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Archive for May, 2007

While my nephew and his wife were expecting their first child and even moreso now that little Evan is here, we frequently use the catchphrase: “It’s all about the baby.” Established in their careers, settled in their house, they’re now completely absorbed in this new little life. From changing diets to decorating the nursery to taking time off work for doctors’ appointments and ultrasounds, they readily shifted all their priorities. And as his only local great-aevandiane.jpgunt, I’m willing to drop everything to drive out to their house just for the privilege of rocking him to sleep.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Visitation. I think Mary and Elizabeth would understand this delighted, anxious, all-absorbing period of waiting, anticipation and celebration. Their greeting, their empathetic presence to one another, John leaping in his mother’s womb to greet his cousin, focus on the great miracles taking place in their lives. For Mary, this isn’t some dutiful trip to help an aging relative. It’s a joy and wonderment that can’t be contained. It’s the longing to share her experience with someone also blessed by God.

Luke’s Gospel again and again reveals the touch of a master storyteller in its ability to put the marvelous events of salvation into the most simple, yet profound, human experiences: a long-awaited pregnancy, the birth of a baby, a lost adolescent, , a shared meal, an excruciating death. And in making the extraordinary, ordinary, he reminds us that through God’s grace, the ordinary has indeed become extraordinary.

The church fathers have taught this from the beginning of Christianity. St. Irenaeus says, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive” and St. Athanasius says, “God became human so that humans might become divine.”
Elizabeth recognizes that Mary’s child is more than the ordinary miracle of conception, is in fact the incarnation of her Lord. And so, in celebrating today’s feast, we recognize that for us, too, it’s all about the baby, all about our God.

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Mark’s Gospel continues to challenge many of the assumptions that we still take for granted over two thousand years after Jesus walked this earth. Wealth, power and ambition still dominate human society. And the prophets and poets of our day continue to address it. One of Dr. Seuss’s less widely known stories is about Yertle the Turtle, who fancied himself king and lord of all. His brilliant plan was to stack the other turtles so that he could climb to new heights. When a small turtle named Mack complained, Yertle ignored him. Then one day Mack, “just a little bit mad,” with a simple burp brought the king’s turtle stack tumbling to the ground. In the inimitable words of Dr. Seuss,

And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

Ambition isn’t just a problem for the rich and powerful. Most of us at one time or another find ourselves caught up in the temptation to get ahead of someone else, even if it’s just someone trying to pass us on the freeway. Parents encourage their children to excel in school, in sports, in their careers. Spouses nag one another about promotions and raises, sometimes to the exclusion of a healthy lifestyle.

Back in the 1970s, Trina Paulus crafted a parable about caterpillars climbing over one another to get to the top of a great pillar of caterpillars. Two of them finally dropped off the pillar because they wouldn’t step on one another. Stripe and Yellow discovered that only by stopping the upward climb and spinning a cocoon would they emerge as butterflies who could then effortlessly soar over the fields and the struggling, misguided caterpillar tower. Hope for the Flowers’ artwork looks a little dated these days, but its message is timeless. It’s the message of Jesus that in dying to ourselves, we rise to our true destiny as children of God. Sometimes it takes a children’s story to bring this message home.

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Too often wealth and power go together in our society. Scandal after scandal in the political and business worlds reveal a web of bribery and deceit, people who use money and influence to further their own desires rather than the common good. This isn’t anything new. Sirach reminds his listeners that bribing God will do no good. He tells them that their God “is a God of justice who knows no favorites.”

We might keep Sirach’s advice in the back of our minds when we read about Jesus and his disciples discussing their having given up everything to follow him. It’s not about impressing God or looking for a reward. It’s about letting go of what we don’t need so that we can focus on our need for God. Mark tells us that Peter “began” to tell Jesus how much they’ve done, but Jesus cuts him off.

The activist philospher Peter Singer has suggested that people limit their income to what they need for a reasonably comfortable life and donating anything above that to causes that support the common good. Most of us recoil from that suggestion, but it’s no different than what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel. The difference, perhaps, is that he doesn’t hesitate to put his ideas in concrete economic terms. We’ve become adept at spiritualizing Jesus’ advice. But I have a feeling he might agree with Mr. Singer.

I suspect there are few of us who don’t have more than we need. And at times we might be tempted to hold money over others in subtle or not so subtle attempts at influencing their behavior. Jesus is telling us that this isn’t God’s way. Jesus is challenging us to remember that all the good things we have come from God. We’re to use those gifts for the good of all, whether it’s the people close to us or vast numbers of people in the world who struggle with the most basic needs: food, water, shelter, adequate medical care. Our God doesn’t compromise and neither should we.

