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.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Year C Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146:7-10; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

In our second reading from 1 Timothy, we are urged to “Lay hold of eternal life.”1 Translated a bit more literally, we are urged, “lay hold of the life of the Age.”2 This refers to the age to come when God’s kingdom will be fully established.

What it means to “lay hold of the life of the Age” to come is to live in such a way as to make yourself fit for that age. This reading also gives instruction on how to do this: “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”3 Baptism and confirmation are alluded to when the inspired author reminds his readers of the faith they professed before witnesses, which commits them to “keep the commandment without stain or reproach.”4

What is the commandment to be kept? It is nothing other than the commandment to love: loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. In our Gospel this week, Jesus teaches us in startling terms the importance of living this way. According to Jesus, your neighbor is the person whom you encounter who needs your help. You don’t have to go to Calcutta, India and spend time with the Missionaries of Charity to find people who need your help. There are plenty of people right here in our community who need your assistance.

In our first reading, the prophet Amos rebuked the wealthy of the Northern Kingdom for putting their comfort and luxury before the needs of the poor. Jesus echoes this prophetic call in today’s Gospel. His teaching is a provocation. Keep in mind that “provocation” is a compound word: pro- meaning “for”- + vocation- meaning “calling”- = for your calling. This refers to your God-given calling. A genuine provocation, then, is one that helps you fulfill your calling.

For Christians, there is essentially one vocation, one call: to become holy by becoming like Jesus Christ. You received this call when you were baptized. It was confirmed when you were confirmed. This call is renewed in every Eucharist. At the end of each Mass, you are sent forth to fulfill your divine calling. As Jesus’s disciple, one of the primary ways you do this is by helping those in need.

In the Confiteor, which we said together at the beginning of Mass, we expressed sorrow for “what I have failed to do.”5 These are “sins of omission.” Sometimes it is not so much that we choose what is evil as it is that we actively choose not to do good. Today’s readings are as straightforward as they are challenging; they don't require a lot of interpretation. As Christians our lives should bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In anticipation of his glorious return, rather than drowning ourselves in an ocean of recrimination for our sins of omission, let’s each of us prepare ourselves and the world for the Age to come by committing to help those in need on an on-going basis.

Among the things you might consider are volunteering at the Bountiful Food Pantry or with the Ladies of Charity. You may also consider becoming involved with our Council of Catholic Women or Knights of Columbus council. Perhaps you can become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, taking Communion to the sick and home-bound. Maybe you can sing in the choir. This, too, is service to others for the sake of God’s kingdom. If you can, in addition to supporting our parish, commit to financially supporting local, national, and international charities on an on-going basis in a sacrificial way.

By sacrificial, I mean something like taking your lunch a few times a week or doing without that nice cup of coffee and donating what you would spend on those to help people in need. Perhaps you can help someone in your neighborhood or in our parish with yard work, fall clean-up, etc. Taking time to serve others comes at the sacrifice of not being able to engage in other activities you’d like to pursue. This prompts the question, What are my priorities? As Christians, it’s important to find ways to put the needs of others before your own comfort and luxury.

In light of these readings, it seems good to be reminded that as Catholics we observe Friday as a day of penance. Just as every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, each Friday, excepting those on which a Solemnity falls, is Good Friday. Friday is the day Christ sacrificed himself on our behalf, thus giving us a model to imitate.

As Catholics in the United States, our bishops teach us that we observe Friday as a day of penance in two ways: by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals, which is obligatory on Fridays of Lent, or performing a charitable act. Performing a charitable act means something like going out of your way to help someone in need at some inconvenience and/or cost to yourself.

Traditional Catholic practices, like observing Friday as a penitential day, are time-tested ways for living as Christians. Adhering to these practices in your daily life is how you strive to make yourself fit for the age to come; it is how you make God’s kingdom a present reality; it is how you turn the “not yet” into the “right here and now,” thus giving hope to a world that desperately needs it.

That Amos was a farmer and Jesus was a carpenter (in Greek tekton) lend credibility to the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”6 As someone who adhered to the Rule of St. Benedict, the watchwords of Bernard’s life were, Ora et labora (i.e., “Pray and work”). This lovely three-word summary of life in Christ is made more explicit by these words of Pope Francis: “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...”7

Just so, worship that does not lead to service, to diakonia, is not Christian worship.

1 1 Timothy 6:12.
2 1 Timothy 6:12 from The New Testament: A Translation, trans. David Bentley Hart, 422.
3 1 Timothy 6:11.
4 1 Timothy 6:14.
5 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 4.
6 Found in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, by Richard Foster, 126.
7 Pope Francis, Sunday General Audience, 21 July 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching at the weekly Mass for our parish school. It was the obligatory Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul. For pastoral reasons, we use the first reading, responsorial Psalm, and Gospel of the upcoming Sunday. In this instance, there are no readings in all the lectionary that would be more fitting for the Church's remembrance of this great saint.

I began by asking the children some questions. Because I am uptight like that I put the answers in brackets. Anyway, what follows is my homily. It's important for me to laugh at my own uptightness.

So I don't leave you with the wrong impression about being uptight, I don't exactly follow the script. I add to or change things while preaching depending what I perceive as the assembly's response. In this instance, the dialogue at the beginning went very well. So I expanded it a bit. I am relieved it went well because I am not great at preparing homilies for children.


Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146-7-10; Luke 16:19-31

How many of you love Jesus?

Knowing your faith should inform how you live your life. Catholic children used to learn our faith by memorizing answers to questions. So, this morning I am going to ask you guys a few questions, okay?

How many commandments did God give to Moses? [10]

How many commandments did Jesus give us? [2]

What two commandments did Jesus give us? [“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”- (Luke 10:27)]

Saint Vincent de Paul

What was Jesus’s main point in the Gospel reading we just heard? [importance of serving the poor]

How you love God is by loving your neighbor. It’s important to know that your neighbor isn’t just the person sitting next you or the people who live next door. Jesus teaches that your neighbor is the person you encounter how needs your help. Elsewhere in the New Testament we learn that if we say love God whom we have not seen and do not love our neighbor we are dishonest. In fact, if this is our attitude, Scripture says we are liars (1 John 4:20). So, in today’s Gospel Lazarus was rich man’s neighbor. How did the rich man treat Lazarus? Did he treat him like a neighbor?

Today the Church remembers a great saint: St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). St. Vincent was a saint because he loved Jesus by loving his neighbors. As a priest, St. Vincent recognized that his neighbors were the poor people of Paris. As a result, he set about serving them, working to ensure they had food, clothing, and shelter. He organized other Christians to assist the poor, not just in Paris but in many places.

It’s important for us to remember that St. Vincent had an influence on St. Olaf parish and school. Vincent founded a religious order of men: the Congregation of the Mission, or Vincentians. He also founded a religious order of women: the Daughters of Charity. It was the Daughters of Charity who started St Olaf school. The Daughters of Charity served at our school for many years. It was their concern to hand on the Christian faith to young people right here in Bountiful, Utah so that the love of Jesus would continue to be shown to those in need everywhere.

In his care for the poor, St. Vincent gives us the counterexample to the rich man in today’s Gospel, who ignored Lazarus as he suffered day after day right outside his door. In this St. Vincent shows us how to love Jesus by loving our neighbors, keeping in mind that our neighbors are those people who need our help.

Friday, September 27, 2019

"Sing His praises once more"

When/if we ever start Charismatic Masses in English again in our local Church, Rich Mullins's "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" would be a good opening or closing song. Of course, this would require plenty of enthusiastic pre-Mass praise and worship to warm-up. If you don't like charismatic expressions of Christian faith, this probably isn't the post for you.

Another dreamy aspiration would be to assist Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, as he presides at such a Mass! Of course, Rich & Brennan (Manning) would be jamming with us ragamuffins in the communion of saints.

Listening to Amy Grant sing this song this week recalled to my mind that moment in October 31 years ago when, kneeling before a crucifix, I gave my heart to Jesus. In that moment I said to Him something like, "Lord, I want to follow you wherever you lead me." You see, I was lonely and miserable in that moment. Jesus met me in my need in a way I can't describe. He's been with me ever since. I can say without hesitation, if He were not with me I would not be writing this or anything else. While nothing changed right away, it's amazing what happened over the next two years.

What a journey He's taking me on. Sure, sometimes the road goes through the Valley of the Shadow Death but Jesus, who is the Lord of that and of all valleys, is with me. He never says, "Come on, Scott, you're falling behind." He patiently walks back to accompany me. Sometimes we sit on the side of the road while I recover. At such times we just sit together. I don't mind saying, He often lets me rest my head on His shoulder.

Our Friday traditio is from "back in the day," as it were. We were young and loved Jesus. Hey- "The Life goes on and so must the song." I don't want to go back and be a young, idealistic (perhaps overly idealistic) and immature Christian again (not that I am a fully mature Christian yet). No, re-listening to songs from my early days of belief allows me to gain a whole new appreciation for my faith, the miracle of it, and that enthusiasm I had. I hope of all those wonderful experiences have borne some fruit over 30+ years. Listening to songs like "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" is like coming back after a journey of some distance, one that took awhile. It's my recognition that somehow, by the grace of God, I have not forsaken my first love, at least never entirely (Rev. 2:4). In my own weak and faltering way, I striven to remain faithful to this vow.

As the song exhorts: "You gotta sing, again, the song born in your soul when you first gave your heart to Him."

I love the mash-up at the end. Of course, we didn't call it that back then, but it's pretty great.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Who do you serve?

Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113:1-2.4-8; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

It's important to keep in mind that the Old Testament and Gospel readings in the Lectionary on Sundays during Ordinary Time are harmonized. This Sunday our Old Testament reading is from the Book of the Prophet Amos. In true prophetic fashion, Amos's prophecy has little or nothing to do with foretelling the future. What Amos's prophecy is concerned with, as are the prophecies of most of the other prophets, is calling Israel back to fidelity with the Covenant God established with them. It is adherence to this Covenant that makes Israel God's chosen people. The essence of the Covenant is Israel's care for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor.

In our first reading Amos rebukes those who "trample" over the poor and reserves particular venom for those who cheat while selling grain, thus making bigger profits from those who already have very little. Being the prophet par excellence, Jesus takes up the prophetic mantle of Amos and the other prophets. Jesus amplifies the message of the prophets, making it universal. The Law was given as a means to the ends of loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Nonetheless, for many the Law is made into something quite antithetical, something complex instead of simple. Christians do the same thing by making the Gospel primarily about individual salvation freely given quite, thus seeking to separate it from how we live our lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was quite right to call this "cheap grace."

