Sunday, October 20, 2019

"pray always without becoming weary"

It is not enough to say "You should be persistent in prayer because Jesus said you should." This is never a satisfactory answer. Rather, the question that must be asked is "Why would Jesus teach his followers that they must be persistent in prayer?" The fact that he did teach this in a variety of ways is plain enough.

To be clear, in today's Gospel Jesus is clearly teaching about intercessory and petitionary prayer. In other words, he is teaching about the kind of prayer in which you ask God for something either for yourself or someone else. Notice that it is not a question as to whether or not you should ask God for things. You should.

Of course, God doesn't always give us what we ask for. We should be grateful for this. Other times God answers our prayers in the most unexpected ways. By unexpected, I mean in a way different than you imagine he will. You see, it is not atypical to pray to God for a specific outcome and also seek to dictate to God, or at least imagine, just how you would like to see your desired outcome come to pass. In other words, very often we seek to dictate to God not only ends but means. This is very different from asking.

Persistence in prayer is not required because God isn't paying attention the first 10 times we ask. Persistence is prayer is not required because God likes us to beg for what we receive. Persistence in prayer is not required because there is a magic number of times we must ask to achieve our desired result. Persistence in prayer is not required because God doesn't know what we want and what we need.

My take on the need to be persistent in prayer is that it boils down to two things. First, persistence in prayer teaches us how to pray. We are to pray always in the will of God. Second, it teaches us what we should pray for in a given instance. Being persistent in prayer helps you determine both the form and content of a petitionary prayer.

My will is not God's will. For example, for someone who is sick, it makes sense to pray that God will heal them. Of course, God does not always do this. However, as the sacrament of anointing of the sick makes clear, taking its cue from the Gospel, especially passages like the one that was our reading last Sunday (see Luke 17:11-19), there is a healing we all need that is greater than our need for physical healing.



Sometimes it is God's will to heal a person. Other times it is not. Sometimes healing is realized through the course of medical treatment. Other times it happens suddenly and miraculously. I was fascinated to read about the second miracle that occurred through the intercession of Saint John Henry Newman, the miracle that allowed him to be made a saint:
Melissa Villalobos, a Northwestern Law School graduate who, in 2013, was pregnant with her fourth child when she began bleeding from what doctors determined was a blood clot wedged between the placenta and the uterine wall. This condition imperiled the life of both mother and unborn child, and her doctors had no medical or surgical solution. At one point, when Villalobos found herself lying in a widening pool of blood on her bathroom floor, she prayed to Newman, to whom she had developed a strong devotion. Within minutes the hemorrhaging stopped. Days later her doctors told her that she and her child were medically safe—and that they could not explain the sudden and complete healing. Neither could the teams of doctors who examined her case for the church’s canon lawyers (see "An Improbable Saint")
One of my favorite Gospel passages is about the paralytic man who, waiting outside the house where Jesus was healing, had his friends lift his stretcher to the roof and then lower him down in front of the Lord. Seeing him, the Lord tells him, "Child, your sins are forgiven." This is the healing the man really needed. But grasping that some in the room thought him a blasphemer for claiming to forgive sins, Jesus physically healed the man, saying- "But that you [the ones doubting he could forgive sins] may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth... I say to you [the paralytic], rise, pick up your mat, and go home" (see Mark 2:1-12).

Whenever someone asks me to pray for for them or for someone else I want to know the name of the person for whom I am praying. I also want to know some particulars of the situation. I need context to be able to pray for that person with any efficacy. It's only praying for someone over time, staying in contact with them, even through a proxy, that I come to know how should pray for them and for what I am praying with some degree of specificity. So, I check with people on the condition of the one for whom I have agreed to pray.

During Lent of 2018, in one of his homilies for daily Mass, Pope Francis preached on how to pray for someone. His words are truly those of someone who is speaking from experience and not merely the postulation of a theory (see "Pope at Mass: 'Prayer requires courage and patience'"). The Holy Father spoke of the need to pray for what you want from your heart. Pull no punches. Tell God what you want and why you want it. Next, you must be courageous and patient in your prayer. Finally, your heart must be concerned for the person or petition you bring before God: "If I want the Lord to listen to my requests, I must return, and return again, to knock at the door of God’s heart, since my own heart is committed to [this petition]! But if my heart is not concerned for this need, or the person for whom I am praying, neither will it be capable of courage and patience."

