The Good News Reimagined

For three years, Jesus walked with and taught his disciples. He dared to love those cast aside by society. He healed the sick, turned unbelieving hearts toward God, and challenged those who believed they held the ultimate power.

The problem was that his disciples wanted to follow him on their terms. But, time and again, they failed.  Why? Their desire to change was ever frustrated by their inability to know God as Jesus knew him. Their frame of reference for God’s love was within the realm of deserving and undeserving. It was something they could control through their actions.

In Jesus’ Passion and death, they witnessed his total self-giving to his Father. So likewise, God revealed his radically gratuitous love for his Son, the disciples, and us through the resurrection. Though that love is given freely, it calls for a response from us. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why we, like the Israelites, settle at the foot of the mountain in a comfortable, risk-free faith. “Nuh-uh, I ain’t goin’ up  there!”

Before Jesus’ crucifixion, all of his wishy-washy disciples ran away in fear of meeting the same fate. (Just a little reminder here: the women stayed! You know that, right? Power to the women!) Anyway, the manly men finally came out of hiding and ran headlong into Jesus transfigured. There was now no denying that what they witnessed they were compelled to share with a lost and hurting world. That reality released within them an unshakable love beyond their human capacity.

Can we possibly grasp the implications of that love in our own lives? We zealously take care of “number one” in a world laden with mistrust and fear. How does that correlate with the fact that we were made in the image of God? It doesn’t.

As Christians, we too, were created anew by the resurrection and empowered by the Holy Spirit. That is Good News! And we have a mandate to take that Good News into the world. If fear holds us back, it is grounded in the denial of who we are. God’s sacrificial love is meant for all, and I am to be an instrument of that love, or my faith response is inadequate.

Confession time. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be an “instrument” of God’s love on my own terms, just like the disciples, and I blew it – big time – just like they did! But I’m still breathing, so I still have time for a course correction. Sooooo, let me get all my “stuff” out there now and pray for that clean slate God is so good at freely offering us. You might want to fasten your seatbelt!

You see, I always felt the need for certitude about something, anything, in my messed up, confused, and broken life, but I wasn’t sure about trusting that to God. I mean, up to that point, he didn’t seem to pay any mind to me or my trials. So, I was convinced I was screaming into an echo chamber when I complained about the raw deal life handed me. It sucked for real! So, I went about creating a new and different me, and it seemed to work just fine – on the outside – for a while.

After my husband and I were married, I became a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church. Then with a cross around my neck and a big fish on the bumper of my car, I sat and waited for the angels to break out in song. It never happened. I never got so much as a thumbs up or atta girl.

For several years after my official dunking, I still lived in a state of doubt, always questioning the very essence of my faith. I read the Bible from front to back even though my eyes glazed over, trying to wrestle with the Old Testament. Still, I came away from that experience believing I now knew everything about everything God, Jesus, Spirit, and leprechauns (Okay, not leprechauns, I just threw that in to see if you were paying attention), but God, Jesus, and Spirit, yes!

I was also good at making you look bad to make me look better. I could easily admonish you for all your faults and failures without skipping a beat. I could even quote scripture verses to shore up my convictions. “Oh yeah, you think you’re a shoo-in for heaven? Well, I’ve got news for you – you’re screwed. Matthew says so, ‘For the gate is narrow, and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few – very few – almost no one!’” (Matt. 7:13–14). I hate to tell you (NOT!), but this is not your lucky day, and tomorrow ain’t lookin’ too good either if you don’t change your ways! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re welcome!

Jesus side-eyed me for my attitude more times than I care to admit!

Then, one fine day in 2006, I was accepted into a graduate program at Aquinas Institute of Theology! Yeah, surprised the hell out of me too! Now, I thought I would have even more ammunition in my arsenal to judge and condemn others while promoting myself. Sweet! I have shared my experiences at Aquinas in previous posts. So, let me just say that, like Paul, I was knocked off my high horse and taken to task because of an arrogant assessment of myself. It was not pretty.

Since I am very stubborn and hard-headed (duh), my transformation was is, very slow. Truth be told, I muddled along for several years after graduation trying to sustain my convictions. After all, who would I be if not this person I created to shore up my sense of self, albeit a very fragile and false self?