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We look to the stories and mythology of our culture for answers to the big questions about life: How did we get here? Why are we here? What do we learn from the stories of our past? How do we shape the stories of our future? For Jews and Christians, the Bible is the primary place we look for these answers, beginning with “Who is God?” What is our relationship to this God? How has that shaped our stories, our history, our very lives?

This past weekend, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky opened to the public. Steve Bogner had a great post on it last week. Because it’s quite close to Cincinnati, our local paper is giving it a lot of play. But it even made the New York Times. The Times article called attention to one display that I have to say I found quite amusing:

We learn that chameleons, for example, change colors not because that serves as a survival mechanism, but “to ‘talk’ to other chameleons, to show off their mood, and to adjust to heat and light.”

Who would have thought?!! I find that I can’t even put myself into a mindset that would look to one book of the Bible for literal answers about God’s immense and wonderful creation. At times it seems as through the whole creationist debate takes place somewhere far removed from the Scriptures of my faith. And yet because extremists at the other end of the philosophical and religious spectrum will use this absurdity to reject all belief in the Bible, I find that I can’t just ignore it.

The story of the Bible is the story of our creation and redemption, an activity that is ongoing, a neverending story that continues after the written word ends. The incarnation of Jesus so completed the original story begun in Genesis that our tradition could close the canon of revelation, but we find new and fuller understandings of that story as we grow in knowledge and wisdom as a people of God. I’m reminded of a saying by theologian and storyteller Megan McKenna: “All stories are true. Some of them actually happened. ” The stories in the Bible tell me a special kind of truth and through them I can listen for the word of God. But then, come to think of it, I listen for the word of God in everything I read and hear and experience. Maybe that’s the difference.

P.S. Because all of this talk of truth and facts is bringing me dangerously close to the concept of truthiness, I leave you with this reflection on the importance of learning new things.

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Six Feet Under, a quirky series on HBO, centers on a dysfunctional family running a funeral home. The tagline for the first season was “Every day above ground is a good one.” Sirach, the author of the first reading in today’s lectionary selection, would agree with that. He tells his listeners, “You who are alive and well shall praise and glorify God in his mercies.” And in the Gospel, Jesus gives us more specific ideas about how we can make our days on this earth more like the eternal goodness of God’s kingdom.

The rich man questioning Jesus seems to be what we might today call a “Type-A” personality. He’s looking for a checklist, black-and-white assurance that he’s got himself covered for the Final Report to God. Jesus first tells him what he’s known all along: Keep the commandments. The man’s anxiety suggests that perhaps he has an inkling that there’s something more he could be doing. Or perhaps he’s just one of those people who are perpetually insecure, fussing about things they can’t change or things that don’t actually affect their lives or the lives of those close to them.

Jesus’ next response seems designed to jolt the man out of his somewhat obsessive focus on himself: his efforts, his wealth, his ability to inherit eternal life. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” In other words, get outside of yourself. You have everything you need and want, but you’re still not content. It’s not doing you any good. Give it to those who have a real need for day-to-day necessities. But this is more than the rich man can do.

Most of us are more fortunate than we realize. We have our basic needs met. We have homes and regular meals. We enjoy good health and when we’re sick we have access to adequate medical care. But we don’t have to look very far to see those who lack even these basics. And today, as we celebrate Memorial Day and take time during our picnics and parties to remember those who have died, we know how much we have to be thankful for.

Our readings today offer us two cautions, easy to say and hard to do. Stop fussing about what you don’t have and do what you can to help others with what you do have. Then, not only will every day above ground be good, but we will have treasure in heaven as well.

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I’ve been preoccupied this week with the birth of my first local great-nephew last Thursday and various deadlines, meetings and events at work. Evan Robert’s first pictures should be showing up in my Flickr sidebar soon. He’s going to be baptized on the feast of John the Baptist and my nephew and his wife were pleased that his name (Welsh for John) ties in so well to the feast. I love knowing that my love for liturgical and scriptural connections is rubbing off on the next generation!

I’ll have some thoughts on the rich lectionary readings for the Ascension during the week. In the meantime, my friend and coworker Katie Carroll offered this piece in our print publication, also called Bringing Home the Word. I liked it so well that I asked her to share it here as we move into Ascensiontide:

“The Discovery Channel recently aired a feature called The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Director James Cameron (of Titanic fame) posited that the grouping of names found on six ossuaries (limestone coffins) in a single newly discovered tomb made it statistically probable that the tombs were those of Jesus of Nazareth; his brother, Joseph; Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdalene; and Jesus and Mary’s son, Judah. Though cognizant that Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, Cameron dismisses such narrow thinking and suggests that the resurrection and ascension might have been spiritual, rather than physical, events, and thus, his thesis is in no way contrary to Christian theology.

