Healing Divisions: Engaging the Beatitudes in Our Time

Yesterday I co-presented a Lent Retreat Day for volunteers and friends of City House.  Our theme was Healing Divisions: Engaging the Beatitudes in Our Time. My co-presenter was Janice Andersen, Director of Christian Life at the Basilica of St. Mary.

After I gave an introduction to the day, Janice spoke about the context of the Jesus’ preaching of the Beatitudes and what that says about the needs of both his world and ours.  I was struck by the picture Janice painted of the world in which Jesus grew up.  A conquered society living under oppressive Roman rule.  Incredible disparities between right and poor; according to Janice’s research 70% of the population in Jesus’ day lived under what we today would call poverty level.   As she talked, I could see both how Jesus’ world differed from our own and how  many similarities there are between his world and ours.

I was also struck by her observation that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, which one commentator described as possessing a mean and despicable population of poor, illiterate and vulgar people.  In other words: Jesus walked into the place of greatest need.  He went to the hardest place and opened himself to every ailment of body, spirit and mind.

I was reminded, as Janice spoke, of something Henri Nouwen wrote.

Life lived Eucharistically is always a life of mission. We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women and children in fear. Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people;…it’s the story of everyday life filing the newspapers and television screens. It is a world of endless losses…This is the world we are sent live in…with burning hearts and with open ears and open eyes.

And, as I elaborated in our second session yesterday, the stance out of which we are sent to carry out our mission is described in the Beatitudes.  They describe a way of being – a way of being exhibited in the life of Jesus – that is essential to our ability to heal the divisions and suffering of our world.

Was This His Coming?

Happy Feast of the Annunciation!

I have spoken and written many times of Mary and of the episode in St. Luke’s Gospel we refer to as the Annunciation.  So, today, let me simply share Oscar Wilde’s poem, Ave Maria plena Gratia.

WAS this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danae:
Or a dread vision as when Semele
Sickening for love and unappeased desire
Prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire
Caught her white limbs and slew her utterly:
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place,
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
A kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand,
And over both with outstretched wings the Dove.

Share the Good You Have

My friend and former colleague Sarah Farnes, Program Manager for the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality, recounted yesterday  a simple story that a friend had shared with her.

A man named Ralph bought a nice home with a garden, full of fruit trees.  His neighbor, William, was very envious of Ralph and his garden.  Because of his envy, each day, William would sneak into Ralph’s yard and deliver a basket full of garbage.

One day, Ralph took the basket, removed the trash and cleaned it very well.  He selected the best fruit from the trees in his garden and filled the basket.  With the basket in tow, Ralph set out to William’s home.  As William saw Ralph approaching his home, he rushed to the door, prepared to engage in a fight with his neighbor.

As William opened his door, Ralph handed him the basket and said, “Here you go.  Each person should share, as a gift, the treasure and the good that he has.”

William was speechless.  While he was sharing garbage, Ralph shared the best fruit that he had to offer.

How do we decide what to share with others?  Do I return to them what I think they are “owed” based on what they give to me?  Or do I share “as a gift, the treasure and good” that I have.

Lenten Almsgiving: What about City House?

Remember that almsgiving is one of the three traditional Lent practices.  Have you committed yourself to some lenten almsgiving?  Are you still looking for a worthwhile donation opportunity?

If you are a long time reader of this blog, you have heard me say that I sit on the  Board of Directors of a non-profit named City House, whose core mission is spiritual conversation with people on the margins – including those experiencing poverty, addiction, and imprisonment. Our trained volunteer spiritual companions meet one-on-one or in groups with participants at social service agency sites where they live or are receiving services. City House also offers a spiritual friendship program and leadership development for people in the mainstream who want to deepen their relationship with those experiencing life at the margins.

I have been a spiritual director and a retreat leader for a number of years. I have seen the difference it makes in people’s lives – people of all faiths and people of no faith – to have someone to whom they can tell their story, someone who will listen fully to them without judgment and with an open heart.

All the more important is this encounter to the people served by City House. In the words of the director of one of the social service agencies with which we work, “The social service system sees our tenants in terms of their deficits; City House does not do that. City House sees them for what they have to offer, for their innate spirit and for what they can give back to society. Sometimes this is the first time someone has seen them like that.”  City House brings non-judgmental, compassionate listening to those who are feeling their brokenness, transmits wisdom across boundaries of culture and economic disparity, and connects people in the mainstream and margin. Among other things, this makes it part of the solution in a culture of polarized viewpoints and demographic segregation.

City House relies on volunteers for much of its work – including the service by its board members, who receive no compensation for our time. But running it does require funds for paying it small staff, conducting training of its listeners, and paying various costs associated with City House operation and the programs it sponsors.

