Prayer and Action

One of the books I am currently reading Shane Claiborne and John Perkins’ book, Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical. I have yet to read or listen to anything of Shane’s that I haven’t thought wonderful (not to mention challenging) and this book is no exception.

Among the subjects addressed in the book is one of central importance to all of us on our spiritual journey – the role of prayer. Prayer, in Perkins’ words, is one of the “primary ways in which we connect with the power of God.”

There is a danger, however – the danger that prayer becomes an excuse not to act. We express our sadness at a problem and promise our prayers, and that lets us off the hook to do anything else.

Both Perkins and Shane emphasize our need, as Christians, to be people who pray and act. Shane writes

When we pray for the hungry, let’s remember to feed them. When we pray for the unborn, let’s welcome single mothers and adopt abandoned children. When we give thanks for creation, let’s plant a garden and buy locally grown fruits and veggies. When we remember the poor, let’s reinvest our money in micro-lending programs. When we pray for peace, let’s beat our swords into plowshares and turn military budgets into programs of social uplift. When we pray for an end to crime, let’s visit those in prison. When we pray for lost souls, let’s be gracious to the souls who’ve done us wrong.

You get the idea. We don’t all need to do the same things. But we all need to do something to combine our prayers with being the hands and feet of God in the world.

Walk Just as He Walked

Today’s first Mass reading from St. James strikes a familiar chord: It is not enough to say we know Jesus, to say we have embraced Him. Rather, “whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.” Thus, says St. James, one who claims to be in the light but does not love his brother “is still in the darkness.”

When I read this morning’s passage, I thought of a line I just read in Follow Me to Freedom, a book by Shane Claiborne and John Perkins I am now reading. Shane observes, “We can call anything Christian, but the real question is, Does it look like Jesus?” Being Christian means living lives of faith and integrity, doing God’s work in the world.”

Later in the book, Shane talks about a study done by one Christian congregation. The study showed that the church had done a good job getting people to come to services and proclaim their belief in Jesus. However, “the study also showed that many of their members did not end up living much differently than they had before

Anyone can say, “I am a Christian” or “I’ve accepted Jesus in my heart.” We can say all sorts of things about ourselves and our faith. But the test of whether we truly abide in Christ is simple: do we walk as he walked? Do our lives look different because of Jesus?

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Three days after we rejoice in the birth of the Savior, we are given both a reminder of the world into which Jesus was born and a foreshadowing of the suffering He will undergo. In our remembrances of the massacre of the Holy Innocents – the young male children put to death by King Herod in his effort to destory the Christ child – we are confonted head-on with the reality that the Incarnation of God as human is inextricably linked with the rejection, suffering and, ultimately, death the Savior will undergo.

Christmas fills us with beautiful images of a child in a manger, surrounded by adoring shephards and Maji and gloroius angels singing of God’s glory. But, in the words of Francios Mauriac, “the gentle Child shivers with cold on the edge of a criminal world while angels promise peace to men of good will – a peace that can be discovered only after a full measure of suffering; but in the shadows of his birthplace Herod’s soldiers sharpen their knives for a slaughter of innocents.” The world into which Christ was born is populated by many who will reject Him and, like Herod, try to destroy Him.

Even now – so many years after the birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – the question remains for each of us: Will you help birth Christ into the world – help infuse the world with His presence? Or will you – by action of inaction – reject Him and fail to give Him life in the world?

We don’t answer those questions merely by singing beautiful carols around the creche. The feast we celebrate today reminds us that the world needs more from us.

Archbishop Hannon’s Extraordinary Life

Before reading The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots, the memoir of Archbishop Philip Hannon, I knew nothing about this man. Chaplain to a paratrooper unit during World War II, close friends with the Kennedy’s (he delivered the eulogy at President Kennedy’s funeral mass), participant in the Second Vatican Council (coordinating the Vatican press panels), Archbishop of New Orleans during times of racial strife – Archbishop Hannon has led, in the words of the subtitle of the book, “an extraordinary life.”

