“Get behind me, Satan!” — Mark 8: 31-38

Peter gets rebuked, again. Peter is the bold one. He is the one who steps forward and says what he (and the others?) are thinking. Or are they? Mark never says what the other disciples are thinking. Peter often acts as the voice for the others. Perhaps this is why he is recognized as the “lead” disciple as the followers of Jesus become the Jesus movement become the house churches become the Church that recognizes Peter’s primacy. Perhaps he represents “the Church” here. This is not a new insight but a significant one.

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It is so easy to do. Church history relates themany times that we followers of Jesus move from setting our mind on human things rather than on divine things. And what does that even mean? It certainly means that we strive after power and wealth more than after vulnerability and poverty. Not that the former are “bad” and the latter are “good.”

In reading some of Thomas Merton’s reflections and the insights of Jim Finley and Richard Rohr, I am realizing that power and vulnerability, wealth and poverty and the other contrasts that are set forth in the Gospels are not dualistic (either/or) or black and white but the both-and, the paradoxical, the combined. The latter is in the uncomfortable realm of the grey. David Tracy points this out in his distinction of the catholic both-and perspective and the protestant mind-set, the realm of dualistic thinking. I don’t think he is talking about the historical divisions established in the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Those are historical embodiments of two different mindsets that each of us wrestle with all of the time.

It is easier to live in either/or, the “clarity” of that which is defined. But our understanding of the Divine is, by the very nature of the Holy, not so clear. When we know, or even think we know, who God is and we grab onto that “certainty,” we find ourselves idolizing our perception. God is Mystery that we, in our limitations, cannot wholly perceive. This paradox that Kierkegaard and the mystics recognize is the same as that which is hinted at in so much of the Scriptures. The golden calf is not the Holy. The Bible, the physical book, is not the Holy. There is no “this” when the deacon holds up the Book of the Gospels and proclaims “The Gospel of the Lord!” The bread and wine are not Christ. Professing that they are is where our catholic side moves from greyness to the seductive black-and-white. But it takes a great effort throughout our lives to try to live in ambiguity. It isn’t comfortable. It’s scary. It is where the catholic mindset would have us live.

Ironically that is where Peter, the head of “the church,” does not want to be. He rebukes Jesus for his teachings because they flip our comfortable world of certainty on its head and leave us floundering. Jesus explicit teachings, as well as those paradoxical ones that are in the second half of this Sunday’s pericope and in the parables, point us to the vulnerable place where we live only in the faith that all is good and all will be good.

“Get behind me, Satan!” You are setting your mind not on the Divine that is always ambiguous in its Mystery but on the human and finite that is always more definite. Paradoxically, when we realize the limitations of the definite, we are lead to a sense of the Mystery that is beyond it.

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Ash Wednesday: Invitation to a Holy Lent

“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a                                                          season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided 
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy 
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of 
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful 
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to 
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation 
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set 
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all 
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning 
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now 
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Every year, when we hear the celebrant invite us to observe Lent, I rejoice in these words. The part that has the greatest appeal are the sentences italicized above. They remind us of why we have the season of Lent. We have Lent because of our catechumens, those preparing for baptism, and because of our penitents, those preparing for absolution and return to the fellowship of the Church. Roman Catholics recognize several orders among the faithful. There are the “holy orders,” those of deacon, priest and bishop. There is the order of the faithful. And there are the orders of the catechumen and of the penitent.

The order of the penitent is not spoken of very much these days. That is because there is little recognition of the gravity of “notorious sin” and its ability to be a stumbling block, a scandal. Notorious sins are those that are so blatant as to cause those who might think of becoming Christians to doubt following that Way. Actions that truly cause people to recognize Christians as hypocrites are notorious sins. Sins that can cause those who are members of the church to doubt their faith are notorious sins. The Church realized fairly early that, while we all sin, not every sin is grave enough to cause such hindrances. Only the most grievous sins, the “mortal sins,” the “notorious sins” do that. Through such actions one does great harm to the Body of Christ. Those would be things like murder (is abortion is in this category?), adultery, grand theft, blasphemy and a host of others.

