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.

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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.

Probing Belief: Facing our Doubts

2nd Sunday of Easter (A, B, C)

I admire Thomas. I can relate to him. Thomas, also known as Didymus, the twin, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, but his designation as “the doubter” that has followed him throughout history is a trait that many of us share. At least, it is one that I share.

Most everything we know about Thomas comes from the gospel of John, He seems to be one of the more introverted apostles, he is a fact-gatherer and a deep thinker, and his coming to belief is an intentional process, one which he discovers happens best in community.

“Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:24-25]

Doesn’t it make sense Thomas would want to see Jesus with his own eyes? After all, (more…)

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…)

Fear has Big Eyes

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 (more…)

Knowing, even as we are known

3rd Sunday of Lent (A)

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

The Woman at the Well. It’s about coming to see and know Jesus…seeing and knowing us…as we are, without any judgment or condemnation, with complete unconditional love and acceptance, tapping wellsprings of faith and love within us…tapping the Spirit of God within us that wells up as springs and fountains of living water within us. That’s what Jesus came to do, to tap the Spirit of God within us, that we might worship the living God in Spirit and Truth!

That’s what faith in Jesus does, it releases the Spirit with us, cleanses, transforms and liberates our lives from fear, guilt, and shame, or anything that would keep us from loving as God loves.

God gets water from our stoney hearts, takes away our hearts of stone and gives us a heart of flesh for love. (more…)

Give to The One Who Asks of You

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Yesterday, while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, I overheard the tsk tsk’ing of the couple ahead of me. It was wrong, I heard them say to each other, that ‘some people’ used their government benefits to buy expensive food. They turned to me, hoping for an affirmation to their audible grumbling about low-income people who “eat like kings”

Standing in front of them was a young mom with one toddler on her hip and another child by her side. She bought two half-gallons of organic whole milk, a container of organic yogurt, and a whole chicken, and she used food stamps to pay for them.

I mumbled something about her healthy food choices.

Two weeks ago we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, who speaking for the Lord, made it clear that it is God’s will that we share what we have with one another. That we feed the hungry—not from our surplus or with our leftovers—but from the same table we share with our families.

“If you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday;” [IS 58:10]

Lavish” and “satisfy.” To go beyond the letter of the law. And then your gloom will lift. Now that is really something.

Today, on the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), we hear Jesus continue his teaching on doing more than the law prescribes.

“Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. [MT 5:41]

The suggestion that we go the extra mile, that we do more than what is expected,  was met with the same resistance in Jesus’ day it is today.

The kind of stinginess expressed by the couple in the grocery store shrinks and darkens our world. Indeed it is a lack of mercy which emerges from a sense of entitlement and a fear of scarcity.

Conversely, it is when we give of ourselves freely and without resentment that we experience the miracle of God’s abundance  over and over again; the light rises, we feel restored, not depleted.

Jesus told his disciples, “give to the one who asks of you.” [MT 5:42]

I recently came across the following vignette from Leontius’ Life of St. John the Almsgiver, the biography of the Saint who was a widower, a father, and later the patriarch of Alexandra (c. 560-619). It is striking for its contemporary resonance and is worthy of our prayerful contemplation.

“While there was a crowd of refugees in the city, one of the strangers, noticing John’s remarkable sympathy, determined to test the blessed man. So he put on old clothes and approached him as he was on his way to visit the sick in the hospitals (for he did this two or three times a week) and said to him, “Have mercy on me for I have been a prisoner of war.”

John said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six nomismata.”

After the man had received these he went off, changed his clothes, met John again in another street, and falling at his feet said, “Have pity on me for I am in want.” The Patriarch again said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six nomismata.”

As he went away the purse-bearer whispered in the Patriarch’s ear, “By your prayers, master, this same man has had alms from you twice over!” But the Patriarch pretended not to understand.

Soon the man came again for the third time to ask for money and the attendant, carrying the gold, nudged the Patriarch to let him know that it was the same man, whereupon the truly merciful and beloved of God said, “Give him twelve nomismata, for perchance it is my Christ and He is here to test me.”

The season of Lent is around the corner. Ash Wednesday is March 1. Traditionally, during Lent our attention is drawn to serving the poor. God’s abundance, however, is not seasonal and like the example set by St. John the Almsgiver, we are expected share it freely at all times.

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [MT 5:48]

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Readings for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st Reading: LV 19:1-2, 17-18
Responsorial Psalm:
PS 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
2nd Reading: 1 COR 3:16-23
Gospel: 
MT 5:38-48

Comic courtesy of www.agnusday.org, the Lectionary comic strip, where each week Rick and Ted discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary.

Click here to learn more about St. John the Almsgiver.

You have heard that it was said

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

I’m tired of feeling angry. Aren’t you?

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of good reasons to be angry and I’m not diminishing the constructive value of anger. Without a doubt, healthy expressions of anger hold a valid place in the human experience.

