It Doesn’t Have to Be Extraordinary

Today’s first Mass reading from the Second Book of Kings introduces us to Naaman, an army commander of the King of Aram and a leper. The Israeli girl who is servant to Naaman’s wife reveals that if Naaman presents himself to “the prophet in Samaria,” he will be cured of his leprosy.

Naaman so presents himself and is given the message from the prophet Eilsha that he will be clean if he goes and washes seven times in the Jordan.   This advice angers Naaman, who had expected that the prophet “would surely come out and stand there to invoke the Lord his God and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy.” He is incensed by the advice to wash in a river that by his estimation is a quite ordinary one. What is so special about the water in Israel that makes it better than the waters of his homeland?

Naaman’s servants argue with him, “if the prophet had told you to do something quite extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.” And so he washes in the Jordan seven times and is healed.

Are we all that different from Naaman? When it comes to God (and probably not just God), we like big. We like flashy. We like extraordinary. We like heroic acts and big deeds.

When it comes to experiencing God: Come to us in a big flash of lightening or a burning bush, we ask. Do something spectacular and dramatic to get our attention. And sometimes God does. But other times He comes to us in a tiny whisper.

When it comes to our life task: Give us some big deed to do. I think our expectation is that we will find our salvation in the equivalent of walking across the desert or climbing mountains or some other extraordinary or heroic acts. Shouldn’t there be some big, complicated, heroic act that will gain us the prize. Instead God says: Just love. Just be love. Love me. Love one another. Nothing big. Nothing flashy. Just love.

To paraphrase the servants of Naaman: If God had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more now, do as God asks.


Praying with Jesus’ Parables: The Good Samaritan and the Rich Man and Lazarus

Yesterday was the third session of the Lent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on the theme Praying with Jesus’ Parables.  Our subjects this week were the parables of the Good Samaritan and of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

As the parables always do, these two challenge us to look beyond the surface meanings.  The Good Samaritan parable, for example, is always cited as an encouragement to aid strangers in need.  Similarly in the Rich Man and Lazarus – which suggests punishment awaits those who don’t help those in need.  However Jesus’ Jewish audience was well-aware of their obligation to help strangers and care for the needy; they didn’t need a parable to tell them that.

I shared some thoughts on both parables in my talk, drawing from sources that include Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope Francis, Walter Kaspar, Amy Jill-Levine, James Martin, and George Martin.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 24:37) You can find a copy of the prayer materials I distributed to participants here.

Lent Is Not About Me

The University of St. Thomas Office of Mission sponsors daily Lent reflections, each  written by different members of the University community.

This morning’s reflection was written by Professor Bernard Brady, chair of our Theology Department, and the first thing Bernie admits in his post is that he doesn’t like Lent.  He writes “The truth is that I’d rather eat than fast, daydream than pray, and keep my money in my wallet than give it away. But it is more than that.  Lent asks me to do things I would rather not do — like, look at my conscience, reflect on my actions, and examine my attitudes.  Lent “invites” me to look at the real me.  Lent makes me uncomfortable.”

Even worse, Professor Brady writes, while doing all of these things that make him uncomfortable, “Lent tells me, directly and boldly, that I am not the point of all of this.  Lent tells me that Lent is not about me!”  Referring to today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah, where God instructs his people to cease evil and do good, Bernie writes

Our spiritual lesson for the day is this:  Purifying myself is not about me.  It is about, to cite Francis again, mercy. Isaiah’s second message is prior to his first.  God shows mercy to us, indeed, “the name of God is mercy.”  Thus the logic of Francis:  The more we are aware of our sins, the more we are aware of God’s mercy — the more we can meet the wounded on our way with mercy.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers another take on, “It’s not about me.”  The Pharisees in the reading think they are the greatest; they act like they are the greatest; they expect others to treat them like they are the greatest.  Jesus, sounding illogical, says firmly, “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

In a world where our tendency is to think it is always about me, it is good to be reminded that Lent is not about me and my sacrifices, but about God’s love and mercy.

Note: You can subscribe to our daily Lenten messages here.

