Listen, He’s talking to you

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

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 (more…)

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.

_____________________________________

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

Compassion: I Suffer With You

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Earlier this week I awoke to the news that an infant was born in an area hospital to a 31-year old Honduran woman infected with the Zika virus. The mother was visiting the United States at the time of her daughter’s birth, and the child was born with microcephaly, a severe fetal brain defect caused by the Zika virus. According to a report on abcnews.go.com “The infant is only the second baby suspected of being born in the U.S. with the Zika virus-related birth defect, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain. Another baby was born with the condition in Hawaii earlier this year.”

How frightened that new mother must be. On the most fundamental level, the depth of her sorrow, and worry about her adequacy as a mother, and the sheer injustice of chance is more than I can comprehend. Through no fault of her own, she was bitten by a virus-carrying mosquito during her pregnancy. Because of this, her baby girl, like the thousands of other similarly afflicted infants born around the globe, and those yet to be born before this virus is eradicated, will never experience the fullness of their life’s flourishing.

The story of the Zika birth on U.S. soil flooded social media outlets. Armchair judges shared the news wildly, many adding their condemnation of the new mother and child for the entire world to see. I was not aware that so many people manage to remain alive with hearts made of stone.

“So now the American tax-payers have a new citizen requiring expensive, life-long care”

“This is total bullsh*t. She should have been put on a plane and sent right back to Honduras. You can bet she has no means to pay for this health care, so we the taxpayers will foot the bill.”

“It really sucks, I’m sure, to think that your pregnancy is effected by Zika, but it also sucks that someone comes to this country to give birth and milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in Healthcare services for your delivery and child when those who have been a taxpayer and a citizen isn’t getting that health care and being treated as a drain on the nation we’ve paid taxes to. Now this kid is a US citizen and can get a free ride on medical care, food, etc. We have got to change our laws, because people who are actual citizens are getting shafted.”

“So if you have a heathy heard of cattle would you bring in a cow knowing it had hoof and mouth disease? As simple as that. Wonder how much it will cost? They knew she had it!”

For some people, the value of life is “as simple as that.” The scale that weighs human worth is calibrated with the amount of taxes one pays into the system. Clearly, some people in our society think it is fine to abandon women and children who cannot support themselves. It is no exaggeration to observe how little we have progressed from the biblical culture in which it was acceptable for women who lacked male support to become destitute.

Am I judgmental? I admit I am. This whole way of thinking is excruciatingly painful to me. Still, I continue to hope in the inherent goodness of humankind.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that callous responses to the suffering of others are a learned behavior birthed from deep insecurities and the fear of losing one’s identity. I feel sorry for people who feel threatened or displaced by the needs of others and who find justification in their meanness and lack of kindness.

Still, we are all works in progress—myself included—and I believe hardened hearts can be softened, walls can be taken down, and layers of fear can be peeled away. It begins with the practice of suffering with one another: compassion.

Compassionate acts have the power to energize those whose lives are waning. Through our care and concern, God’s love for us is made known.

How often do we feel compelled to do unsolicited acts of kindness, empathy, and seek companionship, and friendship? Something as simple as a smile or a door held open for one who is suffering, and the seemingly random but thoughtful acts when one individual takes a moment to recognize another’s distress are examples of how God’s presence is revealed in human action.

Sometimes we are the dead who need resuscitating.

Luke’s Gospel story of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-17] provides us with a profound example of the life-giving power of compassion.

As Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd following him neared the entrance to the city of Nain they passed a widow accompanying the body of her only son to his burial place outside the city walls.

In biblical times, a woman’s identity and survival depended on male support. With the death of her son, the widow of Nain’s life also ended; the funeral procession was her own. She had no place to call home, no financial support, no identity; she was no longer a contributing member of society.

Jesus was moved with pity by the sight. The painful loss of the woman’s beloved son, his companionship, his care and his love for her ceased, and the future she faced as a childless widow moved Jesus to save her life by restoring the life of her son.

