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Posted by on Jul 7, 2021

God Calls “Ordinary” People

God Calls “Ordinary” People

The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time speak to us of the experiences of three “ordinary” people. These three men were seen by their families and communities as just regular folks. No one expected them to be any different than the rest of their group. They would grow up, have a trade or role in the community, marry, have children, grow old, and die – just like everyone else!

But that was not to be. God had different plans for them. Blessedly, these men listened and responded to the call they received.

Ezekiel

Ezekiel (Ez 2:2-5) lived at a time when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians – a people who lived to the east in an area we now know as Iraq. He was a priest in Jerusalem and was captured early in the war. He was taken to Babylonia and no one would have expected anything good to come of that. Yet that misfortune was the start of something special. In Babylonia, the Spirit came to Ezekiel, setting him on his feet and sending him on a mission. The mission? To tell the people of Israel in exile there that God was still their God, despite their refusal while still in Israel to live by the ancient covenant and rules of their faith. He was to speak using very specific language, “Thus says the Lord God!” These words identified him as a prophet – one who spoke the word of God.

A prophet in the Bible is not one who foretells the future. The prophet is the one who speaks the word received from God. Typically, that word proclaimed by the prophet is not one the people want to hear. It calls them back to a life that might seem to be more restricted and controlled. Often the prophet meets great resistance. But for those communities who respond and obey the word proclaimed by the prophet, it can become a life leading to inner peace and to justice in the community and among the nations.

The Psalmist

Does this mean all is well for the prophet or for those who try to follow the Lord’s call? Not at all. The psalmist speaks  in Psalm 123 for those who have had their fill of the mockery and contempt heaped on them by people who have rejected the Lord’s ways. “Have pity on us, O Lord, have pity on us.” Show us your mercy and end this suffering! Enough already!

Saul of Tarsus – Paul

The second ordinary man is Saul of Tarsus. Saul was originally trained as a tent maker, but he had studied the Law and was a teacher in Jerusalem. He sincerely believed the followers of Jesus were unfaithful to their Jewish roots and traditions. They were the kind of folks who got everyone else in trouble – the kind of trouble that led to them being conquered by neighboring nations. Saul set out to arrest Jesus’ followers and root out this dangerous group. But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and called him personally to go out and tell the world the good news of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God.

Saul, now known by his Latin name as Paul, set out to do just that. He traveled all over the Middle East and Greece. Eventually he ended up in Rome and died as a martyr there. His letters are some of the first documents we have from the early Church, earlier even than the Gospels.

In today’s reading from his second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 12:7-10), Paul speaks of his weakness. He has received a tremendous gift in the experience of his calling, but he is still an ordinary guy. He battles physical and spiritual weaknesses just like everyone else does. He has asked to be relieved of these weaknesses, but that is not how grace works. The Lord’s gift of life and love works through the weakness of those who witness to him. Paul declares to the people of Corinth and to us, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” The same deal applies to us.

Jesus of Nazareth

Finally, we hear what happened when Jesus went home to Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6). He has had a tremendous experience of being called at his baptism in the Jordan River and the time in the desert. He has seen people healed of physical and psychological ailments at his touch. Yet when he goes home to his family and religious community, no one is willing to believe he should have anything to say to them. He is not a trained, certified religious teacher. He is a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. An “everyday Joe.”

In response, Jesus quotes a traditional saying: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” He was unable to work wonders or heal people at home, because they were not open to receive the gift he had to offer.

Prophets in our midst?

We look back on these men and their experience. How easy it would be to say, “I would never do that to a prophet that came to me!” Yet it is all too easy to overlook the gifts of those we love – the ordinary people who come to us with a word or insight that might well help us on our way to holiness.

Let’s pray today that we be open to the prophets in our midst. The ordinary folks who speak God’s word to us.

Photo: Michael and Marjorie Brewer – Two ordinary people of faith

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Posted by on Jun 27, 2021

“God did not make death…”

“God did not make death…”

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time begin with this surprising statement from the book of Wisdom (Wis 1:13). Furthermore, the world and its creatures are “wholesome” and justice (God’s design of the right order of things) “is undying.” Physical death is merely the result of the envy of the devil, not something that can stop God’s gift of life.

The Lord rescues his faithful ones, brings them up from the netherworld, changes mourning into dancing. We respond by giving thanks, in the words of the psalmist (Psalm 30).

St. Paul asks the community at Corinth and us as well, to share what we have with those in need. We the community respond to the gift of our Lord by sharing what we have received, just as Jesus, the Word of God, entered into our human experience and shared fully in it. As was the case of the Israelites in the desert, those who have much aren’t to have more than their share and those who have only a little ought not to end up with less than their fair share of the manna (or other gifts) needed for life.

Finally, St. Mark tells of two healings. Jairus, an official from the synagogue, asks Jesus to heal his child. Jesus goes immediately with him.

On the way to the child, in the hustle and bustle of the crowd, a woman who has suffered with a hemorrhage for twelve years touches his cloak. She is hoping for healing. Immediately power goes from him and she is healed. Jesus notices this and asks who touched him. The others are amazed. In such a crowd, lots of people were touching and bumping into him. But the woman comes to him, in great fear because she has broken several rules by touching him, and confesses what she has done. Jesus does not scold her. Instead, he tells her that her faith has saved her and that she may go in peace, cured of her affliction.

Jesus then continues to the home of Jairus, where the child now has died before Jesus reaches her. Yet Jesus takes her hand and tells her to get up. The original Greek words distinguish between what Jesus said and what she did. Our English version uses the same word, arise, for both what Jesus told the girl to do and her rising from death. But in the original, Jesus said she should “get up” and the child “arose,” the same term used to describe Jesus’ own Resurrection.

These readings speak of the great hope we share as Christians. It’s particularly relevant for me just now, as I have had to say goodbye to both my mother and father in these past 5 weeks. I find myself remembering another time when both loss and hope were very present in my life.

