Suddenly, It All Looks Different

It’s like suddenly seeing the whole world with a pair of 3-D glasses.

Every once in a while something happens and everything seems different. Often we don’t see it coming. Life just “accumulates” until something shifts. The old way of seeing, doing, being doesn’t fit anymore. We just know the change in our bones! Doesn’t have to be dramatic. There’s no going back — we wouldn’t want to. Often its quiet, subtle — like falling in love.

This time it came in an innocuous Tweet. I read it only once. I don’t even know the context. There hasn’t been the need or even the inclination to go back and retrieve it. It simply made explicit what now seems conspicuous, true, enduring. The Tweet was quoting Pope Francis: “The church doesn’t need any more teachers, the church needs more witnesses.”

We spend our lives going to church, saying our prayers, paying stewardship pledges, taking kids to Sunday school, maybe even teaching Confirmation class. We “do” a lot of stuff!  But, doing somehow morphs over time into “being” different. It’s not that the old stuff isn’t important, it just doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore.

I cannot speculate what this looks or feels like for anyone else. One way I’m experiencing the change is in the difference between ministry and discipleship. The self-introduction (the About Me tab) that accompanies this blog speaks of my “desire to return to ministry.” That was absolutely true — but that now feels obscure, somewhat foreign, certainly obsolete.

When I get around to updating my bio for this site — even that editing doesn’t feel like a high priority now — I will revise “return to ministry” to a current “desire to live a life of more explicit discipleship.” Do you recognize the shift? If you do, great. If not, no sweat! What matters is that a new set of glasses has changed the way I’m seeing, what I’m seeing, and how I want to respond to the world.

We give a lot of lip service in church circles to conversion, repentance, transformation, being born-again, call it what you will. Some of us try all sorts of spiritual practices, follow proven routines and rituals, read the latest books (or blogs!) and even regularly go on retreat. These are praiseworthy, serve a purpose. But their value is good to dispose us to receive what we seek. That’s all they are — dispositional. They are not the change itself.

Change comes through the initiative of grace. It awakens, enlightens, transforms our whole world — like a new pair of 3-D glasses. Whether my new appreciation for the difference between ministry and discipleship endures is yet to be seen.  But its welcome, feels refreshing.

What’s the “shift” you seek?  Is yours also a move from “doing” stuff to “being” different in the world?  Whatever the change turns out to be, I’m certain we all need more of it.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Claiming the Moral High Ground

Sorry, I just don’t get it! I simply don’t understand. People I love, people I respect, family members, friends, neighbors, fellow church members say things that surprise me. It’s not only that I disagree, I don’t understand how they believe what they say.

This post really is more about questions than answers. If anyone has comments, observations or explanations, please share them. My hunch is there are a lot of us who want to understand better — not just understand ideas or issues, but one another.

Here’s a question I’ve always wanted answered but seems too simplistic to ask: What did Christians do before the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around the year 1440? Of course vast majorities of people were illiterate — there was precious little to read!

I respectfully ask anyone who grounds authority in sola scriptura — Scripture alone — to explain how the average individual or church community learned, expressed or evaluated the authenticity of their faith. My guess it that most pastors were pretty ignorant even if they had a rudimentary reading ability. Again, Bibles and other resources simply weren’t available.  How did they do it?

Okay, that was a gentle wind-up! I’ve generally kept silent about my second question. I’ve been afraid of and reluctant to implicate family, friends, neighbors, people I love. This one hits home because some Christians judge me — and that’s a generous verb — for being gay.

What I want to know is how those who so easily ground their moral assessment of me as a gay man intending to marry can so blithely overlook Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce.  Many consider the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of marriage equality as an assault on the sanctity of marriage.  I don’t get it.

Jesus’ one specific reference to marriage is a quote of Genesis 2:24, not for the purpose of affirming some clear, incontrovertible, traditional law of marriage, but for the purpose of prohibiting divorce (Mark 10:2-9)! Truly, I do not want to pick a fight or alienate friends. My intention really is to open discussion and better understand people I care about.

Just given sheer numbers, wouldn’t the defenders of “traditional marriage” found in Scripture better expend their energies attacking divorce than moral outrage at gay people who desire the blessing and commitment of marriage? I’m not here to pick a fight. I really wonder about such questions.

