Retreat: Living and Praying the Gospels

Living and Praying the Gospel sign

Register by clicking on the link below: 

https://www.z2systems.com/np/clients/transformationscenter/event.jsp?event=1265&

Participants will receive a copy of Tim’s book “What Jesus Said
and Why It Matters Now” as a take home gift to help them integrate the
retreat experiences into their daily lives.

The program fee is $55 when received by April 17; $60 thereafter. Bring your
journal, lunch is provided. Please register by April 24. Payment in full is due prior to
arrival.

 

The Easter Transformation

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus is Raised from the Dead (Matthew 28:1-10)

Gospel Quote

“‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’” (Matthew 28:5-6)

Gospel Reflection

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’s experience of the resurrection and their encounter with the Risen Christ leave them profoundly changed. That experience is a defining moment, dividing their lives into “before” and “after.” The resurrection forces them to change their views of life and death and their beliefs about how God is present. Easter turns their lives upside down in some wonderful ways, including the discovery that Jesus is alive. Yet it also calls them beyond themselves to a frightening mission.

As we reflect on the story of Jesus’ resurrection, we are invited to explore the defining moments in our own lives – those experiences that called us to transformation. As we do so, we join the women in their struggle to let go of fear and trust the resurrection. With them we discover the God of the resurrection who turns our sorrow into joy and transforms our deaths into new life.

Easter urges us to move beyond our fear and trust new life. There is no doubt that Easter frightens the women at the tomb. Both the angel and the Risen Christ try to reassure them with the same words: “Do not be afraid.” Like the women, our experience of the Easter transformation begins with fear.

My friend Nancy, an artist, once described her struggle with moving from fear to trust. She was taking a class to learn how to make printing plates. The process involves engraving a negative image into a metal plate with a sharp tool. When the finished plate is inked, it prints a positive image on paper. Nancy was in the studio working under the supervision of her teacher. She had been working on her plate for many hours, and she was trying to finish some of the intricate detail in the design. She had so much time invested in the plate that she was being very careful not to make a mistake. The teacher observed her tentative movements and said, “Nancy, you have to use great force on the plate or you’ll never finish it.” Instinctively, Nancy rebelled, explaining: “But, if I make a mistake, all my work will be ruined!” The teacher responded, “You have to trust that even if you make a mistake, you can rework the flaw into the beauty of a new design.”

Easter calls us to trust a life-from-death God who helps us rework our flaws into the beauty of a new design. That God urges us to leave the tombs and closets of our fears behind and surrender to transformation. Easter urges us to embark on a journey to become our best and truest selves confident that the God of the resurrection is with us no matter what comes.

Easter turns sorrow to joy. The women left the tomb filled with “great joy.” The story reveals that joy is a defining characteristic of Easter people. As we reflect on the story of Jesus’ resurrection, it invites us to consider the measure of joy in our own lives.

As I consider the emotions that color my life, I am forced to admit that there are times my score on the “joy meter” comes up short. To be more candid about it, sometimes my attitude stinks. I have some positive traits, such as being generous. On the other side of the ledger, however, are my tendencies to be over-responsible and over-committed. As a result, all too often I go too far and begin to lug around the weight of the world. Thinking that I’m air traffic control for the universe, I get myself worked up and walk around stoop-shouldered and grim-faced. If you’ve seen the cartoon of Ziggy walking around with a storm cloud over his head, you get the idea.

There is more to Easter joy than some kind of magical mood swing from sad to happy. The joy of Easter is compelling because it is deeper than a “smiley-face” view of life that fails to grasp the way life is unfair, tragic and violent. Easter joy is not born in the shallow avoidance of life’s dark places or the naïve inability to grasp the reality of evil. It is born in suffering, yet rooted in the conviction that death is not final. It dispels the notion that despair is our birthright by declaring that evil will not prevail. Easter joy is born at the tomb on the morning when the one who endured terrible suffering and a violent death rose victorious with coattails long enough to take all of us with him. Christian joy doesn’t avoid what is painful and tragic. It endures it all, passes through and rises on the other side victorious.

Easter brings new life out of death. We experience death in the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, the failure to reach a lifelong goal or the passing of a loved one. As we reflect on the passage from death to life, we search our experience of death to discover the God of life.

One Thanksgiving, I experienced a painful inner death. At the time my stepchildren were teenagers. Carla and I wanted to make the family’s meal prayer more meaningful, so we decided to encourage each person at the table to give thanks for something specific. Carla and I agreed that I would explain the prayer and then begin the litany of thanks. I had led similar prayers on any number of occasions but never with my family.

Something in the intimacy of that experience triggered unexpected emotions. Before I could get half a sentence out, the words stuck in my throat. I became totally incoherent, and I felt extremely vulnerable. My eyes filled with tears, and I couldn’t continue. I sat there in a terrible silence, struggling to regain my composure. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I was forced to give up. I motioned to the person sitting next to me to continue and I slumped down in my chair completely humiliated.

As I sat there dying, something amazing happened. Each person at the table began to share prayers of gratitude. Soon the litany of thanks to God and to each other was flowing freely. One of my stepdaughters had been fighting with her mother and me for several days. She concluded her prayer by thanking God for “semi-reasonable parents.” I was stunned. The God of the resurrection brought new life out of death. Something in me had died, but something wonderful rose from the ashes to transform those of us gathered at table.