Martin Luther King on Loving our Enemies

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.  For most of us, that is a pretty tall order and so we find ways to massage Jesus’ words into something easier to swallow.

Martin Luther King was someone who rejected any suggestion that the Jesus didn’t really mean that we should love our enemy or that his words represented a utopian dream. Instead, he called love of enemy “an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization” and claimed that in giving that command “Jesus wasn’t playing,” but was quite serious.

For King, a key to our ability to love our enemies is to discover the element of good in them, the starting point for which is recognizing that none of us is either all good or all bad.  In a sermon he gave in 1957, he said

I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”

So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Neither the command to love our neighbor nor King’s call for us to find the good in all people is always easy. But we see from the state of the world in which we live the consequences of our failure to do so. King may not be guilty of hyperbole when he said that if we are to survive we must learn to do this.  The words he uttered so many years ago are ones we still need to hear today.

Praying with Jesus’ Parables: Parables of the Kingdom

Yesterday was the second session of the Lent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on the theme Praying with Jesus’ Parables.  Our focus this week was the parables Jesus uses to talk about the Kingdom of God in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.

In my talk I shared some thoughts about each of the five short parables Jesus uses – in which he likens the Kingdom to a mustard seed…yeast…a treasure…a merchant…a net.  Much of what I shared came out of my own extended meditations on the parables during my retreat this past summer.

I emphasized again yesterday something I said in our opening session last week. In proclaiming the Kingdom, Jesus was not simply giving a promise about the future, but was speaking about the here and now.  Louis Savary reminds us in The New Spiritual Exercises that “in most Kingdom parables there is always some activity, human responsibility, choices made, or a change of heart, all of which suggest that the kingdom is something happening here on Earth, a diving project that is in process here and now, something ongoing, something big.”

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 24:37) You can find a copy of the prayer materials I distributed to participants here.

Lots Going on In Lent

Many of you who read this blog live far away from the Twin Cities, but for those who are within striking distance, here is some of what I have going on during Lent.  The links provide information regarding registration and other logistics.

This Wednesday evening, February 17, the Jay Philips Center is sponsoring a film and discussion about monastic interreligious dialogue. “Strangers No More” is a wonderful documentary that highlights the work done by the international monastic organization Monastic Interreligious Dialogue for more than 40 years. The film focuses on Christian monks and nuns in dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. I’ll be moderating the discussion following the film.

On Saturday February 20, I’ll be co-presenting a Lent Retreat Day for Men and Women with Deacon Thom Winninger (Thom will be with the men and I will be with the women) at Our Lady of Lourdes.  My theme with the women will be Lent as a Time of Conversion.

February 26-28 I’ll be giving an Ignatian weekend retreat for University of St. Thomas students.  The retreat is open to undergraduate and graduate student at St. Thomas.

From March 4-12, I’ll be offering reflections at the Church of St. Thomas More for their Novena of Grace in Honor of St. Francis Xavier.  (Scroll down on this page.)

On Saturday March 12, I’ll be co-presenting the annual City House Retreat with Janice Andersen (Director of Christian Life at the Basilica of St. Mary) on the theme of Hope in a Suffering World.  We will explore what we as people of faith can offer to our suffering world through consideration of the lives of Dorothy Day and Etty Hillesum.

As I’ve already posted about, at the law school, I am offering a Lent Reflection Series, Praying with the Parables.  Contact me if you wish to join us life; check individual blog posts for podcasts of the talks and copies of the prayer material.

If you are nearby, join us when you can.

Hermitage In February

I returned this afternoon after spending two days in a hermitage at Wellsprings Farm.  I enjoyed the silence, and the time for prayer and reading, as well as time spent walking the labyrinth and the forest path.  A great way to begin Lent!

What a very different experience from my time at the hermitage in November.  In contrast with the relatively warm weather then, the temperature the past two days hovered around 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit and the ground was covered with snow (except the parts covered with ice – my friend Teresa joined me at the hermitage for the second night and could not get her car up the icy road).  While I may not have walked the labyrinth as slowly as I normally do – or spend any significant time sitting in the center (as I typically do) it was still a wonderfully meditative.