Our Gospel this week is one that is very easy to misinterpret. How this misinterpretation usually works is by making the assertion that Jesus urges his followers to be like the dishonest steward. Up front, it is important to note that there is no question about the steward's dishonesty. He is identified from the beginning as dishonest, as unrighteous, as a bad steward who takes advantage of his master. He cheats his master from beginning to end. It is not just the steward who is dishonest, however. Jesus calls all "mammon" dishonest. What this likely refers to is that by placing your trust in material possessions and ordering your life to acquiring wealth, being primarily concerned with your own comfort, fostering the illusion of self-reliance, you separate yourself from God and other people in violation of the two great commandments. Especially in the U.S. and other advanced Western societies, this is perhaps the major thing that afflicts the Church.

According to Eric Franklin, the perspective of the story is a worldly one. The steward is not a good steward. He is not a person worthy of the trust placed in him by his master. As a result, his master dismisses him. The steward responds to his dismissal in a vigorous and one might argue creative way. Even though he was defrauded, the master, who himself sees all of this from a worldly perspective (i.e., the master is neither Jesus nor God the Father), commends his fired servant's initiative. Note that the master does not reinstate the steward as a result of the way he settled his accounts with his debtors. It can't be lost on anyone who reads this story that the dismissed steward's settlements were entirely self-serving, aimed at securing future employment at his current employer's expense. In my view, Jesus's words about being trustworthy in small things speaks directly to the dishonest steward's lack of character.

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward, by Marinus van Reymerswaele, ca 1540

Franklin goes on to assert that perhaps Jesus is addressing this parable to his disciples who were tax collectors and sinners. He asserts that Jesus needs to confront them, to provoke them, thus bringing about their repentance. So, he encourages them to use "dishonest wealth" to make friends with the poor. This puts Jesus's teaching in line with our reading from Amos. Rather than profit at the expense of the poor, these followers are to use dishonest wealth, wealth that comes at the expense of others, to help the poor even while eschewing and opposing unjust systems that generate dishonest wealth. In the story of Zacchaeus a few chapters on we see clearly what the repentance Jesus hopes to bring about looks like in reality (Luke 19:1-10).

Returning to Franklin's exposition of the tale of the dishonest steward, it seems the message of the story is that the crisis facing Jesus's hearers is similar to that of the steward's being fired. Like the steward, the crisis posed by the imminence of the age to come portends the loss of all your money, wealth, and luxury. Jesus inaugurates this age, the "already" his followers are to live in the midst of the "not yet." You do this by attending to and caring for the poor and needy, who will be first in God's kingdom.

Hence, you should respond to the looming crisis in an energetic and decisive way. It's important, again, to recognize that far from being a sure sign of God's blessing (a tiresome trope of American Christianity), wealth and material possessions often constitute the biggest obstacles to making yourself fit for the age to come. It is the coming of that age, the realization of God's kingdom, that foments the crisis to which everyone who hears and believes Jesus's message must respond. Refusing to respond is a response. Pope Francis frequently decries our indifference to the suffering of the world's poor.

In the words of a Bob Dylan song: "You Gotta Serve Somebody." Do you serve God or mammon? Do you serve the Lord or the devil? Is your life about making God's kingdom present here and now, bringing the future into the present, which is what it means to be a person of hope, or are you intent on seeking satisfaction in those things that can never provide it, ignoring the needs of others? To end by pointing out the obvious: you serve the Lord by serving your neighbor. Who is your neighbor? The person in need who you are in a position to help whether nearby or far away in this interconnected age.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Ramblings mental and physical

A bit later this morning I am headed to New Mexico to lead a retreat for some of my brother deacons who serve in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. If I am honest, I find it a bit nerve-racking. So, I would appreciate any prayers you might utter on my behalf, especially those to the Blessed Virgin. Perhaps consider saying a Memorare for me?

The retreat is taking place at Our Lady of Guadalupe Benedictine monastery in Pecos. The reason for my nervousness is that I have only led one deacon retreat prior to this. It was four years ago and for my brother deacons of my own diocese.

Chapel, Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, Pecos, NM

In both instances I was asked to lead the retreat on short notice because the original leader had to cancel. This retreat I agreed to do it on two weeks notice. This is not a complaint. Once I get over myself, which usually takes some doing, I am happy to step up and let myself be challenged. 

Beyond the retreat- though partially impacted by my decision to lead it- it's been a really difficult couple of weeks. I pray that this weekend's break in my routine might prove helpful in this regard. If nothing else, these past few weeks have reinforced the message I plan to deliver to my brother deacons: spiritual discipline is very important.

Our Friday traditio is a lovely Gregorian chant version of the Salve Regina. It bears noting that today the Church remembers and celebrates the Korean martyrs Saints Andrew Kim Taegon, Paul Chong Hasang, and Companions.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"This man welcomes sinners..."

Readings: Ex 32:7-11.13-14; Ps 51:3-4.12-13.17.19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

Today's Gospel is about how God, being the Good Shepherd and, more importantly, the Good Father, goes in search of those who are lost, those who are broken, those who need healing. In other words, God seeks out people like me. In our rush to get to the Parable of the Prodigal Son we often over look the context of the three parables that comprise our Gospel reading for this Sunday.

