Death and New Life
“Unless” is such a powerful word. Think of how we use it on a daily basis. Often it is a condition for something else to happen. For example, unless the weather changes, I will be there. Unless you clean your room, no video games. Unless you lose the weight, your knee will keep hurting.
Jesus uses the same word unless to describe what needs to die in order for new life to occur. “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
All of us experience “death” experiences throughout our lives. Even Shakespeare said, “Gone are my salad days, when I was green.” We all know that one refers to the death of youth! If you make a list of “deaths” they might include the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, missing a promotion, the end of singleness when you get married, the birth of a child that changes your focus entirely. We can probably name lots of “deaths” be they little or big! Can we also identify the “fruit”—the new life that comes from those deaths?
In order for the seed to become all that God intends it to be, the seed has to give up something of what it was. The same is true for us. In order to be all that God intends us to be, something in us dies or changes too.
Our practice of charity—doing good for others—is often a dying to self. We give up our time to be there for someone else. We put others before ourselves.
We do that in parish life too when we give our time, talent and treasure to keep our parish the hospitable, welcoming, and generous parish it is. Sometimes we let some things die in our traditions and customs to make room for new life.
What can die in us for the sake of new life? What will make that happen? Who will help us?
Coming to the Light
Which do you prefer? Light or darkness? Do you ever choose to be in total darkness? I loved living on a farm, away from all the city lights. I am also old enough not to have experienced lights on many of the devices we use in homes today. It is very difficult to get my house totally dark today. So I am one of those persons who loves to drive out to some place where I can see the light of the stars at night. There is something about being able to distinguish darkness and light!
Light and darkness is a great metaphor for reflection in Lent. Have you ever preferred darkness to light? Some people pout, cling to depression, hold on to anger rather than embrace the light of grace. Some people lament all the evil that is going on in the world. They can name the suffering loudly and clearly. They can grumble about all that is wrong with family, church, country, and world. To stay there is to choose darkness.
Evil is a darkness that makes us mute, not able to speak, paralyzed with fear and a lack of faith. We shut down with a sense of powerlessness. Evil also makes us obstinate or stubborn in our mistakes and wrong views. We can become overly critical and lose any sense of reason.
And evil overcomes when it undermines our unity with emphasis on what irritates us and uses differences as an excuse for failing to see the light.
What does it mean then to come to the light? We use expressions like “Enlighten me!” Can you “shed some light on this”? At ACTS retreats we sing “Light of the world, shine on me!” over and over again.
Essentially, for me it means to ask what did Jesus do? How did Jesus turn darkness into light? It wasn’t easy. Love, mercy, compassion, healing, and ultimately the largest sacrifice of all—suffering and death—because “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.”
Jesus’ sight—his paying attention—led him to heal many who lived in darkness. He gave voice to changing unjust practices and laws. He cured those who were paralyzed by illness and social stigma. He poured light on so many social sins of his day. He spoke and he acted.
Where do we see light? How do we cast light in the darkness we encounter today? How and when do we seek God’s grace?
Try making a chart listing examples of darkness in one column. Then do the same for light. May courage, faith, resistance, resilience, and God’s grace be with us! May our works be clearly seen as done in God!
Jesus With a Whip
When you think of cleaning house, I don’t suppose the image of a whip comes to mind. Is there anything in your life that needs to be shown the exit, or “driven out”? Lent is a good time for some house cleaning. Lent is a good time for some “soul” cleaning too. Our bodies are, after all, temples of the Holy Spirit and occasionally we cleanse those as well. Yes, Lent is a good time for house cleaning and soul cleaning.
One Lenten practice that I recently read about on Facebook suggested that we find a huge bag. On each day of Lent, we choose one item to discard, to part with. At the end of Lent we donate the bag to charity. This is an attempt to simplify, to “tidy up”, to part with things that clutter. In a way, separating ourselves from possessions leaves us more open for something new—a new spirit, a new heart, a new valuing of time with God.
Pope Francis tells us that Jesus does not cleanse our souls with whips.
Do you know what kind of whip Jesus uses to cleanse our soul? Mercy. Open your heart to Jesus’ mercy! Say: “Jesus, look how much filth! Come, cleanse. Cleanse with your mercy, with your tender words, cleanse with your caresses.” If we open our heart to Jesus’ mercy, in order to cleanse our heart, our soul, Jesus will trust Himself to us.
Homily of His Holiness, Pope Francis, Third Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2015
In the last two weeks, some of our candidates have experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. Several of them have described the experience as a cleansing, a freedom that comes from God’s mercy. They felt the unburdening. They embraced God’s mercy in listening to the priest’s tender words of encouragement and in many cases hugged someone. God’s mercy lives in our temples, in our houses, and in our souls.
