Blessed and Broken

Ash Wednesday 2017

This morning, still hoping to cobble together a new thought about the forty days ahead from my books and journals and half-written, reformulated iterations of Lenten wisdom, it occurred to me that I am attempting, inelegantly, to freshen up what has already been so perfectly delivered.

There are only a few days in the liturgical year when the readings never change. Ash Wednesday is one of them. Year after year the Prophet Joel tells us to rend our hearts and return to the Lord [Joel 2:12-18]. St. Paul exhorts the Corinthian community (and all contemporary Christians) to reconcile with God and not take our redemption through Christ in vain, [2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2] and Jesus instructs his followers on the right way to give alms, the purpose of prayer and fasting, and the Father’s awareness of it all.  [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18]. (more…)

God, Where Are You?

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Oh God!

Hi Susan. How’s it going?

I’m mad at you. Actually, I’m furious. And I’m nearly done with you.

Susan, why is that?

Well, for starters, where the hell are you?

I’m here. I’m always here. You know that.

Not feeling it. Not feeling it at all. Sorry.

Well. I am here with you. Trust me. What else?

Seriously? Are you kidding me? Have you been on vacation?

No. I am aware of what you are doing to each other.

And? Why do you allow it? What made you think humans could be trusted? What are you, a masochist?  What kind of Creator allows its own creation to destroy itself?  I’m done with you.

Don’t blame me. I don’t allow these things.

Yes you do, you always have.

There you are wrong. I don’t allow any of it. You do. The atrocities which you commit against one another and your intent to exploit the earth for personal gain, these are human choices. You raised up these human leaders, you gave them power. No, I do not allow these things. You, you are the ones who allow them to be. You always have. 

Why? Why does this have to happen?

I know why.  So do you.

What I know is that there is more good than evil in the world, and that there are a lot of people who believe they are doing your will.

But are they? I’ve been pretty clear about my will.

I know. Can’t you just do something?

I did. I am.  Do your part. I’m here.

I’m trying. It shouldn’t be this way, though.

Susan, I’ve been saying that forever…

“What I’m interested in seeing you do is:

sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.

Your righteousness will pave your way.

The God of glory will secure your passage.

Then when you pray, God will answer.

You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.

I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”[1]

Isaiah 58:6-12 (from The Message)

__________________

Readings for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st reading: Isaiah 58:7-10
Responsorial Psalm PS 112
2nd Reading 1 COR 2:1-5
Gospel: MT 5:13-16

Scripture note:  Compare the above translation of Isaiah 58:6-12 from The Message with Isaiah 58:7-10 from the New American Bible Revised Edition [NABRE] found on the USCCB website for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A). Both quite clearly state God’s will.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Message, it is a contemporary rendering of the books of the Bible, translated from the original languages and the New Vulgate by Eugene H. Peterson (with Deuterocanonical writings translated by William Griffin). Every chapter and verse was crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and the ideas of the original text in everyday language.

Why not intersperse readings from The Message with your own bible translation and enrich your prayer life, add layers to your comprehension of the Christian mission, and better actualize the meaning of Scripture into your interactions with others and with all of God’s creation? Try it, you might like it.

Click here for information on The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition

[1] Eugene H. Peterson. The Message: Catholic/Ecumenical Edition. (Chicago. Acta Publications 2013) 1243.

Help Wanted: Prayer warrior. No need to apply. Start today.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Has there been a time when the need for prayer has been more urgent? Actually, yes, there have been worse times than this, and for millions of people living around the world, what many of us might call the “worst of times” is nothing compared to their “every-damn-day times.” And that, I believe, is a very good starting point for reflecting on the readings for the 29th Sunday of ordinary time, year C.

From the first reading to the last we witness endurance in prayer, patience, and action. There’s Moses, whose unceasing prayer empowered the Israelites to defeat their enemy [EX 17:8-13]; the psalmist expresses confidence in God’s constant care and protection [PS 121]; Timothy receives instruction to lead his community with persistence and patience [2 Tim 3:14-4:2], and we learn from the parable of the persistent widow and the dishonest judge that justice is served to those who persevere [LK 18:1-8].