So I trudged along searching – for what? I didn’t know. Longing for something out there that could give my life meaning. I tried desperately to fill the void. I left the Catholic Church in frustration and wandered into other Christian churches. Some sent me running out the door with my hair on fire! Why was I struggling to find a faith with the correct beliefs that spoke to me? For a moment, I considered communing alone with nature! Then I saw St. John the Baptist running naked in the woods, eating bugs and swatting mosquitoes! No thanks.

And then – my glorious and long overdue AHA moment arrived at my doorstep unannounced. In my search for a belief system that I could buy into, I suddenly realized what I was actually longing for. At that moment, experience and dogma clashed head-on, and I understood that I wasn’t searching for correct beliefs. That has never been what drew me to God. The experiences along the way showed me God’s love beyond anything I had ever known. It just took this long to accept that God could love me like that. Experiencing God in relationship, not knowledge of God, wells up within the very depth of our hearts – where he resides. I was finally home within my very being – where my deepest longing and hunger reside.

I could beat myself up for all the years I wasted wanting faith on my terms, but God has spoken tenderly into my brokenness and heartache. That voice was not a voice of condemnation that I was taught to believe was God’s. It’s not helpful that we are reminded every Lenten season that he had his beloved Son killed because of our wretchedness. NO! I believe Jesus was killed by a power structure that feared him. He lived a life that he had to know would get him killed, but he did it anyway out of a self-giving love at the core of his being.

I now trust that the God I long to surrender to also longs for me. The God who knew his Son would suffer terribly and die showed us his unwavering love and mercy, compassion, and forgiveness in the person of Jesus. John 15:12-13 tells us: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Seeing Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the context of John’s gospel of love has cast a new and beautiful light on what I now see when he says, “I am the way”. His life and love show me that if I follow in his way, I will be living my purpose: to love unconditionally, serve where I am called, and offer freely the same forgiveness and mercy God has shown me.

The Easter question for us becomes, “What do you believe about me?” What I say I believe must manifest itself in the way I live my life, or it is a lie.

A Blessed Easter to you all!

A Drop in Vegetable Sales Ushers in Lent

And so it begins – another Lent – when we give up peas and spinach (my husband’s favorite sacrifice) but not our belief that we are such wretched souls that a vindictive God demanded the death of his Son to fix our sorry selves.

A bait-and-switch tactic if you ask me. Which is kinda genius if it weren’t for the fact that God knows us witless humans all too well. I mean, it’s not like all of humankind did an immediate about-face and never sinned again. If God really devised this plan (which I don’t believe) to correct the stupidity of Adam and Eve, it didn’t work. We have continued to sin and fall short of the glory of God. So, what would have been the point?

Wouldn’t that supposed “plan” of his have rendered him incapable of running the Universe? Wouldn’t a higher-up call him into their office on Monday morning to make an accounting for his actions? “I’m sorry to inform you that the Board has decided to replace you. You’re fired. Please turn in your badge and keys now. Also, I would recommend you not use us as a reference on a resume for future employment.”

Still, as crazy as it all seems to me, many Christians just can’t seem to let go of the belief that God sent his beloved Son to die for our wretchedness. That belief makes no demands on us. It’s a bit like believing “fortified” Froot Loops are healthy because it says so right on the box. No kids – they’re NOT! So spit them out and go get your mother. I want to have a heart-to-heart with her. Then, if the conversation goes as planned, be prepared for a plate full of broccoli tomorrow morning. If not, you can have your crappy Fruit Loops back!

But I digress…

I hate to admit that I was also comfortable in that “God the Mighty Judge” belief for many years. But eventually, it became impossible for me to accept in light of the God I grew to know intimately. How can anyone “know” God, you ask? Well, “knowledge” of God’s love will never get you there. It’s only when you experience that love within the very depth of your heart.

Jesus’ Passion should declare the unbridled love of God for us. The cross should upend any denial that he loves us deeply and obsessively. But, as Hebrews 10:31 tells us, “It’s just way too scary to fall into the hands of the living God” (loose translation). That is not a god we want to snuggle up to. We prefer a god like that unpredictable, crazy uncle we keep at a distance. Genesis 3:8 insists that Adam and Eve ran and hid from that god!

Every year, Lent calls us to look at the cross differently. It’s a perpetual life lesson that keeps showing up forty days a year, every single year, until we “get it”! Sadly, many don’t. Will we ever wake up to the beauty of the cross that goes beyond Jesus’ suffering? I believe that can only be possible through the eyes of faith – illuminated by the grace of a tender, loving God.

