Religion

Tear Down the Ingratitude, Not the Junípero Serra Statues

Statue of Father Junípero Serra at the Carmel Mission in Carmel, Calif. (Michael Fiala/Reuters)
How about a little learning from the tenderness in history?

‘Here is the truth. . . . From us there is nothing except ingratitude.” That comes from a sermon by Saint Junípero Serra, founder of the California missions. He’s currently being expunged from the state — and I wouldn’t bet against the U.S. Capitol building before too long. Watching the scenes around the Golden State and the country, I’m thinking he was a prophet. The ingratitude seems to capture what we’re watching, as a stubborn, violent ignorance seems to reign as the likes of Serra and Abraham Lincoln and even Jesus Himself are being targeted.

Statues and buildings and businesses, of course, are not the most important things. Neither are churches, as they too are targeted by mobs and people with platforms. I have spent most of my recent days inside a building with a statue of Christ outside, wondering whether there was something inevitable about a defacing or beheading, at best, listening to some of the rhetoric via social media. And of course, the angering thing about that fear that sets in is what the New Testament in particular tells us about Jesus and His ways, which also happens to be what Junípero Serra taught about God and, by the way, the Franciscan missionary lived throughout  his life.

Junípero Serra lived in a cruel time. (We do too, in many ways.) But he loved and struggled for the people he served in counter-cultural ways. And every time I read another story of a confrontation at one of his statues — or that officials in San Francisco were buying into supposedly mainstream comparisons of him to Hitler — I can’t help but think: What if we stopped and tried to learn from the man, instead of doubling down on our ignorance?

Only four sermons from Serra still exist. In one, he talks about our ingratitude, as previously mentioned. (The sermons are translated by Rose Marie Beebe, a professor at Santa Clara University.) And he contrasts God’s ways with ours. From the Lord, everything stems from His infinite mercy. That is why the verse says, because I am merciful.”

“So . . . Listen to what the Lord says through Isaiah [46:8]: Remember this in your heart, you transgressors. I beg you to reflect for a moment on what is occurring in your heart. It is completely clothed in earthly emotions, and it is full of impatience, anger, and other faults.” But there is hope! “The same heart also contains the opposite.” We are a mix of earthly and heavenly concerns, and God invites us to become more and more of the heavenly.

That’s the stuff of hope. Like many of us, I get frustrated listening to the mobs and at some of the words being hurled at police and others trying to do their job, overwhelmed at the same time by some of the righteous anger that many hold in their hearts, suffering from many injustices. These words from Serra remind me that there is a goodness in man and that the possibilities are infinite, as frustrated as we may be at ourselves and others.

In a recent video on social media, a police officer schools a hysterical young woman in the ways of God, offering that He may just be what she is missing in her life. Serra talks about the tenderness of God. At times, he seems to be preaching to the crowds on our streets today who are at war with reality, our history, and, at times, the police, as well as to those of us watching on cable news or down the block.

Remember this in your heart, and there you will find the Lord, who was knocking on the door and calling: I will speak to his heart. I beg you to let Him in. Do this simply because, in His infinite mercy, He loves you. Remember this in your heart. Because if you know how to taste the sweet voices of the Lord, you will assure yourself of a more rational life and you will resist the voices with which your enemy wants to corrupt you over and over again.

One of my fears about these past months is that we have become more isolated from the big picture — the opportunity to see things from a broader vantage point than what’s on the news right now. State and local officials haven’t considered churches essential, and that says a lot about a people. We have lessons to learn about who we are and who we are meant to be in some of the history that is being targeted by vandals in search of meaning. When we show the truth about the fullness of the human heart by the way we love one another — and forgive and ask forgiveness, even and especially at this time of fear and anger and all the rest — more will see. Even statues that the mobs are targeting will oddly give me some confidence. Somewhere in our hearts, we know what we want and need. We’re drawn to the good, even if we sometimes make a mess of it when we get there. We eradicate evil, one choice at a time, by love, not by expunging memory. We want to heal, not live a lie.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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