Signs of Life

“[The righteous person] is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.”

–Psalm 1

One of the favorite things I liked to receive as a child was a connect the dot coloring book. Every page of the book was a new adventure as I traced my way, one dot at a time, to solving the picture puzzle. I would occasionally decide to start with the mid-point and trace forward or backward just to shake things up a bit. Connecting dots is still satisfying for me and I do it every day as I pray the Daily Office of prayers and readings of The Church. The practice of it connects me to the central point of the panorama of Salvation History: Jesus and His Church. Through Jesus and The Church, we connect the Old Covenant with the New Covenant lived out in the history and letters of Early Church.

There is a prevalent theme revealed in today’s readings, or should I say connect the dot picture, as we consider the Gospel in Matthew 12 as well as the Old Testament readings. In reading them we are able to trace our finger to the answer Jesus gives to the skeptical scribes and Pharisees who demanded a sign that Jesus was the expected Messiah.

 “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”  But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.  The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

The scribes and Pharisees not only knew what the Old Covenant proclaimed about the promised Messiah, they had memorized much of it. And why? So that they would recognize the fulfillment of the Old Covenant when the Messiah Jesus entered history and established His Church in The New Covenant. Here they were speaking face-to-face with the promised Messiah standing before their eyes; they could touch him, see him, hear him, they even dined with him! Yet they still wanted a sign, their doubt and skepticism and their dislike of what Jesus had to say messed with their own connect the dot picture about God and His Covenant.

How does Jesus respond? He begins with a sign named Jonah and connects himself to him declaring, “Something greater than Jonah is here.” He then connects to another sign named Solomon then repeats, “Something greater than Solomon is here.” I can’t image how exasperated Jesus must have been! A concrete wall comes to mind.

Let’s consider something else about the signs of God’s faithfulness that is recalled in the readings today. The psalmist sings about the righteous person, the person who keeps covenant with the LORD, comparing their life to a tree:

“The righteous person is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers
.”

The prophet Isaiah describes it another sign by declaring how the streams of living water flows over those who keep covenant with the LORD:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
    and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
    and my blessing on your descendants.
They shall spring up among the grass
    like willows by flowing streams.

Here the Creator is offering up the signs of the fidelity of his creation to usher us into the reality of eternal truths. The sign of the TRUTH’s arrival in humanity, fulfilled in the WORD made flesh and living among us–Jesus. A sign revealed in Christ’s Church, the New Covenant and its Sacramental Tradition in the practice of worship of The Most High God.

When we begin to understand that Jesus is the Living Water of The Covenant fulfilled, we can envision ourselves as trees in the soil by streams of water. We open ourselves to planting our life in the soil of the Word and the celebrations of The Sacraments as we keep covenant with Christ. And as a tree innately thrives when water is abundant, we see how the fruit of the Holy Spirit grows in us as we drink from the Word and receive the Sacraments of His Covenant with us. The word sacrament itself means “a sign of the spiritual reality”. To avoid The Sacraments is to deny the reality of The New Covenant, in fact, it is to deny that Christ is the Son of God (sounds like the scribes and Pharisees, doesn’t it?)

So we’ve come back to Jesus’s response to them in today’s Gospel. “Something greater than [Jonah, Solomon, trees, water and fruit] is here.” In other words fellow Pharisees, we cannot choose what we like about what Jesus teaches and ignore the parts of the His New Covenant that mess with our own connect the dot pictures. Furthermore, if we disregard the conditions of the Covenant as practiced in our Sacramental Faith we ignore the central point of our salvation which leaves us all scribbles and no picture.

How about you? Are you so tangled up in your skepticism about the truth of Jesus and His Covenant that you are all scribbles?

Do you ever ask yourself, “What’s the point of my life?” or “What’s the point of keeping covenant with God in the Sacraments when the stuff around me brings me more pleasure?” 

Heres’s another question many decide not to answer. “What’s the point of weekly worship at Mass or the Sacrament of Confession?” Oh, friends, we are on our way to withering away by all our skepticism about Christ and His Church when we forego the life-giving waters in the practice of the Sacraments of our Faith. Something greater than our skepticism is here among us, it is Christ’s presence in the reading of Sacred Scripture and the receiving of The Church’s Sacraments.

Jesus, in you we live and move and have our being. Place your hand upon ours so that we would allow you to connect the scribble we’ve made of our lives in the signs you have given us through The New Covenant, Jesus in your Church.

In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

To my Grandchildren, Chapter II

Don’t

Forget

to

Remember

Do you remember from the first chapter why God created the first man and woman?You are right, God created them to enjoy being with him, to look at Him the way He looked at them. We talked about how everything was perfect, God, man and woman joined together as best friends. What happened that changed the perfect garden that God, the man, and the woman lived in? You are right, the man and the woman decided to look into a creature’s eyes, a serpent who hated God. After that time, when they stopped looking into God’s eyes bad stuff started to happen. They had ugly thoughts about each other, they spoke ugly words to each other. God still loved them very much, he never stopped gazing at them. God knew ugly things would happen because they stopped gazing into His eyes. The first terrible thing, probably the most terrible thing, happened after the man and the woman had their first two sons. What do you imagine is the most terrible thing that can happen? Let me tell you about it.

