Touching Holy Ground

If I had my druthers, I’d never wear shoes, but would walk barefoot all of the time. Putting on my shoes is the last thing I do before leaving the house and taking them off is the first thing I do when I walk in the door.

I especially like walking barefoot outside – whether it be on dirt or grass, or even the pavement. I love feeling the heat of the sun on the black pavement, and, although this isn’t the time of year for walking outside barefoot, I confess I took advantage of the relatively warm days we’ve been having to run out for the mail barefoot the other day. There is something about feeling the ground beneath my feet that I love – it makes me feel connected with everything around me.

Given my love for the feel of the ground beneath my feet, I was delighted to read the following passage from Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Common Sense Spiriuality. Leave it to Brother David to turn walking barefoot into sacrament:

There is only one condition for seeing life sacramentally: “Take off your shoes!” Realize that the ground on which we stand is holy ground. The act of taking off our shoes is a gesture of thanksgiving, and it is through thanksgiving that we enter into sacramental life. We shouldn’t forget the grace received in going barefoot either. Going barefoot actually helps. There is no more immediate way of getting in touch with reality than direct physical contact: to feel the difference between walking on sand, on grass, on smooth granite warmed by the sun, on the forest floor; to let the pebbles hurt us for a while; to squeeze the mud between our toes. There are so many ways of gratefully touching God’s healing power through the earth. Whenever we take off the dullness of being-used-to it, of taking things for granted, life in all its freshness touches us and we see that all life is sacramental. If we could measure our aliveness, surely it is the degree to which we are in touch with the Holy One as the inexhaustible fire in the midst of all things.

So take of your shoes and gratefully touch the ground, touching God’s healing power through the earth.

You Are The Christ, But…

In today’s Gospel from Mark, Jesus asks the question of disciples He asks each of us: Who do you say that I am? I wonder how different our answer is from Peter’s answer.

I don’t mean Peter’s initial answer. As it is often the case with us, the words are easy to mouth: “You are the Christ,” says Peter. So far, so good.

But then, as Jesus talks to his disciples about what it means that he is the Christ – that he must be rejected and killed and rise – Peter starts to rebuke him. You don’t really mean that, right? Yes, Lord, you are the Christ, but not like that. Peter had his own idea of what it meant to be the Christ, and his notion had nothing to do with suffering and dying. Nothing to do with what Jesus meant by being the Christ.

And I think that is exactly what we so often do – substitute our own idea or image of Christ. It is easy for us to look at Jesus and say, “You are the Christ. Of course I believe that. No question about it.”

But we have a lot of Peter’s reaction when we hear things like “whoever wishes to save his life must lose it” or “as I have done for you, you should do also” or “sell all you have.” You are the Christ, we say, adding, but you didn’t really mean lose my life, right? You are the Christ, but you didn’t really mean wash everyone else’s feet, right? You are the Christ, but you didn’t really mean sell all I have, right?

Like Peter, we could all benefit from listening more closely to what Jesus tells us about what it means to affirm he is the Christ.

Healing Miracles

I’m not a scripture scholar and doubtless much has been written on the subject of the various healing miracles performed by Jesus that are recorded in the Gospels.

Today’s Gospel is one of those healing miracles – St. Mark’s account of Jesus healing a blind man. Jesus puts spittle on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on him, after which the man can “see people looking like trees and walking.” Jesus lays hands on him a second time and the man sees clearly.”

I read this and wonder, why the spittle? Why laying hands twice? Similarly, I’ve asked, why when Jesus heals the deaf mute does he stick his finger in his ear and place spittle on his tongue?

We know that Jesus can heal someone without touching him; later in Mark’s Gospel he will heal Bartimaeus without laying hands on him. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t even have to be in the same place as someone to heal him; he heals the centurian’s servant without going to the centaurian’s home.

So the answer to the question of why Jesus sometimes uses certain physical acts can’t be that they are necessary to accomplish the healing.

Perhaps a partial explanation is that the acts are for the benefit of the onlookers who view Jesus’ healings, to help them understand that it is not the method but the man. That is, using different methods makes it impossible for someone to say, “Ah, that’s the trick. It just takes some spit mixed with mud.” Instead, it is clear that it is Jesus. Sometimes he touches. Sometimes he simply speaks a few words. Sometimes he spits. The method changes; the constant is Jesus.

Maybe there are other explanations that are more sophisticated. But this is what I came up with as I reflected on the passage this morning.

God’s Nature

My pneumonia has taken a lot out of me the past few days, making any work or serious reading impossible. Poetry, however, has not been impossible. Simple images to convey profound thoughts.

