To Catch His Gaze (3.3.2018)

Scripture Readings: Micah 7:14-20; Psalm 103; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32


“Celebrate Mercy” was the name of a Lock-in I helped run a few years ago. We chose as our Scriptural cornerstone for that event, the parable we read today in Luke. For today we’ll call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, though a friend has made a good case for calling it the parable of the jerk-face brother. Anyway, I digress, for the real hero of the story is the Good Father.

Our passage from Micah beautifully sets the scene for our hero, especially with the words that describe how God, “does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt.” This is the character of our God as we see Him further extolled in the Psalms. Micah is echoed, and the parable foreshadowed, in these words, “He pardons all your iniquities, he heals all your ills … As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.”

0e5885409_1486053429_2009110-riojasThe character described above is the same as the Father who runs to his son and embraces him, casting his sin back into the far away country from which he came. This is the same Father who slaughtered the fattened calf to celebrate his son’s repentance and return. And now we come to the paradoxical part of this father and our God. The celebration of mercy comes not because God is blind to our sin, but because he knows it better than we do and knows how detrimental it is for us. He has watched us in the far-off land and then celebrates our repentant return. He sees this not as the wizening up of a foolish child, but as the resurrection of a dead man.

We can be grateful when people don’t know our vices. We can be thankful when someone chooses not to bring up our failings, but the Father delights in clemency and celebrates mercy. This can only happen if we can stare our sin in the face. This can only happen if God has intimate knowledge of our darkness because he has been staring into it waiting for us to turn around and catch his gaze.

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This reality of God’s familiarity with our sin is evident in the earlier readings too. In Micah, God treads our guilt underfoot and casts our sin into the deep. In the Psalm He heals us while we are still ill and puts our transgression far from us. Finally, in the Gospel, he embraces us while we still carry the dirt of the road and smell like the pig sty from which we came.2077807

We celebrate mercy, because God’s mercy is not an act of blind denial by a God who is ignorant or lying to Himself, No, it is the work of a God who can see through the darkness.  The same is true for us. Unless we can recognize the darkness from which we are called, we’ll never fully celebrate the light we enter.

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Vacation Church (9.9.2017)

Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:21-23; Psalm 54; Luke 6:1-5


I have good parents.  They love my siblings and me (and our spouses).  They desire to know what is happening in our lives, even when it has been a while since I’ve checked in with them.  They worked hard to set good examples, and provide us with great educations.  Most of all, they were not afraid to have us kids groan at them about the good choices they made.  The example that came to mind as I reached the end of this passage of Luke was ‘Vacation Church’. 21430060_10155807178694180_2080382272298263393_n

We would be at the beach or touring some part of the country and on Sunday morning they’d load us in the car to go to Mass.  At the time, getting me in the car for church was probably as pleasant as getting a cat in the bathtub, but looking back on it I’m appreciative.  I don’t think I’m alone in resisting ‘Vacation Church’ though.  I think it can be easy to go on a trip or go on vacation and desire to check out from our faith too, because we’re getting some R&R.  We’re on vacation, why should we ‘have’ to go?  When we struggle with this I think we’ve illuminated two areas where we could grow in our spiritual lives.

First, we’ve allowed the work to overshadow the relationship.  We are looking at the rules and obligations of our faith without the remembering their purpose and the fruit that they bear.  This is reminiscent of the opening scene of today’s Gospel when Jesus is confronted about violating the Sabbath.  Jesus doesn’t work on the Sabbath to undermine rules and show that they are unimportant and altogether arbitrary.

Rather, he knows the priority behind the rule.  The Sabbath reminds us of our relationship to God and the reality of creation as gift.  When we groan and roll our eyes about all the things we should do to deepen our relationship with God, we need to look at this vast beautiful universe and remember all that God did for us before we even knew him.

Second, when our faith-lives seem to interfere with our rest and relaxation, we have forgotten the title Jesus claims at the end of today’s Gospel.  Jesus uses the title, “The lord of the sabbath.”

