God’s Amazing Plan

I’ve been praying with the Letters of the New Testament over the course of the summer. Having completed Romans and Galatians, This morning I began with Ephesians. The opening of the letter is enough to brighten anyone’s day:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.

Blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing. Chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and without blemish. Destined for adoption to himself.

The opening of Ephesians gives us God’s amazing purpose for us and invites us to become one with him through Christ.

All we need to do is accept the invitation – and God has given us everything we need in order to do just that.


Stay Awake!

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples to “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

This is one of those messages that is easy to understand intellectually, but much harder to internalize. We know (in our head) that we can die at any moment. We know (in our head) that the world could end at any moment.

Yet we live as though we have all time in the world. We make our long-term plans confident that we will see them through. We put off til tomorrow things we can (and probably should) do today. We act as thought there will be time enough for everything.

Jesus’ reminder is a sobering one, and one we need to embrace more deeply. We have no guarantee about how long we will have. We know neither the day nor the hour when our time here will end.

Shouldn’t that make us more careful about how we live our lives?

Learning from the Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist. Our Gospel reading for the day is St. Mark’s account of the beheading of John, a passage I’ve prayed with often and that most people are familiar with.

Herod knew John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Although he was perplexed by much of what John said, “he liked to listen to him.” He clearly was intrigued by John. And so when he is asked by Herodias’ daughter for the head of the Baptist, he is “deeply distressed.” He clearly feels great conflict when he hears her request. Nevertheless, he gives the girl what she asks for. Lust for the girl, the need to look good in front of his guests, pride – all combine into too large a temptation for Herod to avoid the evil act.

It is a frightening story. I don’t mean from John’s side, although I’m guessing he suffered an unpleasant death. Instead, I mean frightening in the sense that the story reminds us of the power of the forces that tempt people away from the path of light and love. Herod knew that killing John was wrong, but he did it anyway.

While none of us are going to face the temptation to behead another, this is a good passage to pray with. Looking at Herod we might reflect on when our pride, our need to look good in front of others, our desire for someone or something tempt us to act in ways that do not do honor to God. Actions that take us away from the path of light and love.

St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

I managed to get through the entirety of the day yesterday without remembering that it was the memorial of St.  Monica. Today, we celebrate the memorial of her son, St. Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church. Or, in the words of one commentator, the “sinner turned saint.”

I’ve shared before how important Augustine’s Confessions was to me at the time of my conversion from Buddhism back to Christianity. Indeed, I’ve often thought that it would have been a great help for me if someone has suggested that I read that work when I was 17 and engaged in the struggle that resulted in my abandonment of Catholicism for over twenty years. Augustine’s humanness and his brokenness are evident in that work, as was his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, the book was a great help to me.

I deeply relate to Augustine’s words to God,

You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you- things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath – and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

After writing his Confressions (and I’ve shared this before), Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.

That seems to me to be a useful perspective for all of us to keep in mind. But it may be especially useful for those people who have difficulty with the idea of Reconciliation and the idea of confessing their sins. What Augustine understood, in the words of theologian Michael Himes, was that confession “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is. Like all sacraments, reconciliation is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” There is something incredibly powerful about our own articulation of our sins and our hearing the words of absolution.

God Will Make Us Good

While reading something else, I came across an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Lewis is explaining why Christians are different from those who hope, by being good, to please God. He writes that

the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.

I fear too many Christians actually do have the mistaken belief that they must be good to be loved by God and that is a myth that needs to be dispelled.

I love the analogy to the greenhouse roof, all of the brightness of which comes from the sun shining on it. As I sat reflecting on the passage, I could (even though I was indoors) almost feel the sun pouring over me, bathed in the love of God. A love that is freely offered to all of us. The love that is the source of our very being. And the love that enables us to love in return.

Forging Ahead

Yesterday morning Dave and I decided to go for a hike. Regular readers of this blog know how much I love hiking and I had great anticipation for this one.

After a pleasant walk around Lake Minnehaha creek, we headed for another park. First we couldn’t easily get to the park entrance. Then we had difficulty finding the trail head. Then it started raining. On the trail we hit a “trail closed ahead” sign, blocking the way we wanted to go. Shortly thereafter I couldn’t find a crossing that the trail map indicated should be where I was standing.

At more than one of these moments, I was a breath away from saying to Dave, with all frustration and annoyance, “___ it. Let’s just go home.

But I didn’t and we continued on. And the results was a lovely hike in gentle rain, in a lush and beautiful setting.

Had I given up on the day because things weren’t going according to my plan, I would have missed all of that glory, driving home in irritation rather than filled with the beauty of God’s creation. That would have been a shame.

You Have But One Master

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees.

I’m guessing if we look around, we can find many examples of people behaving like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus criticized: “They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders,but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.'”

I’m also guessing that if we examine our own behavior, we can find examples of the same.

Jesus offers the following instruction as an alternative to the behavior of the scribes and Pharasees: “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Humility is one of those funny words. People often associate it with weakness.

But Jesus calls us to a humility. First in recognizing our dependence on God, our “one Father in heaven.” Second in our dealings with each other.

