Forgive Us Our Sins

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Are you having a hard time? Me too. I’m a prayerful person, a faith-filled person. But the world feels heavy; bleak is too flowery a word to describe it. Frankly, what I’ve witnessed in the past twelve months has nearly stunned me into silence. And when there are no words I know it is time for me to enter into a period of even deeper prayer and reflection.

The concise version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel—just 38 words in my translation—provides a much needed anchor. That economy of words does not equate simplicity however, particularly as regards the reciprocal nature of forgiveness.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God will forgive us in the same manner that we forgive one another [Luke 11:4]. Considering our track record I think we need to attend more closely to our end of that bargain. Shall we?

I’m also struck by the last verse of today’s gospel in which Jesus reveals that the answer to our prayers comes in the form of the Holy Spirit [Luke 11:13].

How often have we complained that our prayers go unanswered, and how close are some of us to giving up on prayer altogether (a.k.a. Is God deaf to our cries?) when perhaps it is we who aren’t listening. Maybe we ignore the stirrings of the Spirit, especially when the alternative means we are the ones who must change our ways.

All that ignoring has somehow brought us to this place.

The response to fear which is playing out in social, economic, political, and religious arenas here in the United States and all around the world is to seal ourselves off from having to deal with one another, but in doing so, we are in danger of suffocating in the stench of our own waste.

Come on. Please forgive my ineloquence, but we have to do better than this.

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(I’ll be taking the next few weeks off from posting on The Good Disciple to air out my house.)

The Breath of The One Who Gives Us Life

Pentecost Sunday (C)

(Adapted from a previous post: 2015)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter.

I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. My breath calmed her.

Any new parent knows that some infants continue to cry even after every possible need has been taken care of. Babies cry. It’s what they do. Unless there is some kind of health problem, newborn crying may just be related to the developing central nervous system; some experts suggest that parents should, on occasion, allow an infant to “cry it out.”

I was convinced that my daughter’s distress was more about her adjustment to life outside my womb, so I carried her in a baby sling wrapped tightly against my chest. Now it seemed that my breath had the ability to calm her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart did.

I later learned that this breathing technique is used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to take a deep breath and hold it. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believed my ability to calm my newborn daughter with my breath had less to do with science and everything to do with her recognition of me through it.

The breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, have a significant presence in the Bible, and for Christians, no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Jesus’ Holy Spirit was poured out onto the disciples.

The Christian Liturgy for the feast of Pentecost includes two distinct accounts of this event: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. In both instances, the disciples were in Jerusalem, together in one place, grieving their beloved friend, Jesus.

The first account comes from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes place after  Jesus’ ascension, seven weeks after the Passover on the festival of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The second account comes from the Gospel of John. It describes the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the group of disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his death. Recall that the grief-stricken, and confused disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just days before [John 20:19-23].

In Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of Jesus’ disciples, nor would they have gone over the heads of John’s or Luke’s astute readers. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, the Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols served as links between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and pointed to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although calm and reassuring, has the same powerful effect as the wind and flames in Acts. Jesus breathed on the disciples, and with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renewed, reassured, and empowered his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been.

Recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man:

Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. —Gen 2:7

For Jesus’ disciples, the communities for whom Luke and John wrote, and all Christians ever since, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples responded with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization of their ability to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now renewed and empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the church was born.

The memory of my inconsolable newborn daughter being calmed and reassured by my breath makes me wonder what it felt like for the disciples to have the risen Jesus breathe on them. I wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on me today. I hope that I would recognize him. Do we recognize the breath of the one who gives us new life?

[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

Love is greater than fear

love over fear

I can’t stop thinking about the community of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Their witness to the power of love overcoming fear has filled me with awe.

First, because to the great shame of our nation, and as recent events in other parts of the United States have shown, racism against Black Americans continues to rear its poisonous and malformed face in deadly ways. A fearful, self-protective stance would be the expected response, and yet, this is not what occured. Second,  in this beautiful witness to the power of love I perceive the transformative, life-giving movement of the Spirit of God actively mending their brokenness.

