Sunday, January 14, 2018

Stop What You’re Doing...Follow Me


When I entered basic training, I was warned never to volunteer for anything or respond to a request for volunteers. It was common for a drill sergeant to “ask” unwitting recruits for “volunteers” for duties that appeared to be easier than what was originally planned. Invariably, these jobs never turned out to easy. In time we learned to avoid eye contact with the inviting sergeant and stand way in the back of the formation to hide and avoid being “volunteered.” Matthew’s (Matthew 1:14-20 )account of how Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately responded to Jesus invitation reminded me of my time in basic training. I’m always amazed as to how quickly the disciples dropped everything and just followed Jesus. I wonder how I would respond to a request from a stranger who asked me to stop what I was doing and follow him. I think I would have tried to avoid eye contact, and if asked to volunteer, make some excuse or at least ask for some time to think about it. After all, how could I possibly stop what I’m doing right now? It's too important. Maybe later.
Could we drop everything, leave our families and communities, and follow someone we didn’t even know? Both Matthew and Mark emphasize the word “immediately to describe the new recruits’ snap decision. Snap decisions are not always good, but sometimes they are. I think we all have made snap decision that turned out really well. Don’t we sometimes wonder what prompted those decisions?
And so what does Matthew’s Gospel mean to us? Does it mean leaving behind the promise of a steady income in a successful family business? Or, maybe its letting go of things that hold us bound - as symbolized by the fisherman’s nets in our story. It can be any manner of things and will vary from one person to another. While Jesus does not ask everyone to leave everything behind, no one can be a disciple and follow His call to repent without leaving something behind, or without letting go of the nets that keep us ensnared.
Jesus is calling us to a new way of life and asking us to “repent,” or turn the focus of our lives to being God centered. At its most basic level, discipleship means saying “yes” to Jesus and following him wherever he leads. There are times we try to run away and go back to where we were before but like the young recruit trying to be invisible, we can’t hide in the back out of sight. Jesus is relentless, and as often as we try to run and hide, he will find us.
With regard to “snap decisions” or responding to what we are inspired to do, John Powell writes There have been quite a few times when I have felt the winds of God’s grace in the sails of my small boat. Sometimes these graces have moved me in pleasant and sunlit directions. At other times the requested acts of love were born in the darkness of struggle and suffering. There have been spring times and there have been long cold winters of struggle for survival. God has come to me at times with the purest kindness, at times with the most affirming encouragement, and at other times with bold frightening challenges. I think that all of us have to watch and pray, to be ready to say “yes” when God’s language is concrete and his request is specific-“yes” in the sunlit spring times and “yes’ in the darkness of winter nights. (John Powell, S.J., The Christian Vision, The Truth That Sets Us Free, p147

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In John’s Gospel (John 1: 35-42) Jesus' ministry begins not with a command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew, and not with a quotation from Isaiah, as in Luke. No, it begins with a question: "What are you looking for?"  This is a question which we continue to wrestle with as individuals and communities. Our answer will have as much to do with the journey to its revelation. What are we seeking? What motivates us? What is it that we really need, not just on the surface, but down deep into the core of our being?  This question is particularly relevant in this season of the Epiphany. Consider this…we have an advantage over the disciples: we know what’s coming and we know how it all will end. Yet, this question is timeless, what are we looking for?  
Immediately following their “introductions,” the disciples ask Jesus another question: "where are you staying?" We know that John is not one to mince words. We have learned in our readings that John selects his words for what they say and not necessarily what they literally mean. So, asking Jesus where he was “staying” has little to do with making inquiry about his local lodging or accommodations. Instead, it requires that we probe for what the phrase might say to us. What word might you select as a synonym for “stay?” Continue, dwell, lodge, sojourn, rest, settle, last, endure, persevere, be steadfast, abide, be in close and settled union and indwell? The list is endless and any of the preceding words might work at any given time.  

