Listen, He’s talking to you

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

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

Originally published in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s readings can be found here.

__________________________

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

Though I am lost, I will not fear.

Holy Week (C)

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

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

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

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

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

In the preface to this book Merton writes:

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

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

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

_______________________

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

[2] Merton. xiii.

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

Making the House Ready for the Lord

pre-dawn

By Mary Oliver

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but

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

Under the sink, for example, is an

uproar of mice it is the season of their

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

and through the walls the squirrels

have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season

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

the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard

while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;

what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling

in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly

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

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

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

that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,

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

_______

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

Start with the Sand

Monday, The First Week of Advent

gobi-desert-sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________

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

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

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

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

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

Going up, not taking sides

A provocative and timely post for the Feast of the Ascension, penned by my friend and good disciple, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Check out and follow Fran on her blog, There Will Be Bread.

There Will Be Bread

lamottA short Ascension post featuring the words of Anne Lamott. Apparently her priest friend said them to her, but since they were in her book, they kind of became hers. It doesn’t matter, it is simply true – no matter which “side” you are on. Having said that, diving deeply into God by letting go of our own images, symbols, desires, transference, projection, and more, at least to the best of our ability, is pretty key in this.

Simply put, it is pretty dangerous to assume that God takes sides. Especially when they all end up being yours.

hectorWhen Jesus ascended he reminded everyone that the Spirit would come. When Jesus ascended he was pretty clear that he would always be with us in that way. When Jesus ascended he said nothing about whose side he was on because there is only one side in this – God’s side. If…

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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…)

Of Bees and Gardeners

The most beautiful liturgy of the year is the Easter Vigil. It is lengthy, that is true. But how could it be otherwise? It spans the experience of God’s presence throughout human history, sweeping the worshiper from the conception of the created world through its redemption in the person of Jesus Christ. The experience of the Vigil helps us to make sense of this whole thing that we do as the body of Christ, our quest to understand the meaning of life, our purpose and our unbreakable connection to God.

It begins in darkness which is symbolically dispelled with the lighting of the new Paschal candle and the cantor’s recitation of the Exsultet, an extraordinary hymn announcing the meaning of Easter. With exquisite poetic imagery, the Exsultet (more…)