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 February, 2021

Contrite Hearts, and Signs

Can it really be that simple? We are contrite, and God wipes out our sin? He doesn’t just forgive us, He actually wipes it out?

Yes, it can be and it is. Today’s readings, from Jonah 3:1-10; Ps. 51; and Luke 11:29-32 promise it. And I think sometimes that simple promise just isn’t quite enough for our human minds. Here again, we try to make things complicated. We even test God, in our errant human way.

I’ve grown fond of the saying that although the questions that surround us in this world are very complex, faith is very, very simple. The questions come from everything and all the hidden and open places of our minds. They are myriad, sometimes ugly, often tangled, and of course, we canget ourselves ensnared in trying to come up with the answers. But in the end, there is, for those biggest and most complicated questions, one simple answer: God. We often don’t like to admit it, but it is in faith – our belief in God – that the answers to those biggest and baddest questions get sorted out.

How does that lead us back into the message of today’s readings? It’s ….well, simple, really. Beginning with the story of Jonah and the message he was directed to carry to Nineveh, we can see it: Nineveh lay in the depths of its sin, and I see the sheer size of the city as symbolic of the complexity and tangles that sin creates to trap us. God sends Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that their destruction is imminent. The people, and even their king, believe Jonah’s message, and they repent.

After all of the ins and outs of the story, it ends simply: God saw their contrition and did not carry out the destruction He had planned.

The one thing we can offer to God, of ourselves, is our contrition. Psalm 51 promises us that when we do so, He will not turn us away. That’s the simple comfort our souls need in a complicated world that constantly tempts us to sin.

And in the Gospel, Jesus brings it full circle. You want signs? Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh, and they listened. The queen of the South was a sign in hearing the wisdom of Solomon. You have had your signs. Stop complicating the issue, is what I think Jesus is saying. There is something greater here than Solomon or Jonah, He says. It’s in front of you. Believe.

And for all that His words in this Gospel reading are forceful, I don’t hear a threat in them. What I hear is the simple call of Jesus to all of us, especially now during Lent: a call to repentance and contrition. We are promised that God will not turn away that offering. It really is that simple.

Jesus, send Your Holy Spirit to speak in my heart so that my soul can rest in the simplicity of Your promise of salvation. Amen.

February 23, 2021: Rescue, and God’s Will

Today’s readings come from Isaiah 55:10-11; Ps. 34; and Matt. 6:7-15. The theme is one of  us turning to God and of God responding. He promises, in the reading from Isaiah, to send His word. In my mind’s eye, “Word” is capitalized, because I think these verses are one of God’s promises to send His Son. The beauty of this reading is that the coming of God’s Word is as intentional and inevitable as the forces of nature the prophet describes. Jesus comes and brings with Him the will of the Father.

And this promise and fulfillment come together in the Gospel reading when Jesus teaches us that our prayer is to be made directly to our Father. He gives us such simple words, but those words contain the world. I love the completeness of this prayer given to us by Jesus. It reminds us that God is first and that God is all; it reminds us of God’s holiness and of the absolute rightness of His will in heaven and on earth; and it places us at our Father’s knee, asking for all of the things, and only the things, that will lead us to Him.

And in Psalm 34, we learn how this kind of prayer places us in the path of the blessings God wants us to have. The beautiful certainty that when we seek God, He answers us: this creates joy in us. We are promised that God will rescue us from all distress.

The cynical little voice somewhere in my head says, Yeah, right. I’m praying every day, but there is still plenty of distress to go around. And of course, there is. But I think what today’s readings are telling us is that it doesn’t have to be our distress. The more we are focused on glorifying God, praising Him, and doing His will, the more we are open to placing all of our needs in His hands, the less ownership we need to have in all that distress. It is our clinging to the idea that everything is up to us, our grasping at the notion that it’s up to us to eliminate the distress and make everything better, that keeps us down and separates us from joy.

