More Than a Fairy Tale (5.6.2017)

Scripture Readings

I love storytelling.  Not that I’m a particularly accomplished storyteller.  I’ve met people who can turn ordinary, daily activities into riveting tales of anguish, joy, hope, and victory.  They can take a two-minute story and captivate their audience for fifteen minutes.  That gift of storytelling intrigues me.  I’m attracted to stories and how they are told.  Thus, I take them in however I find them.  Whether they are stories told with friends over a meal, on the pages of a book, from episode to episode on a TV show, through the playing of a game, or watching a movie (and yes even some musicals and plays), I love the side of our humanity that tells stories.  In many ways, I think it models God, who I fervently believe is a master storyteller, but today’s readings remind me that the Lord is so much more than that.

The greatest temptation I face when seeing God as a Divine storyteller outstripping Tolkien, Patterson, Austen, or Homer is that I can make my faith the discovery of things that are neat.  It is the neat, the novel, the ingenuous, and the inventive that sets​ great storytellers apart from the rest.  It might be a neat way of letting a moviegoer know what the main character is thinking by giving him a voice recorder into which he speaks.  It could be the inventive depth of Tolkien’s world (and its various languages).  The novel way the author foreshadows the climatic stand-off between good and evil.  Or it could be an ingenious plot twist.  These things are great and salvation history contains many of them because God is a master storyteller.  We call the character’s inner dialogue consciousness and conscience.  The invented world is the creation we inhabit.  The study of God’s clever foreshadowing is called typology (the study of how Old Testament events and people prefigure what is to come in Christ and the Church).  And the plot twist is the Resurrection.

However, the temptation is to let all this creative storytelling and cohesive design become like any other story we can critique and analyze.  Instead of being scandalized by the idea of God becoming like one of us to save us from death and raise us to himself I’m tempted to think, “That’s neat.”  That is when I need Gospel passages like today’s.  I need the moments when Jesus reminds us that this is more than a fairy tale.  That He is real and He is both Storyteller and Story.  I need to be reminded that while a compelling read like Unbroken demands a reaction (maybe even a review), Jesus demands a response.  Today’s gospel reminds me that Jesus isn’t just a neat and a tidy way to wrap up the story that started in a garden with a character named Adam.  He has the words of Eternal Life because He is the Eternal Word.

The author Neil Gaiman (while paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton) once wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”  The same can be said for the Gospel.  Jesus’ words are spirit and life, not because they tell us the Dragon exists, but because they tell us the Dragon is beaten.  Our foreshadowed climatic stand-off is the Cross and the Resurrection of the one who has the words of Eternal life.

Our God is a master storyteller, but his story is so much more than neat.  It is life-giving.

The Essentials (4.29.2017)

Scripture Readings

Whenever the Church calls us to reflect on the passage from Acts that is our first reading, I’m always grateful for its encouragement.  Sure, it doesn’t say much about the promises of heaven, not does it eloquently restate the Christian mystery.  However, there are three concrete areas where I sense the Lord’s peace as I read the passage.

First, I’m encouraged by how the passage starts.  No, not the line about the church growing, rather the mention of the dispute.  Some days my spirit is heavily burdened by the tensions within the Church and even divisions in Christianity, but there is a peace that I find in taking off my nostalgic glasses and realizing that issues have been present since the beginning.  My heart still aches when I think of our divisions and disputes.  But it longs for a unity we have yet to see instead of being burdened by the thought that we lost something we once had, and that, for some reason, seems easier to respond to, especially as we approach the second source of encouragement.

In response to the dispute, a solution is offered, and so the essential role of service (diakonia) is affirmed.  A dispute was solved.  Our issues in the church today, old as they may be, can also find solutions.  That is good news!  The even better news that I see speaks to me on a personal level.  The Apostles and the community agreed (that is a cool thought) that not every believer has to be all things to all people.  I don’t have to be crushed by the burden of doing everything and neither do you.  We can specialize, assuming we don’t box ourselves in and we support, encourage, pray for, and praise those who serve differently.  Imagine the freedom the Apostles felt as they blessed the work of the seven deacons knowing the widows would be fed, the Word would be proclaimed, and the Church would still gather for their communal prayer (the liturgy).

