Stoned

“But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice…  My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.” –John 10:2-4; 27-29

“Does anyone know what it is like to be stoned?”  The teacher realized in retrospect that was probably not the best way to phrase the question to a group of eight-grade students, who promptly burst out laughing.  Needless to say, it was not the martyrdom of St. Stephen they were picturing in that moment.

I smile now whenever I hear the story of St. Stephen’s stoning, remembering this anecdote and also how, as a small child, I heard about this martyrdom of Stephen (and others) and decided that I too, wanted to be a martyr.  Not because I was particularly holy, nor because I had any real tolerance for pain (ha!), but because like every child I wanted to imagine myself as a hero.  Every child dreams of being the courageous one, the strong one, the one that stands up to evil and saves the world.  “I want to be the coward that runs and hides, or that stands there doing nothing” said no child, ever.

But often time reveals in us more weakness than courage.  Not only do we fail to stand up for those under attack, we pick up stones ourselves.

For most of us, the stonings that we experience—as victims, bystanders, or participants, are verbal rather than physical.  If I am honest, I still fear these more than the physical.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  This childhood rhyme so often shouted across the playground is patently untrue.  As I have participated in healing ministry over the last few years—for myself and for others—I have seen lifelong hurt and damage from name calling and other forms of rejection, that last longer than any bruises or physical trauma.

The antidote, to both wounds and cowardice, is to hear our name being called by Jesus.

When I know who I am, more properly Whose I am, I am less vulnerable to the lies of those who would attack me.  The truths that Jesus speaks into my heart, about who I am, who He made me to be, can undo and heal the lies that I have believed over the years.  And when I know who is calling me, and where I am going, with His grace I can have the courage to follow, even if like Stephen it leads to death.

In a world in which our identity in Christ is questioned or even lost, we seek all sorts of counterfeit measurements to validate and give us worth.  How arrogant and absurd to claim superiority in the amount of melanin in our skin, the amount of education or experience on our resume, the amount of income on our tax returns.  Let us pray for the peace that comes through knowing that we are all called by the same Good Shepherd.

Nicodemus

Have you ever noticed that there are not many Christians named Nicodemus?  While names like “Peter” and “Mary” and “John” have remained popular through the centuries, I have yet to meet a single Nicodemus.

I wonder if it is because Nicodemus at first glance does not present as a particularly likable Gospel figure.  First, he is a Pharisee—clearly designated as one in the “bad guy” camp of those who are constantly criticizing, and being criticized by, Jesus.  Second, he comes “at night” indicating a lack of courage to follow Jesus openly.  Third, while he begins by praising Jesus, he quickly moves into an argument:

Nicodemus:  We know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with Him.

Jesus: Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born a new, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus: How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?

Jesus: Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus: How can this be?

Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?  Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do you not receive our testimony.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.

John does not tell of Nicodemus’ reaction, but instead moves onto the most quoted line of all of Scripture, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”  John 3:16

It is clear that the darkness of night refers not just to the time of day, but the inability of Nicodemus to see and to understand Jesus at this time.

Indeed, much of what Christ says is mysterious or puzzling—not only to those living at the time but to us today.  Can I really fault Nicodemus for arguing with God, when I so often do the same? When there is so much I do not understand, even for years? The truth is that the Christian life is not something we receive or accomplish on a one-time basis, but it is something organic, a relationship in which we grown in knowledge and understanding as well as in love.

When we are born “naturally” we receive the gift of life, but that life will change and mature as we continue through it.  So too when we are born of “water and Spirit” in baptism.  The gifts of baptism mature in us as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, growing in knowledge and wisdom and love.

Nicodemus does not see or understand everything at that time.  But the Unseen Spirit must have been working in Him, for when the time came for Jesus to be “lifted up” Nicodemus was there.  It was he who, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helped in the burial of Jesus.

John reports:

“Nicodemus also, who had first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.  They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices as is the burial custom of the Jews.”  John 19:39-40

Lest we merely come around to thinking of Nicodemus as a nice guy, we must realize the significance of the amount of spice he brings—“about a hundred pounds weight.”  Pope Benedict XVI noted that this was not a small amount, but one befitting “a royal burial.”

