Faith and Works

The dispute about whether we are saved by faith or works, which I have heard people argue about many times, is not one I really understand. It has always clear to me that this is an instance of both/and rather then either/or. Today’s readings both go to that question.

In the first reading, St. Paul tells the Romans, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”

On the surface, sounds like just faith. Maybe I’m just being simple here, but it seems self-evident that if one really believes in Incarnation and Resurrection – really believes to the depth of one’s heart and not just mouths the words – then that has to have an effect on our behavior in the world. It has to affect what we do and who we are to others. The corollary is that if our actions reveal Christ to the world, then we don’t really believe what we say we do. That says there can’t be real faith without works.

The first reading from Paul is paired with St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ call to his first disciples (including Andrew, whose feast we celebrate today). When Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately drop their fishing nets and follow him. Not a one of them said, “I believe you are the Lord, I promise” and went back to mending their nets. In fact, in St. Matthew’s account they say nothing – their actions speak for them.

Both/and. Not either/or.

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Startled, Challenged and Disturbed

Yesterday I attended an Episcopal service with my friends Richard and Russell at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis; I had been looking for an opportunity to hear the preaching of the rector of their church, whose sermons I have read online on a number of occasions (thanks to Richard’s kindness in sending the links to me). I was not disappointed; her sermon gave me much fruit for prayer and I suspect some of it will make its way into a blog post at some point. But not today.

Among the things that struck me during the service was the Affirmation of Faith. The affirmation (written by David Aquilina, a member of the St. John’s community) declares the people’s faith in the Trinity in words somewhat different from those we recite in the Nicene Creed each week at Mass, although there was nothing in those words I could not be comfortable as a Catholic claiming belief in. What struck me, though, was that in each of the paragraphs (one each devoted to God, Jesus and the Spirit), there was a line that suggested disruption of the normal ways.

…You startled [our ancestors] in suprising revelations…

…You challenge us to hear and to see with new hearts…

…You disturb us…

It is easy for us to become settled in our ways, to become complacent, to think things are good enough. We don’t particularly like change and upset; feeling settled is much more to our liking. It is, you have to admit, a whole lot easier than the alternative.

But if we are actually listening to God, we will be unsettled. Startled. Challenged. Disturbed. That’s what God does. Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us alone to sort through the challenge and disturbance. We have always within us the presence of the Spirit (paraphrasing the final paragraph of the Affirmation of Faith), the breath of God that dispels fear, refreshes us and empowers us.

Update: I just read the Daily Meditation of Richar Rohr I receive by e-mail from the Center for Action and Contemplation. In part the reflection reads: “[W]e have often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus. This is what I am inviting you to this Advent. But be forewarned: the Word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order. The suffering, injustice and devastation on this planet are too great now to settle for any infantile gospel or any infantile Jesus.”

Here Comes Advent!

Somehow the days and months have melted away and today is the First Sunday in Advent, the beginning of our four week period of active waiting and preparation the precedes Christmas.

What is it that we are waiting and preparing for? In one sense, like the Israelite people who waited for the coming of the Messiah, we wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas, preparing ourselves to welcome him anew into our hearts. (Of course, unlike the Israelites, we wait knowing the whole plotline of the story – the incarnation of the God into the world that will lead to death, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Spirit.) This is not a first time welcome – we prepare to welcome again the Christ who is already with us.

As Christians, we also wait for the Christ who will come again to judge the living and the dead, but who also is already here among us – in the Eucharist and in the faces of our brothers and sisters.

Thus, although we mark this four-week period as a time of waiting and preparation, there is a sense in which we as Christians are constantly waiting – giving rise to the phrase “we are an Advent people.”

We are always waiting, but it is not a passive waiting. This is not a sit back with our feet up waiting for Christ to come. It is good to remind ourselves as we begin this Advent season that we are intimately part of the fulfillment of the promise of Advent. Our entire lives are an active preparation, an active working for, the coming of Jesus.

How will you celebrate Advent this year?

The Anxieties of Daily Life

Jesus warns his disciples in today’s Gospel not to let themselves be consumed by “carousing or drunkeness” or by “the anxieties of daily life.” It is the latter that seems to me to be the greater danger for most of us (although I admit that in my younger days there were periods when I spent far too many hours in an Irish bar carousing and drinking).

We worry about so many things. Our jobs if we are working. Our grades if we are in school. Our children. Our health. Our houses. (We woke up this morning yet again to the beeps that indicate some problem with the sump pump.) Things we want.

