A Lesson from the (Not) Rapture

After the time of the predicted Rapture came and went on Saturday, numerous comments flew around the web.  Some just laughed about the fact that we are all still here.  Others either poked fun or expressed sympathy for those who believed in the prediction.  Others are joking about what will be the timing of the next prediction.

This was not the first prediction of the rapture and it won’t be the  last.  There will always be some people predicting that one date or the other will be the end of the world.

Rather than poke fun, we can take something positive from all of this.  If we did know the end was coming on a particular date, how would that affect our behavior?

At some point, we will all stand before our God and give an accounting of ourselves.  Of how we used (or didn’t use) the gifts God has given us.  Of how we did (or did not) share God’s love with those with whom we came in contact.  Of how we lived (or didn’t fully live) this one precious life we have been given.

The failed Rapture predictions should remind us of Jesus’ admonition that we “do not know the day or hour” when we will stand before our God.  So we have no guarantee will will have time to get everything in order.

Perhaps we should heed Jesus advice to “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”


Reactions to The Death of A Terrorist

I’ve been sitting with a question raised by a number of people in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden – how should a Christian receive this news?

I understand the anger at Osama bin Laden over his role in the WTC bombings and other acts of terrorism. I experienced the reality of 9/11 living in NY, and I lost a family member and a friend in the bombing. I have also walked with other people that I loved, who also lost loved ones.

It may be (although I’m not sure I am capable of assessing this) that there is truth to the claim that it was necessary to kill bin Laden; one of my friends suggested it was a stragetic and symbolic necessity to do so.

But what I know I can’t understand is the glee I saw expressed in so many posts that have come across my Facebook newsfeed and in other places in the blogosphere since the news broke on Sunday. There was almost a blood lust in the reaction. The reactions I saw made me very uncomfortable. For, even if this killing were a necessity, I see nothing to rejoice at here.

Martin Luther King expressed it well:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

But even that doesn’t completely capture my feelings. Osama bin Laden did awful things. He spread terror and hatred. But he was still a child of God, still someone made in the image and likeness of God.

And so, although I’m not sure I can put better words to it than this, the line that has been with me almost from the moment I heard the news Sunday night was from John Donne: ‎”Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”

And I will pray for bin Laden’s soul as I pray for the souls of those whose death he caused..

The Last Thing You Ever Did

I am writing a book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians. One of the meditations is about death, designed to help us develop a deeper realization of the uncertainty of the time of death. The thought behind the Tibetan meditation is that a realization that death will inevitably come and can come at any moment provides an impetus to more serious spiritual practice.

As I was writing the commentary for the adapted meditation, I was reminded of a passage we heard in Mass last week from St Luke’s Gospel. Talking about what will happen in the “days of the Son of Man,” Jesus talks about how people were eating and drinking when the flood came and destroyed them and how people were selling and planting when Sodom was destroyed. And he tells them that “on that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken, the other left. And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.”

As I thought about Jesus’ words in connection with the uncertainty of the time of death, what struck me was the description of what people were doing in their final moment. Although Jesus is talking about the second coming, the same is true of death – with no warning, it will come, which means that any moment could be our last moment.

And the question we might want to ask ourselves is, if each moment could be my last, would I be happy if some of my moments were my last moment? A nasty word to someone that offended me? Being in so much of a rush that I cut someone off in traffic? Telling my daughter I’m too busy watching TV when she asks me to look at something for her homework? What would you want the last thing you ever did to be?

If we could really get in touch with the reality that death could occur at any moment, wouldn’t that have an effect on our behavior? If we really knew that any moment could be last, perhaps we would do more to make each moment count.

One Month to Live

Psalm 39 says, “Lord, let me konw my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am. You have given my days a very short span; my life is as nothing before you. All mortals are but a breath.”

At one level, we know the intellectual truth of this – that we are temporary visitors on this planet, to use my friend Joe’s phrase, and that our visit could end at any time. However, we don’t tend to live that way. We talk about things we’ll do in retirement or where we plan to go on vacation next year, etc., assuming that we have years in which we will continue to live.