The man and the woman started a family, their oldest son was named Cain and he liked to play with the dirt; planting seeds and growing vegetables. He was really good at it, God had created him to enjoy taking care of the earth’s dirt. The second son was named Abel and the Sacred Scripture tells us he was a keeper of sheep, do you know what that means? He enjoyed taking care of sheep, we call that shepherding so we could say Abel was a shepherd. God had created Abel to enjoy taking care of animals. From as long as they could remember the sons regularly prepared an offering with their parents to give to God. What do you suppose their offerings looked like? We can’t be sure but we can guess. Sometimes they would give God an offering of the grains grown from the ground and sometimes they would offer God a young animal they had shepherded. It was their way of saying thank you to God for creating them and loving them in spite of their decision to look into the serpent’s eyes and think he loved them. We still do what they did today, our offerings of thanksgiving look a little different than they did then, but it still means the same thing.

As the boys grew older, God began asking Cain and Abel to bring offerings of their own to Him to show Him how much they loved Him. The Sacred Scripture tells us Cain would bring the fruit of the ground he enjoying taking care of and Abel brought the first born of the flocks of animals that he enjoyed taking care of. Somewhere along the way Cain’s attitude changed about giving a offering of thanks to the LORD. We are given clues in Sacred Scripture about how that might have happened. I know you like to play the game Clue when we are together so I know you like clues, too. Professor Mustard will find a clue that could help him solve a mystery. It works the same way in Sacred Scripture, but Sacred Scripture is not a game, it is the Truth. It seems to me that if God wants to give me hints when I read His Sacred Scripture, I better pay attention because it is going to lead me to something important I need to know.

It happened one day that when Cain and Abel offered their gifts to God as a thank you, the LORD had regard for Abel’s offering. Do you know what that means? It’s a word you heard in the first chapter. The other word you can use for regard is gaze! Remember how much God loves to gaze at us, he also likes to gaze at what we enjoy giving to Him. Abel’s offering of a new lamb must have been beautiful to look at. You know what? The Sacred Scripture tells us that God did not regard Cain’s gift to Him. I wonder why? Do you think there was something wrong with the fruit of the ground that Cain brought to give God? Remember about clues. Here’s a clue about why God didn’t gaze on Cain’s offering very long. “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Hmm? That’s a curious clue. Cain probably was jealous of Abel and when he realized God gazed at Abel’s offering longer than He did at Cain’s, he got angry. Not only did Cain feel angry, his face; his countenance fell. That means his look changed. I bet you know what this means because I know sometimes you get jealous of your sister or brother, you may even think that your parents love them more than they love you. I remember feeling that way!

You know what I think? God knows everything, even our thoughts, even when we don’t say our thoughts. God looks into our eyes and knows what we are feeling because He created feelings, too! So this clue about Cain’s feelings tells us something God knows that we don’t know because we aren’t God. Here’s what God did when Cain’s anger and jealousy showed on his face. He asked him some questions. The questions gives us another clue about how the story may end. God asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” God looked into Cain’s eyes and saw what He already knew. We use a big word to describe what only God can know, it is omniscience. Omni means “all” and science means, “knowledge”–God alone has all knowledge, or we can put it this way, God is all-knowing. He knows EVERYTHING about EVERYONE at ANYTIME, ANYWHERE. That makes my brain sweat to even think about, doesn’t it do that to you? God is so spectacular that He keeps track of everything and everyone! Would you like to be omniscient? What are some of the things you would like to know?

There are so many words that describe God, but the most important is LOVE. When God saw that Cain was angry and jealous and that Cain assumed that God had rejected his offering, he still loved Cain. Cain was still learning how to love God. We do that sometimes, don’t we? Remember that God is omniscient so He knows what we are thinking and why we are thinking it. And He still loves us! This is a good thing to remember when we read the rest of the story about Cain because he makes the worse choice ever. Can you guess what the worse choice is?

A little while later, Cain tricked his brother. He told Able, “let’s go out to the field.” Cain didn’t want to go to the field just to play soccer. What happens next is the terrible choice–Cain killed Abel! He killed him because he was jealous of him so he thought the solution to his feelings of jealousy was to get rid of Abel. Does that make sense to you? God had a curious way of handling Cain’s terrible choice, instead of yelling and screaming at him, he asked Cain two questions! “Where is you brother?” and “What have you done?” Remember that God knows everything? So, why do you think he asked Cain that question? This question gives us another clue, and it’s about the way God loves us.

God loves you more than your parents and He loves you more than I love you. That’s almost impossible to believe that anyone could love you more than your parents of me. God wants you to choose to love Him just like he wanted Cain to love Him and so would remind Cain about the most important choices he would need to make in order to have the happy life God had planned for Him. And even though Cain ignored God and got mad at God, God still loved Him. Even though Cain did the worst thing ever, God still wanted to Cain to gaze into His eyes and tell him the truth about what he had done.

Do you remember a time you did something wrong and Dad has you a question about what you had been doing? Then you figured out he already knew what you were doing, but he wanted you to admit you did it. The word we use for that is “confess”. The Sacred Scripture is full of stories like Cain’s where God shows His love in the same way as He did with Cain and as Dad shows his love to you. God knows that if you will confess what you did was wrong, then He can help you fix your gaze back on Him. If you don’t confess what you’ve done wrong, then it will be very hard for you to gaze into His eyes. Another thing it will do is it will make it easier for you to keep ignoring God and to keep choosing to do things will eventually cause you to forget how much God loves you.

