Rest that Unites

26 Mar

All over the world, Orthodox and other observant Jews are inviting their Jewish brothers and sisters to join them in Shabbat. Here’s an example from South Africa:

The video gives me goosebumps. People choosing to turn their phones off, walk out in the street, make bread together, eat together, pray together and come together over religious observance. It is stunning. I am struck by how the project brought about unity. The religious observance of rest, of Shabbat, brought people together across Jewish denominational lines.

Currently, I work six days a week. This helps me take Sabbath seriously. On the day I don’t work, I try to really not work. I try to be stringent about no screen time and no sense of efficient productivity. If I don’t rest fully, I start my next work week tired and uninspired. But it’s hard, especially because I’m resting alone. My time off doesn’t coordinate with time off of my friends and family. I’m jealous of the people in the video who all chose to rest together in community. I have to hold myself accountable to rest. It’s easy to just keep working while others are at work. Our society values it. There’s always more to do. In a world that requires us to blur the lines between work and rest more and more, how can we ardently protect a time of rest each week as a way to honor God?

How do you find the rest of Sabbath in your week? What would a world-wide Christian Sabbath Project look like? How can we unite over our religious observance of Sabbath? How can we rest in community?

Gospel Reflection for March 30, 2014, 4th Sunday of Lent

24 Mar
Jesus gave sight to a man born blind. The Pharisees questioned the man as to who could perform this miracle. The man said he did not know, but the person capable of such things must come from God. This outraged the Pharisees. Jesus heard about this and went to the man born blind.

Jesus said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man answered, “Tell me who he is, so I can believe in him.”
Jesus responded, “You have already seen him. He is speaking to you now.”
“I believe, Jesus,” said the man.

John 9.35-38

Sunday’s gospel begins as a miracle but continues as a faith drama, a series of scenes in which a man born blind explains to neighbors and teachers how he got his sight and who this person is who gave him his sight. As the man tells his story, he sees with increasing clarity who Jesus is.

How have your eyes been opened? How did you receive your sight?


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21 Mar

Last week I wrote about the idea of giving ourselves over to God in fulfillment of our baptismal promises in relation to the Lenten practice of fasting and abstinence. Along with fasting and abstinence, there are two other traditional pillars of Lenten practice for Catholics: prayer and almsgiving. This week I write about almsgiving, an ancient sounding word that may seem far removed from our current social lives.

“Alms” is a word from Old English that refers to something, like food or money, given to the poor. As a practice, almsgiving can include many things, such as making a donation to a charitable organization or tithing to a religious institution (that is, giving one-tenth a part of something). Almsgiving is part of our baptismal calling, as it is one way to take care of our brothers and sisters, both locally and globally, and to provide for the needs of the “least of these.” Small acts of almsgiving help us to grow in charity, leading toward recognition of Jesus Christ in the poor of our world. Almsgiving takes us beyond an attitude of “it’s just me and God,” as we respond to the needs of others, to those who participate in the Body of Christ with us. If Lent is about giving ourselves over to God, almsgiving is one way that we can offer a material sign of our commitment to follow in the steps of Jesus. We put our money where our faith is, giving some of our fortune over to God by giving it to serve the needs of God’s children.

Almsgiving is not just for the rich. In fact, in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus praises a widow who donates two small coins. He even goes so far as to say that she gave more than the rich people, because she gave out of what she needed not out of what she had left over. You do not need to have a lot of money to make a big difference, and you can also get creative and think about how you can give alms and tithe in ways that do not involve money. Might you be able to donate 10% of the clothes you currently have in your closet to a worthy cause? Might you be able to reduce your energy usage by 10% by being more conscious about turning off lights, unplugging unused electronics and appliances, and adjusting your thermostat?

Almsgiving certainly promotes charity, that is, giving to those most in need. Yet reading this Sunday’s gospel from John 4 got me thinking about whether we are called this Lent to match our charity with work for justice. In this gospel, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. As the woman herself reminds Jesus, these two people should not even be having an encounter, since both her gender and religious identity separate her from Jesus. When she questions whether she can even draw water for him from the well, Jesus mentions “living water,” which causes the woman to ask where a person can get such a thing. Jesus is clear that one who drinks from the well will be thirsty again, but one who drinks the living water Jesus offers will never thirst.

