If you can!

January 14, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is in a fascinating story from Mark 9:14-29.

When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes arguing with them. Immediately on seeing him, the whole crowd was utterly amazed. They ran up to him and greeted him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Wherever it seized him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.” He said to them in reply, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth. Then he questioned the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He replied, “Since childhood. It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “’If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. He became like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead!” But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. When he entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, “Why could we not drive it out?” He said to them, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

This seems like a kind of Catch-22 situation to me. Jesus can do anything for one who has faith and some demons can only be driven out through prayer. So, if I’m unable to drive out one of my demons like the disciples, does that mean I don’t have sufficient faith? Not all my prayers are answered in terms of the resolution I’m seeking. Does it mean I’m not praying in the right way? Does it mean I don’t have enough faith? What can I do about that? Or what am I to think about this teaching? Actually, my question is what is Jesus trying to teach me?

Moloney in The Gospel of Mark writes regarding Jesus’ frustration at his disciples’ lack of faith, “As failure increases, one might expect Jesus to declare ‘enough’ but this is never the case. Although expressed in different words, Jesus called the Twelve to be ‘with him,’ to share his life and ministry. The same idea is present here, but stated from Jesus’ side of the relationship. The brief expression of anger and frustration, which prepares for Jesus’ response to the disciples does not lead to Jesus’ abandoning of the disciples.” I can think of something I prayed for much of my life, nearly since childhood, to no avail. God didn’t respond as I asked, which sometimes caused me to question my faith and at other times to question myself.

This demon of doubt in God and in myself tried to kill me, tried to extinguish my faith and stirred thoughts of taking my own life. It came and went, but never left me entirely. It was only after reading and reflecting upon the gospels day after day for a year, which is a way of praying for me, that the demon was expelled. However, not in the way I expected. It was only when I was able to accept Jesus’ unconditional love for me, helping my unbelief, that I could be healed, made whole.

I think that what Jesus is trying to teach me is to simply pray for help in overcoming my unbelief. Instead of asking for what I want, for control over my life, I need to place myself in God’s loving care and let Him heal me in the way I need and in the way He wants to use me, to allow myself to be one with Him. Overcoming my unbelief by simply trusting God. That sounds so simple, but it is so hard for me to do. I want what I want! Just as Moloney says of the disciples, “They are beginning to impose their designs upon Jesus as something they can determine. For this they are regarded as a ‘faithless generation’ not prepared to admit their failure.” That’s the lack of faith that Jesus is decrying and is driving him to be frustrated with me. But he won’t abandon me; he will wait patiently for me to share his life, to follow his lead. Then, no demon can maintain power over me. Jesus will be able to command, “Come out of him and never enter him again!”



Listen to him

January 12, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is given to us in Mark 9:2-13.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant. Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He told them, “Elijah will indeed come first and restore all things, yet how is it written regarding the Son of Man that he must suffer greatly and be treated with contempt? But I tell you the Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

According to Moloney in The Gospel of Mark, Mark’s notation that this event took places after six days echoes the experience of Moses when after he and Joshua had spent six days on the mountain God called to Moses from the cloud. Moloney also notes that Moses and Elijah are the only characters in the scriptures to meet God on a mountain and both in Jewish tradition were transported to heaven. Mark is making the point that Jesus is in the same rank. But somehow Peter didn’t make the connection as he addresses Jesus as rabbi, certainly not a heavenly title. However, as Mark says, he was terrified and didn’t know what to say, so he reverted to his customary address of Jesus as rabbi.

I wondered for a while whether Jesus’ transfiguration was primarily for his benefit or the disciples. Today I’m thinking it was for the disciples. So far they had been unable to comprehend all that had transpired and all that Jesus was telling them would take place in Jerusalem — his passion, death, and resurrection. Their minds just weren’t able to grasp all this. Together their minds and their feelings basically in denial locked them in denial. So, God had to enter the picture in a forceful, vivid way. He spoke to them from a cloud and commanded, “Listen to him!” — him, His beloved Son, His word enfleshed, the promise of His covenant. No wonder the poor disciples were terrified and bewildered.