What would it be like to live with a greater awareness of our impermanence? Or to put it the way the pastor of my friend Joel’s church put it in a series of sermons he has been presenting: What would you do differently if you knew you had only a month to live?

Joel shared with me and others a recent sermon by the pastor that is part of his current series of lessons on this topic. One of stories the pastor related involves Joel’s 11 year-old son, Benjamin, who has a serious peanut and tree nut allergy. The smallest amount of any nut product in anything Benjamin eats requires an immediate shot from the EpiPen he has to carry everywhere he goes. The shot buys him enough time for his parents to get him to a hospital.

The pastor related a conversation Joel and his family had over the question raised by the pastor. Joel’s wife talked about decisions she and Joel had made about their lives and the extent to which they would or would not make any different decisions if they knew they only had one month to live. She then asked Benjamin what impact he thought if would have on him if he knew he only had one month to live. The 11 year-old boy looked at his mother and said calmly, “Mom, I have a peanut allergy. I never know if I’m going to be alive tomorrow, let alone 30 days from now.”

From the time he has been old enough to understand the severity of his allergy, Benjamin has lived with the knowledge of life’s impermanence, with the concrete reality that life can end at any moment. And he lives that life with tremendous courage and strength. He lives as best and as fully as he can, never knowing how long he has.

What would we do if we had that awareness?

You can listen to the entire sermon, which relates Benjamin’s story here. (Click on the October 10 message.)

Exaltation of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Veneration of the cross dates back to the fourth century, when St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When she had the Temple of Aphrodite razed because it was said to have been built over the tomb of Jesus, workers found three crosses, one of which was believed to be the cross of Jesus. Subsequently, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site. The feast became part of the Church calendar in the 7th Century, after the Emperor Heraclius returned the Holy Cross, which had been stolen by the Persians, to Jerusalem.

The cross is an important symbol for those of us who are Christians. At one level, the cross serves as a reminder of the extent of God’s love for us, made manifest in Jesus. As we hear in today’s Gospel, in the words so familiar to us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him migth not perish but have eternal life.” It also symbolizes for us “the mind of Jesus,” who (as we hear in our first reading for today in the beautiful words of the Letter to the Philippians) “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and [humbling] himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”

But our veneration of the cross is more than simply gazing on what God has done for us through Jesus. It means more than merely reciting our prayers of adoration before the cross. Truly venerating the cross means putting on the mind of Jesus. It means taking up our own crosses and living lives worthy of those who have been redeemed. It means being Christ in the world.

Kneeling in front of the cross or processing with the cross singing praise is the easy part. Living in the light of the cross is the challenge.

Letting the Grains of Wheat Fall to the Ground

In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples that “unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it does, it produces much fruit.”

The first thing that comes to mind when one hears that passage is Jesus’ own death and resurrection. By his death, resurrection, ascension and coming of the Spirit, Jesus’ presence is felt far beyond what is was during his human lifetime.

However, what Jesus says next belies any notion that the passage is only about him. He continues “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.”

Fortunately, Jesus is not asking us to literally follow him to death on a cross. But he does invite us to serious transformation. It seems to me that these words invite us to explore what grains of wheat we hold onto – what do we not allow to fall to the floor so as to bring new life within us. Broadly the question is what are thing things we grasp onto that we need to let go of so that we can be more than we now are…things that keep us rooted in our false self (to use a phrase Thomas Merton liked to use) and prevent the flowering of our true selves?

Facing Death

Today we sit in the darkness. We have no liturgy. Instead, we simply contemplate death. We contemplate Jesus, who lies dead in the tomb.

This is an important contemplation. Death is real and it is something none of us escapes. Our human existence, however many years it may be, will come to an end. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, smart or slow – at some point, we will all die.

