Like a Child

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus admonishes his disciples for rebuking people who were bringing children to Jesus.  But he does more than instruct them to let the children come to him.  Instead, he adds, “whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

What does it mean to accept the Kingdom of God like a child?  Brendan Byrne, commenting on the parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel says this:

The saying does not idealize little children in a way oblivious to the self-centeredness and cruelty that all children from time to time display.  The point…is that a child has no capacity to earn or pay for what it needs.  Receiving everything as pure gift, it has nothing to give in response, save affection and love.

Such, Byrne goes on to say is the case with the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ.  Expressing something so familiar to those of us with an Ignatian spirituality who pray with the Contemplation on Gods love that ends Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, he observes: “It is God’s unmerited, unearnable gift, calling simply for a response of grateful love.”

That is the quality of children we are encouraged to develop: the sense of all as pure gift, given to us out of God’s love.

Practicing the Corporal Works of Mercy

We are one week away from Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent!

I already posted some suggestions to friends in the Twin Cities about various retreat and spiritual formation programs to consider during Lent.  As you think about how you will mark Lent this year, what about a focus on the engaging in corporal acts of mercy?

In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.

Recently, the National Catholic Register posted a list of 99 “practical  recommendations” for engaging in the corporal works of mercy.  Their suggestions for feeding the hungry, for example, include: things such as avoiding wasting food, cutting down on food intake, avoiding eating alone, volunteering for organizations that provide food for the hungry and homebound.  Suggestions for visiting/comforting the sick include donating blood, volunteering at a hospital, offering to bring a meal or pick up a prescription for a sick friend or neighbor, and so on.  The 99 recommendations include things that work for people of all income levels and free time and it worth taking a look at.

Now, more than ever, it is important that we take to heart Christ’s words, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  And Lent is a perfect time to commit ourselves to doing so.

Evangelization and the Book of Mormon

Last night I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway.  I’m obviously late to the game, since it has been playing for six years and there have been no shortage of commentary on it.

From early on, I kept thinking, “I should be offended by this.  I probably shouldn’t be liking this so much.”   Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, and had no hesitation rising with the rest of the audience for a quite long standing ovation when the show finished.

I found The Book of Mormon to be uproariously funny, and those playing the lead roles gave terrific performances.  And, while I do not think it is anti-religious, it does poke fun at some central tenets of Mormonism and, to at least some extent, at religion more generally.  And the occasional (frequent) coarse language made this New York City street kid cringe.

But it is also the case that the show is right on, albeit exaggerated, in some of the more serious points I think it makes.

First, that many whites, particularly in the First World, have a white savior complex. We see it expressed in many films and written works.  And one of the central Mormon young men in the play, Elder Price, embodies completely the complex for a good part of the play: He is young, talented, recognized as special by his teachers and peers, and sees himself as the salvation for the poor, needy people of color in Uganda.  (At least he does after he gets over his disappointment at not being sent to Orlando.)  He will go and transform these people – mostly on his own.

Second, that efforts to evangelize can’t be effective if they are totally divorced from the circumstances of the people one is seeking to evangelize.  The people of Uganda suffer from poverty, AIDs, and the abuse of warlords.  No wonder the young missionaries who have been there have been ineffective in baptizing even one of them, as they tell stories about Jesus appearing upstate New York and the trip of Joseph Smith and his followers to Utah.

And so it is the inept, bumbling Elder Cunningham who gets the Ugandans to listen and then be baptized, through his (admittedly creative and somewhat sacrilegious) stories that reflect the problems of living in a war-torn Uganda.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we remake Bible stories the way Elder Cunningham remakes the Book of Mormon (such that at the end of the play folks are proclaiming the “Book of Arnold”), but what he does serves as a reminder that pious stories that ignore the plight of those we would seek to reach are not going to be effective.

I don’t doubt that there are some Mormons and other Christians who are offended by the play.  But I also gather that there is no small number of Mormons who are using the play itself as an opportunity for evangelization, for setting the record straight, so to speak.  “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book.”  Strikes me as a great reaction.

Two Questions About Who Jesus Is

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus asks his disciples two questions.  He first asks them, “Who do people say I am?”  When they respond that some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others, one of the prophets, Jesus follows up with, “But who do you say that I am?”

In her book In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister makes reference to these questions in talking about what it means to proclaim her belief in Jesus Christ.  She writes that the first question “opens up the kind of faith-sharing that brings me into the insights of the rest of humanity about the place of Jesus in the human condition and the divine economy.”  The second question, however, “is the one meant for me that no one but I can answer…. It is that question that each of us must face sometime in life. And it is that Jesus who captivates me completely.”

Chittister goes on to answer who the Jesus is that she believes in, writinh

I believe in the Jesus who fed five thousand simply because they were hungry. Not because they deserved it. Many in the crowd on the hillside in the heat of the day had been foolish, I’m sure: They had brought nothing of their own with them to eat. They had made no provisions for the future. They had not been frugal, not been responsible enough to take care of themselves. But Jesus feeds them regardless. He does not ask to see their salary statements or their bank accounts to determine a degree of acceptable destitution. He does not scold them or berates them or lectures at them. He simply gives them what he sees at that moment that they need.