The context is the scribes and Pharisees, noticing how Jesus draws the "tax collectors and sinners" to himself, complain. Their compliant? "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." It is the importance of welcoming sinners that prompts Jesus to teach three parables in succession. Each of the parables presents a different way of explaining why he welcomes sinners. It is with the Parable of the Prodigal that importance turns into necessity. It becomes necessity because welcoming sinners and inviting them to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is the very nature of God.

There's probably no passage in all of the Sacred Scriptures that provides us with a more beautiful, that is, truer picture of God the Father than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is God, the God of Israel. This is the One God, living and true. The God who is love (1 John 4:8.16). Worshiping any other God is rank idolatry. The God worshiped by those who think they earn God's favor through what they call obedience is perhaps the most pernicious idol there is, making the Golden Calf from our first reading seem benign by comparison. God loves you as you are because God loves that you are. After all, God made you out of love in order to love.

By welcoming and dining with tax collectors, who were the lowest of the low for cooperating with and profiting from the occupying Romans, and sinners- prostitutes and other such folks- Jesus was demonstrating in reality what he taught in parables. These days it's even worse. The Lord goes even further than merely welcoming and dining with sinners. He invites such people, like me, to partake of his body and blood. We call this Eucharist. Thank you, Lord, for inviting a sinner like me to your table. Moreover, thank you for letting me serve at your table. What a privilege it is. I could never be worthy. Both my participation and service are graces.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-1670

The essence of my main point is captured in our epistle reading: "This saying is trustworthy and worthy of all acceptance: that Jesus the Anointed entered the cosmos to save sinners, among whom I am foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15- from David Bentley Hart's New Testament: A Translation). There is a reason we enact the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass (the vast majority of the time- the rest of the time the Sprinkling Rite still reminds us we need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb). There is a reason we all say out loud, just prior to receiving Holy Communion:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed
Jesus is the healer of your soul and my soul. The Eucharist is the medicine with which we are healed.

It's true that neither of these penitential rituals has the efficacy of the sacrament of penance, but sincere repentance is a matter of the heart. My heart is only known by God and by me. While always known to God, my heart is opaque to me at times. I can go to confession, make a good confession, and yet not be truly contrite or have a firm purpose of amendment.

Yet, I can be at Mass and have a moment of genuine repentance, feel contrition, and resolve, in my weakness, to strive to change what I need to change. By receiving the Eucharist, I seek the help I need, the medicine for my soul. In any case, I am in no position to judge the inward disposition of anyone else, ever! Neither are you, my friends.

Pope Francis asserts that Holy Communion "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." Lest someone accuse the Holy Father (yet again) of straying from the Tradition, consider these words of St. Ambrose of Milan: "If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy."

I think it beautiful that our Psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 51. This psalm is also known as the Miserere. It is the first psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday of the four week Psalter. This psalm provides the words of the Invitatory with which the Liturgy of the Hours begins each day: "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise" (Ps 51:17).

Even now Catholics are to observe each Friday, except those on which a solemnity falls, as a day of penance. This makes opening Morning Prayer with the Miserere very fitting. The verses of Psalm 51 that compromise our responsorial for this Sunday note that all I have to offer God by way of sacrifice "is a contrite spirit" (Ps 51:19). I make it in the confidence that God won't reject my offering of "a heart contrite and humbled" (Ps 51:19). Anyone who thinks s/he has more to offer God than this is an idolator. In the words the late Philip Roth placed in the mouth of his literary character Mickey Sabbath: "Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked."

Friday, September 13, 2019

"But to stand there it takes some grace"

Well, the week started out fine enough. In truth, it's coming to an end quite nicely too. However, the middle was a bumpy ride. More opacity, I know. Suffice it to say that the black dog came out of the bushes and jumped me Wednesday evening. For those who do not know, "the black dog" refers to depression. As I confessed to a friend, prior to this episode I was starting to have "illusions of progress." By that I mean since roughly the first of this year I had been doing pretty well. I made a lot of changes in terms of lifestyle: diet, exercise, prayer, quitting alcohol, again. Since I quit for 15 months in 2015-2016, I hadn't been imbibing much. But a little is too much for me. People prone to depression don't need depressants, at this one doesn't.

As a friend reminded me, Satan means accuser. Without going into excruciating detail, the nadir of these episodes most of the time is arriving at the conclusion I am no good and that everyone would be better off without me. Not only does this become believable, it grows very convincing. I wonder, "Why can't I just get on with things like everyone else? Why am I so needy? Why can't I accept that it's unfair to expect others carry the weight of my need? Why does life often seem so pointless?" This line of questions starts to make me feel like I am going to explode. Eventually, I run out of steam and find sleep. When I awake I am often struck by what I've been through and start to shame myself and to feel embarrassed. The reason for this is that it all seems so self-centered. Anyway, those are the Cliff Notes.

As I've noted before, my greatest insecurity is believing that if someone, anyone, really knew me s/he would not like me. Let's face it, we all care about what others think about us. This is not the problem, however. The problem is twofold: caring more than you should about what others think and assuming everyone, or most everyone, thinks poorly or negatively of you. Chances are there people in your life who think the best of you. Believe it or not, among those people are at least a few who think the best of you despite having seen you at your worst!

