Politics as Meta-Narrative? Meh…


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dominicRecently the Knights of Columbus decided to begin an initiative to help refugees at the U.S. – Mexican border. Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, specified in his announcement that this was not a “political statement” but a statement of principle. I find it telling that the head of this fraternal, international Catholic organization guided by the tenets of the Catholic faith felt it necessary to make this distinction.

It was in seminary that I first heard the term “meta-narrative” (beyond-story) and it was in reference to God’s plan of salvation being the meta-narrative to all other narratives in human history. The meta-narrative is the one overarching narrative (the beyond-story) to which all other narratives are to be measured, judged, transformed and even discarded if necessary. Prevailing ideas and societal customs, histories of peoples and nations, economic and political systems are all narratives and may indeed have much positive to speak for them but none are the meta-narrative, none are the Gospel story of God’s movement and plan in history. All narratives are to be judged in the light of the meta-narrative on God’s work of salvation.

I would propose for consideration that Carl Anderson’s need to clarify the purpose of the Knight’s new initiative at the border witnesses to the fact that for many who claim the name of Christian the narrative of U.S. politics has eclipsed the meta-narrative of the Gospel message. Everything is being viewed and evaluated through the lens of contemporary American politics regardless of the side of the aisle you fall on.

How did this happen? This is not an exhaustive list but here are some thoughts. The 24-hour, 7 day a week news cycle – now even more magnified by social media. We have always had political junkies and that is okay. We need people who are passionately invested in politics and willing to work and fight for what they value but what is different today is that we now have political junkies debating political junkies nonstop on our tv screens both in our homes and all other type of screens. What we are being taught by this continuous stream of political junkie debate (no matter where we find ourselves on any particular issue in the moment) is that this is the only legitimate way to see and judge all actions and events – only through the lens of the political. Holding to the meta-narrative of the Gospel, I would say “no”- politics is not the only way to see and evaluate everything and that assumption is itself a false narrative.

The turn to the base. I am not a political junkie, nor care to be – thank you. But what I have learned through my own being immersed in the continuous stream of political junkie-ism is that not that long ago a decision was made to turn to the base in the effort to win elections and advance causes and perspectives. This was a shift away from a broad appeal that would attract the large number of votes needed to get elected. It has proven to be an effective strategy but it is a strategy based on a negative – the apparent apathy of the majority vs. the fervor of the base. Because it is based on a negative, I believe it is doomed to collapse at some point and it may be quite ugly when it happens. For our purpose here, the turn to the base is again the turn to a segment of the population who is already keyed into things political – the people who have bought into the notion that politics alone is the best means to achieving a certain desired end. But, again, it is the politically-minded crowd who are having the overarching influence on determining how things are being viewed, evaluated and presented.

I do not want to come across as denigrating politics. There is certainly a value and even a virtue to politics and it is a way of encountering the mystery of life and even the true meta-narrative of God’s work of salvation but it is not the only way. I would hold that those people who are not so keyed into the political are encountering the mystery of life and even the true meta-narrative in their own way which is just as valid – art, literature, relationships, responsibilities, worship, service, appreciation of creation, community … the list could go on.

Fear. U.S. society is changing and there are many factors that are at work in this. There are and will be more darker tones of skin, there will be more non-European sounding names, there will be different styles of clothing than what we have been used to in American society. Get used to it; it is a demographic reality but change can be scary so in the midst of the change it is always important to remember that Scripture reminds us that “perfect love casts out all fear.” Trust that God is at work bringing about His Kingdom of all of His children in all of their varying hues, languages and experiences. By trusting a little bit more we can begin to let go of our little kingdoms in anticipation of God’s coming Kingdom.  Death is also a fearful thing. The Baby Boomer generation is approaching this great mystery and no amount of commercials with gray haired people climbing mountains or couples holding hands while soaking in claw-footed bathtubs set in nature will forestall this reality that we all must face. Here is where the illusion of all narratives that try to propose themselves as the meta-narrative ultimately collapse. At the tomb. The resurrection of Christ is the only beyond-story that has ever conquered the grave.  This is the only story that gives that hope which endures and that overcomes all fear.