But that, of course, is simply her answer, helpful to us in the sense that hearing others’ faith-sharing is helpful to us.

The important question, of course, is: Who do you say Jesus is?  Only you can answer that question.

It’s Almost Lent!

If it is mid-February, Lent is just around the corner!  Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent is Wednesday March 1.  For the benefit of readers in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas, I thought I’d share some of the Lenten programs I will be involved in this year.

In the Desert with Jesus – Why not take a weekend to be with Jesus during this Lent?  I will be presenting a weekend silent retreat for men and women at Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo MN, March 17-19.  We will walk with Jesus in the desert and, by so doing, get more deeply in touch with our own desires and longings, our temptations, our weaknesses, and our strengths.  Registration information is here.

Healing Divisions: Engaging the Beatitudes in Our Time – What do the Beatitudes say to us today, both individually and collectively?  How might living in the Beatitudes help heal the divisions of our world?  Janice Andersen and I will help us reflect on these questions at a Lenten Day of Retreat sponsored by City House on March 25 and held at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in NE Minneapolis.  Registration information here.

Lent Bible Study on Discipleship –  Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church is hosting a three-session Lent Bible Study.  I will be leading the second of those on March 26, focusing on what we learn from Jesus about what discipleship looks like – what we learn from both what he said and from his example.  The Sunday before, Fr. Dan Griffith will talk about Jesus’ call, and the week after my talk, Diane Millis will talk about how we respond to God’s call.  All sessions are from 9:45-11:00.

Lent: Journey of Sorrow, Journey of Love – When we enter into the mind and heart of Jesus as he moves toward his passion and death, we find both suffering and love – and we need to be in both of those places with him.  On March 29, I will lead a retreat day on this theme for the University of St. Thomas’ Selim Center for Learning in the Later Years.  More information and registration link here.

Feel free to contact me with questions about any of the foregoing.  I hope you can join us for one or more of these offerings.

I Become What I See

What is your understanding of what it means to be humble?

That was the question Christine Luna Munger opened with last night, at this month’s gathering of the series Christine I are co-presenting at St. Kate’s this year (on the overall theme: Christian Prayers and Practices).  Our focus last night was on humility and fasting.

Christine shared Joan Chittister’s characterization of humility as an ability to know ourselves as God knows us.  This way of thinking resonates with me, given the importance St. Ignatius places on seeing ourselves as God sees us.

Dianne Schlichting, one of the regular participants of our series, has a wonderful way of poetically expressing her meditative thoughts.  Here is what she wrote after reflecting on last night’s session.  She titled it: Christ in Me: A Mirror Image.

I look into a mirror;
At first glance, I see only me.
The more intent my gaze, however,
The more truly I see.

Reflected back to me is
More than just me:
I see Christ
And an invitation to sustain
This vision of connectivity.

From Christ’s side of the mirror,
He looks deeply into the heart
Of His creation.
His loving eyes pierce to the depths
Of my being.

In this moment of truth
I become what I see:
A divine reflection.
I have done nothing to
Earn this insight but look.
I simply see what is,
What can be, and
What will be.

Love transforms what it sees
Into a more beautiful reflection
Of itself.
I become a living word, a conduit,
Able, through Christ,
To bear witness–through service to others–
To His presence in the world.

The next session of our series will be on March 13.  I will be speaking that evening on Pilgrimage and Reconciliation.  You are welcome to join us even if you have not attended any prior sessions.  (St. Catherine University, Room 370, Coeur de Catherine; 6:30-8:30 p.m.)

The Hungers The World Neglects

My friend Joe Costantino, S.J., pastor of the St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Chestnut Hill MA, replied to my post of yesterday by sending me his bulletin reflection on Jesus’ instruction to be salt of the earth.

Observing that “Jesus uses the metaphor of salt both to describe his disciples and also to prescribe what they are to do in and for the world,” Joe referenced G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “salt seasons and preserves beef, not because it it like beef; but because it is very unlike it.”  That suggests, wrote Joe,

that Jesus is calling his disciples not to accept the status quo, not to be just like the “beef ” that is the world. Rather they are to season it, brighten it, even alter it the way salt seasons brightens, or alters the taste of our food. Like salt, they are also to be a preservative for the “beef,” preserving all that is right and good in our world: “restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.”

Joe then asked what is it that the world hungers for that is being neglected.  He mentioned two such hungers: national civic discourse and national care for the “other” among us:

Civil discourse certainly seems to be at a low ebb. Dialogue is now often reduced to a tweet or two. As for caring for the other? That too has descended to a new low. I am sure we all agree, Jesus did not give us a mandate to care only for those who are from our country or allow our care to extend just to those who have all their legal papers. As Christians we believe that, whether one acknowledges it or not, we are all daughters and sons of one God and sisters and brothers in Christ. Our care for the other – even when it “costs” us – should know no bounds. Exaggeration of civil discourse and care for the other are surely just two of the areas where we might be an additive, like salt, to what is already present in our world but always in need of being enhanced and nowadays even exaggerated.

You can read the entirety of Joe’s bulletin here.