This leads us to conversation God had with a man named Abram. Abram was scared of a lot of things, but God taught him how to trust Him and quit being scared. We’ll read about that in the next chapter.

In A Word….”Selah”

Today’s readings from the psalms and oracles of the prophets serve as a soundtrack, as it were, for us as we have been considering the beginnings of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, recorded in Genesis. It’s not hard to recognize the same soundtrack plays as a backdrop for our own lives as we grow into our identity as God’s child. In fact, I believe that is why the psalms and oracles are so prevalent in The Liturgy of the Church, the words unite our spirit with the Spirit of God’s voice throughout the ages.

There is a certain word that is often sung or implied as a theme and by heeding it I may receive the LORD’s help as I walk the path of salvation. The word acts as a pop-up reminder to us to remember who we are and to whom we belong as we tread our own way through the high and low places of our journey of salvation. Consider this paraphrase of Psalm 46.

God is [my] refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.  Therefore [I] will not fear …… Selah

…God is in [my] midst; [I] shall not be moved;
God will help ….
 Selah

….“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”….
 Selah

The words of the psalmist convey the ever-present help of the LORD to us as the way to mindfulness of the LORD’s quiet presence to us. The psalmist ends each phrase with the word “Selah”, which means “forever” or “to lift up; exalt”, it’s presence in the psalm is a cue for us to pause or to take a breath allowing our minds to take in what the psalmist has proclaimed. It serves as a sacred and silent interlude for us to receive the LORD’s truth. Within this particular psalm there is the implication of the “if/then” of the fullness of God’s Covenant with us. He calls the people to “Be still and know that I am God,” to consider what the LORD in his mercy is trying to teach us as we live out our salvation: If you will remain silent, listen and linger with me, then you will know I am your fortress; I will be your salvation! Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Yet in practice it can take a colossal effort to remain silent. I am sometimes tempted to rely on my own judgment to quickly plow through the interruptions of life or become so enamored by the shiny parts of life that I’m distracted from the reality of the LORD’s Covenant with me.

We see this evidenced in what we’ve been reading about the history of God’s people; how fear and pride dogged their path, how they allowed the so-called gods of the culture around them to lose sight of the LORD’s Covenant. Eventually fatigue from their striving to fit in with the culture wears them down. What I have observed in my own life is that if fear and pride doesn’t drive me to my knees before the LORD, fatigue certainly will. I need “Selah” for I weary of the tug of war between my own will and the LORD’s will…..that’s just like him, isn’t it? He allows us to come to the end of ourselves where we finally cease striving. It’s as if the LORD says, “Lois, I finally have you where I need you…..now, let’s consider how you are striving to achieve and acquire what comes from Me alone.”

Two other passages from the psalms and the prophet are included in the Liturgy today that draws our spirit into a “Selah”. From Isaiah 30:15, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved. In quiet and in trust your strength lies.” And again in Psalm 124 we can imagine the psalmist seated on a mountainside of the rugged terrain of Israel. As he sits there, he is pondering all the “what ifs” of life and remembers the faithfulness of the LORD as his rock and refuge. In that “Selah” a song formulates in his mind and he begins to sing,

If it had not been the Lord who was on my side
    when people rose up against me,
then they would have swallowed me up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against me;
then the flood would have swept me away,
    the torrent would have gone over me;
then over me would have gone
    the raging waters.”

Friend, are there “what ifs” in your life? Do you sit still before the LORD as you ponder them?….Selah

Have you come through a time of celebration and are left with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude?… Selah

Were you following a path set before you when circumstances went sideways for you? …Selah

Has someone you trusted betrayed you? ….Selah

Has the pandemic brought about financial reversal in your life?… Selah

Do you tend to focus on what the LORD hasn’t done for you?… Selah

When you scurry after pleasures that are passing, do you….Selah?

The joy of our salvation comes through our own willingness to Selah; to be still and know that the LORD is forever faithful and true. Only He can truly satisfy.

LORD God, remind us that nothing is new under the sun. You never change and your responses to our own choices are the same as they were to our ancestors in the faith. LORD, you are faithful and true even when we are not. Slow us down, train us to embrace “Selah” in our posture before you.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

God or God and…..

Awhile back I was actively involved with mentoring refugees who had been resettled here in Sioux Falls by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It was a privilege to walk alongside an individual or a family as they negotiated the very hard transition from a war-torn nation where genocide was destroying tribes because of long-held resentments that reached back hundreds of years. In my training for the ministry I learned that even though a refugee is freed from the impending threat to their life with their refugee status, they were now in a new kind of refugee status: a stranger who had lost everything–land, culture, family–they held dear to them to live in a new land with a culture and language that is vastly different from what they had escaped. I could spend much more time addressing what I observed over those years, but I would like to share what came back to mind as I read today’s Office of Readings.

In reality we are all refugees to some degree because we are not at home in this world’s culture, or at least we should not feel at home. The language and the mind-set of the culture should feel foreign to us. The values of the culture should feel odd when we try to fully embrace them. We should feel like sojourners rather than denizens. The LORD Jesus Christ emphasized this in so many ways as he taught His disciples and the wanna-be followers who tagged along during his earthly ministry. Today’s passage from Matthew 8 is just one exchange he had that reveals to us how we should then live:

“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Another of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But Jesus answered him, “Follow me,
and let the dead bury their dead.”

