You Are the Salt of the Earth

“You are the salt of the earth…the light of the world,” Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. Still today, years after I first saw the play Godspell, when I hear the “salt and light” Gospel passage, I start hearing in my mind (or singing) the Godspell version of that song.

The song emphasizes the admonitions that follows each of Jesus’ proclamations to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth…but if that salt has lost its flavor it ain’t got much in its favor…You are the light of the world…but if that light’s under a bushel, its lost something kind of crucial.” (The one that always sticks with me is the line in the song that says “You are the light of the world – But the tallest candlestick ain’t much good without a wick.”)

This is not about us; today’s Gospel is not an invitation to advertise our good deeds, to tout or boast about ourselves. But is does invite us to examine how well we are heeding the command to be salt and light to the world. Sitting back and saying “I believe in God…I believe in Jesus…I believe in the Holy Spirit is not enough.


What if You Could Have Whatever You Asked For

If you could ask for anything and be assured of getting it, what would it be? You must have some thought. Who hasn’t wondered at least once in their lifetime “If a genie told me I could have three wishes, what would they be?”

Turns out if you google that question you will find that people have given all sorts of answers to it. While some wish for world peace or an end to hunger, many wish for things like

“to be the best business woman”

“to always have a full cup of whichever drink at want at that moment”

“to never age beyond what I am now”

“I wish some truly nice guys existed.”

And we know what Salome answered Herod when he promised he would give her whatever she asked for – the head of John the Baptist.

In today’s first reading from the Book of Kings, God offers Salomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Salomon knows he can be assured that God will give him whatever he asks for.

And what does he ask for: “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong” so that he may more wisely govern God’s people. And God gives Salomon exactly that – and a whole lot more.

What is your answer? If you could have whatever you wished for, what would it be? How we answer that question says a whole lot about us and where we are in our growth in God.

The Joy of the Gospel and What it Means to Believe in God

Last night I gave a talk at St. Thomas More Catholic Church here in the Twin Cities on Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. I wondered whether the bitter cold would keep many people from venturing out (had I not been the speaker, I know I would have been tempted to stay home), but we had a great turnout

My talk was divided into two parts. First, I highlighted certain aspects of the document that are a reflection of Pope Francis’ Ignatian Spirituality (particularly appropriate for this audience, since ST. Thomas More is a Jesuit parish). Second, I focused on ways in which the document builds on some of the fundamental principles of Catholic Social Thought. After each segment, I gave the audience time to reflect on several questions I gave them. After the second reflection period, I gave some time for some small group sharing about insights a challenges after which I opened it up for question and answer and discussion.

When I talked about how the Exhortation expounds on some of the central principles of the Church’s social teachings, I began with a discussion of the principle of human dignity – hardly surprising, since the entirety of the Church’s social doctrine begins with the recognition of the inviolable dignity of the human person.

It is generally stated that the basis for asserting the dignity of the human person is the belief that each human being is created in the image of God and that in every person there exists “the living image of God.” Pope Francis expresses that in an even more basic and clear way, saying, effectively, that one cannot say one believes in the Father or the Son without accepting the dignity of the human person. He writes:

To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that “he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity.” To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being.

“No one,” he tells us, “can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love.

I think this is something we need to deeply appreciate. We often treat “I believe in God,” as no more than a simple factual assertion of God’s existence. But Pope Francis reminds us that saying “I believe in God” is an acknowledgment of something having to do with God and each other. When we say “I believe in God,” we are not just mouthing words about the existence of a God, but professing belief in something that has real consequences for how we live our lives.

Update: My talk has now been uploaded on youtube. Here it is:

Discerning God’s Will

Our speaker at Weekly Manna at the law school yesterday was my friend and colleague Teresa Collett. She spoke about discerning God’s will. The question she started with was: When things seem so very difficult when we are acting in the way we believe is what God wants of us, how do we figure out whether we made a mistake in deciding that was what God wanted or whether it is just difficult. She used her first few years at St. Thomas as a concrete example. She had discerned that this was where God was calling her and so came here. But the first few years were very hard for her, causing her to wonder whether it was a mistake for her to come. Did it mean she has not discerned correctly? Or just that God had called her to something very challenging?

After spending some time talking about how we discern God’s will, she came back to her initial question. As to that, she concluded that at the end of the day, answering the question of whether a past discernment was correct was of limited value. That is, examining a past discernment process may have some instructional value regarding future discernments, but it isn’t really all that relevant or helpful to our current situation. Whether or not it was correct, this is where we are, and this is the position we must act out of. And spending time agonizing about whether the discernment that got me here was right or not keeps our focus on the past and not the present that it before us.

I think Teresa concluding observations are both true and important. We do the best we can to discern God’s will when faced with choices. Yet there may be times when, notwithstanding a prayerful and good discernment process, our discernment is faulty. But whatever got me to where I am right now, this is where I am and it is from this place that I live and move forward. Whatever future discernment I engage in proceeds from here, not from what might have been had I made different decisions in the past.

I am consoled by two things. First, I think we can trust that so long as we are seeking God’s will, God will find some way to work with the fruit of our discernment. Even when we misstep, God does a darn good job of making lemonade out of lemons. Second, I think there is truth in Thomas Merton’s prayer of discernment, which I’ve shared before, that our desire to please God itself pleases God.

Giving and Receiving Freely

I just finished reading Rev. Jacques Philippe’s Interior Freedom, a gem of a book which I mentioned in a post the other day. It is a slim volume and offers much fruit for reflection about what it means to live in the true freedom which which God calls each of us.