I hear often from people telling me how much they have benefitted from my posts and podcasts, and telling me about their positive experience from remotely participating in retreats I’ve given, using the prayer material and podcasts I freely make available. Despite repeated suggestions by friends and others that I offer online retreats for a fee or in some other way monetize my site, I have never and will never ask for anything for myself in connection with what I offer here and on my website.  But, if you have benefitted from anything I’ve posted here, and if you have the financial ability to do so, I ask only that you please prayerfully consider making a donation to City House during this holy season of lent.   (I did make this same ask in 2015; if you contributed then I thank you.)

You can make a donation on-line or by check. If you prefer an on-line donation, you can do so here. (The page also lists the address if you wish to donate via mail.)

A donation of any size would make an enormous difference to the work we can do.

Continued blessings during this season of Lent.

Hoping Against Hope

Because yesterday was the Third Sunday of Lent, the Catholic Church today celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph (usually celebrated on March 19).  As a result, today’s Mass readings include an additional reading, a passage from the book of Romans about the faith and hope of Abraham.

Paul gives us a beautiful description of the hope of an old man: Abraham “believed, hoping against hope,” that God would fulfill his promise to make him “the father of many nations.”  I love that phrase: hoping against hope.

It was an absolutely crazy promise to have trust in: Abraham was over 100 years old and Sarah’s womb is was “dead” (in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures). How in the world could Abraham become the father of many nations?  How could Abraham believe in God’s promise?

The short and simple answer is that his prior experience with God had given him faith.  In other words, you can only dare to hope against hope if you can see where God has already been in your life.

And that is what we need to do, to take time looking back over our lives and seeing where God has been, where God has operated.  I encourage looking back because in doing so we are likely to see evidence of God’s presence where we may not have noticed it at the time.

Seeing where God has been, appropriating our prior experience of God, gives us the hope of Abraham.  And that matters not only for each of us individually, but for all those with whom we come in contact. Just as Abraham’s hope in God is something we can look at and draw strength from, your own hope is a source of strength for your families and others who come in contact with you.




The Gift of Water

As I was enjoying my shower at the retreat house this morning – with its hot water and amazing water pressure – it occurred to me (not for the first time, but with great force) that the amount of water I was using in taking my shower was more than some families have for an entire day.  One individual shower – more water than a family of five or six might have in an entire day for washing, cooking and any other needs.

Worldwide, one on ten people lack access to safe water and half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water-related disease.  And getting the water people do have is not as simple as turning on a faucet; for many getting water means hauling buckets for very long distances, a physical and time burden that falls primarily on women and girl children.

I do not think any of this means those of us who can turn on our taps and get hot and cold running water ought not take showers.  But I do think there are some implications.

First, rather than simply taking them for granted, we should take our showers with gratitude.  Appreciate the water as you wash, realizing what a gift it is that you have.

Second, recognizing that many lack what we have, we should not be wasteful with the resources we have.   Wasting resources like water (and food) seem to me an insult to those without.

Third, support efforts to build wells or otherwise make it easier for those without access to clean water to acquire it.  (The Water Project is one such effort.)

Be mindful that what you have – and have with such ease – others lack.

To Journey With Jesus No Matter What That Brings

We’ve all heard the expression “fair-weather” friend – someone who only sticks around when it is fun or profitable. Someone who high-tails it away when things get tough.

A “fair-weather” friend, in reality, is no friend at all. If you’ve had people like that in your life, you know how painful that can be. And you probably try to avoid acting in ways that would prompt someone else to put that label on you.

The truth is that when you love someone, you stick with them in the difficult times as well as the easy times.

What is true for our relationship with others here is true for our relationship with Jesus. It is easy to be with Jesus when he is healing people, feeding them, having fun at wedding feasts or at the homes of his friends.  But what about the other times?

Lent is our invitation to journey with Jesus no matter what. To be with him, not only when it is pleasant, but to be with him in the most difficult places. Kayla McClurg wrote this in a commentary on the passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus talks about giving up father and mother for his sake:

There comes a tipping point in any relationship that determines what kind it will be, whether it will be a simple acquaintance or a radical commitment. Will we stay as long as we enjoy ourselves, or will we have the courage to embrace whatever comes, to love even the parts we hate? It’s time to decide: Will we be [Jesus’] casual friend, or will we be closer-than-family, bonded more deeply than blood? We can hang out in the crowd, listen to his teachings, applaud his healings, or we can check the depths of our own commitment. We can count the cost, open our hands and hearts, and pick up our cross. Or not. The choice is ours.

I am at Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo, Minnesota this weekend, giving a lent retreat for men and women.  My theme for the weekend is In the Desert with Jesus.  And by that I mean more than desert in the narrow sense of Jesus’ actual days in the desert facing temptation (although the retreatants will pray with that this morning). But desert in the broader sense of place of testing, place of struggle, place of pain – place of darkness as well as light. And that means staying with Jesus all the way to the cross.

Are we going to be fair-weather friends, simple acquaintances, or will we make the radical commitment that involves sticking with Jesus no matter what that brings?  That is what I am inviting the men and women I am directing this weekend to reflect on.  it is what I invite us all to reflect on.