Some 40+ hours later, I am not quite my old self (whoever the hell that is). I am seeing things a bit more clearly. I am more in my right mind and not in the midst of panic, being battered by tidal waves of self-doubt and beaten bloody by mental self-flagellation. But I am tending the wounds by spending the day largely on my own doing small, manageable tasks. I went to the Church and did about an hour-and-a-half of sacristan duties, getting things ready for Sunday Masses, which I loved.

Once again, I see there are people close to me who care, who are pained by my suffering, who reach out persistently even as I balk at being helped, seeing myself as beyond their well-meaning ministrations. One of those people, somebody quite unexpected, shared her own story with me, which humbled me. In other words, these people are caring and compassionate, not merely sympathetic or sorry for me. Once again, I am determined not to wait for the crisis to seek support and to make sure I am supporting others. It's mutual thing because it's a human thing.

I am firmly convinced that God gives me more than I can handle. It's how I learn to rely his love and the love of others. Love is life.

Why do I share this publicly? Well, because I've lived to tell about it. To validate the legitimacy of my experience instead of beating myself up for not being able to always handle things. To express gratitude for my life and to the people who love and care about me and who I sometimes take for granted. To encourage other people so afflicted to open up and lighten up, to acknowledge their need for help and forge stronger bonds with others (hard, I know). To offer some companionship. And because it helps me to write about it, even if poorly. As I have long insisted, if I derived no benefit from blogging I would stop doing it.

The late and still dearly missed Rich Mullins's "We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are" seems a more than fitting traditio for this Friday. Hey, Rich, put in a prayer for the rest of us Ragamuffins.

We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Year C Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 9:13-18b; Ps 90:3-6.12-14.17; Phmn 9-1.12-17; Luke 14:25-33

We are again reminded at the beginning of our Gospel reading that we are journeying with Jesus. The inspired author of St. Luke’s Gospel notes that at this stage of his journey, the Lord is accompanied by “crowds.”1 Probably many in these crowds wondered where Jesus was headed. You may sometimes wonder where the Lord is leading you, especially when the road takes an unexpected turn, or bypasses the route to a destination you desire.

But being Jesus’s disciple requires you to overcome a certain naivete about where you are headed by following him. As Jesus makes clear in our Gospel today, his destination is not only Jerusalem but the cross. This is why he says, again- “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come me… cannot be my disciple.”2 The reason that such a person cannot be Jesus’s disciple is because s/he refuses to journey to the destination, thus refusing her/his destiny. The fruit of our meditation on the fifth Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Holy Rosary, the Crucifixion, is perseverance.

To refuse the cross is to reject the Gospel. As we heard three weeks ago in one of our readings from the Letter to the Hebrews: “preferring the joy that lay before him, [Jesus] endured a cross, disdaining its shame.”3 Like our Master, we should prefer the joy that lays beyond the cross: God's kingdom.

Jesus invites you to follow him. He does not compel, coerce, or manipulate you. Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon gives us an idea of what extending Jesus’s invitation to others looks like in reality. Too often, in my view, we tell stories about the Scriptures at the expense of the stories we find in the Scriptures thus often obscuring the overarching story the Scriptures communicate. As the Bible translator and Church father St. Jerome insisted: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Only once in the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings do we read from Philemon, which letter conveys a compelling real-life set of circumstances.

In his approach to Philemon, a Christian slave-owner, Paul is very Christ-like. The crux of the matter is that a slave of Philemon’s, named Onesimus, left without permission to journey with Paul, who was being taken as a prisoner to Rome.

Paul’s arrest, his arraignment before the Roman governor Felix, who imprisoned him in Caesarea for two years, then before Felix’s successor, Festus, who turned the matter over to King Agrippa, is chronicled in the final 8 chapters of the book of Acts. Both Festus and Agrippa wanted to acquit and release Paul, who was charged with inciting riots by preaching what some fellow Jews considered to be heresy, namely Christianity. It is ironic that this is what Paul formerly persecuted Christians for, beginning with his instigating the fatal stoning of Stephen. Because Paul already invoked his right as a Roman citizen to have his case adjudicated at the imperial court in Rome, they did not acquit him.

Realizing Onesimus left without Philemon’s approval, Paul sent him back with a letter. In the letter, Paul urges Philemon to deal gently with Onesimus, noting that their relationship as brothers in Christ trumps their master/slave relationship. In and through Christ, Paul insists, they are equals. Hence, Philemon should treat Onesimus as a brother, not punish him as a runaway slave. Far from endorsing slavery, this letter gives us a glimpse of the subversive nature of Paul’s radical message about the equality of all people in and through Christ.

