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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Covenants

"Today the LORD is making this agreement with you." Dt 26:17

Covenants are sacred agreements, usually between two nations or tribes. It was common in the ancient world for warring people to end hostility with a covenant. Representatives from each group or tribe would split animals in half and walk between them, clearly signifying that as long as each group kept the covenant, peace would reign. The dead animals, however, were a powerful sign. If either party to the covenant broke the agreement, war and killing would begin again.

Today, Exodus reminds us that God made a covenant with his people, assuring them that if they kept the covenant, they would live in peace with God and God would protect them. It is a remarkable time for the Israelites. God is promising always to be faithful to them. Their only obligation would be to keep the commandments, and while God would often have to correct and challenge them to keep their promises, they had only to remember the covenant and turn to God to be healed.

When Christians call Jesus the new covenant, they assert that God's faithfulness has been extended to us beyond anything we could imagine. Jesus is God incarnate and his resurrection promises us life forever. As long as we live the Good News of Jesus in a transparent way God will forever walk by our side and hold us in the palm of his hand.

Today, be transparent in your gospel life. Love one another.

How do you manage broken covenants in your life and family?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Beginning Again

"Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord GOD. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?" Ex 18: 23-24

One of the fundamental questions asked of every school of spirituality is where it begins? Ignatian spirituality, for instance, begins with personal and world sin. Only after a person has confronted his or her complicity in making the world a harsher place and community through selfishness, pride, lust and arrogance, does the pilgrim join the journey of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. It is a natural and understandable place to begin, but it is not the only place.

Franciscan spirituality begins by reminding the pilgrim to stand in awe and wonder before the greatness and goodness of God, and only after celebrating the glory of God in all creation does it ask believers to face their sin. It is a different path with the same goal, to know, appreciate and enter the mystery of God's unconditional love. For Franciscans, only the strength and assurance they gain from seeing God's presence in all creation makes it possible for them to face the awfulness of their own ingratitude.

Today's text from Ezekiel seems to take this second path. God is more intent on rejoicing in our conversion than in than in taking pleasure from our death through sin. God wants to celebrate who we are when we turn to him, not to turn from us in disgust. How wonderful God is! Like a mother rejoicing in her children's accomplishments, God notices every fault but dismisses them quickly every time we turn to God in praise and thanksgiving.

Today, take a deep breath and ask God what God wants from you, to face your sin, or to sing of God's glory.

Where are you inclined to begin your own pilgrim journey?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Darkness

"Then the LORD said to Moses: Stretch out your hand toward the sky, that over the land of Egypt there may be such darkness that one can feel it. So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and there was dense darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, nor could they get up from where they were, for three days. But all the Israelites had light where they lived." Ex 10: 21-23

Darkness of spirit can be immobilizing. Inundated with problems or memories that emerge every time we open our eyes, there is no place to go. Friends with cancer often spoke of their illness in this manner. Each day they would wake, hoping for a shift in how they felt physically and emotionally, but there was only nausea and darkness. What a burden they had to carry, and what a plague that came upon the world when Pharaoh would not free the Israelites from slavery.

Remarkably, the call of Lent is to allow God to take us into this kind of darkness so that we might be cleansed and able to see again, even in a darkness "one can feel." Though our faith tells us that God is in the darkness with us, and Jesus in the desert experienced this, it is awful, frightening and disturbing. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta told her spiritual director that this kind of darkness followed her for years. While those who knew her could never have suspected this terrible kind of trial, it was real and suffocating, and led her to the edge of unbelief.

When periods of darkness like this come upon us, either because of an illness, the loss of a trusted friend or spouse, or because we are willing to put aside the comforts and distractions we use each day to fend off the blackness of not knowing, we must stay still. As the poet, Jessica Powers wrote, "God sits on a chair of darkness in my soul...I sit at His feet, a child in the dark beside Him." God does not make the darkness go away, but sits with us in it. Is that enough?

Today, try not to hide. Give yourself to God as you are.

How do you manage darkness in your life?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sackcloth

"Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God." Jon 3:8

Sometimes there is a line in the scriptures that both amuses and startles us. The book of Jonah tells us that when the King of Nineveh heard Jonah's warning that his huge city would be destroyed unless he repented, he not only put on sackcloth and sat in ashes, he ordered the cattle to be dressed in sackcloth as well. Even as I write I am trying to picture the scene. The text suggests, however, that Jonah was neither impressed nor moved by the king's show of repentance. Jonah didn't want the the people of Nineveh to repent. He wanted them punished, but God was impressed, which is all that matters.

God knows our hearts, and while most of us are not inclined to make a show of our repentance and dress our animals in sackcloth, we can be sure that when we turn to God with sincerity and sorrow, God hears our cry. Perhaps even more important, the text reminds us, God hears the cries of our enemies, and the challenge to rejoice in their repentance is before us everyday.

Lent is a "big" time for Christians, and we have to think "big" as well. Niniveh, after all, was so large a city that it took three days to walk across it, and while this might be a figure of speech to help us understand how daunting if must have been for Jonah to be the prophet God called him to be, it reminds us that God thinks "big" for us and about us, and we do not have to live in fear.