There are many ways to pass from death to life. We experience the Easter transformation whenever we extend ourselves on behalf of someone else. We experience it when we keep our own egos in check to make room for the growth and change that love requires. We experience it whenever we devote ourselves to something greater than we are – whether we pour ourselves out a little bit each day for years or give ourselves once and for all in a moment of total sacrifice. In all those deaths, the God of the resurrection is with us as surely as the day that I was struck dumb to clear the way for new life.

Questions to Ponder

  • In what way is Easter urging you to move beyond your fear and trust the resurrection?
  • To what extent is your life characterized by Easter joy?
  • What experiences in your life have helped you discover new life in places of death?

Invitation to Prayer

Life-giving God of Easter, transform my fear into trust. You know the ways that fear dominates me, triggering my defenses and causing knee jerk reactions. Open my heart to the Easter message: “Do not be afraid.” Help me to trust that you are with me, bringing life out of death and reworking my flaws into the beauty of a new design. Give me the courage to embark on the journey of trust to become my best and truest self. Give me a deep and abiding confidence that you are with me no matter what comes. Alleluia!

Life-giving God of Easter, turn my sorrow into joy. You know every emotion and mood that colors my life. You know when I have a bad attitude and when my life is characterized by joy. When I walk around grim-faced and stoop-shouldered, remind me that Easter has the power to weave sunshine out of rain. Let the pain and suffering that I endure give way to the joy of Easter. Let it seize my heart and overflow onto all those I meet. Alleluia!

Life-giving God of Easter, bring new life out of my experience of death. You know how fiercely I resist dying and cling instead to my selfish attempts to get my own way. Give me the courage to surrender to the power of Easter. Help me trust you are with me – bringing new life out of the ways I die to myself every day. Prepare me for the day that you will call me through the dark tunnel of death so that I may be ready to embrace the light of Christ. Alleluia!

 

Overwhelmed by the Risen Christ

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Thanks to Tony Dugal for providing the picture for this post!

Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus is Raised from the Dead (Matthew 28:1-10)

Gospel Quote

“Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28:9)

Gospel Reflection

Without warning, the women find themselves standing face-to-face with Jesus. Speechless, they stare at him in open-mouthed disbelief. He is alive! Jesus greets them affectionately, and they collapse at his feet in a heap of jumbled emotions – fear, confusion, amazement, disbelief, joy. Shaking with both excitement and fear, they see the wounds in his feet. Yes, it really is Jesus! They embrace his feet in a gesture of surrender and worship.

Jesus’ words reassure them: “Do not be afraid.” Their eyes are fixed on him, but they are still unable to speak. A torrent of emotion washes over the women as energy and strength flow back into them. Feelings they thought they could never experience again begin to course through their veins. Their broken spirits soar as they encounter a possibility they never imagined.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary must have been overwhelmed by their face-to-face encounter with the Risen Jesus. They were expecting to anoint a corpse, and instead they found themselves in the presence of the Risen Christ. Although we don’t have the experience of seeing the Risen Christ in his glorified body, the story invites us to explore the times in our lives when glimpses of the Risen Christ have overwhelmed us.

I had a glimpse of the Risen Christ one December morning when I hit a patch of black ice driving 60 mph. My car skidded off the road, hit a cement barrier, went airborne, rolled over several times and came to a stop on its roof. I crawled out of that tomb without a scratch.

As I look back on the accident now, I realize that it demonstrated something of what Easter feels like. In that moment, I experienced Christ’s redeeming presence – bringing life out of the places of death. I was overwhelmed by the experience of being spared. We may get glimpses of the Risen Christ in the wonderful or the tragic. We may sense his presence in those experiences where life and death meet. We may recognize him when life has overpowered us and we are struggling to cope. We may find those experiences difficult to trust, even too personal to talk about. Yet in some hard-to-name way, we are aware of Christ’s presence.

When we experience the Risen Christ, we find ourselves struggling to get our bearings. A flood of emotions washes over us, and we are dumbfounded – sometimes speechless, other times babbling. We shake our heads in disbelief, thinking it’s too good to be true. We experience something like the earthquake that the women at Jesus’ tomb endured, and the ground we’re standing on shakes. The tremors vibrate through the beliefs that sustain us, and we struggle to keep our footing.

Every year I get a glimpse of the Risen Christ when I see the faces of those who emerge from the waters of baptism during the Easter Vigil. These men and women come to the baptismal font robed like monks. They take turns kneeling in the font with the water nearly waste deep. The priest plunges each one face first into the water “In the name of the Father . . . ,“ then a second time, “And of the Son . . . ,” and again a third time “And of the Holy Spirit.” As each newly baptized person emerges from the font dripping from head to toe, the congregation greets its new member with a joyful song and heartwarming applause. Those being baptized are overwhelmed. Their faces express a unique mix of surprise, bewilderment, joy, relief and who knows what other emotions. They beam with an inner radiance as they receive the white robe of new life and the candle that represents the light of Christ.

The overwhelming part of the Easter Vigil is not just what happens to those being baptized; it’s what happens to those of us who witness the event. As I watch those who have been transformed by baptism emerge from the water, I well up with tears of both joy and grief. Even though I have already taken the baptismal plunge, I am deeply aware of the many ways that I still need to be redeemed. The new life and profound joy of the newly baptized reveal to me the ways that I resist the waters of life and cling instead to the darkness and death. In spite of my baptism, the redemptive power of the water has not yet fully permeated my being. There is so much in me that still needs to be signed with the cross and washed with the waters of life. There is so much in me that still needs to die with Christ so that I may rise to new life in him. Although I have experienced glimpses of the Risen Christ, I have not yet fully fallen at his feet, embraced his wounds, and worshipped him.