Birth and Death – Somewhat similar transitions

Almost 40 years ago, when I was pregnant with my second child, my grandfather passed away in December and my father-in-law (who was only one year younger than my grandfather) in January was dying as well. He had cancer and it was a slower, more painful process than my grandfather’s passing. I asked God why death had to be so hard. The response surprised me. I was reminded that birth is not easy, either for the mother or for the child. The child is happy and at peace in the womb. Every need is met, even those unrecognized. Nothing has to be done. It’s warm, peaceful, pleasant. It might be getting a bit tight, but it’s still possible to stretch and move around. Who would want to get squeezed and pushed and forced through a narrow opening into a bright, cold, and unknown world! Yet that is what must happen for life to continue. And, oh what a gift life here on Earth is or can be for us. I don’t think there are very many of us who would willingly return to the womb after tasting the joys of life outside.

Death is not an end, it’s a new birth into a life of even greater beauty and freedom. Our bodies wear out and we move on to new ones. Sometimes it happens after a long life. Sometimes things happen that make it impossible for our bodies to work anymore, and we move on. But, hard as it is for those of us who remain, life continues. We rise to a new way of living. The limitations of our aging or injured bodies are removed and we share in the life of love of our loving parent in the great dance of life.

“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living…”

We hold on to this promise.

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Posted by on Jun 20, 2021

Seas and Storms – In all Seasons of Life

Seas and Storms – In all Seasons of Life

The sea and its storms speak to us today, the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, of the power and love of God. We who live or have lived by the sea are intimately aware of its power and unpredictability, as well as its seasons.

Before I moved to Santa Cruz, I had no awareness of the subtle moods of the ocean’s seasons. But after over thirty years of living a block from the shore, I can tell from its colors, sounds, smells, and tides what season of the year is upon us. In winter, I can predict the coming of stormy weather several days in advance, even when the skies are sunny and beautiful. The ocean waves begin to roar about three days before a big storm arrives in the winter. (We don’t typically get storms in the summer on California’s Central Coast.)

We speak of stormy times in our lives too. Sometimes all is well and predictable. We know pretty much what to expect when we wake in the morning and as we go through the day. Other times are not.

Job (Jb 38: 1, 8-11) had just experienced many days and weeks of loss. His family, his flocks, his reputation, and his very health had all been stripped away. He called out in anger and frustration to the Lord, demanding an answer – “Why have you done this to me? What is the meaning of this?” (Not an exact quote, but that’s the sense of it.)

God’s response was to remind Job that humans are not the ones who set things up originally. Humans can’t control what happens in nature or their lives. It was foolish even to expect that they might! This was not a really satisfying response from a human perspective. Yet even so, by responding to Job’s cries of anger and frustration, God somehow reassured Job. By the end of the story, Job has recognized God’s place as the one in charge and he has received a new family, livelihood, and place in society.

Storms are both literal and figurative in our lives. The psalmist (Ps 107: 23-31) speaks of literal storms that blow across the waters and the rejoicing of those tossed around during the storm when the Lord answers their prayers and calms the sea. St. Paul (2 Cor 5:14-17) speaks more figuratively of the transformation of life as new life and a new creation have sprung forth from the death and resurrection of Christ. “Old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”

Jesus and his friends experienced both kinds of storms. The one in today’s reading (Mk 4:35-41) was physical. A storm came suddenly while they were crossing the Sea of Galilee. The boat was filling with water. Drowning was a very real possibility. Then they woke Jesus. He shouted to the stormy seas to be still. In the original Greek, the word used was more akin to our “Shut up!” than to the more polite “Quiet! Be still!” of our translation. Jesus did what only God can do – he calmed the stormy sea.

Today, as then, we turn to him in stormy times. He may not calm or take away the hard things we are experiencing. Sometimes these things are a necessary part of life. But he is with us through them. We hold on to the life raft of his promise and presence until the storms die down and peaceful times return.

See you at Mass, as we give thanks for his presence with us, calming the storm!

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Posted by on Jun 15, 2021

A Mustard Seed Story

A Mustard Seed Story

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in the gospel of Mark always brings a smile to my face.

When I was a girl, my mother always made dill pickles. She used the same recipe her mother, grandmother, sisters, and brothers used. But each family’s pickles tasted a bit different.

No one knew why that should be until one of my aunts, who was a home economics teacher, decided to experiment with the ingredients. She made pickles one day using the same batch of cucumbers and dill from the garden, and the same brine. Then she put identical amounts of all but one ingredient into the jars. Each jar had one ingredient in a larger amount than the other jars did. Several months later, when the cucumbers had matured into dill pickles, she tasted them. The key to the spiciness of her pickles in comparison with those of all the rest of the family turned out to be the amount of mustard seed she put in the jars. She used a heaping measure of the seed. Others used a level one.

The mustard seed we all use(d) for pickles is a relatively large seed. It’s far from being “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” as is the seed described by Jesus in St. Mark’s gospel. However, these mustard seeds were the only ones I had ever seen.

When I began teaching fifth and sixth grade religious education classes, I included this parable among the ones I shared with the children. I brought some of the seeds with me to class and asked them to glue them into their books on the page on which they had written a bit of the parable and drawn a picture of a tree with birds in it. I always cautioned them not to eat any of the seeds. Invariably, one of the boys would taste one anyway. He would then need to race from the room to get a drink of water! They asked why I had given them something so spicy and I would remind them that I had told them not to taste them.

Still, I wondered about the description of these seeds as being the smallest on earth. I knew that lettuce seeds and snapdragon flower seeds were much smaller.

Then I met Paul. Paul was from India and came to live with us for a while. He introduced me to South Asian foods, including curries, chapattis, and other delights. One of the ingredients he used was mustard seed. This was a tiny brown seed, not much bigger than the period at the end of a sentence. It was not the big yellowish one we used for pickles. It gave a lovely richly spicy flavor to the food, though it was subtle when used appropriately in the recipes.

When I met this variety of mustard, I began to understand the parable of the mustard seed. A tiny little seed could indeed make a big difference in the flavor of a food. It could grow into a much larger plant as well. Birds and other animals could thrive in its shelter.

