First Reconcile With Your Brother, Then Offer Your Gifts to God

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus both ups the ante on the meaning of the commandment against killing and addresses the relationship between loving God and loving one another.

Jesus refers to the commandment of the “ancestors” that “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment,” and then tells his disciples that following the old command is not good enough.  Rather, “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.  He goes on to say

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.

Jesus’ words are quite clear: Our relationship with God cannot be separated from our relationship with one another.  True, no one is going to stop us from bringing gifts to God if we are angry with another, but if we are on bad terms with each other, we can not possibly approach God with an open and loving heart. It is something of an act of fraud to offer gifts to God with hearts full of anger toward another.

We don’t have the ability to stop anger from arising, any more than we can stop ourselves from experiencing any other feeling or emotion. But it is our choice what to do with that anger when it arises. It is our choice to keep that anger alive in our heart or to let it go. But if we do hang onto it, it affects not only our relationship with each other, but our relationship with God.

Note: Chapter 15 of my Growing in Love and Wisdom: Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation offers some meditative practices to help in overcoming anger and developing patience.

Trust and Humility

I’ve been spending some time reflecting on the talk given by Fr. Paul Lickteig during Tuesday night’s session of the Novena of Grace at St. Thomas More church.  As I wrote the other day, the overall theme of the novena reflections is the capital sins, and Fr. Paul’s reflection the other night was on pride.

There were many things in his talk that I have and will sit with, but one thing struck me with so much force that it hasn’t left me.  It was his discussion of Jesus in the garden.

Jesus has come from dinner with his friends.  During the dinner, he tells them he is about to pour out his body and blood for them.  Almost immediately thereafter (in Luke’s Gospel) the disciples start arguing about which of them is the greatest.  Then Judas goes out to betray Christ.  Then Jesus recognizes and foretells Peter’s upcoming denial.  Then they go to the garden and his disciples fall asleep.

What must be going through the mind of Jesus (in all his humanness) at this point? It is easy to understand Jesus’ agony in the garden in terms of his imminent suffering.  What Fr. Paul’s comments illuminated so starkly was Jesus’ doubt, his questioning about whether everything would go to pieces after he left.  (Some of this sense is captured in the Gethsemane lyrics in Jesus Christ Superstar: “Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain.”)  The human Jesus, looking at these closest of his disciples at this crucial moment, must have wondered if his life had had – and his death would have – any meaning.

Yet, he trusted.  He had the humility to rely on his Father, to be able to look into the blackness, the doubt, the questioning and say, I put myself in your hands.

As I was reflecting on this, what kept coming through my mind were the words of a song by Michael Card, titled That’s What Faith Must Be.  The chorus lyrics that I heard over and over are:

To hear with my heart,
To see with my soul,
To be guided by a hand I cannot hold,
To trust in a way that I cannot see,
That’s what faith must be.

That’s what Jesus did.  And looking at that, I pray: Let me hear with my heart, see with my soul and be guided always by your hand. Let me trust even when I can not see.  Let me put myself in your hands.

A Week Into Lent

How are we all doing with our Lenten resolutions at the one week mark?

I’ve successfully stayed off of Facebook thus far (only my blog posts get automatically sent there), and I’m keeping to my resolve to give away one item each day during the 40 days of Lent (accumulating items each day in a box that I will give away when Lent is over).  I’ve also stuck with my commitment to give up sweets.  So I’m doing OK on the almsgiving and fasting front.

I confess, however, that I could be devoting more time to prayer than I have been.  And I’m guessing that is true for many of us.

The good news is that Lent is only 1/6 over, which means there is plenty of time for us all to gear up (or re-gear up) to make Lent meaningful.

If you are looking for ways to stimulate your prayer, you have many options:

On this site, you can find podcasts and prayer material from prior Lent Retreats in Daily Living I have given.  (Check the podcast page at the top.)

The University of St. Thomas offers daily Lent reflections that you can subscribe to and receive early each morning by e-mail here.

The Ignatian spirituality site has numerous prayer resources for Lent, which you can find here.

And that is only a smattering of what is available; there is no shortage of aids to jumpstart your Lenten prayer.

Blessings as we continue to move through this holy season.

Overcoming Envy

The Seven Deadly Sins are the focus of this year’s Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier being celebrated at the church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul.  For those unfamiliar with them, the seven deadly sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

The focus of last evening’s talk, given by Fr. Paul Lickteig, S.J., was on envy, a feeling we all experience to greater and lesser degrees and with greater or lesser frequency, yet it is one we rarely acknowledge or discuss.

Envy is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “sadness at the sight of another’s goods.” It is often talked about at sadness at another’s joy and joy at another’s sadness. St. Augustine called envy “the diabolical sin.”

The drama that envy can create in human relationships is one we see over and over again in the Bible and in literary works of fiction.  Cain (to use the example Fr. Paul used in his talk) is consumed with envy for his brother Abel because God favored Abel’s offering over his own. And so Cain kills his brother.  Isaac so favors his son Joseph that the brothers consider killing him, but settle for selling him into slavery.  The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son is filled with envy and resentment when his father so rejoices at the return of the prodigal son, and so won’t join in the festivities.

How do we counter envy?  Fr. Paul suggested a couple of things.

First, gratitude, which is part of the Ignatian Examen many of us pray daily.  When I know that all I am and all I have is gift from a loving God, envy will arise less naturally.  Deepening our apprehension of God’s love makes an enormous difference.  Although I’m sure I’m not quoting him exactly, Fr. Paul expressed the simple truth that recognizing God’s love, t what I am now is enough, and what I will be becomes possible.