As a lens through which to view historical events, the book is wonderfully engaging. For example, reading it conveyed a sense of what it was like to be in Italy before the beginning of World War II, a sense of the texture of Europe there. It equally effectively painted a picture of France and Germany during World War II. The same is true for descriptions of other events (albeit ones of my lifetime) – DC in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination or New Orleans after Katrina.

The Archbishop also effectively conveys what it means to be a priest and something of his own growth over the years. Perhaps he could have been more self-reflective about some issues – I felt myself pausing at some of the advice and answers he gave to soldiers who came to him for counsel – but always I had the sense of a spiritual person who was living out his calling to serve God.

I was less enthralled with the last forty or fifty pages of the book, which treat a number of subjects in fairly short order. For example, Hannon’s brief treatment of the sexual abuse crisis sounds more aimed at conveying his sense of what a good job he did in New Orleans (and defending his handling of a particular priest over which he received some criticism) than anything else. That is just not a subject that can be usefully addressed in two and a half pages. On another matter, I suspect part of my negative reaction to his discussion of the liturgical changes following Vatican II is that I see a number of things very differently from the way he does. Nonetheless, it seems to me difficult to claim so breezily as he does that it was the change from Latin to English that is responsible for emptying the pews in Catholic churches. I also found some lack of balance in his unadulterated praise of Pope John Paul II.

Despite my reaction to the last pages of the book, it is a really good read and I was happy to learn what I did about the life of Archbishop Hannon.

I reviewed this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program,

The Night Before Creation

Sixteen-year old Madison, daughter of my friend Mary Gallardo, was given the assignment in her Hebrew Scripture class to rewrite the creation story. Madison and her partner decided to write their version in the spirit of the present season. With Madison’s permission, I share with you this morning, The Night Before Creation. It presents a beautiful image of God’s love and joy in His creation and offers a wonderful reflection as we continue to celebrate the Incarnation:

T’was the night before creation and all through land
Not a creature was stirring except for God’s hand.
The heavens were waiting high in the sky
In hopes that human beings would soon on earth lie.
God was excited, this he would not dread
Visions of waterfalls danced in his head.
He made female in her kerchief; And male in his cap
And on the 7th day he took a long winter’s nap.
God created space, and it made such a clatter
Things sprang from thin air, and thus there was matter.
Away to the horizon, the water flew like a flash
Formed basins and plateaus and did so in a dash.
The moon with the stars created such a glow
They gave of luster of mid day to objects below.
When what to God’s powerful eye should appear
A sun and some clouds and a calendar year.
Flowers and vegetation grew all around
Mighty trees swayed in the wind without any sound.
More rapid than rapids ideas came to be
And God whistled and shouted and created you and me.
“Now dinos, now kitties, now hippos, and puppies
Now dolphins, now starfish, now turtles, and guppies!”
He sprang back to the heavens with the angels all singing
He saw what he made and with joy he was swinging.
And I heard him exclaim as he flew without strife
“God’s blessings to all and to all a sacred life!”

God’s blessing to all and to all a sacred life!

And the Word Became Flesh

We can argue about whether the signs should read Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. We can engage in billboard wars. We can bemoan the loss of this tradition or that. We can occupy ourselves with all sorts of things.

But ultimately what matters is this: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling upon us.”

God becomes human, revealing a love so deep that God is willing to share everything with us. Giving us a blueprint of what it means to be a human being fully alive. Showing us the way.

As John testified to the light that was to come into the world, we continue to testify to that light by who we are in the world. As we pray in the opening prayer for the Christmas Mass at Dawn, “We are filled with the new light by the coming of your Word among us. May the light of faith sine in our words and actions.”

Wishing everyone a blessed Christmas and a wonderful time of celebration with family and friends.

In the Morning You Will See the Glory of the Lord

“Are we there yet?” “Is it time yet?”