Was the mustard seed of which Jesus spoke really the same as these mustard seeds used in cooking? Maybe not. There is a plant known as a mustard tree that grows in the Middle East. It has yellow flowers and tiny seeds. It’s more of a shrub than a tree, but it can grow to be up to 20 feet tall

Whether or not the seeds we identify as mustard seeds for cooking are the same ones Jesus mentioned is really not the important thing. What matters is that very small things can grow into much larger ones and have an effect far greater than their size.

The kingdom of God is truly like the mustard seed. It appears in very small and unobtrusive ways. No one would think twice about it or about the prospect that it could be important in any way. Yet as the poor receive food, clothing, shelter, opportunities, respect, health care, and other necessities of life, as justice (the right order of things) is restored, the kingdom begins to blossom and grow. God works with tiny things to bring about great wonders. A shoot from a tree can grow into a massive new tree high upon a mountain. A tiny seed can grow to be a beautiful flower or a tall tree sheltering birds and other creatures. And the harvest of justice marks the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

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Posted by on Aug 4, 2020

What is God up to that is New?

What is God up to that is New?

By Dcn Ed Callahan

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Matt 4:17)

As we, the people of God, attempt to navigate these strange times, we may be left with a feeling that nothing is or will be the same again. This Covid-19 event is having such far-reaching effects in our daily lives. We are wearing masks and keeping social distancing. People are suffering because their businesses are changed or closed altogether. We can’t go to the cinema or the theater; sporting events are altered or canceled. Gatherings are discouraged. Even our worship services are altered or even closed! It leaves us wondering how we are to be Church!

Metanoia

The verse in the header was mentioned in a book I’m reading by Richard Rohr. He reminds us that the word frequently translated as repent, convert, or reform is the Greek word metanoia, which quite literally means “to change your mind.” Rohr notes, “It is not a moralistic or even churchy word at all; it is a clear strategy for enlightenment for the world. Once you accept change as a central program for yourself you tend to continue growing throughout all of your life.”

Rohr teaches us that our egos make us resistant to change and self-examination – we are comfortable with our institutions and conscious assent to the ‘right beliefs’ about God and about ourselves and our ‘rightness.’ We are content with our religious group and how we worship. This is our unchanging touchstone in our life. But now we must remember that Jesus himself was all about change.

Sometimes we are loath to change our outlook. We are not open to change in ourselves or our church life. But Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, says, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

How is the wind blowing in our lives today?

Right now we should be discerning the workings of God in the world. Our question may be, What is God doing now that is new? How do I participate in God’s work? This would be more mature spiritually than stomping our foot that things are just not the same.

Each Christian has the opportunity and the duty to work with the Spirit as it seeks to transform the face of the earth. How are we living our faith? Are we doing any of the Corporal Works of Mercy? Just one person will do for each of us. Are we doing the Spiritual Works of Mercy for another person? Reaching out to one person will do.

We will get back to our worship, but when we return to our spot in the pews are we changed? Have we allowed the Spirit to change us? Have we participated, accomplishing our little part of transforming the whole world? Have we died to ourselves and set our ego aside?

God will never be diverted from his mission to Humankind. He is Love, Mercy, and Justice and against Him and his people nothing will triumph.

So, What is God up to that is new?

Image: Detail from Giovanni Guida’s 2020 painting, “God Fights the Corona Virus”

 

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Posted by on Jul 23, 2020

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Wheat and the Weeds

By Dcn Patrick Conway

Each spring my wife and I like to get a couple of bags of California wildflower seeds and plant them in our yard. It’s exciting to see the sprouts coming up out of the ground, and there’s the anticipation of wondering what kind of flowers will be revealed.

We’ve learned, however, that the seeds we’ve put in the ground aren’t the only things that will grow in our flower beds. There are other seeds in the soil, as well as some that travel by air and take root. And the precious water that we put on the seeds that we want to grow also causes the unwanted ones to grow.

The problem is, when the flowers and the weeds are coming up out of the ground, we can’t tell the difference between the two. We’re not botanists! So we have to wait until everything is full-grown before we know the difference between the flowers and the weeds. And even then we may not be able to pull up the weeds, because their roots are intertwined with the flowers’ roots. And we’ve also learned that some flowers are late bloomers. We’ll think for sure that they’re weeds until suddenly, beautiful flowers appear. Good thing we didn’t pull them up!

Jesus uses these truths from nature in his parable of the wheat and weeds to teach us essential lessons about the spiritual life, or “the kingdom of heaven” as he calls it. And since this is one of the rare times when he explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples, like he did with the parable of the sower and the seed, we need to pay close attention to his explanation.

Jesus tells us that there are good people and evil people in the world. The good people are the ones who allow the good seed of God’s word to grow in them and to bear the flowers and fruit of loving and compassionate actions. The evil people are the ones who allow the bad seed of the devil, lies and suggestions to do evil, to grow in them and bear the thorns and poisonous fruits of destruction and death.

That is Jesus’s explanation of why and how there are good people and evil people in the world, a simple and straightforward statement. And since it comes directly from Jesus, we have to take it as truth, because he never lies to us.

Just one problem …

The problem is that historically as well as today, when Christians hear this, we often, if not usually, use it to justify our attacks on those whom we believe to be evil. It’s quite an ugly history, and sometimes it has taken the form of imprisonment, torture, and death, other times verbal condemnation and ostracization.

Anthropologists and others have studied this phenomenon, which some call the “scape-goating” mechanism in societies, in which the so-called righteous ones project their own inner evil on some group who are different and not as powerful, and they say, “These people are the problem! Let’s get rid of them! They’re all bad.”

We’ve seen that tragic story play out time and time again in various places around the world, including in our own country today, and always with destructive and deadly results.

And the irony of this is that the so-called righteous ones end up being the real evil ones, because they are not nurturing the seeds of God which cause us to bear the fruit of love for all people. Instead they nurture the divisive, destructive, and deadly seeds of the devil. Jesus comments on this in chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” He’s talking to those who call him “Lord,” in other words, Christians. We always think that we’re the good people, but Jesus tells us that when we act like that, we are in fact the evil ones.

