A High-Wire Act

Because the word of God is what a preacher wrestles with in the pulpit, and because it is a living word, every sermon is God’s creation as well as the creation of the preacher and the congregation. All three participate, with the preacher as the designated voice. It is a delicate job for the one in the pulpit. … If the preacher leans too far one way, he will side with the text against the congregation and deliver a finger-pointing sermon from on high. If the preacher leans too far the other way, she will side with the congregation against the text and deliver a sermon that stops short of encountering God. (The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor, 1993)

It has been well over 20 years that Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the best preachers in the US, penned these words. By now a veteran preacher myself, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Preaching is definitely a high-wire act and not for the faint-hearted. Hard and demanding as it is, however, the work of engaging the Word of God for preaching purposes is both exhilarating and immensely life-giving. You’d think that professional preachers, e.g. priests–ministers–pastors, would gladly take this task to heart every time it’s their turn to break open God’s Word to offer the community a morsel of divine sustenance for the soul.

Curiously, that does not seem to be the case. In his 2013 encyclical The Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis devotes 25 paragraphs, or a whopping 20 pages, to the importance of the homily and how to prepare properly. My hunch is that he wouldn’t have seen the need to spill so much ink over this subject if the quality of preaching was up to Gospel standards.

Back in 2001, when publishing my book on preaching, I wrote:

Soon the preaching course moved beyond my comfort zone. It did not take long before I needed to risk the security of knowing who I was and who I was called to be. The paradox of learning more, and learning more deeply, became apparent. Gaining greater insight into the task of good preaching did not make my listening to Sunday homilies any easier. Developing a critical ear started to spell despair. More often than I care to admit I heard big gaps in Sunday homilies: those featuring the preacher more than God’s Word, those that  kept things too “nice” so as not to offend the listeners, those that divided people easily in “them” and “us” camps, , those that perpetuated gender stereotypes, those that excluded by sheer omission and silence, those used for spreading personal agendas, those that even left God’s Word untouched altogether. Many times I left Mass still hungry, even though I had received Communion. Now I wondered about the reasons for that hunger: there were in fact very few homilies that fed me spiritually. Receiving Communion alone was not sufficient.  I gained some understanding of and sympathy for people who say they “get nothing out of church,” even by those who come with sincere intent and a hungry heart. I felt deep sadness and frustration. I started to harken back to the days of ignorance in the best sense of that word  — it felt more comfortable not to know so much. 

Sadly, I am reminded of these words often and sigh. Take this past weekend. I had prepared my sermon for the Anglicans for Sunday morning, but attended Mass in a Catholic parish on Saturday evening. I was looking forward to the homily on the same Gospel passage, curious as to what the priest would have to say about this tale of two women in Mark’s Gospel (5:21-43). There were a few baptisms and, as a result, a lot of people at church who might not normally attend. But I left church, again, with a hungry spirit. For starters, the priest omitted the section of the bleeding woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, thereby diffusing the Gospel passage of its shocking message. Then instead of being served the radical message of the Gospel we heard a 11-minute treatise on the history of baptism. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this illustrated exactly what Barbara Brown Taylor described in the above quote, i.e. leaning away from the text and delivering a sermon that stopped short of encountering God.

We’re not supposed to criticize Father’s sermons or be too hard on our priests as they’re so stretched in all directions. And it is quite possible that another soul was fed by the same sermon while mine was left wanting. Pope Francis gives us permission to take seriously our hungry spirits esp. as we leave church. I just hope that my hearers will tell me when my preaching words do or do not deliver food for their souls. I will let you judge for yourself. Here is my take on last Sunday’s Gospel: The Tale of Two Women

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Any prophets today?

Today is June 24, the day on which The Christian Church honours the Birth of John the Baptist. The assigned Scripture readings burst with promise and excitement. The words in Isaiah 49:1-6 sound like those of a town herald proclaiming a message which will change lives. Luke’s account in Acts 13:22–26 is a concise summary of God’s saving work as evidenced in both the old (King David) and the new (Jesus as announced by John). The Gospel passage from Luke  (1:57-66, 80) reports the birth of God’s herald John. St. Augustine of Hippo said: “John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. John is the hinge between the old and the new. Being born of the old, he also represents the new as John is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.” Moreover, John’s birthday is celebrated close to the summer solstice, whereas Jesus’ birth is marked at the winter solstice, key times of seasonal change: “He must increase but I must decrease.”