The challenge of compassionate living is not the same as the clichéd “what would Jesus do?” although WWJD has led people to make more life-giving and peaceable choices in difficult situations.

Compassion is about allowing God’s presence to work in us, with us and through us. Another person’s compassion or tenderness towards us has the power to restore us to a more abundant life.

Our concern and empathy for the plight of another, like the Zika-stricken Honduran woman and her microcephalic infant daughter, has the power to transform her life and ours from one state of being to another, from future without hope to one that offers the promise of abundant life.

Compassion is about taking on the cloak of the Prophet, dying to our own needs and fears, and joining them to one another’s.

That’s the miracle of restoring life to one whose life is all but lost.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us: The Body and Blood of Christ

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)

Many years ago, in another city, I participated in my parish’s bread baking ministry. This was a group of people who took turns making the large loaves of communion bread that the priest elevated during the consecration.

Many bakers, me included, consider bread-making to be a spiritual practice, but the ritual behind preparing this unleavened, soon-to-be-consecrated bread elevated the task of following a simple recipe of a few ingredients to the level of contributing an essential element to the liturgy.

I baked my bread in silence. No phone. No music. No distractions. I lit a candle and said a prayer of gratitude for the work I was about to begin. As I measured and sifted the flour and salt together, I reminded myself that this was the way bread had been made for thousands of years. Slowly adding the water, oil, and honey, I worked the dough with my fingers until I could gather and turn it out on a kneading board. I handled the dough gently, almost caressingly, and divided it into six pieces, one for each of the weekend’s liturgies. I flattened each piece to the exact thickness and diameter specified by the recipe and carefully scored the surface with a knife before baking so the celebrant could break it quickly into pieces for distribution with communion.

The homemade, whole wheat, unleavened bread was chewy and delicious, and no doubt those who received it in its consecrated form savored it, but the pieces from one loaf could not feed the entire assembly, so it was supplemented with enough communion hosts to serve everyone.

Confession time. If you haven’t already picked up on it, I experienced a bit of self-congratulatory, church lady pride from my bread-baking experience. And during the consecration as I watched the bread that I made with my own hands, in my own kitchen, being elevated, well, sigh, wasn’t I so blessed? What beautiful and delicious bread I baked, and how perfectly round it was, how perfectly scored and easily torn it was! How I loved to see the secret smiles on my young daughters’ faces as they chewed my bread instead of the standard issue wafer.

Egads! This is horrifying. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hang my head in shame. Everything about this confession is appalling. Not only did my pride obstruct my reception of the Eucharist, it interfered with my knowledge of God’s will for me.

Don’t misunderstand. Bread baking ministries are wonderful. My fault is that I became attached to the act of baking bread, and to the bread itself because I lost sight of what I was doing, and why. What began as way to serve God through the liturgy became the means of my own self-elevation. I’m sure we can all think of other ministries, liturgical or not, which run the same risk. We must always be careful.

I’ve been researching the topic of detachment and am discovering how even virtuous acts born of good and holy intentions (such as baking the bread used for the Eucharist) can, if we are not attentive, become material attachments that push their way between us and God. Thomas Merton, in his classic book, New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else.”[1]

Merton names the very things people do in order to draw closer to God. In our efforts to detach from worldly things like power and money and prestige for example, Merton says we cling instead to the means of being virtuous and holy. Prayer, fasting, devotional practices, penance, holy books, religious orthodoxy and the like often usurp the priority of seeking and doing God’s will.

We risk being blinded by our zeal, thinking God is pleased by our endless busyness. Merton says even spiritual goals like seeking a sense of God’s presence are attachments that get in the way of God’s pure communion with us.

