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?

Today’s Word: Gaze

Da’an Forest Park, Taipei. SJG Photo.

We spend so much of our lives creating and maintaining the person that our friends, family and co-workers see. This is the “self” of our upbringing, education and career, as well as of the myriad of other roles we take on — parent, spouse, church member, little league coach, employee or boss or volunteer. This is the self that becomes what people say about us: Nice guy or jerk, selfish or generous, authentic or fake. This is, to a great extent, how we will be remembered when we’re gone. But who are we, really?

St. Ignatius suggests that we always begin prayer by becoming “aware of God aware of me.” Caught in this mutual gaze of adoration (for surely God adores us even more than we adore God), we begin to find our true selves. Aware of God’s gaze, we can have the confidence to be our true selves before God, taking off the masks that we often put on just to make it through our days in all of the different roles that we must play.

There is nothing wrong in playing roles. We have mortgages or rent to pay. We have family obligations to meet. We have passions to pursue. But all of these will fade with time and we will find ourselves alone before God, who cares little for our masks and greatly for our naked souls. So we must ask ourselves, to which of our selves do we give the most attention and time? Which of our selves do we feed most often?

If we’re not sure how to answer that question, we need to spend more time in God’s gaze. For only that time of solitude and prayer will remind us of our true selves, as writer and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “I am who I am in God’s eyes, nothing more and nothing less. This is the serenity and the freedom of the saints.”

Ask yourself in silence: How much time do I give to nurturing my true self that is held in God’s gaze? How much time do I give to nurturing my career and the rest of my life? Do I need to readjust my priorities in any way?

Today’s Word: Shaped

Taroko Gorge National Park, Taiwan. SJG Photo.

A few weeks ago, I visited Taroko Gorge National Park in Taiwan, a beautiful forest green and marble white region in the northeast part of the Island. The views were breathtaking, and on one of our stops I found myself staring down into the gorge near the area where the Laoxi River flows from the marble valley into the Liwu River. There, the unrelenting flow of the river cuts and shapes the marble and limestone ever so slowly, as it has for millions of years. It is this constant, slow force and flow that made and continues to make the gorge what it is, slightly different with each passing day and yet seemingly unchanged to even watchful eyes.

So, too, are we shaped and formed by the flow and presence of God through our lives. Like watching an infant grow, it is nearly impossible to see the distinct changes that are happening on a daily basis, but nevertheless we are being carved out of the stone of human existence, shaped by sacred waters into something beloved by the creator. This shaping happens whether we recognize it or not, pay attention or not, believe in the carver or not. We are shaped through no effort of our own for, despite what pop psychology might want to teach us, we cannot change our true, inner selves. We can play with our exterior, surface selves that the world judges to be “us,” but only the gentle, unrelenting will and grace of God can shape and change our true, inner selves. For we are not God, no matter how we have been changed by the divine power that flows through us. God re-creates us with each passing day, ever so slightly made less so that we might be more for others.

Ask yourself in silence: How has God’s presence and power changed my life over time?

Today’s Word: Calm

Calm on Rice Lake, Wisconsin. SJG Photo.

And then there was that time when we were fishing and a storm kicked up and we thought we were all going to be thrown into the sea. Jesus, as we had come to expect, was sleeping in the front of the boat. He never cared much for the actual work of fishing, although it seemed he always knew where to throw the nets to catch the most fish, so he was useful to have around. Anyway, there he was sleeping right in the middle of this raging storm and we didn’t know what to do.

I’m not sure he was entirely happy to be woken up by our screams for help, but he stood up and looked around, as if the whole thing was just a gnat on his arm. He looked at us and smiled a smile that seemed to say, “When will you believe in me? When will you have a little faith?” Then he just held up a hand and, as if speaking to one of us, whispered, “Stop. Just stop.” And then a calm came over the sea and over us. It was a calm I had never felt before and I thought, “what kind of man is this, that even winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27)

Storms come and go in our lives. They happen to us and to those around us. These storms test us and shake us and sometimes break our hearts and weather our faith. People die and leave huge holes in our lives where they used to be. Our faith in God does not take away the storms, for they rain down on us all, believers and unbelievers alike.

The difference is the presence in the boat. For we who believe, Christ is there in the bow of the boat of our lives, wrapped in a blanket and waiting for us to wake him and ask for help. And he will arise at just the moment we need him most, stretching out his hands and whispering, “stop,” and calming the sea at least enough so that we can make it back to shore, a way through the storm to safe harbor. And that’s enough, has to be enough, because it is all we need.

Ask yourself in silence: When was my last storm? Am I in the midst of one right now? And where is Jesus?

Today’s Word: Offering

Dried fish in Hong Kong market. SJG photo.

(Based on John 6:1-15)

I was sent to the market by my mother with very clear instructions: Buy five small barley loaves and two dried and salted fish. Nothing more. And come right back home. I was only 12 at the time, so I never could have imagined how much my life would change that day…

I was walking home from the market along the shore of the Galilee when I saw a crowd gathering, pointing toward a small boat just then coming ashore. As it beached, a couple of the men in the boat jumped out and hauled it the rest of the way in, away from the tide. They were fisherman, and I could smell the fish in their nets and on their clothes. People just kept coming and coming, running along the shore and from the market square, and I kept hearing one name over and over — Jesus. Jesus is here. The rabbi, the healer, the prophet. I had no idea who this man was, had never heard his name before. But here he was standing in front of me, the one that everyone else deferred to, pointed at, sought to get closer to. And I was right there, a pretty exciting thing for a kid from a small fishing village.

Read the rest of Today’s Word: Offering »

Today’s Word: Climb

Climbing up for a better view. Jon and Jess at Joshua Tree National Park. SJG photo.

Since I was a child, I Ioved the story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19: 1-10) of Zacchaeus the tax collector who, because he was so short, ran ahead of the crowd following Jesus and did a surprising, almost childlike thing — he climbed a Sycamore tree so he could get a better view and try to get Jesus’ attention. The child in me could relate, especially because I was a “wee little one” and always one of the smallest in my class until I was about 15 and had a growth spurt. Some of you will, indeed, remember this childhood Sunday School song:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down.”
For I’m going to your house today…for I’m going to your house today.

Zacchaeus is rewarded for his effort. Jesus sees him, calls him by name, and then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. This leaves the crowd stunned, for Jesus does something we will see him do over and over in the scriptures: He dines with sinners. He prefers the company of those who need him and his healing and transforming ways to the pious and self-righteous who just want to be seen in his company.

Today, I pray that my inmost desire is still the view from that tree, sitting in that gnarly crook awaiting the one who knows me by name, knows all of my shortcomings and failures and loves and accepts me as I am. It is my passionate desire to hear that voice say, “Come, let’s spend some time together,” because I know that time of presence can take away all my other false and misplaced desires. To hear my name called by the one who created me is to know I am loved; it is to know my purpose, my foundation.

Ask yourself in silence: What do I need to overcome and rise above in order to see Jesus more clearly? What’s blocking my view of God?