Questions to Ponder

  • When have you experienced glimpses of the Risen Christ?
  • What response do those glimpses of the Risen Christ evoke in you?
  • In what ways do you still need to be signed with the cross and cleansed by the waters of life?

Invitation to Prayer

Life-giving God of Easter, the women at the tomb were overwhelmed by their unexpected encounter with the Risen Christ. When I am overwhelmed by either the wonderful or the tragic, help me to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ. When life overpowers me and I am struggling to cope, give me a deep sense of your presence. Help me to open my life to you so that Easter takes deep root in my spirit. Let my whole life prepare me for the divine ambush when I will finally meet you face-to-face. Alleluia!

 

Surprised by New Life

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus is Raised from the Dead (Matthew 28:1-10)

Gospel Quote

“‘Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” (Matthew 28:2)

Gospel Reflection

The story of Jesus’ resurrection begins where the story of his passion ended – at his tomb. The end becomes a new beginning.

Mary Magdalene and her friend Mary start out for Jesus’ tomb before dawn. Light is just beginning to gather on the horizon, but it is still more night than day. Since Jesus’ suffering and death, grief has allowed them little sleep. Every time they close their eyes, horrible images of his broken and bleeding body flood in on them. The women have cried until no more tears have come. They have raged in anger and collapsed in despair. They’ve held each other and rocked like children. As they walk toward the tomb, they are now silent.

Just as the tomb comes into view, the women are frightened by a powerful earthquake and a blinding light. They are shocked to see that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance. A angel bathed in light is sitting on the stone.

The resurrection takes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary by surprise, and it overwhelms them. In the place of death, they discover new life. This story of Jesus’ resurrection calls us to explore times when we’ve discovered new life in the places of death.

As the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb, they are greeted by the brilliant light of the resurrection. If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that there is something about that light that frightens me. When I encounter its sudden brightness, all too often my first instinct is to cling to the shadows or crawl under a rock. The unredeemed parts of me opt for the darkness. They prefer the moist earth of the tomb even if it leads to decay. The light of the resurrection reveals the doubts, fears and broken places within me that desperately need light yet resist its redemptive power.

The unredeemed parts of us show up in places where they aren’t invited. Late one evening, I was packing to leave on an early morning flight. During the preceding days I had faced multiple deadlines, traveled too much and functioned on too little sleep. As I was putting things into my suitcase, I realized I had forgotten to pick up an item at the store. I exploded, shouting a string of profanities at myself in a crescendo that culminated with the words “I am so stupid!” I had just settled back into a slow burn of silent anger when my wife, Carla, spoke. As gently as she could, she said, “Please don’t say you’re stupid because you’re not.” My response was to glare back at her, refusing to concede the point much less commit to reform.

She was of course, right. At times I do stupid things, but I am not stupid. At that moment, however, the unredeemed parts of me weren’t buying it.

Over the next several days, I reflected on what was behind my demeaning self-talk about being stupid. I recalled times when I was a kid doing chores with my Dad – working on the car, repairing the house or tuning up the lawn mower. The memories are a bitter sweet mixture of darkness and light. In particular, I remembered that when I made a mistake or failed to carry out an instruction properly, my Dad sometimes referred to me as “Sledgehead.” I obviously never asked him to explain the reference, but I always assumed that it referred to the hardness of the forged steel in the head of a sledgehammer. That memory was a glimpse of the origins of the “I am so stupid” self-talk, a first step in reconnecting with some of the broken places inside me.

As I recalled these childhood memories, it was like climbing down a rope ladder into the darkness. I remembered an image that had come to me years before. In that image, I am a young boy of nine or ten in my grandparents’ home – a large old house with all kinds of nooks and crannies. I am sitting on the floor in the front closet hiding in the dark. I feel lost, alone and very sad. That image helped me uncover a broken part of me that had been entombed for years.

For several days I carried the image within me, reflecting on the feelings that accompanied it. I wasn’t really trying to figure out the image, I was just aware of its presence. Slowly, I realized that part of me wanted to stay in the darkness of that closet. Even tombs can be inviting. They may be dark, but at least they are familiar. Yet another part of me was longing for someone to come and open the door. That part of me was hoping to be redeemed, to be brought back into the light.

At some point in reflecting on that image, a powerful insight dawned in me. The knob of the closet door was only inches from my face. I had control of whether I stayed in the darkness. Any time I chose to, I could open the door from the inside and walk into the light.

Sometimes the God of Resurrection comes to us in a blinding light and an angel’s presence. Other times, that same God comes to us in the realization that we are no longer ten years old, that we have a choice about whether we stay in the darkness and that we have within us the power to open the door and walk into the light. My negative self-talk had revealed some broken places within me, and the image of the ten-year-old boy provided guidance for how to respond differently. For me, the light of the resurrection dawned just as surely as it did for the women at Jesus’ tomb. The difference was that the God of Resurrection knew me well enough to expose me to the light slowly, helping me learn to open the closet door a little bit each day.

Whether Easter dawns as a blinding light or as an insight that gathers force over time, it leads us into the light and envelops us in its transforming power.

Questions to Ponder

  • As you reflect on the story of Jesus’ resurrection, what experiences in your own life come to mind?
  • As you encounter the light of Easter dawn, what is your response?
  • What are the Easter moments in your own life – the experiences in which you were surprised to discover in the place of death?

Invitation to Prayer

Life-giving God of Easter, you continue to surprise your disciples with dazzling light and empty tombs. Shine the light of Christ into the unredeemed places within me. You know all my doubts, fears and broken places. You are aware of the ways I resist the light and hide in the darkness. Be relentless in pursuing me with the light of Christ. Give me the courage to open the doors I hide behind. Roll back every stone in my life and help me walk into the light. Alleluia!