It is a commitment to agree to pray for someone. Unless you're willing to commit, then don't agree to do it. As Pope Francis said in his homily: "We cannot promise someone we will pray for them, pray only an Our Father and a Hail Mary, and then leave it at that. No. If you agree to pray for someone else, you must take this [other] path. And patience is needed."

You should agree to pray for others whenever you can. In fact, you should always be praying for someone. Fasting can also help focus in on what you should pray for on someone else's behalf.

There are a few petitions for specific people I have prayed lifted to God daily for years. If nothing else, it is by praying constantly and persistently to God, our loving Father, our just and merciful judge, that we ensure there is faith on earth.

Friday, October 18, 2019

"The darkness is not dark to You"

This week I've (finally) been reading Michael Card's book Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness. Hesed is perhaps the key word in the whole of the Hebrew Bible. Because it is a word used time and again to describe the character of God, hesed cannot succinctly be defined. It's range of meaning is pretty vast. It clusters around the words grace, mercy, love, kindness, lovingkindness.

God is love (1 John 4:8.16). Love is what makes God- Father, Son, and Spirit- one God. Love, then, constitutes the mystery of the Trinity at its deepest level.

What is mysterious to me is that God unfailingly loves me. God loves me even though my love often wavers; it ebbs and flows. At least for me, it's not only that loving God requires me to love my neighbor- though, like virtually everyone else, I struggle with that- but really just failing to respond to God's loving initiative towards me. I do this in variety of ways. This often consists of finding ways to distract myself or seeking to satisfy my deepest desire with things that cannot satisfy. It's like eating junk food when you're hungry. The result is that you can consume a lot of calories and still be hungry.

All of this probably sounds pretty blah. But it's amazing how time and again God cuts through my darkness. Sometimes it's later and I receive a gentle a reminder along the lines "When you were really struggling last night, encircled by gloom, why didn't you turn to me in prayer? I am here for you. I am always here for you." I usually respond with something like "D'uh." I then make a mental note not to forget or resist doing this when I feel I am in distress.

Saint John Henry Newman

Speaking of being encircled by gloom, John Henry Newman was raised to the altar last Sunday. He is now a saint. Probably his best known composition is the poem Lead Kindly Light. Here's the poem's first stanza:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me
His canonization makes me happy because Newman's writings were instrumental to my becoming Catholic. It was reading his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, which I read as an assignment for a sophomore epistemology class, that set me on the path to becoming Catholic. But it was his Apologia Pro Vita Sua- the story of his own conversion- that encouraged me to walk the path. At that point, I had had a conversion experience but was uncertain what it meant. Newman's writings helped me figure it out.

In subsequent years his keen and balanced approach to theology has sustained me often. It was Newman who showed me the vital connection between faith and reason.

I was very gratified by how important Newman was to Muriel Spark, who also became Catholic as a young adult. Once I grasped that connection, I could see Newman in many of her works. These days I love reading Newman's correspondence. He was such a gentle, loving, and humble person. He was very kind and caring. At least in his letters, he often wore his heart on his sleeve. Sure, he could be critical and bitingly witty at times, but all the better.

I can only imagine what relief he would've felt when, towards the beginning of his canonization process, they tried to exhume his earthly remains and there were none. His body was completely decomposed.

Our Friday traditio is Amy Grant singing a song written by Rich Mullins. Mullins was not able to properly record this song or any of the songs he was working on at the time of his death in an auto accident in 1997. After Rich's death, a number of artists recorded the songs he'd written for a planned album. The songs were released in a two disc album: The Jesus Record, which contains the songs recorded in studio by artists and The Jesus Demos featuring the songs recorded on a simple recorder mostly in an old church by Rich.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; Ps 98:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

In our first reading today, we hear about an Assyrian general, Na’aman. Despite being a powerful and influential person, he contracted a concerning skin disease.1 But he felt confident he could find a cure. Na’aman was directed to an Israelite prophet, Elisha, by an Israelite slave who served his wife.2

Going to Elisha, who lived in Samaria, Na’aman was instructed to plunge himself into the river Jordan seven times.3 Initially, he resisted doing this. Not only did he resist, he protested, telling the servants who accompanied him that Elisha should be able to simply “stand there… call on the name of the LORD his God… move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot.”4

Na’aman further complained that because the rivers of Syria were mightier than the relatively small Jordan, he should be able to wash in one of those.5 As he turned to depart for home, his servants reminded him that he had come a long way to seek a cure from Elisha. So, he relented and did as the prophet instructed him.6

After he plunged himself into the Jordan, not only was Na’aman healed but, as the Scripture makes clear, he was in better shape than he was before contracting the disease. Grateful that he was cured, Na’aman tried to pay Elisha for healing him but the prophet would not take payment.7 It was enough for Elisha that Na’aman became a worshiper of the one, true God.