The fruit of that freedom was evident in the growth of the Church.  As the early Church proclaimed the Gospel, gathered to worship the Lord through the breaking of the bread, and served those in need, her true face was shown and Acts tells us that, “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.”  Not just names on a registry, but disciples.  This gives me peace as well.  This tells me that if we stick to the three essentials of the Church — our three practical implications — then the Lord will find fertile ground for disciples.  Everything else is filler and fluff if inquirers and seekers aren’t becoming disciples.

May the God who is three and one, help us find peace and unity through the Holy Spirit.  May we humbly acknowledge that only Christ is all things to all people, and we are called to let him shine through us.  Knowing the face of the Lord, may we share the truth of His great love, reveal his goodness though our actions, and discover His beauty in our worship.

No Ordinary People (4.22.2017)

Scripture Readings

A friend of mine and I have occasionally gotten together and recorded little 5 minute shorts about some topic regarding the faith.  We called them Trailblazers and have always had a blast recording them.  We’ve opened with references to Pinky and the Brain, compared God and Tolkien, likened Lent to spring practice for baseball, and bounced all over the place.  During one of the latest episodes we recorded, my friend shared a quote from C.S. Lewis that immediately came to mind as I read today’s readings.

Clive Staples Lewis, in his book/essay, The Weight of Glory, wrote these words, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption” (emphasis added).  When these words came to mind, they bridged several gaps I noticed as I reflected on today’s readings.

The first gap I noticed was between the leaders and the Apostles.  The leaders and elders on one side of the gap have started with presumptions and an air of superiority.  They are flabbergasted by the Apostles because they judged them as ordinary people and in their reeling indecision hold fast to their presumptions.  Meanwhile, it is in the Apostles that we see Lewis’ words on display.  They don’t flippantly disregard the leaders, but in earnestness appeal to their consciences while making clear that that they will obey their own.  They don’t browbeat the leaders into silence with their signs and wonders but invite them to engage with the mystery because they recognize that it is immortals with whom they contest.  And yet, the Apostles are their own gap though.

There seems to be a disconnect between the hard of heart apostles in Mark to the Apostles as presented in Acts.  These earnest men of conscience that we see in Acts are different from the men hiding in the upper room.  I would argue a large part of that difference is due to Pentecost, but a significant portion is also due to their encounter with the Risen Christ.  In encountering the Risen Lord, they came face-to-face with evidence that death does not have the last word, that, through Jesus’ resurrection, there are no mere mortals.

Finally, it is easy to look at other people and see where their treatment of others falls short of the ideal, in this case, C.S. Lewis’ call to put away flippancy, superiority, and presumption.  It is far harder to measure ourselves against the ideal.  Where do we respond to others flippantly?  How do our presumptions make walking as disciples more difficult?  Who are the people that we fail to treat as equal in dignity to us?  When we see people do we see mere mortals or fellow immortals, loved into existence by the Father?  What if this person is unable to read, has disabilities, grew up speaking a different language or has different skin color?

– Spencer Hargadon

As my wife and I celebrate a week of being home with our third baby, I’m reminded by her strength and perseverance that she is no ordinary woman and humbled by the Lord’s desire to include Bess and I in the raising and formation of our 3 little immortals.

Opening the Way (4.15.2017)

Today’s Mass readings are for the Easter Vigil tonight, but I want to give us time to focus on Holy Saturday.  With that desire, I’ll be reflecting on two passages that are being used at a service at Immaculate Conception this morning, the Ephphatha and Naming Rite for those in RCIA.  During the Rite, Isaiah 62:1-4 and Mark 7:31-37 will be proclaimed and so we’ll use those passages.

Mantegna, 1490, 14As my eyes fell on the first lines of Isaiah I was reminded of Christ lying in the tomb, seemingly silent and still, but we would do well to not be fooled.  His body might have been as silent as the grave and still as stone, but this is when we traditionally imagine Jesus invading the realm of the dead and causing it to burst at its seams.  It cannot restrain the Author of Life and we see that on display tomorrow with the vindication of the resurrection.

Jesus doesn’t do this to vindicate himself and stick his tongue out mockingly at those who put him on the cross.  No, he is far more honorable than that.  He does it to vindicate those who, in death have been called ‘forsaken’ and ‘desolate.’  For they have been in the ‘pit,’ to use the language of the Psalmist.  He calls them up to give them a new name, and restore them.  The image that comes to mind is Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings going down into the land of the dead to restore the standing and honor of the souls trapped there.  The image diverges when we see Aragorn calling upon them to fight for him since Jesus calls us to live in the victory he already won, but it is still a good image.  The rightful, living king, calls up the ‘forsaken’ souls from their ‘desolation.’  He calls them, and all of us, for we too will die, to follow him to the dwelling place that he has prepared for us.  He calls us ‘espoused’ and he is the bridegroom who prepares our dwelling.

