Listen, He’s talking to you

Update, March 29, 2020: It occurs to me that in this period of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, the most loving way to heed Jesus’ command to “Take away the stone” (albeit, virtually and from afar) from our friends, family, and even strangers who are experiencing life-restricting grief and despair is through regular check-ins in, texts, FaceTime (or whatever app you prefer) in order to offer each other life-giving loving support and encouragement.

The Good Disciple

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

Update, March 29, 2020: It occurs to me that in this period of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, the most loving way to heed Jesus’ command to “Take away the stone” (albeit, virtually and from afar) from our friends, family, and even strangers who are experiencing life-restricting grief and despair is through regular check-ins in, texts, FaceTime (or whatever app you prefer) in order to offer each other life-giving loving support and encouragement.

Originally published in 2017

In a reflection on the Lazarus story, the late theologian, Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, wrote, “Resurrection (…) is not so much a theological problem as it is a religious experience. It is not an extravagant miracle happening out there; it means the transforming presence of Jesus within us.”[1]

Stuhlmueller does not spend much time discussing the veracity of the Lazarus story in this reflection; he does not…

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Listen, He’s talking to you

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

Update, March 29, 2020: It occurs to me that in this period of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, the most loving way to heed Jesus’ command to “Take away the stone” (albeit, virtually and from afar) from our friends, family, and even strangers who are experiencing life-restricting grief and despair is through regular check-ins in, texts, FaceTime (or whatever app you prefer) in order to offer each other life-giving loving support and encouragement.

Originally published in 2017

In a reflection on the Lazarus story, the late theologian, Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, wrote, “Resurrection (…) is not so much a theological problem as it is a religious experience. It is not an extravagant miracle happening out there; it means the transforming presence of Jesus within us.”[1]

Stuhlmueller does not spend much time discussing the veracity of the Lazarus story in this reflection; he does not go to lengths to affirm Jesus’ power to return life to his dead friend, as told in John’s gospel. He simply states “Jesus did raise Lazarus back to life.”[2] The Lazarus story is less about the facts and more about coming to believe in Jesus and our role in helping others come to believe. It is here that we experience resurrection.

For many, it is comforting to want to read bible stories as if they were factual accounts of historical events. We imagine that biblical times were an isolated era when the atmosphere crackled with divine sparks, a time of angels and miracles and Prophets and heavenly signs. A time very different from our own, we believe. Why, we wonder, did Jesus walk the earth in that particular time in history? Why not now? Perhaps we just are not paying attention.

This is not an invitation to debate whether or not the Lazarus miracle is based on actual events of Jesus’ earthly ministry or a symbolic foreshadowing of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. But I propose we ask better questions of the text, and allow ourselves to be more curious.

Stuhlmueller wants us to consider the experience of resurrection of the living: those transformative, spirit-led events of our lives. “The resurrection is not completed when our dead bodies are raised to life but when the spirit of Jesus dwells within us, yet, not simply within each of us individually but within all of us as one family.” [3]

“Within all of us as one family.” This is a story not only about coming to believe in Jesus, but a story about community. It is a guide for those who experience periods of despair and suffering and those who companion them.

Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that their brother was dying. They begged him to come to their aid, to save Lazarus. They put their faith in him. But Jesus did not come; he intentionally stayed away, and Lazarus died.

How often have we been Martha and Mary, begging Jesus to hurry to our side because we or our loved one is nearing the end of a long and fruitless struggle?  To be perfectly clear, how often have we wondered why Jesus allowed our worst fears to come to pass?

And then, in our grief Jesus shows up at the gate of our heart, and joins us in our sorrow. Martha and Mary confronted Jesus, they were confused and angry. Why did he abandon them in their time of need? Why, indeed. And in that dark confrontation they reaffirmed their faith in Jesus and the hope for new life was inspired within them.

In recent days, I have been struck by the implicit role of community in the Lazarus story, and in each of our resurrection stories. Consider where you have witnessed a resurrection. You have likely participated in one. Perhaps in your marriage, your family and friends, your church, workplace, in the people you serve, or a stranger?