As challenging as is the command to love one another with the radical love that Jesus shows for all of us, I think the command to be humble is equally challenging. It is not about forcing oneself to humble oneself rather than exalt oneself. It is about internalizing the reality of our relationship with God and with one another. That requires prayer and God’s grace

Reconciliation and Confession

I had a conversation yesterday afternoon with my friend Lynn about the value of the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation and about confession in general.

As important as the sacrament of Reconciliation is (and I’ve written on that subject before), there is a role for confession outside of the sacrament as well as within. We not only need to confess our sins to God, but to each other. (I’ll be talking more about the relationship between these two in several weeks at one of our Weekly Manna sessions.)

As I was thinking about the subject last night, I opened up Shane Claiborne’s A Common Prayer. And, lo and behold, the note following the prayer for yesterday was on the subject of confession. He writes

Confessional prayer assumes that our worship takes place in a deeply flawed community. The church hs always been a worrisome and dysfunctional place. But by grace we can take small step to restore trust. Maybe it is writing a note to someone we have offended or calling up someone we have murmured to (or about) and asking for their forgiveness. Maybe it means each week choosing to do something nice for someone its hard for you to like. Sometimes we call this “doing penance.” It’s not that we have to do an act of penance to earn God’s grace; it’s the opposite – because we have experienced Gods grace, we can’t help but do some act of grace toward another person.

The note reminds us how important our experience of God’s forgiveness is. We can’t move forward in our relationship to ourself or our relationships with others without the experience. And if we really do experience it, it “cant’ help but” affect our actions toward each other.

Finding God in All Things

We know that God is always in conscious relationship with us, constantly communicating with us through the daily experiences of our lives. Yet, although we encounter God in every moment of our existence, we are not always aware of that encounter.

Today I offered a mini-retreat for our incoming law students, as part of our Orientation Week. The topic was Finding God in All Things. I talked about ways of becoming more aware of the presence of God in our lives and developing our conscious relationship with this self-communicating God. I shared two prayer forms with them (although the second only briefly) and led them in a guided meditation – a form of the Examen.

Our goal is to become “contemplatives in action,” people who are alert to God’s presence in all of our daily activities – even in the midst of a hectic law school schedule. My hope is that by incorporating a daily examen into their prayers, my students will be able to do exactly that.

You can access a recording of my reflection here or stream it from the icon below. It includes a guided meditation on a shortened version of an examen. (The podcast runs for 29:43.)

Testifying on Behalf of Jesus

Yesterday, we held the Trial of Christ – Sentencing Phase at the UST Law School, as part of our Orientation Week program for incoming law students.

My friend and colleague Mark Osler (the prosecutor) and Chicago public defender Jeanne Bishop (defense attorney) have been putting on the Trial of Christ in various locations around the country over the past couple of years. (You can read a little about the project here.) Yesterday was the second time we’ve done the trial at the law school. (You can watch the video from that trial, which occurred this past Lent, here.)

Each of the prosecution and the defense called two witnesses. Jeanne, thinking about their three upcoming trials in California, which will occur shortly before voters in California consider a referendum on capital punishment, decided to call as her second witness for the defense (the first was the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed) the woman caught in adultery (John 8). When Mark walked into my office Monday afternoon and asked if I would be willing to take the part of that witness, I had some initial hesitation, but then agreed to testify.

I suspect this story is familiar to most people. A woman caught in the act of adultery is brought by the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus, who is teaching in the temple. They are prepared to stone her, the legal punishment for her crime. When they ask Jesus what he had to say about what the law requires, he says nothing, but kneels and begins to write something in the dirt. When they continue asking, he gets up and says to them “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the men go away, leaving Jesus with the woman. When he asks her who is left to condemn her, she says no one, to which he responds “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

I found it both difficult and powerful to testify – both the preparation and the actual trial experience was an Ignatian Contemplation for me. I was the woman in that scene, experiencing what she experienced and having her interaction with Jesus. A couple of things stood out to me:

First was her recognition of the incredibly unearned gift she received from Jesus. She was guilty of her crime, she knew the punishment and she was terrified, knowing that she was going to die. (And die a painful death.) I felt her terror (not to mention the humiliation of being dragged through the streets and put before Jesus and the crowd in the temple area) and then her dawning relief as she realized she would not die. The grace of being accepted by Jesus, of not being condemned by him, despite her sin, was amazing. She (I) understood the gift she (I) had been given.

Second was the incredible intimacy of the encounter with Jesus. I testified as I experienced the scene praying with it beforehand, and what I said was (something like) this: “Jesus reached out and pulled me up from the ground. He then put one hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. No one had ever looked at me like that before. He then gestured at the empty air with his other hand, and asked me, ‘Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?’ I answered, ‘No sir, they have all left.’ Then Jesus put his hand on my face and said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.'”

As I testified, I was aware of no one in the room except Jeanne, who was examining me, and Jesus – who sits silent at the defense table during the trial. As I said that he looked at me, I looked at the student playing Jesus and saw only Jesus. The intensity of the woman’s experience of Jesus, which I felt, was almost painful it was so deeply intimate.

The final thing that struck me – this during the brief cross-examination – was the concern that I might say something that could cause Jesus to be executed. I was a witness for the defense, but what if I inadvertently said something te prosecutor could twist in his favor. That’s something I need to unpack some more. In fact, I know I need to pray with the entire experience some more; there was a lot going on there.

At some point, there will be a video of the trial. I’ll link it when there is.