I thought I’d share one this morning from St. Thomas Aquinas that has always resonated with me. Titled God’s Nature, it speaks a beautiful truth on that subject:

Sometimes we think what we are saying about God
is true when in fact
it is not.

It would seem of value to differentiate between what is
God’s nature and what is false about Love.

I have come to learn that the truth never harms
or frightens.

I have come to learn that
God’s compassion and light can never be limited;

thus any God who could condemn is
not a God at all

but some distrubing image in the
mind of a
child

we best ignore, until we
can cure the
dark.

Control and Illness

I have control issues (an admission that is not a surprise to those who know me). More simply put, I like to be in control of situations. This has been an ongoing subject of dialogue between me and God for quite some time.

Every once in a while, I get a reminder of how illusory my control is.

I have pneumonia. After waking up yesterday morning for the third day in a row of 101 fever, plus bad chest pains from coughing so much, plus difficulty breathing, I decided to visit an urgent care clinic. A chest x-ray confirmed pneumonia.

The worse part for me is that I had all sorts of plans for the writing I was going to get done the past several days. I planned my schedule so that I could work at home Friday, Dave and Elena flew off Friday to Chicago, and so I planned an uninterrupted three days of writing.

The problem with an illness like this is that, try as I might, I could not bully my way through it. I could force myself to sit upright in front of my computer with the draft of my book manuscript in front of me, but there was absolutely nothing I could do to focus my thoughts and get anything done.

My first inclination was to fight against it. To think I could get hold of the situation if I willed myself with enough force. But at some point yesterday, I threw up my hands and cried uncle. I got under a quilt on the couch and watched food shows on the food network, simply accepting that I was not in control of this situation.

Victory is not complete, however. I did decide I can go into the office for a couple of meetings today, which the doctor said would not delay my recovery. Use your judgment she said; you can go in as long as you feel well enough. License enough for me.

What We Demand of Ourselves

I was very troubled by something I heard a priest say in a sermon recently. He said that he decided to call some of the people in his community who were involved in charitable work of various kinds to ask them why they did what they did. As he recounted his question in the homily, it went, “Why do you do these things? After all, all you really have to do is show up in church on Sunday, so why do you do these other things.”

I’m going to give the priest the benefit of the doubt and believe that he didn’t really mean to convey by that statement the message that all people really have to do is show up at Mass once a week and they are covered. (In no version of the Bible that I have ever read did Jesus say, “Go to Mass once a week and you shall inherit the Kingdom.”) But I am concerned that some people might take that meaning from his words.

I am all in favor of expressing gratitude to people for the good words that they do. But it is too easy for people to think that charitable and other activities we engage in for the sake of our brothers and sisters are “extra credit projects,” things that are “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Jesus is quite clear that taking care of the least of our brothers and sisters is our duty. And in the parable of the servant in Luke’s Gospel that a servant it owed no special gratitude for doing that which he was commanded to do.

We need to be sure we are demanding enough of ourselves. The question is not why do some people do good works, but are we all doing as much as we can.

Always Enough to Share

Today’s Gospel reading is St. Mark’s account of the feeding of the multitudes. I’ve prayed with this passage many times and have had different experiences when I have. This morning what came to my mind was a simple message for us in the passage: There is always enough to share.

When Jesus suggests to his disciples that they feed the crowds before dismissing them, they ask where it is possible to get enough bread to feed them. When he asks how many loaves they have, they reply, “Seven.” You can almost imagine their reaction when he asked – and the tone with which they answered his question. I suspect what they were really thinking was – We only have seven loaves and that is just enough for us. We can’t spare any of our supplies to share with anyone else. We just don’t have enough to share.

What happened when Jesus took those seven loaves and blessed them, I don’t know. People can posit all sorts of explanations for how all those people got fed. But they were fed.

While I don’t imagine any of us can take seven loaves of bread and feed four thousand people, I do believe that we always have enough to share. And that when we do – when we open our hearts to the needs of others – miraculous things can happen.

What Do We Mean By Faith?

Last night was our monthly Taize prayer services at St. Hubert’s Church. As always, our service included several readings and a reflection, interspersed with Taize chants. I gave the reflection last nigth and my theme was faith.

The person giving the reflection selects the four readings, one of which is typically a Gospel passage. For that, I chose the passage in Matthew where Jesus invites Peter to come to him by walking on the water.

The thrust of my talk was faith as trust in God. Faith, not as giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about Jesus, but about giving our hearts in total trust to God and in the revelation of Godself through Jesus.

You can find a podcast of my reflection here. (The podcast runs for 11:04.)