Our self-righteous Christian crusades against the so-called evil ones, whether they be military crusades or crusades of moral indignation, always end up making the world a worse place, not a better one.

And this always happen when we don’t listen to the commandment that is in the parable. We hear the explanation that there are good people and evil people in the world, but we miss the central commandment. And the commandment from Jesus is: “Don’t go around trying to attack and eliminate all those whom you believe to be the evil people in the world. You’ll end up destroying everyone, and you’ll end up being the evil people yourselves. I have a plan for getting rid of evil people, and my way is through love and conversion. For I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he live in my love and mercy forever.”

The commandment to us is simply to leave judgment and condemnation to God. We’re not competent in this area, in case you haven’t noticed. We’re not spiritual botanists who can tell a good plant from a weed. And you never know when a weed is going to turn out to be a beautiful flower.

And besides, the truth is that we ourselves have both wheat and weeds growing in the garden of our soul. If we are honest and humble, the Holy Spirit reveals to us both our goodness that God has planted in us, but also our sinfulness, planted by the enemy of our souls.

So what are we to do?

This is our work, the work of tending our own inner gardens, directed by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the courage and grace to change the things about ourselves that we can change, the humble peace that surpasses all understanding as we live with our faults and weaknesses, and the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we just have to put up with – in ourselves.

This is essential if we are to be true followers of Jesus and children of God – that we learn to love sinners, because that’s what Jesus does, that’s what God does – and the main sinner that we have to learn to love is ourselves.

One saint put it this way: We should be very patient and humble in putting up with the faults of others. After all, they have to put up with us.

If we don’t learn to love the sinner who is us, then we will never learn to love the sinners who are around us, which means that we will never learn to love anyone, because everyone is a sinner. And we will continue to think that we’re better than everyone else and to persecute those whom we believe to be the evil ones. Then we end up being the evil ones ourselves.

Let’s not do that. Let us follow the path of true Christianity and ask the Holy Spirit to show us ourselves as God sees us, “a mixture strange of good and ill” as the hymn says, to be merciful and patient with the sinner that we are, and to be merciful and patient with everyone else.

The great Saint Teresa of Avila, whom the Church calls a doctor of the soul, says this: “If we can endure with patience the suffering of being displeasing to ourselves, we will indeed be a pleasing place of refuge to our Lord.”

As we receive him in Holy and Loving Communion, may he and all sinners find in our humble hearts a pleasing place of refuge.

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Posted by on Nov 29, 2019

Knocking Over Stones and Setting Them Back Up Again

Knocking Over Stones and Setting Them Back Up Again

The day dawned overcast and cold. Snow was expected within a few days and the family had gathered to celebrate the 90th birthday of our mother/grandmother/great-grandmother/sister/aunt. While all were there, a group of the men went outside to do some of the maintenance tasks that require more agility and strength — things like cleaning out gutters, washing windows, and so forth.

I watched from an upstairs bedroom, making beds and tidying up a bit. Some of the men were piling fallen leaves around the bases of the rose bushes in the back yard flower bed. A small child, a bit over 2 years old, was happily playing as the men worked. His father was keeping an eye on him while he worked.

Eventually the child noticed a stack of balanced rocks in the corner of the garden. He came closer to the rocks as I watched, fascinated with the way they were just standing there. I could tell he was going to knock them over by the way he approached and reached out towards them. I thought about opening the window quickly and calling out to him to stop, but I didn’t. I just watched. There would be no serious harm done if the rocks fell over.

Sure enough, the hand stretched out, the rocks were touched, and over they went. The child was a bit surprised. He hadn’t expected that to happen. But he wasn’t frightened or upset, just surprised. His father came over and squatted down beside him. Together they looked at the now fallen rocks and talked about what had happened. Then father picked up the first rock and laid it carefully on top of the larger stone that had been the base of the tower. The child reached to pick up the next one, and father helped him get it up and onto the first one. This continued until the entire stack of rocks had been rebuilt.

I’ve thought quite a bit about what I observed that morning. It could have ended so unhappily if father or anyone else had become upset about the results of the child’s curiosity. But everyone just took it in stride. A child had learned something about the world and gravity. He learned about putting uneven things together so that they stay balanced. And he learned that when he breaks something, he can help put it back together again. All very positive things to learn at a young age.

What did I see and learn?

I saw a beautiful example of how God observes our actions. Sometimes we reach out and touch things that will fall or break or should not be touched for another reason. Sometimes we do it deliberately. Sometimes accidentally. God does not interfere. God keeps watching as we learn what happens when we do that particular thing. God knows that we don’t always foresee the effects our actions will have. But God knows that we have to experience many things in order to learn.

I saw that when things have been broken and are put back together, they don’t always look the same. Sometimes they take a different shape or form. They are still beautiful, but in a different way.

I saw the wisdom of God in giving us family, friends, companions, and other people in this world. Like the father of my great-nephew, other people help us make things right again. They help us pick up the pieces of things that have fallen and maybe even been broken. Their acceptance allows us to learn without carrying a huge load of fear or shame around with us.

I saw a real-life example of reconciliation. Something was broken. Someone offered forgiveness. Together the broken was put back together for the enjoyment of the family community.

Putting the rocks back together in our lives

As we come to the end of our liturgical year and the beginning of a new one, it’s good to remember that our God watches us with great love, sending others to help us along the way. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest acts on behalf of God, offering forgiveness from both God and the  community, and helping us find ways to heal and repair what we have broken. In the penitential rite at the beginning of each celebration of Eucharist (Mass), we also ask for and receive God’s forgiveness. We ask each other to pray for us and help us in becoming more loving followers of Our Lord.

May we, like the little child I watched, always be open to learning new things in this coming year, trusting that when we make mistakes, others will help us see what has happened and help us to put things in order again. May we be forgiving of the mistakes of others, and quick to admit our own, asking forgiveness in turn. Together, like the father and son I watched, we journey through life on our way to our Father who watches with a smile as we work together to put the stones back into a new and still lovely order.

