Ruth’s Choice

Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Ruth, a book I love and that we hear from too infrequently during Mass.

In today’s passage, we meet Naomi after the death of her husband Elimelech and her two sons, both of whom had married Moabite woman.  Naomi makes the decision to return to Bethlehem, her homeland.  Her daughter-in-law Orpah bids her a tearful good-bye.  Orpah’s choice to remain in her homeland is a sensible, as well as honorable and safe decision.

Ruth however, makes a much bolder choice. Despite Naomi’s encouragement that Ruth do as her sister-in-law has done, Ruth chooses to go with Naomi to a land where she will be an eternal outsider and where the national prejudice against Moabites, let alone single Moabite women goes deep.  (And remember, this is early Israel, where interracial marriages are frowned upon and where it is not easy to be a single woman in a culture where a woman’s social security depends on being linked to a man.)

Nonetheless, Ruth says to Naomi, in words familiar to us, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” 

Joan Chittister, in her book The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, describes Ruth as making the choice filled with faith “that the God of yesterday is also the God of today, that the God who took one thing away has something else in store for her. Ruth determines to follow a God who worked through Miriam, Rachel, Sarah and Leah, as well as through Moses, Jacob and Abraham to save a world and lead a people.”

Ruth seizes the moment to become someone new, to start again in a place other than the place of her beginnings. She stretches herself to the limits to find the God who waits for her in what she has not yet become. Chittister writes:

Life is not a mystery for those who choose well-worn paths. But life is a reeling, spinning whirligig for those who do not, for those who seek God beyond the boundaries of the past. All the absolutes come into question. All the certainties fade. A ll the relationships on which they once had based their hopes shudder and strain under the weight of this new woman’s newness of thought and behavior.

Suddenly – it seems to have been, but probably only slowly, one idea at a time – Ruth finds herself at odds with her culture, her country, her religion and her role in life. One by one, she chooses against each of them. A Moabite, she makes the decision to go to the Jewish city of Bethlehem where race and religion will marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she professes faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she opts for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her. Ruth has discovered what it is to be the self that God made and nourishes and accompanies on the way.

Do we have the faith and courage of Ruth.


What Do I Need to Leave Behind?

When I walked the Camino the fall before last, the clothes I took for an almost six-week trip fit into a relatively small plastic bag.

I thought of that as I listened to today’s Gospel in Mass this morning.  St. Mark describes Jesus sending out the Apostles two by two, with the instruction “to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts.”

I loved the freedom I enjoyed both on the Camino and during the time I lived in Nepal and India, largely living out of what I could carry on my back.   It is a freedom we don’t often enjoy, as we can easily let ourselves be weighed down by more belongings than we really need.

As a practical matter, it would be very difficult for us to follow Jesus’ instructions to the T; we don’t live in a world that easily accommodates our playing our role in God’s plan carrying absolutely nothing for the journey.

But that doesn’t mean there is not an invitation for us in this Gospel, as I’ve suggested on other occasions.

First, how much am I willing to rely on God rather than on myself?  Do I have faith that God will provide us with what we need as we go about proclaiming the Gospel. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to make any preparation, but it does mean that we remind ourselves that, ultimately, it is God who steers our ship, not us.  (The deepening of this realization was one of the graces of the retreat I did last month.)

Second, what distracting baggage can we leave behind?  What is the baggage that distracts us from fully offering Jesus’ peace and love to those with whom we come in contact?  (Again, this was something I spent some time reflecting on during my retreat, and it was quite revealing.)


Grace Bats Last

One of my Facebook friends linked this morning to a post Anne Lamott wrote the other day on the 29th anniversary of her recovery from alcohol abuse.  The honesty of the piece was compelling, and it is worth reading in its entirety, but the line that stuck with me was: “Grace bats last.  That spiritual WD-40, those water wings, that second wind – it bats last.”

Grace bats last.

When you feel like you are at the bottom of the barrel with no way out, remember: Grace bats last.

When the pain is so bad you’ll take anyway out of it, remember: Grace bats last.

When you can’t tell up from down or left from right, remember: Grace bats last.

When you despair that the world is incomprehensible, warped or on the road to perdition, remember: Grace bats last.

There are many ways to express God’s fidelity, Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  But for a short phrase to remember in times of difficulty, this is a darn good one.

Grace bats last.

There Was Great Calm

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark is one I have prayed with often and that most are familiar with.  The disciples are in a boat with Jesus when a violent storm arises.   The terrified disciples wake the sleeping Jesus asking him to save them.  Jesus replies “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” He then rebukes the wind and the sea “and there was great calm.”

