To Remember Who We Are

This morning at mass at St. Thomas More church in St. Paul, I heard one of the best single lines I’ve heard in a homily in a long time.  In the context of today’s Mass readings, which encourage persistent prayer, Fr. Bill O’Brien (director of the Jesuit Novitiate in St. Paul) said early in his homily.

We pray to remember who we are.

A short statement that speaks a fundamental truth.

We don’t pray because we are supposed to.

We don’t pray to try to persuade God to give us what we want.

We don’t pray to get some reward.

We pray because it is in prayer that we remember who we are – or, perhaps more accurately, whose we are. We are intimately connected to the one who created us and sustains us, and who loves us to an extent we can’t even imagine.

And that is a source of tremendous strength.


November Offerings

Right now my attention is focused on the marriage of my daughter, which occurs less than a week from now!  But wanted to take a minute to draw the attention of folks in the Twin Cities area (broadly defined) to two weekend retreats I’m offering in November.

November 1-3, I’ll be at Christ the King Retreat House (Buffalo, MN) offering a weekend on Stories Told by Jesus: Learning from the Parables.  Kings House is a beautiful venue any time of year, and I always love my time there. You can find registration information for that retreat here.

November 14-17, I’ll be at the Episcopal House of Prayer (Collegeville MN) presenting a weekend that looks at parallels between the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Tibetan Buddhist Lam.Rim.  This has been a subject that interested me for a long time, and I am grateful to the EHoP for offering this retreat.  More info at this link.

Join us if you can!

Francis, Who Followed Christ into Poverty

Today we celebrate the memorial of a saint dear to me, St. Francis of Assisi.  I’ve written before about how significant he was to me during the time I struggled with my return to Christianity after years of practicing Buddhism.

There are many things to admire about this saint.  One significant element in his spirituality was living a life of poverty and his concern for the marginalized.   Francis looked at the Gospels and read:

“if you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions, and give to the poor…and come, follow me.”

“Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor knapsack, shoes nor money.”

“If any will come after me, let them renounce self, take up their cross and follow me.”

He read these lines and he took them seriously.  For Francis, poverty was a way both of imitating Christ and of growing in love for his brothers.  It was also a way of avoiding the temptation to sin that exists when one has property.

In the words of Sister Ilia Delio

Just as Francis realized that God humbly bends over in love to embrace us in Jesus Christ, so too he realized that the suffering of humanity and all creation could only be lifted up through solidarity in love.  Francis lived a poor, itinerant life but he wrote very little on poverty. What was important to him was to live—not without possessions—but without possessing (sine proprio). He was keenly aware of the human person as weak and fragile and thus prone to greed, selfishness and power. To be poor is to live without possessing anything that could prevent true human relatedness as a brother.

In a similar vein,  Steven Clissold writes:

Francis passionately believed that the love of material possessions lay at the root of society’s ills and of man’s estrangement from his maker.  Property implied the needs for arms with which to defend it, and led to the struggle for power and prestige and to the chronic warfare which was the scourge of his times.

Francis felt deep compassion for the poor and the suffering.  One of his biographers writes that he would grieve over those who were poorer than himself and that from a young age he felt a compassion for those less fortunate than himself.  Would that we all have that same level of compassion.

Our Call to be Prophets

Given the state of our church, our country, our world, it is good to remind ourselves that by our Baptism, we were all anointed “priest, prophet and king.”  By our Baptism we are called to be prophets.

I thought I’d share some passages that speak to that call and what it means in our world today.  Any of them make a good way to invite you to consider how you are personally being called to be a prophet – and how you are responding to that call.  It is also worth spending some time identifying the greatest challenges to being a prophetic voice in the world.

Those who laugh at me, as if I were crazy to think that I am a prophet, ought to reflect on this.  I have never considered myself a prophet in the sense of being unique among the people, because I know that you and I, the people of God, are a prophetic people.  And my role in this is only to stimulate a prophetic sense in the people.  This is something I can’t give them, rather it is the Spirit that has given it to them.  And each one of you can truly say, “The Spirit came upon me when I was baptized.”
(Oscar Romero, Homily of July 8, 1979)

Some people have unusually big and generous dreams of “the world as it ought to be.”  They possess a kind of prophetic imagination that enables them to look beyond the world as it is to the world as it could be or should be.  Their personal dreams embody something of God’s Dream for the world.  Each of us, in our own way, is called to cultivate our capacity for prophetic imagination, to find our own way of making the Dream of God a reality….[T]he primary calling of the prophet is not to be an angry social critic, but rather to be someone who, first of all, is willing to take an honest look at upsetting and unsettling realities that are denied or ignored by society at large and the powers-that-be.  The tragic consequences of such denial is widespread ‘numbness” and moral complacency about things that would otherwise evoke grief and outrage….
(John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice is Calling)

Protesters are everywhere, but I think the world is desperately in need of prophets, those little voices that can point us toward another future.  Some of us have spent so much time fighting what we are against that we can barely remember what we are for.  Whether in the church or in circles of social dissent, there are plenty of people who define themselves by what they are not, whose identity revolves around what they are against rather then what they are for. …Protesters are still on the fringes like satellites, revolving around the system.  But prophets and poets lead us into a new world, beyond simply yelling at the old one.
 (Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution)

 It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
(RFK, Speech at University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966)


The Demand for a Sign

I spent this weekend with the folks of First Presbyterian Church of Neenah, offering a day of retreat and reflection on Saturday and preaching at their Sunday services.  The Gospel on which I spoke was the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.  (Great synchonicity: the program I gave Saturday was on praying with Jesus’ parables.)

