Who Doesn’t Love A Good List?

It is no secret that many people have a pretty dismal level of knowledge about the Bible. This is unfortunate; the Bible records our sacred history, a history that, as Pope Benedict observes in his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini is a part of our own lives.

Mary Elizabeth Sperry offers a means of providing some education about the Bible in a fun, entertaining and thought-provoking way in Bible Top Tens: 40 Fun and Intriguing Lists to Inspire and Inform, which was sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

Sperry’s book organizes important people, places and events in the Bible into “countdown” lists intended to “serve as a memory aid or provide ideas for further reading and study.”

The section on people includes lists like ten mothers of the Bible who teach about self-sacrificing love, ten sets of siblings ranging from friends to enemies, ten illustrations of friendship and ten love stories. I confess that my favorite in that section was the list of ten “holy women with attitude,” that includes some wonderful women we hear about only rarely, like Deborah and Rahab in the Old Testament.

The section on places and events include lists of resurrection stories, meals, angelic appearances and illustrations of mercy and forgiveness. The section on sayings includes best known passages in the Bible, sayings that challenge, parables, symbols and more.

Each list helpfully includes scripture references and more importantly, the items on the list are written in a way that encourages one to want to look the references up, telling us just enough about each person, place or event to whet our appetites.

Even for people familiar with many of the passages referred to, the organization into lists provides a useful reference. The book strikes me as a useful tool for catechists and youth ministers.

I agree with the author that the most important list in the book is “The Fortieth List,” an invitation to think back on the Bible stories one has read or heard throughout one’s life and list the 10 that have most touched, challenged or comforted you and to write about why each is meaningful. That seems like a good and useful exercise for all of us.

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What It Means to Sit at Jesus’ Right and Left

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark opens with one of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. He tells his disciples that they are going to Jerusalem, where “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes,and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death.”

What is the response of John and James? Their concern is securing their places at the head of the class: They approach Jesus and ask to be seated at his right and his left when Jesus comes into his glory.

The other apostles are indignant when they learn of the James and John’s power play (although I’m guessing at least some part of that indignant response has to do with the fact that they didn’t think to ask the question of Jesus themselves). And it is easy for us to make fun of James and John as well, since their blatent push for a front seat seems so embarassing.

Nonetheless, while we may not be as pushy as James and John, we are as much in need of Jesus’ response to them as they were. It is easy to think following Jesus means having a place at the head of the line. Getting to be one of the people in charge. But Jesus makes clear that those who follow him are not like “those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles, who lord it over them, and…make their authority over them felt.” Instead, explains Jesus, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

As he does on so many other occasions, Jesus turns our normal expectations on their head. The objective, in Jesus’ eyes, is not to be served, but to serve. And Jesus models that for us in so many ways. If we look at incidents like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we come to understand that greatness in God’s sight is not found in how many people serve us, but rather in how faithfully we serves others.

Memorial Day Prayers

For those of us living in the United States, today is Memorial Day, a day of remembrance of those who have died while in military service. We keep in our prayers and our memories those who have given their lives to keep our country safe.

It is equally important, however, that our prayers on this day be prayers for peace. Prayers that we can find some to resolve our conflicts that don’t require that someone’s husband or wife, brother or sister, father or mother, or son or daughter – whether American or of any other nationality – give their lives in armed conflict.

As we wave our flags at parades this morning, as we cheer at floats that go by with retired members of our armed forces, let us not forget that was is never something to glorify. It is always a tragedy. That takes nothing away from the sacrifice of our military personnel, but we cannot forget that our obligations to promote peace and an end to war and violence. Indeed, since those who died for our country believed they were doing so to promote peace and justice, their sacrifice was in vain if we do not take our obligation in this regard seriously.

And while we are praying this morning, let us also remember that it is not just American service men and women who have lost their lives protecting their countries. Let our prayers this day be for all of those affected by war – not only our soldiers but those who they fight against, and espeically for the civilians whose lives have been devastated by war.

Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers and mark the end of the Easter Season.

It would, however, be a mistake to think of the day in purely historical terms – as a day on which we look back at something that happened a very long time ago. I’ve sometimes suggested to people that I think of Pentecost as giving us an annual “booster shot” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that were magnified in us when we received Confirmation.

The reality, of course, is that we are always blessed by the Spirit, every day of our lives. So perhaps it is better to say that Pentecost helps us to be more open to receipt of the gifts of the Spirit.

If, like me, you went to Catholic school, those gifts of the Spirit probably roll pretty easily off of your tongue: Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. 

Whether we think of Pentecost as giving us an annual booster shot of the gifts of the Spirit, or making us more open to receive the gifts of the Spirit or maybe just reminding us of the gifts that are always at our disposal, this day is a good reminder that we are blessed with the gifts we need to allow us to live the fullness of our lives as Christ would have us live.

Is there a particular gift you need to be more aware of? That you need to be more open to? Today is a good day to reflect on such questions.

“You Are a Priest Forever”

Yesterday we celebrated the Tenth Anniversary of priesthood of my friend Fr. Dan Griffith, with an anniversary Mass, over which he presided, at our Lady or Lourdes Catholic Church (where Dan will take over a pastor on July 1), followed by a lunch. In attendance were members of Dan’s family as well as friends from various walks of his life and it was an honor to be included among them.

I thought afterwards of the number of priests I am privileged to call my friends. Some, like John, Aidan and Tim, are Vincentians. Some, like Joe, Bill, Damian and Greg, are Jesuits. Some, like Reggie, are Dominicans. And some, like Dan, Dale, and another Joe, are diocesan priests. Some I have known for years and other have only recently become a part of my life. They all, in one way or another, enrich my life and I am profoundly grateful for their presence and friendship.