This community, victims of racial terrorism that took the lives of nine members of their congregation, has every reason to become fearful and guarded, angry and vengeful. The details of this story have probably been reported thousands of times since it happened on the evening of June 17, 2015, and they should continue to be repeated, talked about, reflected upon, and remembered. Six women and three men were murdered by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who just moments before opening fire on them had joined the small group for Bible study. Yet, days later at Roof’s hearing, we heard the victim’s family members speaking words of forgiveness to him, and offering prayers for his soul. At that point, my husband turned to me and suggested that the real story is not the one about Dylann Roof. Rather, the real story is the way members of this community have chosen to push back from violence in the most counter-cultural way. Instead of falling into the abyss of fear they seem to be rising up through the pain—indeed, an historic pain—as a new creation that is stronger, more loving, and clearly a reflection of the merciful and forgiving God whom they worship.

“I forgive you.” These words hold all the power. But the ability to forgive the cold-blooded murderer of a loved one is incomprehensible to many. Forgiveness takes time, and healing and courage, and usually requires some sense that the other party is remorseful. Some things, it would seem, simply cannot be forgiven. But the inability to forgive can also perpetuate a sense of powerlessness, of being held hostage by the past. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is not done to relieve the other party. It does not signify coming to terms or pushing one’s suffering to the side. It does not mean the systemic causes leading to the injury escape without correction. In many cases, its strength emerges from the victim’s desire to be free from the prison of hate that caused the pain. Incomprehensible as it seems in cases like this, Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, and Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor tell us it is possible to forgive. Unburdened, the one who forgives takes on the healing power of love, which is the basis of forgiveness.

The Christian spiritual practice of forgiveness is an expression of God’s love. I sense that for the members of Emanuel AME Church, forgiveness is as foundational a spiritual practice as regular Sunday worship; it nourishes their understanding of the God who saves and who is love. Further, this community’s witness to the power of love overcoming fear seems to point to a particular awareness of the Mystery of God which can be summed up in the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain — wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.” [Kasper, God of Jesus Christ (ch 2 n. 11)]

Because love is—and always be—greater than fear.

And the infant church was born.

Pentecost Sunday (B)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter. I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. The feeling of my breath calmed her. Infants will cry for any and every reason, and even after having every need fulfilled, they. just. cry. Experts say crying is related to the developing central nervous system, but as far as I was concerned my baby girl’s distress was more about her new life outside my womb. From the very start, I carried her in a sling wrapped tightly against my chest, but now it seemed that my breath calmed her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart. I later learned that blowing on an infant’s face is used in many settings. For example, it is one of the techniques used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to hold their breath underwater. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believe my ability to calm my newborn daughter in this way had less to do with science and more to do with her recognition of me through my breath.

Biblically speaking, the breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, are highly significant symbols. And no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Christians celebrate the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples. The Christian Liturgy for Pentecost includes two distinct accounts: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, occurs on the festival of Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks). Shavuot commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The second account comes from the Gospel of John and describes the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his resurrection.

Both texts tell us the disciples were all together in one place. In the first account, the disciples stayed behind in Jerusalem just as they had been instructed to do after witnessing Jesus’ ascension [Acts 1:6-12]. In John’s Gospel, the disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days before [John 20:19-23]. We can presume in both instances the disciples were praying. However, in Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of the disciples. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols indicate similarities between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and point to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although quieter, has the same powerful effect. Jesus breathes on them. And with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renews, reassures, and empowers his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been. Even more significantly, he gives them new life in the Spirit. Now recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man [Gen 2:7]. For the disciples, the community for whom Luke wrote, and all Christians, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples respond with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization they have both the ability and the wisdom to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the infant Church was born.

While I was reflecting on these readings, I began to think about spiritual maturity. The early days of faith formation are a kind of infancy during which seekers need to be fed, consoled, taught and reassured. The memory of breathing on my baby’s face led me to wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on mine. I can say with confidence there would be no more tears!

Like those before us, the way in which we respond to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and our ongoing discipleship has everything to do with spiritual maturity. Are we willing to be sent out? Do we recognize the breath of the one who sends us?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

________________

[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

Who has a problem with inclusiveness? (Hint: It’s not God)

6th Sunday of Easter (B)

Religious institutions and people of faith often have trouble accepting that God’s lavish expression of love is for everyone. Some believe it is their solemn duty to enforce standards on those they consider, say, not yet ready for full and active participation.