Is there anyway back into the fold? Yes. One must recognize and admit to one’s sin. Through self examination one answers the question of what have I done (or not done) that has separated me from the Church? What have I done or not done that scandalizes others? What must I do to restore my life in Christ, i.e. what is my penance? The sin was done in public therefore the penance is done in public. A bishop or priest must recognize one’s repentance and then grant absolution in the name of Christ. Lent is the period of repentance. In recognizing that everyone sins, we have generalized the notion of sin and done away with the recognition of notorious sins.

But I am getting too far afield. What I really want to point out is that repentance involves stages, just like those for the catechumen. The journey is one of recognition and admittance of one’s sin, reformation through penance, and a celebration of absolution and re-entry into the fellowship of the Church. Lent and Holy Saturday are the occasions for the last two stages of this journey.

Catechumens take a similar journey. They recognize that there is something missing in their lives. Together with guides, they inquire what that might be. They enter the order of the catechumenate, i.e. they enter the Church, and learn what following the Way of Christ involves. During Lent the are “prepared for Holy Baptism.” Lent and Easter are the last two seasons of this journey.

It is true that the entire order of the faithful join the catechumens and penitents in this journey. The invitation to Lent recognizes this. “Thereby, the whole congregation [is] put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

I enjoy this invitation because it reminds us of the origins of Lent. It can also lead us to reflect on what generalizing the need for Lent does with the journey for those seeking baptism and those seeking forgiveness. The restoration of the catechumenate is bringing us to a renewed recognition of the centrality of Baptism in our Christian lives. How we observe Lent reflects the importance we place on celebration of Baptism. For centuries, Lent was seen as the time for the faithful to prepare for Easter through repentance of their sins. We lost recognition of the order of catechumens. We lost recognition of catechumens’ ministry to us by leading us in that preparation. The public rites of healing (the scrutinies) that occur during Lent help all of us remain aware that we are preparing to renew our baptismal covenant.

The notion of the need for repentance from notorious sins was diluted in the recognition that we all sin. Everyone was expected to “go to confession” during Lent. The recognition of the order of the penitent remains lost to us. We have lost recognition that there are notorious sins, those that seriously damage both the Body of Christ and the sinner.

In recognizing that God is all loving and all forgiving, it is easy to forget that Divine infinite love and forgiveness calls for a response from us. We need to love in return. Helping those seeking God to realize Infinite Love through Baptism is one way. We need to forgive in return. Helping those seeking to recognize Infinite Forgiveness is also a way. Both bring us all together in Lent. The invitation to a holy Lent is the invitation to the journey of preparation and repentance.

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The Transfiguration — Mark 9:2-9

2 Kings 2: 1-12 — Elijah’s Ascent in a whirlwind: I want to say a few words about this passage before moving on to the related Gospel passage. This is another vivid Hebrew Scripture story. There are a number of of such stories that relate the passing of the mantle from one prophet to another. The drama builds as Elisha insists on following Elisha to Bethel, then to Jericho and then through the the Jordan river (where the waters part, in a clear reference to Moses parting the waters of the Reed Sea). Then Elisha asks for a double share of Elija’s spirit. It would seem this request is granted since the “new prophet” sees Elijah ascend into heaven. The drama reaches its climax as Elisha does ascend by means of a whirlwind into heaven. It is clear why this pericope is here on Transfiguration Sunday. It is Moses, who parts the Reed Sea and Elijah, the Prophet who does not die, who appear with Jesus on the mountain.

Transfiguration Sunday is often seen as the “gateway” or threshold into Lent. It may be that inasmuch as Lent is the period during which catechumens prepare to don dazzling white clothes like those that the apostles see Jesus wearing. (This reminds us of the clothing worn by the young men who are found in the empty tomb.). We often speak of catechumens going through a transformation that is celebrated at Easter. Are they transfigured? What is the difference? And there is a definite command to listen to Jesus. During Lent, catechumens are asked to intensify their efforts to listen to Jesus in their lives. The Feast of the Transfiguration is the threshold from Epiphany into Lent.

But the story of the transfiguration is also the culmination of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the season during which Jesus is revealed as God’s son. If there was any doubt in any of the previous stories about who is being revealed, the transfiguration story eliminates that lack of understanding. “From the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved.'” Jesus is also associated with the two other great prophets of the Hebrew people, Moses and Elijah. For all who might not yet understand, the story tells us that Jesus is in the lineage of Moses, Elijah and all of the prophets of Israel. The mantle is passed once more. Jesus doesn’t get just a double share of their Spirit. He gets all of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

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Mark 1:29-39 — Being pushed and pulled

So Jesus goes to Simon and Andrew’s house. James and John go along. (These four are the only named disciples at this time.) Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” (A lot of unpacking just in that sentence.). A couple of women in our group yesterday had issues with what came next: “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” I hadn’t noticed this before as something that might be offensive or need explaining away as an issue of a different time and culture.