The psalm today is one of the most loved, most quoted and best-known, Psalm 139. Its poetic flow and its message remain forever new, still stirring the very depths of human longing. Not only is God the Master-Knitter, putting us together in our mothers’ womb, but God remains intimately engaged minute by minute in each day of our lives. There is nowhere that God is not – that truth is both unsettling and immensely reassuring.

While the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) contain quite a few birth narratives, the New Testament features only two: John the Baptist and Jesus. Their lives, their destinies, their God-given missions were so intimately intertwined, even before they were born, that Luke sandwiches the account of John’s birth in the middle of his account on Jesus’ beginnings on earth. John’s birth is cause for double joy: one, Elizabeth’s barrenness has been removed, and two, God’s mercy is manifested in the dawning of the Messiah. Luke vividly describes the circumstances of both John’s and Jesus’ conceptions; both men meet one another while still in their mothers’ wombs. Their births are well documented and in both cases the naming turns out to be a significant moment, a moment at which their missions are revealed. So new is this moment that it leaves those around them wondering what will become of them. Both “grew and became strong in spirit,” says Luke.

“Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” says the priest concluding the Eucharist. We too are sent by God with a mission, the mission of proclaiming the Gospel with our lives — only use words if we must, as St. Francis is quoted as having said. How do we do this in today’s world?

Sometimes the movie industry offers a rare witness to make God’s point. For me, the movie Simon Birch embodied some salient features of a modern-day John the Baptist. Twelve-year-old Joe has been labeled a bastard; his mother Rebecca never revealed the identity of his father. She lavishes love and attention upon both Joe and his lonely best friend, Simon Birch. Now, Simon is a pint-sized runt of a thing who believes he has been put on earth as “God’s instrument.” This firm faith in his destiny enables Simon to endure the indifference of his parents, the ridicule of adults, and the relentless teasing of other children.

Simon is a “prophet” at the church he attends, much to the dismay of Reverend Russell and a high-strung Sunday School teacher. When Simon asks Reverend Russell “Do you believe that I have a special purpose?” the Reverend replies slowly, “That is something we would all like to believe, Simon.”

Despite the Reverend’s lack of reassurance, Simon keeps insisting naively that he is certain God has a plan for him. When Joe’s mother Rebecca is killed in a freak accident, Joe begins an earnest search to discover the identity of his father. He is assisted by Simon and Ben, his mother’s boyfriend. Meanwhile Simon turns the Christmas Nativity play into a ridiculous catastrophe. Finally, a few days later, Simon has a shining heroic moment when the Sunday school bus is in a serious accident.

Throughout the story, Simon keeps insisting that “God has made me the way I am for a reason” and “God has a plan for everyone.” Throughout the entire movie others discount his belief, suggesting to Simon not to “overdo” it. But in the end Joe recognizes that the little prophet was speaking the truth. How Joe discovered that – well, you’ll have to rent the movie.

There’s a shining moment waiting in all of our lives. I pray that John the Baptist’s witness, Jesus’ gift of self on the cross and in the Eucharist, along with Simon Birch’s story, may clarify the mission and purpose for which God formed each of us in our mother’s womb.

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The Earth and the Universe: Our Common Home

I wrote the reflection below in January of this year. I am bringing it back now in light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si. The reason for this re-posting is not to position myself as having “all the answers” or as in any way superior to others. Please do not draw that conclusion. What I want most is to show in a small way that lifestyle choices can be made responsibly without succumbing to almighty consumer pressures. While I may have been choosing simplicity for most of my adult life, I am a pilgrim on the journey like everyone else. Part of being human is to accept there are many times where I stumble and fall, give in to temptation and damage the earth with foolish living. May this re-posting be a reminder of our common ecological vocation and an encouragement for us all.

banners-LAUDATO-SII-EN

Some QUOTES from LAUDATO SI:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. (Par. 25)

“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” (Par. 42)

“Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.” (Par. 155)

“A healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change.” (Par. 218)

“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.” (Par. 233)

