In the Din of our Discontent there lies the Burning Bush

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

I love Moses. I love reading the stories surrounding his birth and adoption, his privileged upbringing, his character and his development as a leader. I love his cautious response to his calling, his developing relationship with God and his honest and forthright expression of frustration both with his work and with the people he was called to lead.

I’m grateful that the Hebrew Scriptures do not sugarcoat or disguise the faults and limitations of God’s chosen leaders and people. What this tells us is that God works through sinful people, and that is excellent news for us. Moses, for example, exhibited real and understandable emotions and weaknesses, making him, for me, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the Bible. And he’s more like you and me than one would think.

The first reading for the third week of Lent tells the story of Moses’ calling and commissioning. [Ex 3:1-8, 13-15]. The text tells us that while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of the Lord visited him in the form of a burning bush. (For those who are paying attention, any time an angel or fire appears in Scripture something really big is about to happen. Here we have both!) Naturally, Moses was curious and turned to investigate how a bush could burn and not be destroyed. But before Moses could get closer, God called his name, as if to say, “Moses, this is not about the bush! This entire place is holy!”

Today as we reflect on Moses’ calling consider the burning bushes in your life. Moses witnessed the misery of his kinsman; he saw the injustice of their bondage and infighting [Ex 2:11-15].  What are the needs that demand your attention, what compels you to service? Do you recognize the holy ground beneath your feet? Ask yourself these questions, frequently. Because like the bush that burned but was not destroyed, our callings persist.

Moses became the official spokesperson for God, the hero of the Exodus story, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments and the fearless wilderness wanderer guiding thousands of liberated people to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” [Ex 3:8b]

But Moses himself did not get to see the Promised Land. Frankly, being on a first-name basis with God has its rewards, but it’s not all chocolates and roses. At the time of his calling Moses was so frightened by the power of God’s presence he hid his face [Ex 3:6]. He had serious doubts about his leadership abilities [Ex 3:11-14]. And on multiple occasions Moses questioned God’s motivation for saddling him with such a burdensome people [Numbers 11 is a doozy]. And they were a miserable bunch: their appalling lack of gratitude, their murmuring and grumbling about the food and conditions, and pining for a misremembered past, their abject disaffection with the present, skepticism about the future, their fickleness and idolatry, their lack of faith, and utter disrespect for Moses, and their rejection of God.

Still, through it all, Moses’ confidence in God’s faithfulness to him never wavered; he turned to God for strength and guidance again and again; he forged on, and he got the job done.

From the perspective of the post-exilic Jews, these stories were painful reminders of why they lost everything and were exiled to Babylon: they had forgotten who they were. But this understanding cemented the identity of Israel as a people freed from slavery by the hand of God; this truth is the heart of the Jewish faith. Moses completed the mission God entrusted to him and left an “afterwards[1]” that continues to grow stronger. The history of the Jewish people attests to this truth. This is our story too.

Because we live in a world of grumblers, I am sympathetic both to Moses and the people he led through the wilderness. We are a sorry, ungrateful, and dissatisfied mob. It is becoming harder and harder to fend off feelings of despair. Every day we read reports that tell us how far off the path we have stumbled. We are heading in the wrong direction. We have lost our way in the wilderness. Even worse is the knowledge we are willingly being led off that cliff.

Have we also forgotten who we are?

But listen carefully. Through the din of our discontent we can make out the sound of hope. It is there. I know it is there. It is rising up. It is a burning bush, do you perceive it? Take off your shoes.

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Art: Kristen Gilje, Burning Bush, hand painted silk, 9ft. x 55 in., 2005

[1] Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Christian Life Patterns: The Psychological Challenges and Religious Invitations of Adult Life, Crossroad, New York. 1979. 152. The phrase, “leaving an afterwards” describes the selfless quality of intentionally devoting one’s life to something which we will not live to see completed. This ability to see beyond one’s own pleasure to the consequences future generations will face is dearly lacking in today’s socio-political climate. What kind of “afterwards” are we leaving?

Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

There are pivotal moments, for those who are attentive to them, when God’s presence is indisputable. For many, simply being in a natural setting is enough to attune the senses to a greater awareness of God, and God’s desire for us. Awe opens our hearts to listening and transformation. Prayer takes us there. The readings for the Second week of Lent speak to two of these moments.

First, for those unfamiliar with the word Theophany, it refers to those times in the bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures when God makes Godself unmistakably present to human beings, and this divine manifestation leads to callings, covenants, commands, and missions. Modern day people do not experience Theophanies in the same way Scripture tells us Abram, or Moses, or Elijah did. In fact, we get really nervous around people who claim that God literally speaks to them. But, we do experience moments of God’s presence and grace during prayer, in human relationships, and our interactions with nature. Many times these experiences simply affirm our faith, others are transformative and steer us toward making difficult changes or decisions.