Believe me, I am quite comfortable with a very forgiving application of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and appreciate that the literal meaning of his teaching is not meant to be interpreted literally. My question is more about how we use the authority of Scripture to live our lives.  Why do we contextualize and moderate the literal meaning of some texts but tenaciously cling to others to justify our firm moral convictions?

Admittedly, my faith tradition affirms the ongoing inspiration of the Spirit over time expressed through the teaching authority of the church. Scripture is absolutely normative, but not exclusive. The Bible arises, through divine inspiration, from within the life of the church. Others Christians seem to believe it works the other way around — the church is formed by and springs from the Bible.

This seems to lead good people to come at things from different if not opposite directions. I’m not trying to argue which is right or wrong. However, I will admit I don’t understand how some people think, especially when their conclusions — if not their behaviors — carry an implicit moral judgment.

I truly want to understand better.  Maybe you do too.

Her Outlandish Spectacle

Too much knowledge can be a huge encumbrance — book-learning can just as well imprison the mind as liberate. Our challenge is not to become anti-intellectual but to recognize just how stultifying “intelligent” conversation has become. We seek fresh wisdom, relevant answers. Too often, we resort to tired formulations that leave us gasping for air or dozing off to sleep.

Where is God? Who is God? Or, more urgently, IS God? Try as we might, our increasingly agnostic culture cannot summarily dismiss these questions. Just as humans are incapable of constructing a rational proof for the existence of God, avowed skeptics are equally inept in summarily dismissing God from our imagination. Our ability to think, reason and create delude us — we readily and rightly believe we are god-like; we easily and erroneously conclude we are free of God.

Human knowledge, rational argument, academic theology — necessary and ennobling as they remain — will never satisfy our deepest curiosity. Our insatiable hunger is not a question of existence but of meaning. Where is God? Who is God? If God, then who am I?

We are less perplexed by God’s questionable existence than by God’s confounding absence. No one expresses our current human predicament better than Barbara Brown Taylor:

Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults. By hiding inside a veil of glory, God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God. When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again–then, at last, we are ready to worship God.

God eludes our efforts to make of him an “object” of human knowledge. Of much greater consequence, we risk idolatry whenever we make God into an “object” of our prayer or worship. No wonder so many of our religious practices and dogmatic  formations leave us gasping for air or stupefied beyond belief. As Barbara Brown Taylor appropriately laments, “there is great famine in our land.”

What are we to do? Where is our hope? Is faith in God credible? Answers will come less from academic theology and creedal formulations. This Pentecost weekend, just as at the first, we have the invitation to be surprised, caught off-guard, utterly liberated from our descriptive assaults upon God.

The self-giving Spirit among us — Holy Wisdom, Sophia, the feminine face of God — is not rational, objective or theoretical. Rather, her outlandish spectacle reveals a timeless, untamable God who is relational, communal, intimate, unitive. If there is any lesson to be learned it is that of vigilant humility — especially among theologians, bishops, pastors or any of the rest of us who would ultimately “define” or feel compelled to “defend” God.

For then and perhaps only then can God be God.

The quote from Barbara Brown Taylor is from When God is Silent, Cowley Publications, 1998, p., 17.

Dance, for God’s Sake!

Friday the 13th! Pi Day… 3.1415! Beware the Ides of March! St. Patrick’s Day.

The concentration of these fun, playful, popular — though essentially insignificant days — has gotten me thinking. We need more of this! In fact, I was disappointed when the parents of 8 y/o Max, grinning a proud gummy smile, told me they don’t do the tooth fairy!

Same applies to our faith! Where’s the fun? …playfulness? …sense of humor? Lent seems like a good time to do a collective assessment. My niece shared a photo on Facebook of their family attending Friday Night Fish Fry in Omaha. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun!

Coincidentally, we looked for a fish fry in Minneapolis last evening as well. A couple of churches came up in our Google search — clearly skewed to the “more Catholic” St. Paul side of the metro.  Mostly, they were restaurants and taverns.  We chose the St. Clair Broiler over the Grandview Pub because I preferred the family atmosphere over a bar. But, hey, this seems to be where folks prefer to spend Fridays in Lent. Our server at the Broiler even told us how their consistently good business really spikes on all-you-can-eat fish fry Fridays.

I hope our churches are paying attention! People are hungry! We are looking for nourishment in the context of community. I think Pope Francis is on to something — if you are not a person of conspicuous joy you are not really a very good Christian! Our churches can be so lifeless! Our gatherings so scripted, staid and subdued! Where’s the life?

