Tag Archives: Faith

20 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part III

This is the third part of Sister Johanna’s reflection on Luke 18:1-8. In my mental picture of this story, the widow gathers her friends and neighbours to mount a demo outside the Judge’s house – or maybe he was sipping a hot chocolate in the Hard Rock Cafe when the widow’s entourage came by with their loudspeakers blaring and chanting their slogans. Embarrassing enough to make him give up. What next? What indeed: read on!

If you are just joining this daily reflections blog, I invite you to scroll back two days to find out what we are thinking about. Today, Jesus, in Luke 18: 1-8, gives us his third surprise. He seems to be saying that we must play the role of the feisty widow in relation not to a sinful human being, but in relation to God himself. No wonder St Luke was a bit nervous about this parable. For Jesus is saying to us here, “You’ve got to be like her with God. God’s not trying to make you a victim, but it might feel like that sometimes. And so you’ve just got to stay with it. Keep praying. No matter what happens or doesn’t happen. Just stay with God. Some things take time. God sees the big picture. Don’t give up and don’t switch off with God.” While we’re still taking this in Jesus gives us our fourth surprise.

Here comes Jesus’ curmudgeonly judge-God again. Jesus paints him as someone who can actually be intimidated by us and our persistence. Pace, St Luke. This is not systematic theology, it is a parable – something more like a poem or a song that tells us what it “feels” like, how things “seem” to be in our relationship with God. And the point is important enough for Jesus to take the risk of being misunderstood. He’s saying, with maybe a twitch of a smile, if you stick with God, God will eventually seem to cave in and to say, “Oh, for the love of Mike. This lady will slap me if I don’t give her what she wants. Looks like I’d better do something for her.”

This perhaps becomes clearer when we consider Jesus’ final words. At the end of this passage, Jesus resumes the gravitas that we usually associate with him, but his words seem enigmatic at first, and even self-contradictory:

And the Lord said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’

Jesus ends with a very un-playful plea for faith. A superficial reading of this passage might make its final words seem out of place. But we have been trying to go in deep over the last three days, and I think we can begin to see what Jesus is saying. He first says, in effect, that if such an unjust creature as this judge will eventually come round, will not God do so also? Seems clear enough. Yet, then, Jesus returns to the theme of God’s apparent delay, and seems to be trying to say two opposing things at once. In line eight, we are told to expect that God will seem to delay to help us. But immediately following those words, he seems to promise the opposite, that God will ‘see justice done, and done speedily.’ What does he mean?

I think Jesus is handing us a paradox – for this is the only way of describing God’s grace. On one hand, God’s help seems to be forever in coming, as we pray and wait in agony for a specific outcome to our prayer that never arrives. And then, time passes, and if we stay with our prayer and our hope in God, we begin to realize a few things. We see that as we have waited and prayed, we have changed. We see that as we have waited and prayed, other circumstances around us have changed – in ways that are surprising and that we had not asked for. It gradually becomes clear that we have been given the answer to our prayer – an answer that is not what we expected, but that blesses us more deeply than we could have imagined. And then we look back and see that God has, in fact, been answering our prayer all along, invisibly, yet speedily and unwaveringly guiding us to this particular moment when we discover his grace and healing.

‘When the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’ Jesus asks. What kind of faith is that? The widow shows us. It’s faith that, with feisty determination, clings to God as our helper; faith that refuses to take no for an answer. For, God is our helper, Jesus wants us to know in this parable. Just wait and see. That is reason for Jesus to smile, and even play a bit. He invites us to do so, also.

Thank you, Sister Johanna. There is a link between faith and a sense of humour that seems to start from infancy: babies and toddlers often seem to see the ridiculous side of life. And what, after all, is more ridiculous than the idea of the Creator of all becoming a human baby?

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This was a crowd of pilgrims in Krakow for the World Youth Days, 2016. Follow the link for Ignatius’ impressions of this event at the time.


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19 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part II

Second right in the bottom row: this could sum up the experience of the widow in Jesus’ parable that Sister Johanna is reflecting upon. ‘I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.’ Or further up: ‘I feel there is nothing to look forward to.’ It’s not something new to the Covid experience that makes people feel this way. 2,000 years ago, they must have said similar things to Jesus, and he put their experience into this parable, now opened anew for us by Sister Johanna.

We are looking at Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, from Luke 18:1- 8. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post to catch up with us. We’re looking at an unusually playful parable, starring a curmudgeonly judge, and we’re wondering what Jesus is really getting at by presenting his ideas in this way. We find out by listening to the lines he allows the judge-curmudgeon to say, ‘… I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person….’ This phrase comes twice in the short parable – the first time Jesus himself uses it to describe the judge, and the second time, he lets the judge say it to describe himself. Repetition is a device used to drive home a home truth. Jesus wants us to hear these words. What is the truth that they contain, then?

I think, first, the words tell us that Jesus understands what it is like for us to pray and not feel heard. He understands how, in our life with God, it sometimes feels as though God himself is the uncaring one, who delays and delays to help us, even though we ‘cry to him day and night.’ When we are going through such an experience, we feel alone, and it seems to us that no one in the history of the world has been through this kind of desolation except us. But in fact, Jesus knows that this is an archetypal experience. Jesus’ listeners at the time would have had it, we have it, all praying people in between us and them have had it. So we can nod our heads as Jesus’ first hearers must have done. Perhaps some in his audience will have begun to cry as Jesus’ words went home and exposed a deeply painful wound or a long-standing problem that felt overwhelming. Jesus is saying here, “I know. It sometimes feels like this when you pray to God for help. He seems unheeding. Here’s me, praying night and day, and nothing changes. Does God care?”