It’s the utter simplicity of this relationship God offers us that is at the same time off-putting and wonderfully attractive. Our human nature would have us grasping for control. Like a puppeteer trying to manage the strings of a dozen puppets, we make things complicated and we deny God the privilege of simplifying them for us.

We get so tangled up in all those strings, in the complexities we create, and God, like the loving Father He is, is simply waiting to rescue us.

Dear Father, create in me a heart that is willing to be rescued. Save me from my own will and in Your infinite grace and mercy, lead me to want and to do only Yours. Amen.

February 22, 2021: Faith & Rules & Shepherds

Just as Lent is getting underway this year of years, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter provides us with a day to celebrate in the midst of penance. Some years ago, a parish priest told us in a homily on one of these feasts that fall during Lent that it is a day when “you get to give up giving up what you gave up for Lent.”

That always bothered me just a little. It felt a bit greedy. How does Lent benefit me if I’m just going around looking for ways to take a break from the penances I chose? I feel much the same about the practice of declaring Sundays “not a part of Lent.” If Sundays aren’t part of Lent, why are they numbered and labeled as the Sundays of Lent?

All of this consideration, of course, can derail my entire Lenten observance into a rabbit-hole of misguided thinking and muddled motivation,

The readings for this great memorial feast of the Chair of St. Peter give me the guidance I  need to be back on track. What I’m thinking about this morning, as the first full week of Lent gets under way, is the importance of living my life as a response to faith rather than as a series of rule-following activities. If my focus is on the rules, the rules become a trap. They become an end unto themselves, and when that happens, no amount of energy spent on following them will take me where I need to go.

But responding to faith? That’s a different picture. And today’s readings make the perfect backdrop to it. Let me start in the middle, with the beautiful 23rd Psalm. There probably is nothing new I can say about it, but the sense of peace that comes over me when I read it is new and wonderful every single time. One of my older brothers, a recovering alcoholic who I think struggled in some way with his sobriety every single day of its 35+ years, used to say that he read the 23rd Psalm several times a day for the peace it brought him. This psalm is such a contrast to the penitential psalms and the psalms that come from the depths of despair. Here there is hope and peace and joy from the knowledge that the Lord cares for us, loves us, and never fails us. From Him come rest, security, safety, courage, sustenance, and all of these in abundance. Do we have enemies? Of course, but look! He lays out a feast for us right in front of them. How do we not trust in a God Who does that?

Responding to faith? Peter, in the reading from his first letter, is telling the early Christian church how simple that is. We are to tend one another willingly and eagerly, with humility (recognizing who we are in relation to God and to others!), and be a good example to one another. That’s how we behave when we live in faith.

Responding to faith? The heart of it is in the Gospel reading. Jesus wants to know who people are saying He is, and more specifically who the disciples think He is. And while others outside of that small circle are still unsure, Peter resoundingly speaks for the Twelve in professing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

So here it all lines up for us: In faith, we recognize Who God is and Who Jesus is, and recognizing those truths, we understand who we are – that our entire existence is built by and around God, Who constantly cares for us. And a people who are gifted with faith and who see themselves rightly in this relationship with God will care for each other the way God cares for them.

It isn’t about the rules. It never was about the rules. That’s where the Pharisees and the scribes went wrong. It’s about knowing who we are, and it’s about responding to the relationship that God Himself has built with us. As simply as I can say it: How do people behave when they are loved with the greatest Love?

Father in Heaven, thank You for the gift of my faith. Lead me always to seek Your will in responding to my faith, and create in me a heart filled with Your love so that I may lovingly tend the flock You give me – those I encounter each and every day and who You love and call me to love. Amen.

February 22, 2021: Covenant and Kingdom

The readings for this first Sunday in Lent (Genesis 9:8-15; Ps. 25; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1:12-15) speak both simply and profoundly to the way God’s covenant with His created beings is recreated in Jesus Christ.

