Blessed by Abundant Life

Today’s first Mass reading is from the Book of Ezekiel is one I always love reading and hearing proclaimed…but it is not easy for me to put my finger on exactly why that is the case.

It is also a difficult passage to succinctly describe. (You can find it here). Ezekiel describes being led by an angel first to the entrance of the temple of the Lord and then around the temple. At each point he describes the water first trickling out from the temple and then flowing more powerfully so that it rises “so high it had become a river.” The description contains incredibly detailed measurements of the temple and of the water.

After walking around the temple, Ezekiel is led to a bank on the river formed by the water flowing out of the temple, and the angel explains how the water flows into different areas. The angel also explains that wherever the water flows there is abundance.

For Christians, the symbolism isn’t at all subtle. Christ is the Temple, from Him flows the living water. The waters in the reading signify the gospel of Christ, which went forth from Jerusalem, and spread all around, producing blessed effects.

Lack of subtly often bothers me, but for some reason I don’t react to it negatively here. The descriptions captivate me completely. As I read, I feel I am with Ezekiel and the angel, and I’m excited as I watch and feel the water rising. And I can see the waters flowing through all the land, creating life. And I feel blessed by that abundance.

My invitation is to pick up this passage today. Let the words wash over you. Feel their power and beauty.

Who Are the Outcasts I Am Called To Reach Out To?

Participants on the St. Thomas More Lent Retreat in Daily Living are in their fourth week of prayer, the theme of which is Walking with the Excluded and Marginalized.

One of the four Universal Apostolic Preferences articulated by the Society of Jesus is walking with the excluded, that is, walking “with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.”  The invitation in this week’s prayer is for the retreatants to look at how Jesus’ encountered the excluded and marginalized, and what his behavior invites in us.

During the first day or prayer for the week, participants prayed with Jesus’ healing of the leper. At the time of Jesus, leprosy was considered so contagious that those afflicted were outcasts, kept apart from the rest of the community.  Anyone who touched a leper became unclean in the eyes of the community.

While we are not likely to be exposed to people with Hansen’s disease in our day, it is worthwhile to consider the various people in our society who are physical outcasts (such as those with AIDS or some physical disfigurement), psychological outcasts (such as those with mental illness or disabilities), spiritual or moral outcasts such as (addicts or sexual offenders), economic outcasts (such as the homeless).

You might ask yourself:

Who are the outcasts in my time that I am being called to reach out to?  Who am I being called to help heal?  To bring back into community?

What are my fears and hesitations in responding to that call?

Even Now, Return to Me

I recall a morning weekday Mass I attended while I was still living in New York.  During his homily, the priest asked us what the fundamental message of the Hebrew Scriptures was.  What do they tell us about God?  People tossed out answers like love, and goodness.  But the priest’s answer was fidelity.  And we see that fidelity in our Mass readings today.

Today’s first reading from Jeremiah contains a condemnation of the people of Israel.  Despite God having sent them prophet after prophet, they have not obeyed God, but rather “have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers.”  You get the sense God has been putting up with an awful lot of faithlessness from his chosen people.

But God doesn’t give up on his people.  Instead, what we hear in the Verse before the Gospel is God inviting, “even now, return to me with your whole heart, for I am gracious and merciful.”

This is something we see all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. (Several times over just in the Book of Isaiah.)  The Israelites turn away from God and God’s commands – over and over again.  And God invites them back – over and over again. 

God does not give up on His people.   Even while cataloging the great sins of the people and the extent to which they have fallen away, God constantly invites them back.  God is constantly there with arms out saying, “I’m here and we can be together….We can be reconciled.” 

Isn’t it consoling to know that however far or however often we stray, God continues to invite us back!  To know that God’s fidelity, God’s faithfulness, is something we can bank on!  As it says in the Second Letter to Timothy, “[Even] if we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”

[This is the reflection I contributed to the University of St. Thomas Office of Spirituality’s Daily Lent Reflections.]

Experiencing Forgiveness

The University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality shares daily reflections during Lent, each written by a different member of the community. Today’s was written by Bernard Brady, a Professor of Theology at the university. I share it here with his permission, because I think he makes an important point about our need to experience forgiveness, not just benefit from it.

Strong words today about punishment, just and unjust, and our openness to forgiveness.