What interests me is the push and pull that Mark expresses between Jesus healing ministry and his need for prayer. “The whole city was gathered around the door” as he cured many. That was how he spent his time at sundown, the beginning of the new day. Later, “in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” This is the part that grabbed one of the priest in our study group yesterday. The push and pull between the “activities” of service (does that include the service of Simon’s mother-in-law?) and the need to spend some time in prayer. The church ministers in yesterday’s study group, including me, identified with this tension. For me it is easy go get involved in the activities of the day without taking what I call “quiet time,” that time for silent prayer and reflection.

The silent time is a priority for me only inasmuch as, now that I am retired, I try to devote time in the early morning to morning prayer, spiritual reading and reflection. I don’t share this with many people. I just shared it with Mary the other day. I see it as a risk to admit that I want this time. If I tell others, will they see me as hypocritical or as trying to be “holier than though”? If not the latter, then why tell them? I only feel the need to tell Mary, a close friend, my spiritual director (because he is my guide in how to spend this time) and Dean Matthew, my pastor. My quest is to be able to listen more deeply. Trying to listen to God, in others and in myself, will further me in this. Or so I am told. And I believe it so.

But it is difficult. Jesus went out early in the morning while it is still dark. How was it that he was able to get up that early? He must have been tired from healing all who were brought to him in the previous evening. Was it intentional? Was it God’s call? His disciples hunted him down to let him know that everyone was searching for him. But he did not return to the town where they had been. He moved on, proclaiming the message in other synagogues and, thus, in other towns and he continued casting out demons as they traveled. Did he continue to search for the quiet times in the early mornings when it is still dark? I believe that he did. But the search must have been intentional in order to be able to listen and to let God heal.

That is my struggle. It is the struggle of many, if not all, whom God calls to minister to others. There are many types of service. Perhaps that is why Mark notes that Simon’s mother-in-law gets up and “began to serve them” after Jesus healed her. That service is different from the healing service that is Jesus’ ministry. Both are needed. Otherwise Jesus would not have had the time to heal and might not even have had the time to address the push and pull of service to others and service to self. Those who God calls to “go deeper” in their ministry must intentionally take the time to go to the deserted place and pray. I didn’t do this enough when I served as an administrator. My ministry in the catechumenate suffered because of the lack of taking quiet time for prayer. Those I hope to guide in their journey are seeking the same, whether they yet know it or not. Part of ministry is to help them find their quiet time to pray.

This is the distinction I have tried to make for years. My job was to be the parish administrator and operations manager. My ministry was in the catechumenate and in reading/proclaiming the Word and in officiating at liturgies of the hours. These suffered from the lack of finding and taking the time to a deserted place to pray. Now God has given me that time. Thank God.

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The Monastic Way–The Catechumenate Way

The Slow Work of God —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

One of the challenges with the catechumenate process is dealing with the reaction of many seekers when they find out that the process is more than one month. If one uses the “school year” model (invite participants after Labor Day and celebrate baptism and reaffirmations of baptism at Easter in April), we have an eight month process. This makes some hesitate. Why to sooner? And, if we talk about the process being a full year or more, we may lose even more potential participants. Those who think this is a ridiculous amount of time just to get baptized do not realize the seriousness of the venture.

It is best not to talk timelines at all at the beginning of the journey. As inquirers travel on the way, they slowly realize the length of time needed for conversion. They come to recognize the slow work of God is beyond our timelines. The realization itself is part of the journey. Hopefully, a seeker’s expectation for a celebration at the next Vigil will lessen and the recognition that the slow work of God will take as long as it takes will grow. Paradoxically, if realization is not part of the journey, then the journey needs to continue.

Jim Dunning’s brief history of the catechumenate recognizes that the process developed in the 4th Century church. It was not something new. They recognized that this was the formation journey of the Prophets and of the disciples. The process shrank into oblivion in the 6th Century EXCEPT, and this is an important exception, in the “2nd Church,” the church that continued to strive for spiritual growth (as opposed to the “1st Church,” the church-state of Christendom).

