I Cannot Be Destroyed

“Daddy, what is your worst-est fear?”

Just a bit of background: both of my sons are very interested in ninjas, and ninjas ask these kinds of things. And because ninjas never give up, Eli waited patiently as my husband considered whether or not to reveal his deepest fear to a five-year-old. The young ninja finally offered a helpful suggestion:

“Is it being destroyed?”

I heard about this completely one-sided conversation when I arrived home. My husband never answered Eli’s question – but I suppose there’s no reason to when your five-year-old has already successfully identified every human being’s greatest fear.

Fear of being destroyed.

I’ve been told that when you’re dying, you don’t want things sugar-coated. You don’t want surface-level nonsense that sounds good but gets you nowhere. You want to talk about death. You want to talk about being destroyed. You want to know what it’s really about – what’s going to happen, how it’s going to be, how you’ll accept it. In the Church we talk about the “last things” – death, judgment, heaven, hell. You want to know what those things mean.

One of the great personal creeds of Scripture is that stubborn declaration of Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives.” It’s worth noting that Job says this almost immediately after declaring that God “breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree” (Job 19:10, 25).

People of faith – we believe that we cannot be destroyed. To destroy is to cause something to come to an end, to cease to exist. God may break us down. We may feel lost or gone. Our hope will come and go. But we cannot be destroyed (cf. 2 Cor. 4:9; 5:1). As Job declares, I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s, will see him (Job 19:26-27).

 I can’t think of anything harder than being a human being. Destruction hangs around us in so many ways, so many areas of our lives. We are strong, but we are so fragile. It isn’t just physical destruction we fear but mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, relational, national, natural and even ecclesial. We won’t escape destructive experiences. We know that, we who know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

But I hope you will say it with me, Job’s creed: I cannot be destroyed. Because my redeemer lives. I will see for myself, my own eyes will see him. My inmost being is consumed with longing (Job 19:25-27).

The little ninja.

The little ninja.

A Noise Like a Strong Driving Wind?

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when we recall the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the first followers of Jesus. This year as I reflected on the story from Acts, I was struck by the powerful images – the sights and sounds that accompanied this outpouring – especially how the Spirit is described as sounding like “a strong driving wind” (NABRE) or like “the rush of a violent wind” (NRSV; Acts 2:2).

We often experience the voice of God in our lives as a quiet thing – a still small voice, a whisper, a stirring of the heart, or the murmurings of conscience. And it is often a slow communication – a voice that speaks in layers as time passes, a message that takes hold slowly over the course of many years.

But the Pentecost story reminds us of other ways that God communicates. Sometimes the divine voice is loud, powerful, fast and laser-like in its precision. The NRSV’s word “violent” lingers here – not violence in the sense of harming anyone – but violent in the sense of strong enough to wreak havoc on our minds and hearts, wild enough to unsettle or even unseat us. Of course the goal of this unsettling is not ultimately turmoil but healing and life. God speaks in mysterious ways!

Will you share with me what the voice of God sounds like in your life? Is it a gentle whisper or a strong driving wind? Is there a metaphor that comes to mind to describe your own experience?

I’d love to hear from you – as a comment directly on the blog page, or as a reply to email if you receive the blog that way, or as a facebook comment if you are reading there.

Happy Pentecost!

Untitled  by Kim Young Gil (1940-2008)

Untitled by Kim Young Gil (1940-2008)

Sunday's Gospel: Who Is the Advocate?

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist magazine. For subscription information, visit catechist.com.

May 21, Sixth Sunday of Easter, Gospel Reading: John 14:15-21

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” (John 14–16) continues. In this short excerpt of the discourse, Jesus assures his disciples that, although he will be leaving them soon, he will remain with them. But how?

Jesus tells his followers that if they keep his commandments, the Father will send them “another Advocate.” The Greek word translated here as “advocate” is parakletos, a word that typically refers to an advocate or mediator (but is sometimes translated as “comforter”). Jesus already serves as a mediator between God and his followers, but now he is speaking of sending another mediator, one he identifies as “the Spirit of truth.”

It is clear that the Spirit is distinct from Jesus, and yet the Spirit allows Jesus to continue to be with his followers, to be revealed to them, and even to love them. Thus Jesus can say that even though the world will no longer be able to see him, his disciples will. This is the power of the presence of the Spirit of truth.

As if this were not enough to boggle the minds of the disciples, Jesus adds this mysterious nugget: “I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” The unity of Jesus with his Father is an oft-repeated theme in John’s Gospel. But now Jesus draws his disciples into this wonderful communion. It may seem that a mediator is no longer necessary if we are “in Jesus” and he is “in the Father.” Perhaps Jesus is saying that it is precisely this revealing Spirit of truth that makes this intimacy with the Father and Son possible.

We may not understand everything Jesus is saying in his Farewell Discourse, even in this small piece of it. But one message is clear: Although we cannot see Jesus with our eyes, he remains with us. He urges us to believe it.

ASK YOURSELF: Do I feel the presence of Jesus? Or is it something I must accept on faith?

ASK YOUR STUDENTS: Do you think the disciples were ever confused by Jesus’ words? Do you think they came to understand some of his teachings after he died and rose from the dead? Why? How?

PRAY: Spirit of truth, mediate for me, comfort me, and reveal Jesus to me.

LIVE THE GOSPEL: The Holy Spirit is described by Jesus as a paraclete — a mediator, an advocate, or a comforter. How can you be a mediator or an advocate for someone this week? How can you mediate the presence of Jesus by supporting or comforting someone?

In this lovely image by Charles Plessard (goache on paper), the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he is baptized by John the Baptist. Illustrations of the baptism of Jesus allow an artistic expression of the intimacy between Jesus, the Father and the Spirit that we read about in this passage from John's Gospel. Image courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim .

In this lovely image by Charles Plessard (goache on paper), the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he is baptized by John the Baptist. Illustrations of the baptism of Jesus allow an artistic expression of the intimacy between Jesus, the Father and the Spirit that we read about in this passage from John's Gospel. Image courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

I Will Not Believe

Like most human beings, I’m very sympathetic to the disciple Thomas. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading recounted the story of Thomas’ iconic doubt – his declaration to his friends (who declared Christ risen because they had seen him) that “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25).

My typical “go-to” thought on this episode has always been, Who could blame the guy?  It’s only human to not accept that dead people come back to life. It’s only human to think that perhaps your friends are simply believing what they want to believe. It’s only human to doubt.

But this year it struck me how defiant Thomas was in his declaration, how he limited himself.

I will not believe.

Thomas had conditions for believing – three of them. Perhaps those conditions were not entirely unreasonable. Perhaps they were not unreasonable at all! But he intractably declared that if these conditions were not met, he would not believe.

When we draw lines in the sand, we box ourselves in. We tell God what is possible. We tell God what we will and will not believe. We don’t leave room for wild and unimaginable (and true) things like resurrection, incarnation, transformation and salvation. We draw a line, and we stay on the safe side.

It’s a shame to miss out on so much.

I’m still sympathetic to Thomas because I know I have my own conditions, my own demands. We all do. Can we be more aware of them? Can we try to let them go? Can we stop drawing lines so God can tell us the truth? Can we believe based on the word of another? Can we let the unimaginable be...real?

Jesus had sympathy for Thomas, too. He made a special trip out to see him. He invited Thomas to have his conditions met – see the marks, put your fingers here, place your hand here, in my side. “Believe,” he urged Thomas.

Jesus won’t give up on us, even if our faith is limited. But how free and wise and faithful we can be, if we believe without conditions.  How free and wise and faithful we can be if we place no limits on what God can do, or where he might be, or how the declaration “He is Risen!” may play out in our own lives.

There are many ways to place our hands in the side of Jesus, close to his heart. So in the spirit of Easter, let us not limit God, or ourselves.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,  Francois-Joseph Navez, 1823.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Francois-Joseph Navez, 1823.

One Hour Retreat for Holy Week: Who Am I? Where Is My Heart?

Pope Francis’ homily from Palm Sunday 2014 has always remained with me. For this year’s “One Hour Retreat for Holy Week,” I recommend that you first go back to the Passion story as told by Matthew, which we read together at Mass on Sunday. Then read Pope Francis’ reflection below, which is structured around a series of questions, each asking us to examine ourselves and our own place in the story of Jesus’ final hours.

Take your time with each question as you ponder the biblical text. Imagine yourself in the story. Be there with Jesus. Be honest with Jesus.

A very blessed Holy Week and a joyous Easter to each of you!

POPE FRANCIS’ PALM SUNDAY HOMILY 2014

“This week begins with the festive procession with olive branches: the entire populace welcomes Jesus. The children and young people sing, praising Jesus.  But this week continues in the mystery of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. We have just listened to the Passion of our Lord. We might well ask ourselves just one question:  Who am I? Who am I, before my Lord? Who am I, before Jesus who enters Jerusalem amid the enthusiasm of the crowd? Am I ready to express my joy, to praise him? Or do I stand back? Who am I, before the suffering Jesus?

We have just heard many, many names. The group of leaders, some priests, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, who had decided to kill Jesus. They were waiting for the chance to arrest him. Am I like one of them?

We have also heard another name: Judas. Thirty pieces of silver. Am I like Judas? We have heard other names too: the disciples who understand nothing, who fell asleep while the Lord was suffering. Has my life fallen asleep? Or am I like the disciples, who did not realize what it was to betray Jesus? Or like that other disciple, who wanted to settle everything with a sword? Am I like them? Am I like Judas, who feigns loved and then kisses the Master in order to hand him over, to betray him? Am I a traitor?

Am I like those people in power who hastily summon a tribunal and seek false witnesses: am I like them? And when I do these things, if I do them, do I think that in this way I am saving the people?

Am I like Pilate? When I see that the situation is difficult, do I wash my hands and dodge my responsibility, allowing people to be condemned – or condemning them myself?

Am I like that crowd which was not sure whether they were at a religious meeting, a trial or a circus, and then chose Barabbas? For them it was all the same: it was more entertaining to humiliate Jesus.

Am I like the soldiers who strike the Lord, spit on him, insult him, find entertainment in humiliating him?

Am I like the Cyrenean, who was returning from work, weary, yet was good enough to help the Lord carry his cross?

Am I like those who walked by the cross and mocked Jesus:  “He was so courageous! Let him come down from the cross and then we will believe in him!” Mocking Jesus….

Am I like those fearless women, and like the mother of Jesus, who were there, suffering in silence?

Am I like Joseph [of Arimathea], the hidden disciple, who lovingly carries the body of Jesus to give it burial?

Am I like the two Marys, who remained at the Tomb, weeping and praying?

Am I like those leaders who went the next day to Pilate and said, “Look, this man said that he was going to rise again.  We cannot let another fraud take place!”, and who block life, who block the tomb, in order to maintain doctrine, lest life come forth?

Where is my heart? Which of these persons am I like? May this question remain with us throughout the entire week.”

* * * * *

Homily delivered by Pope Francis from St. Peter’s Square, Vatican, April 13, 2014; to see text on Vatican website, click here.

To see previous years' "One Hour Retreats for Holy Week," click here and here.

Unknown Egyptian artist. Gouache on papyrus. Courtesy  Sacred Art Pilgrim .

Unknown Egyptian artist. Gouache on papyrus. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.