfasting seniors racked up 219 infirmary days, and 13 died." That's more than a 50% decrease in the mortality rate!

Regarding diabetes, the article says that "One of intermittent fasting's main effects seems to be increasing the body's responsiveness to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Decreased sensitivity to insulin often accompanies obesity and has been linked to diabetes and heart failure; long-lived animals and people tend to have unusually low insulin, presumably because their cells are more sensitive to the hormone and therefore need less of it."

Research out of a Utah medical clinic found that "periodic and regular fasting — for at least 12 hours and, optimally, 20 hours — pushes cells into 'self-preservation mode,' optimizing their function, he said. It also sends the body foraging for other sources of energy, turning it from using blood sugar and glucose to digesting stores of fat. The process involves an increased production of human growth hormone that can protect lean muscle mass, decrease insulin production and avert diabetes."

Interestingly, both the Scientific American, WebMD, the Utah study, and a comprehensive article in Huffington point out that fasting for specific goals such as weight loss or detoxing can be unhealthy and they warn that in those cases where persons become obsessed with fasting until a goal is met actually put their health at risk. I find this so convenient for Catholics -- it's almost as if God had designed our bodies for fasting according to His precepts and for His glory rather than our own...

Hilariously, the Utah research article states that "outside of Utah, it is more difficult for researchers to recruit willing participants and people who are familiar with the practice." I think that says a lot about current Catholic practices regarding fasting. The Mormons are putting us to shame, people!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Scripture: Why Our Ministries Fail

Pope Francis has once again asked for input on the upcoming Synod of Families. My local bishop asked that before we consider giving input, we read the Relatio Synodi to give us context.

In that document we find the following statement:

"Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God." Relation Synodi, paragraph 12.

I want to bring to your attention one portion of that statement: "accompanying their steps with patience and mercy." 

To accompany is to be a companion to someone; and companionship implies a nearness over a length of time. If you and I are companions on a hiking journey, it implies that we walked together, talked together, made camp together, etc. No one would say we accompanied one another if we merely crossed paths once and shared a conversation or a meal. We would describe that as a run-in, a matter of happenstance, an occasion. To be a companion means sharing one another's space for a while.

My question: when do we actually see Jesus accompanying anyone besides the Twelve? The Relatio Synodi seems to imply that ALL, or at least MANY, of the men and women he met, he accompanied. The Relatio Synodi is certainly not unique in characterizing Jesus as a companion to all; it is a common claim.

But is it a true claim?

I've been searching through Scripture recently trying to answer this question, because it has incredibly important implications for ministry and evangelization today. I have focused on the Gospel of Luke, since it is the longest and usually the most detailed about Jesus' adult ministry.

My search has, thus far, been fruitless. As far as I can tell, Jesus does not accompany all that he meets. In fact, let's look at Jesus' interactions with the people of Israel. All references will be to Luke.

1. The beginning of Christ's ministry was to preach at the synagogues in Galilee (probably especially in Capernaum) (4:14). He taught for some time there, sufficient for his reputation to spread, before going to Nazareth (4:14-15). Immediately upon arriving in Nazareth, Jesus incites the people by proclaiming that what he had done in Capernaum would not be done in Nazareth because "no prophet gains acceptance in his native place" and giving them examples from the prophets (4:24-27). The people respond by trying to throw Him off a cliff. Doesn't seem like an accompaniment of patience and mercy to me. This was an encounter and a pronouncement.

2. Jesus goes to Capernaum, preaches, heals a demoniac, cures a fevered woman, cures a variety of illnesses at sunset, and then leaves the next morning and sets out into the open country (4:31-42). Crowds leave in pursuit and find him, only to hear that He is going to preach in other towns. This was another encounter/pronouncement.

3. Jesus is followed by crowds everywhere and when he is by the Gennesaret Lake he asks Simon Peter to take him out away from the crowds so he can preach. He then calls Simon Peter, James, and John into discipleship (5:1-10).

4. Jesus heals a leper, which causes even more crowds to come in search of Him (5:12-15). And here begins the most striking habit of Jesus which is most contrary to the idea that He accompanied all: Jesus "often retired to deserted places and prayed" (5:16). Throughout the rest of Luke, we will often see Jesus leaving people to spend time with his disciples in deserted places.

5. The remainder of chapter 5 and 6 continues the habit we see so far: preaching on the sabbath, call of individual disciples (in this case, Levi), healings followed by explanatory teachings. Let's look at one event in particular: the famous healing of a paralytic (5:18-5:25). Here Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man and when He hears the thoughts of the Pharisees questioning Him, he calls them out on it: "'Why do you harbor these thoughts? Which is easier: to say, "Your sins are forgiven you" or "Get up and walk?" In any case, to make it clear to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins' -- he then addressed the paralyzed man: "I say to you, get up! Take your mat with you, and return to your house."'" Question for you: does this seem like a patient man accompanying those he is preaching to? I don't think so. Again, it bears the marks of an encounter and pronouncement.