Secular culture is pulsing with stories, rituals and mythology — black cats, Pi Day, Shakespeare’s admonition to be careful tomorrow, green beer, tooth fairies. These are more than frivolous. They are fun, expressive of human imagination and hold us in community. They express the longings and appetites of the human spirit for story, meaning and relationship.

I grew up in a church awash in Ember Days, feast days (St Richard’s is April 3), May crowning, summer camps, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, St Vincent de Paul Societies, Legion of Mary (for men, BTW), “open gym”, block rosary, you name it! It was fun, secure and a wonderful time and place to grow up.  I found God there!

To be clear, I am not pining for a return to the 1950s. God forbid! Resuscitating past patterns and repeating old scripts is definitely not where it’s at though many will try! Where is the imagination? …the vitality? …the energy? ..the Spirit?  WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE? We are hungry and will find nourishment. Jesus went out to meet them!

My intuition has a sense of what we need to be about as communities of faith. It comes from secular culture not from my two graduate degrees in theology! It comes from the Ellen DeGeneres television show!

As a nation, we do not need another PBS special of Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House or Nancy Reagan unveiling new china for the Presidential dining room. Though it’s not my musical style or within my range of talent, we need Michelle Obama dancing “Uptown Funk” with Ellen [link]. Whether I prefer it or not, this is expressive of the future that is calling.  It’s expressive of the fun, vitality and energy for which our collective spirits are hungry. This is the kind of First Lady we need now — one who can give expression to our future and offers leadership by showing us the way.

I get a sense that Pope Francis “gets it”. But he leads on the global stage where he fights a whole lot of lethargy and entropy.  So do we!  Yet, each of us needs to bring this vision and spirit to our communities and locale. We will surely crash if we keep looking into the rear view mirror. Resuscitating old ways of doing things is a waste of time — “See I am doing new things!” says our God.

People vote with their feet. Sometimes, we even dance!

Intolerable Cost of Ignorance

I don’t know what I was thinking – apparently, I wasn’t. It just never occurred to me! Objectively speaking I am fortunate to have been given a pretty decent education.  Call it blinders or tunnel-vision, the fact is my perspective on world cultures, other religions or the great wisdom traditions is dismally shallow. My knowledge is narrow and sectarian.

This weekend is a case in point… Isn’t Pentecost the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and thus the founding of the church? Well, yes. But it’s really so much more! It’s never occurred to me before that the apostles weren’t just sitting around together because they were afraid, waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up.

Pentecost is not a Christian invention. The disciples were gathered together in fidelity to the Jewish feast of Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks! It is the second of the three major Jewish pilgrimage festivals, the others being Passover and Sukkoth (commemorating the wandering in the desert).

Although it also is the time when first fruits were brought to the Temple, Shavu’ot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Jews count from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, 49 days to celebrate the vital connection between Passover and Shavu’ot. The festival is also known as Pentecost, because it falls on the 50th day.

The period from Passover to Shavu’ot is marked by great anticipation! Passover freed God’s chosen people physically from bondage. The giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeems them “spiritually” by establishing the terms of their covenant relationship with God.

I wish I had known this earlier! Overlays with Christianity are so obvious and rich. Ignorance has resulted in too much suffering and missed opportunities! Really too bad — my loss!

It is significant that Shavu’ot is called the time of the giving of the Torah, rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah. Rabbis point out that Jews are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah, it is to be received every day. Isn’t this true for all of us?

We can start fresh by fostering a climate of genuine curiosity and committing ourselves to become better listeners. Let’s also foster the even nobler human impulse – typically “maternal” – to instinctively seek reconciliation in a family and gather all the children together as one.

What better place to begin than in the spirit of the prayer for peace at the Vatican. It begins on Pentecost at 12 noon in Minneapolis, 7 p.m. in Rome. The inspiring text of the service has been released and is available [here]. 

At our home we will be lighting a candle as described in my [post] last Wednesday. Despite the marvelous prayers available in the “official” program given on the link above, I am drawn to the simple Prayer to the Holy Spirit I learned as a kid:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy Your consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew and Presidents Abbas and Peres will plant an olive tree in the Vatican Gardens at the conclusion of their prayer service. We have been planning to replace a wild rose bush in our garden along the street. We will do that on Pentecost with more intentionality, dedicating it to peace in Jerusalem and among the three great religions that make up the family of Abraham.