Peace.

 

 

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Posted by on Jan 10, 2019

Dancing in the Street – A New Year Filled with Grace Begins

Dancing in the Street – A New Year Filled with Grace Begins

A new year begins. A year that will be filled with grace freely offered, seeking only hearts open to receive it.

People dance in the streets, celebrating this outpouring of divine life into our daily reality. Enemies embrace. The fearful step out with undaunted courage. Young men and women move confidently into their unknown future and old ones see visions of great hope.

What if this were the reality of our transition into this new year? How could it come to be? Dare we ever hope for such a gift? It seems too good to be true, especially as we confront the turmoil and dangers of today’s world.

Yet this is the promise to which we are called. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Is 61:1), “I come to bring glad news, ….”   He echoes Tobit’s instructions to his son Tobiah (Tob 4:16): “Share your bread, clothe the naked ….” He goes one step further even and tells us that this is the basis on which our faithfulness is to be evaluated. To the degree we do this to the least among us, we do it to him (Mt 25:40).

This is the reality, unseen though it may be, to which we are called. The great mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord has come to pass in our human history. They continue to be a living reality in our Eucharist and in our daily lives. Peter’s words to the crowds on that first Pentecost are a call to each of us. Open your eyes. God is doing something fantastic here. Yes, the empires remain. Yes, powerful people continue to bully and oppress the poor. Yes, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and greater in number.

But do not lose hope! Grace has burst into our world. It flows into each of us and out into that world. So dance with joy. See the sun, the moon, the flowers, the smiles of children and old ones. Smile with the beggars and give thanks to the Lord for sharing his abundant life with us!

Then roll up your sleeves and move out into this wonderful world. Be the eyes and ears, the voice, hands, and feet of the risen Lord, the Word made flesh, God with us. And let’s get busy caring for our sisters and brothers who need a hand, our Earth, our communities, refugees at our borders, and our families. Let’s do it in joy, peace, cooperation, and hope.

Peace be with you, now and always.

Photo: “Plum Flower” by Dario Sabio – Public Domain Images

 

 

 

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Posted by on Jun 13, 2018

Be Grateful – Examen, Second Point

Be Grateful – Examen, Second Point

Being grateful and spreading the message is the 12th step of recovery. If we look at recovery from addiction in its many forms – drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work – it seems like starting with gratitude is starting at the end and not the beginning. To the extent that the 12 steps are an ongoing process jumping on the recovery wheel at Step 12 not only represents a transformation but also occasions a deeper one. Gratitude connects us with God directly because we can see beyond the world of “want and need” to the riches around us and in our souls. You can’t be grateful without feeling good to some degree about yourself and your sobriety.

Gratitude is the acceptance and return of love’s expression as complete self-giving. Hip Hop is often a style of dancing that can be foreign and off-putting for older generations and yet it is the common world language of youth culture today. “Clean Love” speaks to the dynamic of Love / Gratitude and Gratitude / Love.

It is easy in some ways, to think of the Examen as something for people who already have things figured out. We can think that the Examen is for people without any problems. They always make good choices and it is merely a question of discerning a better choice. Once we have really entered the presence of God, there can only be gratitude. If there isn’t, there is something between us and God. Clearly, that is why the regular sequence of the 12 steps is necessary. For St. Ignatius Loyola, the key problem or sin is ingratitude toward God. “Godspell” the 70’s musical reflects a take on Love / Gratitude and Gratitude / Love that reflects a divine naivete and fearless authenticity.

Since gratitude is a positive socio-emotional-physical experience, it can heal those deep wounds and injuries from early in our lives that pain us into various methods of non-feeling expressed in addiction. It is important to be grateful for ourselves and our talents. Having appropriate self-esteem is to acknowledge that God gave us certain gifts and talents. This is acknowledging the truth and it can help us to affirm other people in their gifts and talents.

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Posted by on Jun 11, 2018

Finding God’s Dream for Us

Finding God’s Dream for Us

The expanded treatment of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Examen that follows is meant to show the richness of this format of prayer for incorporating spiritual / psychological learning and insights for closer union with God through a genuine repentance of our sins and freedom from shame, so that we can “praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord.” For St. Ignatius, that is what life is all about: life to the full for the Glory of God.

Given our linear style of thinking in the West, it can be easy to look at the Examen of St. Ignatius as a set of check boxes. However, it is an ongoing dynamic spiral that moves us closer to perfect freedom and love or moves us away into the realm of shame and darkness.

God has a dream for each of us. As we journey through each day of our lives, we move towards or away from that dream. We move freely into  God’s life and dream for us or we move away from God

How can we move freely and fully into God’s life every day? How do we know if we are on track or headed in the right direction? Once again Jesus has shown us the way and even explicitly told us to pray and to listen attentively with our heart, soul, and mind. Becoming aware of God’s activity in our lives, intuitively and consciously, is the act of theological reflection. According to Donald D. St. Louis, the Examen of St. Ignatius Loyola can be a method for theological reflection on one’s ministry. It can also be a method of reflection on one’s daily life that can help us focus on the Way of Jesus, the path of our calling that is God’s Dream for Us.

St. Ignatius shows the way in the five points of the Examen.

The Examen can take on many forms while following this general pattern.  Theologian Susan Mahan presents her own adaptation in Seeking God – Decision Making and the Ignatian Examen.

“Taking time each day to practice centering in God for the direction of our day and our lives is necessary. There are many ways to do this: journaling, walking a labyrinth, and having a spiritual counseling session are ways to think and pray through where I am in my life, where I feel drawn, and what God sees in me that I might benefit from.  Another way to have an experience of being counseled by God is the Ignatian Examen.