 

A Love That Never Fails

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)

Gospel Quote

“Then Jesus cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last.” (Matthew 27:50)

Gospel Reflection

On this Good Friday, our eyes encounter Jesus hanging from the cross. His anguish reveals an outpouring of love that never fails. As our awareness of that image deepens, we learn to experience the cross as a call to give ourselves in love.

It’s mid-morning, and I’m leading a strategy formulation retreat for a corporate client. Surrounded by a group of 15 executives, I get a sudden glimpse of Jesus hanging on the cross. The air is thick with fear as they talk about the company’s poor performance. Egos are threatened, and the blame game is raging out of control. Those with the most power are wielding it while those with less are divided into two camps – one camp is silent and the other is making excuses. I realize that Jesus isn’t the only one hanging from the cross.

One guy launches into an attempt to hijack the meeting, and I feel toxic bile churning in my stomach. As a few willing accomplices join him, a voice in my head screams, “Get the worms back into the can!” That image – Jesus hanging from the cross – stays with me. What is redemptive love asking of me?

In my anger and frustration, I fight two competing instincts. Part of me wants to place my fist in someone’s face, and another part of me wants to run screaming from the room. Jesus’ love holds me fast. Somehow that image – that connection with Jesus on the cross – helps me find my way. I take one breath at a time, and I resist the instinct to take control. Someone begins an attack on me for letting the group flounder, and I swallow hard. I fight the urge to launch a counter attack, and I struggle to empty myself. The image of Jesus deepens into a silent prayer, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

Time seems to stand still, much like it must have for Jesus on that fateful afternoon. Ever so slowly, I sense a subtle shift as the comments contain less venom. The attacks subside, and the tide begins to turn. A woman who has been silent for most of the morning finds her voice. She does what no one else has: she risks speaking openly about her own feelings and names the fear in the room. Her emptying has a redemptive effect, and I breathe a grateful sigh. Several others find their voices, and they begin to speak in the first person. Their vulnerability lets the emptying continue. Slowly, it clears a space in which something new can begin to happen.

The executives confront the reality that their company may be dying. As they find the courage to name that reality, the right discussion begins. Fear starts to give way to determination. The group launches – tentatively – the painful task of working together to find another path. The company’s future – and their own – is far from assured, but the odds are starting to improve.

The image of Jesus hanging on the cross helps me confront the ways that I am dying. As I see the life drain out of him, it helps me connect with the ways that I am called to love deeply enough to embrace death so that others may live. I am called to die by letting go of my agenda – my definitive plan for how life should work – and opening myself to the ideas and suggestions of others. I am called to die by listening deeply to others rather than asserting my position or planning my rebuttal. I am called to die by keeping my ego in check when I want to lash out at others in order to win at all costs. I’m called to die by giving up my preoccupation with appearances and what people think so that I can do the right thing when it’s neither cool nor popular. I am called to die by surrendering in prayer when I’d rather maintain control and call my own shots.

On Good Friday, our Lenten journey brings us to the cross – the place where invitations to love and the cost that they embody come in all shapes and sizes. We experience little ways that invite us to connect with Jesus’ passion every day. It’s the small cross of taking the time to seriously consider a contrary point of view when our minds are already made up. It’s the emptying required to abandon our list of things to do when a child or a friend needs time with us. It’s taking the risk of naming the elephant in the room or raising an ethical question when these could be career-limiting moves. It’s making room in our lives when we unexpectedly cross paths with someone in need. It’s struggling to stay patient and open to someone who needs our time and attention even though we’re fed up with life and running on empty.

The more deeply we reflect on the image of Jesus on the cross, the more we recognize these invitations to pour out our lives in love. By choosing to die in little ways each day, we create the habit of love that shapes our lives. We go to emptying school and learn to surrender. Developing this discipline prepares us for the moment in our lives when we will be called to love enough to risk it all. Someday, the doctor may look at us with a solemn face, deliver the bad news and force us to choose how we will approach death. On that day, we will be called to embrace the cross in love and stay faithful until death. In that moment, which is both our ultimate challenge and our finest hour, we will be called to let go of our lives and fall into the welcoming arms of a God whose love is stronger than death. That will be our ultimate Good Friday, the moment in which death calls us to a new, deeper and more profound life.

Questions to Ponder

  • As you gaze at Jesus hanging on the cross, what thoughts and feelings come to mind?
  • What are the experiences in your life that invite you to embrace the cross – either in little ways or by paying the ultimate price?
  • How does reflecting on the image of Jesus on the cross help you choose to embrace the cross when you are called to do so?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, help me to trust you enough to embrace the cross.

Jesus, you know the ways in which my fear causes me to run from the cross – just as your disciples did on the night of your arrest. Give me the courage to stand with you when I am tempted – even in little ways – to flee from the cross in order to protect myself. Help me trust you enough to embrace the cross.

Jesus, you know how I struggle to let go of control, empty myself and surrender in prayer. Give me the strength to embrace the cross even when I am reluctant to do so and the cost seems too great. Help me trust you enough to embrace the cross.

Jesus, on the day that I am faced with paying the ultimate price, give me the courage and the strength to surrender into the loving arms of God. Help me trust you enough to embrace the cross.

Jesus, help me trust you enough to embrace the cross.

