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)

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Coming Home

The miles between December 30, 2021, and January 22, 2022, totaled 3,320, give or take a few. I hadn’t taken a good road trip in quite some time, so naturally I decided to take one in the middle of the winter. The extended weather forecasts for the areas I would be visiting became my best friend in the weeks and days leading up to my trip.

The plan started taking shape when my daughter decided to rent a house on one of Florida’s Gulf Coast Islands for a week in January. Almost the whole family was going, and all but one of us knew that the trip would involve not only celebrating my daughter’s birthday but also my grandson’s marriage proposal to the lovely young woman he had been dating for more than a year. I started thinking about the people I knew in Florida, people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and about how much I dislike the commotion and alternate rushing about and waiting for hours that seems to define air travel. And the idea of a road trip was born.

The plan was both simple and complex. I would drive instead of flying, and I would pack my car with luggage for the rest of the family, the Florida-only things that they wouldn’t need until I found my way back home. I’d start out a week earlier than the rest of the family, drop my dog LuLu off with my brother in Georgia and spend a few days with him, then head for Florida. The Florida schedule involved a couple of days at The Villages to visit with a friend I had worked with some years ago. Then I’d head for the island, dropping luggage at the rental office so I could pick the family up at the airport. We’d spend our week on the beach, complete with birthday shenanigans and the proposal, and then we’d pack it all up again. I’d drop the family at the airport, then head south to Naples to spend a few days with my sister and brother-in-law there. For good measure, I threw in visits with two friends from my convent days who now live in Florida, one near Naples and the other a hop, skip, and jump from my homeward path once I started back.

And all of these things happened. In a nearly unheard-of string of good fortune and fortuitous events, every single part of the trip went almost exactly as planned. Ten of us, including 3 kids 10 and under, shared a house for seven days, fixed meals, enjoyed one another’s company, went to the beach, watched sunrises and sunsets, walked in the ocean, explored, laughed, and celebrated. The proposal took place during a sunset cruise. The bride-to-be was appropriately surprised and thrilled, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there wasn’t a dry eye on the boat.

My visits with other family and friends went equally well, and in due time, I headed for home, with a stop in Georgia to spend a few more days with my brother and collect my dog, who seemed to remember me even though she was pretty spoiled. I celebrated my 75th birthday with my brother, and the next day I was on the final leg of my journey.

Homecoming coincided with snow and wind and cold weather – not surprising for Michigan in January, but certainly unwelcome after 3 weeks of nice weather.

One of the highlights of coming home was going to Mass with the family on Sunday. As we worshipped and celebrated together, I realized that it felt like my prayer life, even my spiritual life, had taken something of a vacation, too.

I had always found churches for Sunday Mass on the road, and I had been able to attend a few weekday Masses during my travels. I had used my road time to pray rosaries and do some reflection and meditation. But there were also times when it was less convenient to find my way to daily Mass, and when I didn’t go, I also didn’t spend time with the daily readings. I didn’t seek time out for myself to pray the rosary. Even when my conversations with my friends involved sharing our faith journeys and the practices and ideas that brought us closer to God, I felt a little hypocritical, because I felt like I was lagging in my spiritual life.

As I reflected on this perceived fault line in my spiritual foundation, I was reminded of some very important truths: First, I was reminded that Jesus is always ready and willing, with a loving and forgiving heart, to receive us when we approach Him. Second, I was reminded of those times during my trip when events required me to step up in faith and really be there for someone. More about that in a minute. And third, I was reminded that my spiritual life is not a series of events for which I must keep score. What was vital was that I listened for the Holy Spirit’s calls and urgings and invitations and that I responded when I heard them.

You see, during the course of this trip, I encountered family members who were experiencing what I’d call a faith emergency. And in just the right moment, by God’s timing, I was there to listen, encourage, and share insights I hadn’t even realized I had, all of which served to fortify these loved ones in their faith during a tempestuous time. When I began to hear their story, I was moved to ask the Holy Spirit to guide my responses and my words, to make me what was needed in those moments, and I was graced with the humility to then listen and respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. There is not one part of me that thinks the thoughts I offered them were my own invention.

And also during the course of this trip, it happened that my daughter was experiencing the death of a beloved family member, an uncle on her father’s side of the family, and as she communicated her experiences and feelings to me, I responded with deeply heartfelt prayers for both her and her dying uncle. As I encountered others during my travels, I was moved to share with them my belief and hope that even for those without formal religious practices, a moment of grace may occur in their passing – a moment in which they realize Who God is, and that He is inviting them to His table regardless of their past. I see it as a moment when they recognize Him and respond with: “Oh! Now I see! I’m definitely in!” or words to that effect. It’s a moment when the parable of the laborers in the vineyard comes to life, and even those who came to the vineyard in the last hour receive the full reward.