The catechumenate process reemerged in the early 20th Century to answer a need in Africa, namely the need ” to speak the language” of conversion with those who were used to celebrating stages of growth and initiation into adulthood. And Benedictines in Europe were beginning to study the liturgies of the early church to see what might help us move beyond the spiritlessness of contemporary worship. This all came together in the Second Vatican Council. The bishops were wrestling with how to save a Western Christianity that found itself being overrun by secularism. This was a pervasive secularism that emerged from two horrendous world wars. The ungodly experiences of the war(s) led people to lose Faith and to live as if God is dead. The bishops realized that we are in an environment like that of the 4th Century. Christianity exists in the midst of secularism. Christiandom is gone. Christians are called to live and die like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. Christians are again be called to be witnesses, disciples, zealots and martyrs. As minorities in society, Christians will need to be able to stand up and proclaim the Good News and their belief in the Lordship of Jesus.

But I digress. Jim Dunning was fond of saying that the monastic church preserved the catechumenate process for us, and the Baptists preserved the baptismal pool and immersion baptism. Let’s look at the monastic process. When the seeker first comes to a Benedictine monastery, he enters through a door in which the words “Friend, why are you here?” are inscribed. The first “official” act the seeker/inquirer in the catechumenate does is knock on the door of the church and answer the question “what do you seek?” This happens at the start of the Rite of Welcome. The “beginner monk” goes through the door and into postulancy. The inquirer goes through the door and enters the catechumenate. (Both have already been through that nebulous solitary inquiry period where God calls during the quiet moments that are present in the midst of the noise of our secular society. The parallel is not accurate. There is a “formal” inquiry period in which the seeker reaches out to the faith community and says, “I want to see a bit more,” but with no commitment. This is more like the soon to be postulant standing before the door and know, that in knocking, his life will change forever.

The important part is that both the monk and the catechumen travel similar journeys of faith. The monk moves from standing in front of the door to going through the door into postulancy. The catechumen stands before the door and moves through into the catechumenate. The questions are the same: “why are you here?” and “what do you seek?” Postulancy leads to the novitiate. The postulant asks to enter the novitiate. He comes to this question in mutual discernment with his spiritual director. The inquirer asks to go through the door. She comes to this question with the help of the pre-catechumenate team. Discernment has begun in both processes. The novice applies to make temporary vows. If the community discerns his readiness, he commits himself to a three year process of intense preparation in the midst of the community. He is a junior monk. The catechumen, together with her sponsor and catechumenate team, discern if the catechumen is ready for enrollment into the intense period of preparation for baptism. The answer may be, “no, not yet.” The answer is not hers alone. However, when she signs the book on the first Sunday of Lent, she becomes a candidate for baptism. After three years a junior monk may ask to make final vows for life in the monastic community. The monastic community discerns readiness. The postulant and novice are free to turn and walk back through the door at any time during the first periods. It is much more difficult after taking final vows. After 40 days, the candidate is baptized. The candidate along with sponsor, spiritual director and catechists may discern that she is not ready. Delay is extremely rare. We believe that spiritual growth continues through baptism and during all of one’s Christian life. Once baptized, there is no turning back. Once professed a follower of Jesus, always a disciple of Jesus.

Both faith journeys are designed to form committed Christians. Both faith journeys are long. They both recognize the slow work of God. The monastic path is designed so that the monk travels the journey and is comfortable in witnessing through the garb of the cassock and through the constant prayer that is ora et labor The catechumenate path is designed so that the newly baptized is able to proclaim in word and deed how Jesus is alive in her life. Both continue to seek greater understanding of who Christ is and who they are in the Body of Christ. Neither is “artificial.” The early church recognized that this is the way of formation of Prophets and Christians. The monastic tradition realized that the 4th Century church had found the Way. The monks preserved it for us. Now we need to join them in recognizing that this is the path of the slow work of God.

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Short Supply: The Pandemic Vaccine and Other Resources

The reports of Covid-19 vaccine shortages are increasing. There is much anxiety and frustration in the U.S. about supply and distribution. England seems to be doing ok but some countries in the European Union are experiencing shortages (while others seem to be doing ok). China has their own vaccine, as does Russia. India is reported to be doing well with vaccinating its citizens.

