Lenten Calendar: Something for Each Day of the Season

Gen curated this Lenten calendar for the Romero Center, where she works. It’s a collection of all sorts of cool ways to reflect on each day’s Scripture. Read more about it here. You can also connect it right to your own Google calendar. Or come back and follow it here each day. (The links will only go live on their day. So this is unlike a chocolate Advent calendar, in which you could technically eat all the candy by December 5. Not that I would know anything about that.)

Sunday Scripture Reflection: Jesus, A Leper, and Divine Power (Or, God is Not Like the Super Bowl)

Today’s Gospel reading from Mark used to strike me as just one variation on a common theme of Jesus’ ministry: person is sick, Jesus feels bad, Jesus cures person, Jesus tells person not to say anything for some reason (fear of the paparazzi, perhaps), person tells everyone anyway. Rinse and repeat.

But then, this happened: When I lived in Wisconsin, I taught a fourth grade religious ed class. I was blessed with a great group of kids. My favorites were a pair of twins I’ll call Sammie and Alex. Sammie had Type I diabetes and a host of other health problems. She had been through more than 20 surgeries by the time she was 10 years old. She was about a foot shorter than the other kids, walked slowly, and had a slight speech impediment. She is incredibly sweet with a streak of sass.

Her brother Alex is a devoted caretaker, and genuinely seemed to enjoy coming to Tuesday night religious ed, which means he is likely bound for sainthood.

One night, when we were talking about the way Jesus cared for the sick and downtrodden, I broke the class up into groups and gave them different Scripture passages to act out. Sammie’s group was assigned this passage from Mark. Somebody had to play the part of Jesus. With a sensitivity surprising for 4th graders, the group suggested Sammie should take on the role. She did, with gusto, winning a nice round of applause for a convincing: “BE MADE CLEAN!”

Sammie was clearly the class’ best fill-in for Jesus: Jesus the wounded healer who says to the broken – to all of us – I know what it’s like to suffer and I will be with you in the muck.

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9/11/11: Not 7 Times But 77

Busy summers kept Gen and I away from the blog, but hearing recently about my sister’s new school year made me feel like a fresh start. No better night than tonight.

But I don’t feel like any more words. There have been too many words and slideshows, retrospective TV programs and concerts. The unending media coverage of 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks replays loud and jumbled in my head like a frantic fever-dream.

So where new words seem pointless, a handful of old words read at churches all over the world today prove chillingly timely and a little foreboding.

Today’s first reading, from Sirach:

Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.

And the Gospel reading, from Matthew:

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times…”

Then, at the end of Jesus’s following parable about a servant who does not forgive another’s debt, after his own debt had been forgiven:

“…His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

The readings for today were set long ago, without 9/11 in mind, but the radical challenge they present hits home on this anniversary.

Not only does discipleship require forgiveness when transgressions seem unforgivable, but failure to forgive elicits the wrath of God in a unique way.

In a speech tonight, President Obama said that no one who would do the country harm would be able to escape “justice,” at our own hands. When is it justice, and when is it revenge?

I have more questions:

What does God think of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and covert violence in neighboring countries? How does God feel about the summary execution of Osama bin Laden? What will I, as a silent consenter to all of it, have to say for myself when I meet God face to face? Will I be held accountable? Will I be cut some slack? Am I misapplying the Scripture because I see everything through the lens of my own time?

Who knows. But today’s readings must give us some pause. At the very least, they reminded me on this solemn day that when reflecting on things like terrorism and death and war and memory, question marks are important.

This Grace In Which We Stand: Soup & Psalms Reflection, Third Sunday of Lent

Apologies for the two-week absence. The following is a reflection on Sunday’s second reading I offered at “Soup & Psalms,” a weekly night of prayer and supper at the Center for FaithJustice. We had a group from THE Ohio State University’s Catholic Campus Ministry last week on an alternative spring break spent serving in the Trenton area. It was great to have them join us for one of our favorite traditions.

Sunday’s second reading is filled with some of St. Paul’s favorite words. There are, on one hand, words of comfort and strength: Faith. Hope. Love. Peace. Glory. Grace. Courage. On the other hand, there are some that seem just a bit less optimistic: Helpless. Ungodly. Difficulty. Sinners. Died.

