Jesus tried in many ways to help his followers understand what he meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God.  In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus provides two images, the second one being that the Kingdom of God is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch of dough was leavened.”

Talking about Jesus’ efforts to explain the kingdom, Louis Savary writes

Some of Jesus’ images for the kingdom emphasize things that grow an develop organically, like a bush emerging from a seed, or yeast gradually permeating all the elements of the bread dough. Neither of these images implies a numerical growth but rather emphasizes a kind of organic development or an evolving process.

The  process thought resonates with me.  Yeast has to do its thing for the bread to rise.  It is not enough for it to simply be spread throughout the dough, it needs time to work and the dough is not the same from one minute to the next.

But that still leaves some questions unanswered.  Who is the woman?  Who is the yeast?  Perhaps Jesus is the starter years and we are the rest of the yeast?  Is God then the women?  If so, one suggestion is that whatever the Kingdom is, God does not do it all on his own, but relies on us.

The other thing that always strikes my attention in this image is three measure of flour.  I had always imagined that as three cups of flour, until I read that three measures is about two gallons of flour.  As anyone who bakes bread knows, two gallons would make a lot of loaves of bread!  One commentator I read suggests that Old Testament references to that amount would have made Jesus’ audience think of hospitality. That amount would represent service and devotion to others.  Or does it simply convey the enormity of God’s plan?

Perhaps you have some other questions of thoughts when you hear these words of Jesus.’

I may not be able to explain it satisfactorily, but because I bake bread, there is excitement about Kingdom in this parable for me.  What I hear God say at that is:  Your excitement at that is nothing compared to my excitement about the Kingdom!

It can be very exhausting to feel like the entire weight of the world is on your shoulders, to feel that it is somehow your job to fix enormous problems on your own.  True, we don’t phrase it that way, but it is easy to feel like we can’t let up our efforts, and have to work past the level of our capacity because there is so much to be done.

Although seductive – because it makes us think of ourselves as committed, dedicated people – such behavior really is a form of “functional atheism.”

In his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer describes functional atheism as

the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.

Parker talks about this in the context of talking about leadership and community, suggesting that if we are made for community (a basic truth in Catholic thought), then each member of the community must be both a leader and a follower.  More importantly, regarding our sense that the fate of the whole world rests on us, he reminds us that “[c]ommunity cuts both ways: when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need.”

It is an important lesson.  As Palmer writes

The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that ours is not the only act in town.  Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally!  We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others liberating and empowering them.  We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether.  The great community asks us to do only what we are able and to trust the rest to other hands.

It is good to examine our own behavior and ask whether a bit of functional atheism is lurking beneath the surface.  I’m not decrying hard work, but a lack of trust – in God and in other members of our communities.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters are currently celebrating the feast of Sukkot. During this seven-day festival, Jews eat their meals in temporarily erected huts. These flimsy structures generally have a semi-see through roof that is built from something that grows in the ground.

Sukkot is a reminder to the Jewish people of their life in the desert – of a time when they had  no permanent place to live, no place to call home from one day to the next.

Sukkot is, more generally, a reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. One rabbi had this to say about the festival of Sukkot:

At its heart, Sukkot is a time to recognize our impermanence, to celebrate together, and to reach into our own souls to find new meaning and new riches…. [All of the joy and celebration takes] place in the flimsiest, most vulnerable of structures, ..and you can see just how susceptible a Sukkah is to the weather…[O]ur holiday calls us to surround ourselves in impermanence—to allow ourselves to be vulnerable—and then to celebrate to our heart’s content.

If we are spiritual people, then whatever our religion is, we are conscious that we are defined by more than our human existence. Indeed this current human existence of ours is a blip in the totality of life eternal. As my friend Joe Costantino once observed in one or our conversations, we are temporary visitors to this planet.

We, of course, don’t tend to behave as temporary visitors – our every day reality is that this is our life; it is, after all, (except for those who claim to have actually memories of past lives) the only life we know. But it is a short and temporary blip nonetheless.

Sukkot serves as an importnat reminder that t all things in this world are transitory. And that transitoriness implies a view about our relationship to the world, one that is captured in the idea of renunciation.

Renunciation is a term that is easily misunderstood. We hear the word and we cringe, thinking it means we are not allowed to have things, or at least that we are not supposed to enjoy them. But renunciation is not about not enjoying what we have. Rather it is about understanding the transitory nature of worldly pleasure and understanding that there is something more needed to satisfy us – that, ultimately, to be truly happy, we need to turn from materialism to a life of spirit. And that is something that requires an intentional process of transformation.

Feast of St. Luke

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Luke, author of both one of the four Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles.

Both books have been favorites of mine.  I love Luke’s Gospel both for its beginning and its end. Only Luke’s Gospel contains the episodes of the Annunciation and the Visitation, both of which have been powerful passages in my prayer experience. And only Luke has the resurrected Jesus meeting the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a passage that has always been close to my heart.  And in the Easter season, praying with Luke’s account of the growth and development of the early Church following Jesus’ ascension is a moving experience.

