The Bible: Cover to Cover

My friend and colleague Jennifer Wright was the speaker at Daily Manna at the law school yesterday. I’ve been fortunate to be able to draft Jennifer to give an occasional talk at one or another of the retreats in daily living I’ve offered at the law school over the last several years, so I was happy to see her on the Manna Schedule.

Jennifer began by asking how many people had read the Bible cover to cover, something less half of the people attending had done. She shared that she had never done so, that while she was deeply familiar with all of the New Testament and portions of the Old (Isaiah, the Psalms, Jeremiah and a few others), there were large portions of the Bible she had never read.

As a result, she embarked on a project to read the Bible in a year. That seemed daunting, but she shared that she found the Center for Biblical Studies to be a great resource. The Center has designed a one year reading schedule “to help those who commit as individuals or as member sof a church, a church school or diocese to read successfully through the entire Bible in a year’s time.”

Not only can one download the schedule from their website, the the site has a section with daily meditations, the authors of which come from a range of Christian faith traditions. Jennifer said that she has found the meditations to be a great aid to her daily reading.

We understand the Bible to be inspired. That means, as Jennifer suggested, not just that the authors who wrote each book was inspired, but that there is inspiration involved in our reading and interpretation of the Bible. That is an important reminder that it is not enough that other people tell us what the Bible says, but that we read and pray with it on our own.

I confess that my situation is as Jennifer described herself at the outset. I have read virtually every word of the New Testament (virtually because I haven’t read every word of Revelation), most on numerous occasions. I have prayed through Isaiah and the Psalms and have read much of a number of other Old Testament books. But there are a number I am not at all familiar with, that I’ve never read.

Jennifer’s talk today inspired me to commit to remedy that situation. I may or may not use the schedule proposed by the Center for Biblical Studies, but I do think their approach and meditations may be a beneficial one – for me and for many others.

Bread and Wine as the Tip of the Iceberg

Yesterday morning I had a conversation with someone about the Eucharist. We had been talking about the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel and the person confessed to some difficulty with the idea of bread and wine becoming the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

As we talked, I remembered a passage in Michael Himes’ The Mystery of Faith talking about what it means that the Catholic “eucharistic celebration centers on bread and wine that we believe becomes the blood of Christ.

Speaking about the bread, Himes observes that “there is no intrinsic difference” between the bread and wine that become the Eucharist and the bread we eat for sandwiches and the wine we offer friends at dinner. Thus, he asks, “If this bread can become the body of Christ, why not all that other bread? If this wine can become the blood of Christ, why not all wine?” And, he pushes further, if the bread and the wine, why not the grain, the vine, the soil and the rain that produce the bread and wine?

In fact, Himes says, “if this tiny fragment of the material world can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point.”

Reminding us that in the liturgy of the feast of Corpus Christi the Eucharist is termed “the down payment, the first installment of future glory, Himes says:

Precisely right: the eucharistic bread and wine are, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, the point at which we see what the whole universe is destined to become. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ.

It may be hard to grasp completely, but it sounds awfully exciting to me.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert with Jesus – Week 3

Yesterday was the third gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School on the theme In the Desert with Jesus.

During the past week, the participants prayed with some episodes from the early part of Jesus’ public ministry. As we usually do, we began the session by giving participants a chance to share in small groups some of the fruits of that prayer.

I then offered a brief reflection on the theme of this week’s prayer, which I titled Hints of What is to Come, that is, hints, some well before we get to the final road toward Jerusalem, that being with Jesus is not all wedding feasts and healings and feeding the multitudes. Hints about what Jesus will face – and about the cost of discipleship.

Although the prayer materials for the week cover six different Gospel episodes, I focused on only three in my reflection: the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the first prediction of the passion, and the Transfiguration.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 19:08. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here.

Judging the Messenger Rather than the Message

Yesterday morning I was the speaker for the Adult Enrichment Program at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, speaking on the topic of how my years as a Buddhist have enriched and influenced my Christianity. Before my talk, I attended Sunday morning service at the church.

Yesterday was “Youth Sunday,” at House of Hope. The service was designed and largely conducted by the youth of the parish. I was extraordinarily impressed by the beauty of the service and the poise and talent of those who participated in it. The music by the various choirs and musicians was lovely. The service included two readings (“lessons”), each followed by a reflection by one of the young people, each of which was quite thoughtful.

Although there was much in the reflection on the first reading – a passage from Jeremiah that I love – that I found worthwhile, I found more interesting my reaction to the second.

The second reading was from the first letter of Timothy, which began, “Command and teach these things. Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity.”

