How did Jesus live the Commandments in his life? How are his 21st-century followers called to live them? Throughout 2007, Every Day Catholic will features a series of cover articles on the 10 Commandments by award-winning writer Kathy Coffey. 

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Belonging to God
By Kathy Coffey

First Commandment: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

Newspapers recently carried the story of a father who was boating with his son and the boy’s friend. When a strong and unexpected current carried the two children overboard, the dad rescued them both. But after dragging them to safety, he could not save himself. The dad drowned.

We can only speculate about the gratitude the son, his friend and their families will carry through the rest of their lives. Every breath they take is, in some sense, a gift of and a tribute to the heroic dad who saved them.

When people do us a big favor, we can rarely repay them. We breathe gratitude; we cannot say thanks enough. Maybe a co-worker took a job shift for us, an employer gave us work we needed in an economic pinch, a relative babysat when no one else would or a friend did a chore we really detest. To up the ante, think of organ donors or rescuers like the brave dad. “If you would do that for me, what can I do for you?” we ask in wonder.

The extreme thankfulness that recipients must feel gives us a clue about the First Commandment. When we read about God freeing the Hebrews from Egypt, it’s hard to relate. Few North Americans know slavery firsthand. Hearing about people who are slaves today, many of them children, we’re appalled. We can only imagine what it means when someone unlocks the prison door and says, “You’re free.” To forget such a liberator would be the worst ingratitude.


Awareness, Gratitude

After a gift like the one the Hebrew people received, how could they ignore God? How could they even think of worshiping someone else?

Before we get too high and mighty, scorning those ungrateful Jews, we should look at the ways God has freed us. Our situations may not be as obvious as release from jail, but there are other, subtler forms of slavery. Some are caught in addictions to food, gambling, spending, smoking, computers or alcohol. Others are trapped in unhealthy habits, fears or relationships. Some may feel enslaved to dead-end or all-consuming jobs. From all these, God is the ultimate liberator, freeing us in ways that surpass what we can do for ourselves.

Whatever our particular circumstances, the God of mercy has freed us from something. And how gratefully do we respond? We probably need the reminder to put God first as badly as the Hebrews did.

If we say we belong to God completely and wholeheartedly, how do we show it? Do we set aside time each day to reflect on God’s ongoing action in our lives? (This can be done at stop signs for the harried commuter.) Do we arrange our priorities around honoring God and God’s people? Do we fall asleep naming the ways God was present in our days, the blessings God brought?

If we take this commandment seriously, it will be reflected in our calendars and checkbooks. How do we spend our time and money?

A hard look at these priorities may reveal that God has given us great freedom, which we sometimes waste on enslaving ourselves to sillier gods. Are we squandering our precious time, health and resources? God’s magnificent daughter or son shouldn’t settle for less than the heritage we were born for.

Learning From Jesus

If we really want to know what this commandment means, we should look at the way it operates in the life of Jesus. He is passionately caught up in the love of his Father; his primary goal is pleasing God. Inspired and heartened by God, he responds constantly to God’s initiatives. Prayer punctuates his life; he often withdraws to renew his delight in God and be strengthened by their time together. During this time, he must experience God’s love, listen for God’s guidance, imagine God’s face. He returns renewed to teach, befriend and heal.

Jesus shows us what it means to belong to God. During his agony in the garden, every human instinct must rebel against the course ahead, but he holds fast to whatever the Father asks. If we can share in his all-consuming love, it places us in the house of God at all times. As Jesus’ joy and compassion show us, that’s a far better place to live than the house of slavery.

Kathy Coffey, the mother of four, is an editor at Living the Good News in Denver, Colorado. She has won numerous writing awards. Her newest book is Women of Mercy (Orbis, 2005).

Next: The Second Commandment

Questions for Reflection:

• How has your image of God changed through the years?

• What form of “slavery” has God freed, or is God freeing, you from?

Only One God
By Judith Dunlap

Who is this one God we believe in? In my lifetime I can’t even count the different ways I have answered that question. As I look back over the years, I realize two things: My image of God was very much shaped by the people and events in my life, and, often, I found myself creating God into my image and likeness. That wasn’t wise. It’s never a good idea to create God in our own image.

But when my self-esteem was really low, it was easy to believe in the popular myth of my childhood—that God was a harsh judge. When that didn’t work anymore, I almost gave up believing in a “real” God, thinking God was invented by people to keep everyone in line. In the topsy-turvy days of the ’70s, I believed in a God who was mostly process, not at all personal. I bounced back from that blurry image with a very friendly, loving, companion God who was sometimes very close, other times rather distant.

When I started working on my theology degree, my idea of God began to slowly unfold. As I read the Gospels more closely, Jesus became my touchstone. Today, the Gospel of John and the epistles are helping me even more as I realize that throughout my lifetime our wonderful Triune God will always remain mystery. I often tell young people to never concretize their image of the divine. Once we set our image for God in stone, it becomes an idol, a false image.

Help your children remain open to the mystery of God—a mystery that can’t be solved in their lifetime. Caution them to be leery of people who offer easy answers about who God is. Talk about what a mystery is, and explain that the closer we get to Jesus the more clues we have about God. Most importantly, show your youngster, by your example, that learning about God is a lifetime endeavor.