Merton’s words recall the story of the rich young man from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31, who approached Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. A sincere man who loved God, who did the right things and was obedient to the laws and observed the rituals of his faith, he turned away when he learned the cost of heavenly treasure was his belongings, his identity and social status—everything he had. As the disappointed man walked away Jesus said “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Can you picture the faces of the disciples, who literally gave up everything to follow Jesus, when they heard these words? We also wonder “Then who can be saved?”

The ability to detach from our will to listen for God’s will is a herculean but essential practice if the words “thy will be done” are to have any meaning. It seems that our well-intentioned activities run the risk of becoming a kind of spiritual filibuster intended to hold off God’s will. It’s like we are saying, “Thanks for everything, but we’ll take it from here. Aren’t we wonderfully made?”

According to Merton, what God asks of us is to be quiet and allow the “secret work” that has begun in our souls to take place. Quiet means learning to silence our minds and pay attention. It also means quelling our need to take charge, to win, to be number one.

Which begs the question: What are we supposed to do?

I think part of the answer can be found in Luke’s account of the feeding of the multitudes, which we will hear proclaimed this weekend as we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The story picks up after the newly commissioned apostles returned from their mission of “proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing.” [LK 9:2]. Jesus tried to retreat with them to a remote city where they could regroup but his presence attracted an enormous and hungry crowd. (Remember, in the days of Jesus hunger was a given; everyone was always hungry.)

We know the details of this story: Jesus welcomed the crowd and told them about the kingdom of God. The disciples saw both the lateness of the day and the crowd’s rising hunger and asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds so everyone could find food,  but Jesus’ challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. So Jesus organized the crowd into manageable groups of fifty, blessed the spare meal and set it before them. Everyone ate, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

If we are attentive we will remember that in the kingdom of God there is no hunger or thirst. Yes, this was a miracle. Through the alleviation of their hunger, the crowd was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Still, some of us have to demythologize biblical miracles in order to settle on a logical human explanation. We miss the point when we insist there is no way that Jesus could have multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. We are positive it had to have been the people themselves who out of embarrassment or forgotten generosity, or love, opened their sacks and shared their food with one another.

It was Jesus who fed and who continues to feed the crowds, but that’s not to say the crowd also didn’t share their food with one another. It was love that fed the multitudes.

If anything this affirms our faith in the goodness of humankind and restores hope for the world. The theory that humans are inherently selfish is a lie. People want to give of themselves and help others in meaningful ways, such as sharing our food with those who have none. But the point Merton makes about attachments is important. How many of our works are motivated by the pure intention of drawing closer to God? Do we seek the face of God in the hungry? The poor? The refugees? How about our enemies? Does it matter? It does if we want to share the Love that feeds the world.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesu, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see. [2]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

_______________________________

[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint. New York, New Directions, 2007.  205.

[2] Excerpt from the Lauda Sion sequence which is sung or proclaimed at the liturgies celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Jump in! The water is fine

3rd Sunday of Easter (C)

In the morning light, with a miraculous catch of fish hanging in a net off the right side of his boat, and after the beloved disciple spoke the words “It is the Lord,” Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? The text is concise. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” [John 21:7b]

The story of the miraculous catch of fish is beloved by many. In Luke’s Gospel it occurs early in Jesus’ ministry [Luke 5:1–11], and in John’s Gospel, which is read on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) it takes place after Jesus’ resurrection [John 21:1-14]. Both readings are thick with symbolic imagery having to do with Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to follow him, but John’s version, located at the end of his gospel, allows readers to witness the post-resurrection dawning of Peter’s spiritual and ministerial maturity.

A close read of the gospel invites all followers of Jesus, leaders and disciples alike, to plumb the depths of their spiritual waters. The story has a strong message for the Christian church. It raises questions about how we “fish,” it tests our faith in the capacity of the net and ultimately beckons us to be caught up in it.

The action (because there is always action with Peter) begins with Peter’s decision—impulsive, of course—to go fishing, at night,[1] by himself. “I’m going fishing,” he says. Six other disciples decide to join him.

