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Today’s first Mass reading is one I never tire of hearing or praying with: the conversion of Saul.

You have to admit that if you or I were choosing members for the “good guy” team, Saul would not be high on our list.  This is not someone who is merely harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler who doesn’t have a clear sense of the road forward.

Saul is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

Yet what does God tell the incredulous Ananais, who can’t believe God is asking him to find Saul, lay hands on him and restore his sight?  “This man is a chosen instrument of mine.”

We are constantly reminded in our Scripture that God has plans for everyone.  That God sees in a way we don’t and invites all to participate in his plan for salvation.  His choices sometimes leave people scratching their heads, whether it is the anointing of Jesse’s youngest son David or Jesus’ call of the tax collector Matthew.

No one gets left out of God’s plan.

The question to ask yourself is: what does it mean to me to know I am a chosen instrument of God’s?  What does it feel like to hear God say to you: You are a chosen instrument of mine.

 

When I arrived at the law school this morning, I stopped, as I do not infrequently, at the office of my friend and colleague Mark Osler.  We caught up on the talks we’ve each given recently, and near the end of our conversation I relayed my experience of being in near total white-out conditions on my drive up to Duluth on Friday morning.  As it is mid-April, as I walked out the door, Mark observed, “that’s just not as it should be.”  And my comment to myself as I walked into the suite in which my office is located was “Yeah, a lot of things are not as they should be.”

My immediate next thought was: who says?  Who says there should not be weather in April that produces white-out conditions?  More generally, how do we decide what should and should not be?

Coincidentally (?) I looked up at that moment to something I have hanging next to my office door.  It is an excerpt from Brandon Bays book “Freedom Is.”  It says

Now what if you discovered that everything is as it is meant to be?  What if you realized that everything that is taking place is happening for a reason and a purpose that you can’t fully understand yet?…What if you were to fully, completely, and utterly just accept what’s here?…

What if it is entirely the will of grace and is out of your hands?…What if there is nothing you can do, should do or ought to do to fix it?…What if you finally felt what it what it feels like to completely and totally relax and accept that what is here is what is meant to be, in this moment?…

How would it feel to rest in an ocean of trust…just being…effortless being?…

Now, I can’t embrace fully what Bays is saying.  That is to say, there are many injustices in this world that I think we can and should work to change.  They do not reflect Kingdom and I do not think we should simply accept them.  And so there is a danger “everything is as it is meant to be” can become an excuse for complacency.

But I do think the comment is a reminder that not everything that is difficult, unpleasant, inconvenient is “not as it should be.”  Many things do happen “for a reason and a purpose [we] can’t fully understand yet.”  And we do need to develop a trust that, as God said to Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

The bottom line is that I think we need to be much more intentional and deliberate about what we label “not as it should be.”  There is real discernment required in distinguishing those things that require our action in the world from those that require our letting go.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, about the worst thing you could call someone was a “flat leaver.” The word pretty much conveys the idea. If I’m hanging out with my friend Alice and Patty comes along and invites me (but not Alice) to join her and I go, I’m a flat leaver. If Bob and Jim make plans to go to a movie, but Jim backs out after getting a call from Mike inviting him to come hang out, Jim has left Bob flat.

Not being a flat leaver is more than just loyalty; the two are obviously related, but the former somehow feels much more elemental than the latter.

I hadn’t consciously thought about flat leaving for a very long time. We are decades away from my youth and I now live in a part of the country where people have never heard the term. But some things get wired into us when we are very young. They may become buried, but they are still there somewhere. (I sometimes joke with people that if you scratch me deep enough, you find a Brooklyn street kid.)  And, while not being a flat leaver is deeper or more elemental than simply being loyal, I note that when we do a values exercise at the vocation retreat weekends we give semi-annual for law students at the University of St. Thomas, loyalty is a value that consistently make the cut of the values most important to me.

I was recently in a situation where I had to choose whether to pursue X or Y. What X and Y were doesn’t really matter; suffice it to say that there were various considerations, some of which leaned in one direction and some in the other. The other night I was sitting in a program unrelated to the two options, not particularly even thinking about them. Yet at some point the thought/feeling/sense arose strongly: “If I choose Y over X, I will feel like a flat leaver. And I’m not a flat leaver.” (I say thought/feeling/sense, because I did hear those words, but I felt it deep in my gut.)

When I sat with the experience the next morning in my prayer, interestingly, I could see examples of other decisions I have made at various times over the years that came from that same place; although that piece was unarticulated at the time, the decisions reflected the sense that I can’t/won’t be a flat leaver.  I realized that in praying over X and Y, it was a piece that had to be part of the equation.