For Family Response:

Gather some paper, pencils and crayons and have family members draw a picture of how they “see” God. Share your drawings with each other.

Media Watch
Sweet Land
By Frank Frost

If you want to feel good about America, go see Sweet Land. It’s an offbeat love story, set in 1920, that celebrates Midwestern values, love for the land and eyes-open pride in our immigrant identity.

Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mail-order bride who speaks virtually no English. She practices basic idiomatic phrases from a book while she waits with her luggage—including a large, improbable gramophone—at a train station somewhere in Minnesota for Olaf (Tim Guinee), a man she knows nothing about.

When Olaf finally arrives with his friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming), the first stop is at the church to get married. But when the language Inge speaks turns out to be German rather than Norwegian, the preacher (John Heard) will not marry them. The fear of Germans lingers after the Great War (WWI), and she is deemed to be a threat to the community. “Everyone knows” that Germans engage in prostitution and espionage!

Olaf will not have the woman in his house until they are married, and so Frandsen takes her in with his wife and nine kids.

This love story is framed as a flashback as Inge’s grandson contemplates today whether to sell her farm to developers after her death. Will the lure of money triumph?

Central to our American identity is the fact that we are all immigrants. Whether or not we favor Israel Zangwill’s metaphor of “the melting pot,” we take pride in our national diversity. Yet in today’s politically charged environment, we often ignore the fact that the lot of newly arrived immigrants has always proved challenging, from the days of “Irish Need Not Apply” to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The story of Inge and Olaf is bound up with the way the community sees a stranger in their midst. When Inge eventually flees the chaos of Frandsen’s household, Olaf takes her in, giving her the bedroom while he takes the couch. As they share the work of the farm and come to know one another, they become committed chaste partners, and a scandal in the eyes of the unbending minister, who declares, “She is not one of us. We have our language, and culture and customs.”

While the rest of the local farm community pools resources and works to bring in the harvest, Olaf and Inge are left to struggle alone. But when Frandsen’s farm is threatened with foreclosure, Olaf puts everything on the line for him.

The film is mythic in tone. Gorgeous visuals evoke iconic images by such American painters as Andrew Wyeth, and create a sense of place for its characters that idealizes the land and the hard work that made it so rich. The film is written and directed by Ali Selim, a Minnesota native and himself the son of an Egyptian immigrant.

Sweet Land is a small film, with distribution growing based on word of mouth, and destined to become an American classic.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

By Judy Ball

Blessed Marianne Cope (1838-1918)

Leprosy. The mere word struck profound fear in the hearts of ordinary people in late 19th-century America. But there was nothing ordinary about Mother Marianne Cope.

When the request came in 1883 to serve lepers in Hawaii—a request many other religious communities declined—she responded with a hearty yes. At the time, she was provincial of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York.

Born in Germany, she had arrived in the United States four decades earlier when her family settled in Utica. After entering religious life she quickly exhibited administrative skills, serving in quick order as a superior, hospital supervisor, director of novices and, finally, provincial.

Convinced that Jesus was calling her to work among the lonely and hurting, Mother Marianne stayed in Hawaii for 35 years—rich, demanding and rewarding years. She and the other sisters who traveled with her opened a home for women and girls on Molokai. When Father Damien (now Blessed Damien) became ill and could no longer continue his work, Mother Marianne served as administrator of the home he had established for men and boys.

She came to be known as “mother” for her round the clock, day-in-and-day-out love for the people under her care. During her lifetime she attracted many new vocations among the people on the islands. Her followers continue to serve in Hawaii today in a variety of ways.

At her 2005 beatification in Rome, Marianne Cope was praised as a woman who abandoned herself completely to the will of God. Her feast day is January 23.

Sister Ann Kenyon, O.S.F.

When Ann Kenyon entered the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of Syracuse right out of high school, she had never heard of Mother Marianne Cope. She soon learned the story of the remarkable woman from her new community who, a century earlier, had traveled to Hawaii to serve people suffering from leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease). Sister Ann’s admiration for Mother Marianne’s inspiring life of service only grew and deepened over time.

Still, Sister Ann told Every Day Catholic, “If Mother Marianne were alive today, I think she’d be asking what all the fuss is about, why all the attention on her. She shunned publicity in life. As she saw it, she simply did what she was called to do. She was just being faithful.”

Meanwhile, members of Mother Marianne’s community who did not go with her to Hawaii were faithful too, whatever their ministries.

“That’s what we’re all called to,” said Sister Ann, who is director of formation for her community (now called the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities) and is co-minister at the Franciscan Church of the Assumption in Syracuse. She also works with FrancisCorp, a community-based lay volunteer group, and numerous other collaborative ministries.

Sister Ann’s outreach work doesn’t put her in touch with persons suffering from a horrible disease like leprosy, long since conquered in the First World. But she confronts other conditions that bring isolation and suffering—mental illness, poverty, AIDS, old age. More than 100 years later, the work that Mother Marianne began continues—the work of bringing hope to outcasts.

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