Thursday, the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings:

1 Samuel 4:1-11, Psalm 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-25, Mark 1:40-45

Sometimes when reading passages from Scripture it’s a single word or phrase that catches my attention and is the basis for reflection. Today the elaborate story of Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines is too significant to be put aside. The Psalm reinforces my sense that Israel’s defeat is the issue to be talked about because the Psalm is a lament about being defeated.

The key here is the question raised in 1 Samuel, “Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?” How often do we feel like asking the same question? How come I feel defeated? Why isn’t God on my side? Two things occur to me when faced with this kind of question. First, Israel isn’t afraid to ask the question. In fact Israel has a long history of being disappointed with the way God is handling things. Remember that after being rescued from Egypt the Israelites complained at separate times about lack of food and lack of water. They literally put God to the test. Given dire circumstances it’s appropriate to complain to God about what’s happening. It has to do with being in a living relationship. It takes a strong relationship to support honest, passionate argument. We aren’t likely to take our deepest worries to someone who doesn’t care or worse will walk away because what is said is hard to hear. When we’re upset about something it only helps if we talk to people we can trust. So ultimately this question reveals a solid relationship that Israel can count on.

The problem is Israel doesn’t understand what’s going on. The fact they “don’t get it” is stunningly revealed when they bring the Ark to the battle scene and they lose even worse than the first time. The ark is captured and Eli’s, two sons are killed. That is a serious defeat and this is where our reading ends for today. There is no escape from this loss. Which brings me to my second impression about this situation when it seems God isn’t working on our side. My thought is maybe something needs to change. In other words, if life is beating us up so badly that we think God has abandoned us then maybe it’s time to choose another path. Maybe this defeat is God’s way of telling us what we need to hear.

The possible confusion is that doing anything worthwhile takes effort and often costs us something to accomplish. So the trick is to correctly evaluate whether what is going on is truly an overwhelming, game changing defeat or just a reasonable challenge to success. My own experience was that when faced with total crushing defeat I frankly felt that if I didn’t make a change, what was going on was literally going to kill me. It was a point of having to choose a new life or face death. Which interestingly enough is what has happened to the Israelites. Their current course of action is killing them by the thousands.

When the situation is dire then it matches the Psalm today, “For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth.” If God is telling us to make a change then we will find what is needed. Lepers were totally excluded from ancient society. But the leper in today’s Gospel sought out Jesus and was healed. That healing changed his life. If our world collapses then we need to look just as hard to find what will heal us.

Wednesday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings:

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19-20, Psalm 40:2, 5, 7-10, Mark 1:29-39

Today’s first reading is the namesake for this blog. It begins by saying it was a time when revelations and visions were infrequent. A description that if it doesn’t fit our world reflects what many people believe, i.e. God doesn’t operate in our world the way God did in Biblical times. If God exists then God is distant and only watches us. A popular song a few years ago expressed this exact sentiment.

What happens next in Samuel is what I have taken to be instructive. God calls out to young Samuel in his sleep and Samuel simply goes to Eli to answer the call. Eli however, isn’t calling Samuel. This happens three times before Eli realizes that it’s God who is calling Samuel. He says, “if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel is called and replies as instructed and from then on is a prophet of the Lord. I believe God is calling to us, all of us, all the time. However, we often don’t realize who is doing the calling. Too often there is no one who can tell us who is doing the calling. We can go along for a long time trying to answer the wrong call.

Importantly I am not taking this act of being called literally. I think it’s a way to talking about knowing who we are and what we are about. The general answers to those questions are: that we are loved by God, meaning worthwhile valued human beings, who are here to love and care for one another as participants in God’s gift of God’s self to the world. How each of us works this out should be the joy of being who we are. I’m convinced God is trying to engage us in our own personal adventures, if you will. The question is, are we listening? Do we pay attention to the people and events in our lives that say something about what is good for us? Are taking the time away from all the rush of living to see what’s actually going on?