The cost of our ignorance is intolerable. The price of sectarian narrowness and tunnel-vision is death. We must get over it!

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise.


This year Shavu’ot was commemorated from Tuesday evening, June 3 through Thursday evening, June 5.


Pray — Now, Often and Hard

It’s time to pray. Start now. Pray often. Pray hard!

This Sunday – Pentecost — Presidents Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres will arrive at the home of Pope Francis in the Vatican. Francis explained that their meeting is not a diplomatic initiative or mediation, but only a prayer for peace.

It was officially confirmed yesterday that Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew II will be joining them.   The presence of the Successor of the Apostle Andrew next to the Successor of the Apostle Peter is a poignant sign of a deep and abiding commitment for peace in the Holy Land.

Such unity-in-practice between the Roman and Orthodox churches is already a major breakthrough and bodes well for what the Spirit has in mind for the gathering on Sunday.

Yes, we all should join in the spirit and energy of this prayer. Start now. Pray often. Pray hard.

Here’s a practical suggestion – light a candle. Let it be a tangible sign of the “tongues of fire” we hope will descend on the patriarch, pontiff and presidents this Pentecost – indeed, on all people of good will.

Most supermarkets carry 24-hour memorial candles. I found mine in the section of the store that also offers Sabbath supplies. Mine is the familiar Manischewitz brand. What if we all lit such a candle this Sunday asking for a fresh out-pouring of God’s empowering presence?

Whatever our expressions of prayer may take, let’s pray remembering that we not only need to change the hearts of world leaders.  Many human hearts need to be transformed, beginning with our own.

Here is one prayer for peace adapted from the inter-faith Week of Prayer for World Peace website:

Lead us from death to life,
from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope,
from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love,
from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

In our prayer let us pray with the first Pentecost in mind:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. (Acts 2:1-6)

Yes, may it be so. Let it be. Let it be.




Warning: Strong Winds Possible

Remember that old, short, fat guy with big ears? His name was Angelo.

Who wouldn’t feel affection for a man who was so comfortable with himself that he constantly made jokes about his physical appearance? When he once met a little boy named Angelo, he exclaimed, “That was my name, too!” And then, conspiratorially, “But then they made me change it!”

Journalists once expressed concern about the many burdens of his office on such an old man — he was seventy-seven when elected!  They asked, “Do worries, stress or anxiety given all you have to face ever keep you awake at night?” He answered, “Not at all! At the end of the day I say, ‘God, this is your church. I’m going to sleep.’”

An experienced diplomat, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue, and a gifted pastor and bishop, John XXIII brought a wealth of experience to the office of pope. Blessed with a sense of humor and innate humility, he managed to escape the Achilles heel of all Catholics – conflating the hierarchy with the church.

When making a pastoral visit to a Roman medical center named the Hospital of the Holy Spirit he was introduced to the nun who was the administrator of the hospital. “Holy Father,” she said, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.” “You’re very lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

Three months after assuming his office, Pope John caught Vatican bureaucrats off guard by casually announcing his intention to convene an ecumenical council. Curial officers, long accustomed to running things, prepared documents simply reiterating tired old “truths” in the moribund language of ecclesial texts. Entrenched bishops were poised to condemn a whole new syllabus of modern errors.

John gave voice to a different agenda. “The church has always opposed … errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” He also hoped the church might reclaim its true identity and vocation as a “church of the poor.”

The pope hardly spoke during the opening sessions of the Council. He made one crucial intervention. After the first previously prepared document was rejected by a narrow majority, but not enough to table it definitively, John directed that it be returned for complete revision. That empowered the assembled bishops to set aside the entire set of draft documents and start from scratch.

His role was simply to “open the widows” for the spirit of Vatican II. Terminal cancer would cut short his participation but not his humor: “My bags are packed and I am ready to go.”

Four and a half years after becoming pope, John dictated a final message from his deathbed:

Now, more than ever, certainly more than in the past centuries, our intention is to serve people as such and not only Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person and not only those of the Catholic Church; it is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better…. The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far beyond. 

Sound vaguely familiar? As we approach Pentecost this Sunday we do well to remember that this isn’t the pope’s church, it is God’s! For all who would conflate hierarchy with church, the best we could do would be to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit.  We should all be starting more fires!

Saint John XXIII died on this day in 1963.


I am indebted once again to Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Times. Crossroads, 1999. p 243-4.

Humor is from James Martin, SJ and more may be enjoyed [here].