Jesus wasn’t conveying to his followers that a home or a dead relative wasn’t important, he knew the heart of the men who were asking the questions and could see the reasons for not following him were excuses to stay in their comfort zone. As I read the passaged I recalled a conversation I had with one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who I was helping tutor in order to get his GED. During that conversation, I asked him how had he and the other Lost Boys had survived as orphans during the years of wandering further and further away from their destroyed villages. He replied with words that are forever etched in my memory. We had God. The gaze of his eyes were set on the horizon and I imagined all the moments of despair and hopelessness he must have felt as he literally ran for his life and how God revealed himself to him. After a few moments of silence I asked Deng if he still held to that truth now as a refugee in America, his answer stunned me. “In Sudan we knew God was all we had and all we needed. Here in America I notice that people have ‘God and…,’ I am afraid I will forget God when I get what you American’s have.” We talked about that for quite a bit because I was the one who needed to learn to live as a refugee in this world and Deng was my sage. I am a better person because of Deng’s influence on my life.

Like the men in today’s gospel I was prone to be more concerned about where I lay my head rather than Who I can rest in. I was prone to allow earthly obligations and societal norms to cloud my eyes and detract me from the values of God’s Kingdom. My “God and….” included loop-holes and self-justification. My “God and….” had the disturbingly familiar image of my SELF. My “God and….” was a trinity of me, myself, and I. I would spend hours fretting over what people thought of me or all the ifs and buts that I used to qualify my faith in God.

I am sure that it is not an accident that The Church offers up an example from Abraham’s life in today’s reading. We do well to remember what the God of the Old Testament required of the great heroes of our Faith. Abraham lived much of his life as a refugee, the LORD intended it so. “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you…I will bless you…All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” We will never know how Salvation History would have looked if all God’s people put their faith in what God said and obeyed accordingly. Because of Abraham’s obedience to the LORD we can see how the Story of Salvation did unfold to reveal what LORD intended through His people: Abraham and his descendants. Like us, the people of God got into a lot of trouble when they chose to worship “God and….” and over and over the LORD drew them back by reminding them of their ultimate purpose. Prophets would regularly hand down a message from God to His people that usually began with, “On that day…..” A vision of the “promised land” would then be told where justice and mercy ruled the day. And then God’s people would forget Him because the distractions of what the culture offered up was seemingly more attractive.

It’s the human condition, we forget to remember who we are, where our true home is and what we are to be about. The LORD, ever-patient, allows history to unfold but He is always calling us back to where we belong. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament is the handbook for refugees! The exhortation to remain faithful to what we have seen and heard about our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God is strong. Abraham is recalled as the example for us as we sojourn in the kingdom of this world: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents…for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God….” Abraham had struggled with trying to serve “God and….” It didn’t go well for him, but in the end he lived his life worshipping God, life improved! The key to the map of faith was this: “…he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,…”

How about you, friend? Do you see this world as a foreign country? Does your faith in God include an “and”? What does your “God and….” look like? Perhaps you worship God and…political party or position or reputation or family obligations, or stuff. “God and….” has many faces!

Heavenly Father, remind us again that your Kingdom is not of this world. In you alone we are truly at home, draw us back to You.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jacob, Part I

“Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This in nothing else than the house of God, the gateway to heaven.”

Genesis 28:16-17

The Church offers up a template for transformation that the LORD desires for all his creation in today’s reading from the Old Testament. In Genesis 28: 11-22, we find Jacob in a place that the LORD will use to initiate His transformation. What is behind him is an angry brother and a disappointed father whom he had deceived. What is before him is a path that will includes pitfalls and pratfalls and the formation of a dysfunctional family that eclipses any reality television. The journey will include deception handed back to him many times over, but in the end Jacob will deserve the title “Patriarch of the Faith” that he is remembered for. The first place of his transformation is at Bethel, a sacred place for his grandfather Abraham. Apparently this knowledge had not been passed down to Jacob. This is a clue about his upbringing and it’s a cautionary tale for us. Moses later records the LORD’s instruction to the people of Israel that was woven into the culture of family life.

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

The culture relied on oral tradition and the passing on of the truth depended upon the parents fidelity to this understanding. Perhaps Jacob was forgetful about his family history and the stories that conveyed their faith in God or Isaac had neglected the passing of the baton of faith which included the stories of Abraham’s exemplar trust in the LORD. What we can learn from this is how foundational to a child’s life is the example of faith in the LORD that can be observed in our own lives and in giving examples of the LORD’s faithfulness through the twists and turns of life.

“… And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”  And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,  so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God,  and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”

Genesis 28:11-22

The encounter that ensues between Jacob and the LORD begins with that “certain place” where decades earlier his grandfather, Abraham encountered the LORD (see Genesis 12) and though Jacob seemed to be unaware of that fact, the LORD chose that place to initiate Jacob into the reality of the LORD’S presence. Jacob was between a rock and a hard place, pun intended, and the sooner he recognized the omnipresent God, the sooner his spirit would be reordered into the man God desired him to be. I believe it is the same for us. The LORD is hounding our tracks as the psalmist puts it, the “greyhound of heaven” who is waiting for us to stop ignoring him and see life as it is, not what we delude our minds into believing.

