Gospel Reflection for July 27, 2014, 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

23 Jul
The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind.  When it is full, they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good in buckets.  What is bad they throw away.

Matthew 13.47-48


Matthew never knows when to quit.  Rather than end his chapter full of parables with the promise of a hundredfold yield or with the farmer and merchant who find their treasure, Matthew includes in chapter 13 the story of a net full of fish that need sorting.  Perhaps the Christians for whom he wrote are sorting themselves out.  Some choose to open their hearts as good ground to receive Jesus’ word.  Perhaps some cannot see in Jesus a treasure worth their lives and wholehearted commitment.

Jesus’ parables don’t boss us.  Instead parables challenge us to work on what they reveal about ourselves.  They call us to throw out the useless in our lives and embrace all that gives life.

What treasure do you seek?  What does it reveal about you?

 

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Gospel Reflection for July 20, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

16 Jul Photo via flickr user Digital Temi

Master, did you not sow good seed in your fields?  Where did these weeds come from?

Matthew 13.27

Life takes time; God’s reign will take time.  In the end God’s wisdom is not human wisdom.  Some apparent weeds may be flowers.  The smallest of seeds may yet grow into a plant that provides hospitality for many creatures.  Leaven may be slowly transforming the world even though human eyes cannot see it working.  Such are the mysteries of the reign of God in the human heart and in all creation.

What weeds do you notice most in others? What weeds do you notice most in yourself?

New Church Partnership Models

15 Jul

My work as a writer, editor and church worker have all put me in conversation with friends in Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Muslim and Jewish communities who are all wondering about the future of spiritual life in the United States. In many of these US circles, attendance at worship is down, especially among young people, and religious professionals are asking some hard questions. When Good Ground Press invited me to blog at Keeping Faith Today, they simply said, “Write about what it means to be a faithful person today. Talk about it all– the joys, controversies, and challenges.” It is rewarding work to be a part of the conversation across denominational lines.

Some exciting new models are coming out of the hard questions that religious professionals are asking about the future of the church. One trend I am seeing is churches and nonprofits being open and willing to work with for profit companies in new partnerships. The examples that are working are those where the partnership is savvy, relevant, and symbiotic. Here is an interesting example brought to my attention by Adam Copeland, a Presbyterian friend working at a Lutheran College with faith, leadership and new media, on one of his blog posts:

Via Kickstarter, Broad Street Ministry is seeking to partner with Federal Donuts to create Rooster Soup Company:

We want to use high-quality chicken backs & bones that would go to waste…

… to make delicious soup to sell

… and donate 100% of our profits to [Broad Street Ministry] dedicated to helping those in need.

Let’s break this down a bit. Broad Street Ministry is a forward thinking church in Philadelphia that does a lot more than worship. Federal Donuts is a for profit donut and chicken shop in Philadelphia. Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform often used by artists and entrepreneurs looking for start up funds to launch the next great idea. Very few churches and religious nonprofits have used Kickstarter thus far, but visionaries at Broad Street are giving it a try. So we have a church partnering with a for profit and using a crowd-funding platform to build a new model. The pieces are all there. Federal Donuts is in because if this launches, they will not have to pay to have their backs and bones disposed of. Broad Street Ministry is in because all the proceeds from Rooster Soup Company will go back to Broad Street to fund programming. And in theory every day people like you and I are in and decide to support them by funding their start-up costs because we are fans of donuts, chicken, soup, less wasted food, more good ministry and smart partnerships like this one.

Young people want to see churches doing relevant work in their communities. Here is an example of a church willing to be in the community not only addressing the hunger in Philadelphia with its ministry, but also being willing to work with for profit companies in the community to create partnerships where everyone benefits. These partnerships are popping up in cities all over the US, driven by innovative leaders with a pulse on issues that need addressing via street-smart means. Check out this Kickstarter campaign and keep your eyes open in your community for new models of church partnership.

Weeding

9 Jul
Photo via flickr user Digital Temi

Photo via flickr user Digital Temi

Last week my spouse and I closed on and got keys for our first home. The seller was long gone. Not being able to stand the Minnesota climate, he moved to Northern California. The yard of our new home is landscaped beautifully, but in his absence the weeds had grown to hip height and spread quickly into lush bunches. I spent a chunk of time on Saturday crouched over in the warm sun, pulling weeds and chucking them over my shoulder into the driveway. This monotonous, rhythmic activity lends itself to spiritual reflection, which I thoroughly enjoyed. None of my thoughts were especially profound, but as someone who strives for gentle, continual growth and improvement, the activity of pulling weeds became a metaphor of spiritual renewal work right before my very eyes.

