Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Archive for August, 2019

The Narrow Gate

Since last Wednesday, the gospel reading for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time has been drawing me deeper and deeper into reflection. Finally, this morning, it’s time to sort through all of these thoughts.

In setting the scene, the gospel writer, Luke, tells us that Jesus was teaching his way to Jerusalem as he passed through the towns and villages along the way. Along with his teaching, I can only imagine that he was thinking about what was coming. And then he encounters “someone” – Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the questioner, only that it was “someone” – who tries to frame a profound question that really is centered on the self. “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Can you hear the underlying plea? “Lord, will I be saved?”

And Jesus, in his infinitely wise and wonderful way, as he often does, answers not the question asked, but the real question: How can we be saved?

His answer – that we must enter through “the narrow gate” – at first seems burdensome and harsh. However, I feel like that first impression reflects our view through the darkened lens of sin. Just as Jesus cut through to the real question, so must we sort through our own self-centeredness to understand the real answer.

I think we tend to read this gospel as confirming that indeed, few will be saved and that salvation is a most difficult task. And when we read it that way, we miss the point entirely.

We read these words about “the narrow gate” as a cautionary tale, warning us that we have little chance of salvation. But when Jesus directs us to “Strive to enter through the narrow gate” he is giving us a message for which we should be most grateful. When he tells us that “many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” he is offering us a lesson that should make our hearts sing.

The narrow gate is not so much a warning about the difficulty of salvation as it is a welcome reminder that we need Jesus to lead us through it, that we need him to shape us, by grace, so that we fit just right and pass right through that narrow gate.

Thank you, Jesus, for everything in life that reminds me that I need you! Every such reminder leads me closer to you. My own pride makes me constantly test myself against the barriers to salvation – indeed, against the confines of this narrow gate. When I strive on my own against those confines, I’ll surely fail. My own strength is too little and too frail to have a chance. Reminded of my need for Jesus, I beg out of my own littleness to be shaped by him, and the confines of the narrow gate become instead a warm embrace by arms that fit just right.

In a life centered on our need for Jesus, we welcome the narrow gate.

Jesus, in the gospel reading, goes on to tell his followers that when they knock at the door, attempting to enter based on their casual association with him, the master of the house will reject them, saying, “I do not know where you are from.” Here again, it occurs to me that we often read this as a cautionary statement that we should remember where we are from. However, I learned a deeper lesson when I read it as highlighting, once more, my need for Jesus. If I am the one knocking at the door, I desperately want him to know where I am from – that I am from him, that I belong to him. I think that my own understanding of where I am from arises from what he knows about me. And what he knows about me is that he made me, loves me, redeemed me, sanctifies me, and wants me to know how to get through that narrow gate. All that’s left for me is to remind him of where I am from by the way I respond to his grace.

It’s that simple, really. I started to write that I need to remind Jesus of where I am from by the way I live, but that makes it once more about me. It’s his grace that enables me to live in a way that allows him to recognize me.

What will my response today tell Jesus about where I am from? It is not quite as easy as it might seem, because just wanting to live this life of response is not enough. Our response, as Fr. Jean-Nicolas Grou, S.J., points out, must go beyond “desires, longings, purposes, wishes” all the way to “having a strong and determined will.” Rather that basking in the contentment of wishing to live as Jesus calls us to live, we need, says Fr. Grou, to ask God for the will to live by and respond to the grace he so generously offers.

So our question, instead of “How do I get through that gate?” is this: “How will I respond to the grace God pours into my life? How will I be shaped by Jesus so that he can recognize where I am from?”

The Hem of His Garment

August 13, 2019

The Hem of His Garment

Much on my mind in recent weeks: The gospel story of the woman who just knew she would be healed if only she could touch the hem of Jesus’ garment (Matt. 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-30; Luke 8:43-38). The story is poignant in so many ways. Here is a woman who has suffered with a humiliating condition for twelve years. She is considered unclean by her own people, even though her illness is not of her own making. She is humble, not presumptuous; she doesn’t stand up and confront Jesus with her request for healing, but rather, in her simple faith (the best kind of faith!), she knows she only needs to get close enough to touch the hem of his garment (or in some translations, the tassel of his cloak).

And then, just like that! Busted! The gospels of Mark and Luke both tell of Jesus’ sense that his power has been called upon, and he in turn calls the woman out. She’s horrified! Exposed, in front of all the people who considered her unclean!

But why is she exposed this way? Jesus does so, I think, for two reasons: to reward her simple faith and to remind both his followers and his critics of who he is and how things work in his kingdom. Jesus saves through faith, and he rejects human standards in favor of the standards of divine love, mercy, and compassion.

 The more I reflect on this gospel story, the more ways I found it applicable to the way we live out our response to Jesus’ call to follow him.

And over time, I began to think that this story tells us something rather astonishing about our calling. I began to think that we might think of our calling as a way of being the hem of his garment – as being the way that Jesus can readily convey his healing, mercy, love, and compassion to the world around us.

