Lord and Lover of Souls

Both the first Mass reading from the book of Wisdom and the Gospel story of Zacchaeus proclaim God’s incredible and unconditional love for us. In Wisdom we hear these beautiful words:

For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? But you spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for you imperishable spirit is in all things!

We get to see an example of that love in action in today’s Gospel, which dispels the misconception people sometimes have that they need to reform themselves so that God will love them. The story of Zacchaeus reminds us of the important truth that God loves us first and always and that we need do nothing to earn God’s love.

Zacchaeus is tax collector and a thief. He is someone everyone would have looked down upon. Everyone, that is, except Jesus. Jesus spies Zacchaeus up in the tree and calls to him, telling him that he plans to come over for lunch. Jesus effectively says: it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I want to be your friend. And Jesus’ joyful greeting of Zacchaeus causes Zacchaeus to renounce his ways, to promise to give half of his possessions to the poor and make recompense to all he has cheated.

God loved Zacchaeus first, and that allowed him to respond back in love. And when Jesus explains Zacchaeus’ salvation at the end of the passage, he makes clear that Zacchaeus is not saved because he gave things back and made amends; he is saved because of who he is – a descendent of Abraham, which means a child of God. As are we all.

Judging Who Sits Where at the Table

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus, dining at the home of a leading Pharisee, notices how people are choosing the places of honor at the table. He warns against such a practice, pointing out how embarassing it will be to be moved by the host to a lower place when a more distinguished guest arrives. Jesus’ last words in the Gospel are a reminder that “everyone who exalts himself whill be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Two days ago (and one chapter in Luke ago) we heard a similar message, with Jesus saying that “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The repetition of the message is a good hint this is something we are meant to take seriously.

We tend to be very free with our judgements, including in matters of religion. We think we are capable of determining who is “in” and who is “out”, so to speak. Catholics make judgments about non-Catholics; Christians make judgments about non-Christians; we all make judgments about who the biggest sinners are.

I think part of what Jesus is trying to convey in his words here and two days ago is that we don’t do all that good a job of judging each other. This is something we hear over and over again in the Gospels, particularly in Mark’s Gospel, which has the parable of the weeds and the wheat and the criticism against noticing the mote in our brother’s eye when we fail to see the beam in our own.

It is good for us to be reminded that we are not always the best judges of who gets to sit where at the table and that perhaps we ought to leave that judgment to God.

Info-Techno Sabbath

Following up on the theme of letting go of what we cling to that I wrote about yesterday, here is an idea for the weekend (or perhaps one day of the weekend) prompted by a post my friend John sent me. Take an info-techno Sabbath, that is, completely unplug for a 24-hour period – no computer, no iPad, no telephone.

The idea for the info-techno Sabbath comes from Keith Miller and he describes it like this: “The Sabbath . . . had two purposes: rest and remembrance of God. An info-techno Sabbath, as I dub it, has the same goals: rest for our minds and over stimulated senses and remembrance that life is bigger than the news stories, stock quotes, and sports scores. It’s bigger than our selves. There is, in fact, a God. And we are not it.”

What most drew me in the post talking about Miller’s idea was this paragraph:

“One of the most basic biblical insights,” says theologian J.I. Packer, “is that whatever controls and shapes one’s life is in effect the god one worships.” We consider it peculiar that Muslims stop five times a day to offer prayers to Allah, yet we stop what we do five times an hour to pay homage to our e-mail. For many of us, the one true god to whom we give our devotion is the deity known as IT: information technology.

Perhaps I was so struck by the paragraph because of how often I check my e-mail or stop to post something on Facebook. Go to the article I linked to above and see how much of the author’s tongue-in-cheek description of his wasting four hours on various computer related activities could describe you.

We need time with God. Quiet time. Uninterrupted time. No phones, no computers, no iPads. Just you and God. Try it.

What We Gain By Letting Go

The participants in the Fall Reflection Series I’m giving at St. Hubert’s are praying this week on the subject of letting go of the things that we cling to, things that threaten to remove God from the central place in our lives. The various prayer exercises they are engaging in this week are designed to help them identify what are the things that they cling to, what are the things that distract them from discipleship.