Does this mean this feast has no relevance for us now?  No, it foreshadows what the Lord wishes to do for us and reveals what he presently does for us.  This brings us to the Gospel, where Jesus speaks (or rather groans) the ironically difficult ‘Ephphatha (let it be opened).’  How interesting that he does this in a region called the Decapolis.

The Decapolis was a gentile region set apart by its culture, and language.  It was in this linguistically distinct region that Jesus heals a man’s organs of language.  He restores his belonging by opening his ears and healing his tongue.  Not just by speaking ephphatha, but groaning it.  It is that same idea of groaning that runs all throughout Romans 8:28-39.  The climatic end of all that groaning is St. Paul’s assurance of our belonging: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Isn’t this what Jesus does by rupturing the place of the dead?  Doesn’t he open the way?  Does he not vindicate us from the forsaken and desolate fate of sin and its final consequences?  Does he not restore us to belonging by bringing us into the family of God, and in turn sending us out to show others that he calls them, ‘espoused’ as well?

Finally, let’s return to the cave in which Jesus lies one more time.  I imagine the risen Christ rising from his stone slab, looking at the stone and groaning, ‘ephphatha.’  That gives me hope, for so often I need him to look at my heart and groan, ‘ephphatha.’

May our hearts be opened and those entering the Church this Easter find the familial love and welcome that warrants the title, The Household of God.

A Love Deeper than Slogans (3.11.2017)

Scripture Readings

Today’s Gospel contains a recognizable phrase in it.  We are reminded of Jesus’ words, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  These well-known words are easy to remember despite the difficulty of the challenge they set before us.  However, while that challenge is real there is a lesson we can take from today’s Gospel as well as some encouragement.

There are many passages in the Bible with which we are familiar and yet struggle to comprehend.  For one, there are mysteries of our faith that can make comprehension difficult.  A second factor is our disconnectedness from some of the cultural references and analogies that allow us to truly penetrate what is happening in the words.  While those two are out of our control, our third struggle is our own creation.  Whether you blame tweets, proof-texts, bumper stickers or some other device of slogan proliferation, we can put ourselves at a disadvantage when reading Scripture because we know all the catchphrases without the wider context that truly gives a statement meaning.

Take today’s gospel as an example.  People are familiar with the phrase, “love your enemies.”  Speakers and authors will even tell you that is one of the central tenets of the faith, and they are right.  But why?  Because what Jesus goes on to tell us is that loving our enemies is something we do in imitation of God.  We don’t do this merely because God tells us to but also because God does it too.  Thus, if Christianity is truly the belief that God became like us so that we might become like God, then yes, enemy-love is a central tenet of our faith.

What’s more is that this passage accomplishes three other ends.  First, it establishes another favorite New Testament slogan, “God is Love.”  As Jesus establishes that God provides for both those that align themselves with Him and those who set themselves against Him, He is telling us that God loves His enemies.  Second, this shows us what Jesus means by love.  He hasn’t reduced love to a kind of abstract feeling of affection or wishful thinking, but direct provision and blessing.  Third, it encourages us that God’s love is always available to us and is not something we are trying to earn.  For if God loves His enemies, then He still loves me when I set myself against Him in sin, and it is that love that will turn my heart back to Him.

So as Lent continues, let us continue to allow God’s love for us to draw us back to Him.  Let us also continue to explore God’s Word.  Find a passage you know well (Google is great for finding the exact citation) and then explore what the verses surrounding it contribute to its meaning.

May God’s Word enlighten us and His great love encourage us, amen.

Fasting For… (3.4.2017)

Scripture Readings

It is Lent.  We are getting deeper into a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  During this time it is easy to get distracted by what we aren’t doing.  There are habits, foods, or drinks from which we are fasting and that is good.  However, sometimes I don’t think we explore enough prepositions.  Not only are there the things from which I fast, there are things for which I fast.  This broader view can be summarized to include fasting for prayer, fasting for charity, and fasting for obedience.

There are great things to be said about fasting for prayer and for almsgiving (charity), but they fall outside the scope of today’s readings.  However, when I read the final paragraph of the passage from Isaiah about fasting from my own desires on the Sabbath, it was like I read those commands with fresh eyes.  That freshness is what I’m calling fasting for obedience.

