Thursday, January 30, 2014

Desire is the Destination

Having a hard time getting where you want to go? Jesus’ first followers had the same problem.

Three or four miles out to sea, tossed and turned by gale-force winds and swelling waves, the disciples were having a very hard time getting to their destination. They were exhausted, having spent the day feeding thousands in the Galilean hill-country, and they wanted what we all want after a long and trying day - the comforts of home.[1] This is where the storm-battered disciples encountered the first miracle, one that is very familiar to us – Jesus walking on water.

But then we have the second miracle(s). In Matthew’s gospel, we have Peter walking out onto the water to meet Jesus. Mark’s gospel has Jesus climbing into the boat with them and the waters are calmed. Yet in John, perhaps my favorite ending, a most subtle and curious thing happens. After identifying himself and assuaging their fears, the Scriptures say:

Then they were willing to take him into the boat,
and immediately the boat arrived at their destination.[2]

It is easy to glance over this tiny verse. Reading it quickly, the passage seems to do little more than document two ordinary events – Jesus getting into the boat and the boat arriving at its destination. Nothing miraculous here. Upon closer examination, however, we find another beautiful miracle.

When the disciples were willing to invite Jesus in, they immediately arrived at their destination. We’re talking Star Trek, teleportation stuff here. They suddenly zipped across another four miles of tumultuous sea and arrived at the shore where they were heading because they received Jesus among them.

But the Scriptures go further. It wasn’t that the disciples did receive Jesus into the boat. The weary travellers didn’t reach out their hands and help their water-walking leader into the boat. Various translations put it this way:

“They were willing to take him” (NIV)
“They wanted to take him” (NRSV, NAB)
“They were glad to take him” (RSV)
“They were eager to let him in” (NLT)

The passage tells us that the disciples got to where they were going by the mere desire or willingness to receive Jesus. As Scripture scholar Brooke Westcott put it, “Opposing forces were removed. . . the desired end was gained. . . both from the presence of Christ welcomed.”[3] Pope Francis assures us, “Whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”[4] And he's right: our desire for Jesus, allowing that deep and holy longing come to the surface, is all it takes. 

Having a hard time getting where you want to go? Maybe the question should be, “Am I willing to let Jesus in?” It seems like the destination is in the desire.

It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness;
He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you;
He is the beauty to which you are so attracted;
It is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness
that will not let you settle for compromise;
It is He who urges you to shed the mask of a false life;
It is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices,
It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives.
~Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day, 2000

[1] Five of the twelve disciples were from the seaside villa of Capernaum. Peter and Andrew were originally from Bethsaida but moved to Capernaum. The Zebedee brothers, James and John, were from Capernaum. Finally, Matthew, the former publican and tax collector, was from Capernaum.
[2] Jn 6:21.
[3] Brooke Foss Westcott, John, 1:219; taken from Frederick Dale Bruner’s The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2012), 372.
[4] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 3.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Why Am I So Afraid?"

What’s the most oft repeated commandment in the Bible?  If you were to search every word in every book, every chapter and every verse to find the one thing that God commands most often, what do you think it would be?  “Have no other gods before me”?  “Love one another”?  “Repent and believe”?  You may be surprised that none of those come even close.

365 times in Scripture God says, “Do not be afraid.”  To the trembling Virgin Mary the angel said, “Do not be afraid.”  To the disciples caught in a storm Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.”  In a dream the Lord said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.”  After His crucifixion as the disciples were locked behind closed doors the risen Christ said, “Do not be afraid.”  God’s propensity to repeat Himself here suggests that He understands something fundamental about the human condition.  We are intractably and indefatigably prone to fear.

But “Why?” is the question.  When the Lord is our rock and our salvation, why are we afraid?  When God has conquered sin and death, why are we afraid?  When we’ve been given the Holy Spirit to guide, comfort and empower us, why are we afraid?  When the Lord has promised to be with us till the end of the age, why are we afraid? 

Nelson Mandela, whose 27 years in prison for his work to abolish apartheid taught him much about fear, said these words . . .

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.' We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

What fears are keeping you from shining as a child of God?  What fears are holding you back from trusting God fully? What fears do you need to hand over to God today?  Ask the Lord to uncover your fears and banish them forever.

Have no fear.  
Fear is evil and “perfect Love casts out fear.”  
There is no room for fear in the heart in which I dwell.  
Fear destroys Hope.  It cannot exist where Love is, or where Faith is.

Fear is the curse of the world.  
Humankind is afraid – afraid of poverty, afraid of loneliness, 
afraid of unemployment, afraid of sickness.

Many, many are your fears.  
Nation is afraid of nation.  
Fear, fear, fear, everywhere.  
Fight fear as you would a plague.  
Turn it out of your lives and home.  
Fight it singly.  Fight it together.  
Never inspire fear.  It is an evil ally.  
Fear of punishment, fear of blame.

No work that employs this enemy of Mine is work for me.  
Banish it.  
There must be another and better way.

Ask Me, and I will show it to you.[1]

[1]           A.J. Russell (ed.), God Calling, Jove Publications, Inc.: Grand Rapids, MI, 1998.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


A group of American psychologists performed a series of experiments.[1] They took a class of young theological students and placed them at the end of a very long hallway of a hospital. The students were told that they were being tested on verbal retention.[2] Each student was asked to walk into a room, listen to a passage read aloud to them, and proceed to walk to the other end of the long corridor where they were to repeat what they heard. Simple enough.