Second, we need to remember that we are part of the Body of Christ, and that we are collectively about manifesting God’s kingdom.  If we put our focus on the fulfillment of God’s plan, then another’s gifts become a cause for rejoicing, not envy.  Fr. Paul’s  comments called to mind St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians that we are many parts but one body and all are necessary and important.  God gave each of us different gifts so that collectively we can take our place in God’s plan of salvation.

Envy arises easily, but we can, with practice and prayer, combat it.

For friends in the Twin Cities: the Novena of Grace continues through Sunday.  Join us at St. Thomas More for the remaining sessions if you can.


Security is not A Christian Virtue

A number of churches throughout the United States are preparing to offer sanctuary to immigrants are in the country illegally.  They are doing so as part of a commitment to care for the vulnerable.  Following Pope Francis’ call to solidarity with migrants and welcoming the stranger, many Catholic parishes are discerning whether to offer space to one or more families facing the threat of deportation.

There are many issues involved in this discernment process.  Although the prior federal policy was not to do immigration enforcement in churches, the current administration may very well change that policy, opening up the possibility of legal action.

Without minimizing those issues, there is one concern that we hear over and over again, both in this particular debate and in the broader context of discussions about the refugee crisis and the current ICE activities.   Security, the fear that some of those who are in this country illegally or those seeking refugee status might be dangerous folks, is trotted out as a reason to refuse to offer sanctuary and as justification for not taking in refugees and for deporting massive numbers of people.

From the standpoint of Christian discipleship, security as an excuse for not giving aid to refugees, for massive deportations, or for not giving sanctuary to a family facing deportation is deeply troubling. The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable did not hang back, worried that perhaps the man lying on the road was feigning illness; he saw someone in need and took action.  And, not only does the list of Beatitudes not include “blessed are those who maximize their personal safety,” but Jesus was clear from the get go that following the standard he invites us to will risk persecution and danger.

Thus, while I think is perfectly appropriate to vet people entering into the United States and to vet any family/families the parish might take in, to not care for the vulnerable and welcome the stranger out of fear for safety is not an acceptable Christian response.

Simply put, security is not a Christian virtue.

The Heart of All Temptation: Pushing God Aside

As it has done in the past, the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality is sponsoring Seasonal reflections during Lent.  I wrote the reflection for this today, the First Sunday in Advent, for which the Gospel reading was the temptation of Jesus in the desert.  Here is the text of my reflection:

Today’s Gospel is St. Matthew’s account of the Jesus’ temptation in the desert, an event that occurs at the very beginning of his public ministry, just after he is baptized by John.

Matthew lists three specific temptations that are really three categories of temptations that we all face:

First, turn stones into bread: representing temptations of the physical realm. Excessive drinking, laziness and uncooperativeness, temptation to physically and sexually abusive behavior, gambling and so forth.

Second, jump from the pinnacle of the temple: representing temptations of the psychological realm. Greed, envy, power, jealousy and entitlement.

Third, bow down before me: representing temptations in the spiritual realm. Presumption, hopelessness, despair, loss of faith.

But while they represent different categories, thee temptations share a common root. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict has a powerful chapter discussing this Gospel episode.  In it, he suggests that while the temptations are a core part of Jesus’ messianic mission, they are also about more than his particular mission. Rather, they “address the question as to what truly matters in human life.” Benedict helpfully and simply encapsulates what all temptation boils down to.

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion – that is the temptation that threatens us in many forms.

We need to be mindful that we are all subject to temptation. Pope Francis once observed that anyone who says he has not been tempted is either an angel in disguise or a “little bit of an idiot.” We will be tempted. The question is: Will we give into that temptation, or, like Jesus, will we not let anything separate us form God’s desire for us, from the centrality of God in our lives?

You can subscribe to the Lenten seasonal reflections here.

They May Spend it Badly. Give Anyway (and Give Well)

Many people, myself included, are reluctant to give money to people begging on the city streets.  Fearing the the recipient of cash will use it for alcohol, some people forego giving at all or give food or gift certificates to sandwich shops.  Worried the person begging doesn’t really need the money, some won’t give anything at all.

This past week, Pope Francis had a response to this concern: Give money anyway.  Giving money to someone in need, said the Pope, “is always right.”  If one is able to help, we ought to recognize our blessing and be generous in meeting others’ needs.

There were two challenges to us in the Pope’s response.  First, regarding the concern the people might use the money they receive for alcohol, the Pope’s response was “that’s OK” – perhaps the person’s only happiness is a glass of wine.  The challenging part was his invitation that we ask ourselves “what do you do on the sly?  What ‘happiness” do you seek in secret?”  There is a good question for reflection!

Second, the Pope reminded us that how we give matters.  Look people in the eyes, touch their hands, show interest in them, he encourages. Essentially – remember their human dignity and perhaps remind them of it as well.

This is perhaps the bigger challenge.  It is so easy to avert one’s eyes while feeling good about oneself for dropping a few coins in a cup.  Not really seeing the person in front of us, and certainly not making eye contact.

How we encounter a person in need makes an enormous difference.  “One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog, and they notice this different way of looking” at them, said the Pope.

It is no accident the Pope shared these thoughts as Lent was beginning.  As we commit ourselves to greater almsgiving during these days, perhaps one of our Lenten resolutions can be to accept both of the challenges in the Pope’s statements.