When I first returned to the Catholic Church in 2012, after a self-imposed banishment of 45 years, I experienced my faith in an entirely new way. I had been raised Catholic, attended religious education classes throughout most of grade school and through confirmation, and attended Mass regularly. Then when I was 14, I entered the aspirancy program of a religious order in Chicago, and spent the next five years immersed in the daily practice of my faith, including studies in Biblical and moral theology, church history, and other religious education.

And I really didn’t get it. In all of that time, I saw the practice of faith as a series of rituals and activities that needed to be done in order to get to whatever came next. I did not live my faith as a response to God’s love.

That changed in 2012. God, in His great love, pursued me until I finally caught Him. And the readings for this Sunday reflect, in a wonderful way, how He renewed the covenant between us. A couple of years after my return to the Church, I had the opportunity to participate in a Bible study that focused on the “timeline” of salvation. This program emphasized the history of salvation in terms of God’s continued willingness to form a new covenant with His people every time they broke the old one – a willingness that culminated in the new covenant in Jesus, which by His death and resurrection is made unbreakable. No matter how far we stray, God remains and is willing us to return so that He can embrace us once again.

In the reading from Genesis, we hear how God establishes His covenant with Noah and all who will follow. Psalm 25 then reminds us that we find love and truth in keeping God’s covenant, and we pray that God will show us the way to do so. St. Peter then reminds us of how baptism seals us into this covenant with God, and how the covenant requires us, like Jesus, to trade death in the flesh for life in the Spirit. And Jesus, in the reading from Mark’s Gospel, is now ready to proclaim the new covenant between God and His people: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”

What occurs to me, as I reflect on those words, is that none of it is quite what we, or the people in Jesus’ time, were expecting. On one hand, when we think of a kingdom we think of earthly power and military might and, if we are fortunate, a benevolent ruler who both protects us from enemies and takes care of all of our needs. From another perspective, if we’re reasonably honest with ourselves, we think of sin in terms of punishment. When we break the rules – break the covenant – we can expect to be banished and punished, and we tend to pity ourselves and mourn our unloveableness rather than place ourselves at the mercy of the One Who loves us.

What we get, in this covenant that God has created, is very different. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims, the covenant that He facilitates between us and God, has nothing to do with material riches and earthly power. It has everything to do with love and mercy. When we break the covenant, as we do when we sin, Jesus stands between us and punishment. He stands between us and banishment from the Kingdom of God. He stands between us and our own self-pity and self-destructiveness. He shows us the way of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love. And what He asks of us is that humility that I wrote about yesterday: Recognizing who we are, and Who He is, we throw ourselves on His mercy, we trust in His love, we rest in His compassion, and we claim His forgiveness with the certainty of those who live in a covenant relationship.

Jesus, Lord, Your kingdom is where I want to live. When You made this new covenant, when You sealed it with Your Word by Your death and resurrection, You meant for me to live in it. I surrender myself to it, trusting myself to the gift of Your grace. Teach me Your ways, O Lord. Amen.

February 20, 2021: Humility, Water and Light

The readings for this first Saturday in Lent spoke to me of humility. And I think perhaps humility is the most misunderstood of the virtues, because we don’t really know what it means and thus practice it poorly, if at all. Even with the best of intentions, we get it wrong.

Somewhere (and I really wish I could remember where, because I’d like to give credit) I read that humility is simply the knowledge of who we are and of our place in the world. It isn’t the quality of putting ourselves down, or of defining ourselves as being worth less than others, or of making ourselves seem worse than others. Humility isn’t that quality that’s currently described as “humble bragging,” either. Humility is the simple quality of recognizing ourselves, with all of our talents and all of our failings, with all of the good and all of the not-so-good, with all of our virtues and all of our sins, as who we are in relation to God and to other people. Humility is the foundation of right relationships both with the Lord and with people.

In today’s Old Testament reading (Jer. 58:9b-14), the prophet shows us how the way to God’s grace is paved with humility. When we recognize our sinful tendencies and set them aside in favor of the actions that God prescribes, God’s gifts are life-giving water and light. It is humility that shows us who we are in relation to God: We are His creatures, and we are by nature sinful creatures. He is our Maker and the Source of all that sustains us. In humility, we recognize both our complete dependence on Him and our tendency to separate ourselves from Him by our sins. If we show our willingness to turn our backs on sin, He brings us into light and refreshes us with life-giving water: “Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday….He will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails.”