Have we met that side of Jesus?  The Jesus who is the lord of our rest?  Especially as someone who works in ministry, it can be tempting to want a break from work, and incidentally include the work of my own discipleship.  Those times show when I’ve forgotten that I’m a disciple of the lord of the sabbath.  I can find no deeper rest than the sabbath that Jesus offers me.

Easier said than believed?  Sometimes it is hard for me, at least.  I desire to be lord of my rest.  I want to dictate how and when, and what is allowed and what isn’t.  I can critique the Pharisees all day, but the truth of the matter is, I’m more Pharisaical about my rest than they are.  They kept God in the picture, but too often my pursuit of rest sidelines the Lord, and thus leads to an idolatry we call sloth.  Instead of pursuing the Lord and in him finding sabbath, I pursue rest and find myself wearier, jaded, and jealous, and I’m a grumpy thirteen-year-old again, staring out the mini-van window, wondering why we must go to church on vacation.  It is at those times that I need to reencounter the Lord of the sabbath.

Who is the Lord over your rest?

Stewardship or Servitude (9.2.2017)

Scripture Readings: 1 Thessalonians 4:9-11; Psalm 98; Matthew 25:14-30


IMG_20170902_071232593A few important things have happened on September 2.  World War II formally ended with the signing of the documents for Japan’s surrender in 1945.  Keanu Reeves of The Matrix was born in 1964, “Woah.”  Finally, my daughter, Hosanna, was born.  As we celebrate her second birthday, she’s going to help us break open the Parable of the Talents.

At only two, Hosanna reminds me of something that I think exists in most, if not all, of us.  We love when someone entrusts us with something, but hate when someone forces something on us.  Rephrased, we desire to be good at stewardship, but don’t desire to live out servitude.  Paul, in his discourses on grace, infers that God desires us to be stewards entrusted with the Father’s grace and mission, not workers collecting our wages.  The gospels put this human condition on display at least twice, the Parable of the Prodigal Son/the Good Father/the Jerk-face Brother and the Parable of the Talents.  And of course, my two-year-old illustrates this well by doing ‘helper’ jobs with a determination that is only surpassed by her tenacity to resist direct commands.  She desires stewardship, not servitude.

In the Parable of the Talents, this juxtaposition seems to have its origin in how the servants perceive the master.  They were each given an absurd amount of money, as one talent is roughly fifteen years wages.  They were given the amount “each according to his ability.”  However, the first two servants trusted the master and the third did not.  The master rewards them for their ‘faithfulness’.  For their trust in him and their trustworthiness.  However, the third servant is clear that he doesn’t trust the master at all, and nor was he trustworthy with his master’s wealth.  He did not safeguard it; he buried it.  He didn’t see himself as a steward entrusted but as one forced to do what his master wouldn’t.  Like my daughter throwing a toy on the ground after being told to put it away, he buried the coin.

Another interpretation is that his distrust originates in resentment.  He saw the amounts given to the others and took offense at how little he was given.  This too translates to our family.  Just yesterday, my son was surly that I gave a job to Hosanna and not him.  Regardless of why the servant lost his trust, I want us to focus on the words of distrust he utters.

Unlike his predecessors, the third servant does not start by returning the master’s money, but starts with these words,

Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here it is back.

The Master repeats the words back to him, not as a confirmation of their truthfulness, but to show the inconsistency between the servant’s excuse and his actual actions.  For surely, the man who gives you fifteen years wages to invest while he’s gone can hardly be accused of never sowing.  The master seems to be poking a hole in the servants opening line, as if proving that he was wrong to believe he could dupe the master.

parable-of-the-talents-Good-and-Faithful-servant-icon-5But what about us?  Do we allow lies about God to allow us to become neglectful of our spiritual lives?  Do we recognize that all of God’s expectations also come with his grace to help us fulfill them?  Do we resent God when he seems to entrust others with more than us?  Do we see God as calling us to stewardship and in turn that God trusts us with his gifts?  Or do we believe God has called us to menial servitude?