We usually shy away from thinking about death. Truth be told, we tend to fear it. But the reality is that resurrection has no meaning unless we appreciate the reality of death. Unless Jesus dies for us – really dies – then he can’t rise for us. And our own resurrection is intimately tied with his; if Jesus resurrection is not real to us, then neither can be our own.

In the words of a Creighton Holy Saturday reflection:

Today is a day to soberly put aside the blinders we have about the mystery of death and our fear of it. Death is very real and its approach holds great power in our lives. The “good news” we are about to celebrate has no real power in our lives unless we have faced the reality of death. To contemplate Jesus’ body, there in that tomb, is to look our death in the face.

We sit today in the darkness, so that we can tomorrow more fully celebrate the light.

The Raising of Lazarus

Although we are in Cycle C for scripture readings for Mass, parishes have the option on Sundays of using the Cycle A readings if they have adults preparing to receive the sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Thus, although the “normal” Gospel reading for yesterday was Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman, about which I wrote yesterday, the optional Gospel reading was Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. Because of the importance of the Cycle A Gospels for Lent, the presider for our Monday liturgies at the University of St. Thoams has been using the Sunday Cycle A reading at that Mass.

John’s account of Jesus raising of Lazarus is a powerful passage and one I have prayed with often. To foster reflection on the passage, consider some questions offered by Creighton Online Ministries:

Where do I resent the losses in my life and somehow blame God for them, rather than seeing them as places where God’s glory will be revealed?

Where do I doubt that Jesus can bring life?

Jesus stands before the tomb weeping. He places no barriers to his feelings about death…Can I be with him there?

Jesus shouts the liberating words of life, “Lazarus, come forth!” How is he shouting that to me today?

Read John’s account and then take one or more of these questions and see where they take you.

Innocent Victims

Today the Catholic Church remembers the Holy Innocents – the babies of Bethlehem massacred by King Herod in his effort to find and destroy the Christ child. How many were killed in Herod’s determination to kill all who resembled Jesus in gender and age is unknown; the estimate ranges from 10,000 to a few dozen.

The numbers don’t really matter a whole lot. The death of even one innocent child is too many.

Yet, innocent children die every day. From poverty and hunger. From lack of clean drinking water. From their parent’s inability to take them to the doctor when they are ill. From physical abuse and neglect. From abortion. From war. From acts of terror and other acts of violence.

We can argue about the numbers, we can argue about root causes, we can argue about solutions. (And we do.) We can argue ourselves blue (or red) in the face. (And we do.)

But today, on this feast of the Holy Innocents, pehaps we might put aside the arguments and the politics and simply pray for all of the innocent children who die, from whatever causes. And perhaps we might also pray for the wisdom and grace to do a better job of protecting our children. In the words of the morning prayer for this day,

Father, you sent your only Son to die that all the children of this world might live and grow to fullness in the kingdom he proclaimed. Transform in the hearts of all people the forces of violence, cruelty, and destruction into the one saving force of love, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Death and Resurrection

One year ago today, a NYC firefighter, lost his life in a house fire. The firefighter wasn’t scheduled to work that night, but he did. It wasn’t the kind of fire you would expect to take a life, but it did. He was my 46-year old cousin, Bobby. My younger cousin, who I grew up with…who I loved.

We expect things to operate according to a story line that makes sense to us. So we say: People shouldn’t die young. They shouldn’t die while their parents are still alive. They shouldn’t die while they still have young children who need them. And they shouldn’t die in horrible accidents that deprive us of an opportunity to say good-bye…to tell them one last time how much we love them.

But they do and he did. And so here we are – my family and I – one year later still feeling the loss. Still mourning his death. Still shedding tears at the empty space he once occupied.

I’ve talked about death before. Death is always hard and the death of a young person even harder. The only thing that makes it possible for me to bear is the certainty of resurrection. My absolute belief in the words Jesus spoke to Martha after the death of her beloved brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

And so secure in the knowledge of resurrection, let me share, as I did once before, the words of John Donne in Death Be Not Proud.

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.