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Archive for February, 2008

Lent calls us to step aside from our ordinary routines, to spend time listening to God, to believe that we can tell our stories in a new way. The word of God challenges us to explore the story of our faith once more and discover for ourselves that Jesus really is “the savior of the world”—and what this means in our own lives. We come to believe not because others have told us we must, but because our own hearts tell us we must. The Samaritan woman has known pain and disappointment and the restless search for a life of happiness and meaning. She has known the deadening routine of coming each day to the same well for water that will enable her to live just one more day. She thinks sometimes that there must be more to life, if only someone would tell her a new story. But she has heard so many stories and always they end the same way. We, too, thirst for something real, something genuine, something that will refresh us. But in our desperation we often settle for far less than we feel we deserve, because the life we know demands less of us than the life we dream.

She wants to believe, but she fears yet another disappointment, so this time she wants to be sure. Her opening challenge is filled with suspicion and mistrust. Belief always makes vulnerable lives that are accustomed to strong defenses. And the brutal reality is that at times belief will be disappointed, trust will be betrayed. But Jesus challenges the woman to believe once more, to risk one more time, to give new life one more chance. He challenges her to tell her story, to listen to the story he has to tell, to believe that this time it can be different.

The Lord is never surprised by our restlessness, our disappointment, our fearful, hurting challenges. Just as God calmed Moses’ ruffled authority and gave the people water from the rock, Jesus responds to the woman at the well with challenges of his own that promise life and refreshment. Deeper and deeper they reach into the well of self, of faith, of trust, where the living and life-giving water is to be found. Together Jesus and the woman explore the stories of needs and wounds and beliefs.

We might be surprised by this woman’s questions about the right place to worship God. This was a big issue for the people of Jesus’ day. Many of our friends and family members have questions about religion. We might have questions ourselves. Jesus listens and responds with an openness to truth that we would do well to remember in the midst of heated discussions. The Gospels remind us again and again that often God’s truth is bigger than the little rules that we find so reassuring, those things that tell us that ours is the only way.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that at the center of our faith is what has often been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” We are the stories of our past—stories we tell, stories other people tell about us—but we can become the stories God tells for our future. This is the message of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This is what we do when we read Scripture, when we gather with others to talk about the Scriptures. We immerse ourselves in the big story, in God’s story, and then we see where the stories of our own lives reflect a piece of that story. And in that intersection, we find the living water of faith.

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The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Jesus, though divine, was born into a fallen human world and had lived a life of questioning and being questioned from the moment of his conception. His mother asked the angel, “How can this be?” As Jesus grew, he questioned the elders in the temple, he questioned his parents and they questioned him. John the Baptist questioned Jesus when he came to him for baptism. So it was probably no surprise that after forty days in the desert, he would be questioned once more.

Surely Satan’s questions were no more challenging than the questions he had been asking himself about his ministry, his mission, his message. The questions of the desert would prepare him for a public life of questioning in the marketplace, in the temple and finally on the cross. Jesus is able to respond to the questions of the Tempter because he knows the genuine love of God supported by a faith made strong in suffering, in need and in questioning.

Like Jesus, we must live both the struggle of the questions and the faith of the answers. Our temptations aren’t likely to come to us from a mysterious figure in a deserted place. But often they revolve around the same basic human drives: hunger, emotional security, safety, status, ambition.

Some lie awake too many nights wondering if they’ve made the right choices for their lives, their careers. Others question whether a successful position with a company engaged in questionable ethical practices is a compromise they’re willing to make. Many people fight against the demon of self-doubt and insecurity, afraid they don’t deserve more than the bad hand they’ve been dealt in life.

Sometimes the questions themselves are coming from God, asking us to make life-giving changes in our lives. It’s the easy answers that are the temptation, the decisions that seem to bring happiness and success but are really driving us further away from our center. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, if we reach for the first thing that promises us health and wealth, we might be in bigger trouble than we imagined.

The responses Jesus gives to his tempter are deeply rooted in the words of Scripture. He’s not rattling off memorized verses. He’s speaking out of a lived awareness of the power of the word of God.

Lent is the perfect time to deepen our own immersion in Scripture. The story of God’s undying care for the people he has chosen as his own can mirror the stories of our own lives. The Psalms are a good place to begin. Let the words wash over you. Let them speak to the situations and emotions of your daily life. The words of the Gospels challenge us to a life of Christ-like compassion. The prophets of the Old Testament remind us to put God first before anything else.

The Word has its own power to move us and inspire us and to remind us of God’s presence. It is this power that is, in the end, the answer.

