Learning from Mary and Joseph

During Advent we hear of the messages to both Mary and Joseph regarding the birth of Jesus.  Last year, I was sent a reflection sheet from an Advent retreat, and I came across it going through some old files.  I thought I’d share it for your reflection during this Advent.

Mary was encouraged not to fear but rather to believe that God could do great things in her…

What fears do i need to let go of?

Do I really believe God can do great things in me?

Mary said yes to God’s plan even though others did not understand…

What in my life calls me to believe even though others may not understand?

Joseph showed an acceptance and compassion for his pregnant fiance…

Who in my life needs my acceptance and love?

Joseph followed his dreams and trusted in God…

What dreams in my life call me to trust in God?

A Poem for Advent

 Many people more talented than I am are able to write poems that express the fruits of their prayer.  One of those, Dianne Schlichting, is a woman I have known for many years through the spiritual direction and retreat work I do.  With Dianne’s permission, I share one of her poems, which she titles simply Advent.  I hope you find it a useful adjunct to your prayer as we begin the Advent season.

Jesus, tree,
Branch me.
Prune to remove that
Which is not you;
Emptiness, tension create.

Promises yet to unfold:
The future filled with
The present already holy in

Mystery enters humanity–
Interruptions abound.

Rearrange the furniture
Of my life to
The invited, long-awaited guest
Who is Christ.

Explode me through
The revolving doors of
My everydayness

Ornament on a tree
I am graced to be;
Vine and branch
Lover and beloved
Father, son, spirit, and me–
All bound in
Divinity becoming humanity
Ornament tied to the Tree.

Every Day Is A Day of Thanksgiving

Enjoy this video today.  (If you received this post by e-mail, you may need to click through to see the video.)  And, if you are not already familiar with it, check out the Grateful Living website.  You will find some great practices of gratitude, as well as videos of Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine from whom I have learned so much.

And, of course: Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope the day is a wonderful one for you, despite COVID’s impact on our plans.  But more than today, let every day be a day of thanksgiving.

Here Comes Advent!

One week from today – Sunday November 29 – marks the beginning of Advent, my favorite season of the liturgical calendar.

Advent is a time of preparation.  The word Advent comes rom the Latin “Adventus,” which means “coming.”  So we are preparing for a coming – the coming of Christ.

We tend to think of that preparation in terms of our celebration at Christmas of the Incarnation of Christ.  God’s becoming human is of foundational importance to us – it means everything to Christians that God became human.  But in thinking about what it means to celebrate the Incarnation, it is good to remember that the coming we are waiting for is more than the anniversary of a historical event.  The Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that the coming is broader than that.  In talking about Advent, it speaks of our need

to prepare ourselves “worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love,

thus to make our souls fitting abodes for Jesus’ coming in the Eucharist and through grace

thereby making ourselves ready for his final coming at death and at the end of the world.

As that explanation suggests, it is vitally important to our task as disciples to keep foremost in our minds that Advent is not about reenactment of the past, as beautiful as our Christmas pageants and crèches are.  We’re not just remembering these nice things in our faith history that happened a long time ago because it gives us a warm feeling.

Rather, if we are Christian disciples, we are called to play active parts now in birthing Christ into the world; we each have a role in giving reality to the rule of Emmanuel.  So this season is about making ourselves ready to more fully give birth to Christ.

How will you do that?

There are a plethora of ways to do so.  The Ignatian Spirituality website (here) offers several suggestions, as does Creighton’s Online Ministries (here.)  My parish, St. Thomas More, is offering an Advent Retreat in Daily Living, which provides prayer material for each day as well as small group (virtual sessions), information relating to which you can find here.

Whether through your own parish or otherwise, think about how you will prepare yourself this Advent.


Hope and God’s Fidelity

I was recently invited to reflect on the question how God wants me to experience hope and how that leads back to God’s fidelity.

