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Archive for the ‘discipleship’ Category

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This line from the words of Isaiah in our first reading has long been a personal favorite. As I reflected on today’s reading, though, I discovered the line that precedes it: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.” In many ways it’s simply a rephrasing of the same idea.

The wonder of the Sacred Scriptures is that they’re the living word of God. We hear them differently depending on what is happening in our lives, on what kind of mood we’re in, even on how closely we’re paying attention or not while they’re being proclaimed at Mass. And then sometimes God hits us with  a line of Scripture in the manner of what a friend describes as “the divine clue-by-four.”

Today’s Gospel is the familiar call of the Galilean fisherman. Jesus invites them to leave their boats and nets and follow him. At different times in our lives, we might think they’re crazy. At other times, we think they’d be crazy not to follow his call. And then it dawns on us that the Lord calls us in much the same manner.

St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, encourages people to place themselves imaginatively in the stories from the Gospels, using all of their senses to enter into the experience of Jesus and the disciples. This passage is a common one to use for such a practice. The hot sun, the smell of fish, the breeze off the sea, the grittiness of the sand, the texture of the fishing nets, the rough wood of the boats—all these details make it easy to imagine what it was like for those fishermen who became Jesus’ first disciples.

But sometimes those very details that help us imagine a time two thousand years ago can keep us from  seeing ourselves in the same boat, as it were. For most of us, our lives are spent indoors, in offices and cubicles, in trucks and cars, operating heavy machinery or delicate medical instruments. And more an more of our time is spent with our hands on a keyboard and our eyes on an LCD screen.

It’s easy to romanticize the life of a first-century fisherman because it’s so far removed from our everyday lives. Most people in the first century had few occupational choices. But work is work. And no matter what we do our how many choices we had or even have in what we do to earn our daily bread, the day-to-day experience is going to have ups and downs, periods of great satisfaction and dry spells of boredom and frustration. I suspect it was the same for those first-century fishermen. We think of them as being dedicated to their work, their nets, their father and coworkers. But maybe at the time Jesus came along the beach, they were having a bad day and were eager for a change. Only later did they discover what they had traded in their nets to embrace.

One thing is certain in all of this: God may not pay very close attention to what we’re doing when he calls us. It’s up to us to hear the call, perhaps trading something we love for something we will come to love more, perhaps finding a welcome escape from a situation that has become difficult. God chooses to call us. It’s our choice to hear and to follow.

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Our Gospel today is difficult. Often it’s read almost as a blueprint for the end of the world, a fortune-teller’s description of what will happen before the last days. Books like the Left Behind series spin this out into an elaborate fantasy of good and evil. Even more disturbing are those voices on talk radio and elsewhere that encourage war, especially in the Middle East, because they think that it will hasten the Rapture that they believe is coming before the end.

Every natural disaster brings speculation in some quarters that the events of the evening news are beginning to sound like a catalogue of the events of which Jesus speaks in this Gospel. The Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina were believed by some to be God’s judgment on a sinful people.

But in Jesus day, and long before it, wars were a commonplace result of human greed and aggression. Earth-quakes, famines and plagues were part of a natural world that was imperfectly understood and beyond human control. Ironically in our own day some pf the droughts and famines that plague our world are as much a result of  human behavior as war.

It’s a mistake to read this Gospel as Jesus predicting a particular sequence of events that will occur before the end. He’s saying that people will always interpret such things in this way. But he dismisses it here as he does elsewhere in the Gospels. His followers are not to focus on the end of time in fear and trembling. Nor are they to look to another’s tragedy as a vindication of their own virtue or another’s vice.

Jesus pulls the attention of the disciples back from these global, even cosmic events, and says, “Your own life and what you will face because of your faith in me is more than enough for you to be concerned about.” His words are both caution and comfort: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance, you will secure your lives.”

Don’t fuss about the future seems to be the message here. Rather, we are to conduct ourselves in our daily lives with a simple but absolute trust in God’s providence. As though to illustrate this daily routine, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians admonishes those in the community who were so sure that the end was imminent that they were basically sitting around gossiping all day. As Paul puts it, “not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

We do this when we get too caught up in the news of the day, forgetting that the 24-hour news cycle thrives on fear, uncertainty and doubt. We do it when we focus only on what other people are doing. Often we don’t know—or ignore—all the facts of an issue and make quick judgments based on long-standing prejudice.

Too often minding other people’s business is a good way to avoid taking a hard look at our own lives. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Keep quiet and eat your own food.” If this brings to mind dinner table squabbles, school cafeterias, workplace lunchrooms or luncheons at private clubs, perhaps these are good places to start taking the advice of both Paul and Jesus. Instead of participating in the “ain’t it awful” chorus around us, we might try being attentive to the ways in which we can bring our own attitudes more in line with the mind of Christ. If we focus on bringing God’s goodness and healing to others, we will, in our own small way, begin to change the world.

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The way the Sunday readings strike me often depends on what else I’m thinking about, and this week is no different. After spending some time Saturday reading around the blogosphere on the Motu Proprio, Paul’s letter to the Galatians made me think not of the circumcision controversy of his day, but of the liturgical issues of our own.  To paraphrase, does it matter whether the Mass is celebrated in Latin or in English as long as it’s celebrated well, prayerfully and faithfully? I’ve said in com boxes elsewhere, the Mass can be well or poorly celebrated in any language with any rubrics. The TLM isn’t magic. Nor are all progressives in favor of clown masses or pagan rituals.

I have nothing against Latin. I’ve belonged to several parishes that incorporate Latin and Greek on a seasonal basis. I love the Latin hymns and Gregorian chants. But as I listened to the opening prayer, I realized that I would miss so much of the English translation. I would hate having to follow along in a missal to get the translation. Yet, I can appreciate that for some, the awe and mystery of the TLM carries great weight. I’m glad that Pope Benedict is encouraging a peaceful coexistence. Because too often issues like this divide those who should be focused on our common belief. Paul spent most of his ministry fighting this problem in his communities.

Ann Landers and Dear Abby frequently used the acronym MYOB or “mind your own business.” As good as that advice is, perhaps it’s better if we recall that as Christians we are to be minding God’s business. In the Gospel,  Jesus reminds his followers to keep their focus where it belongs. It seems easier sometimes to complain about those who do things we don’t agree with, or those who we believe are wrong. Like the disciples rejoicing that the demons were subject to their words, we have a tendency to dance in triumph on the graves of our enemies. When we do that, we lose our center.

Isaiah speaks to the exiles of their return to Jerusalem and the temple, encouraging them in their rejoicing, but always reminding them that the Lord is the source of their prosperity. We need to remember that through all the changes the church has undergone in the millennia since Jesus and his disciples walked this earth, it’s still God’s church and his harvest is as abundant as ever. What are we doing to gather in that harvest for a spiritually hungry world?

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