By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/25/12 in The Madera Tribune
Many Christians will celebrate the birthday of their religion this Sunday, better known as Pentecost. Appropriately, this holy day has a Jewish origin and a Greek name.
Before taking a new meaning for followers of Jesus, it was a harvest festival that recalled when God dictated laws for the 12 tribes of Israel at Mount Sinai (aka Horeb). Foremost of these laws are the 10 Commandments, basic moral laws long revered by Jews and Christians alike. The festival received its ancient Greek name from the timing of that historic occasion, which scripture recorded as on “the 50th” day after the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt. In Hebrew it is known as the Festival of Weeks (Hag ha Shavuot).
Christians tend to forget all of that, however. For us, Pentecost evokes images of supernatural fire, wind, and preaching, which are key elements of the day’s description in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
On Shavuot in Jerusalem less than two millennia ago, a clamor like that of a tornado filled a place where perhaps as many as 120 devotees of Jesus were seated. Next, flames appeared to fall on each, resting gently without causing harm. Then, scripture says, they were filled with the spirit of God and began to speak of divine matters in a variety of languages they had never learned.
Such a spectacle drew a diverse crowd in the metropolis, which had many expatriates from across the ancient world for the Festival of Weeks. What these visitors heard initially and the preaching that followed — all expressed in their own native tongues — caused the idle spectators to embrace this new religion, a sect of Judaism that quickly expanded beyond it to reach peoples of every nation, ethnicity, and — fittingly enough — tongue.
The memoirs of the physician Luke only share a relatively small excerpt of the words voiced that day (Acts 2:14-40), but unsurprisingly they center on the “good news” (aka gospel) revealed by God.
This gospel is summed up perfectly and fully in Jesus.
In my lifetime, many have tried to express it in easily memorized phrases or citations (such as the ever-popular scripture reference at sporting events, “John 3:16”). But I hesitate to attempt the same, because the task of abridging the gospel daunts me. There is so much to divine revelation, both truth and mystery.
I also wonder if sometimes such pithy attempts can lose sight of one of the lessons of Christian Pentecost: what first impressed the onlookers in Jerusalem so long ago was that the Christians talked of God in a language each individual listener could understand.
Rather than catchphrases, the hearers needed a personal explanation, and more than that: an introduction to the person of Jesus. This was accomplished by following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God, not a script.
That said, imagine a world without shared terms, definitions, formulas, songs, and so on. Life would become a never-ending labor of re-invention and potential errors. Perhaps the ideal is as Augustine — an ancient bishop of Hippo, Africa — once advised: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things ‘charity’ (supernatural love).”
His last point is a vital one, because without love for others how could Christians ever reveal God to anyone? Surely the Christians at Pentecost were not only filled with the Spirit of God but supernatural love as well. As John, the cherished disciple of Jesus, wrote in a letter, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
With or without words, God surely touches our head and heart. Like us, our minds and hearts are unique, even when the same truth fills them.
English poet, novelist, and decorated soldier Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) romanced both sexes after World War I. Yet despite many relationships he spent his last two decades alone, and converted to Catholicism before his death.
In his poem “A Prayer at Pentecost,” Sassoon depicted his relationship with God as a two-part performance to be completed not by words but by quiet transformation:
“Master musician, I have overheard you, / Labouring in litanies of heart to word you. / Be noteless now. Our duologue is done. / Spirit, who speak'st by silences, remake me: / To light of unresistant faith awake me, / That with resolved requiem I be one.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/18/12 in The Madera Tribune
When it comes to influencing people online, I don’t have much clout.
I learned this from one of several free Internet services that estimate the effectiveness of one’s virtual voice via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Those judged as popular receive perks like bargain prices, better customer service, free flights or vacations, and access to exclusive galas and VIP airport lounges.
In response, sponsors expect to receive powerful publicity. Supposedly a score of 50 or higher is enough to attract corporate generosity.
Despite the arrangement’s mild resemblance to prostitution and politics, the lure of freebies and my own curiosity led me to sign up. As I did so, I learned that the average U.S. resident had a “Klout” score of 20. Surely a small-time published writer could do better, right?
Yet while President Barack Obama may rate a 91 and singer Justin Bieber has the only 100, my Klout was a mere 10.
So much for the power of the press.
I fared better on an online dating website. Months ago it notified me that women had actively ranked me as especially attractive. As a reward for my apparently photogenic DNA, I would receive special treatment for free and only shown women on the site deemed to be more lovely.
Presumably those less fortunate than I were quarantined with Morlocks and other undesirables, perhaps in underground caverns, far from the eyes of the fair folk.