The priest at my high school, before offering the sacrament of reconciliation, would always talk about the importance of doing spiritual check-ins as often as we do physical check-ups. The work of sifting through the spirit, looking for light and weeding out darkness takes time, intentionality, and sometimes help from other people who can offer expertise and objectivity. Here are some thoughts I had while weeding in the garden that also pertain, I believe, to weeding in the soul:

- Some weeds are pretty. It was harder than I thought it would be to identify the weeds. I had to double check with Dan that I was pulling the right roots. Invasive species can disguise themselves as flowers if left to grow and thrive for too long.

- Pulling the weed without it breaking was easier and more efficient if I took the time to search for the base of the stalk. Identifying the entry point before acting helped me get at the root of the problem.

- Finesse and strategy are a good paring for effective weed pulling. The weeds were so tall and thick, it was tempting to grab huge handfuls and just yank forcefully. This would have been a quicker way for the yard and garden to appear weed free, but the roots of the weeds would have remained healthy. I had to find the right amount of weeds to pull at the same time. Often this meant one weed at a time- no shortcuts. The roots often came out easier, too, when I used finesse instead of force. A little restraint in the process set me up for longer term success.

- Pulling the weeds at the root was fairly easy because the soil was soft. Minnesota had a very rainy June. When I was getting at the root of the weeds, then, the soil was soft and gave way easily. A month of rain had prepped the foundation for the weeding process to go smoothly. The yard was ready for the task at hand.

-I won’t really know how I did weeding for some time. The yard looks better, but I will see in a few weeks how many weeds I pulled superficially and how many I got at the root. Either way, the yard will take continual oversight and attention if I want the plants and grass to thrive.

At the end of the afternoon, my back and hamstrings were tight. My fingers were sore, but I felt revived. The yard looked fresh, clean and new. The landscape was more easily navigated and looked more inviting. The plants now had more room to breathe and grow. It was hard work, but good work. It was rewarding. I’ve heard that there is a correlation with gardening and happiness. I can see why. I left my time in the yard peacefully tired and reflective. And it inspired me to keep getting down on my knees to look for the roots of the weeds inside of myself that were choking who God is willing me to become.

Gospel Reflection for July 13, 2014, 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time

9 Jul

“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

Matthew 13.8

Jesus’ parable of the sower is prophetic but the promised yield doesn’t happen within the gospel.  There Jesus’ teachings fall on path, rocks, and weedy patches where the seeds fail to flourish.  The disciples who flee when Jesus is arrested are like the seeds on the path that the birds eat.  They vanish.  Peter, whose name means Rock, is like the rocky ground where the seeds grow up quickly and gets scorched for lack of soil in which to root.  The rich young man of Matthew 19.16-23 is like the seeds sown among thorns.  The lure of wealth spoils his yield. Only after his resurrection do Jesus words sown in the lives of his disciples take root and grow.

What has hearing the gospel yielded in your life?

Ramadan

5 Jul Ellie Roscher

This year when Ramadan started, my heart and mind wafted over to Nairobi, Kenya. I spent the past two Ramadans in the slum of Kibera, outside of Nairobi, at a girls’ secondary school there called Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. I was not expecting to be able to do so much inter-faith dialogue, but Ramadan opened that space up easily. I witnessed, asked questions and walked with Muslim students, teachers and administrators through their holy month. Here is a journal entry from my Ramadan time in Kibera:

In Kibera, though many religions are represented, Christianity and Islam are the most prominent. The girls all struggle with their tribal religions and how those beliefs fit. They have lived through great violence in the name of tribal loyalty. They carry varying degrees of skepticism toward belief in witchcraft. They do not want to give up their ancient tribal identity entirely, but they feel a pull toward Western ways of thinking and learning. It is easy to tell the two groups, Christian and Muslim, apart. The Muslim girls wrap their hair in pretty head wraps and wear long skirts, for the sake of modesty. On Fridays, the Muslim girls go to mosque. On Sundays, the Christian girls go to church. The two groups of girls respect, admire, and intermingle with each other effortlessly.