It may be our first tendency to read Jesus’ reply to this woman in a spiritual light, and we would not be wrong to do so. He is telling her in no uncertain terms that the way for a person to be fulfilled, to be satisfied, to have eternal life is through faith in God. But I think we may find here, too, a lesson about charity and justice. We have all likely heard the saying that if you give a person a fish, it feeds them for one day; if you teach that person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. With our charity, we quench people’s thirst in the short-term, which is not an unworthy thing to do. People in crisis need their basic human needs met, and charity helps to insure that this is so. But with our justice, we can help quench people’s thirst for their lifetime. People in crisis also need help dealing with the systemic causes of their suffering. It is worth thinking about how, in addition to our almsgiving this Lent, we can also work for justice in the world.

One Year of Pope Francis

20 Mar

On the day it was announced that Jorge Bergoglio was elected, the immediate reaction was, “Francis! Oh this is Revolutionary!”

A year later, we reflect. Is Pope Francis revolutionary?

He asks for our prayers before he blesses us. He hugs us, appears in selfies with youth and washes our feet. He continues to look to Pope Benedict for guidance. He speaks and acts with candor and charisma. Time named Francis Person of the Year in 2013, calling him “the people’s pope.” He also made the cover of Rolling Stone. He seems to know he is human like us. He speaks with reporters. He will set up a commission to deal with the sex scandals and abuse. He calls an elderly woman who had lost a child monthly to comfort her. He has spoken out against priests who belittle congregants. He invited homeless men to his home to celebrate his birthday. When asked about gay priests, he said, “Who am I to judge?”

In addition to showing signs of a more tolerant church and putting ministry to the poor at the forefront, Pope Francis is also clearly concerned with making the church accessible to all people on the margins. It is an echo of the action of the other Francis, the man of Assisi, rebuilding the church of Jesus,” Father Joel Camaya says. “Perhaps it is not a mere coincidence that his pontificate coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. If Vatican II opened the windows for the spring air to come in, the papacy of Pope Francis opens the doors for the church and her pastors to go out.”

Gayle Trotter adds about Pope Francis, “The fabulous thing about Pope Francis is that he challenges everybody. If you hear him from whatever perspective it is – left, right, observant, nonobservant, Protestant, Muslim – if you hear him and you are not challenged, then you’re not really listening to him.”

Some argue that many of his actions covered heavily in the media do not actually give us signs as to what his lasting affect will be as pope. It is also being reported that worldwide, Catholics seem to be excited to be Catholic. What do you think? After one year in the papacy, is Pope Francis revolutionary? 

Giving Ourselves over to God

13 Mar

Last week, the priest who was presiding at the Ash Wednesday service at my son’s Catholic elementary school opened mass by asking, “Who thinks that Lent is about giving something up?” A majority of the children, as well as a good portion of the teachers and parents present, raised their hands.

Many of us who were raised Catholics are in the habit of giving something up during Lent, without really understanding why. Fasting, along with abstinence, is one of the three traditional pillars of Lenten practice for Catholics (prayer and almsgiving are the other two). Fasting usually means partaking of only one full meal in a day, something that is required of adult Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence means refraining from something, usually the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays during Lent, but it is also linked to the idea of giving something up during Lent.

Traditionally, fasting and abstinence are understood as a form of penance. When we give up meat on Fridays, for instance, each Friday becomes a mini Good Friday, as we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. Practicing self-denial is part of the transformation of our lives to more fully live our baptismal calling. Fasting and abstinence also can serve our prayer lives, as our physical hunger becomes a physical sign of our hunger for God.

Yet following his question at the beginning of the Ash Wednesday service, the priest told us that Lent really is not about giving something up, but rather is about giving ourselves over to God. Giving something up usually only lasts for the six weeks of Lent, the priest told us, after which we tend to go back to our regular patterns or habits. In contrast, when we focus on giving ourselves over to God, we take steps on our spiritual journeys that stay with us for a lifetime.

As I reflected on what the priest had said throughout the mass, it slowly dawned on me that the way in which I gone about giving something up during Lent in the past did not assist me in living my baptismal calling or giving myself over to God. Many years, I gave up chocolate or candy, but not for spiritual reasons. I used this Lenten abstinence in the service of a greater goal of getting in better shape, of losing ten pounds, of finally getting back to the weight I was before I had my children. Other years, I gave up television, not in order to spend more time focusing on my spiritual life but so that I could prove to myself that I could do it. No matter what it was that I gave up, I simply willed myself to get through the six weeks. I gutted it out and then held up my accomplishment to God, internally saying to God, “Look what I have accomplished on my own. Look what I did to be worthy of your love.” And then having crossed the finish line at Easter somewhat exhausted by the will power it took to abstain for six weeks, I would promptly binge on Easter candy or the next season of The Wire (carefully requested from the library at the right time so as to be in my possession at Easter).