Lent is a good time to think about our attitude towards the many undocumented immigrants in our nation, even those who are willing to do the most menial of jobs for the chance to stay here and make a life among us. Lent might also be an appropriate time to pray for fundamentalist Muslims, many of whom seem bent on destroying our nation. If God can hear the cry of the people of Nineveh, surely he can hear us when we allow ourselves to dream "big" in prayer and faith.

Today, set your imagination free for God's work.

What are you willing to do to seek God's forgiveness?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Praying

"In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him." Mt 6:7

Many people want to pray more until they realize that they don't know how to pray or think they don't know how, and find themselves in a quandary. Most people of faith learn to pray as children in a very ritualized fashion. They know the Our Father and Hail Mary. Many remember a morning offering and the mysteries of the rosary, but are left wondering what is next.

Today's scripture is clear and helpful. It is not necessary to use many words when we pray. In fact, too many words get the in way of most conversations. What begins as a dialogue becomes a monologue. One person speaks, the other listens. One person is content with the "conversation," the other leaves wondering what just happened, and unfortunately, something like this is the experience of many when they pray. Though there are many stories that suggest prayer does need words at all, it can be difficult to follow the example of the old man sitting in the back of church who when asked what he does when he prays replies, "I look at God and God looks at me."

St Clare of Assisi spoke of prayer in a similar way when she instructed her sisters to let God gaze at them, and they should learn to gaze at God. In other words, prayer can be as simple as a long, loving look at the real, as the Jesuit, Walter Burghardt described Ignatian contemplation. In any case, Jesus is warning us not to use too many words. Sitting quietly in our rooms or our car for a few minutes before we begin the day can allow us to hand our day over to the Lord and trust in his loving presence.

Today, try praying quietly. Don't use words. Let God gaze at you.

What is your everyday experience of prayer? Is your prayer quieter as you age?

Monday, February 27, 2012

"You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer." Lv.19:11

When I was a boy my father was paid twice a month, and although his wage allowed us to pay our rent and eat, it was very modest. In those months when his second paycheck was withheld over a weekend because the month ended on a Sunday, it was especially difficult for my mother who had to stretch every penny. Every time I read Leviticus I think of my parents and offer a prayer in gratitude for the sacrifices they made for me and my siblings, but I also have a cold anger inside me.

It seems too easy for some rich people, like those who owned the company my dad worked for, to forget the poor, especially if they think the poor are being paid an adequate wage. That they have more than they can ever spend for anything they want does not seem to impact them very deeply. They may even claim that they deserve everything they have since they risked their capital and should be rewarded for the "danger" to which they exposed themselves. This kind of thinking has led our society, in the words of the columnist, Nicholas Kristof, to become more like a banana republic than Nicaragua and Guyana. Today the richest 1% of wage earners in our nation take home more than 24% of the income. In 1976 the richest 1% only earned 9% of the income. The gap between the richest and poorest people in our nation is growing at an alarming rate.

Of course, we can challenge these numbers and resist rethinking about how we treat poor people in our nation, but Leviticus is clear. Do not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer. Even 3500 years ago, people realized that those who hired themselves out a day a time needed to be treated justly. Today is no different. All of us know people who have been searching for work, without success, for months, even years. All of us know others whose homes are at risk. Lent is a good time to think about these bigger questions and ask God for direction and insight.

Today, pray for those without work and for others who are underpaid.

What do you think are our obligations to the poor as a people of faith?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Deserts

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him." Mk 1:12-13

Twice in the first chapter of Mark's gospel there is an Epiphany, a moment of enlightenment and clarity for Jesus and all of us, his followers. The first occurs as Jesus emerges, newly baptized, from the waters of the Jordan and hears God's words, "You are my beloved son; with whom I am well pleased."(Mk 1:11) This is an Epiphany of a kind we all enjoy and seek. It is an affirmation, a light come to us from afar, a confirmation of our identity as God's child.

The second Epiphany, about which we read today, follows immediately, but it is an Epiphany of a very different kind. Jesus is in the desert, the place of terrible cold at night and unbearable heat during the day, and he remains there for forty days and nights. This is a dark Epiphany, a time of affirmation surely, but accomplished in the shadows. Though Jesus is ministered to by angels, he is also among wild beasts. His life is being threatened and his integrity is being challenged. Today's Epiphany is daunting, one which most of us would rather avoid.

The challenge of the Gospel today is clear. Are we willing to look for and find God both in the cleansing waters of new life, and in the desert darkness of fear and uncertainty? While it is natural and understandable that we would hope to find God in all the obvious places and situations, in a loving family, in a supportive community and in friends who know us inside and out, it is not enough for the Christian. Our task is more difficult, but also clearer.

When we can allow God to be God and look for God in the dusty and suffocating corners of life, we are acknowledging that we are made in God's image. God is not made in ours. If we are only happy with God when life is a smooth sail across a calm sea, we will never know the fullness of God's love. Neither will we be able to appreciate or put on the suffering of Jesus. While we know that suffering is not something we seek in itself, we also know we cannot avoid suffering altogether. Every life is full of light and dark. Knowing that God is always with us, even when we cannot understand God's ways, is the key to our faith. The road to Easter joy must go through Calvary.

Today, return to an unhealed place within your heart and let God be with you.

Recount a time when you discovered God in the "desert."