At the crescent moon, Ramadan—or the month of fasting—began. They did not eat until sundown for a month. The girls who fast genuinely liked it. Fasting in the slum is not that hard; the girls are used to being hungry. “I look forward to it,” Asha said. “It gives me more time to sit and think.” Freidah added, “When I get hungry, I pray, and God gives me strength. It is easier to see blessings during this month.”

Their parents have eased them into the fasting when they think they are old and healthy enough to handle it. They must wait a little longer into the day to eat every year, until they are fasting until sunset. It makes them feel like adults in their worshipping community and brings an element of mindfulness to their days. Asha said, “Fasting is good for the mind, body, and spirit. It is important in our community because there is so much poverty here. After fasting, when someone tells me she is hungry, I really know how that feels. If the whole world fasted, there would be no more hunger because fasting builds compassion. When I fast, I realize why people who are hungry beg for food.” It helps them see food as a blessing.

On Fridays of Ramadan, Abdul invites friends over to his house to break the Ramadan fast with his family at sunset. His wife, Zachia, cooks from noon to seven to prepare a feast. Girls from the soccer team come by to help her. The men sit on the floor and wash their hands, snacking on samosas and sipping homemade passion-fruit juice. Abdul’s friends arrive one by one, removing their shoes and joining him on the floor. Bowls of rice, beans, chicken, noodles and salad are passed and passed until everyone is full to bursting. Black tea is poured and mango shared to comfort bulging stomachs. Late into the evening, Abdul’s friends walk through the dark Kibera dirt roads toward home.

Fasting is about mindfulness. “O you who believe. Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become deeply mindful.” (Qur’an 2:183). It was a blessing for me to be able to witness this holy month of mindfulness in another culture and see the faith in action in young women. They truly believed and articulated how this heightened mindfulness brought blessings to their lives. For them, Ramadan is a time of sharpened prayer, and vibrant community strength.

Gospel Reflection for July 6, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

3 Jul

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Matthew 11.28

The rest that Jesus offers has its origins in Sabbath, the seventh day on which God rests and enjoys all that has unfolded in the six days of creation.  Sabbath and rest are a pause to appreciate all that is, to appreciate the living God in our evolving world.  Rest is willingness to relax in the mystery of God as a swimmer floats in the bouyancy of water.  Rest is stopping to let indescribable beauty soak in.  Rest frees the imagination to sight heaven’s edge on the horizon.  Rest is existing in right relationship with all that us, acknowledging ourselves and all that is as gift, welcoming and blessing even the least among us.

Where do you find rest and experience the mystery of God?

Read more by subscribing to Sunday by Sunday, a weekly resource for reflecting on the Sunday gospels individually or in groups.

Take a Step Toward Jesus

2 Jul Joan Mitchell, CSJ
via flickr user Catholic Church (England and Wales)

via flickr user Catholic Church (England and Wales)

 

by Joan Mitchell, CSJ

In Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis writes as a person who practices the Ignatian spirituality of the Jesuit society to which he belongs.  St. Ignatius teaches that an examen of consciousness is a daily prayer too basic to skip.  His method involves taking time each day to identify people and events that excite and energize us, and conversely, encounters that haunt us with regrets or fears.  An examen concludes with asking God’s help and expressing gratitude for God’s gifts.  Over time this simple practice helps the gospel transform how we live our everyday lives and makes us evangelizers who attract others.

In his recent exhortation Pope Francis calls us “to proclaim the gospel without excluding anyone, without imposing new obligations; rather to share our joy, point to a horizon of beauty and invite others to a delicious banquet” (14).  He testifies to his experience of joy in Jesus in the first 24 paragraphs of his exhortation.  Take a step toward Jesus; he’s already there (3).

The pope’s call sounds like the experience of our first Sisters of St. Joseph, who describe themselves as “seized by God’s love.”  They were responding to the preaching of our Jesuit founder Father Pierre Medaille, awakening to the difference they could make among the multitudes of people who are poor in France in 1650.

“We become fully human when we become more than human,” Francis says, “when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being” (8).

The first time I read Joy of the Gospel, I could hardly believe Pope Francis cites so many verses I have prayed and lived.  For example, for those suffering, he suggests two of my favorites from the Old Testament book of Lamentations.  This book vividly describes the ruined city of Jerusalem, then ends with the verses that helped me survive my mother’s death:

The steadfast love of God never ceases;
God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new each morning.
So great is God’s faithfulness” (Lamentation 3.22-23).