The difficulty for us is that the things we cling to can look very attractive to us, so attractive that we can fail to see how our attachment binds us, how it prevents us from being free. Buddhist thought on this subject is very developed; Buddhists identify attachment as one of the root delusions.

There is a story that captures well the danger of clinging. It is one I first heard many years ago, but I read it again recently in a newsletter and so thought to share it. It is a story that explains how monkeys in Africa are captured alive with a simple trap. The “trap” is a heavy bottle with a long neck, inside of which are placed some sweets that are attractive to the monkey. The neck is wide enough for an open hand to go in and out, but not side enough for a fist to enter or exit.

You can guess what happens. Attracted by the scent of the sweets, the monkey reaches its open hand into the bottle and grabs the object of its desire. Once it closes its fist around the sweets, it cannot remove its hand from the bottle. Because the bottle is heavy, the monkey cannot run away with it. All the monkey has to do to get away is let go of the sweets. However, the monkey clings to the object of its desire, unwilling to let it go, even though that means captivity.

We do the same. We cling to things that cannot bring us ultimate happiness, to things that keep us from being free. And all we have to do to gain greater interior freedom is to let go.

Birther of All Radiance and Vibration

Each week one of the participants in the vocation retreat weekend with which we began the semester sends the group something to reflect on that week. It can be a prayer, a poem, an inspirational quote, a reflection the individual wrote on a particular topic, or whatever else the person wishes to share.

This week, Meghan shared a version of the Lord’s Prayer that she had included some years before in a prayer booklet she helped compile while she lived in Tanzania. The version of the prayer is supposedly based on the original Aramaic. I have been unable to locate a source for the prayer; the link Meghan included for it lists it as being from an unknown source.

The petitions in this version do not track those of the prayer the way we typically pray it. Nonetheless, I thought it contained some beautiful petitions and images you might want to consider using in your prayer. So here it is:

O Cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration! Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your presence can abide.
Fill us with your creativity so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.
Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with your desire.
Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share what each being needs to grow and flourish.
Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.
Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.
For you are the ground and fruitful vision, the birth, power and fulfilment, as all is gathered and made whole once again.

Amen.

Through The Years

I just returned from several days in New York, where I attended the 25th wedding anniversary celebration of my friends John and Chieko. Among the guests were a group of us who had made the trip from NY to Tokyo for their wedding 25 years ago. Also included were some other people I had not seen in a number of years, including my friend Walter, with whom I worked in Hong Kong for a year and a half before I spent two years in Nepal, India and Thailand. (I still remember Walter, who had arrived in Hong Kong some time before I did, picking me up at the airport to take me to my apartment and help me get settled there.)

At the anniversary lunch on Sunday, John played some clips from the wedding video. In a moment we went from “grown-ups” in our early fifties, with children ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-one, to young and fresh-looking kids not long out of law school, single or newly married, ready to face adventure and trying to determine who we would be in the world.

We shared memories of our youth and told stories of our children. And we laughed a lot. It was a beautiful day and the warm feeling of it remains.

At the end of the day, some drove south to New York City. Others drove north to New Hampshire. Others flew home to places ranging from Minnesota, Florida and Texas in the United States, to Germany and Austria in Europe.

But wherever we go, and whatever distance separates us physically, we carry a piece of each other in our hearts. We left hoping to see each other soon – and some we will see, others, not. But whether together physically or not, there is something special shared between us that is always present, and it is a beautiful thing.

I give thanks to God this day for those who have such a part of my life through the years.

Working at Love

We love some people naturally, our children for example. We grow to love some people very quickly, an acquaintance who quickly becomes a loved friend. In both cases, our good feelings toward the person flow and we affirmatively seek to do things that will bring them happiness

With others, however, love – at least in the spontaneously-arising good feeling sense of the word – doesn’t come so naturally or quickly. Yet, we are called by Christ to love everyone.