Very briefly, sit quietly and think of or imagine things you are truly grateful for. They can be big or small: Clean sheets, good food, your dog, ways you have been loved, accomplishments, a family member or friend, your house or job etc.  Tell God what you are grateful for. See, if God has given you things you are grateful for: a rescue in life, money you needed, safety, a trip you took.  Then think of the things in yourself or your life which you have chosen that have harmed you, undermined your wellbeing, or side-tracked you.  These can also be big or small: being resentful, feeling superior, or not being willing to do something new that you need to do. Ask God to help you with these fears or hurts that have held you away from Him. Lastly, ask God how you can spend the next part of your day or life doing what is best.  You will get answers. You can surrender to what is best and see how much more peace-filled you are. I do this every day, sometimes more than once. I act on what I hear, and I am much more at peace”

The core of the Examen is discernment, which is all about growing in awareness and freedom. Susan Mahan provides a succinct over-view into the spiritual psychology of discernment.

The desire to be closer to God requires letting God tell me what would please him.  That sounds very old fashioned and odd.  But, there’s no way around it.  Knowing God is knowing what is best — best for me and best for the world.  I cannot eat sugar and refined carbohydrates and feel good.  I just can’t.  I love that stuff!!  Knowing God and growing in holiness means that I would like to know which actions in my life would help me to be happy.  Discernment is the skill with which I can learn to evaluate what is the best choice at any juncture in my road every day, all day long.  There are certain feelings and thoughts that characterize good decisions and others which characterize poor decisions.

The End is the Beginning

Certainly, St. Ignatius never intended for the Examen to be a long exercise – perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. It was part of his view of being a contemplative in action. We see and experience God all around us every day in everything. The Examen, in my view, was meant to reinforce a fundamental behavior and mindset that action for the Kingdom of Heaven is contemplation. Clearly, prayer and contemplation are prominent in the Spiritual Exercises.

As we move through our daily lives, the Examen offers a quick opportunity to check our direction through the day’s activities. It should not take a long time. It is simply a tool, like a road map, to help us stay on the road, on the Way of Jesus to God’s dream for us.

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Posted by on Dec 8, 2017

Why Aren’t People Coming to Mass? – The Socio-Cultural Context of the Liturgy

Why Aren’t People Coming to Mass? – The Socio-Cultural Context of the Liturgy

Why aren’t people coming to Church? People have always found God in nature, their everyday lives, and their prayer and celebrations at home. Many people now have different maps. They have different ways in which they arrange their lives. Where is worship in today’s society? How is it happening?

We have all kinds of maps. Our homes (blueprints), our communities, the world, and even the known universe. These physical mental maps shape the way we see things and feel about them. So where does worship fit into our map? There is the physical location of the church. But there are other maps. Where do we meet and see God in our lives? What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian in the business world, the entertainment world, the world of social media?

If you’re having a barbeque in your backyard, we can say that it located in your patio by your pool. In another sense, we can say that it is located among your network of family and friends. It is located in your social network. We can say that is is bounded or that its boundaries are your house and your back fence. However, we can also say that the boundaries of your backyard barbeque are the relationships you have with family and friends.

In general, formal liturgy is not in our backyards by the pool. However, liturgy is not only just inside the Church building, because liturgy is how we celebrate what God is doing in our lives. Worship is our response to God’s overflowing, unceasing love and grace. So it happens outside of Church in our wonder at nature and in our personal devotions in our homes, which are also called the “domestic Church.”

Boundaries, Maps, and Boundedness

In his book The Liturgy of Life: The interrelationship of Sunday Eucharist and Everyday Worship Practices, Fr. Ricky Manalo talks about the various physical regions within the church building which are defined by their purposes. They are also related to cognitive and emotional states that are bounded by social and cultural concepts, images, and archetypes. As ministers / administrators of the sacred liturgical space, we are faced with mundane questions at the beginning and sometimes throughout the Sunday liturgy. “Where is everyone?” and “What can we expect from this week’s collection?”  These questions might seem unworthy of us, but they can lead us to ask deeper questions about the lack of religious observance and the spiritual needs of those whose hands are not moistened by the holy water font. I believe that looking at boundedness can give new horizons to discover the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

There are cosmic, social, and individual states of boundedness that are physical, cognitive, and emotional. In our homes, we have physical, social, and emotional spaces such as the kitchen, the living room, bedrooms, and the bathroom. These physical boundaries evoke a much deeper sense of boundedness. In our homes and in our lives more broadly, we have public, liminal (transitional), and private spaces. In many respects, “source and summit” can be defined as a state that is bounded. Rahner and Phan expanded Vatican II’s concepts and statements about the “source and summit” of our faith.This expansion gave us a much larger map of “source and summit” beyond the formal celebration of the Eucharist. Rahner gives us the cosmic boundedness of creation held in being and continuously created and healed that echoes the Divine Milieu of Chardin. Phan bridges the divide between formally prescribed liturgical ritual and the messy creativeness of popular religiosity in the awareness of the divine and its celebration primarily, but not exclusively, outside the physical walls of the church building.

 

Beyond a sense of physical space, boundedness refers to the influence of external conditions. This diagram from the environmental website Inhabitat.com  shows various physical and biological states that determine the viability of life on the planet. These are boundary states. For example, genetic diversity has decreased below a safe level. The remaining species might be wiped out by a sudden disease or event because the diversity of these species is lacking. The potato famine in Ireland is a case in point. There was little diversity and when the dominant variety of potatoes was destroyed by a blight in the mid-1800s, thousands of people starved to death. A review of this chart shows which environmental factors are within safe limits and those that are not for life on space ship Earth.

Shifting our focus from the planet to our Life in the Spirit, we can look at three boundary conditions of “source and summit.” We experience God as “source and summit” in our personal mystical experience in nature and everyday life. We also have experiences of God in our prayers and celebrations at home. Of course, we are used to thinking of encountering God in formal services, “cultic behavior” in church buildings. If we look at this diagram as a continuum, we can see that the varying approaches of Fr. Manalo’s study participants focused on various parts of the spectrum relative to their experience of the origin points of their primary experience of meaning (source) and their customary points of their peak experiences of peace-filled transcendence (summit).

Although, each of the participants in the study had an affiliation with St. Agnes Parish, their attendance at Sunday Mass varied extensively despite being deeply spiritual / religious people with rich inner lives and exemplary public lives. Clearly, our place on this transcendental spectrum can change throughout the day, from day to day, and month to month.

