The Beach, the Office, and Detachment
July 16, 2006
Hot sun, breezes off the water, rhythmic waves. A little girl kneeling on the ground, scoops up sand and packs it tightly into her bucket. She turns it upended and gently lifts it. To the delight of the young architect, her castle tower is formed. She will spend the rest of the afternoon dedicated to her work, scooping out the moat, packing tightly the walls, building bridges out of Popsicle sticks, and sentinels out of bottle caps.
Big city, busy streets, rumble of traffic. A business man sits in the corner office of the high rise tower next to his computer screen, shuffling papers, making assignments, crunching numbers. His bluetooth is on his ear and constantly flickering. He too is in the midst of construction.
Two builders, two castles. They share much in common. Both have a mission. Both are dedicated to that mission. Both are making something new out of the materials that have been presented to them. But there’s a difference between the little girl and the business man. For all her seriousness, the little girl approaches her work with detachment. At the end of the day she will watch with joy as the tide comes in and washes her castle away. She will go home without sorrow, without fear, without regret. The business man may not be as wise. He may allow his commitment to his work to cloud his vision. He may imagine that that commitment can guarantee his success and that his work can last forever.
The gospel today calls us to find the right balance in our life between commitment and detachment. We must be committed to our responsibilities, addressing them with energy and with zeal. But we must not imagine that our commitment guarantees our success. We must put our work, and indeed our entire lives, in God’s hands.
This need to find the balance between commitment and detachment might explain the rather strange directives that Jesus gives in today’s gospel. He sends the twelve out two by two with real authority and a real mission. Yet he prevents them from taking with them the things they will need for that mission: no bread, no purse, no money in their belt, not even an extra change of clothes. They must depend on God and on others for those things. Such dependence is a reminder that the ultimate accomplishment of any mission is not entirely in our hands. God alone grants success.
You and I must understand the importance of detachment. Detachment does not mean that we do not care. We care deeply. Detachment reminds us that it is God’s will and not our will that will ultimately be done. When we can approach our life with detachment, we are able to be committed in a deeper and more realistic way. We can give ourselves more generously, we can avoid discouragement more easily, because we know that all things are in God’s hands. With detachment, parents can give themselves to the serious business of guiding their children and encouraging their growth. Yet they will still have the freedom to love their children even if they make foolish decisions. With detachment, we can continue to work with honesty and patience, even when the results are not what we hope them to be. With detachment, we can work for justice, even though the odds are against us and the progress is terribly slow. We can love those who are difficult, we can forgive our enemies, because we realize that life is not about our agenda, but God’s agenda. We can continue to believe that God will somehow use our efforts to build the kingdom.
The challenge, then, for each of us, is to find that balance between commitment and detachment. We must certainly take our responsibilities seriously and give ourselves to them. But we must also remember that we are building castles of sand. Such castles might be washed away tomorrow or might stand longer than we ever imagined they could. But the ultimate outcome of our work is not in our hands. We build the castles. God rules the sea.
The Grace of Repentance
July 12, 2009
Mark 6: 7 – 13
When Jesus sent the twelve out to proclaim the Gospel, they preached repentance. Now we all know that repentance is central to the Gospel. But what does repentance mean? Usually when we think about repentance, we identify it with some effort in self improvement, something to make ourselves more patient and kind, some effort that will make us less judgmental or selfish. These efforts on our part are indeed essential to repentance. But repentance is much larger and wider than these efforts on our part. Repentance is as large as the mission of Christ. The mission of Christ is to reconcile all things to God and all people to one another. Repentance must be understood in this light. The biblical word for repentance means to turn around, to think in a new way. So if we understand repentance in its larger sense, it means that we are called to turn to a new way of understanding God and understanding others. And since we define our relationship to God through our understanding of others, the primary call of repentance is to heal the divisions that separate us one from another.
When we hear the call to repent, the first thing we should ask is who are the people fom whom I am estranged in my family, in my community, in this world? Are there people I hate? People I resent? People who I dismiss or demean? And how can I turn around and see these people in a new way, a way that will facilitate God’s kingdom? Now when we look at repentance in this way it is not easy. There are all kinds of reasons we would choose to keep ourselves apart from others. We have been hurt. We all carry prejudices that tag others as unworthy of our trust. We have all kinds of reasons why we should let the divisions among us remain. So how is it possible that we can overcome those inclinations and heal our divisions?