Wait, What? Read in the context of the timeline following the harrowing and glorious recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances to the disciples, one has to ask: What the heck were Peter and the others, including Thomas, of recent wound-probing fame [John 20:24-29], doing going fishing?[2]

As with all of Scripture, it is important to pay close attention to the way the story is told.

Peter and the others, fishing at night, failed to catch any fish. Morning followed. A man standing on the shoreline told the fishermen to cast their net a different way. They did what he said and were immediately overwhelmed with a super-abundant catch, far more than the seven of them could lift into their boat, and far more than they thought the net could hold. While they were all marveling over the bounty, one of the disciples, the beloved one, the spiritually astute one, recognized Jesus and said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” With that, Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? Maybe he jumped in so he could quickly wade to the shore to see Jesus, but the gospel doesn’t say that. Maybe he jumped in to hide his shame from Jesus because he didn’t recognize him, but the gospel it doesn’t say that either. All it says is that when Peter heard the beloved disciple’s words “It is the Lord,” the fisherman adjusted his garment and jumped into the sea. Into the water. With the fish.

If any of the disciples were going to jump in, it would be the impetuous, all-or-nothing Peter, whose passionate, sometimes faulty certitude  caused him to protest things he did not understand [John 13:4-8], whose braggadocio led him to make promises he could not keep [John 13:37], and whose misplaced zeal led him to cut off his enemy’s ear [John 18:10].

Peter’s spontaneous reaction to the beloved disciple’s recognition of Jesus in the miracle of the fish reminds me of how he responded to Jesus’ act of foot washing. “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” [John 13:8-9]

Examples of Peter’s impulsiveness populate the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and John. Although we shake our heads, we should also understand that these represent Peter’s sincere intentions, his deep desire to get it right, and his efforts to understand his friend, Jesus, whom he loved. We are so much like Peter.

By jumping into the sea, the fisherman Peter joined the fish.

Moments before, when the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction and cast their net a different way, it became so heavy with fish they could not haul it into their boat. Later, when Jesus asked them to bring some of the catch to add to the breakfast he was preparing for them, Peter was able to drag the net filled with one hundred and fifty-three large fish to the shore. In the very act of bringing the fish to Jesus, Peter brought himself, who like the untorn net was strong enough for the task.

And then “Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” Just like the last time they were together at the Sea of Tiberius,[3] Jesus fed his disciples with a miracle of abundance.

Religious leaders, lay ministers, and all disciples can learn much about humility from Peter’s failed attempt to fish in the dark, to go it alone. From his act of jumping into the sea, we can examine our feelings about integration, detachment, control, equality, and of course, our baptism. Peter’s robust response to Jesus’ invitation to bring some “fish” to him is something we should all strive to emulate. Finally, I can’t think of a better analogy for the resilient, expansive, capacious fishing net than the merciful and welcoming church envisioned by Pope Francis in his recent document, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”)

In the presence of such great abundance we can all cry out “It is the Lord!”

Be caught in the net; be part of this beautiful, tangled and complicated mess that we call faith. Bring what dwells in the depth of your heart up into the light of Christ—the miracle of God’s abundance—Go ahead and jump in!

Today’s readings can be found here. 

____________________

NOTES:

[1] Other than establishing the ego-driven motivation of the disciples (also known as going it alone without Jesus, and therefore, darkness), how might readers of John’s gospel have understood the disciples going fishing at night? For one, it was cooler at night than during the day. Also, larger fish that normally swim in deep water in the daytime come closer to the shore at night, so the fishermen don’t need to take the boat out as far to catch them.

[2] In Jesus-speak, of course, fishing refers to the missionary action of the church; the fisherman’s net represents the scope and unity of God’s church. This unity is threatened when human leaders forget whose net they hold and attempt to go it alone. As accurate and tidy as these interpretations are, they are mere aperitifs to the rich fare proffered in this passage.