Just Practice (8.5.2017)

Scripture Readings: Leviticus 25:1, 8-17; Psalm 67; Matthew 14:1-12


IMG_20160906_124845632Talking small children into using the potty can be difficult, as many of you may know.  With my son, Ignatius, I sometimes find myself using the phrase, “just go practice.”  Iggy knows how to use the bathroom, but I want him to become proficient at responding to the need to go potty.  As Christians, as we pursue lives of virtue, we need to practice like a three-year-old practices on the potty.

This whole theme was brought up by a friend mentioning the distinction between value and virtue based morality.  Though I only heard his four-minute recap of the topic, our conversation came to mind as I read Herod’s story today in Matthew.

Herod likely knew what was right.  When quizzed on his values he would likely be able to pass with flying colors about what was right and what was wrong, all the more reason to lock John the Baptist away as he sounded like his conscience’s echo.  But knowing what is right and working consistently at developing virtue is different.

Herod’s lack of virtue is evident from his inability to stand up to anyone around him.  He had not trained himself to say no to himself and so can’t say no to anyone else.  This is essential to every yes we hope to offer in life. As one of my favorite quotes puts it, “if you can’t say ‘no’, then your ‘yes’ means nothing.”

But how do we train ourselves in virtue without putting ourselves in harm’s way?  One piece of advice I’ve taken to heart is to practice a daily denial.  Maybe it is drinking your coffee without cream (or not drinking coffee at all if you are a stronger person than I).  Maybe you don’t use salt or choose to relax with a glass of lemonade instead of a gin and tonic.  And this isn’t bargaining, you aren’t skipping the breakroom brownie so you can have ice cream guilt free when you get home.  You are just saying no, to help train your willpower.

This won’t make us perfect and doesn’t make us impervious to sin.  Nor does this mean we can be less reliant on grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  But as we say no to that extra episode on Netflix, we might find more time to pray.  Or as we learn to practice temperance we might find that we avoid occasions to commit the same sins again.

Find a time today ‘to just practice’ saying no, so the next time you say yes, you know you mean it.  Just as my son is getting better and better at making it to the potty on time (praise the Lord!), we’ll get better at responding to the Holy Spirit speaking through our conscience.

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Am I Truly Hospitable or Am I Merely Polite? (7.1.2017)

Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 8:5-17


Am I hospitable?  Do I allow others to welcome me with hospitality?  These were the questions that crossed my mind as I read today’s readings.  I’m going to let my prayer and reflection rest on those questions.

When I first asked myself if I was hospitable I affirmed that I was.  I want people in my home to feel welcome and I never want them to feel rushed or pushed aside.  But what sets that apart from politeness?  Am I truly hospitable or am I merely polite?  I want the people in my home to feel welcome, but do I wish to welcome those who aren’t in my home?  Do I only offer the food and drink that I care to share or do I offer what my guests care to have?  Is my desire to help them feel at home or like part of the family?

fresh-coffeeAs these questions surfaced, a conversation with a dear friend emerged in my memory.  We talked about how we place the burden of hospitality on the guest.  We ask if they want a piece of fruit instead of setting it on the table, we ask if they want water instead of just pouring them a glass, we ask if we can make them coffee instead of offering to pour them a cup of the coffee we just made.  We seem, albeit unintentionally, to put the preservation of our material goods above the welcome our guest experiences.

7733596232_8c3dec579aThis is distinctly different than how Abraham treats the Lord.  He runs to the three men immediately and requests the honor of serving.  How often do I view hospitality as a burden instead of an honor?  The second conviction was in the Lord’s acceptance.