A young priest was assigned to be the new pastor of a small rural tightly-knit community. The previous pastor had been there for 30 years and was deeply loved. This made it very difficult for the new priest to be accepted. There was one particular woman who had been very close to the previous pastor. She wanted nothing to do with the new priest. Every time he made a suggestion to do something she would oppose it. Every time he preached she would disagree. She continuously stirred the pot of discontent within the parish. Within a very brief time a great deal of distrust and hurt had developed between this priest and his parishioner. Now because this community was so small, it was the practice that every year the pastor would visit each member of the assembly in their own home. The priest dreaded the thought of going to visit this difficult woman. But when her name came up he steeled himself and set out. He drove up to her house and paced for awhile in the front yard building up the courage to knock on the door. Finally he took a deep breath walked up the steps and knocked. No answer. This was good news to the priest. He was hoping he could just leave his card and go away. But he thought he should knock again. He did, and again no answer. But he heard a small sound inside, and that caused him to worry. Perhaps the woman had fallen or suffered a stroke. She might need help. So he knelt down and looked in through the keyhole to see if there was anything amiss. To his surprise, he saw an eye looking back at him. Then from within the woman said with a chuckle, “Well Father, I guess this is the first time that you and I have seen eye to eye.” To which the priest responded, “Yes, and we had to get down on our knees to do it.”
When we are called to repent, to heal the divisions between us, it is not something we can do on our own. We have to get down on our knees to ask for God’s help. The hurts and the prejudices are often too deep for us to overcome them by our own strength. Moreover the ability to understand and forgive depends on a change not only in us but in the other person. Over that we have little control.
If repentance is to happen, God must be involved in it. Therefore think today of the prejudices you carry, of the relationships in your life that are broken, and open yourself to the grace of repentance. Turn to God and say, “Lord, I do want to heal this ruptured relationship, but I need your grace of repentance. Lord, I do want to overcome the obstacle that prevents unity with others, but I need your help to bring us together.”
July 15, 2012
Jesus sends out the twelve on a long and difficult mission. But he tells them they are to take no bag. Now, what sense does that make? Well, it would make a lot of sense if the disciples were traveling today by airplane. Checked luggage can quickly add a sizeable amount to your airline ticket.
But Jesus has a different kind of luggage in mind: not the luggage of clothes and hair dryers and toiletries, but a spiritual luggage that can weigh us down. Now, this luggage comes in a number of different designs, but today I want to offer three of them for your consideration. Jesus is asking us to leave behind the bags of our hurts, our fears, and our dreams.
None of us can move through life without being hurt in one way or another. Someone treats us with disrespect, dishonesty or even violence. A person we trust betrays us. Someone we love walks away. Even after we remove ourselves from the circumstances in which the hurt occurs, the scars from that hurt can still follow us. They become heavy baggage that we carry from one place to the other. Such baggage says to us, “You are broken. You are worthless. You are damaged goods.” Jesus asks us to leave behind the baggage of our hurts.
Fear is not a bad thing. Fear serves a positive purpose of identifying and preparing us for danger. But, once we have done all that we can have to prepare, fear loses its value. Then, holding on to fear can turn into a continual worry that undermines us and paralyzes us. It is like carrying a bag of heavy stones with us wherever we go. Fear says, “The worst is going to happen. It is not going to work out. Things will certainly fall apart.” Such fear allows us to do very little. Jesus asks us to leave the bag of our fears behind.
Usually we think of dreams in a positive sense. They can be so when they motivate us and inspire us. But there are some dreams that are really impossible, and these dreams hurt us. They are dreams we want but have very little chance of achieving. Some goals are illusionary. Some people will not change. Some circumstances will not improve. When we insist on holding on to such false dreams, they become like a heavy cargo trunk that weighs us down. It robs us of our rest. It robs us of our joy, because we are always chiding ourselves for doing what cannot be done. Jesus asks us to leave the trunk of false dreams behind.
Clearly Jesus sends us out on a mission of love and service. But he wants us to travel light. What kind of useless burden do you insist on bringing with you? What kind of heavy luggage are you determined to check for your flight? Jesus reminds us that such luggage is unnecessary. He asks us to leave the bags of our hurts, our fears, and our false dreams at home and fly free.
Learning from the Prophet Amos
July 12, 2015
We do not know much about the lives of the prophets of Israel. We of course have their words written down in the books of the Old Testament, but who they were and how they lived is largely hidden from us. Today’s first reading, however, gives us a detail about the prophet Amos. It tells us that he was a very busy man. The reading tells us that when Amos was called by God to prophesy to Israel, he was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. That’s two full time jobs.
Whatever we might want to know about the prophet Amos, it is clear that he had plenty to do. And this makes Amos like us. Some of us here have two jobs. An even greater number of us, in one way or another, have our plates full. We work and we also have an array of other responsibilities and goals: driving the kids to baseball games, keeping in touch with friends, caring for an aging parent, finding time for exercise, pursuing continuing education. There is no lack of things in our life that we want or have to do.
Amos, then, is an example to us. Because when our lives are filled with things to do, it is harder to hear what God wants us to do. But Amos, for all the activities in his life, was able to hear the call of the Lord. How did he do this? We cannot say for sure. But somehow he was able to recognize clues that God was calling him in the midst of a busy life. Somehow he was able to know that this or that occurrence, in the midst of all that he had to do, was the voice of God.
