What is Church: A Reality Check

I just finished reading The Good Life: Where Morality and Spirituality Converge, which I already mentioned in a post a couple of days ago. The book is an effort to explore what are the characteristics of the appropriate response to the God who speaks to us first, who makes the first move to invite us into relationship with Him. In the author’s words, it “is based on the conviction that, when it comes to living the good life, character and virtue matter; that is to say, the moral life and spiritual life converge when we begin to explore the sort of persons we ougth to become and the sort of lives we ought to live in ourder to flourish as authentic human beings.” The book is well worth spending some time with, both for its thought-provoking text and for the reflection exercises with which each chapter ends, which are suitable for both individual and group prayer. I suspect it is a book I will keep close by and go back to often.

Although there are many places in the book where I have underlines, asterisks or marginal notes, one of the things that particularly struck me was the book’s discussion of church. Church membership, the author explains, “is far more than the passive acceptance of doctrines or the submission to a set of precepts.” Rather, belonging to the church

is an adventure of following Jesus in new and ever-changing situations. The church is to give the world a hint of what life looks like when we take God’s love to heart and Jesus’ vision of discipleship into the home, the workplace, and the marketplace.

That strikes me as a wonderful definition. But it invites the reality-checking question: do our churches look like that? Do they offer to the world a vision of Kingdom? Do they offer a model of Jesus’ vision of discipleship? Do we even think in those terms?


Lenten Resolutions

Here we are in the Fifth Week of Lent and I’m in that space I suspect many of us who are Catholic find ourselves in at one time or another during in Lent. I began Lent filled with good intentions about what I’d give up, how often I’d fast, etc. No desserts. More frequent Mass attendance. Going to Stations every Friday night. Fast every Friday. Etc., etc. and so forth. As I sit here today, if I were grading myself on how well I’ve succeeded in actualizing those intentions, it would not be a grade I’d be happy seeing on my daughter’s report card.

There are two responses to that realization. One is to sit here with myself and beat myself up about my shortcomings, to give myself a good talking to about all of the things I should have done and didn’t, to fume and feel guilty. The other is to sit with God, acknowledge and express my sorrow for the fact that I haven’t done as much as much as I could and ask for the grace to go through the rest of Lent with greater mindfulness. These are the same two possible responses to every instance of sin and shortcoming in our lives.

The two responses are very different. I’ve come to realize over time that the former reaction (the one I would have tended toward in the past and which still occasionally arises) turns us inward and is completely non-productive. The latter reaction, however, takes us out of ourselves and opens some space for God, opens us to the grace of God.

The Difference between Lazarus and Us

Today’s Gospel from John tells the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. This is a passage with which I have prayed many times (and have written about before). My prayer with it has taken me in many different directions, sometimes focusing on Jesus’ encounter with Martha, sometimes on the act of resurrection itself, another time on Thomas’ statement that the disciples should go and die with Jesus.

During one prayer period, I got no further than the first line, “Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany.” What I immediately saw upon reading those words was Lazarus lying in his bed, getting worse and worse as each day passed. I imagined one of his sisters coming to tell him that they had sent for Jesus (sending word, “Master, the one you love is ill”), and heard them telling Lazarus to be strong and hang on since the Master would surely be coming soon. I could see Lazarus looking up each time someone walked into the room, thinking it might be Jesus, and I watched his hope and anticipation give way to disappointment. I felt the fear grow in Lazarus as the hours and days passed and still Jesus did not come, watching Lazarus move in his mind from certainty that Jesus would get there, to questioning whether he would make it. I watched further, seeing the questioning turn to fear and loss of hope, until finally the weakened and dying Lazarus realizes that Jesus is not coming.

Lazarus, of course, as he lay dying, did not have the benefit of the rest of the story. He didn’t know then that Jesus was using his death to teach something to His disciples and to us. He did not know then that Jesus would call him forth from the tomb. He did not know then what we know now – that, in Jesus’ words to Martha, “everyone who lives and believes in [Jesus] will never die.” He did not know then what we know now – that Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection means resurrection for all of us.

Unlike Lazarus, we need never lose hope. We need never despair. We know the rest of the story.