Since I refer to the other three readings as well as the Gospel in my talk, here they are:

Brother David Steindl Rast:

I Believe in God. This initial statement contains, as in a seed, the whole of the Creed. It means that I dedicate myself in complete trust to a power greater than myself. This dedication is a commitment of my whole being – mind and body – from my heart, my innermost being, my “deep heart’s core: to use an expression coined by William Butler Yeats.

Faith is far more than the sum total of beliefs. Beliefs are merely pointers; faith is profound trust in the actuality to which beliefs point. The Creed mentions beliefs, but it is a statement of faith, not of beliefs. There are many beliefs, but there I ultimately only one faith: faith in God. Beliefs are only so many windows toward the one actuality with which faith is concerned: God.

Jeffrey Small:

Faith then is not belief in a certain doctrine about Jesus, but a trust in using him as an example of what it looks like to live a God-centered life. Through the stories in the Gospels (whether or not the details are historical are irrelevant), we can understand the nature of God’s presence within the world and what a God-centered life looks like: a life of humility, compassion, love without boundaries, a life which experiences suffering and doubt, but a life that ultimately participates in the eternal power of God that transcends death.

We’ve all heard the expression “Try it on faith.” This doesn’t mean, “Believe me” but rather “Trust me, and experience it for yourself.” Faith is about testing, questioning, and doubting. In science these qualities lead to greater truths, why shouldn’t the same apply to religion? For me, religion is about embracing the unknown and the difficult — a journey of exploration that never really gets there because ultimately I am finite. Faith is about being comfortable with my doubts because doubt is part of my search for truth. Faith is not a closing of my eyes and mind to the real world, to science, to modern knowledge, or to experience, but it is the opposite: an opening up and a new way of seeing.

Joan Chittister:

Jesus does not come to appease God. Jesus comes to teach us how to live a life that makes us worthy of the God who made us. Jesus comes to show us what we ourselves can be, must be. Jesus comes so that we can come to be everything we were created to be, whenever our lives, wherever our efforts, whatever our circumstances: shining glory or abject degradation….

We can walk through the Golgothas of our own lives as he did, with the same understanding, the same steady faith, the same awareness of God’s providence for us as we go, or we can stumble our way through, bitter and alienated from the very moments that, like his, can bring us to our glory.

The Set of the Sails

I recently read a description by Father Paul Keenan of a story of a poet who stood on the seashore and noticed two sailboats moving in opposite directions on the water. This confused him since the breeze was blowing in only one direction, so how could the two sailboats be moving in different directions?

After considering the situation, the poet wrote this:

One shop goest east
The other west
It’s the selfsame winds that blow.
it’s the set of the sails
And not the gales
That teach us the way to go.

The poem conveys a basic but important message. Sometimes the winds will blow in a direction that is helpful (or pleasing) to us. Other times they won’t. We have two choices when faced with winds that don’t blow in an optimum direction: we can let them blow us where they will and curse them and complain about our lot. Or we can seek for a way to set our sails in a way that works with the wind to blow us in a better direction.

Now my sailing experience is pretty limited – years ago when I lived in Hong Kong I had friends that took me out on their boat now and then. I remember those experiences enough to know that setting sails in the wind is not always easy. Nonetheless, we can learn to use the wind – to work with what we’ve got rather than to let it overcome us.

What It Means to Be the Light of the World

I mentioned earlier in the week that I attended two masses on Sunday – a mass at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Sunday morning and Catholic mass in my parish Sunday evening. I was reminded today of one of the images the minster who gave the homily at St. John’s (Rev. Dr. Heidi Joos) used in talking about Jesus’ telling his disciples that they were the light of the world.

Rev. Joos makes an annual trip to Nicaragua. She described to us how dark it gets that close to the equator when the sun sets – a complete darkness that makes it difficult to find one’s way back to one’s hotel. She talked about those needing to find their way clustering in groups around those few who remembered to carry flashlights, aware of the narrow circle of illumination the flashlight projected. I could easily picture in my mind a single person holding a flashlight, giving light to the others.

Later in her sermon, she paraphrased Jesus’ statement to his disciples as “Be a circle of brightness big enough for people to see my path in the dark… You are the light of the world.”

I thought it was a wonderful description of what we are called to be. A light in the darkness – not for the purpose of illuminating ourselves. Not a light that shines on us. Rather, a light that points to Jesus. A light that shows people the way. That is that we are called to be.

The Nicaragua flashlight image is a good one I think. Because it reminds us of something important that may help us from feeling discouraged when our efforts seem so small. Each light may only illuminate a narrow circle. But all of our lights together – well, just picture first a single person holding a flashlight and then imagine lots and lots of people each holding a flashlight. And watch how much illumination there is.