Psalm 86 offers the simple and profound statement: “You are my God.” From that acknowledgment, we offer our prayers for mercy and forgiveness. This is who we are in relation to God: We are sinners who need love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and sustenance.

The Gospel reading, from Luke 5:27-32, completes the picture of a relationship based on humility. First, it does so by showing us the Pharisees and scribes, who have no right understanding of who they are in relation to God or to the people around them. Here they are, defining others as sinners. Here they are, defining Jesus by their own judgments. And Jesus calls them out on it: “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” We, like the Pharisees and scribes, are often “righteous” by our own definition. It takes humility to recognize that we are, instead, the very sinners that Jesus came to save.

I crave the kind of humility that lets me recognize myself as someone Jesus came to save. He did not choose to die for my righteousness. He chose to die for my sinfulness, so that I could share in the only righteousness that matters: His.

Jesus, you see me as I am, and You love me with the greatest love. Help me in turn to see myself as I am, so that I can be fully open to Your grace and healing. Amen.

Hold Fast

In these early days of Lent, the scripture readings focus on what it means to “fast.” Today, the Old Testament reading from Isaiah (58:1-9a) roundly condemns the kind of “fasting” that is done from surface motivations. When he calls out the House of Jacob for whining that the Lord does not see their fasting and self-affliction, he minces no words in explaining why: They are doing their fasts as a matter of routine. Their fasting is all about appearances, while they continue with daily activities that are at best superficial and at worst deeply sinful. They do not see the problem with merely going through the motions while failing to fully respond to the Lord. Isaiah then lays out what true “fasting” – “a day acceptable to the Lord” – looks like.

And what it looks like is much less about what the people do to themselves, and much more about what they do for those around them who are in need. The actions that Isaiah outlines are a foreshadowing of the Beatitudes and the actions Jesus asks of us, in Matthew 25, toward “the least of our brethren.”

The promise, in Isaiah, is that with this right kind of fasting, “your light shall break forth like the dawn….” And the image that this promise evokes is just so beautiful. One of my favorite early morning routines is to open my window blinds while it is still dark outside, and then to sit with a cup of tea and watch the light begin to break over my little part of the world. Whether the day is cloudy or sunny, the simple process of light replacing darkness makes me remember that God is always working and always saving us. No matter how I might have failed before, here is new light.

It’s the beginning of that new light that makes Psalm 51, a deeply penitential  psalm, so full of hope. We offer God our contrition for the past, and in return He promises that He will not turn us away.

And finally, as with each of the Gospels in these early days of Lent, Jesus neatly summarizes the truth for us: It isn’t the amount of fasting we do, or the depth of our sadness and mourning, that brings us a reward. It is Jesus, the Bridegroom, Whose presence is the reward. I think the underlying truth here is that when our “fasting” is rooted in love for our Lord, it takes us out of ourselves and our daily routines and inspires us to live “a day acceptable to the Lord.” He is with us, and we have joy and light.

My Jesus, I desire very much this day to “fast” in the ways that honor You and that keep me on a path of light, love, and joy. Save me, please, Lord, from merely living my routine. Show me the needs around me, inspire me in the ways that love responds, and strengthen me to offer myself in response so that I may live a day acceptable to You. You, Jesus, are my reward. Amen.

February 18, 2021: Choice and Faith

There is nothing like missing the mark on the second day of a new resolution! But there is also nothing like forgiving yourself and starting over. When I started this Lenten series, I did not account for the two mornings a week that I volunteer at a vaccination clinic. By the time I got home from that yesterday, fed myself lunch, and got into my afternoon routine, my promise of a daily reflection to be published here had slipped my mind. So here I am to offer a reflection on yesterday’s readings, and then I’ll publish a reflection for today’s shortly thereafter, with thanks to the Holy Spirit!