The high school senior who read the reading and offered the reflection, who is apparently a skilled Zumba instructor, admitted that sometimes it is intimidating to stand in front of a room of adults and lead a class. More to the point, there are often people who are shocked to discover that she, given her youth, is the instructor.

Later in her talk she gave some very direct advice to the congregation about living out their faith. And, I confess, I felt myself taken a bit aback, the thought arising, “Isn’t she a little young to be speaking in such direct terms about what her listeners (her “elders”) should be doing?”

Sigh. I found myself unconsciously doing exactly what the Scripture instructed against. And exactly what the people in Jesus’ hometown did – “Isn’t he just the carpenter’s son? Why should we listen to him?”

Fortunately, as swiftly as my reaction arose, I recognized it for what it was and returned to considering what the young woman was saying, which was quite sound advice and instruction.

Yet again, I am reminded of our need to judge the message, not the messenger, realizing that God speaks to us in many ways – not always in the way we expect.

I Bow To Your Most Holy Will

Yesterday I gave a Lenten retreat at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Minneapolis. The focus of the day was on two traditional devotions designed to help us walk with Mary and with Jesus in the passion: the Seven Sorrows of Mary and the Stations of the Cross.

These devotions are familiar to many, if not all of the people who attended the retreat. The problem, however, is that when things become too familiar, we cease to see them, or at least cease to focus on them in a meaningful way. We can find ourselves attending a Friday evening Stations service during Lent and mumbling the prayers without really meditating in the event before us. Indeed, while most people could probably mention most of the stations, few have meditated on each of them. So my hope was to encourage prayerful reflection on the events that make up the two devotions.

The day was very powerful for the participants and for me. And I found it emotionally challenging. I have spoken about both of these devotions on a number of other occasions, but never both together. Presenting them like that, I found myself almost choking up at a couple of points.

One of those points came when I was talking about the thirteenth station: Jesus is Taken from the Cross.

When I contemplate this station I think of wakes – of our watch over the dead body of a loved one as a sign of our love and respect. And as we do, we remember the life of the person. At the moment of bereavement, we mourn, but we also celebrate life that was.

And part of this process is about learning to accept the partings that will inevitably come our way. The prayer in Clarence Enzler’s version of stations (Everyman’s Way of the Cross) is one that always touches me deeply. In our response to Jesus at this station, we pray:

I beg you, Lord, help me accept the partings that must come – from friends who go away, my children leaving home, and most of all, my dear ones when you shall call them to yourself. Then, give me grace to say: “As it has pleased you, Lord, to take them home, I bow to your most holy will. And if by one word I might restore their lives against your will I would not speak.”

When I spoke them yesterday, I almost couldn’t get them out. When I pray those lines, I half shake my head, especially at that last line because there are times I’d give just about anything to have some more time with my father…or my mentor Ned…or some of the other people’s whose deaths hurt me so deeply.

So I pray, let me grown in my acceptance so that I am able to pray those lines more honestly and fully, to more and more bow to God’s most holy will.

Some Additional Helpful Commandments

For several reasons, this past week has been a very exhausting one, emotionally more so than physically, although three nights of speaking engagements following the weekend retreat I gave last weekend – with two more this weekend – has certainly taken a physical toll as well.

As I was exercising in my basement this morning, I happened to glance up at a bulletin board of Elena’s, one of the small posters on which was labeled The Other Ten Commandments. The poster indicated no source, but it wasn’t hard to locate them online (“author unknown”).

Several of them really spoke to me – not surprisingly, mostly the ones I’m guilty of violating. With the hope that they may say something that helpful to you, here they are:

Thou shall not worry, for worry is the most unproductive of all human activities.

Thou shall not be fearful, for most of the things we fear never come to pass.

Thou shall not cross bridges before you come to them, for no one yet has succeeded in accomplishing this.

Thou shall face each problem as it comes. You can only handle one at a time anyway.

Thou shall not take problems to bed with you, for they make very poor bedfellows.

Thou shall not borrow other people’s problems. They can better care for them than you can.

Thou shall not try to relive yesterday for good or ill, it is gone forever. Concentrate on what is happening in your life and be happy now!

Thou shall be a good listener, for only when you listen do you hear ideas different from your own. It is hard to learn something new when you are talking, and some people do know more than you do.

Thou shall not become “bogged down” by frustration, for 90% of it is rooted in self-pity and will only interfere with positive action.

Thou shall count thy blessings, remembering who they come from, and never overlook the small ones, for a lot of small blessings add up to a big one.

Blessings on your day.

Learning to Forgive

Last night I gave a Lenten Retreat Evening at Church of Christ the King on the theme of Learning to Forgive.

