Faith Inspired Service

Over the course of an academic year, the University of St. Thomas School of law has several Mission Round-Table lunches for students, faculty and staff. Yesterday was one of those, and our invited speaker was the President of the University of St. Thomas, Julie Sullivan, who is nearing the end of her first year of service here.

President Sullivan began by talking about what it means to speak of faith inspired service, suggesting that our faith gives insight into our service potentials, provides the foundation for our service and gives us the enduring strength and perseverance we need to serve. She then spent some sharing her own responses to the three questions she posed for our consideration and discussion at our individual tables: What are you God Given talents? How are you using them in service to others? How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

In speaking about the first, she shared her own difficulty overcoming a hurdle many people face: an upbringing that warns against boasting and against tooting one’s own horn. She came to realize something we often talk about in the vocation retreats we do with our law students – that there is an enormous difference between boasting and reflection. We have a responsibility to use the gifts we have been given in service of God and others, and we cannot meet that responsibility unless we recognize our talents.

Part of our service to our students is providing ways to help them to recognize their gifts and to discern how they are being called to use those gifts in the world.

The third question she posed recognizes the role of faith in our service and our need to be nurtured by God to be able to effectively use our gifts. President Sullivan observed that different people have various ways they most keenly feel the presence of God. She then shared one of her own practices, which I found very moving. Before giving a big talk or engaging in some major undertaking, she makes sure that she takes some time alone. During that time she holds her arm out, palm facing upward and prays in that position until she feels pressure against her palm.

I love the childlike trust conveyed by that image – holding out one’s hand waiting for God to take it.

How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?


Not Seeing the Poor

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which opens like this:

There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.

The rich man, I suspect, got to the point that he didn’t even see Lazarus. He would just pass by or over him day after day as he went about his business, enjoying all that his wealth brought him.

I mentioned in a post I wrote several days into Lent that I had constructed a list of daily practices to undertake during the 40 days of Lent. The practices include praying for particular things, giving away money or books our household items, doing positive acts for others.

A week ago Monday, my practice for the day was to purchase several gift certificates from a local food establishment to give to homeless persons. I went to the Davanni’s Pizza near the law school, purchased the gifts certificates and put them in my coat pocket to give away when the occasion arose.

It is now eleven days since I purchased the gift certificates and they are still in my coat pocket, since I haven’t seen any homeless person in the interim to give them to. The thing is, there are plenty of homeless persons wandering the streets of downtown Minneapolis. But I never see them; I go from the parking lot through the skyway to my office in the law school and when I do venture out from the law school during the day it is usually through the skyway.

The question that arose when I read today’s Gospel is: am I any less blind than the rich man in the parable? If my life is so constructed so that I never come face-to-face when the poor who are right around me, aren’t I just as bad as he is?

I think I need to go take a walk today to encounter someone who might benefit from my gift certificates. They sure aren’t doing any good in my coat pocket.

Spirituality of Action

Last night was the final gathering of the Buddhist-Christian Interspirituality Group I have been faciliatating. Our discussion centered on one of the chapters of Wayne Teasdale’s The Mystic Heart. (It may have been Teasdale who first used the term “interspirituality.”)

The chapter I had asked participants to read was titled Out in the World: The Spirituality of Action. In it, Teasdale discusses what he identifies as the three important elements of the social dimension that is found in all traditions of spirituality: simplicity of life, selfless service, and the prophetic or moral value.

Simplicity of life concerns our relationship with everything and everyone in this world – other human beings, other species, the natural world, the planet. Teasdale calls simplicity of life “an inner focus on what is necessary. As we grow in mystical consciousness and become inwardly integrated, our life naturally becomes simplified, uncluttered by property and money…Simplicity has a way of focusing our attention on what is absolutely essential; it goest to the core of our being and strips away all the distractions that compete for our attention.”

One of the questions we discussed last night was what does simplicity of life look like in a culture like the United States for non-monastics. It is worth reflecting on. I sometimes feel that, despite my best efforts at giving away possessions and refraining from purchases, I still have way more than I need. Experiences like the Camino, where I lived easily out of a backpack, help remind me of how little we actually need.

The second important element – selfless service and compassionate action – are clearly central to all faith traditions. Yet, as Teasdale observes, one can find examples in all faith traditions of the “problem of inaction,” of the failure to respond to the needs of others in a loving compassionate way. I suspect this “total availability” is something most of us have to work on.