Let us ask Nicodemus to intercede for us, that we might receive the grace to continue to dialog with Jesus, to follow even when we don’t understand, and to recognize Him as our King.

The Scorpion At Supper

You have probably heard the cautionary tale about the boy and the scorpion.  They are at a raging river.  The scorpion pleads for help, and the boy full of compassion carries him across in his bosom, only to be stung by the ungrateful scorpion at the end.  “You knew what I was when you picked me up!” sneers the scorpion to the dying boy and we are left with the moral to choose our companions more wisely.

Today’s Gospel tells a different story.  Jesus knows quite well who is at the table with him.  He knows one will betray him for money; another will in cowardice deny even acquaintance with Him—not just once, but three times. He knows the others will run away in fear. He is “deeply troubled” because he knows that He will all too soon feel both the very real sting of profound personal betrayal and then the ultimate sting of death at the hands of those He deeply loves.

Yet He knows that they are more than their sins, and He loves each of them, inviting them to His table, into the deepest and most profound intimacy with Him.  And He continues to invite each of us, even while we are still sinners.  He loves (and calls) each of us, before, during, and after our sin.

For quite a long time, I did not believe that God loved me.  I don’t mean that I denied it as doctrine—I could in fact wax poetical about the love of God as a theological abstraction.  But I could not believe it as a particular and personal reality, for I knew who I was.  I thought that maybe God loved the Girl I Ought To Be, but He couldn’t possibly love me.  Or, maybe being God and all, He had to love me, but He didn’t particularly like me.  I suspected He was perpetually disappointed in me, waiting for me to become someone else, someone He could be proud of.

I remember going once to a priest for Confession who heard my litany of sins and said, “You need to stop trying so hard and just let God love you.”  I remember now my inward eyeroll, as I thought, “Great.  Another wishy-washy ‘liberal’ priest who missed everything I just confessed and how I am not trying hard enough…”

But then something strange happened.  The next priest I went to in Confession said the exact same thing.  Then another, then another, until it was too many to count.  I started to wonder if God was actually trying to tell me something. 😊

I am still learning how to do this.  But one key component for me (that I have mentioned previously) was instituting a designated daily prayer time, a time set apart to receive God’s love.

It is not that I didn’t pray before.  I would even sometimes pray at great length—usually when I was either deeply desperate or deeply inspired.  Other times I would be sure to “say my prayers”; to discharge that duty so that I wouldn’t feel guilty.  But as a result, I avoided prayer when I didn’t feel like it—and when I most needed it.

Having a designated prayer time has required meeting God when I wasn’t camera ready.  When I would have preferred to wait until after I had gone to Confession, or perhaps hadn’t even finished sinning yet.  When I was stewing in anger or sulking or full of a thousand distractions.

Being “forced” to pray in those moments is when prayer got real.  When I had to be honest about myself, my motives, my desires.  “Lord I am not a big fan of your plan today.”  “Lord, I know this is wrong but I really want to do it anyway.”  “Lord, I don’t want to forgive her—here’s why….”

Sometimes my anger turned to tears.  Sometimes temptation dissipated.  Sometimes my entire prayer time was a wrestling match with me not yet ready to let go of my will.  Sometimes I had to just let God hold me like a toddler in a tantrum.  Sometimes I felt better; sometimes I didn’t.    Sometimes I didn’t feel much change during prayer time itself, but over time I would see the strength of the sin losing its force and hold on me.

Years ago my friend and I were going to take her two small children to the carousel.  Her four-year-old son who had been dying to go suddenly balked and decided he would rather “stay home” while we took his little brother without him.  We couldn’t understand this change of heart—why would he want to miss out on something he had been so looking forward to?  My friend knew her son, and she knew what questions to ask.  It turns out that he had pooped his pants, and wanted to hide the fact, even if it meant missing out on the joy that was planned for him.