Today’s Gospel can be seen as a sample of what real listening to God can accomplish. Are we going to invite Jesus into our home like Simon and Andrew did? The results can be quite dramatic. Simon’s mother-in-law was restored to health. Not only were town’s people cured of illness but Jesus drove out many demons. Isn’t that exactly what we want, to rid ourselves of the demons that plague our lives?

We have to do what Samuel did and what is wonderfully expressed in our Psalm response. We have to respond, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” We have to say, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.” If we can sort out what is good and worthwhile. If we can be honest about who we are and follow our deepest desires then the words of the Psalm will truly ring home.

I have waited, waited for the LORD, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
Blessed the man who makes the LORD his trust;
who turns not to idolatry or to those who stray after falsehood.

Which is followed by:

To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!”

This certainly is Good News.

Tuesday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings:

1 Samuel 1:9-20, 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-8, Mark 1:21-28

What I noticed in today’s readings was the comment about Hannah after her visit to the temple, she “no longer appeared downcast.” That seems pretty straight forward. In her own words to Eli she describes herself as in “deep sorrow and misery.” So she had come to the Temple and “in her bitterness she prayed to the LORD, weeping copiously.” This was a heart-felt appeal. I think it’s exactly the place where we can feel God’s support.

Catholic’s have a wonderful and useful tradition of published prayers. Everything from the Eucharistic liturgy to the rosary and before and after meal prayers. Catholic schools and parish religious education programs work very hard to pass on these forms of prayer to each new generation. However, that tradition can have the tendency to steer an individual toward more formal and impersonal forms of praying. At minimum the words of prayer are not ours. Worse, we may not be connecting the act of prayer with what is happening for us at a personal level.

We can learn from Hannah. This woman is being totally honest with God and herself. That starts with coming to prayer, “in her bitterness.” Plus she blatantly wants to make a deal with God. This is not, however, a calculated action. What I see here is utter desperation. She is laying herself out there by not holding anything back. If we’re going to talk to God, I think that’s exactly what prayer requires. It involves brutal honesty about who we are, how we feel and what we want. There’s something holy in that process. According to this story it’s the kind of prayer to which God responds. It’s also been my personal experience that when I was emotionally spent and there seemed to be nothing left, at that very point, something changed and I felt better and more able to deal with what needed to be done.

I think it is from these kinds of emotional turn-arounds that the Psalmists and today Samuel exclaims, “My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.” Note he says, “My heart.” Consider how much of what we read in the Psalms is meant to refer to human events or can be understood to be about the human emotional landscape:

“The LORD puts to death and gives life;

 he casts down to the nether world;

 he raises up again.

 The LORD makes poor and makes rich:

 he humbles, he also exalts.”

Isn’t that where we are most likely to find our God, connected to the deepest part of who we are? That’s certainly what is going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue based on his own authority, which to me suggests he talking from his own experiences and what the Scripture of the day means in his life. So this is already a personal encounter with the group. Some man “with an unclean spirit” reveals his deepest fears. Whatever “possessed” this man, it was deeply personal. Jesus’ own personal honesty so jarred him that he couldn’t abide what that might mean for him. The Gospel has already revealed that the other people were “astonished” at what Jesus was saying. Jesus, unwilling to enable any further dysfunction, heals the pain that has occupied the deepest parts of this man.

I would suggest that praying to God: actual prayer, being able to make the connection, may require that we recognize our deepest secrets, fears, wounds and desires. Maybe we need to name the “unclean spirits” in order to expel them from our lives. God certainly is listening.

Monday, First Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Scripture Readings:

1 Samuel 1:1-8, Psalm 116:12-19, Mark 1:14-20

The challenge with the reading from Samuel is that it is a small first segment of the story of Samuel. We don’t have any of the details from the rest of the story which are usually the focus of what’s important. It is, however, a good exercise in staying with the scripture piece we have instead of importing what we already know from outside this part of the sacred text. I have always thought that it’s valuable to stick with the given text because it forces us to pay attention to little things we might not notice otherwise. It’s too easy to rush on to well-known details that supply a point we’ve all heard before instead of listening closely enough to discover something new for ourselves. I just think God has things for us in every little nook and cranny of life or text but it takes time and real attention to discover it.

