Today’s Word: Afraid

My son Jon, around 1988, at my parents' grave. SJG photo.

One of the most often-repeated statements in the Bible is some version of “Be not afraid,” and it is usually said to humans when they are about to encounter the divine. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says, “it’s just something you’ve never seen before, something you can’t fathom, something that will both scare you and change your life. That’s all.”

What God says with “be not afraid” is not, “don’t worry, everything will always be okay. Your children will always be safe, your parents will never die, and you will always be healthy.” That’s not the fear and hurt from which God delivers us. That would be an empty promise, indeed, for we all know that those heart-rending moments are a part of life. The fear that God delivers us from is the fear of being alone and helpless when these things happen. That life is fragile and always ends in physical death and separation from those we love is one of the harshest realities we learn.

But “be not afraid” offers hope and a glimpse behind the temporal confines of life and death. “Be not afraid” says there is more, and that “more” is grace-filled love, mercy and a new kind of life that doesn’t end and bring grief. “Be not afraid” asks us to look beyond what we can see and believe beyond what we cannot see. “Be not afraid” suggests that we grasp the hand of God when it is offered, which is always and everywhere, even and especially at the depths of our worry and fear.

None of this is easy, but we never have to go it alone, and through Christ we can possess a hope and a faith that leads us to a different kind of beyond.

Ask yourself in silence: What am I afraid of? (Really, make a list.) Which of these things are beyond the touch and love of God?

Today’s Word: Quiet

Standing quiet sentinel. SJG Photo.

We live in a world where we really have to purposefully “unplug” and plan our days accordingly if we want to find even a moment or two of silence. Unless we live far away from the human-driven noise pollution of the cities and suburbs, these moments of quiet can be hard to come by. And because we don’t experience them often, we sometimes forget what to do with silence when we finally find ourselves in the midst of it. Quiet can drive us crazy if we don’t see it coming. Some folks can’t stand to NOT have the TV or radio on because they need something to tell them that they are alive and not alone.

But if we can learn to nurture quiet in our lives and seek it out on a regular basis, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by it and all that it holds. And what does it hold? It holds a better realization of our most authentic selves. It holds the opportunity to listen to our own hearts beating and feel the breathing in and breathing out of our very beings. It holds awareness of God, of the One who was and is and always will be, the One who sees and knows us just as we are and welcomes and loves us anyway. It holds a message of meaning and purpose and call. It holds everything that matters, but only if we can quiet ourselves enough to listen.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s the role of quiet in my life? Do I run from it or embrace it?

Today’s Word: Enough

"Enough" in a Sedona sunset. SJG photo.

We seem to live in a world of “never enough.” That’s certainly what television, movies and advertising tell us. No matter how much we have, a little (or a lot) more would be better. We are told over and over (whether we think we’re listening or not): “You will never be truly fulfilled and happy until you get that one job, that one car, that one house. Then you’ll be happy and have all you need.”

Except it’s all a lie created to make us want even more. There’s no way out of that cycle of greed and “not enough” if we stay inside it. Those who create it make sure of that. If we’re not careful, if we don’t learn to find our “enough” in something that lasts, there will always be something knocking on the door of our hearts saying, “more, more, better, better.”

But we do, in fact, have access to enough. Henri Nouwen wrote that he often prayed a prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “Solo Dios bastia.” (“God alone is enough.”) Praying these words slowly and out loud helped him enter into God’s presence, he wrote, “where there is peace and certainty that God is always with me and loves me.” (Nouwen, Discernment, p. 27). The whole text of Teresa’s prayer is:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
Those who cling to God
will lack nothing.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
God alone is enough.

Or, if you like your poetry a little more modern, how about these words from contemporary worship songwriter Chris Tomlin?

All of you is more than enough for all of me.
For every thirst and every need.
You satisfy me with your love.
And all I have in you is more than enough.

This is the call and challenge of the Christian life, to find in God — Father, Son and Spirit — all that we need, our daily bread and cup of sustenance. For our thirst and hunger for the “more” of this world can only truly be filled by the One who transcends all time, the One who brought all into being and continues to move and work among us.

Ask yourself in silence: What “enough” do I need to let go of so I can cling more firmly to the “enough” that God offers freely and completely?

Today’s Word: Fallow

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, Springfield, Mo. SJG photo.

Yesterday I shared with my spiritual direction peer supervision group that the last month or so I have experienced a lack of energy to do the things I really want to do. Following a period of intense prayer and productivity (I just finished a nine-month Ignatian 19th annotation retreat and a graduate program in spiritual direction) I was experiencing difficulty and dryness in both prayer and writing.