In the first experiment, they broke the subjects into two groups. To the one group they read random passages from secular literature. To the other group they read the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible.[3] What the researchers didn’t tell them was that they had stationed a broken, battered-looking man (much like the accosted traveler from the parable) about halfway down the hall. What they were really studying was the effect of the parable – whether hearing the story of the Good Samaritan would increase the likelihood of these do-gooding seminarians actually stopping to help this man in need.

It did not. Only a small percentage of students stopped at all and the students hearing the parable were no more likely to stop than those who had heard a random passage. Hmm.

In the second experiment, the researchers read the Good Samaritan story to both groups, but they added one little twist. They left the seminarian subjects with one parting instruction – “Hurry.”

The result? No one stopped. Not a single student.

As inspired as they were to study theology, as bright as they were in biblical exegesis, hurry left them deaf to the clarion call of God crying out to them in the hustle and bustle of modern life. As motivated as they were to help the world in need, as passionate as they were about the Good News of Jesus, hurry left them blind to the suffering flesh of Christ lying right there before them.

“Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalmist says.[4] We hear it, we repeat it, we recite it ad nauseam.  Yet we hurry to the next appointment, the next email, another post, an extra tweet. We quickly respond to each buzz of our phone and anxiously await a reply. “We’re so busy,” we say, exhausted. Yet deep down we know that we wear it like a badge of honor, like a fine garment that tells the world how important we are.

Catherine Doherty, the Catholic contemplative and activist who hung out with the likes of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa once wrote:

Stand still, and allow the deadly restlessness of our tragic age fall away like the worn-out, dusty cloak that it is. That restlessness was once considered the magic carpet to tomorrow, but now we see it for what it really is: a running away from oneself, a turning from the journey inward that every person must undertake to meet God dwelling within the depths of their souls.[5]

This day, this year, this very moment, for the love of GodSTOP. BE STILL. OPEN YOUR EYES. PRAY. LISTEN.

You might be surprised how often God shows up.

[1] This story was taken from one of my favorites, a spiritual classic in its own right: Donald Nicholl, Holiness (NY: Paulist Press, 1981), 65-66.
[2] If there is one thing I learned from Psychology 101 it is that whatever subjects are told they’re being tested on is probably not it!
[3] Lk 10:29-37.
[4] Ps 46:10.
[5] Catherine Doherty, Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer (Combermere, ON: Madonna House Publications, 2000), 7.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Let Your Life Speak

Let your life speak. It’s an old Quaker saying and the title of Parker Palmer’s 1999 book that I’ve probably read five times and given away many more times over. Palmer begins with a poem and a penetrating statement, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” It begs the question, “Is the life I’m living the one that I want to live?”

This question has all the trappings of a New Year’s resolution. Do I really want to be a couch potato or would I rather be fit? Do I really want to watch all this mindless TV or should I read more books?  In the end, these are all very easy questions to answer. Of course we’d like to exercise more, eat less, read more, complain less, spend more time with family and less time on Facebook.

But this is not what Palmer is getting at. The central thrust of Palmer’s book has less to do with what you’d like your life to be and more to do with what your life wants you to be. It is not about becoming more disciplined and stalwart so as to procure the life that you’ve always wanted, even if that life is a very religious one. A true life worth living is not primarily a product of self-determination and hard work (two values which are highly prized in our culture).

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[1]

Palmer reminds us that life has a voice of its own and this voice commonly eludes even our loftiest ideals and heroes. Sure, we have the best intentions. Many of our resolutions are inspired by the witness of great figures like Pope Francis, Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr. In this light, we commonly mistake the idea of “letting your life speak” with gathering all the most laudable values and traits of these people and setting our minds to imitating them.

These intentions are no doubt "good," but they, like many of our New Year’s resolutions, seldom work. “The results were rarely admirable,” Palmer says, “often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out.”[2] My true self, living inside out, the Real.

What Palmer is getting at is something that he learned from Thomas Merton - Trappist monk, Catholic thinker and one of Palmer’s favorite authors.[3] Underneath the deafening cacophony of our own plans and visions, beyond the proud confines of our self-made identity, aside from all the distractions and confusions of postmodern life, there is a “hidden wholeness” that calls out to us.[4] It is the voice of Wisdom, the Logos, the Christ, and it is begging for an audience.

If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that dancing.[5]

In this New Year, I pray that you and I might quiet ourselves just long enough to hear the faint echoes of this eternal dance, to allow our hearts and our limbs to be animated not by the drumbeats of power, popularity and prestige (or maybe our own "good" intentions), but by the rhythms of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. “Since we live by the Spirit,” Paul says,  “let us keep in step with the Spirit.”[6] I don’t want to spend 2014 “marching to my own drummer,” but following the sacred song of our Savior and dancing in step to the glorious symphony of God’s kingdom.  

Our lives are speaking. The real question is: Are you listening?

[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 3.
[2] Ibid.
[3] I’ll never forget the experience of Parker Palmer reading Thomas Merton aloud to me during a private visit to his home in Madison, WI. His eyes were ablaze as his deep and gentle voice floated melodious Mertonian insights across his study. I seriously had to ask myself, “Is this really happening right now?!!!”
[4] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia,” in Thomas P. McDonnell, ed., A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Doubleday, 1974, 1989), 506.
[5] Thomas Merton, “The General Dance,” in Thomas P. McDonnel, ed., A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Doubleday, 1974, 1989), 504.
[6] Galatians 5:25.