Humbling Ourselves to Wash and Be Washed

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Gospel Story for Holy Thursday

Jesus Washes the Disciples Feet (John 13: 1-17)

Gospel Quote

“’For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” (John 13: 15)

Gospel Reflection

Our Lenten journey now takes us to the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. On the eve of his passion and death, Jesus profoundly redefined the Passover ritual – making the Lord’s Supper the central focus of the new covenant.

The three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – focus on how Jesus uses the Passover meal as the basis for instituting the Holy Eucharist. Those Gospels emphasize the way Jesus identifies the bread and wine of this sacred meal with the outpouring of his body and blood to establish the new covenant. Their accounts stress Jesus’ eternal gift of his presence in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

By contrast, the Gospel of John’s description of the Passover meal never mentions Jesus instituting the Eucharist. While the Gospel clearly emphasizes Jesus as the Bread of Life (See, for example, Chapter 6.), the central focus of the Passover meal is an entirely different ritual: the washing of the feet. By the time John’s Gospel was written, the ritual of the Lord’s Supper was already well established in the Christian community. John’s Gospel uses the washing of the feet to capture the true meaning of the Eucharist. It calls the disciples to the humble task of pouring out their lives in loving service of one another – powerfully symbolized by Jesus’ gesture of washing the feet of the disciples.

Serving others with humility is not easy. In consulting with schools of nursing, I learned that some nursing students have a very difficult time with the humbling aspects of the role. Nurses and other caregivers have to deal with the personal and often messy aspects of caring for patients. There’s little prestige or glamour in dealing with bed pans and body fluids. Some students pass this litmus test of humble service, and others don’t. These students are a reflection of all of us. When it comes to girding ourselves with a towel and washing the feet of others, some of us humble ourselves and others don’t.

In 2016, Pope Frances took the washing of the feet to an even deeper level. He visited a center for asylum seekers outside of Rome to wash the feet of migrants of all faiths from around the world. As the Washington Post reported, “They came from Mali, Eritrea, Syria and Pakistan. They were Muslim, Hindu, Catholic and Coptic Christians. One by one, Pope Francis knelt down before these migrants on Holy Thursday and washed their feet.” His remarkable gesture of humble service is a challenge to conscience.

As Jesus washes the feet of each disciple, Peter provides an object lesson for all of us.

“Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” (John 13: 8-9)

There is a way in which Peter gets it right. He recognizes that Jesus has humbled himself by taking on the role of a servant, and he objects vehemently. But, there is a way in which he totally misses the point. Jesus makes it clear to Peter than he needs to submit to being washed. Fully sharing in our relationship with Jesus not only includes humbling ourselves to serve others, it also includes allowing others to serve us.

My Mother lived most of her adult life as a competent, independent and proud woman. Now that she’s in her 90s, she requires the help of assisted living – including help bathing. Like Peter, she finds it difficult to submit to being washed. One day when she was scheduled for her shower, she decided to shower before the caregivers arrived. She planned to tell the caregivers that she had already bathed when they arrived. Unfortunately, she lost her balance in the shower and the fall left her with a fractured pelvis and a broken arm.

The late CBS newsman Mike Wallace said it well: “Aging is not for wimps.” As we lose our strength and capacity, we are humbled by our need to accept the help of others.

All of us are like Peter – sometimes getting it right and other times missing the point. To help us, John’s Gospel doesn’t just describe Jesus’ outpouring of himself in humble service. It also includes his explanation of the meaning of this gesture to make sure we don’t miss the point: “’I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” (John 13: 15)

As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we do so with profound gratitude for the gift of the Eucharist – Christ’s enduring gift of his presence within and among us. We are also called to wash the feet of others – friend and enemy alike – and to let them wash us.

Questions to Ponder

  • As you consider the examples of Jesus and Pope Francis, what experiences in your own life come to mind?
  • Who are you being called to serve with the kind of humility symbolized by the washing of the feet?
  • In what ways do you need to submit to being washed – humbling yourself to let others serve you?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, I am in awe of the outpouring of your love in the Eucharist and grateful for your example of washing the disciples’ feet. Thank you!

When I try to follow your example, my pride and fear get in the way. Help me learn to empty myself of power and privilege so that am I free to serve others – particularly those I find most difficult to serve.

You know how much I like the power and control of serving and the ways I resist emptying myself to let others serve me. Help me learn to embrace my humanness and acknowledge my need so that I may receive the gift and blessing of others who are willing to serve me.

 

 

Embracing the Cross

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)

Gospel Quote

“Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry the cross.” (Matthew 27:31-32)

Gospel Reflection

As our Lenten journey continues, we are confronted with three responses to carrying the cross. Like the disciples, we can refuse the cross and run away. Like Simon of Cyrene, we can carry the cross because it’s forced on us. Or, like Jesus, we can willingly embrace it.

The disciples are called to embrace the cross, but it is too much for them. They refuse it and flee into the night. Peter goes even further, trying to lie his way out of a tight spot. When we are confronted with the cross, sometimes it is too much for us. Like the disciples, we refuse to have any part of it. My friend Nadine provided a dramatic example of refusing the cross. She gave Christianity a good hard look and decided not to commit. I once asked her what led to her decision, and she gave me an insightful response: “I’ve read the Gospels, and I know that Christians are called to take up Jesus’ cross. But the cross is suffering and death.” Then, making the Sign of the Cross, she concluded, “I’m not about to lay the cross on myself.” In refusing the cross, Nadine joins the disciples in running away. I know how she feels, and I bet you do, too. When I confront the cross, sometimes I run away.