My lofty status may have been flattering, albeit shallow and discriminatory, had I not eventually discovered my actual rating: about 5.4 out of 10.
If that were an academic score, I would have flunked, but apparently 80 percent of the men on that dating site were judged by women as meriting a 5 or less on the “ooh la la” scale. Hence my alleged eliteness. My mediocrity beat the norm and, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
How terrible we can be to each other based on the subjective value we set upon them.
An unborn baby diagnosed with Down syndrome in the U.S. has a 92 percent chance of being aborted by the mother, according to a study published in the medical journal “Prenatal Diagnosis.” Rates are also high for other conditions or handicaps, despite the reality that some of these problems — such as heart defects — can be corrected after birth.
Meanwhile another target for abortion in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America is unborn girls. The United Nations claims that up to 200 million women are missing now because of what some call “gendercide.”
While the normal balance at birth is about 105 or so boys for every 100 girls, China’s ratio was 117:100 in 2010, an improvement over previous years. By 2020, China is expected to have 24 million more men of marriageable age than women.
In parts of India, there are fewer than 700 girls for every 1,000 boys. One abortion clinic in India advertised: spend 500 rupees (on an abortion), you’ll save 50,000 rupees (on a dowry).
The principle “every child a wanted child” can be harsh for the unwanted.
In contrast, Judaism and Christianity claim: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bereishit/Genesis 1:27) This divine likeness is the source of human dignity, and man and woman share it equally. Both as individuals and as a couple, man and woman display God’s image, even to the point of being able to participate together in the very act of creation itself.
While we sometimes claim, “respect must be earned,” scripture insists respect must be given. “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning… for God made man in his own image” (cf. Genesis 9:5-6). It doesn’t matter if we are unpopular, ugly, handicapped, flawed, man, or woman.
This sort of thinking may offend sensibilities I suspect. We want to be respected because of what we uniquely may be, whether by nature or hard work. Yet what are we if we exclude anything that resembles God? We can focus instead on what we possess or do, but what do we have that cannot be lost?
We should rejoice that our dignity lies in God and cannot be taken.
A journalist watching missionary sister Mother Teresa tend someone with gangrene once commented, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!”
“Neither would I,” she replied, “but I do it for Christ.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/11/12 in The Madera Tribune
I've only had two pets that I loved dearly: a cat named Spunky and a short-haired dog called Peppy.
Both displayed signs of abuse and abandonment, and both behaved like former indoor pets. Adjusting to a rural life outdoors in Madera County would be a challenge for them.
Spunky, a white tabby with gray tiger markings, ran away several times in the beginning, but I would coax her home, usually by crouching down and meowing plaintively. Eventually she warmed to people, but she never learned her given name. Instead she came running whenever I meowed. She never ceased to be a source of affection and attention until she died of old age when I began high school.
In the winter of my third year in Madera High School, God unexpectedly gifted us with Peppy, a short black dog with white and gold markings. Peppy had no trouble warming to women, but to my dismay she feared any and all men. The first time I held her she trembled so. I hugged her to me before realizing it wasn't the weather that made her shiver. It was fear. So I let her be. She grew to tolerate me as days passed, but nothing more.
My mother allowed Peppy to sleep in a box inside for her first nights on the farm, but that did not long continue. My mother had little desire for an animal indoors unless it walked on two legs, wore clothes, and called her "mom." So one dark winter's night, Peppy lay whining near the front door under a wooden bench beyond my bedroom window. I grabbed a jacket and went outside.
Peppy shivered from the cold, so I picked her up, put her inside my jacket, and hugged her gently. Her little heart fluttered rapidly against my own measured and ponderous beat. In time, the whining and shivering stopped, and she nestled herself comfortably within the inner folds of my jacket. We sat on the wooden bench beneath my window looking at the stars and the moon. After half an hour I reluctantly but happily returned to my room.
After that night, Peppy and I were good friends. When I left for high school every morning on my bike, she'd run beside me down our long, dusty and unpaved driveway. When I returned, she'd frolic around my feet and often initiate a game of tag the zig-zagging little dog. After a minute or so of stop-and-go tag she'd always let me catch her, despite the fact that she usually outran me when we raced down the driveway to the mailbox.
When restless, troubled or sad, I would walk the driveway at night to gaze up at the stars and the moon and to talk with God or with myself. Peppy would leave the warm refuge of her barrel doghouse and follow. Whenever I stood still she would station herself on my feet like a pint-sized guardian angel. She was my companion when I faced the dark of night, which was my lingering childhood fear, or the dark within myself.