Being the hem of Jesus’ garment is to be at the place where our personal relationship with Jesus gives life to our work of finding, serving, and consoling him in others.

As this idea began to take shape in my mind and through prayer, I began to think about the qualities of the hem of a garment – especially the hem of a long garment such as Jesus would have worn in his itinerant ministry – and how those qualities translate into our life of faith and to our calling.

The hem of a garment is carefully crafted; it is designed and made to fulfill its specific purpose. It gives shape to the garment, finishing what otherwise would be a rough edge prone to ravel and tatter with even normal use. By doubling and tripling its folds, the hem gives strength and form to the rest of the garment, allowing the garment to fulfill its own purpose. The hem, as the very lowest part of the garment, brushes the ground – but in doing so, it fulfills its purpose and is neither afraid of nor repelled by what it touches.

The hem of a garment is exactly what it needs to be and is nothing that it does not need to be. It is both a utility and a finishing touch. Sometimes, it is decorated, and the decoration may get it noticed – but that isn’t the real point of its existence.

When the hem tears or ravels, it can distract from the integrity of the whole garment and thus will need attention and repair.

The hem of a garment is closest to the ground and thus the most accessible part of the garment to those who are also smaller in stature. And the hem of a garment may be lifted in order to avoid obstacles or to prevent it from being soiled.

When I thought this way about the qualities and purposes of the hem of a garment, I began to see more and more how it is both possible and perhaps even essential for us to see ourselves as the hem of Jesus’ garment.

We are, after all, carefully crafted – knit in our mother’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139). We are each of us God’s very intentional creation, loved into being by our heavenly father with a specific purpose for our existence. Each of us, in the way we live to that purpose, gives shape to the whole of the garment. Certainly, having been born into original sin, we are a “rough edge” that God finishes with stitches placed by his own hand – grace, the Sacraments, sanctification, all coming through the redemption bought with Jesus’ own precious blood. He finishes us with stitches made of trials and suffering as well, and those stitches are set more firmly in place when we trust him fully and accept all in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving. Those stitches are placed to protect us from our tendency to ravel and tatter, and to protect the strength we are given as God continues to craft us.

We find ourselves, through God’s crafting, to be essential to the form and strength of the rest of the garment. If we ravel or tatter, it risks damage to the integrity of the whole garment, and it requires attention and repair. Our Triune God is always ready, and we must turn to him in those times rather than letting the damage grow.

We, like the hem of the garment, are at our best when we are exactly what God calls us to be and nothing that he does not call us to be. Scripture tells us, in the book of Genesis, that the creation of humans was the crowning glory of God’s work; we continue as such when we let grace make us what God calls us to be.

We, like the hem of a garment, may have our “decorations” – skills, talents, other qualities that seem to make us stand out from others. These may get us noticed by others – but as we understand ourselves to be the hem of his garment, we see that the decoration is merely another way to serve him. If we get too wrapped up in the decoration itself, or in the attention it may bring, or if we start to think the decoration is our own, it will get in the way of our calling. The decorations aren’t the point of having a hem!

We, like the hem of a garment, should find ourselves “closest to the ground” – that is, in our right and proper place, the place God wants us and calls us to be. Only when we are there can we fully perform the exact function we are called to perform.

In fact, we, like the hem of a garment, will brush the ground constantly. In our human pride, we may consider that a thing to be avoided, may be repelled by what that brings – and thus we may miss fulfilling our purpose, the purpose God has for us. We must understand that we, as the hem of the garment, must be closest to the ground in order to be accessible to God’s littlest ones, the ones he calls us and needs us to serve. And rather than trying not lift ourselves above it all – thus possibly missing out altogether on the fulfillment of our purpose – we must let God decide when or if we need to be lifted, like the hem of a garment, to avoid an obstacle or a mess.

For if we, like the hem of a garment, sometimes get dragged into a mess and become soiled, we have a Father who continually creates us, his Son who continually redeems us, and their Holy Spirit who continually sanctifies us. The grace that this Trinity offers, through Word and Sacrament, is always all we need to cleanse us and put us back right to continue to live our our calling.

Then, understanding how wonderful it is to be the hem of his garment, we can be what others know, in faith, that they can touch as a way of finding a channel of grace. Then, as Jesus knows that his power goes out to his beloved little ones through us, through the hem of his garment, he can say again and again, “Your faith has saved you.”

Dear Jesus, let me be content to live as the hem of your garment – all that I need to be and nothing that I don’t need to be. Precious Lord, use me, as the hem of your garment, to send your healing power and love and light and mercy into the world.  Let me live joyfully in that place where I am most accessible to those you call me to serve. Grant me the grace to see my purpose and fulfill it, to use my “decorations” for your honor and glory, and to live in true understanding and fulfillment of the calling to which you have drawn me. Lift me, Lord, above the obstacles and snags and filth, and cleanse me of them if I fall. And gather me, please gather me, with your loving hands at day’s end and refresh me to live my purpose and your will anew each day. Through the intercession of your blessed Mother, let my life be a life of service, and let me always see my way to serve your people as the hem of your garment. Amen.