A stone becomes his pillow and then a memorial. Here is another clue for our own transformation–the needed the rest that we often plow past in our striving as human-doings. The prophet Isaiah puts this truth like this, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Jacob was on his way toward the humility required for transformation, and rest is what ushered him into the awareness of God’s presence, a dream follows.

The dream that fills his sleep is a magnificent theophany where the divine touches the temporal; where the veil between earth and heaven is pulled back and Jacob’s eyes are opened to the presence of the tremendous Lover of his soul. His response, “Truly the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” What the LORD did to remind Jacob of who he was, where he was going, and what he was to be about is exactly what our transformational moments are like when we recognize the presence of the LORD; when we are humbled by the reminder that God is God and we are not! Jacob exclaimed that that place was the house of God (Bethel); “the gateway to heaven“. I wonder how many gateways to heaven are never opened by us because we are too busy running away from something or running to something or because our fear and pride saturate our life with busy-ness or self-delusion.

Jacob’s response upon waking from that dream brings to mind the experience of getting my first pair of glasses when I was about 11 years old. I was having trouble in school because of the nearsightedness we soon found out that I had. The optometrist’s office was on the 5th floor of the tallest building on our town square. When the time came for me to put on my new glasses, the wise optometrist led me to the window and instructed me to look down on a very familiar street. He placed my glasses on my head, and my 11 year-old brain was blown away by what I could now see that I could not see before It was the autumn of the year and the maple trees were displaying their brilliance, I had always enjoyed observing the change of seasons but now my joy had been increased because of the detail I could see. What before were watercolor images to me became pristine in their texture and detail!

Jacob’s eye-opening encounter with God at Bethel blew his mind. Jacob, who had seen his world with the distortion of greed and deception, had been taken to the window of reality where God corrected his sight to the beatific vision that is forever at play before the eyes of those who trust in the LORD and by faith realize that “Surely, the LORD is in this place“.

How’s it with you, friend? Are you running from something you regret or running to something you dread? Perhaps running isn’t even involved and it’s more like sloth; the insipid spiritual laziness that mires us in the rut of self-preservation. Either way, the LORD is purposefully hounding our tracks desiring to lead us into the divine life that is ours when we are completely abandoned to His sovereignty in our lives.

Do you rest in the LORD? Do you allow yourself to receive His peace by simply stopping in a cease-fire from the striving and dis-ease that pervades our culture. I’m a strong advocate for purposeful silence where we refuse the distractions of what is happening around us so that we may be fully present to the LORD.

Father, teach us to trust in you by choosing to rest in you. Help us to close our ears and eyes to the clamor of the culture. Lead us through our pitfalls and pratfalls into the confidence of knowing who we are and what we are about as a child of God.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Let It Be

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

–The Beatles

My first encounter with the beauty of our Blessed Mother came through the 1968 release of the popular song, Let it Be, by the Beatles. What the Beatles communicated in that song, though not exactly scriptural, began to draw me to Mary long before I converted to Catholicism decades later. The notion that the mother of Jesus could speak words of wisdom to me intrigued me.

Later in life when I was a tenderfoot Catholic I began contemplating all the words of Our Blessed Mother and I found that praying, “Let it be” could usher me into the grace the LORD has for all who will magnify Him. How so? By observing this grace-filled woman, this perfect mother, we learn how to detach ourselves from our own notions about how life should go. Let’s use the Beatles song to expand on how Mary’s fiat leads us into wisdom.

“When I find myself in times of trouble…” Our Blessed Mother knew times of trouble, she knew what confusion felt like, she knew what rejection felt like, she knew what poverty felt like. Her response to those rugged realities– “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” reveals her humility. As we learn to respond rather than to react when the unexpected throws us off-kilter we leave room in our soul to reflect on the circumstances from the LORD’s point of view as Mary surely did. In that space of reflection we learn to listen to the Holy Spirit’s wise counsel. Though life may remain rugged, we may more readily accept the pratfalls of life as sacred ground for our spirit to rest in the LORD’s great love for us.

“And in the hour of darkness…” Allow me to use my own experience with “the hour of darkness” to show how our Blessed Mother comes to us speaking words of wisdom. In the years before I officially converted to The Catholic Church, I devoured books written by contemplative Catholics. My spirit kindled to reading about the sacramental life of The Church, especially when the life of Our Blessed Mother was the topic. My spirit opened to belief in her intercession for me. One afternoon in the midst of a collection of grief-filled realities, I was feeling the seer of pain from an unspeakable tragedy our family was enduring. The hours, months, years were filled with dark hours! I cannot say I put Mary to the test but, somewhere deep down I hoped that she would be my Mother as I was being a mother in the midst of loss and grief. A moment came when I dropped to the floor from physical exhaustion of the trauma; I began to pray. Who did I pray to? The LORD of course, but who was there holding me, weeping with me, crying out with me the extreme of my emotions? It was Our Blessed Mother! I cannot articulate the infused comfort and hope my spirit received that day, but I experienced the “lifting up of the lowly” that Mary declared in her Magnificat.