If we look at declining rates of Sunday observance by Catholics and devotional practice, we might see them as a shift from public expression to a more interior disposition. American cultural disillusionment with its own civil and religious institutions is shown by the lack of moral leadership these institutions are accorded. The sex abuse crisis has also converted institutional Catholicism into a place of danger and moral indifference in the view of many Catholics.

The other cultural factor facing American Catholicism is the broadening of these states of boundedness or membership since Vatican II, as demonstrated in the thought of Karl Rahner and Peter Phan. Rahner talks about the “anonymous” Christian. This is a person who may never have heard of Christ but is nevertheless touched and guided by the Holy Spirit, since God’s love is never limited by what we do or do not do. Peter Phan has refocused the idea of the source and summit of our lives to be God. He makes the point that God is active in our private devotions and in all of creation. The Second Vatican Council re-asserted the ancient teaching from the Gospels that the Holy Spirit is leading people in a variety of ways. We do not save ourselves. Clearly, the Church emphasizes the dignity of the human person in the sacrosanct inner core of conscience. This effectively encourages an emphasis on the heart as opposed to the false security of merely observing institutional mandates.

Perhaps, the bigger question for us as ministers is why people are finding more meaning in the informal worship (popular religion) of traditional devotions, evangelical churches, or the New Age folks who refer to the Supreme Being as “the Universe.” The boundary conditions for religion and spirituality in our current culture have shifted. To a degree this is the result of bigger social and cultural boundary conditions regarding what it is to be an American. In the past, Americans were defined by their church membership, ethnicity, service clubs, neighborhoods, obedience to authority, and trust in the democratic process. Religious people used to be defined more narrowly by their church attendance and adherence to rules, such as not eating meat on Friday, going to Confession (Reconciliation) on Saturdays, and attending Catholic schools and universities. To be an American is something much broader these days and so is being a Catholic Christian. We are unlikely to change this constellation of economic and social forces in an era of social media.

Perhaps the way for people to find their way to the cultic end of the spectrum and into our churches is to engage people through work for peace and justice. The other is, of course, to be with people and listen to them without an agenda. In today’s boundaries, we find that experiencing and sharing in God, the source and summit, is something we do with others. Heart speaks to heart – Cor ad cor loquitor – as St Augustine said of his own conversion.

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Posted by on Dec 7, 2017

Why Aren’t People Coming to Mass? – The Socio-Cultural Context of the Liturgy

Liturgy Takes Place in the Body

 

Your Glorious Body is On Order

Theologian Nathan Mitchell links Rahner’s view of the glorification of the human body with that of St. Paul. Both the human body and the human world are to be transfigured. “As Karl Rahner likes to say, we Christians are ‘the most sublime of materialists.’” [1] The end times, eschatology, requires the presence of the body since it involves the completion or fulfillment of humanity. It is anthropological in the sense of Christian theology’s view of the meaning and purpose of human existence.

This return to St Paul’s Jewish conception of the whole human person is at odds with the Greek philosopher Plato who lived about 500 years before Christ. This split view of the human person and the philosophy of Plato influenced the non-Jewish concept of Christianity in the first few centuries of the church. The modern mind body split was advocated by Rene Descartes (1596-1650).   The human being is a spirit in a physical, perishable, inglorious container – that mortal coil that we are to shed, to shrug off. Instead, According to St. Paul we are to be glorified in Christ. We will have a post-resurrection body, a post resurrection existence beyond the constraints of space-time.  “Rather, Jesus embodied humanity signifies that our flesh belongs forever to the very definition of the Divine.” [2]

However current neuroscience shows that we cannot separate the mind and the body. One cannot exist without the other. Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain [3] Damasio argues that human emotion is the source of human reason. Generally, emotion has been relegated to the domain of the physical body in the sense that it is subordinate to human reason. In classical Greek thinking, the daimon is that disordered divine fire that challenges the orderly function of society. The daimon is Socrates’ inner light.  Even in the modern Freudian construct, the id is a disruptive force that threatens the ego and must be overcome by the superego.

In traditional Christian asceticism (physical and spiritual practices that bring us closer to God), the flesh and its desires are something to be controlled, conquered, and ultimately, denied. Even the traditional Greek notion of contemplation, theorein is to see with the mind, to understand. These unseemly, emotionally, messy parts of our being will somehow be blotted out in our salvation according to this approach. If we are leaving behind the idea that mind and body can be split (dualism), how can our emotions which are key to our relationships be glorified? How can such unwieldy things move into that glorification of the body which is the seat of all relationships and the primary means of our entering into the life of the Trinity – a life that is pure relation?

In the ancient eastern churches, there is a screen between the people and the sanctuary. It is  a stand filled with icons. It is called an iconstasis. The doors of the iconstasis are the doors of heaven, how does our emotional physicality allow us to enter the Kingdom as truly human and divine? In the eastern Catholic and Orthodox traditions people are saved by entering into the life of the Trinity. Like Christ we a become human and divine in our body and soul. The liturgy takes place in our bodies since we are present and active. How then are we glorified in this emotional physicality in the formal liturgy? Clearly, this is more evident in African and African-American liturgies as well as those of the Charismatic Renewal where there is singing, clapping, dancing, and joyous praise. However, our polite, suburban, middle class rituals are safely sanitized to avoid any possible messiness of profound human expression.  We call the Spirit down politely, so we can avoid Divine Fire. Our preaching is flat – a styrofoam balm upon the wounds and disappointment of the week and our lives. We sing hymns of praise, but they do not compare to the shouts of spectator sports or the glee of winning a game show.

When we die our bodies are washed by strangers and filled with liquid preservatives and returned to our loved ones pressed and dry-cleaned. This does not seem to be Rahner’s or St. Paul’s moment of glorification. This does look the climax of the Christian meaning of life and death which is called Christian anthropology. The challenge we face in worship is to bring tangible emotion rippling through our loins and sinews. We are challenged and graced to join the full, active, and conscious union of mind, body, and spirit in the dance of the Trinity. Let’s dance!