Only a year after Peppy entered our lives, a speeding motorist killed her. When I returned from school that day, my 5-year-old niece solemnly led me to Peppy's little grave marked with a drooping, purple wildflower. Peppy had always enjoyed wandering on the road in front of our property, despite my father's efforts to teach her otherwise. If he even started to call her when she was out in the road she would immediately run back onto our property and it was clear that she understood. Yet, even so, she persisted in her straying.
In a simple way, I can see a reflection of divine love in my relationships with God’s creations. For God also stoops to our level and never stops trying to call us home in a way we can understand. We may draw away in fear, especially when others have failed or abused us before. Yet if we allow it, God embraces us. If we do not, God’s love remains no matter how we stray.
But God surpasses such examples.
For who, were it possible, would choose to become a dog for love of one? Yet Christians believe God became human for love’s sake. Even more, many Christians believe God became true food for us in the Eucharist (aka Holy Communion). Love unfathomable!
None can understand God's love, but we can rely on it. God never abandons us.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/04/12 in The Madera Tribune
My grandfather left Mexico and its religious persecution with a price on his head, set by the state of Jalisco, for his stubborn piety. Yet his reception in the United States wouldn’t be entirely welcoming; nor would he ever abandon Mexico in his heart.
Higinio Lozano first worked as a cook for a railroad line crew in the South. Once, he received a strong dose of poison oak while carrying water to wash the daily pots and pans. That evening his younger brother Natalio followed the train tracks on foot to the nearest town to get medicine.
After walking miles, Natalio arrived at a drugstore cold and wet from a storm. As he scraped his muddy shoes on a mat, someone yelled, “What do you want?! Don’t you get on my floors. You wait out there until I’m ready!”
Natalio waited as a customer loitered inside. Eventually the pharmacist came to the door and took his order for calamine lotion. A sign in the window explained it all: “No Negroes, Mexicans, or Dogs Allowed Inside!” The experience soaked in as Natalio made his way back to camp in the dark, and the Lozano brothers now spoke often of heading west.
By the late 1920s, they did so. Higinio found work in the fields of San Fernando, California, despite his lack of strength and agility. But he applied his mental vigor to his church and community. He worked with young people as part of the Catholic Association for Mexican Youth, and wrote, directed, and performed in religious plays.
The execution of Rev. Miguel Pro, SJ, in Mexico City on Nov. 23, 1927, inspired one such drama. My grandfather portrayed the role of the priest. A young woman, Maria del Carmen Najar, played another part. This led to a loving relationship that would result in marriage and ultimately my own existence.
But the true tale behind that play deserves repeating.
Born in Mexico of a mining engineer, Miguel Pro joined the Jesuit order Aug. 14, 1911, at age 20. Three years later he had to leave his homeland due to revolution. He fled to Texas and California before studying in Spain, teaching in Nicaragua, and learning theology in Belgium, where he was ordained a priest Aug. 31, 1925.
He wrote: “How can I explain to you the sweet grace of the Holy Spirit, which invades my poor miner’s soul with such heavenly joys? I could not keep back my tears…”
Though he had a serious side, Pro loved quips and pranks. As a seminarian he’d amuse others with tricks, stories, American English slang, and by singing random lines of popular songs.
He ministered first to Belgian miners. But his superiors allowed him to return to Mexico on July 8, 1926, in hopes the food and climate would improve his chronic stomach problems. Surprisingly, no Mexican authorities checked his passport or bags.
Pro created “Eucharistic Stations” throughout Mexico City to secretly distribute Holy Communion to hundreds daily. He visited the sick and brought aid to the poor. Excellent at disguises, he even impersonated a prison guard to pray with prisoners and hear confessions.
He once met policemen guarding a house he’d planned to offer Mass at. He strode to them, opened his vest as if showing a badge, and declared, “There’s a cat bagged here.” Hoodwinked, the police saluted and let him inside.
Another time, police invaded a home while Pro celebrated Mass. He rushed everyone into other rooms, hid the Eucharist in his suit pocket, and then accompanied police on their fruitless search for a priest. When Pro left, he told a guard posted at the door that he would have stayed to help catch the priest but he had a date with his girlfriend. He later wrote lightheartedly, “I returned to the place, but, somehow or other, the priest had not yet appeared…”
He would be jailed repeatedly, but that aided his prison ministry and inspired him to continue.
Finally, the Mexican government had enough. A few days after a bomb injured former president Alvaro Obregón, Pro and his brothers were arrested on false charges of attempted assassination. A trial was set for the next day, but morning brought only a firing squad.
President Plutarco Calles had requested the execution six months beforehand, and professional photographers had been arranged to document a fearful death. But instead the priest forgave his prison guard, prayed, and blessed his executioners. He refused a blindfold and with arms outstretched exclaimed, “Viva Cristo Rey!”