The readings for February 18 resounded, for me, with the message that faith is both a gift and a choice. What I mean is that faith itself is a pure gift from God; how we accept it, respond to it, and use it in our lives is a choice. Don’t get me wrong: the choice itself is based in grace, but we have the free will to accept or reject.

Moses, in today’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy (Ch. 30:15-20), preaches passionately to his people about their choices: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” There it is: God lays all before us. What we take up, what we live out, is our choice.

The theme continues in Psalm 1, which contrasts the choices of the sinner with those of the blessed man, whose choice to reject evil and wholeheartedly embrace the law of the Lord puts him firmly on the right path.

And in the brief Gospel reading (Luke 9:22-25), Jesus tells us of His own choice to suffernd die and rise again (and it was a choice – fully human, Jesus had free will), and lays our own choice out for us: We can choose to follow him, taking up our crosses and denying ourselves; or we can choose to “save” our lives – that is, to live as though we are rooted in this world – and thus ultimately lose them.

Jesus shows us the one choice that truly matters in life: We can “gain the whole world,” that is, immerse ourselves in the material things and daily activities of the temporal world, at the cost of losing our very selves. If my true self is the soul that God breathed into me at my making, then that cost is too high.

Jesus, my King and my Beloved, lead me in my choices this day and every day, so that in observing this holy season of Lent, I may learn to choose life – the life that You taught, rooted in the Cross and in Your love – and leave aside the false life that this world with all its temptations offers. Let me live a life of loving You, heeding your voice, and holding fast to you, as I fasten my eyes on the glorious hope of Your Resurrection. Amen.

Lenten Reflections: Ash Wednesday

During this holy season of Lent, it is my intention to write a reflection each day based on the scripture readings from that day’s Mass.

This morning, Ash Wednesday, the readings are drawn from the Old Testament Book of Joel (Joel 2:12-18), Psalm 51, 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2), and the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18).

These readings reminded me today that the primary relationship we must be concerned with is the one between ourselves and God. All sin causes a fracture in our relationship with God, separates us from Him, and hinders our ability to respond to the workings of God’s grace in us. God tells us, through the prophet Joel, to return ourselves to God through fasting and weeping and mourning. God reminds us, in Psalm 51, that our sins are ultimately against God and that the central problem with sin is that it is evil in God’s sight. And Paul “implores” us, in 2 Corinthians, to “be reconciled to God.” Finally, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that our prayer, our repentance, or fasting all must be done where only our Father in Heaven can see them, out of the sight of the world and of other people.

Our sins are actions against God, actions of separation between God’s will and our own, acts of rejection of the loving relationship that God wants with us. Our repentance and our atonements, then, are owed solely to God. This means that as we begin to form, with the grace of God, a repentant heart, we recognize that our own actions are not enough to reconcile us. We need Jesus and His redemptive power, flowing into us with the Holy Spirit, to bring us back fully into that primary relationship with our Father.

That doesn’t mean that we are to ignore or set aside our relationships with the world and the people in it.

Our relationship with God, if we are wholly invested in it, will lead us to respond to all of those other relationships in a right way. When God takes pity on us to “leave behind him a blessing,” when He creates a clean heart in us, when He renews us, then what is left is for us to respond in faith and grace to the blessing, to share our renewed heart and spirit, and to become the blessing He wants to give to those around us.

The theme running through today’s readings is one of joy: Joy in the knowledge that God is, already, fully invested in His relationship with us, joy that He wants our hearts to belong fully to Him, and joy that He has provided us, in Jesus, a way for our relationship with Him to be complete and fruitful.

Father, through Your beloved Son You have extended to us the lifelines of faith and grace so that we can be reconciled to You. Help me, as Your beloved child, to grasp firmly those lifelines, to keep my feet firmly on the path that leads to You, and to be so filled with and open to Your love that it overflows onto everyone around me. I ask these things in the name of Jesus and through the intercession of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

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