Doubtless part of my attraction to Luke also stems from his emphasis on the poor and the marginalized. More so than the other evangelists, Luke portrays Jesus’ openness toward everyone that needed his attention, regardless of who they were, regardless of how they were despised by others. He emphasizes Jesus concern for the poor, for widows, for lepers, for victims of prejudice.

Luke’s Gospel carries a twofold message. First, that all are welcomed by Jesus, regardless of who they are and how little they have. Second, that we have an obligation to be sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalized, to act toward them as Jesus did – to love them and to be generous in providing for their needs.  That same theme is carried in Acts, where, among other things, that the “community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”

The lessons of Luke’s writing are timeless and ones we would do well to take to heart in our times.

Today was the fifth and final session of the Fall Reflection Series that Jennifer Wright and I have been co-facilitating at the University of St. Thomas (on the Minneapolis campus) this year.  The theme for this five week series was Women of the Bible.

In the earlier sessions of the series, we reflected on Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Ruth and Naomi, as well as some lesser-known women of the Hebrew Scriptures.  (If you are interested, scroll back through prior posts to check out the podcasts from those earlier sessions.) We ended our program today with Mary and Elizabeth.

In her talk, Jennifer offered some reflections about each of Elizabeth and Mary individually, and then about their relationship with each other. Near the end of her talk, she brought us back full circle to our first session by comparing what we see in the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth with what we saw in the relationship of Sarah and Hagar.

Jennifer also distributed a handout containing a contemporary translation of the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel.  She made the observation that we know some of these stories so well that it is easy for us to gloss over them.  She expressed the hope that a new translation of the episodes might help us reflect on the passages with new eyes.

After Jennifer’s talk we spent some time talking about the participants’ thoughts about Mary and Elizabeth and then gave folks a chance to share about some of the other wonderful women of the bible we did not cover in this series.  Perhaps we’ll have to start planning Women of the Bible, Part II!

You can access a recording of the Jennifer’s reflection here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:26.)  You can find a copy of the prayer materials we distributed to participants here.

Today is the final day of the weekend retreat I’m giving for students of the University of St. Thomas on the theme Choosing Christ in the World.  For many of the students, this has been their first experience of a silent retreat and they have kept the silence wonderfully.  (Our surroundings certainly help; it is a beautiful fall weekend and the retreat house grounds offer many secluded spots for one to pray while basking in the beauty of God’s creation.)

My talk this morning was titled Standing With Christ in the Face of Temptation.

It is, of course, easy to stand with Christ when things are going well.  To use the imagery of Jesus’ public ministry: easy to hang out with Jesus while he is turning water into wine, feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, and eating dinner at the home of friends.  The real question, however, is whether we are willing to stand with Christ when the going gets tough?

I began my talk by reflecting a little on Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  I then contrasted the life Jesus invites us to with the values and mores of our world as a way to think about the ways we are tempted to move away from the live of radical discipleship we are invited into.

You can access a recording of the session here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 30:29.)

Our retreat ends after lunch today.  Doubtless, even in these remaining few hours, God still has something in store for our students. So please keep them in your prayers.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Teresa of Avila, one of the women given the designation of “Doctor of the Church.”

It is difficult not to have admiration for this remarkable woman.   She barely survived the Spanish Inquisition, she annoyed many with her reform of both the male and female Carmelite orders, she bent a few rules here and there, and she did it all while suffering debilitating illness through most of her life – living with almost constant pain. At the same time, she authored a body of written work that many would call the cornerstone of Christian mysticism, and she is, even today, one of the most widely read writers in the Spanish language.

She was also a woman of deep prayer, who also spent much time teaching her sisters and others how to deepen their prayer life and draw closer to God.  In honor of her day, I thought I would share some of her instructions to her sisters and invite us to consider how they might apply to our own situations.

Hardly have we begun to imagine that our heads are aching than we stay away from choir…. One day we are absent because we had a headache some time ago; another day, because our head has just been aching again; and on the next three days in case it should ache once more.

Do I find excuses not to take time to be with God? Do I allow various types of aches, distractions and occupations to keep me away from prayer?


 What an amusing kind of progress in the love of God it is, to tie God’s hands by thinking that God cannot help us except by one path.

  Do I get caught up in one way of praying?Do I require of God a particular way of answering my petitions?


Resolve to give God a particular time of prayer every day and never take it back again, whatever we may suffer through trials annoyances or aridities.

Those of you who cannot engage in much discursive reflection with the intellect or keep your mind from distraction, get used to this practice! Get used to it! See, I know that you can do this; for I suffered many years from the trial…of not being able to quiet the mind in anything. But I know that our God does not leave us so abandoned; for if we humbly ask God for this friendship, God will not deny it to us. And if we cannot succeed in one year, we will succeed later. Let’s not regret the time that is so well spent. Who’s making us hurry.

Do I get easily discouraged when my prayer is difficult? Am I willing to “Get used to it” and stay at it?


It used to help me to look at a field, or water or flowers. These reminded me of the Creator – I mean, they awakened me, helped me to recollect myself and thus served me as a book……Go to some place where you can see the sky, and walk up and down a little.

What happens when I stop insisting on controlling my relationship with God and open myself up to finding God in all things?

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us!

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