Have you ever uttered these words, “No, I’m ok, I don’t need anything?”  I know I have and they came to mind as I read this passage.  God needs nothing and still accepts our hospitality.  Having welcomed us into the family, God still offers us the chance to welcome Him into our own families.  We see this not just in the reading from Genesis, but in the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.  After Jesus heals her, he accepts her hospitality, not in payment, but as a grace because she is a better person for being hospitable.  Do I allow others to grow in the virtue of hospitality or do I assert my self-sufficiency as I remind them that I don’t need anything?

Finally, I was encouraged to follow this investigation into hospitality as I read the psalm for today.  It isn’t from the Psalms, it is Mary’s Magnificat.  Her song of praise after the hospitality she received from Elizabeth, the hospitality she extended God, and the hospitality she experienced in God’s desire to bring her into his plan for salvation.  As we reflect on today’s readings and recall how scandalously God welcomes us, we can ask ourselves how we can grow in hospitality and humility.brooklyn_museum_-_the_magnificat_le_magnificat_-_james_tissot_-_overall_-e1448902244926

The Desert (6.24.2017)

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 139; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80


Before this section of Luke I presumed what I knew what the focus of my reflection would be.  Those untold stories will remain just that because my attention was hijacked by a phrase that appears at the end of the Gospel.  The last sentence reads, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”

I’m sorry, what?  I know Elizabeth and Zechariah were new at this parenting thing but who puts a child in a desert?  Luke chose a strange transition from cute little baby John to camel hair wearing, bug eating, John the Baptist (though a childhood spent in the desert would explain a lot).  So that’s the line with which I prayed.

As I prayed with that line I thought about the symbol of the desert.  A place for nearness with the Lord.  The desert was a place where people could go to retreat into their proper relationship with God.  In the desert priorities get straitened, frivolous competitors for our attention fade way, God’s provision becomes clearer, and the time for prayer becomes more available.  Not to mention it is intentional.  Without a care or second thought I could wander one of the metro-parks in the area, but to go out into the desert is a choice you make with a purpose in mind.  One does not go into a desert to become comfortable, we desert comfort to become purposeful, and the purpose we hope to adopt is God’s.

This brings us back to Luke’s line about John being in the desert.  When I first read it I pictured the child John, but that seemed a little absurd to me.  However, I wondered how long of a desert stay are we talking here?  Surely, he could have been home or in Jerusalem for Passover, or any number of places, but, (and I’m not saying Luke intended it this way) he had the spiritual life of one in the desert.  There was a nearness to God that required John being able to enter the desert even if he did not physically travel there until later in life.

We all need to find this desert in our life.  We need to find a way to create, at the very least, a time, if not a place that we enter the desert.  We need that time in our everyday lives when we intentionally seek the purposes of God, not to mention see His provision.  It was the man from the desert that stood on the shore of the river, and through all the distractions and noise pointed out Jesus saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  John might not have known everything about God that the Pharisees and scribes of that time could have taught him, but he knew Him when he saw Him because he was from the desert.

1280px-Sunset_in_the_Negev_Desert_near_Yeruham,_IsraelSo let’s find a time to enter the desert.  Maybe it is a daily time of prayer, maybe it means having a prayer corner, or it means recommitting prayer time to the pursuit of God’s priorities.  Either way, if we are to model John’s ability to identify Christ when we see him, we need to know him, and for that, we need the desert.

Trusting Tithing (6.10.2017)

Scripture Readings: Selections of Tobit 12 & 13, Mark 12:38-44


Several years ago, I spoke with a co-worker about tithing.  While I was coming from a Catholic background she was coming from a non-denominational one.  I didn’t know the statistics for how much the average Catholic gives or if the Church had an official recommendation for tithing.  My understandings were rudimentary at best.  When she shared her experiencing of tithing I was floored.

She shared that she had been raised to give 10% right off the top, before electric, gas, car payment, and even before taxes.  There was no question of what she would give, and she knew her priority was to support her church and her brothers and sisters.  I’m not saying we all have to give exactly like that, but recalling how awkward I felt about how little I gave, I wonder how I would have felt watching the widow in Mark 12.