Amazing Grace

August 3, 2019

Amazing Grace

One of the things I love most to do is to pray for people. In the evenings, one of the last things I do before sleep is sit with Jesus, with his Father and the Holy Spirit, and with them go through the growing list of special people and intentions. My prayers include, beyond those specific people and intentions, all who are struggling with addiction, mental illness, or physical illness and all those who have no one to pray for them by name. I ask for healing, and I also ask that all those I pray for will both feel the comfort of God’s hand in their lives and recognize the healing that he provides, whatever form it might take. I ask this last thing because there is so much comfort in understanding that our prayers are always answered with what God knows is best for us. The answer is sometimes not what we thought we wanted, but I love the knowledge that, as I heard in a homily some years ago, the answer is one of two things: what we asked for, or something better. We simply need God’s grace to see how it is better; with God’s grace, acceptance of all things with praise and thanksgiving, even when we don’t fully understand how God is working his plan, is not only possible but astoundingly full of peace and joy.

So today’s story is about prayers and answers and how God shows himself in all of it.

Sometimes I think that my prayer life is still very much in its infancy. At times when I have struggled with a balance in prayer – reciting the prayers I learned as a child, reading the prayers of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours, and praying spontaneously – I’ve found myself almost trapped in doubt. Am I doing it right? How long is this supposed to take? Why don’t I feel anything?

It has been in examining my doubts and questions about prayer that I have received the most grace! I think Jesus loves a good question – after all, his followers called him Teacher, didn’t they? And he is so willing to answer, with the still, small voice we hear in the deepest part of us. And so it is that I’ve learned three things (so far) about growing and maturing in my prayer life.

First, I’ve learned that Scripture is a vital foundation for prayer. In reading Scripture – daily readings, the Psalms from the Divine Office for the day, even sometimes random selections – I encounter all of the Persons of the Trinity. There, in that encounter, I find countless ways to understand what God wants to communicate to me.

Second, I’ve learned that quiet listening is at least as important to prayer as is talking to God. Quietness of spirit is important for placing myself in God’s presence when I pray, and it is vital to hearing what he has to say to me. I need quietness of spirit so that I don’t get so wrapped up in my petitions that I fail to hear and heed his answers.

Third, I’ve learned that in addition to keeping my promises to pray for others (and as I’ve written here before, when I tell someone I will pray for them, I mean it. Their name goes into my daily prayer list, and I do not sleep until I have conversed fully with my Lord about all of it), it is important for me to ask God to teach me what to pray for.

The harmony that has come from applying these three lessons to my prayer life is nothing short of incredible. One could all too easily come to see the charism of intercessory prayer as a burden or obligation, but that would be to miss all of the grace that might come from simply being a channel of God’s healing and love – from being, if you will, a scrap of the hem of Jesus’ cloak.

And that brings me to the heart of the story I wanted to tell today. I love to meditate on the way that each of us, as Jesus’ disciples, could in some way be the hem of his garment so that when people encounter us, they would experience his healing power. What better way to be used in this sad and sinful world so full of need? This idea was on my mind a few days ago at daily Mass, and even as I was reflecting how I might make it more of a reality, I experienced a flash of what I thought was memory. I saw a young woman, entering a room from a right rear door, struggling to move forward as she managed crutches and braces. I thought I might know her, and I knew I wanted to help her. And then, just as quickly, it was gone – but not really gone. I kept trying to figure out where and when this memory originally took place, and I just couldn’t.

That’s when the still, small voice spoke up. It’s not a memory. This woman needs your prayers.

And that was quite simply one of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced along this journey. Here was my answer to my request that God would teach me what to pray for. Here was my opportunity to be the hem of Jesus’ garment.

Dear friend, whoever you are, you are now on my daily prayer list. May God pour his healing power into your body and your soul and your life. May he surround you with the comfort of his presence, and give you the grace to know and recognize his healing, whatever form it may take.

I may never know who this woman is, and I don’t need to. The beauty and wonder of this experience is that when I asked, God taught me what and whom to pray for.

When I asked, he answered. He always does. This time, with my heart open to his grace, I listened.

And now this new link in a most wonderful chain is forged. Because I know, in faith and in grace, that through the intercessory prayer that I am called to make, healing will occur for this young woman. I don’t know what form it will take; I don’t know if she will fully recognize it or understand the form that it takes; I don’t know if our paths will ever cross, or if she will know that someone prayed for her. But deep in my soul, I know that something will change for her, be better for her or in her, because God answers all prayers; and I dare to dream and hope that whatever that something is, it will in turn have its own positive effect.

So much about this I will never know; but I do know that the Holy Spirit is at work here. And, my dear sweet Jesus, I can live with that.

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