Na’aman’s cure, of course, is a prefiguration of baptism. It is in the waters of baptism that not only is sin washed away, at least for those who are baptized after reaching the age of reason, but the person baptized is restored to what might be called the original state of grace. In baptism, as our reading from 2 Timothy intimates, we die and rise with Christ.8

In our Gospel today, Jesus is still journeying toward Jerusalem in order to keep his appointment with the cross. Geographically, he may be in southern Galilee near the border with Samaria. Perhaps these lepers had heard about Jesus healing people because when they saw him they shouted: “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us.”9



The homiletic point of today’s Gospel is quite straightforward. It is Christianity 101: like the ten lepers, we need Jesus to take pity on us. We need Jesus to heal us, to make us whole. In a word, we need Jesus to save us. When we go to confession or engage in the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass, which is not a substitute for going to confession, we call on Jesus to take pity on us; to have mercy on us. We ask for God’s mercy just before we receive communion, saying: “Lord, I am not worthy…”10

Just as he does with the lepers, Jesus unfailingly takes pity on us. He shows us the mercy of God time and time again. During the Jubilee of Mercy several years ago, Pope Francis observed more than once that you will grow tired of confessing your sins way before God will grow tired of forgiving you. God never grows tired of being merciful because God never grows tired of being God. Jesus is the mercy of God. As someone who has received God’s mercy, the issue becomes whether you take it for granted or you are grateful. Are you like the nine lepers who did not show gratitude or the one Samaritan who came back to thank Jesus for healing him?

It's significant that the one leper who returned to thank Jesus is a Samaritan. The inspired author of Luke often uses the much-loathed Samaritans as exemplars of righteous living. Without a doubt, the most notable of these is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Just as in that parable and our first reading, in which Na'aman, a Gentile, gives thanks to the God of Israel, in this episode, the hero- the one who experiences and recognizes God’s salvation in Jesus, is from outside the chosen people.

Eucharist” is another name for Mass. “Eucharist” is the Greek word for giving thanks. The Greek word used by the inspired author of Luke, translated in our reading as “thanked,” is eucharistón.11 A more accurate translation of the phrase in which this word appears is “giving him thanks.” We should be grateful to the giver for the gift. In the case of Jesus, the giver is the gift.

Giving thanks to God for what he has done for us in Jesus is what we are doing right now. The first result of being filled with the Holy Spirit is giving thanks to God. Above all people, Christians should have an attitude of gratitude. As we say in Eucharistic Prayer II, addressing the Father: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father most holy, through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ…”12

Coming to Mass each Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day of the resurrection, is how you thank Jesus for what he has done for you and for what he is going to do for you. Being a Christian means being someone who can’t thank Jesus enough for having pity on you and showing you mercy.

In turn, you are called to take pity and have mercy on others, just like Jesus does for you. By our participation in the Eucharist, like the grateful Samaritan leper, our lives are to become a Eucharist. It is through such lives that the Lord reveals to the nations his saving power.13


1 2 Kings 5:1.
2 2 Kings 5:2-3.
3 2 Kings 5:10.
4 2 Kings 5:11.
5 2 Kings 5:12.
6 2 Kings 5:13-14.
7 2 Kings 5:15-16.
8 2 Timothy 2:11.
9 Luke 17:13.
10 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 132.
11 Eberhard Nestle, Novum Testamentum graece.
12 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 99.
13 Psalm 98:2.

Friday, October 11, 2019

" a grateful leper at your feet"

As both of my readers know, I endeavor to observe Friday as a day of penance. Maybe this is because I need to do penance that often. However, I do so out of love and with gratitude for what Jesus accomplished on his glorious cross and not out some misguided sense that God, who is goodness, is displeased with me. I am aware that I cannot earn God's favor. I always already have God's favor. Jesus is the proof of this. But even when I have done all Jesus calls me do (something that rarely happens), I remain, as he insisted in last Sunday's Gospel (see Luke 17:5-10), an unprofitable servant who has only done what is best described as the minimum. I think this as much to do with motivation than execution. In other words, how often do I do what Jesus ask of me out of a sense of obligation instead out of genuine love of neighbor?