Dorothy Day, who understood the need to love all others, said something helpful in this regard. She writes, “Love is a matter of the will….If you will to love someone and try to serve him as an expression of that love, then you will soon come to feel that love.” Day had no illusions that this is easy; she readily admitted to her own shortcomings and feelings of anger and resentment toward some persons.

But her suggestion seems a good one. We can’t force ourselves to feel love toward another. But we can will ourselves to act toward them in a loving way, allowing the feeling to arise on its own.

It takes time. As Day also wrote, given that our love for one another is tied to our love of God, “all our life is a practice to learn to love God,”

How Will I Be Judged?

In today’s second Mass reading, which comes from the latter part of Saint Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul evalutes his life, recognizing that the time of his departure “is at hand.” He writes “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

They are words all of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ want to be able to say as we approach the end of our lives. Having a tendency toward self-evaluation and self-judgment, I ask myself, what will it take to be able to say those words when I near the end of my life? To have confidence that I will hear God say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”?

I know it won’t require that I have lived a perfect life, one lived without mistakes. I’ve made many over the years and doubtless, despite careful discernment and best efforts, I will continue to make many more.

I know it won’t require that I have moved mountains or solved all the world’s great problems.

I know it won’t require that I accomplish more than anyone else did.

Two things come most readily to my mind when I read these words of Paul’s and think about what it would require for me to feel like I’ve “competed well…kept the faith.”

One is the response Thurgood Marshall gave when he retired from the Supreme Court. When asked what was his greatest accomplishment, he replied not that he had argued Brown vs. Board of Education (the Supreme Court decision that resulted in school desegregation) and not that he had served as the first Africa-American member of the Supreme Court. Rather, his response was, “I did the best I could with what I had.”

The second is something an adult friend wrote in my 8th grade graduation albumn that I have always remembered: “When through one man a little more love and goodness, a little more light of the truth, comes into the world, then that man’s life has had meaning. May your life have meaning.”

If I can say I did the best I could with what I had, if I can say I’ve done all I could with what I had to spread some love and goodness and truth in the world, then that will be enough. Maybe others will have done more, maybe others less, but neither matters to how I will stand before God.

Living the Truth in Love

Today’s first Mass reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians contains the wonderful phrase, “living the truth in love.” Paul has just told the people of Ephesus that they have been given gifts from God so that they “may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery.” Rather, they are to live the truth in love.

What does it mean to live the truth in love? In a book titled Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service, Michael Himes talks about ideal truths vs. realized truths. The beatitudes, he suggests, are meant to be “concretized in our lives so that they are not ideal truths but realized truths. They are not to be accepted or believed; they are to be done.”

Action, not simply ideas. Truth is to be lived, not merely believed. And, says Himes, living truth means living agapically, seeing agape as “a reality, not simply a lovely ideal.” He writes, “If we imagine the world and the neighbor sacramentally, then we must reverence the world and the neighbor. If we imagine our lives eucharistically, they we must live as self-gift. To re-envision the universe sacramentally requires us to act differently within it and toward it, and to live agapically requires that we discern what the true good of the other is which we seek to bring about.”

How will you live the truth in love today?

Not Knowing Where to Go, But Not Lost

In a piece in America magazine, Margaret Silf relates a tale of a lost traveler who experiences frustration when he asks a boy where a series of trails leads. The boy can not answer where any of them go and when the exasperated man asks the boy what he does know, the boy responds, “I know I’m not lost.”

Silf makes the useful point that “Not knowing where to go next is not necessarily the same thing as being lost.” It is true that we tend to experience some nervousness, and perhaps even some panic, when we find ourselves in unfamiliar places. We like certainty and we are uncomfortable with the feeling of uncertainty that accompanies finding ourselves with several paths in front of us and no ability to predict where they will lead.

But, as she reminds us, our God is a God who tells us over and over again, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” The question for us is always, are we willing to trust that? Are we willing to live with uncertainty? To take a step with God even when we don’t know where it will lead?

I was reminded when I read the Silf piece of something Thomas Merton once wrote. Titled The Road Ahead, it is a prayer that has helped me on any number of occasions. It is a good one to keep in mind when we feel some anxiety in the midst of unfamiliarity. Merton prays:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following
your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.