[1] Mitchell, N D, (2006) Meeting the Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 156

[2] Mitchell, Meeting Mystery, 156

[3] Damasio, Antonio (2008) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Random House

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Posted by on Oct 20, 2017

Why Aren’t People Coming to Mass? – The Socio-Cultural Context of the Liturgy

God’s Relentless Pursuit of Humanity

Jesus began to address them, once more using parables. “The reign of God may be likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the wedding, but they refused to come. … Then he said to his servants: ‘The banquet is ready, but those who were invited were unfit to come. That is why you must to out into the byroads and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.’ The servants then went out into the byroads and rounded up everyone they met, bad as well as good. This filled the wedding hall with banqueters …” (Mt 22:1-14)

Today’s parable is a potent reminder of God’s relentless pursuit of humanity. A King prepared a banquet for the wedding of his son. Take note: It was the King who invited. When he invites, you are mandated to go. People were invited but they refused. Almost begging, the King sent another invitation and each had their own petty excuses.

Religion, they say, is man’s search for God. But the biblical God is different. He searches for man. He longs for him. He initiates. One of the very first words God said to man in the Scriptures are: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Those are not words looking for location and direction, but the words of a lover luring his unfaithful beloved back into the right relationship.

When the English poet Francis Thompson described God as the “Hound of Heaven” (a hound is a dog breed with a strong sense of smell, relentless in pursuing subjects), many were scandalized. But he was right. God is a Divine “hound” whose search for His beloved humanity is relentless and constant.

If the image of God as a hound in pursuit is scandalous, what more is God’s courtesy in His pursuit? He is God. He doesn’t need to ask. Instead, He invites, asks, and proposes. God risks the embarrassment of rejection. If you were in God’s place, I’m sure you would not take that risk.

I once saw a Korean guy who went to the flight attendants, asked for the microphone, and publicly proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the plane. The guy said, “I have something to ask you and you’re free to choose from the four possible answers. You can either say “Yes,” “Of Course,” “Why Not,” and “Absolutely.” So much for freedom, huh? The choices left no room for the possibility of rejection. God took the risk of rejection because that is the way of genuine love. If we were created in a way that we could not say “No” to God, then our “Yes” to Him would be of no value. God longs for our free and genuine “Yes.” For that, He is willing to suffer the embarrassment of an ignorant “No” from a worthless yet arrogant humanity.

God continues to invite us today, through the Holy Eucharist. This is God’s banquet, his wedding reception. That is why all the elements of a party are present in the Eucharist…

For all the beauty of the Eucharist, how many people truly understand the Eucharist so as to be excited to partake of it every week? How many of us who attend are always motivated with real rejoicing in being here?

October 15, 2017

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Posted by on May 1, 2017

Why Aren’t People Coming to Mass? – The Socio-Cultural Context of the Liturgy

A Surprise Gift from the Lord

It happened again the other day. I had gone to the grocery store after dinner to get flour, yeast, and a couple of other things so I could start baking early the next morning. It was time to make the Hot Cross Buns for Holy Week and Easter. I make a very large batch of them in a house that is typically on the cool side, so it can be an all-day process to get the yeast growing fast enough to form and bake the rolls before bedtime.

At any rate, as I was coming out of the store, I crossed the parking lot with my cart of groceries and  man approached with a smile. He had just been rebuffed by another woman, but he seemed unfazed by her rebuff. I figured he was going to ask for a handout. It would have been totally consistent with his clothing and general style of approach. It commonly happens in that particular parking lot. I braced myself for his request and prepared to demur.

Rather than ask for money, however, he asked if he could ask me a question. Keeping my distance and continuing towards my car, I told him he could ask, but I didn’t know if I would answer. He again smiled and simply asked if he could give me something. He was carrying five or six long plant leaves similar to palm fronds, but from a different species of plants. When I accepted his offer, he happily began folding and twisting, and turning one of the leaves.

By this point I was nearly to the car. As he busily worked, I opened the trunk and put the bags of groceries inside. (I’d gotten more than I had anticipated — I often remember more things we need once I get to the store.) As I closed the trunk he smiled and said, “Now for the magic.” Holding his creation in one hand, he firmly pressed down on the top of it and twisted it more closely together with the other. Then he took a second leaf and wrapped it quickly beneath the first, tying it by using his teeth to hold it tightly as he worked. When he finished, he stood up straight, bowed slightly, and offered me a  flower. I smiled my delight and thanked him, exclaiming, “It’s beautiful.” He happily returned my smile and headed off across the parking lot, head held high, with hands that I now realized were wrapped in protective swaths of white bandage material, looking for someone else willing to accept a gift of beauty in the night from a stranger.

And I knew that I had once again met the Lord in the most unexpected of places and times.

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Posted by on Oct 3, 2016

Finding God in All the Wrong People – A Look at the Emerging Church

Finding God in All the Wrong People – A Look at the Emerging Church

Accidental Saints

 

Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Nadia Bolz-Weber with Krista Tippett at the Wild Goose Festival from On Being on Vimeo.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Minister who is described as “not your mother’s minister.” This is a marvelous interview with the woman who is the pastor or “pastorix” as she jokes of the House of  Sinners and Saints in Denver. Raised in the Church of Christ with no drinking, dancing, and no instruments in church Nadia has gone through many years of addiction and stand up comedy. In her Denver church,  she has incorporated the four part a capella singing of her childhood and focuses her preaches on the ongoing death and resurrection of Christians.

Before meeting her husband she had not found a Christianity with a care for the poor and a liturgy. Her getting clean and sober she describes as a “completely rude thing for God to do.” In Lutheranism she discovered a long articulation of belief that she “did not have to get rid of half her brain to accept.” She found an emphasis on God She doesn’t feel responsible for what her congregants believe but she feel responsible for what they hear and experience in the preaching and in the liturgy. they are anti excellence but pro participation. She calls her liturgy “high church and tent revival.”

For a fresh take on traditional Christianity in contemporary language enjoy this interview.

 

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