Radical Discipleship

One of the books I’m currently reading is The Good Life: Where Morality and Spirituality Converge, written by Richard M. Gula, a Sulpician who has authored several books. There is much fruit for reflection and prayer in this book. One of the many things that struck me particularly was his reading of Peter’s reaction during the foot-washing that precedes the Last Supper in John’s Gospel.

I always read this as focusing solely on Peter’s sense of his own unworthiness to have Jesus wash his feet. But Gula sees Peter’s resistance as a disciple’s hesitation in the face of a call to a radical change in his way of life. He writes:

In this scene, when Peter sees Jesus, the master, acting like a servant, he knows something is out of place. This is not the picture Peter has in his imagination of the structure of relationships in the community. So Peter resists being washed. He realizes that if he were to comply with the washing, he would be accepting a radical change in the way he ought to relate to others. The action of Jesus is challenging in a radical way the structure that makes some superior whiel others remain inferior. Such a conversion is more than Peter is willing to undergo. When Jesus deliberately reverses social positions by becoming the servant, he witnesses to a new order of relationships in the community and to a style of being a disciples wherein the desire to dominate has no place. When Peter finally allows himself to be washed, he accepts the call for him as a disciple to do likewise.

Peter hesitates, but ultimately accepts the call to radical discipleship, to a way of life that is very different from the conventional understanding. Can we do the same?

Lent Retreat in Daily Living – Week 5

This is the fifth week of the Lenten Retreat in Daily Living I’m giving at UST and at St. Hubert’s. During this past week, the prayer material continued to focus on Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises, which is all about seeking the grace to know, love and follow Jesus more closely. (Prayer this week continues with the same theme, as we move to the end of Week 2 and the transition toward consideration of Jesus passion.) Because UST Law School is on spring break this week, I had a session this week only with the St. Hubert Group. During that meeting, which began (as each of our weekly sessions do) with a period during which the participants engage in small group sharing of their prayer experience during the prior week, I gave a brief talk about Ignatius’ approach to decisionmaking. Near the end of the talk, I also speak a little about the prayer material for the upcoming week.

You can find the recording of the talk I gave this week at St. Hubert here. (The podcast runs for 26:21.) You can find here a copy of the prayer material for the fifth week of the retreat.

Note: The prayer for Day 6 of this week is the Transfiguration. Here is a link to a sermon on the Transfiguraion I just came across that you may find interesting to read.

My Body Broken for You

My parish is a large one, so between normal Sunday Masses and special Masses such as my daughter’s Confirmation last weekend, I often attend heavily populated Masses. I always sit near the front of the church, and so when I am not serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Communion I can hear the words as the priest or minister proclaims to person after person, “The Body or Christ” or “The Blood of Christ.”

In several Masses over the last week or so, I was strongly struck by the enormity of what was occurring during the Communion rite. It wasn’t just that so many people streamed up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Rather, it was the communication to each of those persons (by me or whoever else was the Minister of Communion) that was effected by the words “The Body of Christ” or “The Blood of Christ.” What I experienced in hearing those words was Jesus saying to each and to every person, “This is my Body, broken for you…This is my Blood, poured out for you.” And I didn’t experience it as simply a reminder of an historical act that occurred many years ago. Rather, what I experienced was the sense of of Christ continually, in each moment, offering Himself to each one of us. I was overwhelmed by the reality of Jesus’ presence and self-offering, by the enormity of the love and the self-offering. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the gift God continually offers to each of us. (I can’t find words better than “overwhelmed” or “enormity” to describe the sense of something that almost took my breath away.)

The experience was powerful even from the pew, as I sat listening to the words. It was even more powerful in the Mass during the weekend at which I served as Extraordinary Minister of Communion. As I held out the chalice to each person in turn, as I looked into their eyes and said “The Blood of Christ,” I had the same overwhelming sense of presence and self-offering. The same sense of Jesus saying, “my Blood, poured out for you.”

I sat with that experience during my morning prayer, which evoked two things. One was an incredible feeling of gratitude. The other was a sense of being commissioned. As I neared the end of my prayer and heard Jesus saying “This is my Body,” I saw Him pushing forward the poor and the otherwise needy of the world as though he were saying, “This too is my Body.” And the next words I heard were those Jesus spoke to Peter on the beach: “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus continually offers to us His Body and Blood. Our response must include using that gift to be the Body of Christ to the world. To continually offer the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ.