The story of Abram’s deepening trust and growing relationship with God leads to a covenant between God and all of Abram’s descendants. Standing in awe beneath the canopy of stars, the elderly and childless Abram puts his trust in God’s promise to bless him with descendants greater in number than the uncountable stars overhead. This remarkable relationship between Abram and God is sealed with a ceremonial pact, like that between friends. God instructs Abram to bring a variety of animals and birds to the ceremony, but the symbolism recedes against the do-or-die oath to which both Abram and God agreed.

Abram’s star-gazing reminds me of the summer of my sixteenth year when I spent a week with my best friend and her family at their lake house on Sodus Bay, NY. We sunbathed, boy-watched, and sailed, but the nights were the best by far. On more than one occasion we ignored the closed gates of the public beach, spread our blankets on the still warm sand and lay beneath the stars, our conversations revolving at first around the things 16 year old girls talk about, but later taking a philosophical turn.

Light pollution did not exist in those days; the grand homes along the shore were discretely illuminated, unlike the runway lighting that seems to be used today. The beach was dark, optimal for star gazing. As our eyes adjusted we entered the vastness of space. My sight went beyond the sprinkling of the brightest stars, recognizable constellations and occasional meteor shower, through the gossamer folds of the Milky Way, going farther, visually dissecting the darkness in search of the most distant galaxies. More than I could fathom, far more than even young eyes could take in, the light of countless stars surpassed the darkness. Space, my view of infinity and all that was known and yet to be known was radiant, diaphanous, yet somehow opaque. It was like a prayer. It was a prayer. My God! My small, young life lay like a single grain of sand beneath the vastness of the universe and the history of the world. Uncountable. Uncounted, except by my creator, whose illusive existence was gradually concretizing for me. Theophany? Probably not. Grace? Absolutely.

What about Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop? Is Luke’s gospel account the story of Jesus’ definitive prayer experience, or the disciples’ comprehension of Jesus’ true identity? Was Jesus the only one who was transfigured?

Jesus went to the mountain to pray; he needed to discern the timing of his final mission. Should he leave Galilee when there was still so much more to do, or should he face the inevitable, prepare his disciples for his departure, and start his death march to Jerusalem? Did Jesus’ decision include turning to his knowledge of the Law and Prophets? The appearance of Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain tells us so.

Both Moses and Elijah experienced theophanies on mountaintops, in fact the same mountain: Mt. Horeb. God spoke to Moses from within thick cloud [Exodus 19:9]; Elijah heard the Lord’s voice in a whisper [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Both men received instructions from God as to what they were to do.

And “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The result of Jesus’ intense prayer was visible clarity.

Peter, James and John, asleep as usual, woke up just in time to witness Jesus’ glory. Groggy but still able to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening Peter tried to make the moment last. But a cloud descended on the mountain, enveloping everyone, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the terrified Peter, James and John. And God spoke “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

While not in the same league as The Transfiguration of Jesus, there is always something sacred about our literal mountain top experiences. There are certain things that can be seen and understood from the top that cannot be grasped from below.

My husband and I have completed many challenging day hikes in New York State, Vermont, California, and Utah, to name a few locations. And I have had a few of what I might call moments of clarity upon reaching the summits. One memorable example occurred on a perfectly clear summer day at the top of Black Mountain, a modest peak amidst the mighty Adirondacks, but a perfect climb for a young family like ours. If you are familiar with this hike you will recall the moment when at the highest point the trail opens near a fire tower to the north, with a spectacular view of all of Lake George and surrounding mountains up to the southernmost part of Lake Champlain. I remember standing at the summit with my family, my heart pounding, my eyes flooding with tears, a great lump forming in my throat, and the only words I could form were ones of gratitude for the abundant glory of creation and my ability to experience it with my husband and daughters.

God speaks. God is present.

“Love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18

 

A Guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

God is hopelessly helplessly in love with us! God created us; we are God’s handiwork, the apple of God’s eye, the work of God’s hands! God delights in us!

God is ever faithful, God cannot be other than who God is, God is Love! God is total unequivocal pure love, pure positive energy and light. “God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all!” (1 Jn 1:5)

In that purity of love is freedom, the freedom to be vulnerable, the freedom to lay down your life in love. “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down freely.” (Jn 10:17-18)

That is the freedom love gives us, freedom from fear; the freedom to be vulnerable, completely vulnerable just as Christ was, to freely lay down our lives.