Somehow, by the grace of God, I live in the pretty constant awareness of God's love for me as it is expressed in the life, teaching, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is awareness is a gift of the Spirit, whom the Lord sent after his ascension in fulfillment of his promise not leave his followers orphaned. Quite literally, this awareness has saved my life.



It is the by the Holy Spirit's power, which effects the sacraments, most especially in this regard the Eucharist, that Jesus comes not only to be among us in some inchoate way but to dwell in us. Because of this, Jesus is not "out there" but in me, desiring to live his resurrected through me. Jesus-in-me does not obliterate my personhood. Rather, he completes it, making me the person I am created and redeemed me to be.

Looking forward to this Sunday's readings, which tells of Jesus's healing of ten lepers (see Luke 17:11-19), here's a little snippet from what I plan to preach:
Just as he does with the lepers in today’s Gospel, Jesus unfailingly takes pity on us. He shows us the mercy of God time and time again. As Pope Francis said: you will grow tired of confessing your sins way before God will grow tired of forgiving you. God never grows tired of being merciful because God never grows tired of being God. Jesus is the mercy of God. As someone who has received God’s mercy, the issue becomes whether you take it for granted or you are grateful, like the one leper who came back to thank Jesus for healing him.
Our gratitude is shown by becoming merciful, that is, full of mercy ourselves.

Continuing my contemporary Christian music (CCM) jag, our traditio is a repeat, albeit from several years ago. Casting Crowns singing "Jesus, Friend of Sinners" strikes me as utterly appropriate for today's traditio.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Another "take" for Evening Prayer I- Sunday, Week III

Reading: John 11:17-27

At St. Olaf Parish, where I am privileged to serve, we use this Gospel passage for most funerals. While proclaiming this Gospel at a funeral of a beloved parishioner this past summer, I was struck by the realization that this dialogue between Jesus and Martha takes place at Lazarus's "graveside," as it were.

Isn't it standing at the side of the grave of a loved one during a committal service that our faith is perhaps tested most severely?

At the foundation of Christian faith, of course, is the belief in Jesus's resurrection, his rising from the dead. In other words, we profess him as "the resurrection and the life." This evening, as we remember the beloved dead of our diocesan diaconal community, Jesus asks us, again, concerning his resurrection: "Do you believe this?"

Several years ago, a dear friend who professes no particular faith, in the wake of the painful death of someone she loved, asked me: "How is it possible to believe in life after death with any confidence?"



After I gave her what I thought was a pretty decent theological, that is, abstract, answer about faith leading to hope and hope being trust more than it is mere wishing, I found myself explaining to her that it is important to experience dying and rising for yourself in order for believing in life after death to be an act of trust instead of mere wishing.

One form of diakonia, one service, one ministry we are called to engage in, is bearing witness to the hope of everlasting life. We do this by entrusting ourselves completely to Jesus, in whose diaconate we are privileged to share.

Concretely, we meet others in their need, as Jesus meets Martha’s in our Gospel reading. We meet others at the graveside, or wherever death seems present in their lives, with no ulterior motive, just with love and compassion. This is what it means to act- in a phrase used by Archbishop Jose Gomez- in persona Christi servi (i.e., in the person of Christ the servant).

Because we are not Jesus, we must allow him to meet our deepest need so we can meet others in their need. This is how believing that he is the resurrection and life ceases to be a wish and becomes hope. And so, at the end of this day on which the Church remembered Saint Faustina, Apostle of Divine Mercy, let us reaffirm: "Jesus, I trust in You."

Week III Sunday, Evening Prayer I

This is a reflection I prepared for Evening Prayer on Saturday of the annual retreat for deacons of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. The reading is the one for Sunday, Evening Prayer I, Week III of the four-week Psalter. However, we used a Gospel reading instead to commemorate our dearly departed brothers and sisters (wives of deacons). I prepared a reflection for that reading too. Since I wrote this, I did not want to "waste" it. As always, for what it's worth.

_________________________________________________________

Reading: Hebrews 13:20-21

What is pleasing to God that he wishes to carry out in you?

Reflecting on Scripture prompts these kinds of questions. What is significant about this question is that it can’t be answered, at least not with any specificity, by anyone other than God. Another beautiful thing about this question is that God isn’t going to tell anyone but you the answer.

