Hold Every Thing Loosely

And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.  – John 12:10-11

Sometimes the hardest thing for me to change is my own mind.  My behaviors are hard to change at times, too, but it seems like if my mind is really made up about something, the behavioral changes follow more easily.

In today’s Gospel, the chief priests, are plotting to kill Lazarus because, well…because he was alive.  He had been dead for four days when Jesus raised him from the dead.  Lazarus’ very existence, then, was a testament to the miraculous power of Jesus, and therefore a threat to the high priests who just could not accept that Jesus was God.

As we walk this final journey into Holy Week, I find these readings about the plots to kill Jesus and the people that testify to his character very foreboding.  I do a lot of volunteer work at our church.  This means that sometimes I am in danger of being like the high priests and clinging so much to what I want to do (programs I want to run, ways I want to see things done, people I will and will not work with) that I lose sight of what God may be asking of me in each moment.  Sometimes– just as Jesus did when he first heard Lazarus was sick–we need to let things die. Even the things that are very dear to us–as Lazarus was to Jesus.

Our old ways of doing things (because that’s how we’ve always done them and that’s how we like it), our favorite events and celebrations (even though nobody new has come to them in years), and even the people we love to work with  (because they are fun and think just like us!)  always need to be held loosely.  This is the Paschal Mystery:  to die and to rise anew.  If we are not willing to hold things loosely enough that when the time is right, we let them die, then we have rejected a very large part of our faith!

This is a challenge and a struggle, yes, but the alternative as the Gospels seem to spell out again and again, should certainly give us pause.  If we do not hold things loosely, we risk clinging to them so tightly that we, like the high priests, fail to recognize God when he’s right in front of us!

We can stand firm in our faith that God is always for us, yes, but we do not know how his plans for our best interests are meant to unfold.  Therefore, we must hold loosely to all “things” in order to make room for him to stir our hearts, and give ourselves permission to change our minds when we’ve clung too close to something other than God himself.

The same is true for the people we surround ourselves with, too.  If we are not careful, we can push to the margins all those who think differently than us and therefore we run the risk of clinging too tightly to our own way of thinking.  As biblical scholar, Sister Dianne Bergant, recently stated, “Who are the outsiders in your life?  Be careful, they might be more righteous than you.”

Today’s Gospel message seems clear:  if we want to live our lives as a testament to Jesus, then we need to let things die when their “time has come.”  This means we must continue to examine all “things” which we hold dear:  not just old programs, old routines, and old habits, but also our old ways of thinking and those in our lives whom we are holding at arms length.  Jesus is more than willing to breathe new life into the things we think and say and do, and when we make room for him to do this, we point more people towards him, not us, which is exactly who we want to promote!  However, if we cling tightly to our old ways for the sake of our own status, our own glory or our own self-righteousness, then we are not only sure to be blind to God’s presence, but we also–perhaps even unknowingly–run the risk of plotting against him.

Reflect:  What are some “things” in my life that I have been struggling to “keep alive”?  What would happen if I loosened my grip on these things and made room for God to work within them?  Am I afraid they might “die”?  If so, why am I so afraid of letting them go?  Have I considered that perhaps these things really are meant to “live”…and that only God can make that happen?  Would I be willing to loosen my grip if I knew that were his plan?

Pray:   Heavenly Father, you gave us all you had in your Son Jesus, even to the point of death on the Cross!  Help me to give no less of the things in my life back to you.  Help me to trust in the New Life you desire for me and for all your creation.  Open my eyes to see your promise of New Life  in the signs of spring all around me:  the budding trees and flowers, the returning birds, the melting snow.  Take me by the hand and walk with me, so that I can loosen my grip on my old habits and ways of thinking, and make room to follow you more closely. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Susanna’s Message

…but a daughter of Judah did not tolerate your wickedness.   Daniel 13:57

The sex scandal in the Catholic Church has captured headlines for many years.  When news of it first broke in 2002 (as depicted in the movie Spotlight), it caused great shock and awe in both Catholic congregations and across the globe.  Even today, details of the horrific crimes of abuse and cover-up are still being revealed as dioceses across the country are bringing to light the names of those priests and clergy members who were responsible in any way for causing pain and harm to its many victims. And as dioceses around the world continue to find scandal and cover-ups of their own.