Is it helpful, or even our right, to remind those we deem to be sinners of Jesus’ command to “sin no more” while we half-heartedly obey his command to love one another? What? We are good people! We love our neighbors! All are welcome in our faith communities! It’s just that some are more welcome than others.

We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the early church grew in great numbers despite established religious boundaries and parameters. It became apparent to Peter and the others that the Holy Spirit moved where it willed and that human constructs of cleanliness, worth, nationality, gender or rank were meaningless to God. Consequentially, the young Christian movement reinterpreted itself as universal, or catholic (small c). Peter observed, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10:34b-35]

In the late 1960s, a book entitled “Tough Love” suggested a method of discipline that gave permission to treat others harshly as a means of helping them to conform. The theory goes something like this: If we deprive a person of affection, cease material support, and shun them they will soon realize they have been wrong and return to the fold as a conforming citizen. Although the method has been effective in some cases, it has also been known to be harmful. Many faith communities practice a form of tough love on those standing on the outside who wish to come in. This is not the way Jesus loves us, and it’s not the way the Father loves him. Furthermore, this is not what it means to remain—to be included—in his love. And that’s the point.

Jesus said: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” [John 15:9]

And, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” [John 15:12]

And, “This I command you: love one another.” [John 15:17]

Jesus doesn’t add any exemptions to his instruction. He doesn’t say, “This I command you: love one another, except when they are A, B, or C, in which case you may withhold your love until they comply.” Radical and inclusive love is difficult for a lot of people. Our world is troubled because many of us don’t know how to love others outside of our immediate circle. More fundamentally, we are unwilling to expose ourselves first to the radical love that God showers upon us.

My dear friend, Fr. Joel Fortier, exemplifies what it means to love one another and remain in Jesus’ love. His whole life and ministry are all about facilitating loving human relationships, and I and countless others have experienced God’s love through him. He once told me, “Early in my priesthood, a friend asked me what my priesthood meant to me, and out of my mouth came without any hesitation or forethought, “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”” This statement has become the core of his pastoral plan. It is being love, encountering love and knowing his own belovedness that leads Fr. Joel to act. “It happens with sharing my time and presence in Word, Eucharist, thought, and action. In works of compassion, listening, and material physical help.” It is in the mutual indwelling of God that Fr. Joel finds and shares God’s initiative and grace with others. Being able to do so, he says, “is the joy and the ecstasy of life!”

When we become aware of our “being first loved” by God, just as Jesus was, we can take the first step to loving one another with a radical and inclusive love. Peter gradually came to understood this through his experience of knowing Jesus and was able to recognize it in the emerging Christian community.

A funny thing happens when someone experiences the expression of God’s lavish initiative through radical and inclusive love. He or she then becomes more capable than ever before to share that love with others. It increases, and it flows into every crevice of human interaction. It’s unstoppable.

With this understanding, who could be left out?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Pentecost Sunday: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled

pentecostSomething many Christians do not realize is that Pentecost (or Shavuot) is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Originally a time of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, Shavuot also commemorates God’s giving of the Law to Moses.

On that day in the upper room the Apostles were devoting themselves to prayer according to their tradition. And, just as the Law of Moses unified Israel, the events of this particular Shavuot following the Ascension of Christ, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, gave birth to the Christian Church.

Imagine the energy! The Apostles, Jesus’ mother, Mary, some women, and his brothers (Acts 1:12-14) were together in the upper room pouring themselves into prayer. They were afraid and confused. We can imagine their discussions as they expressed to one another all that they knew of recent events–what they knew to be true. They prayed together. And the Holy Spirit responded by igniting within them a holiness that manifested itself in language, a language which needs no translation. The Spirit becoming Word. The Word made flesh!

Then they left the safety of the upper room and went out into the streets and astonished everyone with their passion for sharing the Word.

When we speak of the mighty acts of God, we speak the same language.

It is that same Holy Spirit which drives each one of us to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Let us celebrate the fulfillment of Pentecost—the birth of the Church—by recalling the Shavuot, by devoting ourselves to prayer, contemplating the living Body of Christ in whom we dwell, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to ignite our passion for sowing the Gospel seeds!