We get so disturbed by so many things, little and big.  When we do, Jesus asks “Do you have faith? …  Do you trust my heavenly father? …  Do you believe I am with you?”  As I sat with the passage what I heard was “By all means, do what you can do to address whatever it is that is disturbing you, whatever the issue is.  BUT do it secure in the knowledge of my presence.  Do it with confidence and love and wisdom.  And do it with my guidance.”

Shortly after I sat reflecting on this morning’s passage, I came down to my computer and saw this picture on my Facebook feed:

Well, Jesus is there all the time to give a hug, acknowledge our difficulties and remind us it is going to be OK.  And the “pearl of great price” he has to offer is way more valuable than chocolate and six million dollars.

The message is the same, over and over again: Be not afraid.  I am with you always.

While You Were Gone…

I was largely “off-grid” for the week of my retreat and am now catching up with the events of the world.  An awful lot happened in that one week!

Some of it was exciting: the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment gallops first to mind.  I’ll refrain from any specific comments until I’ve had a chance to read the entire document, but I know there will be much there that can and should affect our relationship with the world.

Some of the news was tragic: the shooting in the Charleston church.  That one broke through my silence – I heard it in the petitions at Mass the morning after it happened.  It remained in my prayers throughout that day.

Some of the news was a source of both sadness and relief: the resignation of the Archbishop of the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese. I am saddened by so much that has to do with this entire story, but also relieved since I believe it signals the beginning of much needed healing in this diocese.

Through all the news, good and bad, I hear God’s voice: Trust in me.  I am with you always.  Good or bad, do not be afraid.

What Will Convince Us?

Today’s Gospel reading is Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room – actually, two appearances. The first time Jesus appears (and it is that appearance I am concerned with here), Thomas is not with the twelve.  We are all familiar with Thomas’ reaction when the others tell him they saw Jesus:“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

For that reaction, we give Thomas the moniker “Doubting Thomas.”  I confess I’ve always had some sympathy with the poor man.  We make fun of Thomas, but can you blame him? Put yourself in his position. If someone came to me a week after my father died and said, “Hey, we just saw your dad,” I’d say “you’re nuts.”  That is not something I would believe on someone’s say-so.

But John Henry Newman’s comment about Thomas is worth reflecting on.  Newman suggests that Thomas’ fault was in “pick[ing] and choos[ing] by what arguments he would be convinced,” that is, in demanding a particular form of proof, rather than examining whether there was enough out there already to convince him. Newman said:

He said that he would not believe that our Lord had risen, unless he actually saw him. What! Is there not more than one way of arriving at faith in Christ? Are there not a hundred proofs, distinct from each other, and all good ones? Was there no way of being sure he came form God, except that of seeing the great miracle of the resurrection? Surely there were many others; but Saint Thomas prescribed the only mode in which he would consent to believe in him.

If we are honest we will admit that we, too, are often guilty of expecting God to act in a particular way, of expecting to find God in the way that we prescribe, of setting the rules by which God ought to operate. Thomas is not the only one guilty of picking and choosing what arguments would convince him. I think we all would do well to examing whether there are ways in which we “prescribe the only mode” in which we will see God.


One of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, but which I finally sat down to read this Lent is Silence, by Shusaku Endo.

Shusaku Endo was one of Japan’s foremost novelists, and he wrote from the perspective of a Japanese Roman Catholic.  Sometimes referred to as  Japan’s Graham Greene, Endo’s novels engage in questions such as how Christians should engage a culture when that culture is foreign.

That he addressed such questions is not surprising; I read in one piece about him that “The Christian faith never did rest easily on Endo’s shoulders. Ever since his baptism at the age of 11 at the behest of his mother, Endo often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes. ‘This clothing did not suit me,’ he later wrote. ‘The clothes and my body were not made for each other.'”  In the novel, he has a Japanese officer argue to the protagonist that  “A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed.  As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and not bud appears.”  (Later in the book, a former Catholic priest makes the same argument to the protagonist.)

A novel of historical fiction, Silence is the story of a Jesuit missionary who endured persecution in Japan, and most of the book is written in the form of a letter written by him. As many people know, although early efforts to bring Christianity to Japan met with some success, Christianity was outlawed in the early part of the 17th Century, ushering in a period of great persecution of Christians.  The priest is presented (or at least sees himself), particularly in the latter part of the book, as a Christ figure, and Endo gives us a Judas figure in the form of the Japanese man who betrays the priest and other Japanese Christians.

The “silence” of the title is the silence of God in the face of suffering.  God’s silence is remarked on a various times, but becomes almost unbearable when the priest is in prison hearing the sounds of Japanese Christians who are being tortured.  They are being tortured, not so that they will renounce Christianity – they have already done so under the strain of the torture, but so that he will.  If the missionary is willing to step on an image of Christ, they will be released.