Both women, my co-worker and the widow, show me that tithing and almsgiving are more than just doing my part.  Instead it is an exercise in trust and humility.  True giving expresses that I trust that God will provide even if I give more than is ‘smart’.

It is humbling for two reasons.  First, I admit that what God can do with my money is far greater than what I can do.  Second, I gain practice putting the needs of the community or even other individuals above my own.  In this way, tithing is less of a monetary pot-luck, a more of a real-life Stone Soup.

This kind of giving that grows our trust and faith in God and humbles us before others is the alms giving that is described in Tobit.  It is the kind that Raphael couples with righteousness and the overcoming of sin.  Another way to put it, the church envelope or the donation to Catholic Relief Services are more than something for siblings to fight over doing (it always seemed more fun putting my parent’s money in the basket, I’m not as eager now that it is my own).

This is the kind of giving that Christ did for us on the cross.  A giving that is first and foremost for others, not about our ledger.  One that might interrupt us, like Tobit’s leaving the table to bury the dead.  Lord, we ask for your generous heart so that we may give like you.

Paul’s Pastoral Option (5.20.2017)

Scripture Readings: Acts 16:1-10; Psalm 100, John 15: 18-21


What does it mean to be pastoral?  I’ve heard some express concern that the concept is abused to take the easy way out.  I’ve heard others fear that the Church too often forgets to be pastoral.  Acts 16 gives us a view of pastoral ministry that both inspires and challenges.  We find these words, “Paul wanted [Timothy] to come along with him.  On account of the Jews of that region, Paul had him circumcised, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (16:3).  In this sentence and a half, I see the reality of what it means to be pastoral and I want us to come along with Paul and Timothy for just a minute as we unpack what this word means for us as disciples.

What was Paul looking for in Timothy?  He was looking for a co-worker in the transmission of the Gospel.  Someone with whom he could proclaim Christ crucified and risen.  It is this desire, or rather conviction, to share the Gospel that led to what I’m calling Paul’s ‘pastoral response’.  He has Timothy circumcised.

We’re all big kids here, right?  I mean, ouch!  This moment shows us that true pastoral actions lead to taking on discomfort to reach the person.  An authentic pastoral spirit doesn’t compromise the Gospel for the sake of comfort, it compromises our comfort for the sake of the Gospel.  The gospel which is meant for everyone.

Acts tells us that Timothy’s circumcision was because of the Jews.  This challenges me because I often think of being pastoral as a way of reaching the distant.  Instead, Paul was intentionally pastoral to circumvent the rigidity that would not respect Timothy unless he was circumcised.  Paul is one of the greatest advocates that circumcision has no bearing on salvation in the New Covenant.  Despite his opposition to the rigidity of the Judaizers (those demanding gentile Christians must also be circumcised) he has Timothy circumcised to cunningly approach them.

As I prayed with the passage, I was distracted by the voices I’ve heard in the past complaining about those who are overly rigid or the overly lax in their pastoral approach.  My desire to solve that little dispute diluted the force with which I must ask myself if I’m being pastoral.  Am I compromising the Gospel for my comfort or my comfort for the Gospel, so that it can reach the person right in front of me?

Needing Kneeling

As a Catholic I’ve heard people poke fun at the different motions we have at Mass.  We sit, stand, genuflect, and sometimes even bow.  As I participated in Mass today I appreciated something new about kneeling.  I looked around and saw moms, dads, and kids kneeling.  Some people were elderly, and others were young.  It didn’t matter if they were the CEO or unemployed, serving in the military or an undocumented person, lacking a high school diploma or possessing a PhD, the holiest philanthropist or the estranged believer, we were all kneeling together.

Some people rag on the movements and postures we use at Mass, but at least once a week I’m given the concrete reminder that there is one before whom we all kneel.  It isn’t just an abstract idea for me, but a regular reality.  Whether the world judges us great or pitiful, we all fall on our knees before the only judge that matters.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)