In the past week I have read and reread and researched and notated and meditated on these passages. And every day, like many of you, I have read articles online and in print, one after the other, and in the evening my husband and I watch news hours that report on the glut of injustice and the growing anxiety of our world’s citizens. There is a sense of helplessness arising that threatens to turn to violence at any moment.

Like a drum keeping time the words, wisdom, wisdom, beat with the pulse in my ears. I place my hand over my heart and feel, kindness, kindness. Even the cycle of my breath drives me to repeat the Tonglen, the prayer found in Tibetan Buddhism: I inhale the pain of the world, I exhale compassion.

I hear the widow’s cry for justice, I am using both my love of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ to do my part in the world, I am assured of my creator’s protection along this obstacle strewn path on which we all travel, and I am trying mightily like Moses to keep my hands lifted in prayer.

But like some of you, I grow weary.

This holy path, our sacred journey, our wilderness wandering leads us past scenes of oppression that we are duty-bound to correct. Most recently our attention is given to the rejection of vile attitudes, lewd comments, and physical assault that demean and damage women. We reject this with the same fervor that we reject racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, antisemitism, and all prejudicial ideologies that derive energy from hatred. We do so because human oppression is an insult to the divine image in which we are created; we do so because when we actively correct wrongs perpetrated against one another we reflect the life-giving nature of God.

Pray. Pray harder. Pray for wisdom, guidance, stamina, courage, and patience.

As long as Moses held up his hands in prayer, the Israelites were successful in fending off their enemy. The widow’s persistence resulted in her attainment of what was rightfully hers. And Jesus assured his disciples that not only will God respond to the prayers of the chosen ones, God will do so without delay.

But our prayers are not answered without delay; at least they don’t seem to be. Maybe in God’s time they are, but we humans have been waiting a long time for justice to be served here on earth. How much longer must we persevere, Lord?

And that’s the thing. Both of these readings raise theological difficulties. Why must we ask God repeatedly for help, why can’t God just fix what is wrong? After all, all things are possible, we are told. What kind of God requires unrelenting requests for help?

The cry of the psalmist is our own, “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me?” [PS 121]

In response to a recent story posted online about the harrowing plight of refuge children displaced by incessant bombing in Aleppo many readers commented that they were sending prayers to the affected children. Within seconds someone said, “Save your breath. Prayer is useless.” Similar comments expressing contempt both for prayer and for those who believe in God soon followed.

Prayer doesn’t work that way; God is not a magician and we are not babies who hold out our hands and pout until we get what we want. Frankly, to suggest that God doesn’t exist because the messes humans create are not magically cleaned up by God is a sign of immature faith and stunted spiritual development.

The answer to prayer is not its immediate fulfillment but more of a clarification of what we are seeking, and a strengthening of our resolve to take action. Jack Shea writes, “God suffuses the hearts of those who pray with justice, and then with empowered hearts they bring this justice into the affairs of earth.”[1]

Prayer guides our growth into full humanness and spiritual maturity and gives us the courage and the strength to bring about a more just world. Prayer is life-giving!

Whatever form our prayer takes, let’s attend to the action God’s response compels us to take. Let’s keep our arms raised at all times and enlist the help of one another lest we grow weary with the effort.

“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [2 Tim 3:14-15]  

______________________________________

[1] John Shea. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. 2006. Page 291

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

7th Sunday of Easter (C)

Immediately before his arrest Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples. He prayed for their mission, for their unity as a group, and for their unity through him and with the Father. The final part of this prayer is read on the Sunday before Pentecost. It is one of those mind-bending scriptural passages that tend to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. Some readers simply scan it, not absorbing a word, or they turn the page in search of something Jesus says that is easier to understand, something like “love one another.”

But this prayer from Jesus to his Father on his friends’ behalf is beautiful and enlightening and deserves to be read slowly. Jesus’ words challenge us to wade into our deepest spiritual waters in order to contemplate this union we share with God and with one another. Sitting with this reading can help us make sense of our Christian mission.

As part of my own study of the text, and to feed my logic (which is illogical) I attempted to diagram Jesus’ words. Pencil in hand, I began to draw circles.