What I notice about these first lines in 1 Samuel is that even though Hannah is barren and therefore the subject of ridicule from others, her husband is making open extra efforts to tell her she is special to him. He’s breaking the social attitudes of the time. He loves her for who she is and not because she might give him many sons with which to build his influence and posterity. There are no details here about why he likes her. He just prefers her over the other wife who has given him children. This is exactly the opposite of what someone would expect at the time.

So now looking at Mark’s Gospel I think I see another example of “no good reason” for choosing someone. Jesus having announced that the Kingdom of God is at hand has begun to collect disciples. He’s choosing them. This is exactly opposite of the way rabbis or teachers at the time collected students. Students sought out a teacher. Teachers didn’t go ask for students. What’s more, for me, there’s no interview process here. No culling for the best talent. How many, even really good fisherman, would have the skill set to “fish for people?” I think this is a case of someone who simply likes another person. In this case, at first sight, these guys appealed to Jesus. Again no details about why, he simply chooses them.

Often the conversation about this passage revolves around the fisherman immediately dropping a secure profession and going off to follow Jesus. In this case I think it’s very interesting that Jesus like Elkanah, the husband in 1 Samuel, simply prefers or likes these people. Jesus offers them something he expects to be life changing. He will show them how to do something new, Mark says, “I will make you fishers of men.” These men, who just happened to be there, have been chosen and I think that’s significant even for us today.

I think this story is exactly the pattern that we experience in recognizing God in our lives. God offers us something right in the midst of whatever we happen to be doing. I don’t think this is necessarily a call to ministerial service or a call to change professions. I think it is a message to every single one us that says: God prefers, loves and wants to favor us. No resume required. God’s out to collect people for his Kingdom. Like Jesus who simply, “walked a little further” and found the next two fisherman. God keeps asking people who are right there even if we are socially unacceptable like Hannah or ill equipped for what’s next like the fishermen.

The only problem is, we’re often the ones who don’t believe we are lovable or worthy of being favored. Hannah was offered a double portion of the food but refused to eat. Her husband begs her but she refuses. Are we willing to respond? Are there attitudes we have to drop or behaviors we need to stop doing to accept what is being offered? Are there things we want to change but haven’t felt it was possible? Perhaps we have to recognize the people or situations that are trying to show us something good. The Psalm today talks about thanking God for all the good things God has done. Like the Psalmist we must be willing to “take up” the “cup of salvation.” Are we paying enough attention to discover how this cup is being offered?

Memorial, St. John Neumann

Today’s Scripture Readings:

1 John 4:7-10, Psalm 72:1-4, 7-8, Mark 6:34-44

Our first reading from John’s letter is so strong we can hardly ignore its call for love. I suspect most people accept the idea that love is synonymous with God. It’s also important to remember that we have learned that because of Jesus who we believe was the actual expression of God in human life. I also like that John wants to draw a real connection between being a loving person and knowing God. The idea is that we should act as God acts and when we do there is a connection between us and God. John puts it this way: “Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” This is an example of how physical life and spiritual life are one thing and not separated. Today, however, I am thinking more about what it means to love.

Often when we think about God’s loving we can cast it in big dramatic terms like today’s Psalm: “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.” These are descriptions of what Messianic times will bring. This is a description of heaven, if you will, wherever you want to situate “heaven.” If you have read even a few of my blogs you know I think heaven is something that is more available to us now than we might normally suspect. So for me the key to what it means to love is not so much the ultimate peace of all humankind but what is part of our lives right now. We can find that in today’s Gospel from Mark.