What can be done to reduce the illusion of politics as the meta-narrative? Some thoughts. Turn off the 24 hours news cycle. It can be done and by doing so more space is allowed for other narratives and even the true meta-narrative to enter our lives. Take time to read good literature and listen to good music and enjoy good drama and theater. When good, these realities lead us into the great mysteries of the human experience. Enjoy good sport. This also is a way of being led into the mystery and drama of human experience. Remember that the United States is not the center of the world. I love my home country and am proud of what we have achieved but I have travelled enough to recognize that not everyone is looking to the U.S. at all times and that there is beauty and truth in all cultures. (A little humility goes a long way.) Go into a situation where you are a minority and be willing to keep going there. Pray and worship – root yourself in the true meta-narrative of the Gospel and even encounter the Author of this beyond-story. Go for a walk in creation and allow yourself to be struck by the truth that each of us is just one part of something much bigger than ourselves. Serve other people and learn to recognize God in that space of service. Make friends with people you do not necessarily agree with on everything. Cultivate wonder and curiosity in your life.

And, yes, be involved in politics if you have that desire but please recognize it for what it is – just one part of the story and not the whole.

Truth is, this reflection will probably be judged, written off as naïve or possibly even condemned by people who view all things through the lens of politics. Okay, that is your choice but it does not have to be mine. To God be the glory.

Singing the Goat Song


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goatOne thing that the Scriptures do not shy away from presenting is tragedy. We like tragedy when it is on the screen or in a play but not so much in our lives. This is partly why we invest in IRA’s. Yet, tragedy is a part of life (Sacred Scripture knows this) and no one gets through this life without experiencing tragedy in one form or another.

Here is an interesting fact. The word “tragedy” is rooted in two Greek words which mean “goat song”. The thought is that the word comes out of ancient Greek drama where the chorus was dressed like satyrs, who in Greek mythology were goat-like woodland deities. A tragedy is a goat song.

Our Lord makes use of tragedy throughout his parables and teachings and today’s gospel is one example. The story of the rich man planning to build bigger storage bins and then be set for many years to come is both tragic and ironic. Just as the man is planning and dreaming, God knows that very night his life will be demanded of him.

There is tragedy in life. We all, in one form or another and at one time or another, will have to sing the goat song. Maturing in life and maturing in faith is coming to both recognize this and accept it. In both the recognition and acceptance of tragedy there is a hard fought maturity and wisdom gained that can never be pretended. This is why Scripture does not shy away from presenting tragedy. It is why in the first reading we hear from that great reflection on “vanity of vanities”. Tragedy has a way (unlike any other) of breaking through the illusions of life, the vanities that we all like, the vanities that keep us comfortable but stifled and that ultimately can impede us from the growth that is necessary.

Certainly part of the mystery of the cross is tragedy. It is the greatest tragedy in human history that the one man without sin publically died the death of a sinner, but God has a way of overcoming and transforming from within. The cross does not say that the Christian will never experience tragedy. That is an immature faith, yet it is preached and popular. The cross says that even in the midst of tragedy God is there for us. God can reside in tragedy because God has entered into the tragedy of the cross. Even in the tragic moments of our lives, God is there for us – willing to walk beside us and give us his grace, his strength, his love and his consolation and hope.

At the end of the parable God says, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” God’s use of the term “fool” is not necessarily a condemnation of the man himself. How often do friends say to one another, “Don’t be a fool!”? Love allows for the freedom to point out foolishness. The foolishness of the man’s plans and attitude is what is subject to condemnation by God. How often are we, through our assumptions and attitudes, fools before God, but God still loves us.

“Thus it will be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” In this context what does it mean to be “rich in what matters to God”? Here it is the awareness and the faith needed to know that, yes, there will be tragedy in life yet even in the midst of tragedy, God is God for us. We will each have to sing the goat song at some point but God – in his love and his willingness to embrace the tragedy of the cross – can even make of that something beautiful and graced.

If God is for us, who can possibly be against us?

Short and Long-Term Urges and Walking on the Moon


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the_day_we_walked_on_the_moon_09Our nation has been reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Where were you when man first stepped on the moon? I was one-year-old. I don’t remember much about it. It is fitting and right to have this reflection. It was and remains one of our nation’s greatest accomplishments and not just for what was achieved but how it was achieved. A goal was set and as a nation we rallied around that goal and we devoted the resources, the time, the energy, the skill needed to achieve that goal. In a sense, it was not just one man who took that first step on the moon but a whole nation. It was a great moment and will hopefully be one of continuing moments in humanity’s outreach into space.