Icon of Saint Onesimus, Wikipedia

Instead of invoking his apostleship to keep Onesimus, whom he describes as his “child,” and his “own heart,” with him, Paul avoids forcing Philemon’s hand. 4 The apostle does not present Philemon with a fait accompli, lest Philemon’s “goodness” be something imposed on him. Rather, in his pastoral concern, Paul sends Onesimus back and gives Philemon the opportunity to act in a genuinely righteous way toward his slave for the sake of the Gospel.5

Paul’s insistence that who they are in Christ by virtue of baptism overrides the master/slave relationship between Philemon and Onesimus sheds light on what Jesus says about prioritizing following him over everything and everyone else. As he does quite often, Jesus in this passage uses hyperbole when he enjoins his hearers to “hate” their spouses, parents, children, and even their own lives.6

It is by experiencing the love of God in Christ and responding to God’s love that you come to love yourself justly and form healthier, more loving attachments with your spouse, parents, children, friends, whomever. In other words, a relationship with God through Christ makes you less emotionally needy, less prone to crush others under the weight of your needs, of your insecurities, your fears. We often recite the Prayer of Saint Francis, in which we pray:
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
In today’s Gospel, Jesus urges anyone who would follow him to calculate the cost of doing so. Following Jesus does not merely require some inchoate something. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself whole and complete. In return, he asks you to give yourself to God completely.

It’s “a thing” among some Christians to choose a “life verse.” A “life verse” is a Scripture verse that succinctly captures for the one who adopts it what it means to follow Christ; a verse that inspires and challenges. If I were to adopt such a verse, it would almost certainly be the opening verses of the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
Therefore, I implore you, brothers [and sisters], by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God… do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect7
Were today not Sunday, we would celebrate the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the model Christian disciple. Our Blessed Mother’s fiat (i.e., the words with which she accepted the call to bear God’s Son), when translated with a bit more precision than we usually encounter, serves as a great summary of God's word today: “See: the slave of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said.”8

1 Luke 14:25.
2 Luke 14:27.
3 Hebrews 12:2 in The New Testament: A Translation, trans. David Bentley Hart, Yale University Press, 452.
4 Philemon 10.12.
5 Philemon 14.
6 Luke 14:26.
7 Romans 12:1-2 in The New Testament: A Translation, 311.
8 Luke 1:38 in The New Testament: A Translation, 105..

Friday, September 6, 2019

"Imagine something... you can have and hold"

I try avoid using the same song more than once for our Friday traditio. It's not unusual, however, for me to employ a few songs by the same group or artist in short succession. Last Sunday afternoon I was home alone, working on a few things and listening to the radio. As I worked and listened "Dreamin'" by Blondie came on.

Given some of what's been going on in my life the past several weeks, "Dreamin'" seems especially apt as our traditio this week.

The events to which I refer have not been unpleasant, just a bit disorienting for me. As a result, I have had to do some serious heart-work, some deep digging. Hey, I'm a work in progress. Progress isn't always pretty and doesn't always feel good. What I've realized is that it's important to be grateful for what I have even while, being human, I can't help but sometimes think about what might've been. Maybe this mental exercise isn't as fruitless as I insisted it was last Friday. Yeah, I don't claim to be infallible either.

While I'm at it, why not go literary as well?

Ever since I first read these words, written by C.S. Lewis at the beginning of his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, they have resonated with me. Far from appropriating his observation on false pretenses, these words capture something important for me and about me: "My father's people were true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate and rhetorical, easily moved to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much talent for happiness."

I apologize for the opacity of this post and last Friday's. I will try to get back to being more transparent next week. If nothing else, you were able to watch and listen to the opening song for Blondie's 1979 concert in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Hey, say a prayer for me if you don't mind.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Following Christ requires poverty and humility

Readings: Sir 3:17-18.20-28-29; Ps 68:4-7.10-11; Heb 12:18-19.22-24a; Luke 14:1.71-14

Humility, what a concept! More than a concept, humility is viewed by Christians and non-Christians alike as a virtue. To invoke the Seven Deadly Sins again, humility is the contrary virtue to the vice of pride. This makes humility very important because pride is at the root of a lot of sinful behavior. Like most virtues, we make too much and too little of humility at the same time. You make too much of humility by seeing as unattainable. Because it's unattainable, it requires nothing of you. We make too little of it by not valuing people who are truly humble. Because they're humble, it's easy to overlook them.

In today's Gospel, Jesus, our Master and Teacher, gives us a very straightforward lesson both on the importance of being humble and how to be humble. I really don't like the phrase "fake it 'til you make it." Nonetheless, when it comes the virtues, you have to start somewhere. This makes Jesus's teaching in our Gospel today very practical: it is by practicing humility that you become more humble.

The other focus of today's Gospel, as well as of responsorial Psalm, is poverty. Like humility, poverty is a virtue. This ties in very well with the Lord's teaching that warns us about placing our trust, our hope, in money, power, or material things. The virtue of poverty does not necessarily require to sell all you own and give everything to the poor. However, you should not be too hasty to rule out that option completely! It does require you not to hold on too tightly to what you have or to foolishly think things like, "I've been successful. I've accumulated enough money to live on easy street. I need not worry about anything." To be comfortable, to invoke Newman once again, is to be unsafe.

All of us must ever bear in mind that when it comes to what really matters, we're nothing more than paupers, than beggars. Death is the great equalizer. In his goodness, God has mercy on us beggars. God invites only beggars to the wedding feast of the Lamb. God invites only people who can never pay him back. It's true, nobody can pay God back for what he has done for us in and through Christ. Acquiring and cultivating the virtues of humility and poverty are our tickets, our invitations, to the heavenly feast. We must present these at the door. Hence, active and continuous service to those who are truly in need is an important harbinger of God's kingdom in the here and now.