As I reflected on all these things at Sunday Mass, and again at early weekday Mass this morning, I felt Jesus welcoming me back into my more normal routines even while He reminded me that I hadn’t done so very badly during my little vacation and road trip. He reminded me to spend less time thinking about what I hadn’t done, and to spend more time listening for Him and being grateful for His voice.

I did a lot of rambling over the past 3 ½ weeks, and I’ve done a fair amount of rambling in telling the story. As long as the rambling means that I’m still listening to the Holy Spirit, and that I’m still open to His urgent promptings, and that I’m still reaching for grace and seeking to be a blessing for others in the moments of my days, I think I can live with that.

Advent 2021 – 2

Some random thoughts on a random Monday….

I was just finishing my second and last cup of Earl Grey for the day and playing the little solitaire game on my phone. It got me thinking about when I first learned to play solitaire as a kid. The way I learned it (using real cards, of course – yes, I am that old!), there were fairly strict rules about the order of play. I was taught that if multiple plays were available, you first played on the ace pile, then on the grid. If there were two ore more cards to turn on the grid, you were supposed to start from the left. You were to complete all plays to the ace piles, then on the grid, before playing any cards from the deck. And there were no do-overs. A card laid was a card played, even when you were playing a solitary game of solitaire.

Now, the solitaire game app on my phone gives me do-overs, and I can choose the order of play for myself. If one play takes me on a path to defeat, I can undo actions until I am back at that decision point, and I can try available alternatives as I seek a path to victory. And the longer I played the game on my phone, the more I won, and the more I realized that this approach to playing would work equally well with a deck of real cards.

The analogy to life, I think, sipping the last of my Earl Grey, is inescapable. But it is not really about the do-overs, or the order of play, or even the rules.

I know people – and I will not name them here, in the interest of keeping the peace – who would argue vehemently that playing solitaire the way I do is “cheating.” And the accusation really has a hook for me, because I am a bit of a rule-follower at heart. I make complete stops at all-way stop signs in the middle of nowhere when there is not another car in sight – well, nearly always.

So, what is a person to do? Play the game by the strictest rules, so that at best one feels superior even if wins are rare, or play the game with liberal allowances for do-overs and the optimal order of play, so that one feels guilty even while racking up a high percentage of wins?

Those questions require that we ask another: Is the objective of our game to follow the rules, or to win the game? And from there, the questions just cascade: What are the rules for? To get you to success, or to assure that you can do what you are told? Is the goal to make winning more difficult, rather than to seek strategies that will overcome the obstacles? Or does it turn out that the goal and objective are to take advantage of every possible opportunity for a victory? If it is, then I think we have a recipe for something more than a game.

Everything about life involves rules, and we probably need to agree up front that a certain set of those rules is essential for our survival and for our safety and well-being. (Thus, I should, and do, feel kind of guilty about running that stop sign in the middle of nowhere.)

Once we get past those “necessary” rules, though, we are entitled, perhaps even compelled, to consider how much those rules are aimed at keeping a certain order that may satisfy nothing more than the perception of a need for that order.

In other words, if the main purpose of having a rule is to have a rule, isn’t that a license to set the rule aside in favor of acting in a way that leads to success?

We set rules for ourselves all the time – some that we adopt from the society around us, others that we develop from our own need for a sense of order. And if those rules are working to get us to victory, then we ought to keep them. But all too often, we get bound up in them without examining their function.

In solitaire, the rule is that if there are two available plays, you must turn the left-most card on the grid and play the game out even though defeat is inevitable. If you play enough times, you will find that the percentage of victories is less than 30%, perhaps closer to 25%. If you accept that the rule must be followed, and that to do otherwise is cheating, you are accepting that a 25-to-30% success rate is the best you can ever do.

If you change that rule – if you play the game of solitaire with choices of which play to take and with do-overs, so that if one play does not seem to work, you can undo it and take another option, you will find that the percentage of victories is something more than 45%. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

Now the question becomes, why would I follow a made-up rule that limits my ability to win? And beyond that, why would I accept that I am cheating if I give myself opportunities to increase my wins?

If I believe in myself enough to step outside the box and reject such rules, I also need a measuring stick for determining which rules I get to set aside, and which rules I need to keep following because they actually protect me, others, and society as a whole from harm. There are truths that are true in their essence regardless of my like or dislike for them and regardless of their convenience or inconvenience.