“Where does one begin?

“Catholic theology flatly denies that Jesus had any siblings. The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity make this impossible. No matter how many times secular fortune-seekers try to portray Mary Magdalene and Jesus as spouses, there is simply no evidence to support such a theory, much less that they had a child together. The apostles worshiped Christ, spent their lives in service to him and, for the most part, died martyrs’ deaths. Is it likely they would have failed to notice or report that God left a family behind?

“St. Paul was kind enough to spell out for us the significance of Christ’s resurrection. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” He cites in other letters the testimony of more than five hundred disciples, eyewitnesses to the resurrection, most of whom were still living when Paul wrote. The infant church had centuries of theological obstacles to overcome, but it was certain that Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

“Though we are often removed from it, doctrine does matter in the everyday lives of Christians. It is no small thing to love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us or sacrifice for others; doctrine assures us that we have a very good reason for doing it. Christ’s passion, death and resurrection are proof that his message is true—our sins can be forgiven, we can be better people and we can make the world a better place. Christ’s ascension, which we celebrate today, gives us some idea of how to do that. ‘Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’ the angels ask the disciples at the ascension. Jesus himself has instructed them to preach the gospel, not to stand idly about, gaping at the miracles they have witnessed.

“Authentic faith starts with the relationship between us and God, the ‘vertical’ dimension of faith. But Christianity insists on the ‘horizontal’ dimension as well—reaching out to others with the gospel, whether we’re preaching it or living it. This latter dimension is the difference between a litany of doctrinal declarations which for some passes as faith, and a living relationship between God and humanity in Christ. Our faith is nourished by our private time with God—at Mass, in prayer, when reading Scripture, but it is practiced in our interactions with others—at home, at work, when we think no one is looking. Knowing our faith and its basis is invaluable (we could all spend more time with our Bibles or the Catechism of the Catholic Church), but living out our faith brings life.”  —Kathleen M. Carroll

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Patricia Livingston is one of my favorite authors and speakers on the topic of everyday spirituality. She often begins her talks by saying that she’s going to remind her listeners of things they already know in their hearts from the experiences of their daily lives. I thought of Pat when I was listening to the Gospel this past Sunday. Jesus tells his followers that the Advocate, the Spirit he is sending, will remind them of all that he has taught them while he was with them. Like Pat’s gentle lessons of the heart, the Spirit’s nudging reminders in our lives keep us focused on the things that matter: peace both in our hearts and in our world, love for ourselves, one another and our God, the faith that’s rooted in our baptism and grows and strengthens as we face life’s challenges.

The lectionary readings for the sixth week of Easter present a realistic view of the life of the early church, one that we can still see in our own century. The tensions and sqabblings over doctrine and authority, the competing self-interest that sadly seems to be part of the human race from the beginning of time, are dealt with honestly in the Acts of the Apostles. It takes the strong leadership and dedication of people like Paul and Barnabas to cut through the controversy and remind the new Christians of the man and the faith they hold dear.

The second reading from the Book of Revelation struck me as a perfect counterpoint to the controversies in Acts. In the heavenly Jerusalem, many of the sources of conflict would no longer exist. In God’s kingdom, the institutions that can become mired in human misunderstanding and sin would be transcended. The popular and charismatic Franciscan preacher Richard Rohr says often that in the Lord’s prayer when we say, “Thy kingdom come” it carries with it the demand that we also say, “My kingdom go.”

As we move through these days between Easter and Pentecost, bathed in the light of the resurrection, we come to rely more and more on the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us, to speak to us and for us, to draw us closer into the love of the triune God. Sometimes we forget what we know in the pressures and tensions of our everyday lives. Family, work, the unsettled state of the world, press in on us and in the clamor we can forget our focus, our purpose, our need to surrender to the spirit. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge, a reminder that we know that there’s a better way, the way of Jesus, the way of the Spirit.

The readings from the Gospel of John during these final weeks of Easter often seem to repeat the same things over and over again. They can be difficult to grasp, abstract theologizing on the themes of peace and love, of the union of the Trinity and our union with them. But, like a mantra, a repeated prayer that runs through our mind like a favorite melody, the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel can soothe and calm us, can move us forward, can give us the peace and courage that are the gifts of the Spirit.

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