Br. Guy Consolmagno is the director of the Vatican Observatory. I just read an interview with him about the significance of the moon landing and in the interview he reflects on how the moon landing offers concrete lessons for people of faith. One lesson is “hope”. That even as we face what seems to be impossible problems we can work together. Another lesson is how God is creator of all – not just the earth and all of its wonders but all the universes and galaxies with all of their untold wonders. All of creation proclaims the glory of God! Finally, the moon landing speaks of a compatibility and not an opposition between science and religion – both (when truly and authentically lived) enhance and support one another.

In reflecting on these lessons, Br. Consolmagno shares something he once heard from a person who works with the poor, “a short-term urge leads to addiction, but a long-term urge leads to purpose.” This is played out, I think, in today’s readings.

One thing to note in the encounter between Abraham and the three men is that there is really nothing mystical or exceptional about it. It was a hot day and three men are walking by. It would have been very easy (and understandable) to just let them continue on and not expend the energy needed to welcome and host them. A short term urge. But Abraham made a choice – a choice not guided by the short term urge (of laziness, basically) but rather the long term commitment of hospitality and going out of one’s way to welcome the other. In this choice Abraham and Sarah were blessed with the promise of a child, and from that child – a nation. A long-term urge leads to purpose.

In the gospel Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and she quickly sets about the work of serving and then complains when her sister Mary does not do the same. (It is interesting how the gospel here points out how even the work of hospitality – for which Abraham and Sarah were blessed – can be twisted to be more about a fix for the short term urge.) Martha’s outer busy-ness and complaining is a reflection of the anxiety and the worry she carries within. Anxieties and worries and our choice for them can become addictive realities in our hearts. Mary chooses the better part. She also had worries and anxieties but she set those short-term urges aside in favor of the long-term urge of just sitting at our Lord’s feet and listening. Mary was blessed by this choice.

Much in our world and society is focused toward the short-term and even attempts to train us for the short-term alone. This is a reflection of our fallen state and our fallen world. But today’s readings along with our nation’s reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing offer a different perspective and a different way to live faith and even life itself.

“…a short-term urge leads to addiction, but a long-term urge leads to purpose.” The blessing that Abraham and Sarah knew, the blessing that Mary knew can also be known by us. We just need to make the choice.

Kindness matters


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ElGreco-ChristHealingBlind-ptg-large“You should give up drinking only water and have a little wine for the sake of your digestion and the frequent bouts of illness that you have.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

The First Letter to Timothy addresses a variety of issues within the early Christian community – how elders are to be addressed, the mystery of the Church, the role of the deacon, consideration of widows just to name a few. Yet, in the context of all of this the author stops for a moment and encourages Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach.

It is a moment of kindness. It is an easy temptation to step over this verse and focus on the “weightier” issues addressed in the letter – and those issues are of importance – but all of Scripture has something to say and maybe this short verse is telling us, “Don’t forget to be kind to one another.”

There are continuously new plans and programs being developed, new webinars and conferences to attend on how to “do” church but do we always recognize the importance that simple kindness plays in the life of the Christian and the Christian community?

It is interesting how God can speak in our lives. Just within the past couple of months I have had a number of encounters where people have come up to me and told how something I did or said in the past made an important impact on them. Truth is, these moments (at least on the surface) were not exceptional – I was in town for a conference so I called up a young lady who had been a member of the youth group at my first assignment and asked if she would like to grab dinner and catch up, I listened as someone shared his struggles, I offered a kind word and encouragement to a couple at a time of pain. But these moments of kindness did have an effect even if I did not fully recognize nor realize it at the time.

Kindness matters. It costs nothing to be kind and it betrays nothing to be kind. Sometimes we forget this.

I once saw a church sign that read, “No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If the First Letter to Timothy is about addressing pressing issues with the hope of building up and strengthening the Christian community then I would say that 5:23 can be seen as more than just an interesting side note regarding the curative effects of a little wine on an upset stomach. I would say that 5:23 teaches that basic, human kindness and care is an essential component to the building and living of Christian community.

“See how these Christians love one another,” was one of the earliest observations of a non-Christian when looking at this new religious group who had just come on the scene. This love was not because everyone looked the same, acted the same nor thought the same – just read the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s epistles to see how the Church debated and argued itself through its first century. This love was also not because the early Church walled itself off from the rest of the world – again, read Acts and Paul’s letters to see this. I think kindness, patience, humility, reliance on the Holy Spirit and some good self-effacing humor had a lot to do with this love. The observation quoted above demonstrates that people saw a living of love and community in the early Christian community that was unique … and it clearly impressed them.