Walter Burghardt’s reflection for today in  Give Us This Day, addressed that question so beautifully it almost brought tears to my eyes.  He write:

[Y]ou have a gift we call hope.  Not a wimpy “Maybe things will turn out o.k.’  Rather, a confident expectation that wherever you turn, whatever your problem, God will be there.  Not always with an answer, but always with a presence, a strength, a courage out of this world.  A confident expectation that your life will not end in six feet of dirt, will in fact never end, that you will always be alive in God, that the spiritual part of you will survive the corroding of your flesh, that one day the whole person that is “you” will come together again, but without the pain, without the tears.  Unless such is your hope, there is no point in your presence here.  And if I may quote one of my few deathless sentences, “If heaven is not for real, I shall be madder than hell.”

A confident expectation that whatever I face, I do not face it without God,  a presence that gives me all the strength and courage I need to face anything.

A confident expectation that that presence of God transcends physical death, that I will be with God always.

And Burghardt is spot on in his suggestion in the penultimate sentence that it is that hope that gives meaning to our lives.

God Believes in Claude

I grew up with the musical Hair, which I saw on Broadway at probably a younger age than I should have seen it. Every once in a while, the words to one of the songs (I know most of them by heart) starts running through my head.

The song lyrics that came the other day are from the song Manchester, England. They repeated in my mind (and, OK, I sang it out loud as well) more than a few times before I actually sat up and took notice. The character, Claude Hooper Bukowski, sings:

I believe in God, and I believe that God believes in Claude, that’s me, that’s me.

To say I believe in God says something significant. Hopefully when we affirm our belief in God we affirm more than the fact of God’s existence; our affirmation of our belief in God hopefully has meaning for how we live our lives.

But it seems to me to say something more to affirm not only my belief in God, but my belief that God believes in me. I hear that line as affirming that I know God knows me with particularity. That I know that God has me in God’s mind and heart. That I know God values me. That I know that God believes I have a contribution to make to the building of God’s kingdom.

Ask yourself: Do you believe in a God who believes in you? And if yes, what difference that does make in your life?

The Need to Exercise our Freedom

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was a great thinker and prolific writer.  Several of his books sit on my bookshelf and I have benefitted greatly from them. Since his recent death on November 7, I have been catching up on some of his Covenant and Conversation posts.

One that struck me deeply is his recent commentary about Abraham.  He talks about two events that occur late in Abraham’s life – Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land in which he can bury his wife Sarah and his efforts to find a wife for his son Isaac (who at this point is 37 years old).  Both events are described in incredible detail – Rabbi Sacks says in more detail than almost any other story in the Torah.  He contrast the detail with the description of the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which so much is left unsaid, and suggests the literary style is meant to call our attention to the significance of what is happening.

And why are these two events so significant.  Rabbi Sacks’s finds the explanation to be “simple and unexpected,” writing:

Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God promises them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you,” Gen. 13:17) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation” (Gen. 12:22), as many as “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16), and “the stars in the sky” (Gen. 15:5); he will be the father not of one nation but of many (Gen. 17:5).

Despite this, when Sarah dies, Abraham has not a single inch of land that he can call his own, and he has only one child who will continue the covenant, Isaac, who is currently unmarried. Neither promise has been fulfilled. Hence the extraordinary detail of the two main stories in Chayei Sarah: the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. There is a moral here, and the Torah slows down the speed of the narrative as it speeds up the action, so that we will not miss the point.

God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, “Jewish grandchildren.”

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, God gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the Flood, but Noah had to make the Ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfills our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God.

This is the reality we must embrace.  God doesn’t do it all alone.  God’s promise will be fulfilled, but not if we sit back in our easy chairs waiting for God to do it all.

In Jewish terms this is sometimes referred to as tikkun olam, the obligation to take one’s part in repairing the world.  In Christian terms it is our obligation to co-labor with Christ for the building of God’s kingdom.

“God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed.”

The Fourth Servant

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the parable of the talents.  Pastor Mike Weber posted a comment with a midrash about a fourth servant.  It makes such an important point about how God responds to our efforts that I wanted to be sure everyone noticed it.  Here it is:

Someone once wrote a midrash on this parable that makes an interesting point. (Unfortunately, I cannot recall the authors name.)

“There was also fourth servant to whom the master entrusted four talents. With two of the talents the servant invested in a fleet of ships and filled them with trade goods; with two he financed a camel caravan to go to China on the silk road. But a storm at sea sank the entire fleet and bandits captured the camel caravan so that the servant was left with nothing.