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

He required the participation of those present, that Lazarus’ friends overcome their reluctance, doubt, and fear of the stench of death, and that they summon the strength to take away the stone that divided the living from the dead.

“They took away the stone.” Do we have the strength to help take away life-restricting stones in service to one another? Stuhlmueller asks, “Are we convinced that new life will come out of our profound collapses?”

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus did. How loud must Jesus be for us to hear him? Listen! It is directed to us.

Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

In Jesus’ other miracles, most recently in the healing of the man born blind, Jesus physically touches the ones he saves. But in this story, it is the friends who do the touching. “Untie him and let him go.”

We are each bound up in our burial cloths, limited by what binds us: our way of thinking, our sense of purpose, our abilities—or lack thereof, our prejudices, and the ever-increasing limitations we use to restrict ourselves and others from the fullness of life: all these bindings need to be loosened and we need to allow others to help us remove them.

The gospel don’t tell us the rest of the story. We don’t know what Lazarus does with his newfound life. It is not important. What is important is what we do with ours. How loud does Jesus need to be?

Today’s readings can be found here.

__________________________

[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.,  Biblical Meditations for Lent, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ, 1978. p 107.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid

Fear has Big Eyes

The Good Disciple

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

Fear has big eyes. With just four words this Russian proverb depicts the wide-eyed countenance of intellectual, emotional and spiritual blindness. Fear garners our trust and our friendship and promises vigilance against threats; it conjures the outline of the thief, murderer, or secret agent lurking in every corner. Fear is a shallow breather, a loud talker; it fortifies walls, builds bunkers, spreads untruths like Round-up on a windy day. There’s a snake under every bed. Therefore, fear never rests. Fear suspects everyone of malevolent intentions. Fear, with its myopic goal of self-preservation, shuts out light, extinguishes hope. This kind of fear has no experience or knowledge of God.

When I created the Good Disciple blog, I designed it as a space to reflect upon the Sunday readings in the context of contemporary Christian discipleship. Now, if you take a trip in the way-back machine and read my reflections from 2015, you may notice

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Though I am lost, I will not fear.

Holy Week (C)

A reflection for anxious wanderers at the start of Holy Week, first published for Palm Sunday, 2016.

Instead of writing about one or more of the readings for Palm Sunday I want to share this prayer from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, a book on the solitary life and the need for quiet reflection. You may already be familiar with the prayer and know Merton’s words are a spiritual balm for a wounded world. Apply liberally, and as often as needed.

 “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[1]

We live in distressing times. It is hard to see the road ahead when dangerous and hateful talk is celebrated by so many and the use of violence so handily defeats dialogue. This is not Godly. None of this is pleasing to God. These are not the actions of people who desire to follow God’s will, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Yet our current chaos is nothing new. These days repeat like a needle stuck in a gouge on the album of human dysfunction. And the reason, Merton concludes, is because we can’t hear.

In the preface to this book Merton writes:

“No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to (people) about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in (a person’s) heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”[2]

And here we have the challenge of our faith and the meaning behind our Lenten experience: To live in a way that is a true expression of our love for God and for our neighbor requires the ability to listen, as Jesus listened. We know that this is a way which is wrought with peril; it requires an open and vulnerable heart, or more accurately, as writer Katharine Mahon so beautifully put it, a “broken heart made whole by God for the sake of loving the world”[3]. We do this willingly and fearlessly because we trust that God will never leave us to face our perils alone.

Blessings to you and your loved ones as you enter Holy Week.

_______________________

[1] Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1956. 79.

[2] Merton. xiii.

[3] Katharine Mahon. “Rend Your Hearts: How to Break your Heart this Lent” Daily Theology, February 10, 2016. http://dailytheology.org/2016/02/10/rend-your-hearts-how-to-break-your-heart-this-lent/ (accessed March 19, 2016).

Making the House Ready for the Lord

pre-dawn

By Mary Oliver

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but

still nothing is as shining as it should be for you.

Under the sink, for example, is an

uproar of mice it is the season of their

many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves

and through the walls the squirrels

have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season

when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And

the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard

while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;

what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling

in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly

up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will

come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,

the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know

that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,

as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

_______

Mary Oliver, Making the House Ready for the Lord, from Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006). 13.