For that to happen, we must be willing to fix an unwavering gaze on the cross and realize the true meaning of Jesus’ Passion. We must embrace with faith – even if it’s a bit shaky – the reality that the crucifixion on Friday and the empty tomb on Saturday were necessary for the revelation of the profound mystery that is God manifest through Jesus on Easter Sunday.

My prayer is that you and your loved ones have a very blessed Easter!

2020 Vision

The Lord gives us eyes to see, really see, IF (big if) we are willing, open, and present to him.

For too long, we have cast God aside for our own wants and desires, striving for ambitions and material obsessions. Things we thought we couldn’t live without may have hindered our ability to survive what is surely coming.

As I write this, the coronavirus is rearing its ugly head in every area of our lives, but I would like to focus here on one area – churches are closed all over the country.

Oh no…

This can’t be…

It’s Lent…

What will we do?

God must be beside Himself knowing we aren’t sitting in pews praying.

Or is he?

That depends on how we live our new reality, which runs the full spectrum from those who are frightened and immovable to many who seem indifferent.

Yes, these already are, and will continue to be, trying times as we suffer the physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic impact unlike anything we have ever known.

But, hold on…don’t leave me for a stiff drink yet! I have GOOD NEWS. Really!

Here we are, experiencing one of the worst disasters we have ever known in the holiest season of Lent. We have no idea what the outcome of the virus will be, but we do know how the Passion of Christ plays out.  So, let me ask you a question: what has your celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant to you up until now? (To make this work, you have to be brutally honest. Okay?)

Many faiths observe various practices during Lent. The Catholic Church has requirements and suggestions for observing this season. Over the years, some of those “requirements” have become “suggestions”.  For instance, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence unless you’re old like me. Daily Mass, prayer, Scripture readings, traditional Lenten Devotions, sharing our abundance with the poor, and throwing in a confession somewhere are all strongly recommended.

Oh yeah, and then there’s that pesky self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification,” which in no way should be misconstrued as self-flagellation, an extreme practice of physical self-punishment that somehow, since medieval times, has been thought to imitate Christ’s suffering. Don’t do that!

Mortification actually means “cause death to our self-will,” which is what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mat 16:24). When we surrender our self-will we are imitating Christ. Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).

So, let’s take an honest look at our individual observances of Lent, shall we? Then we’ll break down the three phases of The Passion in the context of today’s reality. I’ll go first.

  • I used to love fish fry’s when I was still a beer drinker and less concerned about recycled hydrogenated oil – YUCK!
  • I used to go to confession until, on two separate occasions, two different priests each said something totally inappropriate. I never went back.
  • I regularly do Intermittent Fasting for my health, but my “spiritual” fasting practices are pathetic…okay, non-existent.
  • Going to Mass always felt like a requirement to have my card punched once a week. Sort of like getting that sticker, “I voted” or “I Gave Blood”.

When I outgrew the fear instilled in me by the powers-that-e within the Church, I grew into a different person, a better person, hopefully. I quit “volunteering” to impress others and started to actually care about my suffering brothers and sisters. Which, in turn, led me to my life’s purpose.

I gave up my ambition of being the “Catholic Woman of the Year” or Saint Linda and began seeking God’s purpose for me. But, of course, I had no idea what that purpose was. He seemed a bit wiser than I always imagined myself to be.

Fear of going to hell when I dropped dead got me to church most Sundays. It would be like sitting in that confessional, spewing out mediocre sins to get my ticket to heaven.

Then I discovered this definition of hell: “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.” Gian Carlo Menotti…OUCH!

Okay, guys, I’m standing here with my sins uncovered. It’s your turn. Don’t worry no one’s going to call you out. You don’t have to expose yourself to judgment like I just did. Just take a quiet moment to think about it and then we’ll move on. Go ahead I’ll wait right here.

Okay, so, Pope Francis offered some powerful words to consider this Lent, “Jesus’ Pasch is not a past event; rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit it is ever present, enabling us to see and touch with faith the flesh of Christ in those who suffer.”  

And there it is.

God has been making this call to us since Jesus walked the earth; the call to get off our backsides and care for the poor and suffering among us. He was here in the flesh to show us how that should be done. And how do we respond today? There are many who heed that call, some just half-halfheartedly drop coins in a beggar’s hat”, while some simply aren’t listening. Not much has changed in two thousand-some-odd years I suppose.

Now, let’s consider the three phases of Jesus’ Passion: His life, death, and resurrection, in light of our call to imitate him.

