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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Waking Up

“Light that never fades, dispel the mists about us, awaken our faith from sleep.”

This line from the Morning Prayer intercessions hit home. It’s a grey, windy day. We had rain all day yesterday. I’ve been fighting a cold since before Thanksgiving and my energy is sapped. It’s been good to light the candle on the Advent wreath and immerse myself in the psalms and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. I said it regularly for many years and then let it slip from my life entirely. Returning to it has that wonderful feeling of coming home.

The readings yesterday, especially from Paul’s letter to the Romans,  were all about waking up, and instead, I dozed in front of the tv most of the afternoon, warm and cozy, but groggy. Today feels more promising. High winds overnight are drying the wet ground and I’m getting back to normal routines. The rituals of Advent are good for that. The Advent wreath, Advent calendars, the return to a daily prayer structure, all help me to focus and to stay grounded in the work of the season.

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This year November has five Thursdays, which gives us the luxury of ten days between Thanksgiving and the First Sunday of Advent. I’ve always had a particular resonance with the season of Advent, and I feel a bit cheated when it begins in the midst of the busy weekend after Thanksgiving. While I mostly abstain from the Black Friday madness, I nearly always have houseguests into the following week. So I’m especially grateful this year to have an extra week to get ready for the season. Advent is, for me, a contemplative time, a time of waiting, a time of reflection, a time to listen to the words of the great prophet Isaiah.

We close the liturgical year in the weekday lectionary with the apocalyptic readings from the Gospels, from the Book of Daniel, and from Revelation. Written to persecuted people, these readings offer a harsh sort of reassurance, the promise that no matter how bleak things look, God is always in charge and God’s rule will prevail. For most of us—thanks be to God!—our lives are not quite that desperate, and the images of cosmic battles seem a bit unreal. But the end of the liturgical year, like the end of the calendar year, reminds us that we have many place in our life that need attention.

Advent is a good time for a fresh start. The days are shorter, the evenings longer. Outdoor chores are mostly finished for another season. I find myself settling into new and different routines, and the liturgical season reminds me to make more time in my life for prayer, for scripture, for a little extra care for my soul.

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In a touching scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved children’s novel The Secret Garden, the fiery tempered young orphan Mary Lennox begins to win the heart of grief-stricken Mr. Archibald Craven with her simple request for “a bit of earth” for a garden. In the course of bringing the long-neglected walled garden back to life, Mary and her cousin Colin discover healing for themselves and those around them. The miracle of green and growing things works a wild kind of magic on their bruised souls.

I thought of Mary’s “bit of earth” when I read the story of Naaman’s healing in today’s first reading. This foreign military general was persuaded to seek healing from the Hebrew prophet and man of God by a young serving girl. Once he’s healed, he wants to give Elijah a gift but his request is refused. Instead, Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth, which he regards as sacred ground from the land of Israel, the promised land, the place where God can rightly be worshiped.

A superficial reading of this story might suggest that Naaman is some- thing of an oddball, a man with pagan roots who sees some sort of magical properties in this pile of dirt. But there is an unmistakably primal significance to this gesture.

We are rooted, grounded people. We tend to identify with places, with geographical locations, even with bits of earth or bottles of water from sacred places. This is partly because we’re a sacramental people. The “stuff,” the matter of the sacraments, is an important part of the rituals: water, bread, oil, touch. And so it was for the Hebrews of Elijah’s day.

At times we over-spiritualize our faith and our religious life. This is in part because of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on the early Christians. Centuries of theologians and scholastics have further intellectualized Christianity. It’s good to have reminders like today’s readings that our faith needs to be grounded in the everyday realities of life.

Families have something of an advantage here. Finding ways to make religion concrete for small children can open up new ways of seeing, even for jaded adults. Setting up a small prayer altar in the home, even the simple act of lighting candles before mealtime prayers, can be reminders that God is really present with us at all times.

I sometimes find myself remembering such rituals from my childhood with great fondness, and feeling a need to return to similar rituals today to get out of my head and into celebrating the great gift of faith with my whole being. It need not be anything elaborate: a bowl of holy water by the door, a candle on the table, a picture of someone who made a difference in your journey to God. I have my own bit of earth, a bowl of sand from a fam- ily vacation spot. These things are ways to remember the God who gave us life, who made us whole, who healed us of the separation that marred human creation from the beginning of time.

We’re moving into late fall in the northern hemisphere, a time when the ground itself lies fallow and waiting. It’s a good time to give thanks for the beauty of our bit of earth and recognize that God’s grace and the hospitality of loved ones has carried us through another year.

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The Gospel readings this month spend a great deal of time talking about how we spend our money. In today’s passage, Jesus tells his listeners, “Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out.” And certainly in our culture, worth is inevitably determined in economic terms. We can get a pretty good idea about what’s important to us by looking at how we spend our money. The irony is not lost on me that in the middle of this heat wave that’s settled over Cincinnati, I have a shiny new iPhone but no air conditioning. Largely by choice, but still….