At that point, one of my wise colleagues pointed out the need to “remain fallow” once in a while, to step back from even the best of things in order to replenish ourselves. When I looked up the definition of fallow, I was amazed at how well it matched my own situation:

Fallow: Plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.

The truth is, I all too often equate my spiritual health with what I am “doing.” How many blog posts? How many pages in my journal? How’s that book project coming along? The planning for next fall’s retreat? These are all important things that need to get done, but they need to flow from my “down time” with God. They are the result of silence and prayer, not the source.

What I’ve come to realize is that it’s okay to not be productive for a while (and that’s a tough one for me). It’s okay to simply sit “fallow” with God in prayer, without agenda or even words, knowing that God is plowing and harrowing me, leaving me unsown in order to restore my fruitfulness at the time only God controls. God’s work, God’s time.

Ask yourself in silence: Do I need to make some time to just “be” with God?

Today’s Word: Plant

Basil-pesto-pasta-party. All in good time.

As a child, I watched my father plant his annual vegetable garden in our backyard in urban north St. Louis. It wasn’t a big garden (perhaps 15×30 feet), but he went about the whole thing methodically and with a sense of hope for what the garden would bring. For that’s what planting a garden is all about – it’s about hope and faith, about knowing that when we plant a seed or put a small plant in the ground it will eventually become so much more.

I’ve never been much of a gardener, although something within me desperately wants to be. But about a month ago I planted a tomato plant and some herbs (basil and oregano) in containers on our back deck, the place we most like to spend time during the summer. And as I planted and watered, I realized that what I was most looking forward to was the feast – I looked ahead to that day when I would turn the basil into pesto, make one of my favorite pasta dishes, and then cut open a beautiful ripe tomato and garnish it with some fresh oregano. I saw beyond the plants to a table surrounded by friends savoring the meal. That’s the beauty of growing your own food, even on such a small scale. What we plant, we get to enjoy and share.

And so it is with all good things we bring into our lives. We get to choose these things. We decide what goes in our favorite places and how much time we will give them. But it’s our responsibility to choose well, to select things that bring long-term joy, that do no harm, that create life and shared experiences with others. On numerous occasions in the Gospels, Jesus uses the metaphor of the seed to remind us of all that is good and all that comes from him. The kingdom of God ­­— which lives in our hearts right now and extends into our eternal future — is a seed that must be planted and cared for. It is the word of God and the body of Christ in all its forms (scripture, family, community, Eucharist) that lives and grows around us, moving us always toward a feast that we cannot quite imagine and yet continue to hope and long for.

Ask yourself in silence: What am I planting in my life that will lead to a feast?

Between the Lines: Holy Week, crucified.

Stations of the Cross at La Salle Retreat Center, Glencoe, MO. SJG photo.

Last night, sitting in church for the Good Friday service, what kept running through my mind were those words we are asked to shout out, as if we, too, bear some responsibility for his death: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And I wondered what it must have felt like to hear your own death proclaimed, your fate sealed by a mob…

I suspected it was coming, I suppose, but I kept silently hoping for a reprieve, for them all to come to their senses and realize what they were doing to an innocent man. I kept hoping for the best that was in them to come out, for the spirit of God to come alive in them so they could see the truth before them. But I heard instead my death sentence, a proclamation that resonated within the people and echoed off the stone of the city.

I looked up at them as they cried out and wondered where the fear and hatred came from. What is it in me that threatened them so? These were my people — God’s chosen ones who had been promised a Messiah — and yet they were unwilling or unable to believe because I didn’t fit their expectations. When the truth of the promise stood before them, dripping with sweat and blood, they decided it was easier to fall back on what they knew for sure. Perhaps I cannot blame them for that, so I will not. Perhaps I was to them just one more failed and false prophet, threatening their relationship with a God who had seen them through some very dark and difficult times. Why rock the boat? Why believe in me?

But that word — crucify — is so vulgar and cold and harsh, so filled with a hatred that I could not imagine, so foreign from the idea of a powerfully loving God, so opposite of what I had been trying to teach them all. But even in that moment I knew that this evil and violent way would be the way for many, that the cry of “death” and “kill” in many different languages and cultures would echo down through history, depriving so many of simple joy and peace of mind and existence.

This day is so far removed and so estranged from the love that my Father has for all of these people. It is the absence of God in their hearts — even though God can never be truly absent — that fills them today, for the absence of God will always be filled by some other thing, a void that demands response, an itch that must be scratched.

O Jerusalem, I weep for you and your children.

Ask yourself in silence: What do you put in God’s place in your moments of confusion or weakness?

Between the Lines: Holy Week, betrayed

Jesus bound. Stations of the Cross at La Salle Retreat Center, Glencoe, Mo. SJG photo.