Dance of the Spirit

Dance of the Spirit

So this year, I decided that I still wanted to give something up (old habits die hard!), but to choose something of a different order and to do it in different way. In her wonderful book The Dance of the Spirit, feminist Catholic theologian Maria Harris writes about how the spiritual journeys of women begin with the step of Awakening, and that Awakening often begins with awakening our senses and coming home to our bodies. As someone working toward recovery from an eating disorder, I need to come home to my body in a radical way. Through my journey thus far, I have come to see that my treating my body as a project always to be worked on and viewing my happiness as always ten lost pounds away is a great detriment to my spiritual life. And I do not think that I am alone in this. Many people live disconnected from their bodies, either because they believe spirituality means leaving the body behind or because we live in a society that supports such unhealthy attitudes toward our bodies.

So for Lent this year, I am “giving up” two things that have kept me from appreciating and being at home in my body. First, I am giving up getting on the scale every day. I put the scale away so that I am not tempted to peak at my weight and have been surprised at how freeing it has been to not measure the success of my days by a number on the scale. Second, I am giving up my disconnection from and negative attitude toward my body, or to put it more accurately, I am taking one small step toward this vision of the future. Each morning as I get ready for the day, I take time to cherish one small part of my body, for now my forearms, and I pray that God will help me see and celebrate my body as part of God’s good creation. For the first time, I am not undertaking my Lenten abstinence on my own, but rather am inviting God into the process, praying to be empowered by God’s love and acceptance.

Feminism in Faith

12 Mar

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I wanted to promote Buzzfeed’s article Feminism in Faith: Four Women Who Are Revolutionizing Organized Religion.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

The article highlights four women working within their faith community to bring about change:

Sara Hurwitz: the first publicly ordained Orthodox Jewish Rabba

Kate Kelly: an attorney getting the issue of ordination of Mormon women in the public eye

Elizabeth Johnson: a Catholic feminist theologian, nun and professor working for female ordination

Zainah Anwar: a Muslim journalist and advocate working to reinterpret the Qur’an’s verses that lead to taking multiple wives and beating wives

The article asks:

Why bother? Why fight? If you’re an educated feminist who was born into such a religion, why not convert to another that doesn’t relegate women to a second-class status? For each of these women, the answer relates to not only her devotion to her own faith, but to her community. This is no small thing: By a rough estimation, there are nearly a billion and a half women on Earth who are Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, or Muslim.

Take a moment today to learn more about these women who are working for equality in their faith communities.

Who would you add to the list?

Gospel Reflection for March 16, 2014, 2nd Sunday of Lent

10 Mar
via flickr user Horia Varlan

via flickr user Horia Varlan

Jesus was transfigured in front of his disciples.
Out of the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.  Listen to him.”

Matthew 17.5

 His transfiguration takes place just after Jesus tells his disciples for the first time he will suffer, die, and rise on the third day.  This awakening to Jesus’ suffering moves the disciples from ordinary to sacred time.

In his transfiguration the disciples see Jesus as both divine and vulnerable, belonging to both heaven and earth, residing in both ordinary and extraordinary worlds.  His transfiguration terrifies his followers, but Jesus touches them gently and tells them not to fear.

This vision disturbs their lives.  The solid ground on which they stand shifts.  They move from ordinary space to sacred space, from mundane to mystery.

When has an awakening transformed your past and future?