Refusing the cross doesn’t have to be as dramatic as the disciples’ flight or as unequivocal as Nadine’s refusal to commit. If we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to acknowledge the ways we refuse the cross every day. We refuse it when we look for the easy way out, fail to respond to someone in need or close our eyes to injustice. We refuse it when we nurse resentments about the burdens others place on us or whine about life’s unfairness. We refuse the cross when we force our way to the head of the line, finesse situations to get our own way or make subtle compromises to keep our lives comfortable. We refuse it when we avoid the awkwardness of surfacing a tough issue that no one wants to face or pack our lives so full of “other priorities” that we don’t have time for surrendering in prayer.

Simon of Cyrene represents a second response to the cross: shouldering it because he has no choice. He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. What alternative did he have? There’s no arguing with the centurion and his men. Being fair has nothing to do with it. Simon had little choice and sometimes we don’t either. Life doesn’t hand out hardship and pain in equal shares. Some of us get more than our share while others appear to get off easy. No matter what cards we get dealt, we have to play the hand. Simon gets dealt a tough hand, but he still has an option. Granted, he doesn’t have much choice about whether to shoulder the cross. Resisting the soldiers’ attempt to conscript him would have cost him dearly. What Simon can choose, however, is the attitude he takes toward carrying it.

Even when a cross is forced upon us, we have a choice about how we respond to it. When my Uncle Leo was suffering with cancer, he reached that awful point where all the treatment options had been exhausted. He was dying, and he knew it. The only thing that the doctors could do was help make him comfortable. The only thing Leo could do was to make the most of the time he had left.

Just as Simon was dragged from the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ cross, Leo was forced to bear the cross of a painful death to cancer. During his last days, Leo chose – with his mind, his will and his heart – to live with dignity. He rarely mentioned the pain or complained about his circumstances. If he felt bitter “why me” kinds of resentments, I never heard him express them. He took the time to be with and appreciate those he loved – spending special moments with each of us. When he talked about his life, it was with a sense of gratitude. In those days, Leo taught me that even when a cross is forced on us, we can choose the attitude we have toward it. He didn’t choose to die, but he made powerful choices about the way he lived his final days.

Jesus demonstrates the third response to the cross – willingly embracing it. It’s not that he doesn’t hesitate. We’ve already seen how he hesitates in Gethsemane. We’re not the only ones with doubts and second thoughts. Perhaps they are inevitable, embedded somehow in our DNA. We experience buyer’s nerves the night before we close on our first house. We find ourselves staring out the window two days before our wedding asking: “Until death, am I sure?” Just before he puts his life on the line, Jesus hesitates, too. What’s important, though, is what happens next. When he hesitates, Jesus gathers himself in prayer, surrenders to God, and puts it all on the line. What counts is that once he commits, he never looks back.

Arland Williams, Jr., never looked back. On the morning of January 13, 1982, National Airport in Washington D.C. was closed by a blizzard. Shortly after it reopened, Williams boarded Air Florida flight 90 to Tampa. The plane was delayed at the gate after de-icing and then waited in line before takeoff. By the time it attempted to take off, ice had formed on the wings and also prevented the engines from achieving sufficient power for takeoff.  The plane crashed into the 14th Street bridge and ended up in the icy waters of the Potomac River.

Williams found himself in freezing water with five other survivors. Bystanders and news crews watched from the shore, completely helpless. A park police helicopter trailing a lifeline finally reached those in the water. When the rope came to Williams, he passed it to one of the other survivors. The helicopter returned after that rescue, and Williams again passed the rope to another survivor. By the time the helicopter returned for the last rescue, he had drowned. Arland Williams, Jr. willingly sacrificed his own life. He embraced death so that others could live. In unexpected and tragic circumstances, he opted to save others when his own life was on the line. On the edge of death, he made the choice to pass the rope.

Embracing the cross requires paying the ultimate price: surrendering our own lives so that others may live. Jesus made that choice in Gethsemane, and Arland Williams, Jr. made it in the icy waters of the Potomac River. Every day, we choose whether or not to put others ahead of ourselves in small ways. For some of us the day will come when we will face the ultimate challenge. On that day we can cling to the rope, or we can embrace the cross by passing the rope so that someone else may live.

Questions to Ponder

  • When I face the choice about whether to take up my cross, what is my response? Do I respond like the disciples, Simon of Cyrene, or Jesus?
  • What are the small, everyday ways that I am faced with the choice about whether to take up the cross?
  • How can I learn to recognize these daily choices and use them as opportunities to embrace the cross?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, as I reflect on the way that you embraced the cross, I am deeply aware of my own tendency to avoid the cross. Give me both insight to recognize the small opportunities I have to embrace the cross and the courage to embrace it. Help me learn from those moments so that I am ready to embrace the cross when I face the ultimate challenge – giving my life so that others may live.

 

Free Me to Serve Others

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Gospel Story

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11)

Gospel Quote

“‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’” (Matthew 21:2)

Gospel Reflection

Our Lenten journey brings us to the start of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus is welcomed to Jerusalem by a cheering crowd. Several days later, the crowd that welcomed him crying “Hosanna, Son of David” was shouting “Crucify him.” The fleeting moments of triumph and celebration quickly turn into agonizing torture and crucifixion.

Abraham Lincoln’s greatness at Gettysburg was realizing that his words didn’t have to be eternal in order to be immortal. The previous speaker droned on and on in the heat of the afternoon, but there’s little record of what he said. Yet Lincoln’s few bare lines have been long remembered and often quoted.

In the spirit of Lincoln’s brevity, let me share with you a homily that my priest friend John Young preached on Palm Sunday more than 40 years ago. Even after four decades, I still remember it word for word . . . and I’m still reflecting on its implications for my life and calling.