Thinking about the virtues of poverty and humility caused the Joyful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary to pop into my mind. These are the mysteries that help us to meditate on the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son. Humility is the fruit of the Mystery on which we focus as we contemplate the first Joyful Mystery, which is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel that she was to bear God's Son. Bearing God's Son makes her the Mother of God. It's difficult to think of a more exalted calling. As in all things, Mary is a model disciple. She receives this astounding news with great humility. As I did last week, I turn again to her Magnificat, to the opening lines of this canticle:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him... (italicizing and emboldening emphasis mine)

The third Joyful Mystery- Jesus's Nativity- bids us to meditate on his birth in an animal abode, likely a cave, his being wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough (his being put in a feeding trough has serious Eucharistic overtones). The fruit of this Mystery is poverty. For our sakes he became poor so that we might become rich. The great Kenotic Hymn St. Paul uses in his Letter to the Philippians sets forth the marvel of the Incarnation by pointing out that Jesus Christ,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross
In the verse that precedes the Kenotic Hymn, Paul urges the early Christians of ancient Philippi and by extension us: "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). Like most of Jesus's teaching, this is easy to comprehend and difficult to do.

The virtues of poverty and humility can be nicely tied together by something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." Let's bear in mind the wisdom of Sirach: "Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins" (Sir 3:29).

Friday, August 30, 2019

"You can't be sure of any situation"

Life is strange. But then you didn't need me to tell that, right? "Strange" is an ambiguous adjective. Life can be strange in ways that are good, in ways that are bad, and in ways that are just, well, strange. I have to say that my 50s thus far have been strange in both good ways and in puzzling ways. I am pretty sure that I've confessed before that I thought by the time I was the age I am now I'd have more things figured out. In reality, I am glad that I don't. In most ways, my life has worked out better than I expected it to, better than I had any right to expect. Of course, this doesn't mean that I have realized all my dreams and accomplished everything I set out to accomplish when I was younger. You know what? I am fine with that. Besides, I am not dead yet!

This observation was brought about by a lot of self-reflection these past few weeks. This introspection, in turn, was prompted by some interactions with an old friend. The nature of our friendship itself is rather strange. Without getting into any boundary-crossing detail, it is a relationship that not only left me very frustrated for more than a decade of my young life, it left me very much doubting myself and quite uncertain and insecure in ways I have found difficult to overcome. I blame none of this on my friend. It's all me. I will leave this already vague observation by stating something else you don't need to me tell you: in life, timing may not be everything but when it comes to certain things it is decisive.

As a result of the decisiveness of some choices, you have to learn to let the alternatives go. You can't live life in reverse. Nothing is more fruitless than going back 10, 20, 30 years and thinking "What if I had chosen differently?" What's even worse is to rewind the clock in your mind and wish someone else had chosen differently!

By contrast, few things are more fruitful than making the best of your choices and keeping the commitments you've made. This is not what some people describe as "settling." It is accepting reality in the realization that life will always fall short of the aspirations you have when making life's big decisions. This week the Church observed the memorial of St. Augustine. It was Augustine who wrote, at the very beginning of his Confessions (Book I Chapter 1): "You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." Being fickle is not the road to happiness or the recipe for fulfillment.

Life forces some big decisions on each one of us. What I mean by big decisions are the kind of decisions that by choosing not to decide you've still made a choice. For example, do you join your life that of another person? Not deciding generally means you wind up alone, or maybe in a relationship of mutual convenience with someone else who refuses to choose. I believe the more intentional your big decisions and the more your adhere to them, own them, the better off you are.

As a Christian, I am not big on fate. Neither do I view God as a cosmic puppet master. In other words, I am far from certain that "everything happens for a reason." What is typically meant by the invocation of said "reasons" is everything that happens is at the service of some inscrutable and comprehensive plan for my life and for the cosmos. Whether consciously or not, people who adhere to the "everything happens for a reason" philosophy really don't believe in choice. Such a person believes that nobody makes choices because all outcomes are predetermined and at the service of the inscrutable cosmic plan. I believe my choices matter. I believe your choices matter. Your choices shape your life, just as mine shape my life. Even though all decisions are made at a specific point-in-time and within the constraints of specific set of circumstances, some choices are decisive for life and irrevocable. Frankly, I don't believe anyone who says they have no regrets. I have regrets, quite a few, truth be told. But if everything happens for a reason, what is there to regret?

While I am trying to zero in on the effect of choices on life, it bears noting, if only in passing, that some things happen for no discernible cosmic reason. I apply this to suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent and powerless. But then there are those decisions made intentionally and discerned as well as any decision can be that have disappointing outcomes.

Anyway, far too predictably our Friday traditio for this final week of August is Missing Persons "Destination Unknown."

When making the big decisions life imposes on you, you make them with some of destination, some kind of destiny, some imagined outcome in mind. That we desire a fulfilling destiny constitutes our humanity at its deepest level. If you had no desire you'd never be disappointed. As George Carlin noted- "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist."