Matthew 26:30-56 is a deathwatch, the story of Jesus’ last night with his disciples and his time of intense prayer and, ultimately, betrayal. In between the lines of description and dialogue, I imagined what might have been going through Jesus’ mind and heart…

After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives…

That was nice. I like singing with these men, like the way our voices sound together. This may be the last time we are so unified. This is going to be a long, hard night, and I could make a long list of all the other things I would rather be doing. I have become attached to this world and these people. Every step along this path brings me closer to the reality that I would rather not face.

“This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken…”

This is going to be hard on all of you, I know. Perhaps especially you, Peter. You are so sure of yourself, so confident you can withstand whatever’s coming. But you don’t get it yet, cannot begin to fathom the terror of seeing me taken away and fearing for your own life. You will emerge stronger, but not before you are taken down a few notches. It will take time and you will disappoint yourself and me along the way.

“Sit here while I go over there and pray…”

Here we go, this is the beginning of the end. I’m not sure I’m ready for this, either. I must pray, must take all this to my Father. I am grateful for those who have risked all to follow me, thankful they are here with me, even if the weight of the fear and the lateness of the hour lulls them into sleep. Take this from me…take this away if it’s your will. But only then.

“Could you not keep watch with me one hour?”

Come on, fight off the sleep. Be in prayer with me. Ask God for the strength to bear it all and stay awake. Asleep again (and again)? Maybe I picked the wrong men. Maybe. But no, they are the right ones, or they will become the right ones after a time of cleansing and rebirth. After I send my spirit they will become what I need them to be.

“Look, my betrayer is at hand…”

Oh, Judas. This has all fallen to you somehow. This is the beginning of your end, too. Have I somehow betrayed you, too? Have I given you reason to do this, shaken your safe little world with my truth?

“Friend, do what you have come for…”

I have never been handled like this before, have never felt the pull of strong arms or felt the cold of metal chains, never experienced the fear of swords and spears. You call me Rabbi, Judas, and yet I wonder what you have learned from me. Not enough or not the right things, I suppose. Where did I go wrong with you? When did you begin to interpret my lessons of love and forgiveness as threats to power? They are not that, you know. They are invitations to a new kind of freedom. For my love is inclusive, is for all, despite what others will do to my message for generations to come. Many will twist it for their own gain and power, just as you are doing now. Thirty pieces of silver or privilege or political power, it’s all the same. All blood money. You are weak, but you are not alone in that. I came for just those like you. You are only the first to betray me.

This saddens me beyond all else. This “way” I have started will continue and it will eventually splinter because so many will get it wrong, will betray me. And those who would otherwise be attracted to my good news of love will be left scratching their heads and wondering why this way is good at all, for there is nothing good in this skewing and betrayal of my words and life.

The goal for all must be a return to my words and actions, to the truth that lies at the core of my life. But many will never find that, even though they think they own the truth, because they will spend their lives hating and killing and isolating in my name. I am not in their hearts and they are not in mine. This is what makes me saddest as I stand here in chains — not that I will suffer and die but that so many will fail to understand my message. That is the great betrayal.

So go ahead and flee. I am alone anyway.

Ask yourself in silence: How have I betrayed Jesus?

Between the Lines: Holy Week, washing feet.

St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo.

In John 13:1-20, Jesus teaches his disciples a new way of living their lives, in service to others. No doubt he catches them off guard with both the subject and the way he teaches it.  Supper’s over and they’re wondering, “what next?” Perhaps a story, he’s good at that. Perhaps a little more wine. Perhaps a song. But no, Jesus has something else in mind to end their evening together:

“Fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.” (John 13:3-5).

And we wonder, what are you thinking, Jesus? In the midst of all this talk of body and blood and sacred meals you start washing feet…

What I was trying to teach them I am still trying to teach. Some people get it, some refuse to hear what I’m saying because it’s not convenient and falls outside of their understanding of what faith in me means. But the lesson is this: You don’t become like me by belonging to some exclusive inner circle, some elite club, nor by having the correct political views. To become like me, you must learn to strip down your lives to what is essential and give your self in service to others. You must do the jobs others don’t want to do, must risk getting dirty and involved in things you would rather ignore.

You should have seen the looks on their faces as I came around with a towel around my waist and carrying a basin of water. They had no idea — could not comprehend at first — what I was trying to teach them. And even when they figured it, they wanted nothing to do with it. “No, no,” Peter said, “Let me do it to you.” His time would come, but this was my time.

But it eventually came to them, for actions really do speak louder than words. I saw the lights go on in their eyes, like children learning something that is obvious to the rest of us for the first time. They got it: If you love me, serve others and put them first. Do for them what you would really rather not do. Wash their feet. Gently pour water over their hardened soles and get the dirt out from between their toes. Feel their callouses and blisters. Nurse their open wounds. Pat them dry and put their sandals back on so they can continue their journey. This is the kind of servant I need you to be. The first shall be last and the last, first. Be last. And I will draw you to myself in the fullness of time. I will never forget those who forget themselves for the sake of others.