The same is true for the third. “A further vital component in a universal spirituality, and so in an interspirituality, is the awakened and utterly necessary function of leadership in the area of justice.” Teasdale calls this the operation of the prophetic voice – the voice that “vigorously acknowledges the unjust events and policies that cause enormous tension, misery, and dislocation in the lives or countless numbers of people.” We have a responsibility to witness and to respond.

There is too much to say on this subject than I can say in this single post. So let me here say simply this. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the injustice that exists in so many areas, to say what can I possibly do in the face of so many large problems. But it is not overwhelming to pick one thing to be your focus. We can’t each respond to every need in the world. But we can each do something. What is the issue that most tugs at your soul? Is it homelessness? Trafficking? Treatment of those with mental illness? Pick one and investigate what you can do in that area.

Do This in Memory of Me

At Mass yesterday, the Communion Song was We Remember We Believe. The most powerful verse for me was the final one:

As we take and eat, so we learn to give. Like the bread, we must break; like wine, be poured so that all may live.

Two short sentences, but an important reminder that our receipt of the Eucharist is not a passive act. We don’t go to Mass each week and receive the Eucharist so we can sit back and be content that we are filled with Jesus.

We eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, not so we can simply sit in bliss with Jesus, but to strengthen us to go out and be as Jesus in the world. And that is not simple task. It requires that we give of ourselves – that we be wiling to be broken, willing to be poured out for the life of the world.

Jesus is not interested in spectators. He is not interested in those content to simply give lip service to believe in him. Rather, he asks – no demands – that we be willing to give as he gave. To be broken as he was broken. To be poured out as he was.

Not Service Alone

Service is a central aspect of Christianity. In the words of Ed Hahnenberg, “God calls me through others for others.”

But, as Hahnenberg’s phrasing suggests, we can never lose sight of the fact that our service is in response to God’s call, which means our service must be connected to our faith.

I’ve been reading Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism, given to all members of parishes in our archdiocese. On this issue Kelly writes:

When the practice and preaching of Christianity are not clearly focused on the universal call to holiness, the activities pursued in the name of Christianity disintegrate into little more than a collection of social welfare initiatives. As the Church becomes more and more separated from this call to holiness, whether locally, regionally, nationally, or universally, it very quickly begins to resemble a social welfare organization rather than the great spiritual entity it was established to be for every age.

I was reminded, when I read those lines, of something Archbishop Chaput said at the CCMA National Convention last week. Questioned about the service component of our faith, he said that we can never to doo much social ministry. But, he cautioned, our service must be connected to the Gospel, that service alone can never substitute for the fullness of the Gospel.

There are three legs to the stool, Archbishop Chaput suggested of an “honest Christianity”: preaching the Gospel with integrity, building a community where people are genuinely loved, and helping the poor. If any one of those three is missing, Christianity is absent. The Archbishop was clear that people err in different directions. So it is not enough, he said, to say, “I’m Orthodox” alone or “I’m helping the poor” alone. We need all three legs of the stool.

The Power to Serve

At Mass yesterday, we listened to the passage from St. Mark’s Gospel in which James and John ask Jesus to “grant that in your glory we may sit at your right and the other at your left.”

Positions of power and glory to be sure. High seats, where everyone may see the brothers, knowing they are great men. Positions form which they presumably may wield authority over others. Ambitious men, these two. The same can probably be said for the other followers of Jesus. We are told that the other apostles “became indignant” at James and John for their request; I’ve always thought their reaction was more about being upset they didn’t think to ask the question before James and John did than anything else.

In reply Jesus asks them, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

In his homily, Fr. Dale described the cup Jesus drinks as the cup of service and suffering. For there is suffering in living a life modeled on Christ’s – in putting the needs of others over the desires of the self. But, he reminded us, there is also tremendous joy in doing so.

Ambition is a very human thing. But today’s Gospel reminds us that discipleship in Christ is not about power and glory in the worldly understanding of those terms. The power of Christ in us is not about sitting up on high chairs where everyone can see us, giving us kudos and respect, kissing our rings and kneeling before us.

In Fr. Dale’s words near the end of his homily: The power of discipleship is the power to serve.

During the offertory at Mass, we sang the beautiful Servant Song:

Faith Without Works is Dead

Today’s Mass readings were perfect accompaniments to our ministry fair at the Church of Christ the King this morning. Tables were set up in the gathering space where the various liturgical and other ministries of the parish had representative and information so that people could wander from table to table both before and after Mass.