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Year C Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 66:18-21; Ps 117-1-2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Luke 13:22-30

The beginning of our Gospel reading today reminds us that during these weeks in Ordinary Time, as we read through St. Luke’s Gospel in a semi-continuous way, we journey with Jesus and his disciples from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. Their journey, which is a pilgrimage, is a metaphor for our lives as pilgrims, members of God’s pilgrim people, the Church, making our way to the city of God. Along these same lines, it also bears remembering that in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus travels to the holy city only once during his ministry.

As he makes his way, Jesus conducts a School of Discipleship. Fundamental to being a disciple of Jesus is grasping the nature of God’s kingdom. From the perspective of our fallenness, God’s kingdom is a bizarro world, a world turned upside-down and backward.

Jesus gives insight into the nature of God’s kingdom when he tells his largely Jewish listeners the first will be last and the last will be first. Specifically, he refers to the inclusion of Gentiles, who will come “from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”1 Our reading from Isaiah tells of the opening of the one covenant to everyone, which prophecy is fulfilled through Jesus Christ.

As a theological principle, however, the first being last and the last being first needs a broader application. This application occurs in our Blessed Mother’s Magnificat:
He has shown the strength of his arm.
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he has sent away empty2
The revolutionary nature of the Gospel, so powerfully captured in the Magnificat, must first happen within you. By proclaiming God’s kingdom and calling you to conversion, Jesus seeks to awaken you from your slumber, urging you to reform your life. This reform consists of shaping yourself in accord with God’s kingdom. As Martin Luther, taking his cue from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, insisted, the shape of fallen humanity is best described by the Latin phrase homo incurvatus se (i.e., the human being curved in on her/himself). Following Jesus bends you outward, away from yourself and toward your neighbor. This can be painful at times.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about having the strength to enter through the narrow gate. You might well ask- How do I receive this strength? In the first instance, Christ strengthens you in and through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. The other part of the answer can be found in our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. As Jesus’s disciples, we develop the strength we need by practicing the disciplines he taught us. After all, a disciple is one who practices the disciplines taught and modeled by her/his master.

When speaking of God’s discipline it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the point of authentically parental discipline is not retributive punishment of the wayward child. Rather, its purpose is to help the child understand the importance of self-discipline to growing in maturity and to realizing true happiness.

The Lord teaches three spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Prayer, which includes the sub-disciplines of silence and solitude, meditation and contemplation, is where everything begins. Along with authentic worship, genuine prayer leads to compassionate action, that is, to selflessly serving others. Alms-giving is more than giving money, it requires you to give of yourself, your time, your skill, your energy.

Fasting, the most neglected spiritual discipline, integrates prayer and alms-giving. When you fast, sooner or later you will grow hungry. This is the point of fasting. Your physical hunger should prompt you ask a really important question: What am I really hungry for? Fasting helps you discipline yourself, strengthening you to resist harmful impulses as well as to live in solidarity with those in need.

It must be noted, spiritual disciplines are not ends in themselves but means to the end of loving God by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. The purpose of practicing spiritual disciplines, then, is to develop holy habits. Another name for holy habits is virtues.

Most of you are familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins. But how many know that each deadly sin has a contrary virtue? For example, the virtue that overcomes pride is humility, the virtue that trumps envy is kindness, charity is the opposite of greed, etc. Virtues are those habits on which we can rely to make our lives work, to make the lives of others work, and make the world a better place. Vices, by contrast, are habits we can rely on to make our lives not work, to bring down others, and to trap us in a cycle of dysfunction.

Holiness is not mindless adherence to rules and regulations. Mindlessly adhering to rules and regulations has no power to bring about conversion. Following Jesus is never a matter of going through the motions. Christian discipleship is always intentional. Holiness cannot be imposed on you from the outside. But if you hunger and thirst for holiness, God will fill you with good things.

Living a disciplined life is not a way to earn to God’s favor. Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit and by virtue of your baptism, you already enjoy God’s favor. Engaging in spiritual practices is how you attune yourself to the frequency of God’s grace. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is not magic, there is no ex opere operato involved. It is by practicing the disciplines of a follower of Christ that you come to know and to be known by the Lord.

Far from seeking to control outward things, holiness is about making your heart responsive to God in each and every circumstance in which you find yourself. As Richard Foster defines it, holiness is “the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.”3 I would add that holiness is the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done and doing it in the proper way.

Because Jesus is our master, our teacher, it is important to come to know him by reading the Gospels. A lot of the material in each of the four Gospels consists of vignettes in which Jesus encounters people experiencing various situations and crises. He does not have a template, a one-size-fits-all answer, for the people he encounters. Rather, he deals with life’s big questions as they arise in the circumstances of peoples’ lives. Holiness, Foster, continues, “means being ‘response-able,’ able to respond appropriately to the demands of life.”4 Learning this is how you become like Christ.

As our Collect today notes, it is by loving what God commands that you truly come to desire what God promises. It is the purpose of the new life Christ gave you baptism to acclimate yourself to God’s kingdom. For most of us, this means experiencing a sea-change in what we desire. Practicing spiritual disciplines is how you open yourself to God’s grace, letting God change your heart. Practicing the spiritual disciplines is also how you make God’s kingdom a present reality. Through such practice, you bring God’s kingdom, our promised future, into the here-and-now.

1 Luke 13:29.
2 Luke 1:51-53.
3 Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water, from Renovaré website-
4 Ibid.

"pray always without becoming weary"

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