On a general level, we are a community of Christians committed to the service of others in Jesus’s name for the sake of God’s kingdom. This kind of service is best described as diakonia. Because of this we know we are called to serve. How best to serve each day?

By virtue of her baptism, every Christian is called to engage in diakonia. Just as there is a priesthood of all the baptized, there is a diaconate of the all the baptized. Hence, diakonia is an inherent part of any spirituality that flies under the banner of Christ.



In an Angelus address during the first year of his pontificate, Pope Francis insisted: “A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother [or sister] — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, [someone] in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer...”1

My dear sisters and brothers, I urge each one of you to ask God through Christ in the power of their Spirit daily what specific service he is pleased to have you carry out. Your diaconate requires no less of you. Your faithfulness to this daily summons to service is what makes you a deacon, a servant.

Jesus is among us as “the one who serves.”2 He calls on us, by grace given in ordination, to act in his very person. To act in persona Christi servi - in the person of Christ the servant.3

For the seven men chosen to serve tables in the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, the Church established two-fold criteria: be “filled with the Spirit and wisdom.”4 Wisdom is to ask the Lord daily what service he wishes to carry out in you. It is the Spirit who enables us to carry out what Christ asks us to do.


1 Pope Francis, Sunday General Audience, 21 July 2013.
2 Luke 22:27.
3 For in persona Christi servi- see Archbishop Jose Gomez’s Foreword to James Keating’s The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ, x.
4 Acts 6:3.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Saint Francis, my brother deacon

At the risk of sounding a bit blasphemous, it seems pretty safe to assert that next to Jesus himself Saint Francis of Assisi is the best known Christian figure in the world and of all-time. Francis is revered by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Primarily because of his love and care for all of creation, he is even held in high regard by quite a few agnostics and non-believers. Francis lived from the late twelfth to the early-thirteenth century (AD 1181/1182-1226).

In my view, Francesco Bernadone demonstrates a thesis very close to my own heart: that all authentically Christian spirituality is inherently diaconal. This means that identifying as a Christian orients you toward service to others in Jesus name and for the sake of God's kingdom. However, this motivation does not constitute an ulterior motive. Rather, a Christian must truly love her neighbors as they are and because they are, seeing in each person the imago Dei, which is ineradicable even in the person who seems committed to doing evil.

Saint Francis of Assisi, by Jusepe Ribera, 1642


As a Christian, you love God with the entirety of your being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. This does not mean that you must have deeply affectionate feelings for every person you encounter, at least not up-front. Let's be honest, if you wait for that to happen, you can easily justify never serving anyone. What it means is that when you encounter someone in need, you help him/her. Very often it is by seeing someone's need and endeavoring to help that particular person in those specific circumstances that affection arises in your heart. As with so many things, we often get this backwards.

We are all impoverished beggars. Francis understood that in Christ God took pity on our nothingness. In imitation of Jesus, this not something Francis so much taught as it was how he lived. This is something he demonstrated clearly and umabiguously when he very publicly renounced his father's wealth and the privilege that went along with it. He deliberately sought to live a materially impoverished life in order to live a truly rich life. It was his commitment to poverty and humility, which constitute the foundation of simplicity, that drew people to follow him. Francis insisted that those who followed him (later they became known as "Franciscans"- he died outside of the Franciscan order) have no rule of life except that of the Gospel. Francis simply sought to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ in a straightforward and concrete way. By doing so, he bears witness across centuries what it means to say, "Jesus is Lord."

Eventually, Francis was ordained a deacon. His life of service was certainly diaconal in its essence and to its core. He was not merely a good deacon, Francesco was the very embodiment of the diakonia to which all Christians are called. Practically, he became a deacon so that he could be licensed to preach. While the saying "Go and preach the Gospel today and if you must use words" is likely not something Francis ever said, it stands as a good summary of how he lived. Really, it is a concise definition of diakonia, a word that means "service." Preaching the Gospel by serving others, especially those in need is the diakonia of Christ.

Our Friday traditio is Sarah McLachlan beautifully singing the always timely "Prayer of Saint Francis"-



Saint Francis, committed disciple of Jesus Christ and exemplary deacon, on this your feast day, pray for us! I ask your prayers in a special way for the deacons of the Diocese of Salt Lake City as we gather for our annual retreat, which starts this afternoon.

"pray always without becoming weary"

It is not enough to say "You should be persistent in prayer because Jesus said you should." This is never a satisfactory answer. R...