Marcus Borg writes in the Heart of Christianity, “that the Christian life is not about believing or a set of beliefs, but it’s about a deepening relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Paying attention to this relationship transforms us.” So, if we choose to interpret John’s question to mean our asking about an intimate, enduring relationship with God, the word “abide” has particular meaning that fits. We surrender our ego to God as the Word becomes flesh and abides in us, and sows the seed of transformation, and we are born into a new life.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Are we looking or just waiting

The Mystery of Christmas embraces both the feasts of the Nativity and the Epiphany. In the Nativity we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, incarnated in Jesus. In the Epiphany we celebrate Jesus as God’s gift to the world and embodies the expression for our longing for intimacy with God. (Matthew 2: 1-12)

Like the Magi, we need only the light of strong, unwavering faith to see Him, to find Him, to serve Him in the people around us and in the circumstances of our everyday living. Like the Magi, we need only to trust in and know God's love for us…only then we will recognize His presence and His power in sunrise and sunset, in storm and calm, in the faces of children and wisdom of the elderly, in moments of elation and heart-break. We will see His radiance and warmth behind every cloud of sorrow or failure that darkens our days.

The Magi went to extraordinary lengths to look for the Christ Child. They serve to remind us that there are those who wait for the coming of the Jesus with those who make the effort to find Him. Like the magi, our search goes on - but so does Epiphany…Are we actively looking or merely waiting… and what gifts do we bring?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Don't Ask, It's a Mystery

We celebrate those events in the life of Christ in the Gospel as stories that are meant to be lived as we are inspired to live them. I’ve come to realize that if I understand something and feel that I can explain it, it’s no mystery. Yet, there’s this undeniable urge to put our ego front and center and do our best to try to explain things that defy explanation. I was reminded when I heard Adam say, I was afraid, because I was naked. To which God answered, who told you that you were naked? (Genesis 3:8-19) Too often modern believers tend to place their trust in therapy more than they do in mystery, a fact that’s revealed when our worship resorts to the jargon of ego-satisfying, self-help and pop psychology: Let’s use this hour to get our heads straight or revisit our perspective. Really? Sure, let’s use this hour because we’re too busy later, after all, we’ve got the kids, or I don’t want anything to get in the way of my Super Bowl Sunday. Let’s use this hour, and get it over with and you can send me a bill… later I will zip off a check in the mail. There, that’s done. But the mystery of worship which is God’s presence and our response to it doesn’t work this way.

Somehow, the mistrust of all that has been handed down to us, has led to a failure of the imagination, evidenced by language that’s thoroughly comfortable and unchallenging. Our prayers become a self- indulgent praise of ourselves as we purport to “confess” our weaknesses. These prayers are anything but the lifting of our hearts and minds to God. There’s no attempt to at least meet him half way and listen and stop talking.

And so now in this fourth week of Advent we focus on the Annunciation (Luke1:26-28), a mystery of epic proportions that defies rational explanation. It stuns us to hear some attempt to reduce the virgin birth to a mere story of an unwed pregnant teenager. Have we come to a time when anything that did not stand up to reason or that we couldn’t explain, should be characterized as primitive and infantile? Why do we think that an almighty spiritual being is confined to man’s intellect and his feeble language to communicate? Do we not see how metaphor and poetry reveal meaning, not explanation, on a deep personal level?

A few years ago we had an opportunity to travel through Eastern Europe, making our way from the Black Sea to Amsterdam. I was taken aback by the devastation in human lives caused by the failure of the “great social experiment,” that created societies whose wealth was shared but only among those at the top. So great buildings were erected for the personal aggrandizement of the elite while sacrificing the welfare of the people who were desperate for food and who desired a modicum of personal enrichment. On the other hand, I was impressed with the number of churches and cathedrals that were reopened after decades of being forced to close. While they appeared to be flourishing, they served more to support tourism than worship.

Looking at the beautiful classical paintings and art in these churches made me wonder what it was that inspired the artists to create poetic images and visual metaphors depicting the “mysteries” of Christianity. It occurred to me that their art was spoken in a language all its own and derived its source from inspiration and not the intellect, and while the cynic might deride the image of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, the artist understood it completely. Art and music are languages of the soul and bypass our rational being to speak to us at a level we cannot explain or know but do we really need explanation for something we feel down deep?

When we allow God’s love to break through into our consciousness as we contemplate the Mysteries of the Annunciation and Virgin birth, do we run from it? Do we ask it to explain what it cannot? Or are we “virgin” enough to surrender to our deepest self and allow it to fill our being? We cannot ask it to explain what it cannot.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Oh Come, Oh Come, Oh come Emmanuel

By their nature the “Word” and “Light” and the realities they evoke lend themselves as apt symbols of the truth about Jesus and of What God is doing in Jesus in cooperation with the Spirit. The Trinitarian God is wholly part and parcel of this divine self-revelation and outreach to us.