I began by talking about forgiveness as a value shared by all faith traditions and as something beneficial even for those who are not religious. Failing to forgive harms us as well as those around us.

After that introduction, I then focused on four points that I thought would be helpful in our effort to learn to forgive: First, out need to acknowledge our resentments; second, accepting God’s love and forgiveness; third, Jesus as our model for forgiveness; and fourth, letting go of our existing framework for thinking about forgiveness. In the last, I talked about power, justice and process.

After my reflection, I gave the participants time to engage in some silent reflection, after which we had a discussion and quesion and answer period.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 38:25.

All Work is God’s Work

Our speaker at Weekly Manna at the law school yesterday was Bryan Lair, lead pastor of Trinity City Church in St. Paul. This was Bryan’s second visit to the law school and he is a wonderful speaker.

The them of yesterday’s reflection was work and, Bryan’s “major premise” was that all work is God’s work. This is a theme we’ve discussed in many programs at the law school, the idea that there is no separation of our faith lives from the rest of our lives – that all we do is part of the living out of our vocations as people of God.

Bryan’s starting points in talking on this subject were Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:2:

God blessed them, saying: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” (1:28)

Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.

Bryan observed that God didn’t rest on the seventh day out of fatigue, but because God was finished with his part. It is as though God said: I’ve created the world, I’ve given you the raw materials, now you bring it to flourishing.

Humans were given work before sin entered in the world, Bryan reminded us. Work is not punishment, not something we are forced to do, but something we were made to do. And something we were given to do out of love. Bryan spoke of his father letting him help mow the lawn when he was a child. His father could have done the job quicker and better, but out of love let his son participate in the task. So, too, God. God could do a whole lot better job than we do – but out of love invites our participation in the co-creation of the world.

The other part of his talk I found interesting was his discussion of the corruption of the balance between work and leisure. From the beginning there was work and leisure – both are necessary. The effect of sin, however, is a corruption of the proper relationship between the two – a corruption that can operate in either direction. Sometimes the balance tilts in work’s favor – work becomes important, not for the sake of God’s plan, but for our own. We become greedy and work displaces God and human relationship. Sometimes the balance tilts too far toward leisure and sloth and laziness takes over. Either extreme is problematic, so our task it to keep them in proper balance.

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving in Action

Tonight will be the second of the weekly Lenten Soup Suppers at Church of Christ the King in Minneapolis. I think the description of the event does a wonderful job of illuminating the relationship among prayer, almsgiving and fasting, the three traditional Lenten practices:

For many decades, our parish has observed the custom of gathering every Wednesday during Lent for prayer. Over twenty years ago, we initiated the custom of sharing a simple meal of soup and bread on Wednesday nights preceding the prayer service to augment the day’s observance of prayer, fasting penitence and almsgiving. The idea behind the soup supper was inspired by ancient Christian tradition. To whatever degree is possible for each individual, as a parish we observe Wednesday as a day of fasting and penitence. At the end of the day, we gather as a parish and break our fast with a simple meal of soup and bread. Whatever money we might save by fasting throughout the day each Wednesday, we give as alms to feed the hungry. Then we conclude our day together in prayer, reviewing with gratitude the events of the day, noting when and how we experienced God’s presence, asking forgiveness for any wrongdoing and asking for grace to follow God more closely tomorrow.

We can engage in prayer, almsgiving and fasting in different ways during Lent. But I love the idea of a communal parish practice (even though I’ll end up missing most of the dinners since I’ll be speaking at St. Thomas Apostle most of those evenings).

I especially love that the communal practice emphasizes the relationship between fasting and almsgiving, something that was a prominent theme in the writings of the early church fathers. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second century text reads: “In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan , or to some person in want.” Gregory the Great preached, “The one who does not give to the poor what he has saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite, does not fast for God.”

We sometimes forget the relationship, so it is good to have the reminder.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert with Jesus – Week 2

Yesterday was the second gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School on the theme In the Desert with Jesus.

During the past week, the participants prayed with the invitation extended to each of us to follow Jesus and with those things that prevent us from fully accepting that invitation. As we usually do, we began the session by giving participants a chance to share in small groups some of the fruits of that prayer.

I then offered a brief reflection on one of the episodes participants will pray with this week, as they focus on the early part of Jesus’ public ministry: the temptation in the desert. I shared some thoughts by Pope Benedict XVI, Rowan Williams and Henri Nouwen to help us think about how to understand the temptation Jesus faced in the desert and to reflect on what temptation looks like in our lives.

After I stopped recording, I spoke a little more about the other episodes participants will pray with and we continued a discussion about the temptations.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 15:36. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here.