Moving from the densely populated country of the Netherlands, from a home above a store surrounded by bricks and cement, to a farm on the Canadian prairies at the end of a dirt road, 6 km from the nearest school, church and store had an earth-shattering effect on me. I knew the theory well – living off the land in harmony with nature, following the rhythm of the seasons. At the time of my pioneering on the Canadian prairies I had the fledgling spiritual underpinnings of a cosmic worldview, arising directly from my Christian/Catholic faith and Scripture itself. The very notion of God as Trinity, God’s incarnation in Jesus and the Church’s sacramental theology, worldview and practices helped me to expect everything in creation to bear not only God’s imprint (image and likeness) but also as capable of communicating God’s holy and loving presence. I gave myself completely to what Gerald Manley Hopkins captures so eloquently in his famous poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (1877)

The plants and animals, the seasons and tides of creation have been spiritual muse, emotional compass and daily mentor for much of my life, affecting every detail both practical and spiritual. From my teenage bike rides in the forest to today’s baking of bread, I have always felt that my place in the universe and my responsibility in it necessitated careful discernment in life choices. Fostering freedom from a consumer mentality was grounded in a commitment to care for the earth. Choosing a natural method of family planning was grounded in a profound respect for the gift of life, the refusal to pollute our bodies with artificial hormones (as well as the land with chemicals) and the need to live in harmony with our human capacity to co-create with God. Living without modern conveniences was motivated by a desire to let nature mold and guide our daily family rhythms with the accompanying tasks of freezing, canning and storing the winter supply of food. Literary companions, such as Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography played pivotal roles in my ability to place our little individual lives tucked away at the end of a dirt road firmly and deeply into the Saskatchewan prairie soil and against a wider cosmic backdrop (greatly aided by the stunning beauty of the natural setting with bush and fields, hills and lake, blue herons and pelicans …).

I give a lot of credit to Jim, my gardening and seed-growing husband, who has lived an intimate connection to the earth all his life; he taught me so much about the wonder of nature and the need to reverence all living things (even when seeds seem to take forever to germinate – don’t ever give up!). Yes, he does talk to all his plants with profound love and respect … Even now as we have moved into a more urban setting and our three children have been launched into their own cosmic orbit, creation continues to help us navigate life choices respectful of the earth’s well-being and remains a source of profound spiritual nourishment and guidance. It’s simply a deep part of my/our identity.

My first book entitled Finding the Treasure Within – A Woman’s Journey into Preaching (2002, Novalis) includes the following words as I share about the choices Jim and I made from the day we married:

        We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating. William McNamara’s spirituality became real for us: I share the secret of the child, of the saints and sages, as well as of clowns and fools when I realize how wondrous and marvelous it is to carry fuel and draw water. Once the spiritual significance of such ordinary earthy acts dawns on me, I can skip the yoga and the koans, the mantras and the novenas. (p. 56, Mystical Passion, William McNamara OCD, Element Books Ltd., Rockport, MA, 1991)

As I reflect on the extent that creation/nature and an evolving cosmic consciousness have been an integral part of my living and growing for the better part of my adult life, two things stand out. First of all, the cosmic story touted today as “new” cosmology is really not that “new.” All of it is present in the Biblical writings in both Old and New Testaments, in the life-teaching-suffering-death-resurrection of Jesus, as well as in our own Church’s understanding of the Incarnation and its sacramental life. I saw, heard and tasted it there, I was captivated by it in those sacred words, understandings and practices many years ago already, before I knew much  about the great scientific discoveries of the universe as we now understand it.

Having said that, I know all too well the struggles and challenges of living thoughtfully in cosmic consciousness while failing miserably — often.  And even in living the fullness of a cosmic consciousness, human tendencies of rigidity and deceit, judgment and clinging, laziness and sloth remain alive and well, reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s astute observation that upon entering the monastery he wasn’t any holier than anyone else: ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  (The Seven Storey Mountain)

I am merely questioning the “newness” claimed by those now doing theology from a renewed cosmic awareness informed and formed by present scientific insights and discoveries. Mystics in all religious traditions have always and everywhere accessed this cosmic consciousness throughout history. Maybe a better way to describe the newness is that the unitive consciousness that was once considered the purview of a select few is now the fundamental reality out of which we all must operate if human life on the planet is to continue. This reminds me very much of many of our friends who would admire the life choices we made, ending their praise with: “When the world is going to end, we’ll all move in with you!” In other words, we admire what you do and how you do it, but not me unless I’m forced to. Well, if we care to leave our children’s children a beautiful and sustainable planet, the time has come that we are all forced to …

The Paschal Mystery and the divine Trinitarian community are THE relational and generative paradigm, patterns of Love in both the universe and deep in our soul, making the most deeply personal the most widely universal: life—death—life. Every living thing dies to itself in order to renew life & love.