In my mind this “you in me, and I in you, and they in us, and we are one, and I in them and you in me, and I know you and they know that you sent me, and your love for me is my love for them, and therefore, our love is in them,” (deep breath) takes the form of concentric circles that expand and recede and shift to accommodate the fullness of the described union in an endlessly twirling helix.

My first attempt was to place God at the center of the Jesus circle, which I put at the center of the disciple circle, in which both the Father and Son dwelt. Hmmm.

Dissatisfied, I drew another set of concentric circles with disciples in the center of the Jesus circle, who was in the center of the God circle. But no.

Then I drew two concentric circles, one with Jesus at God’s center, and then God at Jesus’ center which was just as confounding as my earlier attempts because each one resulted in a picture of a picture of a picture, and so on. This is known to visual artists as mise en abyme, which translated from French means “placing into infinity.” In painting and photography mise en abyme can continue only so far as the artist is able to depict it; eventually, the image becomes too small to be perceived. Although it is theologically intriguing, the mise en abyme was inadequate. Or, was it?

My final attempt involved two overlapping circles, one for the Father and one for Jesus, with the disciples in the intersection of the two. This sketch I tossed out immediately because the union of the father and son was more representative of a mutual giving between two persons whose “product,” for lack of a better word, is revealed in the giving, such as in a family. Hmmm. Not perfect, but not bad, either. I sketched it again.

These attempts to diagram a satisfactory translation of Jesus’ prayer were inadequate precisely because the relationship between the Father and Jesus and Jesus’ followers cannot be contained or reduced to a concept of fractal geometry or artistic theory. So, you see, I have not added any clarity to the discussion. I apologize.

However, inadequacy is not the same as fallacy. The mise en abyme, the overlapping circles and the endlessly twirling helix each hold a portion of the truth.

  • Jesus is and always has been in the picture of the picture of the picture of God. In today’s second reading from Revelations, which we have been reading throughout Easter, John tells of hearing a voice that self-identifies as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” and as “I, Jesus,” the “root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” Jesus’ death was a departure, a transition; he returned to the Father where he has dwelt since “before the foundation of the world.” [John 17:24c].
  • And of his friends, Jesus says “Father, they are your gift to me.” [John 17:24]. It is a mystery why seekers begin and continue to search for God, or, in the case of the poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), who wrote about the divine pursuit in The Hound of Heaven, why they attempt to resist their spiritual stirrings. But Jesus’ words acknowledge that Peter and James and John, and all the other apostles, and every disciple and follower throughout Christian history, including you and me have found our way to him because of the Spirit’s urging, inspiration, and nudging; we have accepted the invitation to know God through Jesus.
  • The fullness of our union with God and Jesus and with one another is very much like an endlessly twirling helix. Christians understand that Jesus—the Word made flesh—made God known through his teachings and actions and love. Jesus remains, he dwells within the hearts of his followers, not so they can hoard Jesus for themselves but so they can share him. Jesus has made God known, and it is now the task of the disciples to do the same—this is the work of the evangelist—you and me.

mise en abyme

And here is the message about our mission. Unlike Jesus’ actual disciples, none of us can claim to have known the man, Jesus. We only know what has been passed on to us and what we have experienced with Jesus.

It is that experience—our interaction—that we share. We can spout off bible verses and tell people what the church and theologians say about Jesus, but without a heartfelt expression of one’s own experience, these things are dry, inconclusive, and unconvincing. Jesus expressed his loving relationship with God with his words and works and his love for God and his followers. Our job is no different.

Looking at my sketches now I began to notice something resembling a seed within a seed within a seed, and it occurs to me that this “seeding” is the work of God, the work of Jesus, and the work which we have been commissioned to fulfill. This is the union. We in them, them in us, Christ in all, Christ in God, God in all things.

We receive the gift of life-giving water which Jesus offers us and we accept our Christian mission: to make God known to future generations through our unity. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This is the way of being that has the power to change the world.