As we do each year, we spend four weeks preparing ourselves for Christmas. We wait in joyful hope, we actively prepare to welcome (anew) the Christ into our hearts and homes. We pray, we tell the stories of our ancestors, we take stock, we recommit ourselves.

And now, our time of waiting in joyful hope is almost at an end. The preparations have been made and, ready or not, the time is almost here. In the words of Exodus, “In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord.”

As we wrap the last of the Christmas presents, send off those last cards, pack for holiday visits, and prepare the feast we will share with family and friends, let us continue to rejoice that our God comes and to reflect on how we may bring the good news of God’s presence and love to others.

Happy Christmas Eve!

Bearers and Receivers of Light

I’ve mentioned before the sermons of Rev. Marianne Edgar Budde, rector of St. John’s Episcopal parish in Minneapolis. This past weekend, she completed a four-part sermon series, From Darkness to Light, presented during the four Sundays of Advent.

There is much to reflect on in Rev. Budde’s sermons and as I have re-read her sermon series in these last days of Advent, I have come back several times to a portion of the third sermon in the darkness and light series. Quoting two passages in Isaiah – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” – she asks how it is that we see the light. From where does the light come when the darkness seems so complete that hope is lost?

Rev. Budde gave one answer to that question, a beautiful one, saying:

No doubt there are countless ways, but here is one way: we hold the light for each other. By the grace of God, someone in the midst of every darkness is given the power to see light, or to trust in light, when all is dark. And that person holds it, carries it, keeps it alive until others see it, too, and together, they begin the long walk out of darkness.

Each of us, at times, is light bearer or light receiver. We have all had times when others “have held light for [us] when all was dark, who assured [us], or assure [us] now, that things will get better.” And each of us “have in the past or are now keeping the light alive for someone else.” Those actions – given and received may be quite small. As Rev. Budde observed, “what keeps most of us going in our darkest hours are the bearers of light closer in, the words of kindness spoken by a friend or stranger; a prayer offered when we are in pain; a phone call reaching through the shrouds of grief to remind us that we’re not alone; a courageous local leader taking a stand for justice.”

The truth she asks us to hold onto is a simple one:

[I]n the darkness of your life, there has been, and is now, light shining, held by others who love you, believe in you, and want only what is best for you. And in the darkness of another person’s life, you might be the light, or the one entrusted with the light that they need to see by. That’s how the light of God works in and through us. There are other ways that the light shines, to be sure, but this way is one that involves you and me directly.

We each, she concludes must accept both the blessing and responsibility that is our life – to hold onto the confidence that there is always light for us, even in the darkest times, remaining always open to receiving that light, and to look always for opportunities to be the bearer of light to others.

Note: you can find transcripts of Rev. Budde’s sermons here.

The Promise He Made to Our Fathers

There is a Leonard Cohen song titled Everybody Knows, that paints a bleak picture of human existence and human relationship. Everybody knows, we are told, that the dice are loaded, that the deck is stacked, that the fight is fixed, that the good guys lost, that the war is over, that the rich stay rich, etc. “That’s [just] how it goes. Everybody knows.” That’s just the way it is. The song is one of defeat, of hopelessness.

We hear a diametrically opposite song in today’s Gospel – Mary’s Magnificat. In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the future when peaceful justice will take root in the land among all people.

Mary isn’t blind to the suffering and injustice of the world in which she lived. She saw the way things were. But she knew that the ways things were was not the way things had to be, was not the way they would always be. Mary was confident in God. Confident that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of the difficulties. Confident that God would fulfill the “promise he made to our fathers,” that God would lift up the lowly and set free the oppressed.

Mary’s Magnificat is a rousing message of hope. And that message is one the world needs, because it is so easy to fall into the defeat and hopelessness expressed in the Cohen song (which I sometimes refer to as the anti-Magnificat). The message that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of the suffering, is one we ourselves need to believe. And it is the message that we, as Christians, need to convey to the world.