In periods of painful spiritual dryness, I strive to emulate prairie plants who grow deep roots in order to find water. My spirit sings praise and thanks along with the morning song of birds and joined the pelicans as they soar on the wind currents over my house. Cloudbursts of tears in my heart resemble prairie storms on hot summer days. The labour-intensive and time-consuming tasks of daily living (hauling water, chopping wood and preserving food) indicate efforts needed to feed both body and soul. On days when my spirit matches the cold and dark of winter days, the simple task of gathering wood in the bush and sitting by a warm fire later on soothes my soul, like a child drawn on its mother’s lap after a stressful day. Times of spiritual stagnation find consolation in seeds that take forever to have God’s Life Force crack them open. When newness of life and the pulsating energy of spring leaps into my being, I smile from head to toe like the crocus or cactus blooming on a meadow barely awake from its winter sleep, eagerly waiting to be noticed and bring joy to someone’s heart.  Many a time dancing northern lights in a winter sky help keep the flame of hope and promise alive in my drooping spirit.  And on and on and on …

It is thus that I continue to grow still today into an ever-deeper and sacred intimacy with all living things, learning to surrender to Life itself in the moment – sometimes an easy, colourful and joyful dance, other times merely an intense yet unfulfilled and aching desire – unified by a loving and merciful Creator and by the stardust which makes us all part of all.

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. – Teilhard de Chardin

Laudato Si — Full Text

When new insight or conversion cuts deep into our hearts, there is one question that spontaneously jumps from our enlightened spirit and that is, ‘What then must we do?’ It is the question that sprung from the hearts of those who heard John the Baptist preach (Luke 3:10). And so, for those whose hearts are moved with this renewed desire, the Pope’s encyclical contains many practical tips on how to adjust and simplify our lifestyle. Check this article: The Pope’s Practical Tips for helping the environment.

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Seeds and Amanda, Pope Francis and Jesus

Finally some breathing space in my very packed working weeks to indulge in writing, so this is my third posting in one week (you may not see any more for a while again, so enjoy). While only a few brave blog readers post public comments, I do receive several private responses after each posting – thank you to each one, I greatly appreciate your words. Some of these responses are worthy reflections on their own which could be shared more publicly, but I leave that to the writers themselves. This time a faithful reader in Belgium responded to my marriage musings and wondered if I had intentionally posted it on this Sunday when the church proclaims Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus speaks of seeds. Well, no Hugo, it was not deliberate but when God’s involved there is no such thing as coincidence. 🙂

However, today’s Gospel (Mark 4: 26–34) containing two parables about seeds do speak into a powerful encounter I had this past week. And when I read Pope Francis’ homily on this Gospel passage this morning, I decided to share about the encounter using his reflection. A bit daring maybe, but that’s what adds spice to life. 🙂 Pope Francis’ words are in italics interspersed with mine. Besides, I hope this reflection can also be a good illustration of this blogging Christian’s way to make meaning of life.

In the first parable, attention is placed on the fact that the seed sown in the earth takes root and develops on its own, whether the farmer is asleep or keeping watch. He is confident in the internal power of the seed itself and in the fertility of the soil. In the language of the Gospel, the seed is the symbol of the Word of God which contains an inherent fruitfulness. As the humble seed grows in the earth, so does the Word work with the power of God in human hearts. God has entrusted his Word to our earth, that is to each one of us in our concrete humanity. 

Two days before the news broke that one of her captors has finally been arrested by the RCMP, Amanda Lindhout (see her image above) spoke in our community of Humboldt about her ordeal of a 15-month captivity in Somalia in 2008–2009. A capacity crowd of 350 was captured by her story, a captivity quite unlike the captivity Amanda endured in Somalia (just Google her name and lots of sites show up with her story; her book is titled A House in the Sky). While Amanda’s gracious speaking style hardly contained words with religious/Christian overtones, I was deeply moved by the spiritual dynamic she shared, a dynamic present deep in each human spirit, God’s seeds of salvation ready to sprout and grow when circumstances are right.

This word, if received, certainly brings forth its fruits because God Himself makes it sprout and mature through ways that we can’t always verify and in a way that we do not know. (v. 27). 