See how these Christians love one another.  Kindness does matter.

The Gatlinburg Skybridge and our Lord’s Invitation: “Feed My Sheep.”


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Gatlinburg-Sky-Bridge-2-793x526The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America is set to open later this month in our own Gatlinburg, TN. The bridge stretches nearly 700 ft. and is suspended 150 feet high. Apparently, it has glass panels as flooring in the middle of the expanse. I’ve been hearing people talk about it and have been seeing things on the news about it. Would you walk across it?

Bridges are pretty amazing structures when you stop and think about it. The physics, architecture and engineering that goes into the construction of a bridge is quite daunting. Whether the bridge is designed as a tourist destination (as the Gatlinburg Skybridge is) or if it has a completely utilitarian purpose as any number of interstate bridges dotting our country’s landscape or if it even has reached an iconic status such as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge, every bridge serves the same basic purpose of connecting two points and allowing interaction, traffic and commerce.

One of the traditional titles given to the Pope as the Bishop of Rome is “Pontifex Maximus” which means “bridge-builder”. It is a title rooted in pagan Rome but later christianized. The Pope, as successor to St. Peter, is to continuously work to build, strengthen and restore that bridge which connects our fallen and wounded world with the Kingdom of God. That bridge is the Church itself but like any bridge there are some divine physics and engineering that goes into the structure and maintaining of this bridge. Today’s gospel (Jn. 21:1-19) show some of these divine elements and they are worthy of note.

The disciples are gathered together at the Sea of Tiberias which means that they have done what our Lord requested when he instructed the women at the tomb to tell the apostles that they would find him in Galilee. Obedience to the Lord’s instruction and the grace of community are part of the divine physics that form the bridge of the Church. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is the first to recognize the Lord. Love is farsighted and is the first to appreciate divine kindness and the Church must always be led by this true love which is rooted in God alone. Peter has an acknowledged authority (as the Lord said that he would strengthen his brothers) but, is himself, open in humility to guidance as he listened to John, the youngest of disciples. The disciple allowed themselves to be fed by our Lord – the Church must continually be nourished by Christ through Word and Sacrament. All of these elements are part of the physics which must continually make up and uphold the bridge that is the Church.

But there is something else that must be learned from the exchange between Jesus and Peter. When our Lord was bound and on trial, Peter had denied knowing him three times. Now, three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Jesus does not belittle Peter. He does not punish him or embarrass him in front of the others rather he heals him and he does this by three times inviting Peter to love, to give and even to be as God himself does and is. God is love and true love feeds, nourishes, strengthens, tends, builds up and upholds. True love is willing to go where it would rather not out of care for the other. Jesus invites Peter (and the whole Church) into the very work of God which is to feed, tend and strengthen. The Church is to be the bridge connecting our world with the promise of the Kingdom of God by continuously living this invitation of our Lord to Peter.

After this exchange, our Lord says to Peter (and to us), “Follow me.”

In a special way, we pray for our Holy Father Pope Francis today. He is a good man and a good pope. He deserves our respect and he deserves our prayers as he strives to live his role and as he strives to encourage us to live our role as Church by feeding, tending, strengthening and loving as Christ would have us do.

Easter Sunday – the Lord “primerea”!


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resurrection2In a recent interview on the life of faith and discipleship, Pope Francis shared an expression often used in Argentina – the expression is “primerea”. “…the Lord ‘primerea,’ anticipates us, waits for us; we sin and He is waiting to forgive us. He is waiting to welcome us, to give us His love, and each time faith grows.”

The Holy Father shared the expression in response to a question where he was asked about whether he ever felt betrayed by God. “Never,” responded Pope Francis. “I was the one who betrayed Him. At times I even felt like God was turning away from me, just as I turned away from Him. At very dark moments you ask yourself, ‘Where are you, God?’ I always believed that I was looking for God, but really it was He who was looking for me. He always gets there first and waits for us.”

The Lord “primerea”.

On Easter morning, Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb … it is empty. Peter and John run to the tomb and all they find are the burial cloths. The tomb is empty. It is empty because the Lord primerea!