I’ve heard, or even said, fasting helps with self-mastery.  The idea is that through fasting we work towards getting our appetites and desires in check.  This definition is true and good but Isaiah’s words about the Sabbath struck me as an invitation  to something deeper and enlightened fasting in a new way.  In Isaiah’s passage one can find the distinction I’m drawing between fasting for control and fasting for obedience.  What Isaiah showed me was that the Christian practice of self-denial (whether through fasting or living out the Sabbath) is less about self-mastery and more about self-availability.  Self-mastery lets me diet, but availability lets me be a disciple.

For example, imagine if in today’s Gospel passage, Levi was called from his tax collector’s table to just go about the rest of his life developing little strategies to resist his greed.  That would be admirable, maybe, but not the radical story of this disciple.  Now, we’re not merely theorizing either, for isn’t that the story of the Rich Young Man?  Doesn’t he get called to radical discipleship but then continues to walk the path of self-mastery (a path at which he was good according to the gospels).  But Levi doesn’t merely give up his work as a tax collector, he throws the huge party for all to attend.  He didn’t merely gain self-mastery, he responded to Christ’s call with self-availability so that his self could be mastered by the Lord of the Sabbath himself.

So we should fast this Lent, but let’s not forget that merely fasting from something sounds more like dieting.  We should remember to name what we are fasting for.

Over Complicated (2.18.2017)

Scripture Readings

I have a bad habit, well several bad habits, but one in particular came to mind when I read today’s Gospel.  Remarkably, I can take the simplest of things and over complicate them into muddled messes.  I’m sure others can attest to this.  Maybe they have experienced it in the midst of a planning session when I have proposed a convoluted solution and upon noticing confused looks around me, timidly offer, “Maybe I’m overthinking all of this.”  We can all do this with the Lord as well.

The disciples did it.  We see that in today’s Gospel passage.  Scripture tells us, “he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead… questioning what rising from the dead meant.”  Jesus meant what he said but Peter, James, and John did not take him at face value.  Granted, the idea is nearly unbelievable, but then again so is the transfiguration they just witnessed.  And, yes, hindsight is 20/20, so this reference is clear as day to us but my point is not that we can’t rationalize our over complications.  Merely, that maybe we need to simply let Jesus be Jesus.

I think we are better disciples when we do this.  Just imagine, for instance, if the disciples had taken Jesus’ claim about rising from the dead at face value.  Would they have handled the crucifixion better?  I don’t know, and I’m not proposing a kind of crass literalism or anti-intellectual view of faith.  Rather, a faith that says we can take God seriously.  This is the faith we see recalled throughout our first reading from Hebrews.  A faith that trusts.

For us, we have ample opportunity to not over complicate Jesus.  We can take him seriously when he stretches us by calling us to forgive our enemies or to leave our gift before we have reconciled with our brother or sister.

As we approach Lent, we can resist the urge to pursue a plethora of devotions that will suffer from a lack of depth.  Don’t over complicate Lent.  Jesus didn’t take a checklist into the desert.

Additionally, in our prayer life we can avoid reading Jesus the ‘Honey do list’ we made for him, and instead ask Him to speak into our lives.  Maybe our simple Lenten devotion can help train us to open our ears.

Finally, we can find community.  The most effective way for me to not over complicate something is to have others around me.  I have even asked people to evaluate what I’m doing based on the question, “Am I over complicating this?”

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I think the Father was pretty clear about my relationship with Jesus when he said, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Curse Breaker (2.11.2017)

Scripture Reading

Today’s Psalm ends with the words, “Have pity on your servants!”  In the Gospel we see that petition answered by Christ as he tells the disciples, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd.”  And Genesis gives us some sense of the need for that pity as we see the curses of the Fall described.  In all of this we see revealed to us, Jesus as the curse breaker.

Jesus’s role as curse breaker might be seen loosely at first.  When we consider how Jesus took responsibility for the people who followed Him in juxtaposition with how Adam shifted blame eve, we see the New Adam succeeding areas where the Old Adam failed.  However it is when we appreciate that Jesus freely provided bread that we see Him breaking the curse.  Four thousand people ate bread that they did not pull from the ground through toil and sweat.  Jesus as the New Adam is the curse breaker, but there is more for us in this passage as well.