“And when the night is cloudy…” When we are on our last tether and we can’t see our way through a dilemma, if we listen, we hear the echo of Our Blessed Mother say to Jesus, “[She] has no wine.” When our resources don’t measure up to the expectation of others, if we listen we can hear her say, “Whatever He says, do it.” And what do we do when Christ abundantly supplies? We do as Mary, we reflect on God’s goodness and treasure it in our heart.

“I wake up to the sound of music…” As we pray the rosary of our Blessed Mother we join Mary in contemplating the joys of the life of our Saviour. He laughs, he celebrates; when He walks in He literally lights things up! And we can imagine Mary laughing right along; why? For she knew that “He who is mighty has done great things!” We receive the same peace and joy when our mighty Saviour does great things in us!




“You Act Just Like your Father!”

Saints Philip and James, Martyrs

Have you ever been told that you act just like your father? What’s it like to hear that? I imagine it is a good thing to hear if you value the attributes passed on to you. A grateful child will often strive to reflect their father values as a way to honor their lives. This thought came to me today as I contemplated the Scripture passages in today’s readings (May 3, 2021) as The Church remembers and celebrates the lives of Saints Philip and James (The Lesser). These early Saints not only acted like Jesus, the Incarnate Father, they gave their lives in honor of Him. They stand with the other 12 pillars of the early Church as inspiration and encouragement for us as we, too, endeavor to act just like our Father in heaven.

Saint Paul writes to the believers in Corinth an admonition to remember that they have received the Gospel because there were men and women willing to reflect the image of Christ to the world and proclaim His Good News. He writes a mini-lesson on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ emphasizing that the resurrected Christ appeared to the faithful before his ascension into heaven. The passage ends, “After that he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.” I wonder why St. Paul makes a point of mentioning the appearance to the apostle St. James. Perhaps St. James had an impact on St. Paul in his early days as a Christian, who knows!

Saint John records in his gospel an encounter St. Philip had with Jesus, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...” We see here that St. Philip is remembered for his desire to SEE the Father. There’s a theme in these two apostles lives that we can learn from as we live in what we know now as the Apostolic Mission of the Church. The age of Christendom that the apostles gave their lives to establish has eroded under the tide of societal ideologies where the Truth of Christ’s Gospel has “died the death of a thousand qualifications” as Antony Flew once concluded. And now, you and I are called to be the saints-in-the-making for such a time as this, this Apostolic Age version 2 so to speak? How can we, as Saints James and Philip impact society with the Truth of the Gospel?

Recently I came across something what Pope Francis said about the the necessity of “white martyrdom” of those living in countries where freedom of religion is restricted. As we consider our own country and the growing restrictions on religious expression and freedom of speech, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that if we just keep our head down and continue to be a good neighbor, it will be enough to turn the tide against the escalating hatred of The Faith and the freedom to express that Faith here in the United States. Our white martyrdom is upon us, some of us on the frontline of public debate endure the “cancel culture” mindset every time they speak up for the Truth of Christ. They join the martyrs in this Apostolic Mission we are in now in the 21st century. The bloody martyrdom of Saints James and Philip came about because they did not waver in bearing witness to the Truth of the Gospel. Currently white martyrs are being marginalized, slandered and maligned, even imprisoned. Are they losing relationships because of their stand for the Truth of the Gospel? Probably. Does everyone around them cheer them on in their faithfulness to Christ and His Church? Certainly not! Will their lives end in a bloody death? I hope not!

I believe what Pope Francis was getting at in his reference to white martyrdom is a clarion call for you and me. We may not be a well-known apologists or public figure; however, we live our lives alongside neighbors, fellow employees, even family members that would allow the Truth of the Gospel to “die through a thousand qualifications.” If we are going to “look just like our Father” by being transformed into the image of Christ we are going to be confronted with choices every day that require a dying to our sense of self-protection. Do those around us know us for our faithfulness to the social teachings of Christ’s Church? Do we have the moral backbone to honor Christ’s image in us if we are threatened by their rejection or marginalization?

The white martyrdom of believers who face repeated trials in bearing witness to Christ, can be terrifying. When we are tempted to despair over the isolation we may have to endure, we need to remember that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of The Church, and now we must stand up for the Truth they died to protect. We join the company of believers around the world as we stand for this Truth, in doing so we can water The Church with our faithfulness and courage.

Father, grant us the courage of Saints Philip and James. May we make our own white martyrdom as a total offering to You where we not only die to ourselves, the world, and its allurements, but we stand against the tide of our culture’s denial of You.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

“Lord Jesus, Receive my Spirit.”

The seventh chapter of the Book of Acts is a nail biter–the first recorded martyrdom of the early Church. St. Stephen was chosen to be the go-to-apostle for that moment in the Church’s history. Why St. Stephen? We understand from the chapter proceeding today’s reading that St. Stephen was a deacon of the infant Church and he was known for being wise, full of faith and the Holy Spirit. It was written of him that he was full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people. In short, a holy man who knew who he was, to Whom he belonged and what he was about. St. Stephen inspires me!

As I considered the reading for today there were some take-aways that I help to increase my own faith as I strive for fidelity to my Saviour. Here are just a few. The interchange between the unbelieving countrymen and Stephen begins with some harsh words:

Stephen said to the people, the elders, and the scribes:
“You stiff-necked people
….”

Not the best way to make friends and influence enemies, right? The problem for the people was what he was declaring about them was not new to their ears, throughout the Old Testament the LORD often referred to Israel as stiff-necked because of their constant forgetting to remember who they were–the Chosen People of God. No wonder these first century Jews were infuriated with St. Stephen’s summation of their actions.