The most poignant part of Amanda’s story was when she shared about her deeply feared approaching “breaking point” (all while in captivity) and the surprising sensation of peace and calm that washed over her in ways she could not verify nor know where it came from. This turned out to be a turning point as she latched onto the decision to choose life and goodness and gratitude despite the horror each day brought her. Amanda discovered a reservoir of resilience inside herself and the freedom that lies in our capacity to choose our response in the face of horrendous suffering. Echoes and images of Jesus washed through my mind and heart when I heard her speak. Jesus was truly free, deeply free, a freedom and peace the world cannot give, especially in his moment of greatest suffering. In her moment of great suffering Amanda tasted this freedom firsthand, an unexpected gift from “nowhere” spelling release from evil.

The second parable uses the image of the mustard seed. Despite being the smallest of all the seeds, it is full of life and grows until it becomes “the largest of plants” (Mk. 4, 32). And so is the Kingdom of God: a humanly small reality and apparently irrelevant. To become a part of it, one must be poor of heart; not trusting in our own abilities, but in the power of the love of God; not acting to be important in the eyes of the world, but precious in the eyes of God, who prefers the simple and the humble. When we live like this, the strength of Christ bursts through us and transforms what is small and modest into a reality that leavens the entire mass of the world and of history.

Amanda grew up in Alberta, a “small plant” in a big world, but a small plant with big dreams. She traveled the world driven by a desire to grow and learn and contribute to making the world a better place for all people. At first yes, she did trust her own abilities to contribute to this divine dream — the innocence and beauty of youth. She ended up in Somalia and underestimated the dangers of war. Her 15-month ordeal became a crucible for transformation, and God’s seeds sprouted in her spirit in unexpected and powerful ways. Once released, these divine attributes kept growing inside Amanda. Resolved not to live the rest of her life a victim consumed by hatred for her captors, she set out on the long healing journey. Within six months of returning to Canada, Amanda founded the Global Enrichment Foundation. Not only did this initiative play an important part in her healing process, it was also her expression of what she came to understand through her captivity, and that is that hurting people hurt other people. Her captors embodied evil ways of relating simply because they themselves had lived with evil and horrible ways all their lives. In her resolve to return love and compassion in exchange for the evil done to her, Amanda set out to help fund educational and social projects in Somalia.

This opens us to trust and hope, despite the tragedies, the injustices, the sufferings that we find. The seed of goodness and peace sprouts and develops, because the merciful love of God makes it mature.

From the website of Global Enrichment Foundation:
A former freelance journalist, Amanda’s concern for the crisis in Somalia brought her to the capital city, Mogadishu, in August 2008. Three days after her arrival she was kidnapped by teenage criminals and held hostage for 460 days. She understood that her captors, some as young as 14, were products of their environment – shaped by decades of war, famine and extreme poverty. To get through this experience, Amanda made a promise to herself that if she survived she would dedicate her life to helping create a better future for people in Somalia…. Amanda speaks to students, teachers and community leaders about forgiveness, compassion, the role education plays in transforming lives, and the steps anyone can take to become a champion of change.

For the latest update on the capture of one of Amanda’s captors go to the CBC website. 

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Back and Forth

“Pendulum: a popular opinion characterized by regular movement from one extreme to another.” This figurative dictionary definition adequately describes what seems to be happening in our society with a number of values considered basic to the well-being of every culture, one of which is marriage. For too long, spouses have suffered in secret because of the taboo that one’s private life was not to be talked about. Many feel deeply relieved that in today’s social climate we can finally admit and openly discuss the abuse, control, and exploitation that can make what should be a life-giving intimate relationship into a living hell.

Despite this healthy step forward, it is one thing to honestly deal with real suffering, and to take responsibility as a community for one another’s well-being; it is another thing to prostitute a person’s most intimate suffering at the hands of a spouse on TV talk-shows. It is one thing to finally publicly acknowledge that life-destroying marital relationships are not made in heaven and ought to be dissolved; it is another thing to opt out of a marriage because “the spark” is gone and personal fulfilment is not experienced. These trends are stark examples of the pendulum, definite movements from one extreme to the other.