This is the Church.  The one place where we should be able to go as a “safe space” for all.

But how can we when there is so much evidence to the contrary?

Today’s story in Daniel exists  in the Catholic biblical canon, but may also be found in the Apocrypha of many Protestant bibles.  In this story, we find, Susanna, a pure and pious spouse of a church patriarch, Joakim, being threatened by two corrupt elders who insist that Susanna succumb to their lustful desires or they will accuse her (falsely) of adultery with a young man and she will be sentenced to death.  She seemingly only has two options:  do as they wish and sleep with the two men, or die.

Enter Daniel.

Daniel sees through the two elders to the underlying truth.  He sees that their stories don’t add up, and he demands the two elders be separated to give their testimony.  And when they do, they each describe its events differently, which proves their guilt and Susanna’s innocence, and they are then put to death and Susanna escapes abuse and is free.

I can’t help but see some parallels in the story of the religious elders of ancient Israel and the hierarchy of the Church today.  Then, like now, corruption existed in religious settings.  Then, like now, it wasn’t in everybody and everywhere, but it was in some…and even one victim is one too many.

But there is hope.

Then, like now, more and more often details of the scandal are being brought to the light.  Then, like now, victims advocate groups and counselors rise to help those who have suffered.  Then, like now, people’s eyes were opened.  And while it stinks to feel as though we have to scrutinize the leaders of our churches (or our corporation or our country, etc. ), it’s a good reminder to me that the reason for that is because there is only one True Authority, one Truth we can trust in this world, or any world…and that is Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).

Though Susanna walked the earth many years before Jesus, like Jesus her heart was aligned with God, the Father.  This daughter of Judah, remains faithful to God in the midst of this little -known scandal,  just as many years later a little babe who is born in the “hill country” of Judah, called Bethlehem, remains faithful to God the Father to the point of death on a Cross.  Then He rises into New Life, breathing that Life into the very Church of today.

My footnotes tell me Susanna is a “type” of the Church.  (In biblical talk, a “type” is a foreshadowing of sorts–someone or some thing that parallels someone or some other thing that happens later in history). Like Susanna, we the Church, should not tolerate wickedness, neither outside her “walls,” nor within them.  Like Susanna, we the Church can overcome scandal.  We owe it to the thousands of victims who have suffered at the hands of it, and we owe it to Jesus who died because of it.  We need not fear it.  And we need not despair over it.  We need simply let the Light shine upon it, until the last stone is overturned.

Until then, we put our hope in the day when we, like Susanna’s husband and parents, can say with every confidence “praise God…because nothing shameful was found in her.”

Reflect:  Have I lost faith in God because of the wrongdoings of men?  What can I do to be like Daniel, and help victims of abuse (either in or outside the Church) in my area?  How can I deepen my faith in Jesus, so that when uncertain times fall upon me, I can still trust in his goodness and love?

Pray:  Lord, today we pray for all those who have suffered abuse at the hands of those they trusted, or through random violent attacks.  Help us to love one another, to understand one another and to have compassion and provide counsel for all those who suffer, but especially for those who suffer from abuse by church and religious leaders whom they trusted.  We will not tolerate that wickedness.  Empower us to continue shining your Light until the last stone is overturned.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Who Is Your Moses?

The Lord told Moses, “Quick!  Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves.”  Exodus 32:7 (NLT)

“You need to talk to your son.”

“Ask your daughter what she did today.”

Over the years remarks like these were occasionally the first words I’d have for my husband after his long day at work and my equally long day of housework and mothering.  I doubt my husband was energized be these words, but sometimes, no matter how loud or often I’d say certain things to our kids, they just needed to hear it from someone else.  Someone who loved them as much as I did, but who would have a different approach to whatever the situation was, and therefore a different ear to listen to their plight as well.