A closed tomb is the opposite of primerea – there is no life, life is ended. All that the closed tomb offers is loss, sadness and pain. Life, on the other hand, by its very nature moves forward! It cannot remain stagnant nor be held back – the stone is rolled away and the tomb is emptied because the Lord primerea!

The Lord leaves the tomb in order to anticipate us, in order to show and be the living mercy that forgives us now and ever again on our journey. Even though this Easter Sunday we mark and proclaim in faith that greatest of events which occurred centuries ago when our Lord was bodily raised triumphant from the dead, the truth of the resurrection – and what it means for all time and creation – does not remain in the past. The truth of the resurrection is found in our today and in our tomorrow because this is where the risen Lord awaits us. The Lord primerea!

As Pope Francis remarked, “(The Lord) always gets there first and waits for us.”

Life calls us forward and Jesus is life itself! “Where is the resurrection?” some might ask. Others might demand that we point it out in order to prove it to them! I can say that it is not to be found in the history book nor in a museum. It is found right now and it resides in tomorrow. This is why on Easter Sunday we have this strange little reading about yeast. It is a strange reading really, and why – of all days – do we have it on Easter Sunday? You would think that there would be a reading proclaiming a blare of trumpets and choirs of angels singing. But, no, on our holiest day the Church has chosen this reading. Why?

Old yeast has no life, it produces nothing. It is like the enclosed tomb. But a little yeast that is true leavens all the dough – this little yeast brings life and it brings newness! And it does it truthfully and without the need for fanfare. Christ has been sacrificed and Christ has been raised!

True life does not need spectacle in order to prove itself. The resurrection does not need to prove itself to us nor does the one who is raised need to. Life reveals itself by being life. The resurrection is shown within the hearts that have been enlivened by it, by the hearts that encounter Christ today and move toward tomorrow in hope because the risen Lord awaits them there.

The tomb is empty! The Lord is risen!

The Lord primerea!

“…see, I am doing something new” and the fowler’s net. John 8:1-11


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bird caught in the fowler's net 2What was our Lord writing on the ground with his finger? No one really knows but it is an interesting addition that the gospel writer makes to this narrative and it does lead one to wonder. What was he tracing on the ground?

In light of today’s first reading from Isaiah where the Lord proclaims that he alone is the one “who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters,” I can imagine our Lord tracing the scene of the crossing of the Red Sea, because at this moment this is what our Lord is preparing to do – both for the woman caught in adultery and for the mob caught in the cycle of recrimination and violence.

Yes, the woman was caught in sin. We do not know the circumstances, nor the situation and we can honestly wonder, “well, why wasn’t the man involved also brought forward for judgment?”. But there was sin and this woman who sinned is now standing before the only one without sin. Of all, he alone can judge and condemn her. There is judgment but no condemnation. After the people walk away, our Lord asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” In this moment we see lived out the words found in Isaiah, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” The Righteous One has come but not to condemn but rather to give life. This is the amazing grace! He alone has now opened a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters. Mercy is given and divine mercy alone sets the sinner free from the trap of sin.

“We escaped like a bird from the fowler’s net. The net was broken and we escaped; our help is in the name of our Lord…” (Psalm 124:7-8). “…see, I am doing something new!”

But the path through the waters is not just for the woman, it is also for the crowd! They are caught up in the frenzy and blood thirst of a mob. They are clinging to the stones they want to hurl at the woman! They also are trapped in the fowler’s net of sin, violence and death although they do not recognize it. Their trap is not as public as that of the woman. Christ will also do something new for them.

Again, God says through the prophet Isaiah, “In the desert I make a way, in the wastelands, rivers.” The cycle of violence gives no life and to be trapped in that cycle is to be trapped in a lifeless desert! Only God can call forth life in that desert, only God can call forth rivers in that wasteland. So, in his encounter with the demonic frenzy of the mob, Christ – the only one without sin – quietly bends down, traces on the ground and says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus is truth and he alone calls forth truth and the violence of the mob breaks on the truth of who he is. The gospel says, “…they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”

Something new had just happened! The cycle of violence had just been broken by the one who is truth and who is mercy … and he continues to trace on the ground.

Friends, the readings for this Sunday are not circumspect. No one is exempt. Everyone – in one way or another or in many ways – is caught in the fowler’s net. Everyone is trapped – whether recognized, public or not. Where are we before our Lord – the only one without sin, the one who is both truth and mercy. Will we let him do something new? Will we let him open a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters for us?