Late in the book Philippe talks about learning to love, which he describes as “learning to give freely and receive freely.” Neither is all that easy for us. Giving without expectation of return, without a motive of self-gratification, is something we have to work at. Likewise receiving not as reward or as something due, but with open heart and trust, requires humility.

Philippe writes

We commit a fault against this free giving and receiving, in our relationship with God or with other people, every time we make the good we’ve done into an excuse for claiming a right, demanding gratitude or recompense. But we also do that more subtly every time we are afraid of not receiving love due to this or that limitation or personal shortcoming. Jesus in the Gospel does all he can to destroy this way of thinking. We find it hard to accept this reversal of our values, but we will never find happiness without it.

Philippe describes Kingdom as

the world where love is the only law, a paradise of free giving and free receiving. Here are no more “rights” and “duties,” nothing to defend or earn, no more opposition between “yours” and “mine.” Here the heart can expand infinitely.

Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Thy Kingdom come.” Let’s pray that more actively, by working on freely giving and receiving (the second of which, for many of us, may be harder than the first).

Mid-Day Dialogue: Confession

Yesterday, Mark Olser and I engaged in another of our “Mid-Dialogues,” lunchtime programs where we take some issue as to which Catholics and Protestants have varying thoughts and talk about them. Our subject for yesterday was Confession.

“Confession is good for the soul,” says a Scottish proverb from the mid-1600s. Most religions would agree. Verses from the Torah, the Bible and the Quran speak of the importance of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness from a God who is merciful. But there are differences among different faith traditions in what that means. Does it require confession to a priest? Do all sins have to be confessed? Does it have to be done publicly? What happens if you don’t confess?

I opened the program by talking about the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation and why I believe there is value to the practice of individual confession to a priest. Mark then talked about confession in the Protestant tradition and about the humbling aspect of confession. After our two presentations, we opened it up for lively discussion with the participants. As is always the case, Mark and I found much we agree on, but enough difference in how we think about things to encourage each of us to further reflection on the subject.

You can access a recording of Mark and my presentations here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 40:25. (As I usually do, I recorded only our comments, not the dialogue with participants that followed.)

Radical Discipleship and Community

Last week I happened to be at Mass at my former parish, St. Hubert, where the homily was the first of a five or six part series planned by the pastor, Fr. Rolf, on Radical Discipleship. I went back to St Hubert yesterday to hear the second part of the series (probably the last I’ll be able to catch given my upcoming schedule of talks and retreats).

Fr. Rolf opened by talking about loneliness. While it is natural to have occasional feelings of loneliness, he cited from frightening statistics. The percentage of people who describe themselves as chronically lonely has increased dramatically in recent year. Surveys show marked decline in the number of people gathering with family and friends for meals, in attendance at social clubs and other organizations. The number of people who gather for things like regular card or other games has plummeted.

Yet we are wired for community. Created in the image of a Triune God, we crave nourishment from real contact with others. And while I’m not as critical of online social media, texts, etc as Fr. Rolf sounded in his sermon, I recognize the danger his comments suggest: Virtual communication as a way to stay in touch with people who are not physically proximate is wonderful. But virtual communication as an alternative for face-to-face contact with another is not. (Do we really need to e-mail co-workers who sit two or three offices away from us?)

I think Fr. Rolf is right to talk about community as an aspect of radical discipleship. What are we doing to reach out to others? Particularly those who are new to our workplace, neighborhoods and parishes. But not only them. If you look around, it will not be hard to find people who are lonely, who do not have the nourishing human contact they need to flourish.

As the old commercial used to say: Reach out and touch someone.

Consenting to What We Did Not Choose

One of the books I’m currently reading is Interior Freedom, by Rev. Jacques Philippe, a member of the Community of the Beatitudes, founded in France. The book had been recommended to me some time ago by the pastor of a parish to which I used to belong, but had been sitting in my frighteningly high “to be read” pile.

The title of the book pretty much gives away the books basic theme. Philippe seeks to help us understand the true meaning of freedom and how to grow in that freedom. Apart from the fact that there is a lot of repetition in the part of the book I’ve read thus far (about half of the book), I am finding it a very worthwhile read.

Early on, Philippe talks about what freedom is and what it is not. Many people tend to have a limited understanding of freedom, seeing it as simply the ability to choose among options. While not denigrating the importance of that type of freedom, Philippe insists on our need to understand that “there is another way of exercising freedom: less immediately exciting, poor, humbler, but much more common, and one immensely fruitful, both humanly and spiritually. It is consenting to what we did not originally choose.

Obviously going along with pleasant things that occur without our choosing them is easy. An unexpected boon, you might say. But it is much far less natural and easy to go along with things that are unpleasant. Yet, says Philippe,

it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free!

To achieve true interior freedom we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation life imposes on us, and so on.

Consent is not the same as resignation. Resignation is a “declaration of powerlessness that goes not further.” Consent may look like resignation from the outside, but carries hope with it. “We say yes to a reality we initially saw as negative, because we realize that something positive may arise from it.” The attitude of heart of consent is very different from that of resignation.

Philippe is clear that consent is not a prescription for laziness or passivity. It does not mean we don’t to improve ourselves and the world. But it means we begin with an attitude of acceptance of reality.

It is Actually Quite Simple, Isn’t It?

We have a tendency to complicate things. But life is really quite simple.

Jesus gave us two great commandments: Love God and Love One Another.

Someone posted this morning something titled 7 Keys to Life. Not really a whole lot more complicated than the two great commandments, just a slight elaboration of them really. Here they are:

1. God First
2. Love One Another
3. Never Hate
4. Give Generously
5. Live Simply
6. Forgive Quickly
7. Be Kind Always

How much simpler could it get?