When the master returned the fourth servant fell at his feet and said, “O master, I sought to trade with your talents but a storm destroyed your boats and bandits captured your caravan. I have nothing to return to you, so I bow at your feet and am willing to be sold into slavery to repay my debt.”

But the master raised the servant up on his feet and spoke to him. “O my servant, you sought to serve me and proved your faithfulness even of you have nothing to show for your efforts. You have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

What the Lord requires of us is not success, but faithfulness and a willingness to take risks for the kingdom.

Putting One’s Life on the Line

Today we remember the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador.

On November 16, 1989, a group of soldiers entered the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador shortly after midnight.  While there they assassinated the president of the university, Ignacio Ellacueria, S.J., five other Jesuit priests, as well as the Jesuit housekeepers.  The priests were assassinated because they spoke out against the government’s wrongdoing and advocated for the poor.  (Sadly, the two housekeepers slept on the campus that night because they thought it was safer there than in the neighborhood in which they lived.)

Ellacueria was particularly hated by the government and the military “for naming and denouncing the ‘idols’ of wealth and national security that underlay a brutal war against the poor.”

Nor were the Jesuit martyrs we remember today the only ones who lost their lives during this period in El Salvador’s history of government repression.  The decade that ended in their martyrdom began with the assassination of Oscar Romero.  And it is clear that the Jesuit martyrs shared Romero’s notion of what it had to mean to be a Christian in a fallen world. Romero preached

If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission.  The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right.

Today let us remember all of those who have been willing to speak truth to power, who have had the courage to put everything on the line for the sake of God’s kingdom.

How Do We Understand the Message of Parable of the Talents?

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the man who, before going on a journey, calls in three of his servants and entrusts certain of his property (designated as “talents”) to them.  As you remember from the story, two of the servants used what they were given to bring additional property to their master; the third, in fear, hid what he had been given so as not to lose it.  The two who made more were given more; the third was castigated for his failure.

So there are three parts to this parable.  The trust committed to the servants.  The management and investment of the master’s talents by the servants.  The calling to account of the servants.

One interpretation – perhaps the most common one – is that the parable is a warning to those who do not use their gifts in life.  (Our understanding of the word “talent” in English contributes to that interpretation.)  And I think that is a good and useful interpretation – one I often speak about when talking about recognizing our giftedness and using our gifts on behalf of the building of God’s kingdom.

In that reading, we are each given a unique set of gifts by God.  And not using those gifts is an act of real ingratitude.  How many of us, when we receive a beautifully wrapped gift, thoughtfully prepared for us by someone filled with love for us, tosses it in the closet without looking at it, ignoring it and forgetting about it?

There is certainly value in recognizing that that is exactly what we do if we do not recognize and celebrate our own giftedness.  We take the beautiful gift our God has given for us, a gift chosen with such care, a gift uniquely suited to us, and toss it aside without a second glance.  We throw it in the closet and forget about the gift and the giver.  This reading of the parable invites us to recognize our gifts, to own them, and to use them for the greater glory of God.

But we know that Jesus’ parables generally have more than one way of being understood.  And the most common explanation is not necessarily the one you need to hear.  So let me share some other avenues you might consider.

The reading about use of gifts puts the focus on the two slaves who are good stewards.  Mark Douglas in his commentary on this parable suggests that “they double their master’s investments in the same way.  They give nearly identical speeches in their accounting before the master.  They hear identical commendations from their master.  They share a common reward.  They are not so much characters in the story as foils against which to compare the third servant, whose actions are unique, whose speech is unique and shoe condemnation by the master serves as the climax of the story.

Consistent with putting the focus on that third servant, John Donohue in The Gospel in Parable suggests a different problem with the third servant.  “It was timidity that spelled his downfall, which was not warranted by anything known directly about the master.”  The problem, Donahue suggests, is the way the third servant reflexively judges his master, assuming he is a “hard” man, when the master has done nothing to justify this charge.  (Indeed, the fact that he entrusted such a large sum to the three servants suggests a lot of generosity and trust.) Continue reading