Here are Father John’s words that still resonate years later:

“On this Palm Sunday, my prayer is that you learn to identify with the beast of burden in today’s Gospel. It needed to be untied . . . because the Master had need of it . . .”

Questions to Ponder

  • In what ways do you need to be untied?
  • How is the Master calling you to bring your gifts to bear on the needs of his people?
  • As you listen in prayer, what urge to be of service emerges from your heart of hearts?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, you know all the ways in which I am imprisoned by inner barriers such as fear, indecision and lack of confidence. I long to be more generous in serving others, but these barriers hold me back. You know all of the ways I need to be untied . . .

Free me so that I may more faithfully serve you and more generously help others. Untie me and guide me in the ways both big and small that I may give my life in service of others.

 

Jesus Before Pilate: The Price of Integrity

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)

Gospel Quote

“Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so’ . . . Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave no answer, not even to a single charge, so the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:11-14)

Gospel Reflection

When Jesus appears before Pilate, integrity and truth hang in the balance. Jesus stays faithful to his mission even when the cost is death. Pilate, by contrast, makes an expedient compromise in a cowardly attempt to salve his conscience and appease the crowd.

Jesus isn’t the first person Pilate has tried for treason. He governs a volatile territory where various factions advocate the overthrow of Rome. Pilate comes to the trial experienced in dealing with revolutionaries, and he expects to dispatch the matter quickly. From the first moment, however, Pilate’s encounter with Jesus is anything but typical. In Pilate’s experience revolutionaries come in two sizes. Most are “little ones” who lose their bravado as soon as they are arrested. By the time they appear before him, they grovel in an attempt to make any deal that will spare their miserable lives. A few “big ones” remain defiant, at least until the beatings start. Both are sentenced quickly and without incident.

To Pilate’s surprise, Jesus doesn’t fit either mold. What first gets his attention is Jesus’ composure. It’s more than a steeled will refusing to let a volcano of emotions erupt. It’s deeper than resignation to his fate. What Pilate senses – whether he can name it or not – is the inner peace that Jesus possesses. There’s something more, too. Pilate sees in Jesus’ eyes something he has never seen before in the eyes of an accused man: a forgiving love. Ironically, it is the depth of Jesus’ composure that most unnerves Pilate. As he confronts the calm of Jesus’ love, he is shaken to the core.

Integrity hangs in the balance during Pilate’s encounter with Jesus. The accused stays true to his identity, willing to pay the ransom evil demands. Jesus refuses to deny his relationship with God or compromise his mission in order to save his skin. The judge, by contrast, is caught between the rock of his conscience and the hard place of a demanding crowd.

Jesus’ appearance before Pilate demonstrates the price of integrity. He stays true to his identity as the Son of God even when the cost is suffering. He remains faithful to his mission of redemption even when the price is death. I know something of the price of integrity and I bet you do, too. Sometimes I’ve been willing to pay it, and other times I’ve failed to ante up. Pilate’s behavior – and the ways my own is similar – reminds me of a piece of wisdom from my Uncle Mert: people are like electrons; they follow the path of least resistance. During Jesus’ trial, Pilate is an electron desperate to find an easier way, and he chooses the path of expedience. When integrity and responsibility are at stake, Jesus makes it clear that we have a choice. We are called to be more than electrons – even when the price of that choice leads to the cross.

The stage play Les Misérables provides a dramatic example of choosing integrity over expedience. The main character is Jean Valjean, escaped prisoner 24601. Transformed by a generous act of mercy, Valjean has lived an exemplary life for years. All that time, a police lieutenant named Javier has continued to pursue him. At one point, Valjean learns that a man believed to be prisoner 24601 is on trial, threatened with being returned to prison. If this man is found guilty, Valjean’s freedom is assured. He could choose the path of least resistance, keep his mouth shut and let the other man go to prison in his place. Valjean decides to be more than an electron, he chooses the way of integrity and voluntarily reveals that he is prisoner 24601 in order to free the other man.

Some years ago, the consulting industry I work in experienced a significant downturn. During those “bad times,” I had a new client whose business was growing rapidly. Early in the consulting engagement, however, I learned that my new client had questionable business practices. As I was thinking through whether to resign the account, I sought the advice of a friend whom I trust for both his moral sense and his business judgment.

After listening to my story, he summed up my dilemma in one sentence: “So you’re asking me if the shaky financial condition of your company is sufficient justification for you to continue to do business with a client that compromises your integrity?” I laughed out loud, knowing that the summation was exactly right. Every one of my rationalizations hedged the issue; he had cut to the core of it. I responded with a feeble “not if you put it like that…” He paused for a minute to let me think. Then with genuine compassion he asked, “How else would you put it?”

Thoreau once wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” My colleague’s key moral sense and his detachment from the situation gave him the perspective to strike at the root. His bald framing of the issue made the answer clear, and it helped me quit hacking at the branches. I resigned the account.

As our Lenten journey continues, Jesus’ encounter with Pilate encourages us to examine how we handle the choice between expedience and integrity. It gives us the moral compass we need to recognize the situations that put our integrity at risk. Choosing integrity takes the kind of courage that Jean Valjean demonstrates by risking imprisonment to spare another man. It takes accepting responsibility for our actions rather than adopting Pilate’s attempt to wash the guilt from his hands and blame someone else. Choosing integrity takes the kind of prayerful surrender to God’s will that Jesus demonstrates – trusting that no amount of suffering or even death has the power to separate us from the love of God.