Most of the things we worry about have some importance. So the fact that we care about them is not a problem. But we can get so overwhelmed with anxiety, our minds so completely clouded in worry, that we lose sight of anything else. That we lose sight of God.

Although Jesus’ primary message in today’s Gospel (in our last day before the beginning of Advent) is vigilence, today’s Gospel is also a reminder to remember that we are not alone in any of the anxieties that we face and a reminder to periodically simply place those worries and anxieties in God’s hands. That doesn’t mean sitting back and expecting God to fix my sump pump without my calling the plumber, but it does mean not letting that and other things disturb my peace and knowledge of God’s presence.

Know That the Kingdom of God is Near

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus uses the analogy of a fig tree to explain to his disciples that when they see certain things happening, they should “know that the Kingdom of God is near.” The signs to which Jesus refers (which we heard in yesterday’s Gospel) are terrible calamities, apocalypictic events, which cause great dismay among the people, signalling that the end is near and the Second Coming at hand.

But as I prayed with the words of this morning’s passage, they struck me in a different way, doubtless because I was reading today’s passage alone, thus not having before me the words that came before it in Luke. My first thought when I read “when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near,” was our task to make real the Kingdom of God here, our task as Christians to levening the world with God’s presence.

Read that way, the words sound like more of an indictment of us. “When you see these things happening…” When you look at the world around us, there are a lot of things that don’t make it look like “the Kingdom of God is near.” We’re still fighting each other in different parts of the world. We still haven’t learned to use the world’s resources in a sane way that will be sustainable in the future. We still have people dying unnecessarily because they lack (take your choice) clean water, enough food, basic medical care. If our job is to bring the world to Kingdom, it doesn’t seem to me like we’re doing all that good a job of it.

Advent begins in two days. This might be a time to recommit ourselves to making happen those things that will be a sign that the Kingdom of God is near.

Thanksgiving Day Prayer

Happy Thanksgiving.

One of the follow-ups to the weekend vocation retreat for law students we have at the beginning of each semester is that a different participant shares somenting with the group each week. It can be a poem, a reflection, a prayer – whatever the person assigned for that week desires.

The person assigned for this week was my colleague Jennifer Wright, who joined the retreat team for the first time at our August retreat weekend. (A wonderful addition to the retreat team, among other things she led some sessions of Centering Prayer.) She shared with us the following prayer, which I reprint her with her permission, and with much gratitude. It expresses well my wish for all of you as we celebate this Thanksgiving Day.

May you be with people you love. May you eat tasty, satisfying food that has been prepared with love and with laughter. May you reach out to someone outside your immediate circle to share your blessings. May you be overwhelmed with gratitude for the bounty that you have received. May you be aware of the depths of your roots in your family and your past and of the infinite potential of your future. May you repose in utter trust in God’s love for you and God’s amazing, overflowing, creatively stunning intention for good for all of God’s creation.

If you can take one “action item” from this prayer to heart, may it be that you think about how you can share your blessings with someone outside of your immediate circle.

Blessings to you and yours this Thanksgiving Day.

The Promise of Advent – Advent Retreat in Daily Living Week 1

This week was the opening session of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas. (The St. Hubert program begins On Monday evening, November 29.)

In a Retreat in Daily Living, participants commit themselves to a prayer each day and go about their daily lives as usual. Prayer material relating to the theme of the retreat is provided for each day. In addition to a daily period of personal prayer, the participants in the retreat meet for an hour each week. During this time they share their experience of prayer in small groups and I offer input on the week’s theme and address questions that come up in the course the participants’ prayer. I also talk about the prayer material for the week following the session.

This week, we started by having participants introduce themselves and talk a little about what Advent means for them and what are their hopes for this Advent season. I then gave a talk, which began by offering some general comments on a retreat of this type. I then spoke on The Promise of Advent, focusing on the different meanings of Advent and what it means that we are an Advent people. I talked both about God’s promise to us and the fact that we have a role in the fulfillment of that promise.

You can a podcast of my talk here. (The podcast runs for 23:21.) A copy of this week’s prayer materials is here.

End Times

As we approach the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent on Sunday, our Mass readings focus on the end times. Our first readings are from the Book of Revelation and our Gospel has Jesus telling his disciples what it will be like for them as the end approaches.

I’m never quite sure of what to make of these end time readings. Clearly the world will end sometime, but it is, of course, impossible for any of us to predict when that will be. Jesus is pretty clear about that in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, telling his disciples that many will be say the time has come, but that it will not be so.