Many people are unhappy that the Catholic Church won’t ordain women. And many are unhappy with the hierarchy for one reason or another. (Take your choice among any number of issues.) And, of course, we all know that some priests have taken advantage of their position and acted in sinful ways. I fear sometimes that one or another of those three things causes people to refrain from recognizing and celebrating the wonderful work done in the name of Christ by many men who have chosen to live their lives as ordained priests. That is a mistake.

Blessings and gratitude to my friend Dan on the 10th anniversary of his ordination. I pray that he will have many more.

Feed My Sheep

Today’s Mass Gospel is the colloquy between Jesus and Peter on the beach that takes place in the 21st chapter of St. John’s Gospel. I talked about this encounter at length at a recent program on Jesus’ post-resuurection appearances. (You can find the podcast of that talk here.)

Each time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he charges him, “Feed my lamb…Feed my sheep.” As I told participants when I spoke about this recently, I think each word in that charge is important.

Feed. Andrew Murray, a 19th Century pastor and writer in South Africa, observed that “to feed is to give to others what will help them grow.” Just as Jesus’ instruction to Peter had nothing to do with physical food and everything to do with aiding in their growth toward God, each of us must ask ourselves how can we help others to grow? In Murray’s words, “How can we explain Jesus’ words so they might understand? How can we nurture in them a desire in them to turn to God?”

My. Feed my sheep says Jesus. For Peter, for church leaders, for all of us it is important to understand that we have been given a task, but it on behalf of God. There is an enormous difference between giving something to another for their ownership and possession and giving something to the care and trusteeship of another. We nurture others for the Lord, not for the fulfillment of our own wishes and desires. It is His sheep we feed.

Lamb or Sheep. The reference to sheep calls us back to Jesus’ reference to himself earlier in the Gospel as the good shepherd – the shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Peter is not simply called by Jesus to leadership, but to be ready to risk all that he knows and loves.

And something we all need to remember is that being part of community means serving and being served. We are all both sheep and shepherd. All in need of care of others and all capable of caring for other. We have a responsibility to feed each other with the food Jesus gives us….and to allow others to feed us. So our being shephards doesn’t mean we stand outside, apart and above others, but with them.

There is a lot packed into three little words.

Let God Take Care of the Judging

My friend and colleague, Mark Osler, an Episcopalian, wrote a piece for CNN the other day explaining that he is in favor of gay marriage because of his Christian faith. The piece has generated an enormous number of comments at Huff Post and at a lot of e-mails sent to Mark.

Leave aside whether or not you are persuaded by Mark’s argument or think it is impossible for a Christian to support gay marriage. What I’m more interested in for present purposes is one form of response. One person e-mailed to Mark the following (an excerpt from a much longer piece):

You must repent, admit, and confess to God that you are a sinner misusing the Holy name of his beloved son Jesus Christ to advance the homosexual agenda, and he will forgive you, and God will give you a new heart that will be willing and able to follow his Commandments.

However, if you refuse, you will be thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur with unbelievers, idolaters, liars, thieves, self-seekers, murderers, witches, warlocks, pedophiles, zoophile lesbians, and homosexuals, and with those that love and practices falsehood.

I don’t know about you, but I feel completely unable to judge how God will deal with each of us on judgement day. I don’t feel I have any qualification to judge whether anyone will be “thrown into a fiery lake of burning sulfer.” My hope is that no one is. But whether or not that hope is realized, I know the judgement is not mine to make.

I think we’d all be a lot better of if we let God be God and didn’t try to fill that role ourselves.

So That They May Be One

Today’s Gospel reading is a beautiful excerpt of what is sometimes referred to as Jesus’ priestly prayer in John’s Gospel. This is Jesus’ prayer for his disciples at the Last Supper – his prayer for them to this father immediately before his arrest.

The entirety of Jesus’ prayer in Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is worth praying with over and over because Jesus’ prayer is not only about the disciples with whom he shared his last meal, but with each of us. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus asks for each of us:

Holy Father, keep them in your name
that you have given me,
so that they may be one just as we are one…

I speak this in the world
so that they may share my joy completely.
I gave them your word, and the world hated them,
because they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the Evil One.
They do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
Consecrate them in the truth.
Your word is truth.
As you sent me into the world,
so I sent them into the world.
And I consecrate myself for them,
so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

Listen to Jesus pray these words to his father, knowing that it is your name he prays when he speaks of his disciples.

What difference does it make to you to know that this is Jesus prayer to his father about you?

Emmaus and God’s Promise

One of my favorite post-resurrection appearances is Jesus’ encounter with the two men on the road to Emmaus. It is a passage I have prayed with very many times.

The other day, my friend John Freund sent me a link to a film titled Road to Emmaus that he was using in a retreat he gave this past weekend. The film begins with a relatively quick sequence of the events leading to Jesus’ death and then picks up with the two disciples who are on the road to Emmaus, for most of the 30 minutes of the film fleshing out Luke’s Gospel account of the walk to Emmaus and Jesus appearance to the disciples.

Watching the film would be a half hour well spent. I came away with a different and richer vision of the encounter between the disciples and Jesus’ as “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” than I have had when I prayed with the scene. A greater sense of the disciples questions…and their growing understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The creators of the film didn’t necessarily explain everything in terms that make me completely comfortable, but that didn’t detract from what I found overall to be a powerful visualization of this scene I so love.