But we forget that how we spend our time is also a good indicator of our priorities. The time-management guru Stephen Covey is often quoted as saying, “No one on their deathbed ever said they wished they’d spent more time in the office.” Sometimes I find myself wishing I had more than 24 hours in a day to get to all the things I want to do. But if I’m honest, I find that I waste a lot of time on things that really aren’t worth the time and energy spent on them. The specifics will be different for everyone.

What’s a waste of time for one person might be an expression of creativity for someone else. I find driving around on a Saturday extremely stressful. My niece, on the other hand, goes for a drive when she needs to sort out her thoughts about something. And when I was growing up, one of my dad’s favorite outings was to go for a drive on a Sunday with no planned destination, but rather a sense of seeing what interesting places we might discover. I found myself thinking about those Sunday drives as I read the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.”

Abraham is held up as the supreme example of faith by the New Testament writers. He was willing to travel great distances geographically and take great psychological risks based only on the word of God. And in fact, his and Sarah’s attempts to plan and schedule the working out of God’s promise always led to disaster. We can learn much from our great father in the faith about the promises God has made to us for the working out of our lives.

Someone once said, “If you want to hear God laugh, make plans.” In these days of hyper-scheduling, we often discover the truth of this as we’re waiting for a car repair, dealing with a sudden virus that hits on the day of an important meeting or watching the rain wash away a long-awaited sports event. At times like that, we need to remember that what we spend our time doing is most significant not for what it produces but for how it transforms our souls and brings us into a closer relationship with God and with those we love. The next time you find yourself stuck somewhere that you hadn’t expected, forget your other plans and ask God to let you know what you might take away from the unexpected situation instead.

The Scriptures tell us the big stories of salvation: the covenant with Abraham, the exodus, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. But Luke’s Gospel also reminds us that in the little things of life, we discover that God graciously gives us the kingdom of heaven. All we need to do is be open to making room for that gift in our lives. In small things, no less than in the great life-changing events, we can discover where our treasure lies.

And now I need to go knit a sock for my iPhone.

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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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It’s a lovely day to celebrate Earth Day. The birds are in full chorus outside my windows (open at last after all the cold and rain we’ve been having) and the rooster was awake around 4 this morning. I live as close to the natural world as I can in the middle of a big city, so environmental concerns are never far from my mind. But it’s good to take time to reflect on the way these issues are rooted in Scripture. Our Bible comes out of a culture that was far more dependent on the earth and the natural world than we are. And because of that, they were perhaps more aware of their dependence on the God who created and sustains that world.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson has this to say in a past issue of Scripture From Scratch:

A flourishing humanity on a thriving Earth in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God; such is the theological vision and praxis we are being called to in this critical age of Earth’s distress. We need to appreciate all over again that Earth is a sacrament vivified by the living Spirit of God. We need to realize that the way we are destroying it is tantamount to a sacrilege. And we need to act as members of the Earth community called to be partners with God in the ongoing creation rather than destruction of the world.

And for those who think this is a 21st century phenomenon, here’s the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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A woman active at a parish I once belonged to complained at a liturgy committee meeting that she was offended at having to pray, “O Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.” This was in the 1980s, when issues of self-esteem were just getting to be hot topics in the therapy and self-help worlds

We can get so caught up in battling our personal demons that we forget that our relationship with God takes place on a completely different level than our relationships with one another, with past or present authority figures, with ourselves.

Another parish I belonged to once described the Christian journey as “Getting Along With Self, Getting Along With Others and Getting Along with God.”  And a current fad in evangelical Christianity encourages women to think of God as their “boyfriend

These trends all suggest the inherent danger of focusing too much on the human side of God’s presence with his people. The feast of the Incarnation celebrates the great mystery of God becoming one of us. These Sundays between Christmas and the beginning of Lent remind us that God is still God and we are called to follow as disciples, not buddies

All three of our readings describe people who were extraordinarily sure of themselves and their missions. Yet all three recognize their complete unworthiness in the presence of the Holy One.

Isaiah’s call to be a prophet begins with a vision of the heavenly court. There’s no question about the divine presence guiding his life. And he is both awed and bolstered by God’s transcendence. While confessing his own sin and the sin of his people, he confidently responds to the summons with, “Here I am, send me

Paul, having experienced a total conversion of his beliefs and activities, places himself on a par with the apostles who journeyed with the Lord throughout his time on earth. And yet he knows that even though he was chosen by God for a special mission to the gentiles, in the divine sight, he is nothing. He summarizes his ministry in these words: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective

In the Gospel, Peter, the professional fisherman, recognizes the hand of God in Jesus’ miraculous catch of fish.  And in that bright light of faith, he knows that his own skills pale by comparison. He clearly recognizes that the power that created and sustains the universe is now sitting in his boat catching fish. And he is willing to leave everything he knows behind to follow this man. As one preacher put it, “I picture Peter saying, ‘Leave me, Lord,’ while clinging to his ankles

The dazzling light of God’s presence and love can reveal areas in our own life where darkness has hidden flaws and imperfections. While we might initially feel horrified by such revelations, the next healthy response is to change those things into healthier attitudes and actions. This is not your mother or your spouse telling you to lose some weight or clean up your room. This is God encouraging, even challenging, us to be all that he knows we have been created to be

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