Jesus’ Hope


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Jesus in the desertHave you ever noticed that each of our Lord’s temptations in Luke’s Gospel is a temptation to something within the immediate and that our Lord responds to each temptation by his hope in the future? That Jesus responds by not getting stuck in the immediate but by looking beyond the immediate to the infinite?

The gospel tells us that our Lord, after fasting for forty days was hungry. That is an immediate need. We all know that when we are hungry it is hard to even think about anything else. The devil plays on this. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Answer this immediate and pressing need! Satisfy your hunger! Our Lord responds, “… One does not live on bread alone.” Our Lord’s hope is not in a quick fix or easy answer right now but on that which is truly enduring and lasting – relationship with the Father.

The devil again tempts the Lord, “I shall give you all this power and glory … all this will be yours, if you worship me.” Okay, Jesus has come to be savior and king – the devil concedes this – but he need not go through the pain and struggle, suggests the Father of Lies. Jesus need not go to Jerusalem and walk the way of Calvary. He can be king now, immediately! Jesus can be king without the cross! Certainly tempting, but our Lord responds, “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Jesus answers by showing where his hope lies – not in the devil and his power and neither in any power that the world affords in the here and now but in the Father and his will. Jesus hopes in the Father and the Father alone will Jesus serve.

If not through need nor through power will the Lord be tempted then through love will the devil try to tempt the Lord. Make the Father show his love here and now, force his hand! “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you…” The Son will not force the Father to prove his love. His hope in the Father’s love does not need to be proven at any point, it endures even to the cross. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”

Jesus overcomes these temptations in the immediate not through his own strength of will but through his hope in the Father. It is the Father who summons the Son into the future – into the desert, into ministry, to Jerusalem, through the cross to the resurrection and into the fullness of the Kingdom! God summoned Jesus and Jesus put his trust in the summons of the Father. And God summons us! God calls us forward into the future – not as we might have it or envision it – but into the fullness of His Kingdom! To be a Christian – to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and to believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead – means to be a person never resigned to the immediate nor the status quo nor to the sad belief that it is solely up to our own effort. These are the illusions of the Father of lies. That things cannot change. That there is no hope. That we are abandoned.

Jesus is risen from the dead! Hope ever endures! The Father summons us into the Kingdom!

The hymn has it right. “My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentations! I hear the real, though far off hymn that hails a new creation! No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

We are members of the Body of Christ and Jesus’ hope is our hope! We turn our gaze to the Father…

An Incarnational Faith


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hands of Christ“What does discipleship look like?’’ This was a question we were asked again and again in theology studies. What does it look like? How do disciples act in the world? How does one show that he or she is a follower of Christ?

We can always look to the communion of saints and learn from them to some degree but not completely because we live in our own specific time and specific context and every life is different. What does discipleship look like in our world today?

I believe that one of the besetting sins of our day is a desire to escape the human condition and we see this manifested in so many ways. The recent horrific legislation passed in New York and Virginia – which basically gives a wink and nod to infanticide – is a bitter refusal of the reality of the gift of life. The abuse of drugs and opioids so prevalent in our society has at heart a desire to escape our human condition – its limits and its sufferings. The tendency to live more in the virtual reality of our iPhone than in the reality of our life seems a very common mode of escape.  The confusion regarding gender identity that contains within it a denial of the role that our physical body itself plays in our identity. It is as if the body and the material does not really matter…

This desire to escape the human condition has even entered our Christian understanding. I will confess a pet peeve that I have and it regards a comment often said at the death of a loved one. I understand that the intent of the comment is to comfort and I have even said it myself but it is incorrect. Sometimes, in order to comfort, people might say upon a person’s death, “heaven now has a new angel.” No, heaven does not have a new angel. Angels are a different class of being. Angels are pure spirit. We do not become angels upon our deaths. How do we know this? Because Christ did not come back as an angel upon his resurrection! His was a resurrected body and he specifically points this out in his resurrection appearances. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Lk. 24: 39) Our true identity is not solely spirit. Our true identity as human creatures is body, mind and spirit. This is the fullness of who we are and it is this fullness that will be raised on the great day of resurrection! We proclaim this every Sunday when we proclaim the creed. This temptation to over spiritualize our human nature finds root in numerous spiritualities and approaches to faith that denigrate the body and the material in favor of a view of the spiritual that does not seriously take account of the incarnation – that God became flesh and himself entered into the human condition.