In my mind, I imagine hearing Jesus speak to me, “I wish you could experience what I know about the Father. I want this for you, for you to know this. Because, if you knew God as I do, you would love one another as I have loved you. But the world does not know God, and this is why loving is so difficult. This is what you do know: you know that my works are of God, you know that I am of God. All that I say and do, these words and works are not my own, but God’s. It all comes from God. Listen, if you know me and you know these things about me, you know God. God’s love for me is my love for you. It is one and the same.”

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

Though I am lost, I will not fear.

Holy Week (C)

A reflection for anxious wanderers at the start of Holy Week.

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).

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!

The Journey Begins with Prayer: The Baptism of the Lord

 The Baptism of the Lord (C)

It might seem like the most obvious thing in the world to say, but, Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is found praying with and for others, as well as seeking a quiet place to pray by himself.  He prayed before meals, before and after healings and other miracles, he prayed prayers of thanksgiving and prayed for the faith of his disciples. Jesus prayed when he had decisions to make, and taught his followers how to pray. Jesus prayed on the way to the cross, and moments before he died, Jesus breathed his final prayer.

The first prayer of Jesus’ public ministry occurred immediately after his baptism.

 “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  

—Luke 3:21-22

I wonder what Jesus was praying about, was it a prayer of thanksgiving? Discernment? Guidance?

Many people admit they don’t know how to pray on their own; they say they don’t know what to say; it feels awkward, or they aren’t sure if they are speaking to God the right way, or if they are being heard. I remember one friend who told me she doesn’t know when to “sign off” so she just sort of, ends it. Thanks! Love ya!

The variations of prayer are endless. Plus, other than the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus himself, there is no one right way to pray. The best form of prayer is the one that draws us closer to God. Prayers can be contemplative or centering, a meditation or a chant, a favorite prayer said before bed or upon waking, spoken before meals, or with others during a liturgy or prayer group, to name only a few. The best prayer for me occurs when I share my hopes, fears, gratitude, or anguish with God while doing everyday tasks like cooking and gardening. Regardless of how we pray, if we open ourselves to it, we might sense a holy stillness that expresses God’s presence and love for us.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism beckons us to place ourselves in the crowd of the newly baptized and witness the moment Jesus’ earthly ministry began: with prayer. I wonder what Jesus felt when the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit filled him, and he heard God’s voice.

We can do more than wonder. Have you ever felt God’s presence in times of prayer? Perhaps you have experienced the stillness pulsing in your ears, keeping time with the chant of your heart, “beloved, beloved, beloved.” Maybe you felt the heaviness of the world dropping away, along with your words. Or a sense of well-being, unlike anything ever experienced that blankets you in lightness, and it is just you and God, and nothing else matters.

If we could remain in this state, we would. Because in that moment, which might last only a second or two, God’s delight is evident, and the Holy Spirit of God fills us, like it did Jesus. But, like Jesus, we can’t remain—we can always come back to prayer—but, for now, we must act.

Imagine hearing the words “You are my beloved (son, daughter); with you I am well pleased.” How would you respond?

Christians are baptized as infants, as children and adolescents, and as adults, as in the case of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Regardless of the age of the person receiving the sacrament baptism is a forward moving, future-oriented event. It’s not “done and over.” It’s not the first sacramental stamp on a passport to heaven. Baptism is a fiat, a yes, a birth. What comes next is life.

Do we remember to pray for the newly baptized after the day has passed? Prayers of gratitude, discernment and spiritual guidance for ourselves and others are needed, because, with baptism, we begin our lifelong journey as disciples.

With today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we bid the Christmas season adieu. Tomorrow begins Ordinary time, a new cycle of discernment, faith formation, and spiritual growth. Let’s begin by reflecting upon Jesus’ baptism, and our baptism, and pray for guidance in the coming year, and let’s strive not only to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus but to act upon it.

“Lord Jesus, we end our Christmas season by celebrating our rebirth in baptism. We enjoy what prophets and kings longed to see. Help us during this New Year to grow more conformed to you in our thoughts, desires, words and actions. Enable us through the Scriptures as well as through the sacraments of your food and forgiveness to grow to full maturity as your disciples.” 

—Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.,
Prayer for the Sunday after the Epiphany,
The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings can be found here. .