When I read through the passage for the first time, the nicer words were the ones that stood out. Maybe that’s because these days, I want to grasp on to the idea of a comforting God. These are days of nightmarish earthquakes and tsunamis, tyrants and civil war. On a personal level, these have been days of particular challenge with Gen, with discussions about our future and work and money turning often into hurtful arguments. Indeed, these are days of seeming helplessness and godlessness, difficulty, sin, and death. My prayer in recent weeks has been short and loud: “Dear God, Help me, and help everyone else. Amen.” I crave that comfort.

And there is something comforting in Paul’s words. Even though we sinners stray from the path, and launch attacks with missiles and with words, God still loves us, and Christ still gave his life for us.

But in this message of comfort and salvation is a challenge, because while I like the idea of a comforting God in theory, I really don’t receive comfort from God too well. I’m usually skeptical, sarcastic, too busy for God. The thought that God could actually have something comforting for me, now, here in suburban New Jersey, sent all the way from heaven, seems ridiculous on most days. I say I believe in a God who’s at work in the world, but I don’t live that belief much of the time. I pray “Help!”, but probably more just to cover my bases than due to any sort of belief that comfort from God will actually arrive.

Specifically, the biggest challenge Paul presents me with here is to live in “the grace in which we stand.” This beautiful, famous snippet takes for granted that there’s grace to be standing in. “Hold on a minute,” my empirical side cautions. “Just look around, will you? Maybe there’s some grace out there, or something, but mayhem and pain seem to be the norm.”

The only comeback that’s ever worked against this empirical voice is gratitude. A mentor of mine has talked about gratitude as the bedrock of the spiritual life, and I’m coming to believe that more and more. When I was in college, I struggled with homesickness, as life outside New Jersey turned out to be far less transcendent than life within its borders. Feeling sad, alone, and stuck, I would head to our campus’ grotto and sit on a bench. No prayer came, just a sort of quiet numbness. But I kept walking down there in the cool autumn nights, if only to get out of my dorm. Then, one night in November, I spontaneously prayed: “God, thank you for…” and I began to make a list, a list filled with friends and family members and teachers and my favorite rock bands and certain national parks I had visited and the opportunities I had been given that I had done nothing to deserve. I went on like this for 45 minutes or so, and opened my eyes feeling refreshed, comforted and very loved.

And this is where my empirical side doesn’t stand a chance in hell, because while you can measure earthquakes on a Richter scale, and measure radiation with a Geiger counter, the love and hope and compassion that I have encountered cannot be measured or counted or weighed. These things exist on a different plane, beyond our capacity to understand. Once I acknowledge that there’s immeasurable stuff out there like love and compassion, I’m moving into divine territory. So if it is true that God is love, then we can flip the equation around: Love is God. When I doubt God’s grace, remembering to be grateful for the love I have received wakes me up.

Awakened, I am empowered to recognize our world as grace-filled. Violent and senseless, yes, and perhaps a bit too obsessed with the exploits of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods. But grace-filled nonetheless. May we all stand as grateful witnesses of God’s grace in the midst of our dangerous days.

Scripture Reflection 2.0: First Sunday of Lent (Japan, Suffering, and an All-Loving God)

Our first two readings on the power of sin and death rang terribly true today, as the world was rocked by another unfathomable natural disaster this weekend. The images and stories coming from Japan are surreal, sickening, and inexplicable. In times like these, people of faith — like me, for one — often return to the same questions, like “Why?” and “Where’s God in all of this?” and “Why didn’t God stop the tsunami, steer it back to sea or something, if he’s all-loving and all-powerful?” Indeed, the existence of evil in world, especially grave natural evil like earthquakes and disease (as opposed to moral evil, which is directly caused by humans), is one of the most popular arguments against the existence of God. Heck, it’s the most popular argument my skeptical self makes against my believing self, and on weekends like this one, it almost seizes the upper hand.

If there were easy answers, we’d have come up with them a long time ago. So instead of answers, the following (after the jump) is a sampling of some interesting folks struggling with the problem in their own ways.