In the second reading, James asks what good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works. He writes, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” James answers his own question: A faith not represented in works “is dead.”

There are many different ways our faith may be represented by works. Our parish ministries offer some of those ways – involvement with our adult and children’s faith formation programs, various activities of our social justice ministries, different liturgical and musical ministries. In addition, there are many opportunities for us to engage in “works” that are not parish-based. And it is good that the opportunities are so varied, for we all have different gifts and are called in different ways.

But, in one way or the other, we are all called to step up and do something. To engage in some service that builds up the Body of Christ and that make real the Kingdom of God in our midst.

As we prayed in the final verse of our recessional hymn today, “Faith and hope and love restoring, May we serve as you intend, And, amid the cares that claim us, Hold in mind eternity; With the Spirit’s gifts empower us For the work of ministry.”

Service Over Private Agenda

A friend of mine recently sent me the text of Sr. Joan Chittister’s address at Stanford University’s 2012 Baccalaureate Program. The address was titled A Call To Leadership.

Her talk included a story about a Buddhist monk who was determined to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Japanese. I’ve actually read an adaptation of this story before, in Peter Rollins’ The Orthodox Heretic, which tells the story of a gifted woman who dedicates “her life to the task of translating the Word of God throughout her country.” The story teaches a wonderful lesson, whoever you put in the role of protagonist.

Here is the story as Joan Chittiester told it:

He spent years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. But just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he’d raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.

Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. This time, years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and fed the starving thousands instead.

Then, when the hungry had been fed, he began another decade’s work of collecting the money for the third time.

When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. But they tell you to this day in Japan that when parents take their children to view the books, they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures – the new houses and healthy people – were even more beautiful than the printed edition of the third.

Chittister framed the lesson of the story as a lesson of leadership, but it is a lesson for all of us: “no personal passion, no private agenda, no religious ritual must ever be allowed to come between you and the people you serve.”

What It Means to Sit at Jesus’ Right and Left

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark opens with one of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. He tells his disciples that they are going to Jerusalem, where “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes,and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death.”

What is the response of John and James? Their concern is securing their places at the head of the class: They approach Jesus and ask to be seated at his right and his left when Jesus comes into his glory.

The other apostles are indignant when they learn of the James and John’s power play (although I’m guessing at least some part of that indignant response has to do with the fact that they didn’t think to ask the question of Jesus themselves). And it is easy for us to make fun of James and John as well, since their blatent push for a front seat seems so embarassing.

Nonetheless, while we may not be as pushy as James and John, we are as much in need of Jesus’ response to them as they were. It is easy to think following Jesus means having a place at the head of the line. Getting to be one of the people in charge. But Jesus makes clear that those who follow him are not like “those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles, who lord it over them, and…make their authority over them felt.” Instead, explains Jesus, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

As he does on so many other occasions, Jesus turns our normal expectations on their head. The objective, in Jesus’ eyes, is not to be served, but to serve. And Jesus models that for us in so many ways. If we look at incidents like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we come to understand that greatness in God’s sight is not found in how many people serve us, but rather in how faithfully we serves others.

Serving and Being Served

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Martha, about whom I’ve written before.

The first time we encounter Martha in the Gospels is in the passage from St. Luke that recounts Jesus going to the home of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. While Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak, Martha bustles around “burdened with much serving.” When she complains to Jesus and asks him to instruct her sister to help her, he replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Many of us find it more comfortable to serve than to let ourselves be served., Yet, writing about this passage, Sr. Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, writes that Luke uses this incident “to stress the point that, in the presence of Jesus – no ordinary guest – the only proper thing to do is to allow him to feed us, to serve us.”

There is nothing wrong with serving others, and we are called to do so. But we also have to allow ourselves to be served as well. Making a link I had never considered before, Sr. Burrows writes:

For me, it is not without significance that Luke relates the Martha and Mary story immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can see that the Samaritan, consciously or not, was listening to God, looking at God and therefore recognized him immediately in the wounded man, and set to work to minister to him, for we minister to God, serve God, only in our neighbor. The priest and Levite were, like Martha, intent on serving God. Presumably they were hastening on their way to the temple to perform their respective religious duties.

The comparison reminds us that each of us is called to be both Martha and Mary. Serve others, of course. But “Only if we have the heart of Mary will our service of others be selfless.”

And that means taking time to listen, not only to serve.