But then there are the “undeveloped” countries in Africa and Latin America. We haven’t heard much about Latin America except that the deaths in parts of Brazil are overwhelming the “system.” How is Mexico doing? How about Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile,….? And Africa? We hear that South Africa is not doing well. (Or is it the region of Southern Africa?) How about central Africa, west Africa, the entire continent? How about Egypt? How about the Mideast? Many people need to be vaccinated in order to create a herd immunity or all of the vaccines are in vain, or so we’re told.

The situation with the vaccines is a microcosm of what is happening with other resources. The western nations, including the United States and Japan, Australia, etc are doing well with supply. Once again (to paraphrase the commercial about dads), the poor countries get hosed.

The “once again” is where my major concern lies. It is also the focus of many who step back and look at our current world wide situation in terms of essential resources. Those resources are food, water and housing. Our experience of being overrun by refugees is a major result of these shortages. The United States is dealing with refugees from Latin America, especially Guatemala and Mexico. Europe is seeing a huge influx of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Mideast. Supposedly this has to do with gang violence in the Latin American refugees and with the results of war in the Mideast. But it is also about the scarcity of essential resources.

The shortage of essential resources that we experience now is only going to get worse. The extremely poor will look at the wealth of the developed nations and surge forward to quench their needs. We are both blessed and cursed. We are momentarily blessed in our wealth and abundance. We are cursed in not sharing with the poor. This can be seen in the microcosm of national life. Those of the “one percent” in the United States, Europe, China and Japan hoard their wealth and strive to gather even more. We of the “middle class” do the same. Meanwhile, the starving, the thirsty and the unhoused search desperately for relief.

Much of our current situation, both domestically and internationally, is related to our ignoring the crisis of environmental pollution and global warming. Storms are becoming more severe. Weather conditions are increasingly extreme. There are fires that lead to torrential rains and mudslides, colder and more dangerous winter storms, stronger hurricanes and so much more. The ocean waters are warming and rising. And all of this is a major contributor to the shortages of housing, poor, water and the increasing number of pandemics. Many believe that we will see more pandemics as climate conditions worsen.

Will the deaths caused by the pandemic change some of this by decreasing the global population? Possibly. Is that the hope of the decision makers? (I have a bit of the conspiracy theorist in me.) Possibly. But it or any of the current “solutions” just lead to greater and greater suffering. How long can we hide behind our gates and fences, either those that are real for the very wealthy or those that are geographical for the great majority of we who are wealthy compared to all the peoples of the world? We have natural barriers of oceans, rivers and mountains. We have artificial barriers of walls. I suspect we will not be able to escape the calamity of either the current pandemic or the situation of which it is only a symptom, the global crisis from climate change.

“The answers my friends are blowing in the wind.” (We just watched a Bob Dylan documentary the other evening.) No, the answer is right in front of us, as the song points out. The answer is to share our wealth. The models are those who have had the courage to step out and actually live the realization that all of “this,” all of our “stuff,” is in the end, paradoxically, nothing. But it takes a lot of courage and trust to be a Mother Teresa, a Mahatma Ghandi, a St Francis, a Jesus or a Buddha.

Let us pray that we see the light and gain the wisdom soon. My better side says this with hope. My pessimistic side says this is a foolish, futile hope….unless, of course, we humans, in our great capacity to find solutions, find one other than shedding our wealth, that lets us escape the coming disaster.

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Epiphany 4: Mark 1:21-28

On the Sabbath Jesus does what most Jewish men do. He goes to the synagogue to read the Torah and Prophets and to pray. This was in Capernaum and he was traveling, presumably with those he had called earlier to travel with him. The custom at that time was that any of the men who felt so inspired could stand up, select a passage and teach about it. In this case we don’t know what passage Jesus chose. Mark has stories of Jesus entering and teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee.

“Authority” is a key word in this passage. He taught with authority and not as the scribes. After he exorcised the man with the unclean spirit, those present recognized that he has a “new teaching – with authority!” Granted, before the exorcism, the description is that “he taught them as one having authority.” Maybe Jesus had authority; maybe he didn’t. After the exorcism, those in the synagogue doubted no longer. “What is this? A new teaching–with authority?” Jesus’ healing exorcism is a teaching and it is authoritative.