In Genesis, we read, “I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” We all know how God put Abraham to multiple tests. The ultimate test was God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. We can all imagine what it was like for Abraham to go through the horror of planning this sacrifice. And we can also sense the relief at God’s messenger’s last minute intervention.
It is Abraham’s “not withholding” that is total obedience of God’s command. The reward is God’s ultimate blessing of “descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”
What is it that God asks us not to withhold if we are to be faithful to God’s command? How am I using this time of Lent to “not withhold” but give freely of my time to pray, to fast and to give alms? How am I giving time and attention, love and respect to my family? Am I growing in generosity? Am I a witness of being so devoted to God that I would be willing to sacrifice?
A Desert Survival Kit
Imagine yourself on such a journey into the desert. What temptations would you face? Who would be the angels, the helpers ministering to you?
The desert isn’t always the arid land depicted in this image. The desert can be any place where we are alone, isolated from those who might be accompanying us, guiding us, keeping us honest and accountable. What are some of the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that we indulge in that take us away from our path to God and that threaten our relationships with the people most important in our lives? When are we most vulnerable to such temptations?
Perhaps our temptations are addictions to viewing pornography, to accumulating more than we need of material possessions, to abusing power in relationships, to blaming others for things going wrong. Perhaps they are participating in some of the social sins like failure to recognize the dignity of persons who are gay, undocumented, poor, homeless, old, of a different race, creed or ideology, or political party.
Our journey in Lent is one of movement, of change, of conversion. Some would suggest that we create a “Desert Survival Kit.” What would be in yours? Do you have favorite prayers, Scriptures, people who are your spiritual guides, mentors or people who wish you well and you can trust, and activities that help you most when you are tempted?
And we pray always: “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.” Help us too to remember daily the words we heard when we received our ashes: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The Lepers Among Us
Then think of all the people in our city, in our country, and in our world who are the “exiles” of today. Exiles are those who experience discrimination, are the victims of stereotypes, are socially excluded, isolated, or bound by having to keep things secret. In Jesus’ day, these were the persons isolated by laws and customs, by culture and tradition. Today the “unclean” might be those who feel unwanted and unloved. They don’t “belong” here—in this group, in this school, in this country, in this family.
Don’t we all know those feelings?
Our hope is in the reassurance that Jesus notices, sees, cares and does something about it. He heals the lepers, and the healing is more than physical. Jesus told the leper to tell no one what had happened, but the newfound freedom results in incredible, unbounded JOY.
We too notice, see and if we care we can do something about the lepers among us.
For example, I can start with myself. I can pray that when I feel “unclean” or unloved, God will heal me. Sometimes I doubt my own capacity to be loved and be lovable. God can help there! In Genesis we read, “God looked at everything God had made and found it very good.”
I can stop being the person who makes others feel like an outcast. I can pray for all who are feeling isolation and social exclusion. I can name the discrimination or exclusion and, like the prophets, make it known to others. I can demand that it STOP.
I can also spend time with someone who is feeling unclean, unwanted, and unloved. I can learn new things about the persons who experience exclusion. I can come to understand some of the common reasons why the person is experiencing “exile.” I can communicate God’s love for the person by listening and learning about their situation. I might even have the strength to advocate and work for social change.
A Deserted Place—A Place to Pray
After miracle stories, stories of great compassion and healing, Jesus goes to the desert to pray! Can you imagine why Jesus might have chosen to do that? Do you experience a need for solitude, a need for time away from everything that is so stimulating and entertaining, a time to just be?
Jesus always sought to do the Father’s will. He wanted to do what God was calling him to do. He was tireless in his efforts to preach and teach and heal, in his desire to invite and include and build up. And he, like us, needed clarity and a re-focusing of his energy to God’s purpose for his life.
I hope you are reading Perfectly Yourself and rediscovering God’s purpose in your own life As you go through this week, may you find some “desert place” to pray and some time to focus again on serving God and neighbor.
Perhaps you will recognize in your prayer the persons you know who are experiencing the kind of darkness that Job speaks of. What can each of us do for our friends and neighbors? Reaching out and accompaniment in great suffering is a healing ministry that we too can engage in.
Bless our efforts, dear God! Bless our efforts to seek you, to spend time with you in solitude and to then serve in new ways with HOPE and new energy in all of our ministry and presence to others.
Are We a Non-Prophet Organization?