Today’s Old Testament reading can be troubling unless read through the lens of what is true about God eons ago, today and forever:  God is Love.  God loves us.  God can ONLY love us.  He is not capable of anything less.

However, this is also true:  sometimes love hurts.

In today’s Old Testament passage we read how the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, have once again fallen into behaviors of idol worship and have lost faith and trust in God.  God, seeing this, tells Moses to go down and talk to them.  Now, there’s lots more there, too, about God telling Moses to leave him alone with the people and allow his “wrath to consume” them and Moses begging God to “repent of this evil against your people.”  Though this may be frightening, the exchange can be beautiful if we keep two things in mind:  God is Love and love hurts.

Our sins–that is any choices we make that turn us away from God–hurt him.    The people of Israel made choices that hurt God.  And though the emotions and attitude of God are written in a way that personifies him, in the Old Testament God is not a “person” in the sense that we understand the word. But God is often personified, (that is, described in human terms to make the mystery of God more understandable to us), and he is personal, meaning he desires a personal relationship with each one of us, just as he desired to have with the people of Israel so long ago.    This is why, like the people of Israel, when we choose to turn away from a relationship with God, it is personal to him, and it hurts him.  (And though we may not realize it at the time, it hurts us, too.)

But God never gives up on us!

Instead, through the proper lens, we can see that God uses someone to intercede for him.  And in today’s reading that someone is Moses.  Though God is perfectly capable of doing whatever he wants in that moment, he chooses Moses to return to the people and plead with them to change their ways and put their trust back in God.

I can’t help but smile at the words the ancient writer of Exodus (whom many scholars believe to be Moses himself) used for God’s command to Moses in calling the people of Israel “your people,”  when in previous chapters he’d called them “my people.”   Because it assures me that just as I  (usually when it was something I was less than thrilled about or hurt by) have occasionally called my own children “your son/daughter” to my husband,  I can say with absolute certainty that I did not love my children any less at those times.  And we can be assured that when we’ve turned away from God he doesn’t love us any less either.  In fact,  we can take comfort in knowing that he loves us so much he will send a “Moses” into our lives in an effort to bring us back to him. We need only keep our eyes and hearts open to look for them, and turn back to God when they appear to us. Because, just as love hurts when it’s been broken, love that is restored heals.

God is Love.

God loves you.

If you cannot see or feel God’s love for  you, ask him to send you a Moses!

Reflect:  Who are the people in my life that help me see God more clearly?  That help me think God cares about me?  That have encouraged me to seek out God?   If you can’t think of anyone, then ask for God to send you someone to help you see his love more clearly.  Whether  you have been blessed with one “Moses” or many in your life, give thanks to God for each of them today. Just as the people needed Moses, Moses needed the prayers of the people, too.

Pray:  Lord, thank you for the people you have placed in my life that have tried to lead me closer to you!  I may not always appreciate their words and actions, and I may sometimes be reluctant to make the changes I need to in order to restore my relationship with you, but I thank you for never giving up on me! And I ask you to help me keep my eyes and heart open for the next Moses you send. Amen.

 

A Map of Faith

It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.  – Romans 4:13

How can we have faith?  This is a question that is asked and discussed in the small groups during the Alpha course we run at our parish. “Faith isn’t a blind leap. It’s a reasonable step based on good evidence.  In some ways faith is more like a journey,” they say as the Alpha video begins.

But what is the evidence for putting our faith in God?  The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy:  by having a personal relationship with God.  Jesus is our perfect example of how to live a life of faith.  Through his example we see the person of God himself become fully human to take on the burdens of all our sins and suffer to the point of death, not to save himself, but to save us.  He gives everything of himself for us.  And out of his great love for us, God gives us a share in this life of suffering, too.  Not because he doesn’t love us, but because none of us could ever repay our debts from the wrongs we have committed against himself and others.  And because of Jesus we don’t need to.  We need only carry the share of the suffering that is given us.   And from a human perspective this can sometimes seem grossly unfair.  We see that some very good and wholesome people experience a great deal of sufferings, while others skate through life seemingly unscathed.  The question is, how do we handle the unfairness we see?  Do we turn away from God?  Or do we follow Jesus’ example and lean more deeply into him?