Our new pope comes from a new social location, not Europe, not a first world country.  He shows not only a Latin American sensibility for beauty and joy but a voice sharply critical of global capitalism that leaves vast numbers of people poor.  He describes his critique of an economy of exclusion as “an evangelical discernment.”

Pope Francis thinks the 5th commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” forbids an economy of exclusion and inequality.  “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?  This is the case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality” (53).

His questions give us in the United States lots to think about.  So does his description of a new economic tyranny.  “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.  This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.  Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.  A new tyranny is thus born…” (56).

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. How does Francis view trickle-down economics and ideologies that depend on the absolute autonomy of the marketplace?  How does he view the relationship of inequality and exclusion to peace?  How can American Catholics respond?  #53-58
  2. Among the things eroding culture according to Francis in paragraphs #61-75, which seem threats to you?
  3. What would you say to Pope Francis in response to his comments on the importance of lay people and women in paragraphs #102-104?
  4. What call do you hear personally to become a more transforming evangelizer?

Gospel Reflection for June 29, 2014, Feast of Peter and Paul

27 Jun
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples (Matthew 16.15).

Sunday celebrates the two most influential Christian apostles–Peter and Paul.  When Jesus asks his famous question, Peter professes faith quickly that Jesus is the messiah.  However, Peter requires more time and experience to become the firm believer on whom Jesus counts as the sure foundation of his new community.  He journeys through misunderstanding, overpromising, and denial.

Zeal to spread Jesus’ good news to the Gentiles animates Paul over more than two decades.  Educated as a rabbi, Paul wrestles with his experience of Jesus’ presence with him and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the communities he founds. He insists the crucified and risen Jesus is the wisdom and power of God with whom Christians live in inseparable union.

What is important enough for you to keep wrestling with?

 

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Fierce Advocacy in Community

25 Jun

This evening a former student came by my place to watch World Cup Soccer with my spouse and I and catch up on life a bit. He brought delectable cannoli from a deli by his house. We talked about his music and his new job. He told me the story of breaking up with his girlfriend and then, months later, the new woman he is interested in. I caught him up on my life as well. We had a lot of ground to cover. We both admitted to going underground a bit during the long, cold winter.

Eventually, I asked him about his grieving. His dad committed suicide a year and a half ago. Losing that man in that way was unthinkably painful for him. “I gave up on God immediately,” he admitted. “So in a way it felt like I lost two dads. I thought it was cool to be an angry atheist, the thing to do. I thought I was smarter than the people who believed in God. I needed to be in that dark place.”

I remember him talking to me about this decision. I remember thinking that considering the circumstances, it made sense as a reaction. I did a lot of listening and nodding in that first year.

“But now I think I’m ready for something,” he continued. “Maybe not religion just yet, but I’m ready to believe in something bigger than myself again.”

He explained how isolating it was to lose his father to suicide. It made him feel so alone, like no one understood what he was going through.He was in shock during the funeral, and then people stopped asking him how he was doing. He didn’t realize how much he needed to talk about his loss and his fears. He didn’t know where to start. Then one day at work, a woman asked him about his life, asked him about his parents, pushed about his dad, and he decided to tell his co-worker the truth.

After expressing her condolences, she asked, “And what are you doing about it?”grief_journal_cover2

“What do you mean?”

“What are you doing to tend to your grief? If you don’t work on your grief, it will come out eventually in unexpected ways, decades from now. It can affect your marriage and your children without you even realizing it. Can I help?”

Because he was open and curious, she did some research and found some support groups for him to go to. He went. He realized he wasn’t alone. After a few weeks of meetings, he broke down and sobbed telling his story. Instead of pity, when he looked up, his peers nodded and just said, “Yeah, yeah.” It was comforting. The floodgates opened.

He said, “I thought just getting out of bed every day was dealing with it, but it wasn’t, I wasn’t dealing with it. Now I am dealing with it. I cry more, but I am also writing music again. And I am able to tell stories about my dad that come from happy memories.”

It makes sense to me that it took having the fierce advocacy of his co-worker and the community of his support group first before he considered giving God another shot. For him, right now, that support group is the community of truth he needs. It is a space to be broken and heal. It is the place to ask hard questions and grow. Meanwhile, his co-worker showed him that he matters, and that sometimes, we have to fight for life. The survivors have to work to claim the hurt and keep going. The co-worker and the support group remind him that he is indeed not alone. That is church at its best. He did lose one dad, but maybe he doesn’t have to lose two.

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