It may seem ironic that having just written off “big dramatic” events I’m turning to the feeding of 5,000 as a means for examining the idea of love. Let me explain. Too often the feeding of 5,000 gets bogged down in “did this really happen” questions? I think we need to remember it’s a story meant to carry a message of meaning for human life. What we have is a group of people that Jesus describes as “like sheep without a shepherd.” These people are lost, not geographically, but emotionally, maybe socially. These are people who are searching. They are looking to be “fed.” So this is about everyone who is trying to sort things out.

The disciples want to send them off to solve their own problems. Surely there are bigger, better resources in the towns and villages around than we have right here. Jesus, however, will not send them away. He says, “Give them some food yourselves.” And when the disciples object because doing something themselves will obviously cost them too much. Jesus asks, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see?” His disciples are forced to take an inventory of what they actually have to give. What they have doesn’t look like much. The story says, “Five loaves and two fish.” Anyone would know that isn’t enough to feed this huge crowd. Still, Jesus, opens himself and the situation to the promise of the heavenly banquet and the disciples simply give what they have to the people. The result, “They all ate and were satisfied.” These 5,000 men not only found the nourishment they needed but had 12 baskets of leftovers as well.

I think a group of disciples gave of themselves to more people than they could have imagined and those people not only found what they needed but then had more to give as well. That’s what God does in this world. God loves and enables us by saying we have something to give. When we can open ourselves and pass it on by loving one another, there is abundance. Maybe that’s a big dramatic event after all.

Solemnity, Mary the Mother of God

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6, 8, Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:16-21

One of the things about reflecting on Scripture, or our lives for that matter, is you have to pay attention to the details. Sacred Scripture is the result of many people pouring over the text for years and then other people doing the same thing again, keeping, adding and adjusting until what we have in our Bibles is an amazingly refined piece of work. Nothing is in there by accident, nor was it something that someone dashed off in a moment of hurried necessity.

So I make this point because there’s a detail in today’s reading that I think raises very interesting questions. I think I noticed it because today is the solemnity of Mary as the Mother of God. Luke is talking about the shepherd’s coming to visit Jesus and passing on to Mary and Joseph what the angel’s had told them. And then he says, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” This reminds me of the scene later in Luke after Jesus, now 12, has been talking with the teachers in the temple. Once again Luke says, “His mother kept all these things in her heart.” So for me, Luke is saying Mary is trying to understand what these events mean even after visits from angels. Why else do you reflect on something?

This pattern began the first time the angel comes to Mary and announces that she is favored by God. According to Luke, Mary’s response was to be disturbed and “asked herself what this greeting could mean.” Luke is portraying Mary as not being sure what is going on. To me the real indicator comes after the angel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is six months pregnant and she immediately leaves and goes “as quickly as she could” to see Elizabeth. I’m convinced she’s going primarily to verify what the angel has told her.

We see this same behavior in the shepherds of today’s reading. The angel announces Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds and gives them a sign they can verify. This child will be lying in a manger, an animals feeding trough. What do they do? They go “in haste” to see if it’s true. Luke spells out the evidence, they find “the infant lying in a manger.” And only then do they tell Mary and Joseph the message of the angel. Finally, when they return glorifying God for all they had seen it is because it was, “just as it had been told to them.” In other words they weren’t sure it was true until they could see it.

Now you could write off Mary’s reflecting on all these things in her heart as devote behavior in the face of divine revelations. However, I think Luke is giving us a sample of what happens when we encounter God acting in our lives. What, in retrospect, we interpret as God’s help in our lives is often something we didn’t recognize at the time. Coming to see God’s action is a process of real life verification, checking out what parts are good and what isn’t. I don’t think we should read these wonderful Bible stories and think, “how come that doesn’t happen anymore?” It wasn’t obvious to the people at the time. It took time for people to figure out that these events were God’s action.

Luke’s telling of the story is from the perspective of one who understands the significance of what happened. We shouldn’t take them so literally that we miss the underlying meaning. Without undercutting the point of the story Luke is hinting at what it might have been like for the original participants. Which suggests what it might be like for us. God could be bowling us over and we may not, in the moment, recognize what turns out to have been an angel in front of us.