Just as lovers sometimes feel hopelessly helplessly in love when people capture our hearts, smitten with Cupid’s arrow, so did our God let his/her heart be captured by us. And what did we do with it when we captured the Sacred Heart of Christ? We pierced it with an arrow; we lanced it with a spear, and out flowed the blood of Christ, washing us and our robes white in the blood of the Lamb, in the pure love of God.

Why did, why would, our God do that? So that the incredibly faithful and vulnerable love of God for us might cause us to trust love, to be as vulnerable, to lower our defenses, free from fear, free to love, allowing our hearts to be captured and enraptured by God. It is to fall into the arms of love, surrendering our wills to the will of God…to be loved; to be caught up in the net of love Jesus casts for all people, just as God is caught up in love with us!

It is God’s intention to catch and raise us all up to share in the very Glory and life of God; to be held…as one with God in Christ, to be held…as one with God in Love…forever. God wants to be known and freely loved by us, just as we are known and freely loved by God, into eternity! (1 Cor. 13:12) The Beatific Vision! That’s what lovers do! What a great way to spend eternity, gazing into the face and eyes of God, falling more and more deeply into infinite mystery of love!

That is the divine will, purpose, and plan God revealed to us in Jesus. (Jn 6:38-39)

“Fear is useless, what is needed is trust” (Mk 5:36) Take the leap! Let yourself be caught!

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovers!

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Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

Travel light during Lent

Ash Wednesday

The season of Lent is a journey with a profound destination; it is an adventure through which we can be forever changed. Some travelers go solo and many travel in groups, but only one item is required for passage: the sincere desire and willingness to be transformed.

Think of Lent as a special time to assess the direction of your prayer life. Is it leading you to a deeper realization of who Jesus is? Is it helping you to live in right relationship with others, with all of creation? As Christians, we naturally want to accompany Jesus and become more secure in our belief; we might also find we share many traits with Jesus’ companions. Do we, like they, still not understand? Can we understand?

Look, all spiritual journeys are accompanied by two guides: faith and doubt. Our desire to believe compels us to seek, but the need to comprehend challenges those yearnings. We want to understand, but our tendency to make sense frequently interferes with our ability to experience God’s nearness. Like the father of the boy possessed we cry out to Jesus “I do believe; help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:24].

Travel light. Eliminate distractions. Begin and end each day with a prayer “Lord, is this the path you want me to walk?” and take it from there. Pay close attention. God’s response requires attentive listening. Disciplined, focused, charitable, and prayerful stops along the way will guide your spiritual renewal, to fresh experiences of faith which lead to transformation.

The readings for today can be found here.

Here I am! Send me!

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

In a reflection on Luke’s gospel account of the call of Simon-Peter, the theologian Jack Shea writes “The purpose of hearing the word is to be “caught” by it, to have it illumine the mind and inspire the will to such an extent that is changes the processes of thinking and acting”[1]. He goes on to say that when fish are caught, they move from darkness to light, just like people who hear Jesus’ word do.

But when fish are caught, they die and become food for people. In a similar sense, when people are caught by the Word, and practice Jesus’ way, they die to themselves; they become more others-centered, and become “food” for others.

Simon could not catch fish. He tried all night without success. Obviously this was not always the case; he had a fishing business, and the text says James and John were his partners. [LK 5:7]. It’s safe to say they were able to support themselves as fishermen, perhaps even up to that day. But after they were “caught” by Jesus’ word, everything changed.

Jesus’ word caused Simon to go deep, to go out into deep water. Deep waters are risky, but the greatest variety of fish dwell in them. When he did what Jesus told him to do, Simon experienced an abundance that frightened him. He knew it was not through his expertise as a fisherman that he brought in the catch. It is not through our abilities that we are able to do what we do either.

Simon’s nets were filled with fish to the point of tearing and the catch was almost more than the boat could bear. He was overcome with a sense of unworthiness and inadequacy. But Jesus shut him down. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians points to his prior sinfulness as a malformation, and yet he received the gospel, he experienced the risen Lord, and he was transformed. [1 Cor 15:1-11]. The prophet Isaiah, when he received his calling thought he was doomed, saying “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” But when he heard the Lord calling “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah cried out “Here I am! Send me!” [IS 6:1-8].

God chooses the least expected ones; no one is beyond the reach of the net; no one is too sinful to do God’s work. Listen, something greater is at work within you. Go deep. Be small. Always work to build up the church–the people of God. Do everything in Love; recognize what is of value and what should be tossed overboard. Be a good disciple. Never stop studying, learning and practicing what Jesus taught. Don’t be afraid of transformation; your likeness to Christ is coming forth. You can do so much more than you believe yourself to be capable of doing.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] John Shea. 2006. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 37.