Today’s reading from the Book of Daniel is compelling. Azariah and his people are in exile (because, he believes, of their sinfulness) and under the control of the Babylonian king. Azariah serves the king until he is ordered to worship an idol. He and his friends refuse and are thrown into a furnace – punishment upon punishment. Azariah passionately cries to God for help. He cannot perform formal prayers but he can offer God a “contrite heart” and a “humble spirit.”

In the Gospel reading Jesus says we must forgive others not once or seven times, but seventy-seven times! He then tells a layered story about forgiveness. There was a king who forgave a staff member a huge debt. On the way out the door, the man sees a colleague who owed him a fraction of the amount that he owed the king. The man has his co-worker thrown in jail until the miniscule amount is paid pack. When the king heard this, he reversed his judgment, and treated the man as he treated his co-worker. The fate of the man will be yours, says Jesus, unless you forgive “from your heart.”

I am sure the man initially felt satisfaction as he manipulated his king to his release his life from ruin. He did not experience forgiveness, he benefited from it. His offering to the king, unlike Azariah’s to God, was a deception, just another way for him to use people. When one is forgiven and experiences the compassion of another, it leaves a mark on your soul. You become like Azariah — humbled and contrite. You cannot but direct your life forward in a loving way, including forgiving others.

Seek forgiveness, experience being forgiven…forgive and experience forgiving.

Creative Contemplative Practices

Yesterday I gave a retreat day for members and friends of the Lake Harriet United Methodist Community. Our focus for the day was on creative contemplative practices. Why?

Sarah Stockton writes this about creativity as spiritual practice:

The impulse to create – an impulse familiar to so many – is part of our yearning to live.  When we become aware of and then act upon our creative impulses, we recognize and align ourselves with the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Breath of Life, the Divine One, the Ground of our Being.  For in the creative process we attempt to give life to our own understanding and experience of existence….  Creating when immersed in spirit, becomes a pathway toward a closer connection to God.    

Stockton’s comment helps explain the widespread use of poetry, music and imagery in all prayer traditions.  Think of Jewish chanting, Christian images, the Muslim call to prayer, Buddhist mandalas and so forth. 

These are practices that use a different aspect of our intelligence.  700 years ago Rumi distinguished two intelligences:  the knowing of acquired knowledge or book learning and the knowing that originates from within us.  Rumi suggested this second intelligence is “one already completed and preserved inside you.  A spring overflowing its springbox…a fountainhead from within you, moving out.”

Today, we understand the existence of more than two intelligences.  Howard Gardner says there are perhaps eight or more, but that our education system tends to focus only on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, rooted in the left brain.  Art, poetry and music draw on different intelligences – spatial, musical, kinesthetic.

I think there is much value in having available to us different forms of prayer that use different parts of us – different intelligences to use the language of Rumi and Gardner. And I would add that this is a particularly important time to be reminding ourselves of this way of praying.  Christine Painter, in a thoughtful article on the relationship between spirituality and artistic expression writes this:

We live in a time when our capacity for imagining is being thwarted by television programs and video games that encourage us to tune out of life and become passive consumers rather than active imaginers.  We have become paralyzed by our own busyness…Yet we live in a time desperately hungry for new ideas and visions, new possibilities in a world gone awry with war and ecological destruction.

Our imaginations are constrained and narrowed by the limiting ideas and contexts in which we live.  We are lulled into passivity, and our creative capacity is dulled through a constant barrage of media and frenzied life pace.

So, if you have not taken time to explore creative contemplative practices, pull our some images, some music, or perhaps your water colors or colored pencils, and see what God might want to share with you, as the participants in our program did yesterday.

What Do We Learn from the Rich Man and Lazarus?

Today’s Gospel is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable unique to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ story presents us with two contrasting figures: a rich man who lives a life of luxury, and a poor man who doesn’t even share the crumbs dropped from the rich man’s table.  When they die, the rich man finds himself in hell, while Lazarus is in heaven.

Jesus is clearly not making a simple claim that the rich go to hell and poor go to heaven.  One doesn’t get judged harshly merely because he or she has a lot of money and one isn’t automatically a virtuous person merely because they have none.  Indeed, we know nothing about whether Lazarus was virtuous or lived a sinful life, and there is no suggestion the rich man got his wealth dishonestly. 

Jesus’ readers would certainly not have heard the parable in a way that suggested riches were bad and poverty good. They were steeped in a system that saw riches as a reward for good deeds and beggars as sinners being punished for their sins.  (Given this, I suspect many of them were shocked to hear that Abraham received Lazarus into his bosom.)