[3] The Sea of Tiberius was the site of miracle of the loaves and fishes when Jesus’ fed his disciples and the crowd of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish [John 6:1-14].

Download the full text of Amoris Laetitia.

A summary of Amoris Laetitia, thanks to Salt & Light Media can be found here.

Read Fr. James Martin’s “Top Ten Takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”

Mary’s Part

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Who does not love the story of Jesus’ changing the water into wine? [Jn 2:1-11] Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana is exciting, mysterious, and intriguing. It sets the stage for the ongoing revelation of Jesus’ glory to his disciples. It is a richly symbolic multiplication story foretelling the kind of restorative mission Jesus is about to begin. It compares an abundance of the finest wine at a wedding banquet to God’s overflowing love in the Kingdom of God.

The metaphor of marriage is woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to describe God’s covenant relationship with human beings, and it’s no secret that it has not always been a happy union.  But here, in the telling of Jesus’ miraculous production of a copious supply of the finest wine in the midst of a wedding banquet where there was none, the gospel writer invites us to lift our glasses in celebration of a renewed union between God and humanity.

Abundance overcomes emptiness. Change cures lethargy. The permanent shift from the old to the new has been brought about by the life and passion of Jesus. This wine will not run out. The celebration will never end.

Clearly, this story is about Jesus. But, can we talk about Mary’s role?

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. ² Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. ³ When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [Jn 2:1-3]

Let’s give Mary some props. She’s the one who recognized the need, and she’s the one who brought it to Jesus.

In those days, wedding feasts went on for several days. The gospel doesn’t say how many days of celebrating had passed when the wine ran out—it didn’t matter— Mary knew, as any good host knows, that when the wine runs out, the party is over.

So, Mary brought her concern to the one she trusted would take care of it. She turned to Jesus and said, “They have no wine.”  Now, Jesus might have said, “Oh, I’ll let the bridegroom know”, or “It’s getting late, we should probably head out soon anyways,” but Jesus knew his mother’s statement was more than a simple appeal for his help. He said “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” [Jn 2:4]

Let’s sidestep Jesus’ astonishingly fresh retort to his mother and note that Mary wisely ignored it. In doing so, she turned the entire matter over to him, telling the servers to do whatever he said.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to a few lifeless banquets, events and liturgies during which I might have said, “They have no wine.” I probably have been the host or facilitator of some of them.  To be fair, on occasion, it was my own lack of spirit that was the issue. Mary noticed a lack of wine, but her words can also be heard as an observation of the banquet’s spiritual dryness.  Mary knew something had to be done to bring the party back to life, so she turned to Jesus.

With that, Mary’s job was complete—and in more ways than one.

First, her instruction to the servers to “Do whatever he tells you” [Jn 2:5] established her awareness of Jesus’ authority.

Second, because she brought the need to Jesus, the wedding celebration was spared party paralysis (indeed, the festivities continue to this day).

Third, theologically speaking, Mary’s understanding of God’s will for her life, which led from her fiat to the foot of the cross, included putting her trust in Jesus.

Fourth, Mary’s words and actions provide us with a model for prayer: in times of spiritual dryness—our own, that of our family, community, church or even our country—we should bring our concern to Jesus, and do whatever he tells us.

Fifth, although a mother’s job never ends, Mary’s part in the miracle included both her recognition of Jesus’ hour—his readiness to fly, so to speak—and her time to let him go.

Change happens when the old ways no longer achieve their originally intended purpose. Jesus’ miracle did exactly this. The results of ritual practices, such as those for which the six water jars were designed, were temporary. The miracle at Cana produced a permanent change. Jesus himself was the miracle at Cana. And Mary played a part in it.

Now, how about some wine?

Today’s readings can be found here.

____________________________

Do you like what you are reading? Do you like The Good Disciple blog? Please let me know by clicking the “like” button below. Please also share this post with your friends on any of the other social media sites which are listed below. Thank you!