Every day we are called to live from this passage.  To live in the era of broken curses.  On our lowliest days we are like the members of the crowd, called receive the gift with gratitude and humility.  This can be difficult as our culture seems torn between entitlement and a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude.  However it is ok to receive bread not earned by the sweat of our own brow.  We can’t steal the bread of another’s labor, but we can receive the charity of another, for ultimately it is the charity of Christ himself we are receiving. Also, receiving earthly charity trains us to receive the salvation that we did not earn by the sweat of our own brow nor the shedding of our own blood.  And in turn, receiving our salvation, prepares us to humbly receive earthly aid.

At other times, we are the Apostle’s in this story.  We are taking the charity we have received from the Lord and giving it to our neighbors.  We aren’t making the miracle happen, but in God’s extravagance we are invited to participate in His curse breaking pity for His people.

As Disciples grafted into the Body of Christ by virtue of our Baptism, strengthened by His Spirit through Confirmation and nourished by Him in the Eucharist we are called to see the world as He sees it.  Not as a hopeless cause upon which to have distant pity, but as a people to be relieved of the curse.  The New Adam has broken the curse, now we await its lifting with hopeful expectation, and in the meantime we try to show the world the same charity we have received through the Cross.

First Impressions (1.28.2017)

Scripture Readings

In today’s Gospel passage the disciples ask, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”  It is a good question.  It is also a little bit of a strange question.  Who is this is something you ask someone on the phone or you might ask a stranger who they are.  However in this instance, Jesus’ disciples are asking, “Who then is this”?

We really only do this when we realize we got something seriously wrong about someone.  It might become evident to us that we missed a part of someone’s personality or that we grossly underestimated this person.

Asking “Who is this?” after we’ve known someone for a little while seems like a good indicator that our first impression was wrong.  For the disciples this happened too.  As they stood in awe they likely realized that their first impressions of Jesus missed the mark.

To many, Jesus appeared to be a teacher, and healer whose prayer had real power.  The apostles even wake him from his sleep with the title ‘teacher.’  But he shows himself to be far more than a teacher.

In the calming of the storm, it is telling that Jesus does not pray for the storm to be calm, but merely orders it to happen.  This seems to wreak the apostles’ first impression of Jesus.  Hence the wonder and awe they experienced.

What about us?  Do we remember our first impression of Jesus?  Should we hang on to this first impression or do we need let it go as we get to know him better?  Have we grossly underestimated Jesus?

– Spencer Hargadon

We Mean Well… (01.21.2017)

Scripture Readings

Today’s Gospel is one of the shorter readings upon which we reflect.  It is a mere two verses.  Though these two verses contain a fascinating scene.  Jesus’ relatives deem him insane and seek to seize him.  Whoa, what is going on here?  I think it is a case of meaning well but having no idea.

Seizing a family member that you have collectively diagnosed as unstable might not sound like the definition of ‘meaning well’ but we should consider the circumstances.  Jesus is a Jew in Roman occupied Palestine.  He is contending with the Sadducees.  He is parrying the Pharisees.  And from the Roman’s perspective, He is amassing large followings with all of His “kingdom” talk.  He hasn’t gone out of his way to ensure that He has a stamp of approval from the establishment.  Then He shows up near home and His crowd is so massive that the people in the house can’t even eat.  To His relatives this might look like the work of a man who is trying to get Himself killed.  In turn, seizing Him might just be a way to keep Him safe.

However, I don’t think they get it.  They don’t get that He is doing ministry with the cross in mind.  He is radically available and so attractive to those in need because He is coming to them with one eye on His own hour of abject need.  All of His ministry is done under the shadow of the cross.  Not in the sense that His ministry has some defeatist attitude to it.  Rather, it is done in the freedom of His complete self-emptying.

The catch for us, the difficult catch, is that He calls us to that as well.  He calls us to live from the cross.  St. Paul in his letter to the Romans reminds us that in our baptism we were baptized into His death.  That we may rise with Him, yes, but we are already dead.  Jesus calls us to something similar with His words, “Whoever saves His life will lose it and whoever loses His life will save it.”  Christ has called us all to live under the freedom that flows from His cross.  The freedom that “cleanse[s] our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” as the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us.

However sometimes we don’t get it.  Sometimes, we think Jesus might be going just a little too far.  And we seize Him and put Him away for a little while.  I think we mean well.  It’s just what He is suggesting sounds ludicrous.  He must be insane, right?

Today, be open to letting go of Jesus in an area of your life where you thought He was just a little too insane for what you were ready for.  Don’t seize Him.  Instead, let Him seize you.