Why the recognition of teaching with authority? And why the jab at the scribes? The scribes taught by referring to others, similar to the dialogues that happen in the Mishna. “On this point, Rabbi Heschel says this but Rabbi Joshua says that.” Jesus’s authority was his interpretation of the Law, not that of another. He taught as a prophet. “Thus says the Lord!” It often put him in conflict with the scribes. Who is the teaching authority? The healing exorcism shows that Jesus is the teaching authority. There is no need for him to refer or defer to other rabbis. His teachings are authoritative.

I studied theology for many years in order to be able to teach with authority. I ended up using that knowledge of philosophy, theology and Scriptural analytics in teaching courses, perhaps with authority. But, when someone asked me a question that was not based on my education, my answers, with the authority of books and professors, were not what they were seeking. They wanted to know who God is. They were not looking for a proof of God’s existence. They were not looking for an explanation of the various kinds of “God-talk.” They wanted to know how to talk with God, how to pray.

One of my clearest memories of this was when I was asked to lead a scripture study for some teens. At the time I was reading a book on the “J” trajectory through the Torah. When followed, the trajectory is quite a dramatic story, a soap opera of sorts. I thought this would capture the interest of the teens during our weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. I failed miserably. The wanted to explore how the scriptures impacted their lives. I was giving them a dramatic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that could touch their minds but did not touch their souls. The study ended after about 6 weeks. I did not have the skills that I have developed since then, skills to help them learn how to listen to God’s word addressed to them. I did not have the courage to open up to them, to ask them what impacted them in a passage, to tell them how it impacted my life.

That is what they sought. That is what our catechumens and other seekers want. That is what I am now able to give because I have gone beyond teaching with the knowledge of the scribes to teaching with the authority of one who wants to share faith.

I continue to study. I am not rejecting the scripture studies or reading and discussing philosophy and theology The knowledge I acquired and continue to acquire is valuable. But it is valuable when I am able to integrate it into my faith life and then try to help others gain insight into their faith lives.

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I saw you under the fig tree — John 1: 43-51

This weeks Gospel passage relates the calling of Phillip and Nathanael. It includes the notable line, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

But it Jesus’ fig tree statement that sticks with me. Sitting under a fig tree is code in the Bible for waiting for and reflecting on the Divine. What was it for Jesus to see Nathanael sitting under the fig tree? Did he walk by and see this stranger (if indeed Nathanael was a stranger) sitting and studying Torah. Perhaps Nathanael was reflecting upon a passage. He could have been doing the simple but difficult task to take time, be silent and be with the Divine, either through the law and the prophets or just through the silence.

Where was the fig tree? There is no mention that Jesus was in Galilee or Bethsaida when he called Phillip. Nor is there any mention of that when Phillip invites Nathanael to “come and see.” Perhaps it was in a village and Nathanael was resting from his labors. Perhaps he was “people watching.” But perhaps he was in a quiter space. Jesus had gone into the wilderness. Had Nathanael as well?

Was Nathanael already prone to seeking the silence and to discern the seeker in another? Such gifts come from sitting under fig trees.

(I was interrupted in the midst of this reflection. Now it is time to move on so I will post this, however brief.)

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Be silent and let God be God

I’ve done several things recently related to spiritual growth. At the counsel of my pastor, I have sought out a spiritual director and I have started reading Richard Rohr. I think the first will be helpful. We haven’t met except for a preliminary superficial connection. But today I will sign our contract and send it back. People have pointed me to Richard Rohr for years. I have not taken the time until now. I am reading his daily meditation as well as one of his books: Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the two halves of Life.

The backstory, as we say these days: When I retired, one of my goals was to develop my spirituality so I can be a better catechumenate minister. I looked for books on spirituality and the catechumenate. The first thing I came up with that looked pretty inviting was Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spirituality. This gave me a better appreciation of the BCP but did little to help me discern God’s presence in my life or how to go about that. Then our new dean, Mathew Woodard, came on the scene in June. I told him what I was trying to do. He asked me if I had a spiritual director or a confessor and advised that I get one immediately. He also said that he didn’t think that I should lead the catechumenate until I had done some real work, guided work, in the area of my own spiritual growth. In fact, as time went on, he asked me who else could lead the catechumenate. Right away, he saw that my going it alone was not going to work. He is right. That is not the path to greater “spiritual enlightenment.” He kept pressuring me. I kept avoiding the search. Finally, after it became clear that he was not going to let me continue to lead the catechumenate until I had done some real work, I took up the search.