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A New Lent

6 Mar

At my grandparents’ house, yellowed palm leaves were seemingly ever-present behind the silver-framed mirror that hung on the wall near their front door. Immediately after Palm Sunday, the palms would add a splash of green to the mauves and light blues of the room. Yet as the church year wore on, the palms would fade to better match my grandma’s decorating taste. We always knew Lent was approaching when the palms disappeared, returned to my grandparents’ church to be burned into the ashes that would be distributed on Ash Wednesday.

via flickr user Stephen Cummings

via flickr user Stephen Cummings

Seeing the empty space behind my grandparents’ mirror always hit me in the pit of my stomach. I have always loved Advent, the season of joyful preparation for and grateful anticipation of the coming of Christ’s birth. Advent is a season I can nestle into, my excitement for Christmas mounting as the days grow shorter. But if Advent is my favorite church season, Lent is the polar opposite. Rather than a cozy winter’s night, Lent feels more like the desert into which the Spirit drives Jesus in this week’s Gospel—long, barren, desolate, and drab. It is not that I mind abstaining from meat on Fridays; it’s a great excuse to drive through McDonalds for fish fillets and fries. It is more that I do not like the feeling of Lent—the feeling of being down in the mouth, the attitude of being hard on yourself, and the undertone of punishing yourself for your sinful ways.

Lent is a season of conversion, and this year what I want to convert is my attitude toward Lent. I figure that Lent has been around a lot longer than I have, so maybe I just need to learn a little more about it in order to find a new way to approach this season. That is what I am going to do over the next six weeks in this blog. Each week I will consider a topic related to Lent, presenting some information about it as well as some ideas about how that aspect of Lent makes sense in our modern lives.

Recently I read something that already is renewing my attitude toward Lent. The key to understanding the Lenten season is Baptism. On a practical level, Lent is the time when catechumens, that is, those wishing to become part of the Church, prepare for the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation—that will be celebrated at the Easter Vigil. For the rest of us, that is, those who already have been baptized into the Church, Lent is a time to renew our baptismal commitments. When I think about Lent as a time to focus intensely on living my baptismal vows, it sounds like something I might be capable of doing.

As you begin the season of Lent, take a minute to think with me about our baptismal vows. How are you living them in your life right now? In what ways are you falling short?

  • Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?
  • Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
  • Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
  • Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

If you answered no to some of these questions, or had questions about the questions (Do people still believe in Satan? Is there really a resurrection of the body?), that might be the place to begin your Lenten journey. Write down the questions you have; find someone you trust to talk to about your questions. Questions are a part of faith; we do not need to be afraid to bring our questions to God in prayer.

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, then there is another question: are you living these beliefs? If you are anything like me, this is where your Lenten journey begins. I might be able to say I believe all of these things, but…

  • Do I really live as if evil has no power or do I live in fear of evil?
  • Do I put my trust in God the Creator or do I trust in myself more?
  • Do I treat the world and everyone in it as part of God’s good creation?
  • Do I follow the example of Jesus Christ in how I treat others?
  • Do I really live as if Jesus died and was resurrected, ushering the new kingdom of God and releasing a well spring of hope?
  • Do I trust that the Spirit empowers me to follow in Christ’s footsteps?
  • Do I participate in the community of the Church, which includes all the faithful who have lived before us?
  • Do I treat myself as a sinner or as someone whose sins have been and will continue to be forgiven by God?

Spiritual Through Physical

5 Mar
via flickr user jamiesrabbits

via flickr user jamiesrabbits

“As you may know,” my friend wrote me, “it can be challenging to remember the holy and divine.”

I do know. It can be challenging, indeed. She said this in a conversation about remaining kosher. She continued, “Kosher is a way for us to be challenged on a daily mundane scale to give literal food for thought regarding how to obtain some of the holy into our very being. Using the physical to obtain a spiritual goal is something I find fascinating and something shared by both of our religions.”

My belief in getting at the spiritual through the physical is what attracts me to my Jewish brothers and sisters. I am curious about their rituals and chosen restrictions. It is what fascinated me about walking the streets of Nepal– Hindus and Buddhists publicly weaving physical practice into their daily lives. It is what worries me about my young students who walk away from the church without walking toward anything in particular. My faith in practice is also why I love Lent.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. For me, since I was very little, Lent has been a treasured time of reflection and refinement. How have I strayed from my best self? How have I given into the default settings of being human– being greedy and thinking I am the center of the universe? How have I given up on the good news? What adjustments can I make to my physical life to be made new spiritually?

This Lent, I am committing to three physical goals that I believe will welcome reflection and refinement. First, I will consume less alcohol, sugar and caffeine. I believe there is a connection between what we put into our bodies and what our bodies are capable of exuding back into the world. My spouse and I make very good, healthy choices about food. But alcohol, sugar and caffeine are three things I do take in that are not nutritious in and of themselves. I am using Lent as a time to check in and make sure I’m not leaning too much on these three items that people can become addicted to. I know my body will feel better, stronger, and more alive with less alcohol, sugar and caffeine to process. I’m interested to see what the spiritual implications of this cleanse will prove to be.