  • His life: Of his thirty-three years here (give or take a few), on the surface, it appears that only the last three were spent fulfilling his purpose. Three years. That’s it. I’m seventy-one and hate to admit that I have probably wasted at least sixty of it. But, Jesus wasn’t wasting his life. He was growing into his purpose.

When I look back on my life: all the mistakes and missteps, the hurt inflicted on me and by me, the selfishness and rejection, there would have been no way for me to be all God created me to be because I didn’t even know who that was. But, I do now! I don’t know how much time I have left here. But it doesn’t matter because time has no meaning for God, so it shouldn’t for us either. Each day is a new opportunity to bring Christ to our suffering brothers and sisters. And it isn’t just a privilege; it’s a responsibility we all have.

  • His death: Jesus knew that his constant presence was a threat to the status quo. He knew that every choice he made to expose the rich and powerful of his day would risk his very life. That became more and more clear as he pushed against the power that held sway over the most vulnerable and lost. He didn’t hold back from calling them out with choice words to describe them even though it surely sealed his fate: Hypocrites, brood of vipers, prideful, whitewashed tombs, legalists disguising an inner corruption. “They preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). His death was inevitable.

Most of us will not be called to sacrifice our lives, but we are all called to die to our self-will so that we can be used by God in whatever way he has already predetermined. That might just mean having the courage to step into what will likely be uncomfortable, probably risky, even scary. And expect it to be a wild adventure because God doesn’t do ordinary! (You know that, right?)

  • His resurrection: When Jesus died everyone believed they would be returning to their ordinary, mundane lives. Alrighty then, that was a wild and crazy ride! We could liken it to that special vacation we always dreamed about and finally got to experience. The difference is that we probably have pictures to reminisce over; they got nothing, not even a stinkin’ T-shirt for heaven’s sake.

Anyway, when Mary and the girls got to the tomb they were met with, “Surprise! He isn’t here!!” And when he showed up at the disciple’s pity party later, they were all overwhelmed with fear. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they discovered within themselves a determination and fervor that would send them out sharing the Love of Christ with anyone with ears to hear. With the exception of John, they were martyred for their willingness to go when God said “GO!”

And for us? Resurrection, I believe, does not mean a new birth, but a “rebirth”. It means returning to our original holiness. God created us with Love, for Love. But, we have somehow lost our way. Saying “yes” to God means saying “yes” to our true selves and “no” to the lies we have believed about our unworthiness.

Jesus’ Passion was a seeming disaster turned to triumph. The conventional thinking of our time is that we can’t handle tragedy and suffering; that we will fall apart and resort to some sort of primal survival instinct. Though I suppose as we watch people claw each other to death for toilet paper some could make the case for that belief. But, I choose to look instead at the myriad examples of people who have shown love and compassion, and hope in disasters. Countless studies have borne witness to the fact that most people are altruistic, not barbaric. And out of the ashes of disaster comes the gift of the blessedness and fullness of our humanity. Yes, you and I are our brother’s keeper! It’s in our DNA

This, my dear friends can be a turning point in what we believe about ourselves and our neighbor; of what we are capable of in the face of fear and uncertainty if we trust in the divinity of our very souls where God resides and where we live and move and have our being. What you believe right now will determine how you act. So, it’s time to believe and act like you and everyone around you; friend or stranger, are beloved and precious children of God.

In our new coronavirus reality, we need to do away with “practicing” our faith and get to the business of “doing” faith. And how better to begin than to be kicked out of our comfortable pews, locked out of the church, and sent on a new meaningful, mystical, and mighty mission?!

GO ON NOW! And fear not. Remember the immortal words of Esther when Mordecai told her that her people were going to perish if she didn’t do something. Then he said to her, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”  And what was Esther’s reply without hesitation? “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:14 – 5:16)

As I write these words I fully understand that none of us have any idea how this will turn out. But, I do know this – God does not cause such tragedy (so get that idea out of your head), but he will use it for good!

God is our steady strength. He will not abandon us. He hears our prayers and tells us: “Don’t be afraid!”

I love this quote by Rebecca Solnit, “Disaster could be called a crash course in Buddhist principles of compassion for all beings, of non-attachment, of abandoning the illusion of one’s sense of separateness, of being fully present, and of fearlessness…in the face of uncertainty.”

My prayer is that we will take on that mantel of courage and faith now, whatever that looks like, wherever we are.

So, hang in there, pray, wash your hands, and take care of your neighbor!

lord bless and keep you