Maybe we should just stay with that question. A few years ago, Pope Francis was quoted as saying, “Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’ But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel” (“A Big Heart Open to God,” America, Sept. 30, 2013).
All of us are familiar with the prophets of the Old Testament. We are also aware of prophets in our day. Who are the people in our time who “cause an uproar” or intentionally “make a mess” announcing the spirt of the Gospel? What are these ordinary people trying to call out?
In Mark’s gospel this weekend, we read “The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.” It was the voice of Jesus that made this happen. Do we have the same voice, the same authority to cast out unclean spirits? How do we name or identify those unclean spirits today?
Let me suggest a few: human trafficking, pollution, poverty, greed, war, domestic violence, abusive power, bullying, pornography, predatory lending. You will probably identify others. Speaking out, walking the talk and action are not easy. We can throw our hands up in despair and declare “That’s life today.” Or we can overcome our anxieties, adhere to Jesus’ teaching and trust that God will be with us in our efforts.
Does Jesus speak with authority in your life? Do you think he speaks with authority to our popular culture? Will we choose to follow Jesus, announce the gospel, and use our voices to speak with authority in order to cast out unclean spirits? Or will we be a non-prophet organization?
Let us pray: Make the unclean spirits obey you, within our small efforts. Give us courage to speak and act for Gospel values, especially the dignity of all persons—without exception. Amen!
What Are You Doing With the Rest of Your Life?
Imagine Jesus walking up to you, wherever you are, and inviting you to follow. Could you do it? Could you abandon the familiar, leave it all behind, and follow into an unknown adventure? What would it take to say YES? What would hold you back?
The stories we encounter in this “ordinary time” of the Church year are “call” stories. They ask for dramatic change. It’s not just “come and see.” It’s not even “try it if you like it” kind of change. These followers of Jesus abandoned their livelihood, left family (including wives) behind and embraced the uncertainty that Jesus offered. They did this on the promise that Jesus would make them “fishers of men.”
I am praying today for all in our parish who are choosing to say YES to Jesus—to follow wholeheartedly, to not hold anything back from the invitation to grow in love, knowledge, and service of God. Pray with me for all of our catechumens and candidates, for all of our couples forming themselves for God-centered marriages and families, for women and men who are discerning their vocation in life. Let’s pray for each of us as we pay attention to the invitations God gives each of us personally, as families and as a Church community. What is God asking us at St. Francis to say YES to? And what do we need to leave behind? What needs to change in our attitudes, in our ways of thinking and in our actions that would make us intentional disciples—followers of Jesus?
Bless us and grace us in our new beginnings!
Can You Hear Me Now?
God called the young Samuel three times before Samuel paid him any attention. How many times has God called me? I don’t always recognize God’s voice. That’s the importance, I think, of having the attitude and disposition that says over and over again—Speak Lord, your servant is listening.
I am also aware that I often depend on others to help me to recognize when and how God is calling me. Like the disciples in the Gospel for this weekend, I need “Andrew’s” or “Andrea’s” in my life that invite me, nudge me, or even beg me to be attentive to new possibilities, to God’s invitations to serve.
At times, I struggle with the capacity to say YES. That’s when I need the company of others who wish me well and will be honest with me in helping me to discern what God is calling me to do.
This week I want to do for others what I have benefitted from recently. I will look for someone that I can encourage to pursue something different—some service that takes them out of their comfort zone and that will make a difference for others. I want to encourage service.
Will you join me?
And so we pray as a community at St. Francis: Speak Lord, your servants are listening. What would you have us do? What are you inviting us to see as a need? And how will we individually or as a community respond?
Let us pray that we may all answer God’s call to discipleship.
- For the whole Church, that we may be a community always open to God’s call and willing to respond wholeheartedly. We pray to the Lord.
- For those whose lives are too chaotic to hear God’s call, especially those suffering from illness, violence, loss, or depression. We pray to the Lord.
- For those who do not believe God calls them because they feel unworthy, unprepared, or too ordinary. We pray to the Lord.
- For those unable to discern God’s will for them, that we may provide assurance, clarity, and companionship. We pray to the Lord.
- For those called to the priesthood or religious life, that the Holy Spirit may guide them in their vocation. We pray to the Lord.
- For all people, may God grant us courage to embrace his precious gift of life, even in the most difficult of circumstances. We pray to the Lord.
Gracious God, open our ears and hearts to your voice. Give us the awareness to hear you, especially when you speak to us through people and circumstances we do not wish to hear. Make us worthy instruments of discernment for those who struggle to interpret your call. Together, may we respond with one voice, saying, “Speak, your servant is listening.” We ask this in the name of Christ, our Lord. Amen.