As I think of my life, regretfully, I’m uncomfortably aware of some of my own stiff-necked leanings. There have been times when I’ve been seized by rigid stiff-necked stubbornness; convinced of my own perspective or by hard-heartedness against someone who didn’t align with my way of thinking. I’m not proud of those moments. More bothersome is when I am more often seized by my own posture; when I spend too much effort on looking to the right and to the left, looking behind me–keeping my head down to look at what’s around me. When I choose only to see the distractions around me, I’m too easily flummoxed into inertia and doubt. And what does the LORD whisper to me when I’m stuck in that posture?

” [Lois] Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow springs of life…. Let your eyes look forward; fix your gaze straight ahead. Make a level path for your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your feet away from evil.”

We also see in St. Stephen’s response to the mis-guided accusations of the crowd surrounding him an example for us all when we are locked in our regrets about the past or our fears of rejection or when we are too prideful to change our mind. What did Stephen choose to do? He looked up!

But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit,
looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God
and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
and Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

St. Stephen was so convinced that the LORD’s presence surrounded him that his natural response to the fray around him was to look into the eyes of his Saviour. St. Stephen’s vision beyond the perilous reality led him to where he was headed, and he stayed the course! LORD, help us all!

We know that St. Stephen’s life did not end well by man’s standards; some would even surmise that he failed. However, we know the rest of the story. He joined the many martyred saints because he stood firm on the Truth of history and refused to allow what was happening to him in his persecutions to detract him from that Truth. At the end, St. Stephen’s words live on as a response for the Church as we live in a society that grinds its teeth at Truth with a stiff-necked anti-christ assumption on how life works. In spite of the fear and anger we may feel as we, too, are surrounded by a mad crowd, we must persevere! Is courage to do what is right a challenge for you? St. Stephen’s last plea to the LORD infused him with courage to endure. He had already been filled with the spirit of LORD and he knew his destination was not determined by the crowd. No, Jesus was standing, ready, arms open to receive his spirit!

“LORD Jesus, receive my spirit.”

LORD Jesus, transform our spirits with confidence in the truth that you are waiting to receive our spirits in every moment! We only have to let go of our grip on self-preservation.

LORD Jesus, we desire the faith, wisdom, and integrity of St. Stephen, but you know how stiff-necked we can be about our own ideas, rights and privileges. Forgive us when we’d rather tune into the voices of our society than listen to your Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Would you restore a right spirit within us?

LORD Jesus, when we walk the life of Faith with a wobble from always looking back to what has happened rather than looking forward into Your eyes, help us to fix the gaze of our eyes upon you.

St. Stephen, pray for us.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen


D.T.R.: Define the Relationship

St. Peter —

“The Most Successful Failure of All Time”

Today’s, April 8, 2021, first reading in the Mass is from the book of The Acts of the Apostles, otherwise referred to as Acts. The book itself appears right after the four Gospels that proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Good news, indeed, for in reading the gospel accounts of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we learn from Jesus, God Incarnate, God with skin on, how to act on the good life our Creator offers to all who will believe that Jesus IS the Son of God. The books that follow contain the acts of The early Church as they proclaimed Christ to the world, they are the sequel, so to speak, about how the Truth, Beauty and Goodness of Jesus Christ begins to take hold in the disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. That sequel, however, has no end; it continues through time into eternity. When we read of how The Catholic Church was established through St. Peter and his disciple, we can recognize how the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus yielded the magnificent transformation in his disciples that he had promised. With the descending of The Triune God’s holy Spirit recorded early in Acts, everything changed for his followers. Men and women who were once washed up ne’er-do-wells were filled with the fullness of God’s spirit and emboldened by the Truth. They suddenly knew who they were and what they were about! We recognize it in the action of St. Peter in today’s readings.

Chapter 3 recalls St. Peter’s fearless zeal in declaring that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament on the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, who was sent to bless the world. St. Peter, considered the most successful failure of all time KNEW this because he had had a number of moments that defined the relationship between himself and Jesus. Peter’s transformation from his once fallible, weak, fickle, impulsive, and undependable nature BEFORE the resurrection of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit of God. His transformation to the bold Peter we hear from in today’s reading was one filled with fits and starts, much like mine I might add. How about you? We can glimpse the beginning of Peter’s transformation with his answer to Jesus’ question on a road just outside of Caesarea Philippi. We read of that encounter in St. Matthew 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 

When Jesus Christ declared that apostle Peter was the “rock” (Matthew 16:18) on which he would build his Church it certainly wasn’t on what was visibly attractive about Peter’s faith in Christ at that point in his life. He declared it because of Peter’s answer in their conversation along the road; He knew that this saint-in-the-making would eventually prove his love for Him. We can observe that God’s sense of humor and his consolation settling down on a man with a nature much like ours, fulfilling a purpose much greater than himself. Does this give you hope? It does me. When I fail at representing the good news of our LORD Jesus Christ, I think of St. Peter. When I’m quick to judge, I think of St. Peter. When I fret over sins of my past, I think of St. Peter. When I’d rather hide from a conflict over theological Truth, I think of St. Peter.