In a world and a time so intent on trying to escape the human condition in so many ways what does discipleship look like? How are we to live as Christians? It is incarnational. It accepts the human condition and it recognizes that it is within our very human condition with all of its limits that we find a privileged place of encounter with Christ our Lord who is the Word made flesh.

Having a faith that is incarnational is neither a turning away from the path of discipleship nor a failure to strive after that which is better, but rather the opposite. It is learning to be amazed, just as Peter was, with how Christ is able to encounter us within the very limits of our human condition. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But Christ does not depart. He remains and it is in that ongoing encounter with Christ within the limits of his human condition that Peter is healed and is even made a fisher of men but Peter never escapes his human condition. He does not need to because Christ – the Lord of Life – is there. The disciple must always be where the Master is.

What does discipleship look like today? It must be unabashedly incarnational – not wanting to escape the human condition but willing to encounter Christ within the very limits of our human condition.

Earlier this week a priest at our diocesan priest study days in Gatlinburg shared what I thought was a powerful image of a faith that is incarnational. If you have ever been to Notre Dame Church in Greeneville, TN you know that the church sits at the top of a rise and that to get to the church you must ascend a pretty long driveway. A member of that church community had been trying for quite some time to get pregnant. She finally was able to get pregnant and one day in her gratitude to God for her pregnancy she dropped down on her knees at the bottom of the drive and crawled all the way up the drive on her knees and into the church to the altar as a show of gratitude for the blessing God had given her. That is an incarnational faith. That is what discipleship looks like.

One piece of the puzzle is enough


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Christmas puzzle (2)I go to the YMCA to exercise and for anyone who has been there you know that once you enter the building and head down the main hall there is a lounge area on the left and on a table in this room there is always a puzzle being worked on. I have begun the practice of spending three to five minutes at this puzzle after I exercise and before I leave. My goal is to try to get at least one piece of the puzzle in place. (The last time I was there I got three pieces in … I was quite proud of myself!) I could easily spend hours at this table because I like puzzles but I am learning that there is something good about limiting myself to just one or a few pieces at a time and also seeing how the puzzle comes together as other people also work on it.

If you look at the Scripture readings over these weeks of Advent it is like God putting the pieces of the puzzle together right in front of our eyes – the hopes of Israel, the promise of the prophets, Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will have a son, Zechariah doubts and is left mute till the birth of John, Gabriel appears to Mary, Mary believes and she conceives by the Holy Spirit, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to assuage all of his fears and uncertainties, wise men from the East begin their trek towards Bethlehem. John the Baptist appears on the scene. Piece by piece the puzzle is put together.

But it is one piece at a time. If you look at the passage where Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the temple, the angel announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son in their old age and that the son will help turn Israel back to God. Gabriel sort of hints at the coming of a Messiah but he does not say it out right. The angel gives Zechariah one piece of the puzzle. That is enough. Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she will bear a child who will be the son of the Most High and who will reign forever but he does not say how our Lord will accomplish this and how everything will play out. He gives one piece of the puzzle. That is enough. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, that the child is of God and will save the people from their sins. Again, nothing about how this will be accomplished, just one piece of the puzzle. It is enough.

In today’s gospel with Mary visiting Elizabeth we see Luke doing something he likes to do throughout his writings – he brings two people together who each have had an experience of God, who each have a piece of the puzzle. The two come together, they each share their story – their piece – and by so doing, they are brought to a greater understanding and awareness. And in this particular encounter there is an even deeper encounter – the infant in Elizabeth’s womb who will be the great prophet leaps in the presence of the Word made flesh in the womb of Mary and shares his prophetic spirit with his mother who then proclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

So often in regards to faith and in regards to live in general we want no loose ends, we want to have it all figured out but this is like trying to grab a sip of water from a fire hose! It doesn’t work that way. One lesson of Advent, one lesson learned from the people of the Advent story – welcome the one piece of the puzzle that God has given us in this moment of our journey and be content with that. Sit with it, appreciate it, wonder over it, learn the lesson it offers, share it and the truth it offers with others and together learn to trust in our own hearts and with one another that God is at work bringing it all together in his way.

One piece of the puzzle. It is enough.