We know that all sorts of things affect our decisionmaking. Part of growth in self-understanding is being able to articulate and evaluate the factors that contribute to the choices we make. So I find experiences like this one extraordinarily helpful.

[Thanks to my friend Mark Osler for encouraging me to share these thoughts in a blog post.  Actually, he told me if I didn’t write a blog post on it, he would.  :) ]

I lead weekly morning meditations here at the law school.  The form of meditation varies from week to week; the offerings include centering prayer, lectio, mindfulness, lovingkindness and Taize.

This week was Taize.  I’ve created several playlists for Taize mornings that include mostly traditional Taize chants and similar repetitive chants.  One inclusion not in that category is the setting of some poems of Hafiz, a fourteenth century Persian mystic and poet, against a musical background.

This week’s morning meditation included one of my favorites, a Hafiz poem titled Every Child.

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does Anything weird,
But the God who knows only four words.
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come Dance with Me, come dance.”

Here is the setting we listened to; you can close your eyes and listen:

 

Today it was my privilege to facilitate a lunch time program for clergy and other religious leaders  titled The Face of Mercy: Mercy in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian Traditions.  Inspired by Pope Francis’ declaration of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the program (co-sponsored by our Office of Mission, Jay-Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning and Muslim Christian Dialogue Center) featured representatives of each of the three Abrahamic traditions to talk about mercy from their faith perspective.

What touched me most deeply in the presentations was something Rabbi Amy Eilberg said with reference to the passage in Exodus where God tells Moses he cannot look upon his face, but only his back.  I have always read that passage as a sign of some distance between God and humans, a separation that prevented Moses from seeing God’s face.  And that is certainly one common and acceptable reading.

Rabbi Amy shared a different reading (one she got from Rabbi Jeff Roth – whose work I am looking forward to checking out).  It conveyed a sense of Moses, rather than looking at God face to face, being invited to look through God’s back – to see what God sees.  I found that extraordinarily powerful.  We often speak of learning to love like God loves, or seeing people like God sees them.  This physical invitation to Moses embodies that idea in a way I never appreciated.

This is an image I want to sit with some more.  But even without a fuller expression of my experience, it seemed to me an image worth sharing.

Note: We will be hosting a more public program on the same theme mercy this evening, so if you are reading this now (i.e., Wednesday afternoon) and are in the Twin Cities area, you still have time to join us at 7:00 in Owen Science Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas.

Sin and Mercy

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday and we had a visiting priest preside at Mass at Our Lady or Lourdes.  I found much to ponder in his sermon.

The priest first made the point that we can’t really talk about mercy without first talking about sin.  I loved his definition of sin as lack of love.  Sin, he suggested, is choosing  not to act in a loving way (or to act in a non-loving way) to others or to God.

He suggested that a common response to our failings is to find some excuse.  (As a middle school chaplain, he had some great examples of excuses his students come up with.)  The problem is finding excuses and justifications for our sins is that we loser out on mercy.  Only when we stand before God without excuse, without justification, acknowledging our sinfulness can we be open to mercy.  When we do so stand before God, we discover that God truly is all merciful and will forgive all of our wrongs.

What really struck me was the conjunction of two things he said.  First, that we are meant not only to receive mercy, but to then share that mercy.  (And one of the spiritual acts of mercy is forgiving injuries.)  Second, that many people have a tough time believing in God’s mercy because they have not experience mercy from others.

As I listened to the second, the recognition arose in me that means that my failure to forgive another contributes to their inability to believe in the mercy of God.  How’s that for a sense of responsibility: My withholding forgiveness is not something that has consequences only for me, but it hinders another’s ability to experience God’s love.

Whose belief in God’s mercy might you be hindering?

One of the things I love about the Easter season is that each year our first Mass readings come from Acts, the book that teaches about the founding of the Christian church and the early spread of Christianity.

Today’s passage from Acts is one of my favorites. The “leaders, elders and scribes,” having observed “the boldness of Peter and John,” determine that they must stop the spread of what they are proclaiming.  So they haul the two in and order them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”

Fat chance.  Peter and John, in no uncertain terms, insist: “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.

Pope Francis has placed much emphasis on our need to encounter Christ.  For good reason: We can’t share what we don’t have.  We can’t effectively evangelize others unless we ourselves have been touched by Christ.  Oh, we can tell them about some things we have read, but we can’t ignite a spark in them.

And the flip side is what we see in today’s reading: If we have encountered Christ, we can’t help but share it.   Evangelization is not a job we “have” to do; rather it is a natural outpouring of our own experience.  If  we have been touched by Christ, we can’t help but share it.  That is the urge that I think Peter and John are expressing. 

This Easter season invites us to experience the risen Christ.  To encounter Christ. Only then can we fulfill the charge to proclaim the Gospel to all nations.

 

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