Yet, even though a pendulum swings back and forth between extremes, I draw comfort from the fact that, sooner or later, God-given values reassert themselves in refreshing ways. Reading about a book written by two of America’s leading sociologists, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, on the topic of marriage confirms this truth for me. The title itself says a lot — The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially (2001, Broadway Books). In a most “politically incorrect” manner the authors challenge the high number of divorces, wondering how necessary some of them are. Notwithstanding the experience of real suffering in marriage, the authors nevertheless point out that many couples who choose to resist thoughts of divorce can actually grow deeper in their marital commitment in ways that reach far beyond “the spark” or self-centered emotional and mental satisfaction.

This piece of wisdom resonates deeply with my own experience of marriage. Given the differences between Jim and I, we would have parted company years ago if our relationship was based solely on some romantic spark or the illusion of perfect personal fulfillment. I admit, digging for relational gold has at times felt too demanding and almost impossible. Yet, these moments have proven to be times when our vows and commitment have taken over, making the sacrament of marriage truly come alive, spurring us on on to dig ever deeper for that cherished relational gold. Somehow in the midst of times of frustration or distance, we do find the energy to begin again, somehow we find the courage to tap into God’s mercy and forgiveness.

To know that we can make a new start every day has been the greatest encouragement of all. Inviting God’s active presence in our marriage, we can choose to be free from destructive and hurtful actions both past, present and future even while inadvertently our humanity keep sabotaging our best efforts. Acknowledging that our ultimate fulfilment lies in God alone, we become free to free each other from unrealistic, “idolatrous” demands. And it is thus that we strive, so help us God, to grow in grace as we are growing older 🙂

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A Posture of Openness

The other day I made a new friend — she’s a recent immigrant from Mauritius who told me that she embraces both Hinduism and Christianity as a way to honour both her parents who were Hindu and Christian.  I was intrigued and amazed at the depth of her faith and her loyalty to both God and her family of origin.

I wondered if she ever heard this ancient story: A disciple endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week. He asked God about the meaning of certain words in the Holy Scripture but God did not answer. Finally, he said to himself: “I have put in this much effort, but I haven’t made any progress. So I will go to see my brother and ask him.” When he closed the door and started off, an angel of God was sent to him and said, “Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God. But now that you are humble enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to reveal the meaning of the words.”

I’ve been pondering the meaning of this story, especially in light of my new friend. I’ve been pondering it not by fasting for seventy weeks, but rather by reflecting on how open my mind and heart is to “the other” esp. the one I feel most different from in worldview and meaning-making. Fostering radical openness is in fact a darn hard thing to do. We honestly do not know what we do not know, esp. when we become aware of huge differences in mindsets, in vastly different cultures and religious outlooks. As long as we don’t need to step outside our own worldview we remain happily oblivious to how insulated our lives can be from the rest of the world. Even when we do engage the otherness of others, we tend to keep our cultural and religious interpretive lenses, something that greatly affects the extent to which we can understand and accept the otherness of others. Worst case scenario, instead of rejoicing in the beauty and diversity of God’s creatures, we can become ignorantly mired in cultural and religious arrogance and pride.

Common interests, backgrounds, values and experiences increase our comfort level with people. The less shared, the greater our tendency to feed fear and suspicion. The less shared, the less our desire to connect and to invite the other into our orbit of life. The real loss here is that we close our hearts and minds to growing and learning and loving and living into the fullness of the divine image and likeness in which we were created. It may never occur to us that in our ignorant blocking of the other, we end up shutting our hearts to God.

In her book Illuminated Life, Sr. Joan Chittister says, God comes in every voice, behind every face, in every memory, deep in every struggle. To close off any of them is to close off the possibility of becoming new ourselves. Referring back to the story above, sometimes it is only by seeking wisdom from and trusting the other, however different from us, that another aspect of God and of ourselves is revealed. In our multicultural, pluralistic world, it is no longer an option to bury ourselves in the comfort of our own right-ness of living, insulated from otherness. Like the disciple in the story above, sometimes we too have to consult the wisdom of one very different from us to learn the meaning of words, events and encounters — the meaning of life. And our findings might well surprise us.

How do we grow new ourselves, open to difference yet grounded in our own faith and worldview? How to tell the difference between largesse of heart and wishy-washy, between relativism and divine inclusiveness, between generous hospitality and anything goes? How do we grow into ever greater openness and receptivity toward all that is different without feeling threatened or diminished or superior? That is the task of the spiritual journey; I’d love to hear how you travel that road.

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