What might such a clue or an occurrence look like? It might be a failure or a mistake that we make. We hurt our spouse or friend. We try to help but only make things worse. Instead of pushing on to the next responsibility in our busy schedule, that mistake might be God’s call, saying to us, “Stop. Change. Learn how to do this better.”
It might be an expectation that we carry. Our daughter should live this way. Our friend should do that. We carry this expectation for a long time, and nothing changes. The frustration that we feel over the inability of others to change might be more than an annoyance. It might be God’s voice asking us to reconsider the expectations we place on other people and inviting to deal with them in a more realistic way.
It might be an opportunity to love or to serve. We know that we should spend more time with our spouse, with our child, with an aging relative. We know that we could really help if we gave ourselves to someone who was struggling in the office or in our neighborhood. Then an opportunity arises in our schedule. That could be God’s way of saying, “Do this now. Seize this opportunity to love or to serve.”
We are busy people. So was the prophet Amos. But he was able to discern clues and occurrences in his busy life as the call of the Lord. We would be wise to do the same.
Speaking the Word Within Us
July 15, 2018
Jesus decides in today’s gospel to commission the twelve to be his representatives in the world. So he sends them out two by two. But he gives them rather strange and perplexing instructions. He tells them that they are to take nothing with them except a walking stick and sandals. So why would Jesus send out his disciples with so little? Would it not make sense to bring some provisions with them for the journey?
What was Jesus thinking? Perhaps he was thinking this: Jesus knew that whenever we have things with us, we are always tempted to believe that those things are what Jesus wants us to offer to others. Jesus tells his disciples to take nothing to make it clear that what he wants them to offer to others is not the things they own but themselves, not the things they carry but the word that Jesus has placed in their hearts. He sends the disciples out with practically nothing because he does not want them to offer people bibles or medals or money. He wants them to share with others the word that he has given them.
Jesus sends us out today into our world as he did the disciples, and he wants us to share with others the word he has placed in our hearts. None of us should ever doubt that Jesus has placed a word there. To each one of us he has entrusted a word that he wants others to hear. All we need to do is find it.
What message would Jesus want us to speak to our family? It could be a message of encouragement to someone who is struggling or lost. It could be a message of forgiveness to someone who has hurt us. The gospel calls us to find that word and speak it. What word would Jesus have us speak in our school or workplace? It might be a word of objection because of the way that a fellow worker or student is ignored or mistreated. Jesus asks us to locate that word and let it be heard. What word would Jesus have us speak politically? It might be a word of approval for policies that promote justice and equality. Or it might be a word of opposition against policies that demean the poor, the laborer, or the immigrant. Jesus invites us to find the word that is within us and speak it, because that is what we as disciples are called to do.
Now, it is sometimes difficult to speak the word that has been entrusted to us, but that is our calling. In his last sermon before his assassination, Martin Luther King spoke these words: “Cowardice asks, “Is it safe?’ Expediency asks, ‘Is it politically correct?’ Vanity asks, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’” There will come a time for each one of us where our choices will not be safe or politically correct or popular. Then we will have to choose what conscience says is right.
Jesus has placed a word in each of us. None of us have all the truth. We all, at times, speak in a manner that misses the mark. But today’s gospel calls us to locate the word Jesus has given us and, because it is right, speak it. That is the way that the voice of Jesus is heard in our world today.
How God Speaks
July 11, 2021
There are eighteen prophetic books in the Hebrew bible. Those books are filled with the words of the prophets, the various messages that are meant for us. But there is very little in those books that tell us about the prophets themselves, who they are or when and how they lived. This is what makes today’s first reading from the Book of Amos so valuable, because in this short reading we find at least three biographical details about Amos. The first is this: Amos was not a professional prophet. You see, in Amos’s time, people would choose prophecy as a career. Kings and other influential people would hire men and women to be their prophet and tell them God’s will. Amos was not that kind of a prophet. He never chose prophecy as a profession. His profession was to be a shepherd.
This leads to the second detail: God calls Amos directly. God’s words are in today’s reading: “Go, and prophesy to my people, Israel.” This leads to the third detail: how Amos was called. Amos was called in the midst of his ordinary routine, while he was tending the sheep. It is this third detail that I wish to focus on today, because it conveys an important spiritual reality. It tells us that God often speaks to us in the ordinary routine of life, just as God spoke to Amos while he was following the flock.
We expect that God will speak to us while we are in church or while we are engaged in personal prayer. But God is just as likely to meet us in the supermarket, on the soccer field, or as we doze in our backyard patio. Any place is a holy place for God. Any moment of our lives can be a divine encounter. We can encounter God in the face of a stranger, in the support of a friend, or in the glory of a sunset. All times and places are game.
So here is the message that today’s first reading offers us: Although we think that we come to God, it is really God who comes to us. So if we have any needs, if we need guidance in making an important decision, if we need strength to forgive an enemy, if we need courage to face pain or suffering, all that we need to do is tell God that need and then continue on with our daily routine. Then, as we answer emails, do the laundry, or rest our head on our pillow, we, like Amos, will hear God’s voice.