In fact, it is due to our outrage over injustices perpetuated by oppressive regimes against men, women and children, and greed-driven exploitation of the Earth that we work tirelessly to secure human rights and to conserve our planet’s resources for future generations.

As a Christian—like members of many faith traditions—I believe that humans carry the divine imprint: that we are each created in the image of God.

This belief is foundational to our faith: we bear the presence of God. I become so angry when I hear the words and witness the actions of professed Christians who seem to have a selective understanding of this belief. My anger and frustration has compelled me to add my Christian voice to the historical conversation surrounding basic human rights.

Constructively channeled anger is the driver behind our progression towards a more just society, but anger that does nothing but foment more anger is deadly and frankly, I’m pretty tired of it.

I’m talking about an unattended-bonfire-in-a-forest-of-dead-trees-on-a-windy-day kind of anger. I’m talking about anger that feeds off fear and seeks to destroy what it doesn’t understand. I’m talking about anger that is capable of causing figurative and literal death.

Anger is the core of Jesus’ saying against killing, which we hear on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A). It is the first of six sayings about conduct, also known as the antitheses, included in Matthew’s gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount.

Each saying begins with Jesus introducing a known and accepted teaching of the law, “You have heard it said…” which he then follows with “But I say to you…” and an expanded command that requires greater attention.

 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.”  [MT  5:21-22a]

Yes, Jesus says, don’t physically kill each other. That’s pretty basic. But he adds that the kind of anger that leads to killing, that destroys relationships and causes deadly harm is to be avoided and reconciliation between peoples must always been sought.

Anger is growing, and it is wrapping its vines around every imaginable topic. While the vicious words exchanged online between people residing thousands of miles apart may not culminate in an actual murder, verbal expressions of hate wield the power to kill a person’s spirit and to shift the social dynamic away from the good.

We see this playing out in print and on television; we hear it coming from the mouths of our elected leaders. Virtual verbal combat also takes place where we live when we entertain private thoughts that diminish the dignity of another, even if we keep those thoughts to ourselves. We’re all guilty of it, sorry to say.

The other day— a particularly challenging media-saturated day—I watched a conversation between two strangers unfold into a hate-filled screed. Soon dozens upon dozens of people joined in the brawl. This kind of verbal pummeling between strangers is becoming commonplace all across the globe.

Many spirits were injured, if not slain, that day, including my own.

I took a step back and observed how anger was slowly sapping my spirit. A dark and brooding cynic with clouded vision was devouring my optimistic anything-is-possible, happy-go-lucky, creative self.

The constant reminder that the world is a mess is a self-fulfilling prophecy that like the sound of a dripping faucet can either drive us to madness or to a solution. Look, just because there is a 24/7/365 anger-inducing all-you-can-eat buffet of badness spread before us doesn’t mean we must partake in it. I think we forget sometimes that we have choices. I am choosing to push away from the hate buffet. (At least I’m trying to.)

In today’s first reading from Sirach (aka The Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus) the great sage touches upon the concept of free will—the power of choice.

“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” [SIR 15:15]

Ben Sira’s lesson concerns the daily choices people face and what guidance, if any, they use to make them. Isn’t it true that each day we have multiple opportunities to choose life-giving words and actions over the alternative?

The author of the much abbreviated Psalm[1] which we sing today represents sojourners like you and me who are immersed in the world, its challenges and its joys, and who strive to choose the good and who turn with hope to the Lord for guidance, strength, stamina, wisdom, and spiritual knowledge.

Our choices reflect how we view the world and all of its occupants. We mirror the divine image in the ways we treat loved ones as well as with strangers. What we put in our bodies, and what we feed our brains, what we purchase, and the ways we steward the Earth: these are not easy choices, but we put our hope in what is good and just.

Consider the death of a seed and all the secret happenings that occur beneath the soil before the first tender shoot works its way into the light. The constant shock and awe of anger and our increasingly ugly and disingenuous attempts to protect and conserve our illusions seems to want to trample any tendril of hope trying to break through. We must not allow this any longer.

While many of Jesus’ teachings were framed in eschatological (end times) language, his concern was with the way his followers interacted with one another here on earth, that they love one another as he loved them. Matthew is very clear that Jesus expected his teachings to be observed: do what the teacher says.

Hope is not a wish. It is an expression of confidence. I want to return to that hopeful side, and hold tight to the expectation that with God’s grace the goodness of humanity will prevail, and that we will continue to harness our fiery opposition to injustice and use it creatively to seek understanding, and quite literally save lives.

This is the only way for me, at least.

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Readings for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st reading: SIR 15:15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119
2nd Reading: 1 COR 2:6-10
Gospel: MT 5:17-37

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[1] Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest in the Book of Psalms. A poem of 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was sung or recited in worship with the goal of encouraging the faithful to walk blamelessly through life, to turn to the Lord for refuge, guidance and strength and to seek with praise and thanksgiving a greater understanding of God’s ways as found in the law, testimony, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgements, and promises.