6. After preaching on sabbaths in different synagogues, Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain to pray and there he elected the Twelve (6:12-16). He comes down from the mountain the next day, heals many in a crowd, and gives the Great Discourse: The Beatitudes, Love of One's Enemy, Removing the Plank from One's Eye, Know the Tree by its Fruit, Building a House on Sand. And then Jesus leaves that place and returns to Capernaum. 

7. In Capernaum, Jesus heals the Centurion's Servant and raises the Widow's Son, to the great amazement of all Judea (7:1-17). Then he leaves. Jesus dines with the Pharisees, teaching them in regards to the woman who anointed him with oils...and then leaves (7:36-50). Jesus then "journeyed through towns and villages proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God" (8:1). 

8. What did Jesus teach while journeying? The Parable of the Sower (8:4-15), by almost any account a teaching on the inevitable ineffectiveness of true preaching (sometimes it just will not take!). The Parable of the Lamp (8:15-17) ("to the man who has, more will be given; and he who has not, will lose even the little he thinks he has"). The True Brothers and Sisters of Christ (8:19-21) ("My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it."). Let me ask you: do these seem like patient, merciful teachings of one who is accompanying? Or does it seem like the pronouncements of one who is passing through and passing by and intent on harvesting what He can? I suggest it is the latter.

9. In the remainder of chapter 8, Jesus calms a storm, heals the Gerasene Demoniac, heals the hemorrhaging woman, and raises Jarus' child. In chapter 9, Jesus sends out the Twelve and gives them these instructions: "When people will not receive you, leave that town and shake its dust from your feet as a testimony against them" (9:5). What does Jesus not say? "Stay awhile. Exercise patience. Be calm and gentle with those who resist you. Wait for fruit. Be merciful with those who ignore you." 

The above lays out a pattern that continues throughout the remainder of Luke: Jesus preaches, heals, teaches, and leaves. He goes into deserted places to pray. He makes pronouncements like this: "Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps" (9:23); "Let the dead bury the dead" and "Whoever puts his hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God" (9:60-62); "'If the people of any town you enter do not welcome you, go into its streets and say, "We shake the dust of this town from our feet as testimony against you. But know that the reign of God is near." I assure you, on that day the fate of Sodom will be less severe than that of such a town'" (10:11-12).

Jesus does NOT spend much time in one place; Jesus does NOT take very much extra time to explain what he means (see the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 to see how little Jesus cares who leaves Him); Jesus does NOT tell his disciples ANYWHERE that I can see to be patient and merciful in their preaching.

This has incredible implications for our normal parish life, both here in the Americas and in Europe. Many of our ministries are based on "accompaniment" -- they are ministries in which patience and mercy are the names of the game. We should not, cannot push our youth, our young adults, our [insert ministry name here] too hard. Our pulpits preach endless mercy and are so full of patience you barely even know that any change is expected in one's life.

And the greatest evil of any ministry is to pronounce the Word of God -- salvation through true repentance and a turning towards the sacraments and life of the Church -- unadulterated, without explanatory remarks, and without an attempt to clarify that every person has their own timeline for repentance and their own timeline for involvement in the sacraments.

Yet that is precisely what we see Jesus do. He leaves very little choice to those who interact with him. "Sell all you have," he says to the Rich Young Man, who turns and goes away sad...and who is not followed by Jesus (18:15-25). Jesus lets him go, and gives the young man up to the providence of the Father: "'Things that are impossible for men are possible for God'" (18:27). 

How often are we willing to do the same? To preach the truth -- the glorious, salvific, difficult, cross-bearing truth, to the best of our abilities and as purposefully and cleverly as possible -- and leave the rest to God? 

Deus Caritas Est -- God is love. And God's love is overwhelming because we are so underserving of it. It is precisely in our acknowledgment of our sinfulness, our imperfections, our fallenness, that God's mercy is activated. To bring others to our God of Love, we have to go into and through our broken selves. There is no access to the Father's forgiveness except through an acknowledgment of our sin, and that acknowledgment is the result of hard preaching, teaching, and ministry.

That, I think, is a part of what is wrong with our parishes and thus with our families. If the Synod of Families takes the current approach of a parish to evangelization, then we will have more decay, more rot, more half-heartedness and hardness of heart from our parishioners. Only when we return to preaching as Christ taught the Apostles and the Disciples can we expect to become a fruitful vine. Until then, what are we? Jesus tells us in John 15:6: "A withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown into the fire and burnt."

Friends and Followers