Start with the Sand

Monday, The First Week of Advent

gobi-desert-sand

Is peace among nations possible? Given both the current state of this nation and the record of world history the probability seems bleak. Yet, every year, all around the world on the first weekday of the Advent season, Christians hear Isaiah’s prophecy of nations coming together in peace. And what does the prophet say will bring about this peace? It is the end of war.

Those who learn the ways of the Lord, Isaiah tells us, have no cause to “raise the sword against another” and those who seek to walk in the Lord’s path don’t need to “train for war again.” The prophet’s poetic imagery even suggests a post-war industry that would conserve resources and nourish its inhabitants:  the weapons of war and death will be transformed into agrarian tools such as plows and pruning hooks. [IS 2:1-5]

In his vision for the future of  Judah and Jerusalem, the prophet proclaimed that all nations will “stream towards” the Lord’s mountain; men and women would say to one another: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” [IS 2:3]

Can we imagine our world with its myriad cultures, political systems, economies, religions, and dangerous and hawkish leaders encouraging one another with sincerity to learn the Lord’s ways, and walk in the Lord’s paths? Can we envision the end of war and a society focused on feeding one another? Isaiah could. Jesus could.

Truth be told, there’s a miserable pessimist living rent-free in my brain and it’s crowding out my inner optimist. How can peace be possible if we can’t even accept the basic rights of others, much less talk to them without resorting to ad-hominem insults or “unfriending” them? I am guilty!

When it comes to matters of faith (after all, this is a blog about discipleship) it must be understood that the Lord’s generous and loving ways are universal, and the Lord’s path is abundant and open to all who seek to walk it. God is for everyone. No one faith tradition possesses God, and that is a fact that too many religious leaders, groups and individuals willfully distort for their own ends.

Speaking of universality and all nations, Jesus’ universal mission is hard to mistake in Matthew’s gospel for the first weekday of Advent. The Roman centurion, an outsider, recognized Jesus’ authority which led him to approach Jesus about his paralyzed and suffering servant. To reiterate, the centurion was an outsider; he was not one of Jesus’ followers, yet he saw what all the others failed to see. Jesus’ response to him reminds us of Isaiah’s vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” [MT 8:5-11]

The nations that Isaiah envisioned streaming towards the mountain included men, women and children who belonged to the differing tribes of Israel. Each person turns to the other with encouragement as they climb the great mountain to learn the Lord’s ways and walk in the Lord’s paths. Today, we think of nations, cultures, and religions as solid units; we glom everyone together under a single heading and dismiss those with whom we disagree. I don’t know about you, but I for one, do not want to be pureed into any single group. I prefer salad.

I think this glomming of people is one of the errors underlying the question of why we can’t all just get along. We see groups rather than individual human beings. Birds of a feather may very well flock together, but that doesn’t make them one giant bird.

I am reminded of the well-known lesson first introduced by Steven R. Covey in 1989 in which he demonstrated the art of prioritization by fitting what appeared to be an impossible volume of sand, stones and rocks into a single bucket. He did so by attending to the rocks first and ending with the sand. The point of Covey’s “Big Rocks of Life” lesson is, of course, that all parts fit together when they are addressed in the order of importance. In the nearly three decades since its publication, Covey’s method continues to be popular among students and professionals interested in time management, rocks, stones, pebbles, and then if there’s any room left, the sand.

The problem is that it is the exact opposite of this model that is needed if we are ever to live peacefully.  “Rocks first” affects the way we treat one another. We see groups, not individuals; we see rocks, not sand. And because the sand is the lowest priority, it is neglected. This advent, lets put the rocks aside and start with the sand.

______________

For ideas on how to get to know the other over a meal, I present Elizabeth Lesser’s TED talk, “Take the Other to Lunch” https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_lesser_take_the_other_to_lunch

Also related to mealtime, see journalist David Brooks moving article entitled “The Power of a Dinner Table” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/the-power-of-a-dinner-table.html

If you live in Chicago, lucky you. Check out the Catholic Common Ground Initiative: http://www.ctu.lib.il.us/bernardin-center/catholic-common-ground-initiative

Maybe there is a Commonweal Local Community in your area, and if not, find out how you can start one. https://pages.commonwealmagazine.org/clc/

Readers of this blog with suggestions for how we can get to know one another better are invited to share their ideas in the comment area.