It seems like that’s what God has said to me as well. It’s as if He’s saying to me, “Listen to me as I have spoken through my only begotten Son. Read his words. Take heed. I’m talking to you.” It’s like a slap in the head. Pay attention. Barclay writes, “They still did not understand, and their failure to understand was due to the cause which always makes men fail to understand — they clung to their way and refused to see God’s way. They wished things as they desired them and not as God had ordered them. The error of their thoughts had blinded them to the revelation of God’s truth.”

What always makes men fail to understand. I cling to my way and refuse to see God’s way. I wish things to be as I desire them and not as God has ordered them. That’s kind of my problem in a nutshell. All my instincts — stemming from my fears and my experiences — cause me to fail to understand God’s truth over and over. That’s why God has had to break through and tell me to “Listen to him!” I listen but sometimes I still fail to understand and I reject what I hear. But reading the gospels over and over is very slowly changing me, opening me to God’s love so that I want to return His love by following the command of His Son to love one another. If I can just resist reacting in the way I have all my life, I can hear God tell me, “Listen to him.:” When I do, love has a chance to intervene, a chance to change how I respond. That’s the transformation that God is trying to effect in me.


I must deny myself

January 9, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today — and I need good news especially today — is from Mark 8:34-9:1.

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” He also said to them, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.”

Isn’t in interesting that Jesus addresses not just his disciples, but he called a crowd to gather around to listen. I am in that crowd; he is talking to me right now. He says to us here over and over, “Whoever,” meaning everyone one of us.

This is serious stuff; this is life itself he’s talking about. Nothing else matters more than following Jesus as he proclaimed in the gospel, the good news. What is that? It seems to me that it can be boiled down to love one another, which necessarily means forgiving one another because I’m going to fail to love others all the time even those I profess to love the most. I’m going to hurt them, disappoint them, and even reject them at times. I think I have finally excepted that that is my fate. I am not perfect; I am not God.

The point is that I must try my best. I must act from a place of love, from God’s spirit within me, with His strength. I must try my best to go to that place and not let my emotions direct my words and actions. That does necessarily mean suffering, taking up my cross. Because I’m not going to have the satisfaction of striking out against someone who has hurt me or try to exercise control over someone else, not use whatever power, influence, and money I may have to satisfy my own desires at the expense of someone else. That means letting go and suffering for me, suffering because I’m giving up what I want. I am willing to follow Jesus. There are times when it seems like every part of me resists doing that. It’s a battle, sometimes fought several times a day.

It would behoove me to remember what Barclay has to say, “What he [Jesus] demanded that they should face, he, too, was ready to face.” He goes on to write, “God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live carefully, always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for the men for whom Jesus died, we are winning life all the time.”

Wow! But that’s what Jesus is telling me today. I needed the good news today even if it’s hard to hear.


Get behind me, Satan

January 7, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is brought to us by Mark in 8:31-33.

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, the Son of Man as described in the books of Enoch and Ezra is “a unique figure of extraordinary spiritual endowments, who will be revealed as the one through whom the everlasting kingdom decreed by God will be established.” However, it goes on to state that it is doubtful that Jesus used the title in this sense — or that Peter understood it in that way, but rather Jesus used it to mean simply a human being. I like that first meaning, though, as it seems to perfectly convey Jesus’ identity and mission. Moloney in The Gospel of Mark agrees that Jesus was teaching his disciples that “His messiahship is to be found in his future as the Son of Man….This is the first expression of ‘the Son of Man’s since Jesus’ earlier claim of authority to forgive sin and over the Sabbath.”

This is the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus speaks clearly to his disciples about his impending suffering, death, and rising from the tomb. The Commentary also concludes that Mark wrote of Peter in this way to emphasize that “Anyone who denies the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus stands on the side of Satan. By calling Peter ‘Satan,’ Jesus indicates that the false view of his messiahship is a temptation.” Temptation meaning a stumbling block to belief and faith. One cannot be a follower or disciple of Jesus without accepting his passion, death, and resurrection — as painful or disorienting or incredible as that may be. Moloney claims, “This is true sight,a fullness of vision. This truth must not be hidden; it must be openly proclaimed.”