The problem with such predictions is that they can easily lull us in to a sense that we can cease working for the realization of Kingdom in this world. The opening scene of the movie Vision, which I wrote about yesterday was of a group of people who lay down to die at the end of the first millenium, convinced that the world would end that night. My friend Mark recently explained to me that there are some people who believe that there is no reason to work against poverty and other forms of social injustice because the end if the world is imminent. That strikes me as a pretty bad excuse for ignoring the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

We have no idea how long this world will end (although I’d be willing to bet a fair amount that it won’t be in 2012). But we do have a choice about how we spend however much time is remaining. It is our choice to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world or to simply lay down and wait for the end to come. Only one of those choices seems to me to be open to those who call themselves Christ’s disciples.

Vision – The Life of Hildegard

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Vision, a film that portrays the life of Hildegard of Bingen.

Hildergard, a 12th Century Benedictine nun (the tenth child in her family, she was given over to the monastery at the age of eight), is a fascinating woman who had tremendous fame and influence during her life, but who faded from people’s memories almost immediately after her death. She was forgotten for centuries, only to be rediscovered in 1979, on the 800th anniversary of her death. In recent times she has attracted quite a lot of interest by various groups: musicians, who have happily discovered her musical compositions (coincidentally, we heard some of those at a Rose Ensemble concert Saturday evening); feminists, who view her as a pioneer of women’s equality; proponents of natural health remedies, who champion her work on medicinal plants and healing techniques; environmentalists who share her conviction of the sacredness of the earth. One author commented that “while it would be anachronistic to regard Hildegard as an ecologist or feminist, her firm grasp of the interconnectedness of all things and of the loving mercy of God, who fashioned the whole of creation out of love, continues to speak to us today.”

Whatever else she was, Hildegard was a woman open to the presence of God. From an early age she had visions in which God spoke to her. While she hid these for a long time, at the age of 45 she listened to God’s command that she write what she saw and heard, something for which she needed to get permission from the males who ruled the world in which she lived. (It was the endorsement of Bernard of Clairvaux that paved the way for such permission.) She spent a substantial amount of time for the rest of her life doing exactly that. She faced many hardships as she continually sought to be true to what she believed God was asking of her.

Hildegard wrote in a letter not too many years before she died, that she never felt secure in her own abilities. But, she wrote, “I raise my hands aloft to God, so that like a feather, which lacks all solidity of strength and flies on the wind, I may be sustained by him.” Around the same time, describing what she sometimes called “the Living Light” that she occasionally saw, said “While I behold it, all sadness and pain is lifted from my memory, so that I feel like a carefree young girl, and not the old woman that I am.” This realization that God worked in her life sustained Hildegard through all her struggles and her frequent bouts of physical illness and brought joy to her soul. She wrote “From my childhood days, when my limbs, nerves and veins were not yet strong, the gift of this vision brought joy to my soul; and this has remained true up to this very time when I am a woman of more than 70 years.” When we keep the fact of God’s sustaining love clearly before us, then our journey seems much less threatening and more filled with opportunity.

I think Vision does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the life and difficulties of this extraordinary woman and I enjoyed it immensely. The website for the film, where you can find more information about Vision , including where it is playing, is here.

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

We draw to the end of another liturgical year as we celebrate the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, a feast established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a response to growing nationalism and secuarism.

As I sat in prayer this morning, the question I asked myself was what does it mean for me to call Christ “the King”? I don’t mean what is the appropriate theological answer to the question or what answer would a Catholic Encyclopedia give or what Pope Pius had in mind when he established the feast. (Anyone can read Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quas primas to get that kind of answer.) But what significance does it have for me to call Christ my King?

I had no immediate answer to the question. When I pray with Scripture using Ignatian Contemplation, for example, the Christ I walk with is the Christ who walked with his disciples during his human life. That Christ is my teacher, my friend, my guide. I usually “see” Christ in that aspect, not looking like a king.

So I closed my eyes and sat with the image that came to mind when I speak of Christ the King. And that helped me articulate that for me it means that it is Christ to whom I owe my ultimate allegiance. The one to whom I pledge my life. The only one whose judgement of me counts in the final analysis – the one before whom I will have to stand and give an account of myself.

It is not a kingship of subjugation, but rather one of choice; it is a kingship that will never be forced on us. Christ asks each one of us, will you let me be your King? I know my answer to that question.