Singer-songwriter Michael Card has a beautiful song about this story called “The Basin and the Towel,” which includes these lines that we should all memorize:

And the call is to community,
The impoverished power that sets the soul free.
In humility, to take the vow,
that day after day we must take up the basin and the towel.

Ask yourself in silence: How am I called to serve others? Where am I holding back because it’s uncomfortable?

Between the Lines: Holy Week, at table

Mosaic at St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo.

In Luke 22:14-20, Jesus yearns to once more eat the supper of unleavened bread with his disciples. In doing so, in sharing the bread and wine, he both recalls the history that made them God’s chosen people and institutes a new meal, one that will forever bind him to his followers of all succeeding generations who gather around a table in communion with him and each other. He gives them something that they cannot earn — only accept and take into themselves — his own body and blood…

I am grieved to be leaving these friends so soon, these men and women who were willing to follow me based on faith, on a sketchy idea that I was something more than a guy from Nazareth. They have been good, loyal friends. One of them will deny me three times within the day and yet be the rock I need to build my church upon when I am no longer here. Another will betray me, but that’s all part of the plan, too. For without that denial and betrayal, and without my death, there is no reason for me to be here among them, as one of them.

I need them to remember me in a special way, and I think this simple and special meal is just the thing. It is sacramental ritual, of course, a physical sign of my invisible truth, but it is also ordinary. It is the most common activity of human life – eating and drinking, drawing sustenance from the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands.

This is a free gift I offer, and anyone who accepts this gift accepts me. That is how I made my way through this world ­­— accepting and ministering to those who came to me just as they were — and I see no reason to change that now. Indeed, no one is worthy to receive me; no one can earn my presence in their lives. I come for the broken and hurting, as well as for those who seemingly have life figured out.

My presence is mine to give, and I give it freely to all who call my name. It would pain me deeply if this meal became something else, something set apart for the elite and the elect, for those who believe they have earned it. I came for the least of these, for the poor, the sick, the confused. I came for those willing to choose a different path of freedom because something deep inside them calls them to do so.

This meal is free. It is me. It is for all.

Ask yourself in silence: Where does this powerful sign of Christ’s true presence in the world sit in my life? At the center or on the edges?

Note: In the “third week” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, we are asked to look into the heart and mind of Jesus during his last days, to have compassion for him (to be “with him in his passion”) and feel as if he might have felt with his world collapsing around him. We are asked to remember three things: that he was fully human in his suffering, that he could have retreated into his divine nature but didn’t, and that he did all this for us.  In these “Between the Lines” reflections during Holy Week, I share some of my imaginings, contemplative glimpses into the story of Christ’s passion that are meant only to pull you further into the story and draw you closer to Christ.

Between the Lines: Holy Week, preparation

St. Augustine, Florida's "Great Cross." SJG photo.

In the “third week” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, we are asked to look into the heart and mind of Jesus during his last days, to have compassion for him (to be “with him in his passion”) and feel as if he might have felt with his world collapsing around him. We are asked to remember three things: that he was fully human in his suffering, that he could have retreated into his divine nature but didn’t, and that he did all this for us.

In the coming days I will share some of my imaginings, contemplative glimpses into the story of Christ’s passion that are meant only to pull you further into the story and draw you closer to Christ. We begin with preparations. In Luke 22:1-13, Jesus and his disciples prepare for Passover and Judas Iscariot makes plans for his betrayal. And we ask ourselves, how might have Jesus felt?

I know the end is coming. I know my followers are faltering and one has even crossed over to the side of those who want me dead. This makes me sad, but I know it’s all part of the Father’s will. If it were not Judas it would just be someone else. But it is Judas, has always been Judas. From the day I called him, he has been moving toward this. I love him deeply, despite what he’s about to do.

So I know what’s coming, can sense what’s about to happen, and I know I need to fortify myself with the ritual of Passover, which carries with it both ancient memory and a new meaning and purpose. This is a new form of worship, an offering of my body and blood, a thanksgiving celebration that will go forward from this day, giving strength and sustenance to all who share in it.

And yet, this is my body that we’re talking about, my passion, suffering and death. There’s no other way around this. Not even my divinity, my connection to my Father, can take a way the pain of being a man facing death. I am afraid of what this will do to my friends, afraid they won’t be able to take it all, afraid that the work and way we have started will cease.

So I am unsure, but I know somehow that there is strength in this meal, this time around the table with my friends. Let’s begin.

Ask yourself in silence: What is this meal, this “last supper” to you?