Secondly, I will use my phone as a phone. Ever since I got a smart phone, I have noticed the slippery slope of my dependence to it. My personal ethics around cell phone use has gotten more and more lax. Am I addicted to my phone? I don’t think so, but I want to make sure. Over Lent, I am going to push myself to use my phone to make and receive calls. Period. This means not checking my email on my phone throughout the day. It means leaving it in the next room and not carrying it around with me like it is an extension of myself. It means less screen time and less distraction. It means not having a social crutch to lean on when I am waiting for a friend by myself and admitting that I don’t need to be available to everyone at every moment of the day. I think I will learn a lot about how we use our phones to hide from our own humanity.

Finally, I will keep a gratitude journal. Habits are powerful, and it is just as important to eliminate what takes life away as it is to incorporate what offers life. I’ve noticed that I’ve become a little more bitter and negative. I complain a little bit more than I used to. I believe in acting the way you want to feel. I want to feel more generous and grateful. So each day, I will take a few moments to write down what I am grateful for. Forty days of shifting my focus to gratitude, I hope, will invite renewal and a more permanent shift in focus.

My hope is that these three minor adjustments to what has become my routine will change my daily, mundane reality enough to remind me of the holy and divine right in front of me. The effort and intention it takes to change these practices, I hope, will bring about something new in me. This Lent, how will you get at your spiritual life through your physical life?

Praying Away the Anxiety Spiral

4 Mar

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?

                                                    –Matthew 6:27

A few weeks ago, I came upstairs from starting a load of laundry to find my five-year-old face down, asleep on the couch at 5 p.m. If you knew my son, this would strike you as unusual, since he is the sort of kid who goes hard all day long, only stopping to relax when we finally force him into bed at night. Thinking, “It must have been a tiring week at school,” I started preparing dinner.

A few hours later, as we cuddled in bed reading books, my son told me his neck hurt. Thinking, “Maybe he slept funny on it on the couch,” I told him a good night’s sleep would make it feel better, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and turned out the light.

It was not until I started getting ready for bed myself, after the hustle and bustle of the day had subsided, that my brain started connecting some dots.  “A usually healthy and active boy who is suddenly tired with a sore neck… wait, isn’t there a serious illness connected with a sore neck?” These thoughts sent me to Google and then to WebMD to learn more about the signs of meningitis. I tiptoed back upstairs and into my son’s room, laying the back of my hand on his forehead to see if he had a temperature, which he did not. He was sleeping soundly and looked perfectly peaceful.

I wish I could say the same for my next few hours in bed. Despite a fairly strong intellectual sense that my son was not, in fact, sick with anything serious, I could not help but think, “What if he is ill and I do not do anything about it? What if I find him unconscious in the morning… or worse? What kind of mother would I be?” I was in an anxiety spiral, with negative, unlikely, and even macabre thoughts stacking upon each other and driving me upstairs multiple times to stick my hand in front of my son’s nose to feel the warm breath that signaled his life. Eventually, by what felt like some quotidian miracle, it occurred to me that the only thing to do was to pray. So I recited the Serenity Prayer over and over until I eventually fell into a restless sleep.

At a time when anxiety seems to be on the rise in our society, we might chuckle at Jesus’ rhetorical question in this week’s Gospel as to whether any of us can add a minute to our lives by worrying. Certainly, we know in our heads that worrying will not lengthen our lives (and we likely have been exposed to countless articles telling us that it actually will have the opposite effect), but we might also question in our hearts whether we will still be good parents, partners, employees, citizens, and people if we attempt to put an end to the anxiety spirals. Will the world still spin if we ourselves stop spinning in anxiety?

Jesus’ answer to this is very clear: the world will go on even if we stop worrying since it is God who controls the world in the first place, not us. Easy enough to say, harder to live into. In my experience, this is where prayer comes in. The act of praying invokes a greater power in the universe, reminding us that we are only human and in control of very little in our lives. Far from increasing our anxiety, prayer can help us identify that which we can change in our lives and in our world and that which we need to give over to God for safe keeping. Maybe with Lent approaching we all need to strive to give up  and give over to God some of our needless worrying and to redirect our energy to strengthening our relationship to God, the One whom Jesus assures us will provide for our needs.


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