The Annunciation of the Lord

Today we celebrate the Annunciation of the Lord. I’ve written and spoken before about Mary’s response to the amazing news brought to her by the Angel Gabriel, her yes to the request that she play a central role in God’s plan of salvation.

Among the many poems I’ve read about the Annunciation is a very powerful one written by Denise Levertov, which my friend Richard first shared with me (and which you can read in its entirety here). The poem celebrates the courage of a young girl who “did not quail” when “called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of time.” But it also reminds us that Mary was not the only one to face such an invitation. Levertov writes:

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

May we have the courage not to turn away, not to let the gates close. May we have the courage of Mary to say yes.

Do You Want to Be Well?

Today’s Gospel from John tells of Jesus’ experience with a man who had been lying by the Bethseda pool for years. The pool was said to have healing properties such that if someone was put in the water when it was stirred up, the person would be healed. When Jesus saw the man, he asked him simply, “Do you want to be healed?” The man explains that he has been lying there day after day, but had no one to put him in the pool when the water is stirred up.

Doubtless prompted by Jesus question to the man, my reaction when I hear this story is always the same: You’re lying by this pool for thirty-eight years and you never managed to get into the pool? Thirty-eight years and you never asked someone passing by to help you into the water? Thirty-eight years and you couldn’t find some way to roll yourself in? Thirty-eight years and you are still lying in the same spot? Sounds like the man, for all his infirmities, had found himself a comforable enough situation and wasn’t really doing a whole lot to try to change it.

Do you want to be well? Good question. The thing about some of our infirmities is that they are ours. We’ve grown used to them, they fit like and old comfortable pair of shoes. We know what they feel like, something we can’t say for what might replace them. I think particularly of some of the masks we wear and the illusions we hold about ourselves. They may be masks, they may be illusions, but they are ours and they are not always easy to give them up.

Do you want to be well?, asks Jesus, who is standing there waiting to heal us.
Do we want to give up our infirmities and be healed by Jesus?

Reclaiming Who I Am: Individually Called by God

This podcast is the fifth and last in the series, Reclaiming Who I Am, based on a 3-day women’s retreat I gave at St. Ignatius Retreat House in February 2008. The first two podcasts in this series focused on the myths we live with as humans and as women that prevent us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. They represent what we must “lay down.” The next three podcasts in the series address what we need to reclaim. Having talked in about our need to see ourselves as the beloved of God and to recognize our giftedness, this final podcast reflects on what it means to say that each of us is individually called by God.

The length of this podcast is 15:56. You can stream it from the icon below or can download it here. (Remember that you can now also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

Making Time For God

My daughter, along with 149 other young people from our parish of St. Hubert, received the sacrament of Confirmation yesterday.  The ceremony, held in the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, was a beautiful one.   Bishop, John Nienstedt, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, gave what I thought was a great sermon to the confirmands. 

In talking with them about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one of the things the Archbishop spoke to them about is right relationship with God and the need to spend time in prayer.  He gave an amusing, but sadly true hypothetical account of what he imagined their days to be like which went something like this:  Alarm goes off.  Hit snooze button.  Parent yells get up quick or you’ll be late for school.  Jump up.  Splash water on face.  Grab nutri-grain bar on way out the door.  Drive or take bus to school.  First period.  Second period.  Third period.  Lunch spent complaining with friends about morning teachers.  Fourth period.  Fifth period.  Sixth period.  School over.  Dash to sports or other after school activity. Home and a quick nap.  Dinner.  E-mail friends (to see what they’ve been doing in the hour since you saw them last).  Homework.  Last facebook check.   Bed. 

His question – an apt one for more than just high school students, since his amusing desciption of nonstop activity is not limited to them – was simple.  Where in all of the stream of constant activity in their lives is there five minutes for the God who created us and loves us?  Where is there a bit of quiet time to share with God? 

As he so simply and aptly put it: if one is not taking time to talk to God, one is certainly not taking time to listen to God.