In the first part of my sermon, I spent some time addressing the attachment to wealth portrayed by the rich man and the dangers of that attachment.

I then talked about the rich man’s request to Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to give them a warning.  What may seem like a simple request designed to save his brothers reveals something else.

What the rich man really says here is what so many people, both then and now have said to God: “If you really want us to believe in you and organize our lives in accord with the revealed word of the Bible, make yourself clearer.  Give us a sign.”  Here: Send us someone from the next world to tell us it is really so.

The demand for signs, for more evidence of Revelation, is something that runs through the entire Gospel.  Matthew and Mark both record the Pharisees and Saducees coming to Jesus and testing him by asking for a sign.  In Luke, Jesus laments, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks a sign.  John records the Jews asking Jesus what sign does he show them as his authority for doing what he does.  And Jesus laments, “unless you see signs and wonders you do not believe.”

Abraham’s answer to the rich man, like Jesus’ answers to his contemporaries’ demand for signs in other contexts, is clear: If people do not believe the word of Scripture, then they will not believe someone coming from the next world either.  In the words of Pope Benedict: “The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.

What sign do we have?  George Martin, in Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life,  writes

While the rich man spoke of someone from the dead going to his brothers, Abraham in his response uses the phrase rising from the dead.  Luke’s readers [although not Jesus’ audience] would naturally think of Jesus’ rising from the dead.  The resurrection of Jesus will not convince everyone that he is God’s Son and Messiah, Lord and savior.  In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke will tell how the Gospel message is accepted by some and disbelieved by others; Abraham’s words foreshadow such disbelief.

And if we think in those terms, we need to ask ourselves: Do we not recognize in the figure of Lazarus – lying at the rich man’s door covered in sores – the mystery of Jesus, who suffered outside the city walls and was stretched naked on the cross, delivered over to the mockery and scorn of the crowds.

And Jesus, the true Lazarus, has risen from the dead – and he has come to tell us so.  Pope Benedict wrote

If we see in the story of Lazarus Jesus’ answer to his generation’s demand for a sign, we find ourselves in harmony with the principal answer that Jesus gave to that demand.” [And he refers back to Jesus’ words when asked for a sign that no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  He continues with Jesus’ words] “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

In other words: God’s sign is the Son of Man; it is Jesus himself.  He is the sign of Jonah.


Loving God Laboriously

Today is the feast of one of my hero-saints, St. Vincent dePaul.

In honor of his day, let me share an excerpt from an address he once made to missionaries:

We must love God, but let it be in the work of our bodies, in the sweat of our brows. For very often many acts of love for God, of kindness, of good will and other similar inclinations and interior practices of a tender heart, although good and very desirable, are yet very suspect when they do not lead to the practice of effective love.

There are many who, when outwardly recollected and interiorly filled with lofty thoughts of God, stop there; and when it comes to the point and they find themselves in a position to act, they stop short. Their over-excited imaginations flatter them; they rest content with the sweet conversations they have with God in prayer; they even talk about these like angels; but apart from that, when it is a matter of working for God, of suffering, of self-mortification, of instructing the poor, of going out to look for lost sheep, liking it when something is lacking, accepting illness or some other disfavor, alas! then there is no one left, they lack the courage. No, no, we must not deceive ourselves.

Now let us apply the lesson; especially since there are many in this world who give every appearance of virtue, and in fact are virtuous, but yet incline to the gentle, smooth path, rather than to a laborious and solid devotion. The Church is like a great harvest which needs laborers, but laborers who really work! Nothing is more in keeping with the Gospel than to heap up light and strength for the soul in prayer, reading and solitude, and then to go out and share this spiritual food with others. This is doing what our Lord did, and after him, his Apostles . . . That is what we must do, that is how we must show God by our works that we love him.

As you reflect on Vincent’s words, ask yourself:

What resonates with me?

What do his words mean for me and how I live my life?

Talking About Privilege

Earlier this week, I participated in a conversation with some colleagues at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on Amy Julia Becker’s book, White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege.  I can’t say our group was very mixed; it was a somewhat self-selected group of white, upper middle class, heterosexual folks, all of whom are well-aware of their privilege.  But we had a good and worthwhile discussion.

While I can’t express agreement with everything Becker writes in her book, there were a number of lines that prompt some good inquiry.  Let me share a few random quotes from the book with some questions (some of which we addressed the other night) her statements might prompt reflection on.  (Her statements are in quotations and my questions in italics.)

“Perhaps the reason knocking down the wall of privilege is so hard for me to envision is because it would require more sacrifice than I am willing to bear.”

What sacrifices do you think are required for you to help knock down the wall of privilege?

“I used to think that privilege provided a foundation for personal growth and for discovering a purpose bigger than me because it took care of my material needs.  But time and again I have found that the provisions of affluence suck me into a web of self-centeredness where I focus on myself, my own resentments and disappointments.”

Do you think this is inherently the case?

She raises the question “whether identity is always about power and privilege, about some group being oppressed and another asserting superiority”

Does identity always do that?

“Privilege means being given a special status – legal or social –  by virtue of something you didn’t’ earn.”

Is that a good definition of privilege?  Do you have a better one?