Considering the questions that Jesus asks of his disciples and his detractors is intriguing for me. I find that they are questions I myself need to answer. In doing so I am able to define my relationship, to have my own D.T.R. with Christ in as much as I allow the Holy Spirit to probe my heart and mind for the answer to those questions. Try it sometime, I think you will find that as you answer those questions in prayer and meditation you will open yourself up to the transformation Jesus desires to accomplish in your life just as he did in St. Peter’s life.

Here are some of the many questions Jesus asked of Peter and the other disciples, the accounts surrounding the spoken question are a great place to begin your D.T.R. with Jesus.

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

“Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:16)

“Why are you terrified?” (Matthew 8:26)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)

“If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:26)

Holy Father, our hearts know St. Peter’s heart all too well. Forgive us for our fumbling attempts to follow you in all ways. Fill us with your holy Spirit, exchange our waffling pride and fear with the courage to not only say, but to live out–“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

      

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent 2021

LENT:

Getting Egypt Out Of Us!

Sometime around this fourth week of Lent I find myself scuffling in my lenten vows leaving a limp in my stride through the Lenten Desert. What I can vow on Ash Wednesday seems doable, even noble. This year, however, has been a particular struggle for me. Rather than allowing me to go through the motions of keeping my lenten vows that I THINK are good enough, the LORD has used the scuffle in my spirit to reveal a deeper sin in my life. Do you go through that?

Generations had come and gone since Joseph led the way for the tribe of Israel to escape famine. In the meantime, God’s chosen people had lost their way and fallen into the ways and means of the Egyptian culture. In today’s reading we find that the Israelites had just been freed of that 430 year bondage in Egypt in a stunning way because the LORD desired to get the Israelites out of Egypt–the slavery, the persecution, and the rampant idol worship of the culture. He called Moses to lead the way and one of the greatest stories of all time unfolds. The first step of the LORD’s deliverance is accomplished, and now the Israelites are in the desert around Mt. Sinai–a rag, tag tribe betwixt a rock and a hard place–of trusting the idols of Egypt and trying to remember how to worship God. Nothing about the desert appealed to the Israelites, they were moaners and groaners, a stiff-necked people who had a big problem. As we do, I might add. They had spent so many years immersed in a pagan culture that worshiped created things instead of the Creator. In spite of the pain they endured they were apparently comfortable with the Egyptian way. So not only did the LORD want to get the people out of Egypt to worship Him alone, he wanted to get Egypt out of the people! Hmmmm? This sounds a bit too familiar to us, doesn’t it?

This year in particular a memory has come back to me several times as I’ve gone to prayer with the LORD about what I am struggling against during this Lent. Decades ago our youngest child was climbing around on some landscape timber when she lost her balance and fell. She is a tough one, so she didn’t complain or cry, she just got right up and continued to play. A few days passed before I noticed some redness on her knee, I didn’t think much of it because she always had bruises, cuts and bumps on her body. A week passed and I started noticing that her gait had changed, she favored the leg with the bump. I rubbed some salve on it and sent her on her way. The bump continued to inflame, but it wasn’t until she voiced to me that she had an ouchie that I took her seriously. She laid down next to me and I began to prod at the inflammation, she winced. I noticed a light red line running down her leg from the bump; blood poisoning! Her and I tried to figure out what she had done to get the ouchie, she didn’t have an answer and I couldn’t remember which of her many falls might have caused it. It wasn’t until I placed more pressure on her leg that we discovered the source of her pain. She screamed and hollered once I became serious about the pressure of my kneading her leg. I didn’t stop though it took quite awhile. Eventually a 1& 1/2″ inch splinter with the circumference of a toothpick shot free from her leg! Success! That large splinter was finally expelled from the inflamed tissue around it. Immediate relief came from the threat of the infection, but it took time for the wounded tissue to heal and for the antibiotics to conquer the infection. She eventually got her stride back and was off to find another adventure where she would no doubt be left with more bruises and cuts.

I’ve been feeling a splinter in my soul’s flesh during this season of Lent. It’s been there quite awhile, years, in fact! What I am learning now, through the grace of God, is that he wants to do for me what he did for the Israelites. He desires to “get [poison] Egypt out of me.” There is an inflammation in each of our spirits that is caused by sin in us. Just like the Israelites, there’s an infection within us that if left untended, will destroy us. I am in need of liberation from the enemy of my soul– the bondage can take on the form of one of my greatest strengths and turn it in on me, infecting me with the sin of over-weaning pride. How about you? Is fear or anger or pride so deeply embedded in your life that you can’t recognize the source of that infection? Healing and transformation take a life time even with our willingness to cooperate with the LORD. No amount of vows or almsgiving or penance can substitute for the humility that comes when we expose the source our limp to our loving Father.

Healing Savior, you know our deepest wounds, you know how they affect our lives? Holy Spirit, Counselor, would you help us to recall where the wound came from?

If others caused our wound, would you grant us the spirit of forgiveness so that we can be freed from the oozing resentment and bitterness in our souls?

We scamper about in this good life enjoying the good things you have given to us, forgive us when we believe the lie of the enemy that our limp is not serious enough to stop us from playing hide and seek with You.

Oh, LORD, the wounds we cause ourselves when we forget to remember that You alone are God are infinite and ugly! Give us courage to see that we are our own worst enemy when we try to hide or refuse your healing hand.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen