My Son, the Beloved

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Gospel Story of the Week

The Transfiguration of Jesus – Matthew 17: 1-9

Gospel Quote

“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt 17: 5)

Reflection on the Gospel

The vision unfolds quickly, and a voice from the cloud reveals Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son. The vision is a strong parallel to Jesus’ baptism, yet this time it is witnessed by the three disciples. In addition to conveying Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son, this powerful revelation indicates God’s delight with him.

As our Lenten journey continues, we are urged to connect with how deeply we long for the same affirmation – to be God’s beloved and to find favor in God’s eyes. As I reflect on this longing, I am confronted by a painful inner conflict. My longing to be loved is met with a nagging fear that I don’t measure up, that I’m not worthy of love. When I’m in the grip of that fear, I feel deeply flawed and believe that there is something wrong with me.

The late actor Anthony Quinn recounts his struggle with this type of inner conflict in his self-portrait, The Original Sin. At the height of his success as an actor – after he had won two academy awards – he is deeply conflicted and struggles with love. “To give love and to accept love unconditionally – that to me is the highest goal. To be unable to love unconditionally – that to me is the original sin, the one that engenders all others.”

Quinn’s inner struggle is so intense that he is haunted by an imaginary 10-year-old boy who appears to him and taunts him. Nothing Quinn does is good enough to satisfy the kid. Whenever Quinn tries to accept love, the boy appears to tell him he is unworthy of it. Whenever he tries to claim happiness, his inner assassin recites a litany of reasons why he doesn’t deserve it. Like Quinn, many of us have an inner assassin – a nagging inner voice that refuses to leave us alone. Our self-doubt and self-hate reveal themselves in this voice as it belittles our achievements and sabotages our happiness. This persistent voice of self-doubt is an inner assassin that tries to cripple us with poisonous self-talk whenever we feel good about ourselves.

God embraces our inner assassin with a startling message: “I love you just as you are – with no strings attached, without condition or limit.” In his book Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen states it emphatically: “My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘you are the beloved.’”

Sometimes the inner assassin is shouting so loudly that it drowns out this voice of God’s embracing love. How can we possibly trust that God loves us just as we are? It seems too good to be true. Our gut instinct is that there has to be a catch, that we can’t possibly be God’s beloved.

During these days of Lent, we are called to trust God’s unconditional love enough to open ourselves and receive it with outstretched arms. Ultimately, each of us is called to trust the subtle voice of God’s love rather than the demeaning whispers of our inner assassin.

Questions for Reflection

  • Have you ever experienced the inner assassin, poisonous self-talk that tries to cripple you?
  • If so, what was that experience like for you?
  • How do you cope with your inner assassin?
  • How can you begin to open yourself to the voice of God’s love embracing as the beloved?

Invitation to Prayer

Wonderful God, touch me in my heart of hearts . . . Give me the courage to trust that you love me without condition or limit. Let those words become a profound awareness that permeates every fiber of my being. Help me turn away from the toxic words of my inner assassin and tune in to the voice of your unconditional love. Gift me with healing and redemption so that I may live confidently as your beloved.

Recognizing God in the Everyday

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Gospel Story of the Week

The Transfiguration of Jesus – Matthew 17: 1-9

Gospel Quote

“Suddenly appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here: if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’” (Matt 17:3-4)

Reflection on the Gospel

Peter is captivated by the vision. With characteristic enthusiasm, he offers to build three dwellings or tents. It’s easy to identify with Peter’s desire to make this moment last. The feeling of ecstasy is so wonderful that he wants to linger here and cling to it. Like Moses in the presence of the burning bush, Peter recognizes that he is on holy ground, a place where God is profoundly present.

As our Lenten journey encourages us to continue to reflect on ways in which God touches us, most of us have to admit that we have never had such a dramatic experience of God’s presence. Oftentimes, we only recognize God’s presence in our lives only as we look back on our experience with the benefit of hindsight.

While I have never had a dramatic experience of God’s presence revealed in divine majesty, I can identify any number of God-touching-me experiences. When I was a sophomore in college, our Associate Pastor invited me to teach a religious education class for high school freshman. I thought he was crazy to ask, and I’m not sure my first students benefited from their rookie teacher. What surprised me, though, was how that invitation changed my life. It launched me on a spiritual journey that continues to give meaning and direction to my life. Now that almost 50 years have passed since that invitation, I realize that the priest wasn’t as crazy as I thought. There was no blinding vision, but I know now that it was definitely God touching me.

I had another God-touching-me experience in my early 20’s. Four of us were returning home from visiting friends in another city. It was well after midnight, and I was driving. Everyone else in the car was asleep. My head began to nod, but I didn’t have the good sense to ask someone else to take the wheel. The next thing I remember is hearing a passenger in the back seat yell my name. He jerked me back to attention just in time to negotiate an S-curve at 60 miles per hour.  In another few seconds our lives and those of our families would have been changed forever. Some might call this a close call or a lucky break. I name it as “God touching me.”

Our goal in the spiritual life is to learn to recognize God touching us in the everyday experiences of our lives. That touch doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing. My list of “God touches” is a long one – including many simple yet profound moments in my life: prayerful sunrises, strangers who took the risk to smile, unexpected gifts and surprise encounters. These God-touching-me experiences range from the subtle to the profound, and they cover my entire life.

Our attempt to live a spiritual life begins with striving to recognize God’s presence in the everyday fabric of our lives. This ability to see with the eyes of faith has more to do with the ordinary than the spectacular. Cultivating the eyes of faith and attempting to see God in the everyday needs to become a core discipline and everyday practice. Cultivating that practice is also the best way to prepare ourselves for our ultimate encounter with God in divine majesty.

Questions for Reflection

  • As you look over your life, are there any events or series of events that you would describe as God touching you?
  • Even if you didn’t recognize it at the time, as you look back over your life where do you see God touching you?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, help me trust you as the incarnate presence of God surrounding me every day. So often, I long to see you in dramatic events and fail to recognize you in the simple ways you touch and shape my life. Help me discover and recognize your presence in ways both big and small. Give me the faith to see you in every moment of my life . . .

A Glimpse of Divine Majesty

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Gospel Story of the Week

The Transfiguration of Jesus – Matthew 17: 1-9

Gospel Quote

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Matt 17:1-2)

Reflection on the Gospel

As our Lenten journey continues, we no longer find Jesus in the desert. His ministry is now in full swing, and we accompany him up the mountain.

The Transfiguration story portrays Jesus as a “mountain man.” Religious leaders in the Jewish tradition “go the mountain,” to the place where they encounter God in a direct and personal way.

Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai, and he symbolizes the era in Jewish history characterized by the law. Elijah experienced God both in the fiery sacrifice on Mount Carmel and in the whispering voice on Mount Horeb. He represents the prophetic era. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration portrays Jesus as an extension of this mountain tradition as he ushers in the messianic era.

For those of us who don’t immediately grasp the mountain imagery, Matthew’s narrative seems abrupt. Without warning, “Jesus is transfigured before them.” The word “suddenly” appears twice in two verses – portraying the way the divine vision ambushes the disciples, catching them totally off guard. They are completely unprepared for this amazing experience.

Such revelations of God are a pure gift. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve such a wonderful, ecstatic experience. Peter, James and John are gifted with a glimpse of divine majesty.

As our Lenten journey continues, this story calls us to explore our own experiences of the rich and varied ways that God touches our lives. As you look over your life, are there any events or series of events that you would describe as God touching you? Perhaps you didn’t recognize God’s presence at the time, but as you look back now do you see the divine presence in those experiences?

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton recounts a profound glimpse of diving majesty.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Merton’s experience in Louisville occurred in the midst of running monastery errands. Like Peter, James and John, he was ambushed by a totally unexpected glimpse of God’s presence uniting humankind.

In Confessions, Saint Augustine recounts his own profound experience of God’s presence. He was weeping – brokenhearted with contrition – when he heard a voice from a neighboring house. A child was chanting over and over again: “Take up and read; take up and read.” At first, he wondered if it was some kind of game children play, but he had never experienced such a game. Immediately, his mood changed and his tears stopped. He interpreted the voice as a command from God to open the Bible and read the first chapter he found. His eyes landed on the passage: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” By the end of that sentence, he didn’t need to read any further. His heart was infused with serenity and “all darkness and doubt vanished away.”

Few of us have been gifted with the kind of experiences of God’s presence that ambushed the three disciples, Thomas Merton or Augustine. Although such visions are wonderful, they are not the essence of the spiritual life. We are called to recognize God’s presence in the everyday fabric of our lives. It is there that the God of the incarnation touches us and calls us into a deeper relationship. As our Lenten journey continues, we are called to recognize that our everyday encounters with God are characterized by unconditional love, healing and redemption.

Questions for Reflection

  • As you look over your life, are there any events or series of events that you would describe as God touching you?
  • Have you ever experienced a dramatic glimpse of the divine presence?
  • In what ways have these experiences opened you to a deeper relationship with God?

Invitation to Prayer

Wonderful Creator, give me the eyes of faith so that I might see the ways in which you surround me in the everyday experiences of my life. Gift me with the faith to trust you are with me. Open my eyes so that I may see your touch . . . Open my ears so that I may hear your word . . . Open my heart so that I may surrender to you . . .

What Kingdom Do You Serve?

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Reflection on the Gospel

“The devil took (Jesus) to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:8-11)

The third temptation is blatantly clear. Satan wants to seduce Jesus into idolatry using wealth and power. The tempter’s intent is to have Jesus turn away from God, worship Satan and serve earthly kingdoms. In several brief verses, this temptation portrays the cosmic battle between good and evil. The question at the heart of this temptation is what kingdom Jesus will serve. The first two temptations set the stage, but this is the culmination. Satan wants Jesus’ heart and soul, and wealth and power are the bait he uses to close the deal.

Jesus refuses to take the bait, rejects Satan and chooses to worship and serve God alone. His response to this temptation makes it clear that he rejects the wealth of earthly kingdoms. He chooses instead to set his heart on God and God’s Kingdom.

Wealth all too easily gets in the way of God. At best, it has the ability to distract us from giving God our full attention. At worst, we can become so caught up in the pursuit of wealth that it supplants God as the object of our worship.

By rejecting wealth, Jesus chooses the poverty of relying solely on God. That poverty requires him to open himself to God and receive everything as a gift. Because he owns nothing, Jesus has no need to spend his energy protecting his possessions. He has nothing to distract him from his relationship with God and the mission he is called to fulfill. He lives with the radical trust that God will provide whatever he needs.

Satan also tries to seduce Jesus with power, and Jesus’ response is intriguing. He does not respond by refusing power. He needs power to carry out his mission. His response is to choose the life-giving, redemptive power that comes from God and to reject the oppressive, dominating power that is a defining characteristic of earthly kingdoms.

Throughout his ministry Jesus uses power to touch people in their deepest need, proclaim the radical availability of God’s mercy, heal the sick and the broken, forgive those imprisoned by sinful ways and urge all those who will listen to give their hearts to God. He rejects the self-serving power that flows from his ego and the desire for control.

As we reflect on the story of Jesus’ temptation, we are called to examine our own response to wealth and power. What kingdom will we serve? Will we give ourselves – heart and soul – to the kingdoms of this world and strive for wealth and dominating power? Or will we devote ourselves to serving the Kingdom of God and use our power to liberate and serve?

One summer while I was in college, I worked on a ministry team that served a group of churches in West Michigan. One evening, a family from one of the churches invited all five members of our team to dinner. It was a great evening of hospitality. The surroundings made it clear the family was, but their hearts were rich in generosity. We shared a simple meal, played with the children, toured the small farm where they struggled to make ends meet and enjoyed good conversation.

Late in the evening, as we returned to the house after watching the sunset, homemade bread was just coming out of the oven. The smell was wonderful and the taste was even better. The five of us quickly devoured our first slice, and our hostess offered us another. I had just taken a bite from my third slice when I overheard the youngest child say to her brother, “I hope there’s enough left for breakfast.” I almost choked on the bread.

For me, that evening was a powerful experience of the difference between rich and poor. The family freely opened their hearts to us and shared generously from what little they had. They were delighted to have us as their guests. Our ministry team didn’t consider ourselves rich, but in comparison to this family we certainly were. It never occurred to us that this family would share their food until it was gone.

We might have been the ministry team, but on that evening they were the teachers. They gave us far more than dinner and homemade bread. They taught us a lesson about the deeper meaning of hospitality and why the poor find favor in God’s eyes.

What’s at stake in Jesus’ third temptation is rejecting wealth and embracing the Kingdom of God. For those of us who worry more about our investment portfolios than about whether we have bread for breakfast, this temptation can be seductive. Our wealth can tempt us to serve the kingdoms of this world and our own egos. When we face that temptation, we have to be able to let go of our wealth for the sake of the Kingdom. The more attached we are to our lifestyle and possessions, the harder this letting go becomes.

Questions for Reflection

  • What kingdom do you have your heart set on serving?
  • In what way are you devoted to serving the Kingdom of God?
  • In what ways do you use your power to liberate others and serve those in need?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, you know how seductive power and wealth can be. In the midst of temptation, you had the strength to opt for freeing captives and serving the poor. Strengthen my resolve when wealth, power and the desire to build up my own earthly kingdom tempt me. Help me set my heart on the Kingdom of God. “Your Kingdom, your will be done . . . “


The True Focus of Our Longing


Gospel Quote

Jesus “fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came to him and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:2-4)

Gospel Reflection

Using our imaginations, we can expand slightly on Matthew’s brief account. Imagine the tempter’s argument going something like this: “Of course you’re hungry. After so many days of fasting and prayer, who wouldn’t be? If you’re God’s Son, why not just command these stones to become loaves of bread? After all, this ministry is going to be difficult, and you’ll need your strength. Do you really think God wants his beloved to walk around hungry? You deserve something to eat.”

Jesus’ response makes clear that there is more at stake here than physical hunger and the bread that satisfies it. He grasps the essence of this temptation: where he directs his ultimate longing and how he will use his power. If he makes bread the ultimate object of his longing, he is letting his human weakness get in the way of his relationship with God. If he uses his power as God’s son to turn stones into bread, he is using that power in a self-serving way. Jesus recognizes he has been given power to carry out his mission, not to satisfy his physical hunger.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is fundamental to his life and essential to his ministry. It is a critical preparatory step, an intense wrestling with his identity as the beloved Son of God. His temptation is an encounter with the cosmic forces of good and evil in which he is tempted to turn away from his mission and use his relationship with God in a self-serving way.

As we reflect on this first temptation, we are confronted with the realities of our humanness – hunger and thirst, vulnerability and powerlessness, fear and loneliness, ache and need. In response to this temptation, we are called to reject the self-serving uses of power and focus our longing on God and the Word of God.

We all have intense longings. We long to be safe, to be protected from harm, to be shielded from life’s unpredictability. We long to belong, to be freed from our fear of abandonment, to be part of a caring circle of friends. We ache to be loved just as we are, cherished for our uniqueness, treasured as the very one we are. We long to make a difference, to contribute something worthwhile, to leave something valuable as a legacy. We thirst for meaning and purpose, for some understanding of the why of life, for a way to make sense of our experience. We ache to encounter God and to develop a deep and personal relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

In this first temptation, Jesus is called to wrestle with the true meaning of his identity and call. Like Jesus, each of us is gifted with a marvelous uniqueness, an authentic identity in God. Finding that uniqueness and living it out may be the most difficult challenge of our lives. When our humanness and vulnerability loom large, it is all too easy to settle for being less than we are called to be. During this Lenten season, God invites us to recognize that our unique identity and ultimate calling are rooted in discipleship. Lent calls us to deepen our prayer and urges us to open ourselves to God. It calls us to discover our true identity in God and surrender in prayer.

As we reflect on this temptation, we are confronted by deep and unfulfilled longings, hungers that are difficult to name. When we are in the grip of these longings, it is easy to lose perspective and look for fulfillment in all the wrong places. As we see how Jesus responded to this temptation, we begin to own up to the power of our longings and the way they shape our lives. We are urged to join him in centering our longings on God and the Word of God. His example reminds us that our true identities can only be founded in God. Centuries ago, St. Augustine said it well: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” What Jesus’ first temptation makes clear is that God and only God is the authentic fulfillment of our longing.