The Scriptures tell us that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)  So which is it? you may be wondering. Is faith, as Alpha says, “a reasonable step based on good evidence,” or is it as the Scriptures say “evidence of things not seen?”  When we look to the life of Jesus, we can see it’s clearly both.  Jesus did not go through life minding his own business until one day God put it on his heart to die for all our sins and Jesus did it and so now he’s a hero.  No!  Jesus was born into and shared a deep and personal relationship with God the Father from the very beginning.  And today’s second reading from Romans reminds us that years before Jesus became incarnate, Abraham, too, had a deep personal relationship with God the Father.  Without it, the whole story of the sacrifice of his son Isaac (also a young man of great faith and a prefiguring of Jesus) Abraham would appear insane!  But today we are told it was Abraham’s faith that God rewarded, not his adherence to any laws. (In fact, it wasn’t until centuries later that the Law was given to Israel, and that was only because of their many transgressions.)

Today’s readings are in celebration of the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  Joseph, another man of great faith, chose not to follow his legal right for a divorce from Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (though they had not been together), but rather to follow the commands of the angel of God who appeared to him in a dream and bring her into his home and marry her, though he stood to face much shame and rejection for doing so.

Abraham had great faith.  St. Joseph had great faith.  Jesus is our perfect example of faith.  All had a personal relationship with God.  By their examples, we can begin to connect the dots for how faith may look in our own lives:

  1. Open our hearts to God.  Alpha suggests we say a simple prayer like, “God, if you are real, show me in a way that I will understand and can come to believe in you.”  You could say this step is a “realization of what is hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1)
  2.  Watch/listen for God to respond to us.  This is the step I think that confuses many of us, as we tend to have at least two unrealistic expectations of God: 1) that God will answer us immediately, and 2) that it will be something very supernatural and obvious.  While these two things are certainly well within God’s capabilities to do, people who walk with God will generally attest to something quite different.  They see God working through the people around them, and through things that are already meaningful to them.  We, on the other hand, often mislabel these things as “coincidences.”  However, with open hearts, through the eyes of faith, we can begin to see these “coincidences” as our own personal “evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
  3.  Repeat step 1.  Once we’ve received this “evidence” in our hearts, though we can’t see it, we act on it if it calls us to act. Sometimes, the “evidence” is simply an affirmation of God’s love for us, or a reassurance of his presence with us that calls for no action on our part at all. And in many cases, we can rest assured that any calls to action will be reasonable, or at least consistent with the nature of God.  They are seldom “blind leaps”, but rather “reasonable steps based on good (but unseen) evidence.”

To us, Abraham’s sacrificial offering of his son, Joseph’s willingness to marry a woman pregnant with a child who was not his own, and Jesus’ willingness to take on death on the Cross can all seem like extreme “blind leaps” from where we sit.  But for them?  For them, these acts were their next most reasonable steps based on the lifetime of evidence they had from their personal relationship with the God of the Universe.

The same God who wants to have a personal relationship with you and with me.

From this perspective, we can begin to appreciate that perhaps the one who takes the biggest “leap of faith” in all of this is not us, but God.

Reflect:  What “evidence” do you have to point to in your life that God exists?  If you don’t have any “evidence” of God, have you considered asking for him to provide you with some? Does asking for God to provide this “evidence” seem like a reasonable step to you?  Imagine if after you die, you were to appear before God and accuse him of never revealing himself to you and his reply were simply, “Well, my child, why did you never ask?”  

Pray:  Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us even when we don’t love you in return.  Thank you for loving us even when we don’t know you, or forget to include you in our lives.  Help us to know you more fully, walk with you more closely, and experience your love and mercy more deeply as we begin, continue or renew our journey of faith with you.  Amen.