 The most common interpretation of this parable is that the rich man is condemned, not for his wealth, because he ignored the poor man at his gate.   And he obviously knew Lazarus was there; in the afterlife he refers to him by name.  So he can’t say he never noticed him sitting by the door.”  Right at his door the dogs take care of the man he doesn’t even send scraps to.

This common interpretation may be true – and it is a reading we should take to heart – especially in our own day given the reality of the lives of so many poor and marginalized people in our society.  But I don’t think we can stop there, because that is a reading that doesn’t present us with anything new.  The Jews of Jesus time knew that the rich were supposed to care for the poor, and that God had special concern for the disadvantaged.  The Torah commanded them “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”  Indeed, the Hebrew term for giving alms (tzedakah) comes from the same root as the term for “righteousness.”

So what else might Jesus be trying to convey to us?  Or to phrase it differently, where might we be invited to examine our own behavior.

The parable opens “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day.” So this was not just a rich man, but one who lived a hedonistic life.  The rich man doesn’t just have wealth, he ostentatiously displays it.  He dines sumptuously every day, not just on holidays; he wears purple garments every day, not just for special occasions.  This is conspicuous consumption, a flaunting of wealth in the face of the those without, and it is something that would have conveyed a negative impression to Jesus’ audience and ought to do the same for us. 

 More than conspicuous flaunting of wealth, while wealth per se is not a problem, the parable does suggest that there are dangers to wealth.  The dangers lie first in attachment to wealth and the things wealth gives.   When we move from “wasn’t that a lovely meal we had at that nice restaurant,” to “I won’t be happy unless I have a sumptuous meal every night” or from “I found a lovely dress to wear to my daughter’s wedding,” to “I need to wear sequins every day,” we’ve moved to unhealthy attachment. 

  The danger of wealth lies second in keeping our mind away from focusing on what matters.  Ronald Rolhesier once observed that “American culture is the most powerful narcotic this planet has ever perpetrated.”  By that he means that by keeping us focused on food, pleasure, entertainment and comfort, it keeps us from living a life modeled on Christ.  If we are so wound up fine food and clothes, shopping and mindless amusements, we don’t even hear God’s call.  And even if we do, if a paramount value is our own comfort, we will shy away from God’s work where doing that work might make us uncomfortable. 

So the rich man in this parable, while not penalized simply for wealth, does symbolize for us the dangers of wealth attachment, keeping our mind way from a focus on what is important.  And, of course, failing to share what we have with those in need.

As you reflect on this parable, you might ask yourself:

Will you spend your money not only on yourself, or will you help the poor outside your door?

Will you let go of the attachments to things that prevent you from focusing on God’s will?  Whether that be money, desire for honor, or sense of self-importance?

There is also a challenge to richer nations, one particularly appropriate as we deal with issues of refugees and migrants today. Are we willing to share what we have?  Or do we think our wealth for our nation?

Here is What I Will Look For From You

Participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living we are offering at St. Thomas More parish have been praying this week with the temptation of Jesus by Satan and with the Two Standards Exercise in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Toward the latter part of the week, the participants were invited to pray with a reflection taken from Louis Savary’s book, The New Spiritual Exercises in the Spirit of Teillhard de Chardin.  I share here the instructions we gave the participants: Hear Jesus speak these words to you. Don’t just read them: really hear Jesus speak the words to you personally. And when you hear him speak, respond to him as you are moved to do so, including sharing any hesitations that arise.

Jesus says:

If you wish to follow me, to live and work under my standard, here is what I will look for from you.

As you willing to be poor in spirit, that is, to realize how much more you need to grow in realizing who you are called to become?

Are you willing to learn to mourn and deal with loss and failure in your own life, as well as how to comfort people who are grieving?

Are you willing to be gentle, docile, and unassuming, for you will be required often to show compassion to the lost and forgotten, the poor and the sick, the anxious and the discouraged?

Are you willing to be continually merciful and forgiving toward others – even toward your enemies and toward yourself?

Are you willing to be open and pure in heart, for only then will you be able to recognize my presence in the least likely places?

Are you willing to be a peacemaker, willing to keep searching to find ways to mutual understanding with others and defending the innocent without resorting to violence?

I am looking for men and woman who hunger and thirst for honesty and truth and are willing to take a stand against injustice.

I am looking for men and women who expect to be persecuted for being good, honest, and compassionate, and who will not be surprised to be scorned falsely and hear all kinds of evil spoken against them on my account.