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Scripture Reflection 2.0: Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gen and I were thinking that it would be fun to take a Sunday Gospel passage and reflect on it. But instead of just writing up a mini homily, we’d throw in a millennial twist and use Web-based media and other nifty resources in our reflecting. So we read through this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 6:24-34) and tracked down some songs, a TV clip, some quotes and a podcast that seemed to fit. How appropriate that the passage for this first go-round takes on a favorite young adult topic: worrying. And JC reminds us how dumb worrying actually is. Thanks for thinking of us, Vatican.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field,
which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow,
will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’
or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

The first thing that came to mind for me was this tune “Helplessness Blues” by the band Fleet Foxes. It really captures the “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” angst that so often characterizes young adulthood.

Parker Palmer calls the attitude that can emerge alongside too much worrying “functional atheism.” The following passage can be found in his fantastic book Let Your Life Speak:

Functional atheism “is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me. It is a belief held even among people whose theology affirms a higher power than the human self, people who do not understand themselves as atheists but whose behavior belies their beliefs!

“Functional atheism is an unconscious belief that leads to workaholic behavior, to burn-out, to stressed and strained and broken relationships, to unhealthy priorities. Functional atheism is the unexamined conviction within us that if anything decent is going to happen here, I am the one who needs to make it happen. Functional atheism is the reason why the average group (according to studies) can tolerate only 15 seconds of silence; people believe that if they are not making noise, nothing is happening! Functional atheism is an inner shadow of leaders that leads to dysfunctional behavior on every level of our lives.”

And the late Jesuit Anthony de Mello offers this gem:

“Think of yourself in a concert hall listening to the strains of the sweetest music when you suddenly remember that you forgot to lock your car. You are anxious about the car, you cannot walk out of the hall and you cannot enjoy the music. There you have a perfect image of life as it is lived by most human beings.
For life to those who have the ears to hear is a symphony; but very, very rare indeed is the human who hears the music.”

Lastly on this point, here’s one for the empirically minded. Stress is usually terrible for us, our sciencey friends at RadioLab say.

Jesus/rock band the Decemberists both assure us that the worrying is not exactly worth it. Things will work out. Really. In some convoluted way, with reliance on God, our life’s purpose and meaning are slowly revealed. I love how the Decemberists song “Don’t Carry It All” (introduced to us this weekend on retreat by our dear friend Michael O’Connor) places our relief in the context of community: by bearing each others’ burdens, and letting others help bear ours, Jesus’ hope for peace for us is incarnated.

Hitting on this same theme is a scene from one of the most memorable episodes of “The West Wing.” The younger character in the scene, Josh Lyman, is suffering from PTSD after being shot during an assassination attempt on the president. The White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, who had faced down alcoholism and drug addiction several years earlier, uses a powerful fable to show Josh what close relationships are about.

When anxiety rears its head, may we follow those who know the way out, and see Christ in them. And may we lead the way when it is our turn.

“The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light…”

I work at the Center for FaithJustice in Lawrenceville, NJ, and every Wednesday night we gather for a night of supper and prayer called “Soup and Psalms.” This past Wednesday, I offered a reflection on today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. I tried to dig in to where I’m at these days as a millennial minister, so hopefully it serves as a good intro.

Gospel: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 4:12-23

Nothing has occupied my mind and heart these past two weeks as much as the unspeakable massacre in Tucson, Arizona. We all know the details too well by now: six lives lost and dozens more changed forever, including that of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who continues to recover miraculously. Alongside the shock and grief and confusion of these past fifteen days have emerged stories of hope and beauty that inspire. We have, simultaneously, both tragedy and reasons to rejoice, both profound pain and deep joy. On one hand, there is the passing of Christina Green, the nine-year old girl who had just been elected to her student council and made her First Communion. That such a life was cut so terribly, violently short makes no sense at all. On the other, there is the heroism of Daniel Hernandez, the 20-year old intern who rushed to help Congresswoman Giffords after she was shot, risking his life while helping to save hers. The good that happened that Saturday morning does not erase the terrible, but neither does the terrible destroy the good. We have both.

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