This divine revelation is at the heart of our coming Christmas celebration. In the Christmas mystery we proclaim that Jesus is the divine revelatory presence of God among us and for us. St. John tells us that Jesus, as the Word of God, brings all things into being as the Light of God in this world. St. John further says that in Jesus and in the daily witness of those who live in his Holy Spirit, the darkness of this world is pushed back, step by step, moment by moment in a challenging exercise of religious and spiritual patience until at last, the full saving power of God dries the final tears and heals the wounds we so regularly cause each other in a world that lost its way within the life and time of Adam and Eve. (John: 6-8, 19-2)

Jesus is the Light of the world--he shows us our true selves, he previews our collective destiny, he is the on-going answer to our most selfless and generous and loving prayers.

Come, let us gather together this Christmas Day and this Christmas Season to celebrate God’s coming among us as one of us in Jesus—whose total reality is spelled out in his divinely given name: Emanuel, “God with us,.”’ (
Ronald Cioffi, December 23, 2011)

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Prepare the Way of The Lord

In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the music of a violinist. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of them threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the Metro. Except it wasn't an ordinary day. The violinist wasn't just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston's Symphony Hall with people paying over $100/seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?

So, I wonder, are we able to only detect the presence of God when we are in Church, immersed in liturgy, hymns and spiritually uplifting music? Do we require the proper scene to create a mood so that we can feel his presence? Do we need props to help us? Sometimes I wonder if Church even gets in the way by setting up forced expectations of something that can’t be forced. After all here we are in “God’s House,” and He’s been waiting for us to call on Him all along.  No, I don’t think it works that way.
So, why did the commuters not recognize the talent of the famed concert violinist? I can understand that we might not recognize the man himself; I know that as much as I have admired the young violinist, I would not recognize him. And what about his music? Not everyone likes classical music, although most people would recognize Bell’s virtuosity and marvel at his skill. Yet, in the Metro, far from Philharmonic Hall, we do not recognize his mastery. It’s not so much that we look for God in the context of “where he’s expected,” after all why do we even think that God is ever in a contextual setting programmed for and by us? It’s just that we are not open to his presence all around us. Perhaps it helps to recall Matthew’s Gospel two weeks ago: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?
John was sent to prepare us for Jesus, to help us recognize his presence in one another and the world around us. How many times have we read (Mark 1:1-8 ) or heard John’s words: "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals?” Do we walk past him as the commuters did Joshua Bell?  Dear Lord we pray, please help us to see God at work in and through all the "ordinary" elements of our lives. And then who knows, we might even take him to Church with us as His house becomes our house.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

About That Day or Hour No One Knows

Keep Awake for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. These words have been repeated for over 2,000 years, yet somehow we still fear the end of our life on earth. Sure, we are comforted by the many parallels in nature that reveal death to be a precursor to new life, but the fear of death lingers in the shadows. We have - or likely have - lived longer than our parents and grandparents. We are better fed; we lose few babies, and modern medicine protects us from contagion and diseases that can shorten our lives... and yet, we are still afraid. Why?

Shortly after 9/11 the words “Fear Not” rang hollow and seemed a little out of place. Surely we had every reason to be afraid. After the three devastating attacks, the country held its breath wondering if there were there more to come. During the first few weeks following the attacks, the country was suspended in a state of watchful waiting. We were led to believe that it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when.” We carefully listened to those in authority speak of preparedness, but the summary statement always was, “we just don’t know.” It took a while but in time we began to live our lives with the knowledge that life must go on… but we were implored to remain vigilant and the words “If you see something, say something” became a national mantra.

It doesn’t take much to see the connection between our gospel (
Mark 13:24-37) and that fateful Tuesday that I remember began with skies so blue and air so clean. What could possibly have gone wrong on such a beautiful day? How could we have been prepared for what happened? Had we ever sustained an enemy attack within our Continental borders during war time, much less peace? How do we begin to replace fear with living fully and, please God, joyfully?

We are taught that Christ's death and resurrection are the answer to our mortal fears. He relinquished his humanity as the divine Incarnation was complete so that we could share in his resurrection and in so doing, remove our reasons to fear death forever. Knowing that God loves us and that there is nothing we can do to ever lose His love is a matter of faith, not intellect. So, we live out our lives enriched by Christ’s example when we resist the impulse to live for ourselves instead of others. It means being prepared to die again and again to ourselves, and to every one of our self-serving opinions and agendas. But about that day or hour no one knows. And death will have no dominion.