Peter had a problem with this, though. As Moloney puts it, “Peter was ready to confess that Jesus was the Messiah, but talk of death and resurrection was not a part of his scheme.” “Get behind me” can be understood as Jesus warning his disciple to not stand in his way on his journey to Jerusalem and his passion and death. It is inevitable because it is God’s plan and human beings cannot thwart Him.

I can sympathize with Peter. For most of my life I wanted to thwart death and certainly avoid suffering. I wanted to resist God’s plan for me. However, it struck me a few years ago that if I really believe what I profess, then I should embrace death as my reunion with God’s spirit. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be frightened of dying. But, if I’m really Christian, then I shouldn’t fear death; I shouldn’t fear being embraced by God. There are certainly ways of dying that I fear, suffocation being at the top, I think. I was thinking about my final hours the other day and all that I hope is that a loved one is by my side holding my hand and encouraging me that God is waiting to embrace me. A loved one willing to pass me on to my Father’s loving care. That’s the only way I can possibly avoid panic or fear, I think. So, I can understand the fear that was provoked in Peter about what Jesus was telling his disciples. Now, I can also understand that Jesus doesn’t not want me to stand in the way of God’s plan for me, for reunification with His spirit.


Who do you say I am?

January 6, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good new today comes from Mark 8:27-30.

Now Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

I wonder what that meant to Peter when he replied, “You are the Messiah.” Just prior to this the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples were, “Do you still not understand?” I wonder what happened between that scene and this one. It seems that just as with the blind man whom Jesus healed in stages the disciples would arrive at an understanding of Jesus’ identity in stages. They obviously first came to know him as a teacher, as rabbi. Then they witnessed his hearings and miracles and certainly viewed him as God’s anointed one, a prophet perhaps. Now they are on a journey again. Along the way of their journey — physical and spiritual — he probed them to see if their understanding has increased? What was encapsulated in that title Messiah?

Jewish writers of the time “used it to describe Israel’s future leader in the period before the eschaton [meaning the end time] and during it; he would fulfill Israel’s hopes based on God’s promises,” according to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. The Greek word for Messiah is Christ which is used by many translations including the Douay-Rheims Version, the very first English translation of the Latin Vulgate. However, surely Peter did not mean Messiah or Christ in the way we use the title for Jesus. Jesus would predict his death and resurrection three times in the chapters to come; so as yet, the disciples had no understanding of the meaning we attach to Christ, the Son of God.

So, they certainly could not have grasped Jesus’ divinity as this point, but they had been led to believe that he was God’s anointed one — whatever that meant, a ruler in some sense, a savior of the Israelites from foreign overseers. As Barclay writes, “[T]he Messianic ideas which were in the minds of men when Jesus came…were violent, nationalistic, destructive, vengeful….Think of Jesus set against a background like that. No wonder he had to re-educate his disciples in the meaning of Messiahship.”

I know that my understanding of Jesus is unfolding. I don’t think I see clearly yet as the blind man did after Jesus laid hands on him again. I wonder how I think blindly about Jesus as Christ, as the Messiah. I, too, have thought of him as someone whose time is in the future; he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. I’m slowly realizing that Jesus is here now, walking with me and talking with me. The last thing he wants me to do is judge the living or the dead. He wants me to accept people as they are, as embodiments of God’s spirit as he was. I have been saying to myself over and over recently, “Love and accept him as he is and not as I want him to be.” That’s a really tall order for me.

Who do I say Jesus is? He is the model of God’s loving acceptance, His anointed one, His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. That’s where I am in my deepening understanding of him.


He led the blind man by the hand

January 5, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

It’s been a busy holiday season! Today’s good news is from Mark 8:22-26.

When they arrived at Bethsaida, they brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, “Do you see anything?” Looking up he replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly. Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”

What is Matthew trying to tell me in this story? Why did Jesus take the man outside of the village? It’s the only healing or miracle I can think of that took Jesus two tries. It was a gradual process, not producing the immediate cure that is described in other healings. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary speculates that Matthew used this story to symbolize the disciples’ gradual and imperfect understanding of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. This passage immediately follows the scene where the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat as they were crossing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asked them, “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?”

So, does this gradual healing expose Jesus’ limitations or the blind man’s or both? Another way of asking that question is whether my limited sight or understanding is Jesus’ fault or mine? Then the answer seems clear — it is my limitations.

I am struck first that Jesus took the man by the hand and led him. I love that image! I just finished writing a presentation that I’ll be giving on God’s Word at the upcoming men’s retreat at Benedictine Abbey. I used that image of God leading me by the hand to His Son Jesus. What a personal, inviting thing for Jesus to do —to take the man’s hand and lead him. And the blind man trusted Jesus to lead him, trusted him to heal his blindness. It requires both elements — Jesus leading and the blind man trusting. So it has been for me — Jesus through the Holy Spirit leading me and my willingness to trust with the expectation of being healed, of being made whole.

Jesus took the man outside of the village, away from distractions, forcing him to give up his comfort within familiar surroundings. That’s what I need as well — to be taken out of my comfort zone, my usual way of living and being. That’s why I’m so looking forward to this retreat in a few weeks. For most of the last year I feel like I’m being called to meditate. I have good intentions, but I haven’t done it so far. Franciscan Richard Rohr among many others strongly advocates meditation, silence, as a way of opening oneself to the Holy Spirit, of being one with God. So, it doesn’t require a retreat to free myself of the distractions in my life, of my busyness. It just takes a few minutes every day to just rest in God, to recognize Him and His love for me in the depth of my being. And yet I still resist in the face of a laundry list of other things to do that I somehow think are more important — the same thing I’m inclined to do in my human love relationships.

This healing took place in stages. So does mine. Every time I read the gospels or talk with God or try to comprehend Him I come closer to Him. I am healed, made whole, a little bit each time. For me it’s a very gradual process. Obviously, it’s not God’s limitation. I am an evolving, developing human being. At every step I deepen my understanding of my self, of other, and of God. It’s a natural progression; there aren’t any shortcuts. But sometimes I do harden my heart like the disciples. Sometimes, in spite of what I’ve experienced of God’s love, it seems I’ve forgotten all those experiences and lessons. I fail to trust Him and fall back into the habit of trying take control, to fix myself and others, to fool myself into thinking that I’m God, that I’m perfect!

But then He reaches out His hand to lead me once again outside the village and once again effect a miracle, healing me of my sin, of my stubbornness and disobedience, of my selfishness and hardness of heart. It’s a gradual process, a lifelong project! But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. However, He warns me not to go back to where I was, not to relapse but to go forward. Always moving closer to union with Him, to new life. That’s what this story tells me. It’s very encouraging.


Do you still not understand?

December 3, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news this morning is from Mark 8:14-21.

They had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. He enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread. When he became aware of this he said to them, “Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?” They answered him, “Twelve.” “When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?” they answered [him], “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

Here we have again an instance of the disciples’ focus on their own well being and failure to provide for themselves adequately. They’re hungry and they brought only one loaf of bread with them. Having witnessed Jesus perform many miracles including feeding thousands of people, they still fail to look to him to provide for their needs — material and spiritual. They fail to understand that God is acting through him. And Jesus let’s them have it. First the Pharisees have exasperated him and now his own disciples.

Jesus and his disciples are speaking on different levels to one another. They take his reference to leaven to mean bread, the ingredient that makes it rise. Jesus is using leaven to mean the spreading evil of the religious and political authorities, evil intent on his death because he is a threat to their positions of power and privilege. He reminds them of his feeding of the multitudes so that they can understand that he is the bread of life. Yet they still don’t understand and he accuses them of having hardened hearts — hearts consumed with their own needs and providing for themselves first before others and failing to acknowledge that God provides for all their needs.

Boy o boy! He’s talking to me again! I so often misunderstand the word of God; it’s like we’re talking two different languages, mainly because I tend to make things too complicated. And I most often look to my own power and resources to tackle a problem instead of looking to God for what I need. I focus first on my material and emotional needs. How can I get those met in the way I want? Rather than praying — being in conversation with God — about meeting my real need to first be in communion with him, resting in His love and trusting that He will provide what I need — what I really need and not what I think I need. Barclay puts it this way, “If we would only read the lessons of experience aright, it would teach us not the pessimism of the things that cannot be, but the hope which stands amazed that God has brought us thus far in safety and in certainly and the confidence that God can bring us through anything that may happen.” That’s what I need to pray for — the confidence that God will bring me through anything that may happen. Do I still not understand that?