The Choice we Face

This morning after hearing what President Trump said to a cheering mob in Arizona I realized something, he may be a seriously flawed human being but he is no idiot.

No doubt, Trump’s words and actions point to an abject deficiency in critical thinking skills and an astonishing lack of tact. For that reason I and countless others have comforted ourselves with clever jokes exposing what we perceive to be pure idiocy and attacking his followers for being so gullible as to believe he actually cares about them.

But I no longer get the same satisfaction from sarcastic retorts to his daily stream of outlandish tweets and public statements. I’m not shaking my head in disbelief as often. The frequency by which I have plucked and hurled insults from the tree of low hanging epithets is waning. There is no comic relief. We are in trouble.

He bragged about his brain, and we laughed. Yeah, right, he has a really good brain. It’s not funny. Trump is incrementally dismantling established confidence in the various known thinking institutions through which (and despite which) the United States thrives. By targeting the media, for example, he is removing our right to make our own decisions. When Trump shouts “fake news” he is obstructing freedom of the press, de-legitimizing the role of the professional journalist, and convincing his base that they, too, are being victimized.

While we were laughing we just couldn’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea that his self-aggrandizement and predilection for “American First” was more than it appeared. It was too outrageous to imagine. He may be a jackass, but never this. Warnings during the election campaign were given the same respect as Chicken Little crying that the sky was falling.  We were too self-confident to believe his campaign speeches were more than bluster, he really didn’t want to be president, he would resign once he found out what a tough job it was, it was all for show, we thought. We never would have entertained the idea that as president he would both reject and fail to condemn Neo-Nazi’s and White Supremacists. He’s whipping up his base, softening them to the idea of White supremacism, applauding their patriotism and accusing his opponents of hating America.

I am sickened and horrified when I read comments from people I know, people who might not consider themselves members of Trump’s base suggesting that this whole Neo-Nazi resurgence is really no big deal since they existed as a fringe group for decades, and can we please stop talking about it now and share more pictures of baby animals, and even some brave souls asking what’s wrong with defending our nation’s White history.

Here’s what’s wrong. Aside from the fact that the United States’ white history was won on the backs of people of color, the softening towards a supremacist, nationalistic way of thinking is precisely the way the German people, defeated and disillusioned after World War I, fell into the arms of Hitler.

Trump is not Hitler, but his modus operandi is the same. He’s building a business and his supporters are his product. He’s rebranding the “American way” so there is uniformity and only one voice: his. The way of achieving uniformity is to inflame his followers so they do the work of pushing his opposition out, to silence and to terrorize. Trump is turning Americans against each other in ways that we never imagined could happen again.

And some of his ‘Christian’ base claim this is God’s will, that this presidency was pre-ordained by God. No. God’s will is that all of creation will reflect God’s glory by doing what Jesus Christ asked us to do. Need a refresher? click here.

To believe that this administration or its mission is Godly is a gross distortion of the teachings of Jesus Christ, a bastardization of the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor, and an outright rejection of God’s abundant love for all of God’s creation. If religious leaders aren’t willing to correct this false belief they need to reconsider their calling.

Are we better than this? I believe so.

No matter what side of the aisle you align yourself with sit up straight and pay attention: this is more than politics. Pay attention. Read world history. Read the work of seasoned journalists and quality, non-inflammatory publications and programs. Recognize the difference between news and entertainment. Look beyond your own back yard and get to know people who think, look, pray and come from places and families unlike yours. Seek ways to bring about a more just society that serves the least, first.

Recognize that the current administration is damaging the soul of our country and its citizens; it’s more than politics.

This is our choice. We can continue along the easy route to oblivion joking and flinging insults at one another, cultivating the ideal environment for hate groups to thrive, and giving Trump carte blanche to further divide us and destroy our Union, or can we do the hard work to come together as a people, rejecting hateful ideologies and standing up for what is right.

Read up:

https://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007671

https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/table-contents

https://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/before-1933