I met with Matthew earlier this week because I had asked to attend vestry meetings (virtually). He said that he wanted to talk about it. He asked me if I knew what it felt like for him to receive an email from him before he had even started at Trinity. I didn’t and I still don’t understand what he is saying in that question. I wanted to talk to him early on about the catechumenate. Admittedly, I did use the excuse of updating him on the Trinity of the past decade as an excuse. During our first conversation he quickly moved from the “things” of the past 10 years to the state of my spiritual quest. This has been the case with subsequent meetings as well. In this most recent discussion he asked me why I wanted to start attending Vestry meetings. I told him that I am interested in that part of parish life and that I am feeling disenfranchised from Trinity. He said that he didn’t want me to attend meetings at this time, not because the vestry has anything to hide but rather because he thinks I need more time to step back from any leadership role in the parish.

Initially I was angry with Matthew. I was tempted to close my laptop and terminate our Zoom meeting. As our conversation proceeded I realized that what he was asking me to do was take time to set aside my ego in terms of feeling a need to lead. Good leadership involves becoming of the gifts, skills, talents that others bring and allowing them to use those gifts. I need to realize that other people can do what I was doing. I need to realize that Trinity’s life will go on without me. Specifically, in terms of the catechumenate, I need to realize that others can and perhaps should lead. And, though Matthew did not directly say it, I am pretty sure that he realizes the power of the catechumenate and intends to keep it going at Trinity.

This conversation, along with the new direction I am taking in terms of spiritual development has helped me realize that what I need to do is to step back, diminish my ego and let the Divine guide my life. In the words of one reflection of Richard Rohr: “Be quiet and let God be God.”

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Baptism — Mark 1: 4-11

This is the first Sunday of Epiphany. We celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. This is one of the Sundays of the year that we explicitly focus on baptism. This is one of the Sundays of the year when I hope the preacher will talk about baptism, our baptismal covenant and how to prepare to live that covenant more fully. This is one of the Sundays of the year that I hope the preacher will talk about the catechumenate and its power for our entire community. But unfortunately it is surprisingly rare that the preacher takes this opportunity in its fullness.

Often we will baptize infants on this day. Often we will say the Baptismal Covenant rather than the Nicene Creed. But often the preacher puts neither of these in the context of the formation and preparation that should take place prior to the celebration and prior to our proclamation of the Covenant.

The Collect and Scripture passages are ripe for such teachings!

The Collect: “Father in Heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the Covenant they have made and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” This prayer, in and of itself, has sufficient material for a sermon!

The readings — Genesis 1: 1-5 “in the beginning…” that tells us of the beginning of new life; new life created and sustained by God; new holy life; Acts 10: 1-7 that tells of Paul’s visit to Corinth where he makes the distinction of John’s baptism of repentance and the Christian baptism into the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit; Mark 1: 4-11 that gives us Mark’s account of John baptizing in the wilderness “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” and the difference in John’s baptism of Jesus in which the Holy Spirit is a visible part of the baptism. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? How does it differ from a baptism of repentance? Both involve water. Both involve repentance, conversion, transformation (three different words to name the same miracle, the radical change of one’s life). Acts gives us a hint of the distinction. Those baptized with the Holy Spirit “spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

We expect to see, yes, actually see, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit witnessed to in the change of the newly baptized behavior. We can expect this. We need to expect this because they witness to us that we too can be transformed. We can continue to be transformed. The new behavior may not involve literally speaking in tongues but it will involve living an entirely new way, it will be prophesying through one’s new life of service and prayer and worship.

To say we expect to see this change is not overstating the requirement. The bar is raised for all of us as we participate in a new baptism. It is raised for all Christians as we join those to be baptized in donning the Baptismal Covenant and adjusting it once again for our new growth. For those being baptized the bar is high but attainable because the Holy Spirit makes it high and attainable in the formation process that is the Catechumenate.

All of this needs to be taught in the sermon for The Baptism of our Lord. It can be said in many ways. But it needs to be preached in order to teach those to be baptized and us baptized the context for our baptism and renewal of baptism. Otherwise we need to join with Paul in asking, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit where you were baptized?” “Into what were you baptized?” And the opportunity to preach about what the meaning and act of baptizing comes around once more.

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