The line I need to find, and walk, is the line that keeps me honest about all of it. The line I need to find, and walk, is the line that properly defines a victory not just as something that I want, but as something that draws good from the universe and into the space around me. And this thought leads me to draw the analogy one step further into the realm of my spiritual life, my spiritual garden.

How do I define my victories? In the light of faith, as a hopeful follower of Jesus, it is a victory when it brings me closer to His way; it is an even bigger victory if it’s shared with others so that they might come to know Him better. Religion can be a place fraught with rules. Many of those rules are solid means by which we are able to practice and strengthen our faith and lead others to do the same. And many of those rules need to be examined, so that we do not allow them to limit our victories.

In this season of Advent, I want part of my preparation to meet Jesus to be around deciding which rules bring me the greatest chance of victory. In the end, it isn’t following the rules that will get me there; it’s following the path that He laid down for me.

And I can live with that.

Advent 2021, Day 1

This post is an invitation to reflect, and it’s drawn from thoughts that came while I was buzzing around doing household chores. The ideas came so quickly and so forcefully that I was compelled to put down what I was carrying and come to the computer and open a document to capture them.

The theme of the Advent season is built around the longing of God’s people for the coming of His Messiah, Jesus.

And the thought that occurred to me as I went about my little household chores on this first day of Advent, 2021, was this: Do we really long for Jesus to come? Or are we just a little too contented with the status quo, with the faults and foibles and flaws and imperfections that we allow to build their own castles in our lives? Do we really want Jesus at the center of our lives, or are we just a little too attached to the world we live in, just a smidge too upset over the disruptions the past year and a half have wrought, just a little too interested and invested in getting it back the way we want it?

If we really long for Jesus to come and be the center of our lives, how would we act? What would our daily lives look like? And what kinds of things would we do to get to that point?

There is only one source for what we really need – salvation, and the certainty of it – and that is Jesus. It seems such a waste of time to go about our lives wanting anything else but Him.


John 15:1-8

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

The Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday of Easter, as well as one of the following Easter weekdays, comes from Jesus’ “Last Supper” discourse. Taken as a whole, this discourse is for me both a source of discomfort and a source of peace. But this passage? This passage reaches deep into my heart, speaks into my soul in a special way.


John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” uses the word “remain” no less than 8 times in this brief passage, and at least 3 more times in the verses immediately following. I felt like that had to mean something. I sat and read the passage before heading off to Mass on that 5th Sunday of Easter, and I couldn’t quite put it away.

Remain. “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” That line especially sings for me. As I sat with it that morning, it occurred to me to explore the words in greater depth, so I began looking for definitions of remain. I found several:

The most obvious, of course, was “continue to exist, especially after other similar or related people or things have ceased to exist.”

Next, I found “continue to possess a particular quality or fulfill a particular role.”

Then this: “to be a part not destroyed, taken, or used up.”

And finally: “to stay in a place and not leave it.”

So I jotted down all of these definitions on my notepad, and I let the whole thing percolate for awhile. Then, on the 6th Sunday of Easter, one of our priests delivered the most amazing homily based on the next few verses of this passage. He talked about how St. Thomas Aquinas had written of this passage, analyzing it word by word. After listening, I knew I needed to explore these ideas further.

I’m no St. Thomas, nor am I a Father Mike (who, by the way, is a gifted homilist and a blessing to our parish). But I do love to reflect on meanings and messages in scripture, and I love to write about my reflections.

So this morning, I’m thinking about that line: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” I saw that we get our very existence from and through Jesus – He is the Word by which God created all things, so we very much continue to exist in Him. Our existence in Jesus continues into eternity – long after all other things have ceased to exist. And that next phrase, “as I remain in you”? I think St. Thomas spent some time with the word “as,” and I know that Fr. Mike did on Sunday as well. We can see “as” in the light of an identical state; we could also read it as suggesting a state similar in nature while not precisely identical in execution. After I pondered those points of view for awhile, I found myself seeing the word as suggesting “while,” and there I found the greatest enlightenment and comfort.

“Remain in me [while] I remain in you.” How long does Jesus remain, then? He answered that question Himself: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). So He is telling me to remain – exist, stay, be a part of, fulfill my role – in Him always, for He remains in that same way with me – always.

As I sat and savored that knowledge and certainty for a moment, all the rest of the passage stood crystal clear in front of me. With Jesus as the core of my existence, with my openness to the grace that keeps Him there, everything in my life is fruitful. And I know that is true, because of the promise Jesus makes: If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.

Father in Heaven, I know what I want. I want to remain in Your Son always, and for His words to remain in me. I want to exist in Him, stay in Him, fulfill my role as Your child in the light of His grace. I rely on Jesus’ promise, and the one thing I ask of You is the grace to remain in Him. Amen.

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.

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