Questions to Ponder

  • When have you faced an ethical dilemma that forced you to make a difficult choice?
  • When you need a moral compass, who are the people in your life that you trust enough to consult for ethical guidance?
  • When have you paid a price for maintaining your integrity and accepting responsibility?

Invitation to Prayer

Father, you know my heart. You know all the ways that I struggle with difficult choices and all the ways that I’m tempted to rationalize difficult decisions. Give me the insight to think clearly about the difficult choices in my life. Gift me with the courage to pay the necessary price of being your disciple. In my need I turn to you.

Gethsemane: Faith at the Breaking Point

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)

Gospel Quote

(Jesus) “threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” (Matthew 26:39)

Gospel Reflection

The conflict between Jesus and the authorities reaches the boiling point in Jerusalem during the feast of Passover. Powerful forces collide: good and evil, love and betrayal, suffering and death. In Gethsemane, fear drives faith to the breaking point. In that moment of truth Jesus surrenders to the will of the Father, Judas betrays him with a kiss, the disciples flee in fear, and Peter – for all his talk – repeatedly denies him.

Jesus enters Gethsemane painfully aware of how alone he is. In the garden he confronts his fear of suffering and death. The cost of surrendering to the Father’s will is clear, and he chooses to pay the price. Because his trust in God is stronger than his fear of death, Jesus chooses to stay faithful to God and true to his mission even when the price of fidelity is suffering and death.

In Gethsemane, fear also pushes the disciples’ faith to the breaking point. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. In contrast to Jesus, their fear proves stronger than their faith. They abandon Jesus and flee to save their skins. Even Peter – the one so sure of his courage – repeatedly denies Jesus, swearing an oath that he doesn’t know him.

As our Lenten journey continues, we come face-to-face with the Gethsemanes in our own lives, those times when fear pushes faith to the breaking point.

Steven Spielberg’s epic movie Saving Private Ryan is based on the true story of U.S. Army rangers behind enemy lines in World War II. Their mission is to find a soldier whose three brothers have all been killed in action and return him home safely. They display amazing courage and resourcefulness in carrying out their mission. By contrast, in a crucial battle, we see the agonizing struggle of Corporal Upham – a young soldier completely immobilized by fear. His spirit is willing, but his flesh is weak. Like the disciples in Gethsemane, he hides from the action in order to save his skin. His failure to deliver ammunition to those under fire results in the death of two other soldiers.

Several years ago, I signed up for what I thought would be a nice weekend of personal growth. Unexpectedly, it landed me in Gethsemane face-to-face with my fear. Like the soldier Spielberg portrays, I found myself paralyzed. Ironically, it wasn’t in the heat of battle, it was in the process of trying to build community.

A group of approximately 25 people – almost all of us strangers to one another – gathered at a retreat house in Northern Michigan with the shared intention of building community. I was hoping the two-day “adventure” would give me an experience of community and teach me something about how to build it.

The weekend began simply enough; each of us talked about why we came and what we hoped to gain from the experience. But, as you’d expect, the road from 25 strangers to being a community had a few potholes in it. To be honest about it, for me one of those potholes was the approximate size of the Grand Canyon. As we attempted to become a community, our various expectations began to collide. This resulted in the 25 of us experiencing what the facilitators referred to as “chaos.” I’d say that was a pretty good description – both of what was going on in the group and what was happening in my stomach. Trying to move beyond chaos is what put me in Gethsemane.

I learned that one way to cope with chaos is to try to “get organized” in an attempt to manage the chaos. Unfortunately, getting organized prevents the group from becoming a community. My head did a good job of coaching me not to fall into the trap of trying to get organized. Alright, if I’m really honest, I did offer a suggestion or two, but I didn’t push too hard.

My Gethsemane dilemma had to do with the other option. The way a group of people moves beyond chaos is through emptying. It is the only path to community. I was clear enough about emptying in my head; I’m sure I could have given the book report. Unfortunately, the group I was with didn’t seem too interested in a book report. They were expressing intense feelings: hurt, anger, grief – a whole rainbow of emotions and vulnerability. I had some of those feelings, too. It’s just that I was trying to have them without anyone noticing it. I was hoping to have my chaos in private while I helped others deal with theirs.

In Gethsemane Jesus trusts God enough to empty himself. He moves beyond his fear, lets go of his own agenda, opens himself to whatever comes and surrenders to God. What I did in that weekend was let my fear get the best of me. I pretty much flunked “Emptying 101.” I flunked in the same way the disciples did – by running away. My body never left the room but I had an out-of-body experience. Mentally and emotionally, I “got out of Dodge.”

By the time the weekend concluded, many of us had experienced community. For my part, I had seen something of what it takes to build community, but my inability to act in the face of my fear kept me from being fully a part of it. Through my struggle, however, I had learned how much I needed to go to “emptying school.”

As our Lenten journey continues, the story of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane calls us to become more deeply aware of the Gethsemane moments in our own lives. Those moments invite us to empty ourselves, claim a faith more powerful than fear and trust God enough to surrender.

Questions to Ponder

  • As I reflect on the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane, what experiences in my own life come to mind?
  • When I face Gethsemane moments in my own life, how do I respond?
  • In my Gethsemane moments, am I able – like Jesus – to trust God enough to surrender? Or, like the disciples, do I run away to save my skin?

Invitation to Prayer

“Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Father, you are with me in the Gethsemane moments of my life. Give me the courage to face my fear in these moments of truth with a deep trust in you. When my instinct is to flee in fear, help me stay faithful to my identity in you and surrender to your will. When my faith reaches the breaking point, help me put my life in your hands.

“Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”