God loves us even in our mess.  He invites us to come to Him even while still filthy, to be changed and to receive the joy He has in store for us.

We say that God’s love is unconditional.  That means that He loves us all the time.  His love doesn’t wait for Easter Sunday, when all is right again.  He loves us on Holy Thursday, when betrayal is imminent. On Good Friday, when its ugliness is revealed. On Holy Saturday, when we start to see just what His absence really looks like.

Challenge today: Ask God to show you the love He has specifically for you.

When Mercy Is A Bad Word

Last year my ten-year-old niece Lucy came to stay with us for a week.  At the end, she announced to her mother: “Aunt Grace taught me two new bad words!”

“Oh?” queried her mother.  “What are they?”

“‘Crap!’ and ‘Mercy!’” she replied.

“Mercy is not a bad word!” exclaimed her mother.

“Well,” retorted Lucy, “Have you heard how she uses it?”

In Lucy’s honor, I am writing today about other abuses of the term mercy.

*            *            *

When my mother was diagnosed with a mystery illness and I had to walk away from my life as I knew it, I had to give up a lot in a very short time.  By far the hardest were my ideas about my own virtue.

I had always fantasized that I would respond to any call to sacrifice with heroism and grace.  But the reality was less pretty.  The first few weeks showed that, far from being the poster person for patience and trust, I was lucky to not find myself on a Wanted poster.  Let’s just say that word that sprang most easily to my mind and lips most mornings was not “Fiat!”

There is a starter mercy in being stripped of our illusions, and in seeing our sins and shortcomings for what they really are.  In today’s First Reading, the Israelites are healed when they look on the image of the bronze serpent, the symbol of their sin.  They have to look at it, but also beyond it, to God’s healing power and mercy.

It would be false mercy to downplay or deny sin, to pretend that these venomous serpents are harmless or cute or that they can be kept around safely as pets.  If we keep and feed even the little sin-serpents, they will become bigger.  There is another (extended) family story about a pet boa constrictor that escaped his bedroom cage.  Neighborhood pets started disappearing, and when they finally found him he was over six feet long…

Like the bronze serpent, the Cross shows us that sin is real and has real effects.  But it also shows us that Love is more real, and its power is greater than sin.  It is Jesus that saves, love that perfects—not self-mastery or heroic effort on our part.  We are not to make an idol of our sins, but nor are we to make idols of our virtue.

The Son of Man will be “lifted up” to reveal a Love that would literally rather die than live without us.  Love is not an abstraction, nor is it an action item.  Love is a Person.  Jesus did not come to give us techniques to better either ourselves or even the world around us, He came to give us Himself.  “I AM the way, the truth, the life”: “Come to ME—I will give you rest”; “I AM the gate/the Good Shepherd/the door/the Bread of Life.”  It is intimacy with Jesus that is the center of the Christian life.

Mercy is not merely the cancelling of a debt, the adjustment of the scales of justice or a “reward” ticket into an eternal amusement park.  Rather, mercy is receiving the gift of God Himself, who pours His life and His love into us, restoring our capacity to become like Him.

Naturally, when we receive the love of Christ it will flow from us to love of others.  Works that are divorced from this love, however, have no value whatsoever.   Imagine a man who set about to be the perfect husband—who fulfilled all of his duties meticulously, but who had no actual love or tenderness for his wife.  We would find this off-putting, not inspiring.  If I serve others (or ostensibly Christ) only to perfect virtue, to be some sort of moral hero, it is only my ego that is being served.

Madeleine Debrel writes that the Christian must not only “accept the fact that he will not seem like a hero but that he will not be one.”

All of the saints, without exception, reach a moment—a turning point perhaps—in which they must accept and embrace their own nakedness, their spiritual poverty, the realization that without Christ they can do nothing and in fact would be nothing.  We can have a hard time appreciating the centrality of this poverty and the awareness thereof, since we usually see the saints doing quite a bit—more than us in fact!

Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose central message was a radical trust in the mercy of God, addressed this question.  She had been writing to her sister about trust in God’s mercy, her confidence in God’s love despite her littleness.  Her sister questioned her on this, knowing well that Therese in fact was a “big” saint.   But Therese insisted adamantly that it was not her virtues but only her trust that made her so.  Virtues can in fact “render one unjust” if we rely on them to reach God. “Even if I had on my conscience every imaginable crime, I should lose nothing of my confidence; rather I would hurry, with a heart broken with sorrow, to throw myself into the Arms of my Jesus.”

Suggested action: Look at a crucifix, and see in it what sin does, and what His love does.

 

 

Quotes:

St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “When we look at ourselves, we are saddened by our failings; when we look at God, we rejoice in His love.”

“One of the capital truths of Christianity, almost unknown to anyone today, is that the look is what saves…when we sense ourselves incapable of the elevation of the soul fitting to sacred things, it is then that the look toward perfect purity is most effective… There are those people who try to elevate their souls like someone who continually jumps from a standing position in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day—and higher every day—they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven.  We cannot take even one step toward heaven.  The vertical direction is forbidden to us.  But if we look to heaven long-term, God descends and lifts us up.”  –Simone Weil (quoted in Magnificat)

Saint Therese again: “We should like to suffer generously and nobly; we should like never to fall.  What an illusion!  What does it matter to me if I fall at every moment!  In that way I realise my weakness, and I gain thereby.  My God, Thou seest how little I am good for, then Thou dost carry me in Thy Arms…”

Do You Want To Be Well?

There was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate
a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes.
In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled.
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him,
“Do you want to be well?”
–John 5:1-16

*            *            *

“Do you want to be well?”

Funny guy, this Jesus and His questions.  It shouldn’t take Omniscience to figure that someone who has been ill for 38 years, waiting by a healing pool, wants to be well!

But perhaps He knows that something happens when we bring our desires (or anything else) into dialog with Jesus.

Years ago, I sent my friend an article I had read.  “You have to read this!” I exclaimed, “It is the most beautiful thing I have ever read!”  A little while later, I asked if she had read the article yet.  “No,” she admitted, “because I already know what it is going to say.”

I was appalled.  But in fairness, I do the same thing to God on a regular basis.  Rather than bringing something to prayer, I think about it and come to my conclusions about what God would probably think of it.

But if we’ve read anything about Jesus, we know that He is a God of Surprises.  The words most used about His teachings and actions are “astonished” and “amazed” and “nobody else speaks as He does.”  He says, “I make all things new.”  There’s no divine title, “Lord of the Everlasting Same-Old Same-Old.”

Over and over in Scripture, we see seemingly simple conversations completely transform people.  When Jesus tells the “Woman at the Well” about her five husbands and current non-husband lover, the woman declares Him a prophet and runs to tell the town “I met a man who told me everything I ever did.”

Let’s be real.  Human nature being what it is, surely there were other people in town who could tell her exactly what her sins were! But there is something different about the way Jesus speaks to us of even our sins.

I spent a lot of time writing about today’s Gospel and had a few thousand words on paper, different themes and different stories, some funny, some poignant.  I was torn over which direction to go, which stories to include, and finally in frustration I threw up my hands and prayed, “Lord, what do YOU want me to say?”

“That’s a better question, isn’t it?” He said gently.

I have a few decades of Catholic practice and a Master’s Degree in Theology under my belt.  But my life only changed “for real” in a radical way when I committed to a daily prayer time, a set (and non-negotiable) time for God to show up in my life.  A time for not just talking about God, but for talking to Him.  A time for listening to what He had to say back.  A time for Him to reveal what is in His heart, and also what is really in mine.  I am consistently surprised by both.

The Christian life is a romance, not a hostage situation.  God waits for your consent, and He invites consent by awakening your desires.  “Do you really want to be well?”

My challenge to you today is to carve out some time to let God ask you this question directly.  It may be that He has more to say to you than I ever could. 😉

From Saint John Paul the Great:

“Do Not Be Afraid…” 

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle.

It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.”