In addition, I am looking for you to be proactive and creative, to be the sale of the earth, never losing your taste for the kingdom.

I am looking for you to be a lamp for the world, letting God’s light shine through you, so that others may see the good works around them and give glory to the Creator.

Can you be these things for me?

Can you believe that I am always with you, even in the direst poverty or the deepest grief?

Can you believe that even when you are persecuted or rejected by others, you will have all the grace you need to grow and do your task?


Not By Bread Alone

Each year I prepare prayer materials for St. Thomas More’s Advent and Lent Retreats in Daily Living. The participant are in our Lent Retreat’s second week of prayer, during which they are invited to pray on the theme of Temptation and the Two Standards (the latter being one of the central meditations of the Second Week of the Spiritual Execises of St. Ignatius.

In. his book The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman (who I talked about here) offers an imaginative contemplation of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, recasting the temptor as manifesting an internal struggle.  In so doing, Thurman illustrations how subtly temptation can operate for “good” people.  So after praying with the scriptural account of the temptation, I invited participants to pray with Thurman’s accounts of two of the three temptations.

Here is his account of the first temptation, titled Not By Bread Alone. As you reflect on it, you might ask how it helps you understand more fully the nature of temptation.  How does this articulation of the first help you understand it better?

The spirit swept upon him like some winged creature from above!  Light was all around: Every leaf shimmered and danced, A swirling dervish in a timeless trance. The sky was lost in light.  He saw and felt the light.

From all around, here, there, everywhere the Voice whispered in tones that sang: “Thou art my son; this day I claim you as my own…” Wrapped in the echo of the sound He took the way beyond the city gates, Beyond the crooked path where the rocks began! He walked until wilderness, rocky ledge and quiet were all around. He found a resting place to wait.  When the burning cooled and his mind would ease, then he would know.

Time passed making no sound and there was none to count the hour.

Into his mind one question came: What is man’s life?  Is it for bread he strives that dreams might last?  There is a way to hold the gate ‘gainst hunger as a common fate:  Make bread the all-absorbing aim, and give to it a prior claim.  There would be space for inner things, for the heavy fruit of prophet’s dream.  It seemed so clear what he must do. 

Lost in the labyrinth of Fancy’s ways, He had not reckoned with the Voice: “No, not by bread alone.”  It leaped into his mind like a thing possessed!  “No, not by bread alone.”  The hills picked up the words and gave them sound; tramped the rhythm on wind and cloud, in sky and air, all around, everywhere: “No, not by bread alone. Man does not live by bread alone.  Out of the mouth of God all good things come: Truth and beauty; goodness, love–.

No, not by bread alone.”

A Gift We Give To Others

We use the term “stewardship” a lot. For many people stewardship is just about how we use the goods of the earth (sustainable farming, etc.). But while that is certainly an important part of it, my stewardship of my self, of what I have, of the gifts I have been given, is at least as (if not more) important.

One of the prayer cards that has been on my bulletin board it has long since yellowed is an excerpt from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island.

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.

I think the excerpt offers a lot of fruit for reflection on the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor, as well as the relationship between love of self and love of others.

How might God be inviting me to grow in my ability to give to others during this Lent?

IF You are a Child of God

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was St. Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. In his homily, Fr. David Haschka, S.J, a member of the Jesuit community in the Twin Cities and celebrant of the Mass I attended, pointed out Satan’s use of “if” in placing temptations before Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, then…”

His suggestion was that putting the phrase in the subjunctive tells us that, whatever the specific content of the temptation – material goods, power, pride – the underlying temptation is to forget (or at least question) who Jesus was – the Son of God. Jesus does not fall for the temptation; in each case he replies firmly, certain in his knowledge of who he is.

Fr. Haschka then reminded us of the language of the rite of Baptism, that when a child if baptized, the congregation is told that “this child has been reborn in baptism. He (she) is now called the child of God, for so indeed he (she) is.”

Every day, the enemy spirit works to tempt us as it did Jesus. The temptations vary in their content – temptations toward riches, honor, pride (to use St. Ignatius’ language in his Two Standards meditation). But underlying the content is the real temptation, the temptation to forget who we are, to forget that we are a child of God. To make us think we need something more.

But, as children of God, like Jesus, we already have everything we need. As we say when we prayer St. Ignatius’ Suscipe prayer: Your love and grace are enough.