In the pain of that situation, the priest prays, “Lord, it is now that you should break the silence.  You must not remain silent.  Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love.  You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.”  As his mind remembers others who have died in Japan for their faith, he recalls that then, too, God was silent.  Why, he asks, “Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?”  As question that has been asked at so many times by so many people who suffer or witness suffering.

In fact, the silence goes on.  God’s silence is not broken until the moment when the priest is led to the image of Christ and encouraged to step on it.  At that point, as he looks at the image, “the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It is to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”  And so the priest placed his foot on the image.

Was his act of apostatsy a sin?  The priest does not believe so, although he knows he will be judged harshly by those that hear of his act.  I suspect Endo himself may not believe so.  Earlier in the book we read, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies.  Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

Whatever one’s judgment of the protagonist’s actions, the book will offer much to reflect about – with respect to faith, suffering and the effect to spread Christianity to other cultures.

God’s Test of Abraham

Today’s first Mass reading is one I always have difficulty with (and I know I’m not alone in this): the passage in Genesis where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God says to Abraham “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.”

Rabbi Marc Gelman has an interesting interpretation of this passage.  He suggests that one can only understand what happens in this episode by considering what preceded it – not subtly hinted by the fact that Genesis 22:1 says “And so it was that after these things, God tested Abraham.”

“These things” refers to Abraham’s response to Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar when Hagar became pregnant. Abraham allows Sarah to mistreat Hagar, causing Hagar to flee into the desert. Rabbi Gelman observes that “God saw how Abraham was willing to abandon Hagar and his future son just because his favored wife was jealous of her new standing in the family. God saw that Abraham was morally blind.” Although Hagar returns and gives birth to Ishmael, after Sara gives birth to Isaac, Sara demands that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out, a demand Abraham complies with.

Abraham is troubled at what he does, but God tells him, “through Isaac shall your seed be named, and I will also transform the son of the slave woman into a nation, for he is also your seed.”

Rabbi Gelman says this:

So Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael, but did he do it because he believed that God would protect both his wives and both his sons, or because this was a good way to get rid of an unwanted wife and unwanted child? There was only one way to know for certain. God would have to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to see if Abraham truly believed in both promises.

If Abraham believed that Ishmael would survive the desert, he would believe that Isaac would survive Mt. Moriah. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his least loved son, left God no other choice but to command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his best loved son. The story is not about a morally insensitive God, but about a morally insensitive servant of God.

“After these things,” God had no misgivings about choosing Abraham.

“After these things,” Abraham could be the father of two nations because he had learned at last what it meant to be the father of two sons.

“After these things,” Abraham was free.

You can read Rabbi Gelman’s full comment on the passage here.

So Shall My Word Be

Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah is one that always fills me with solace, with peace.  We hear today the God’s promise to Isaiah:

Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

No matter how bleak things may sometimes appear, God’s plan will be fulfilled. God’s word shall do God’s will, achieving the end for which it is sent.  That is God’s promise.

Reading these words this morning reminded me of a passage in Evangelii Gaudium.  Pope Francis reminds us that“Nobody can go of to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. It we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”

Isaiah reminds us to have that confidence. The confidence (again in Pope Francis’ words that allows us to “see the light which the Holy Spirit always radiates in the midst of darkness” and to “discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.”


Faith Does not Begin Where Doubt Ends

Yesterday, the speaker at Weekly Manna was the law school dean, Rob Vischer, whose theme was faith and doubt.

Rob shared that from the time he was a child he had doubts about the tenets of his faith, doubts that still rise now and then. He also realized from an early time that the stakes were high for how he resolved those doubts.

He spend time talking about how he deals with doubt when it arises, and what are the sources of his faith. I think the most important take-away from his talk for our students, many of whom have experienced doubt about their faith and been unsure how to deal with those, were these:

First, doubt is not a bad thing. Doubt invites deep reflection. It is sometimes the case that when doubt never arises, people refrain from growing into a mature appreciation and understanding of their faith.

Second, Jesus did not deal harshly with those who doubted. Rob referenced John the Baptist, who even after baptizing Jesus, as he was languishing in prison asked “are you the one.” Jesus did not express anger there. Nor did he when Thomas doubted after the Resurrection. Rob also reminded people that Jesus often answered questions with other questions, suggesting he was less interested in forcing blind acceptance of doctrine than inviting people to work through things to come to an understanding.

Finally, that what matters is not to be paralyzed by our doubt. That is, to understand that faith does not begin where doubt ends. Rather, we live our faith alongside the doubt. Whatever doubts exist at the intellectual level for a Christian should not stop hime or her from living lives consistent with the model given by Jesus.