It is walking in the forest I loved most.  Part of it is the quiet – nothing but an occasional bird and the sound of the snow crunching under my feat.  More so, for me there is always something of majesty in the bare trees.  It is hard to capture what I love most about it in a picture; here is the best I could do.

Hermitage forest path
Where will you be finding your quiet time during Lent?

Take Up Your Cross

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and be rejected. That in itself would have been unhappy news to his friends.  But then he adds the kicker: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his live will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes these words talking about Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and rejection:

Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. It is the “must” of God’s own promise, so that scripture might be fulfilled. Suffering and rejection are not the same thing. Jesus could, after all, yet be the celebrated Christ in suffering. The entire sympathy and admiration of the world could, after all, yet be directed toward that suffering. Suffering, as tragic suffering, could yet bear within itself its own value, its own honor, its own dignity. Jesus, however is the Christ who is rejected in suffering. Rejection robs suffering of any dignity or honor. It is to be a suffering devoid of honor. … Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled.

Suffering and rejection. This is what Christ must experience – a suffering devoid of honor.  It is not surprising this is a difficult pill for the disciples to swallow.

Bonhoeffer also speaks of the final portion of the passage, reminding us that “[j]ust as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.”

So we can enjoy being with Jesus at wedding feasts and dinners at the home of friends. We can share his joy in healing and in feeding those without food. We can wander merrily through grain fields, and take boat rides with Jesus. (And I have no doubt Jesus enjoyed time with his friends – and that they had times when they joked and laughed and maybe even had a little too much wine.) BUT if we would call ourselves disciples, we must also stay wedded to him in Jesus’ suffering and rejection, that is, be “disciples under the cross.”

Praying with Jesus’ Parables: What is Lost?

Yesterday was the first session of the Lent Reflection Series I am offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law this season.

As a consequence of a couple of books I read this past summer, I decided to focus this year’s series on Praying With Jesus’ Parables.  Precisely because parables are meant to challenge us, they seemed a good focus for the Lenten season.  In each of our six weeks, we will focus on one or more of Jesus’ parables; during our weekly in our gatherings I will offer a reflection on that parables for that week and give participants some time to share their prayer experience during the week.

In our first session, I gave a general introduction to parables and then focused on the three parables in chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel: the parables of the lost sheep, lose coin and the Prodigal Son.  I ended with a few words about the participant’s prayer this coming week and a reminder that we are not looking to find a single meaning of a parable, but rather to enter into its mystery to see what it is that God wants to reveal to us.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 29:41.) You can find a copy of the prayer materials I distributed to participants here.

It’s Lent Again

That’s right – tomorrow is Ash Wednesday  It may seem like Christmas was just yesterday (indeed, as of last week, one of my dear friends still had her Christmas decorations up), but tomorrow is the beginning of Lent.

The question is: How do you plan to walk through these 40 days leading up our celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ?

As I sometimes do this time of year, let me make some suggestions.

First, I will be offering a Lent Reflection series at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Praying with Jesus’ Parables.  There will be six weekly sessions, beginning today.  I will post podcasts of my talk as well as the prayer material for the retreat weekly, either the afternoon of our weekly sessions or the following  morning.

Second, the Ignatian Spirituality Website has posted 10 Ideas for Lent, with links to suggested reading, online reflections, and a way of praying the Examen during Lent.

Third, a couple of years ago, I posted the suggestion of committing to a particular practice each day.  You might take a look at it and make your own list of daily practices.

Fourth, the traditional Lenten observations are prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  If you plan to fast, spend some time reflecting on what a meaningful fast would be.  It’s great for grade-school children to give up chocolate or breakfast cereal.  But we might do well to consider what it is that God really is inviting us to fast from.  Is it excessive use of social media?  Is it engaging in snide talk about others?  Is it excess criticism toward our co-workers.   Don’t let Lent fasting be, as one of my priest friends use to joke, “Weight Watchers for Catholics.”

If you have other suggestions for making this Lent meaningful, please feel free to share them in the comments.