Questions to Ponder

  • What temptations distract you from focusing your longing on God?
  • Are you tempted by food, possessions, sexual desire, power, wealth or something else?
  • How can you redirect your longings to focus them on God and the Word of God?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, you are God’s compassionate presence. You know my deepest longings, what I ache for in my heart of hearts. You know how intense these longings are; help me to focus them on you. I am so easily swayed by temptation, chasing after things that fail to satisfy. Help me recognize that my deepest hunger isn’t about food, won’t be satisfied by achievement or recognition and doesn’t require the approval of others. Keep me true to my deepest longings and help me focus them on you alone. Give me the wisdom to know, as Augustine knew, that you have made me for yourself, and my heart will be restless until it rests in you.

Ash Wednesday: Into the Wilderness

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Gospel Quote

“Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)

Gospel Reflection

For Jesus, baptism is a profound encounter with God that deepens his understanding of his identity as God’s beloved son. Now he is led into the desert to complete his preparation. The wilderness is a dangerous place – a place of climate extremes, a place where thieves and outcasts take refuge, a place where animals stalk their pray. In the wilderness, Jesus is forced to confront his fears and wrestle with the true nature of his identity and mission.

Like Jesus, our Lenten journey begins in the wilderness, in a dangerous place we haven’t chosen, in a strange place we must befriend. Today’s ashes remind us of our mortality, call us to repentance and urge us to trust the good news. As the ashes invite us into the wilderness, we confront our ambivalence: we both long to go deeper and fight to keep our lives the same.

Each of us experiences the wilderness in our own unique way. Perhaps it is hearing that the biopsy was positive, facing the reality that a relationship is over, having death rob us of a loved one, or saying “yes” to an inner imperative that we don’t fully understand. In the wilderness, our fears loom large, we are exposed to the vulnerability of our humanness, and we find ourselves at risk.

An image embedded in my memory captures something about what entering the wilderness is like for me. The scene is my first view of San Francisco on the day I moved there. The rain was pouring down as I drove across the Bay Bridge, and the city was totally engulfed in fog. It looked as though the bridge disappeared into a cloud of gloom. I was surrounded by most of what I owned, driving into a city where I knew no one. I had no idea where I was going to live or even where I would spend the night. As I squinted through the windshield into the haze, the road ahead was barely visible.

Facing the wilderness, I knew I needed time for solitude and prayer; but I was afraid of what it would demand of me. I swallowed hard and committed myself to spending time in prayer each day. On the first day I tried to make good on that commitment, I gathered up my bible and journal and sat down facing the window. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Within two seconds, a frightened voice inside of me shouted: “Now what do I do?”

That terrible moment – when we realize we have no idea what to do – is the moment of surrender. By admitting we are lost, we begin to open ourselves to silence and waiting. In such moments, prayer is born. We are no longer in control, so we give God room to work. We let go of our agendas, and we listen. Henri Nouwen captured this moment beautifully with the simple image: with open hands. When we surrender, we open our hands. We admit that we are not in control, and we listen for God’s guidance in our lives.

As the ashes call us into the wilderness, we confront the place where good and evil vie for control of our lives, the place of inner struggle where the voices in our heads argue about which path to take. It is there that our Lenten prayer calls us to trust God, to find the courage to surrender, to say “yes” to love or “no” to an addiction.

Lent calls us into the wilderness. When our doubts loom large and we feel most vulnerable, we are urged to trust that the Spirit is with us. We are called to surrender in prayer, trusting that God will show us the way. It is here that our Lenten journey begins…

Questions to Ponder

  • What wildernesses have you experienced – times when your fears loomed large, your humanness was fully exposed, and you felt at risk?
  • When you experience “wilderness moments” in prayer, how do you respond? Are you able to embrace the silence, trust God and surrender?
  • In what way is the Spirit urging you into the wilderness during this season of Lent?

Invitation to Prayer

Spirit of God, you led Jesus into the wilderness and were with him in temptation. Be with me in the wilderness of my own life during this season of Lent. Give me the courage I need to seek out prayer and solitude – even when I would prefer superficial distractions that keep me safe. Help me focus my energy and attention on you, stand strong in the face of temptation, stay true to myself and faithful to you.