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Lent, perhaps more than any other season, gives us permission to focus on our spiritual lives, to take time apart from the everyday demands to listen to what God might be asking of us. Today’s Scripture readings can seem beyond us, describing those events that we might label “Significant Religious Experiences,” things that happen to saints and holy people.

Indeed, for Peter, James and John, it must have been unimaginably startling to experience the transfiguration. Suddenly the itinerant preacher and miracle-worker whom they had been following around Palestine was so very much more. But even that was nothing compared to the resurrection they would experience a short time later.

The transfiguration was an extraordinary moment even in the midst of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry of preaching and healing. We know that such moments don’t happen all the time or even very often. But we also know that when they do, they change everything we know about reality.

Many of the saints have indeed had such moments in their lives. Nearly everyone has heard the story of Mother Teresa on a train journey and hearing God call her to go to India and minister to the dying there. But many ordinary people have had similar experiences in their own lives, perhaps not as dramatic, but equally life-changing. Sometimes the only difference is that the saints have developed an awareness of God’s presence. They’re more readily attuned to the deeper significance of the things that happen to them.

The transfiguration reminds us that Lent is a time of purification, a time of going beyond our limitations. Even during Lent we know that the blessing of Easter is ours in Jesus Christ. But we only arrive at the fullness of the resurrection through the passion of the cross. As we share the vision of the apostles, we also know what happened after it. And we also know that it will happen in our own lives.

We need to let our experience of God transform us into something we never dreamed we could be. For some of us this is a startling notion. We think of our faith as something to tuck away in the Sunday corner of our life. When we think about the changes that Lent can bring, we’re more likely to think about quitting smoking, losing a few pounds, maybe giving some money to a good cause.

It would never occur to us that God might say, as he did to Abram, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk to a land that I will show you.” But sometimes God does exactly that. A job opportunity takes us someplace we never imagined we would be, and our experiences there change us immeasurably. Or we meet someone who brings us to a completely new awareness of the power of faith in our everyday activities.

We don’t go looking for extraordinary, mountaintop experiences. Those who do often delude themselves with vision of grandeur and fame rather than a life of deep faith. God breaks into our lives in both familiar and unexpected ways. He constantly challenges us to go beyond, to be transfigured. The dynamic, ever-changing pattern of bright sunshine and dark cloud can be startling and even terrifying. But in the midst of it comes reassurance. We hear an extraordinary challenge, but we also hear, “Be not afraid.” The faith that we cultivate day by day flowers into brilliance in the presence of God’s grace.

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In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, 12-year-old Meg Murry sets off with her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and her best friend, Calvin O’Keefe, to find her father, who disappeared into space several years before. A trio of supernatural beings, manifested as eccentric old women known only as Mrs Who, Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit, guide them on their quest, offering them gifts—graces—unique to each individuals gifts and strengths. Before the final and most difficult task, Mrs Who, who arranges her thoughts mostly in quotations, tells Meg, “What I have to give you this time you must try to understand not word by word but in a flash.” And she goes on to quote the marvelous passage from Paul that we hear in today’s second reading: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and the God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Though Meg doesn’t realize it at the time, she discovers that this is a promise of great strength in time of need. In the end, love proves to be more powerful than anything her adversary wields.

We know all too well that the way of our world is too often the powerful crushing the weak and defenseless without giving it a thought. But in reflecting on Paul’s words, I’m reminded of several examples of celebrities who make a point of using their status to help the less fortunate. The Irish rock star Bono has traded on his fame to speak tirelessly to the most powerful leaders of the world, working to persuade them to hear the cries of the poorest of the poor in Africa. He said in one talk, “God is with the poor, my friends, and he is with us when we are with them.”

Legendary Green Bay Packer quarterback Bret Favre was honored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the many times he and other members of the team had met with seriously ill children. During the presentation, a little girl named Anna moved him to tears. He pointed out that it wasn’t anything extraordinary that made him support this cause, just the way he had been raised to care about those less fortunate.

Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert often spends time on his breaks and vacations supporting a wide variety of worthy causes. By using the draw of his popularity, he can generate more interest and donations for those in need. These are just a few examples of people who know that their fame and fortune is fleeting and that because they have been fortunate, they have a special responsibility to those who have been less fortunate.

We who have been blessed with so much are called upon to give to others. The God revealed in the Scriptures has always been on the side of the least, the lowly, the poor, the powerless. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us of this truth about his Father: Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are the people who know the limits of their own strength. Above all they are people who know their need for God. Whatever earthly influence we may or may not have, blessed are we when we realize that the greatest thing we can do with what we have is to give is as generously as God’s grace has been given to us.

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