Second: Jesus in this parable is giving us permission to admit that we have these kinds of thoughts and feelings about God. Sometimes it is very difficult not to think of God as anything other than an extremely unjust judge. But why should Jesus encourage us to admit that we feel this way? Because faith is not about pretending to possess a level of ‘holiness’ that we do not really possess. We will return to the subject of faith at the end of our reflections tomorrow. For now, we can say that our faith in God is what allows us to tell God exactly how it feels to be me right now, and, as such, to tell him what we think of him. God knows this already, of course. But perhaps we don’t. Faith is sometimes about discovering who we are, as much as it is about discovering who God is. So, the Lord wants us to tell God all about it, with as much honesty as we can summon, while still hanging on to God for dear life.

The last nine words of the previous paragraph are vital. In light of them, let’s look at the character of the widow in this parable. What role does she play? A widow, in biblical shorthand, represents those who are neediest in society, those who have few human resources, who are alone and must fight hard in order even to be noticed by the current power-base. In this parable we find just such a fighter – a woman in whom the curmudgeonly judge meets his match. Feisty and determined, and as crabby and calculating in her way as he was, she “…kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy.’” Do I detect a hint of falsetto in Jesus’ rendering of these words? Maybe we all know the type of character the widow represents. Possibly, if we know her well, we are a bit afraid of her. But, don’t we admire her when some film or television drama features a character like this, who refuses to be the victim of whatever or whoever is trying to make her one?

We’re going to pause again here and return tomorrow to continue our meditation.

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18 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part I.

Jesuit Chapel, Hales Place, Canterbury.

We can tip our hats to Saint Luke, whose feast day it is, as we enjoy Sister Johanna’s three part reflection on one of the parables: down below the surface are riches not at first apparent.

Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. ‘There was a judge in a certain town,’ he said, ‘who had neither fear of God nor respect for anyone. In the same town there was also a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, “I want justice from you against my enemy!” For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, “Even though I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person, I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face.”’

And the Lord said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’

[Luke 18: 1-8; The New Jerusalem Bible, Study Edition.]

I don’t often detect one of the evangelists in a moment of editorial nervousness, but St Luke seems to be having one here. Jesus is clearly having a bit of fun with his audience – something that doesn’t often happen, considering the wariness of the religious establishment as they struggled with Jesus’ unusual teachings and personality. But in this passage, Jesus is probably talking to his disciples rather than the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Lk 17: 22), and he seems relaxed and ready to tease a group of people who, he sensed, were receptive to his teachings. St Luke steps in, however, with a pre-emptive strike, and tells us what Jesus’ parable means before we have a chance to read it and get the wrong impression. No giggling allowed here, St. Luke seems to say. Well, wait a minute, I want to say to Luke. Surely, all great orators know that occasionally it is good to make your point by surprising your audience with humour – make them laugh and they’re yours. Jesus was no stranger to rhetorical techniques. Can we not admit a smiling Jesus into the series of images we have of him? For this brief parable is a remarkably playful one. I imagine Jesus not only smiling at times as he tells his story, but even acting out the parts of the judge and the widow with subtle comedic skill. For the first surprise is this: Jesus hauls a curmudgeon out of his hat and calls him the judge. Second surprise: who does the judge-curmudgeon represent? None other than God himself. What a daring move on Jesus’ part. God, whose holy Name, Yahweh, is so sacred that the Jews were forbidden even to say it aloud, is likened here to a crusty old judge, crabby and somewhat calculating.

It’s possible, of course, that Jesus plays this very straight. But whatever the case: Jesus’ caricature of the Most High God presupposes at least two things in his listeners. One, Jesus assumes that they have a pretty sophisticated sense of humour about religion itself. And two, he takes it for granted that he is talking to people who have an ongoing prayer-life. As such, they will inevitably have come up with some searing questions about God and the way he answers – or doesn’t seem to answer – our prayer. Jesus is playful here, but in no sense is he dismissive. Rather, he uses his playfulness tenderly in order to address what he knows is a very serious matter.

We will continue our reflection tomorrow.

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29 August: On the seventh day.

Today we share a passage from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, 11.8. It is Saint Augustine’s feast day, and it is holiday time, so when better to ask,

What we are to understand of God’s resting on the seventh day, after the six days’ work?

Augustine’s answer to this question may surprise us, coming from a man of the 4th and 5th Centuries. God does not need to rest from toil, as we humans do, for he created all things by his Word – he spake and it was done. So God’s rest is the rest he created for us – and other parts of his creation – and it is part of his plan of creation, even before the Fall. As Augustine says in The Confessions:

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

When it is said that God rested on the seventh day from all His works, and hallowed it, we are not to conceive of it in a childish fashion, as if work were a toil to God, who “spake and it was done,”—spake by the spiritual and eternal, not audible and transitory word. But God’s rest signifies the rest of those who rest in God, as the joy of a house means the joy of those in the house who rejoice, though not the house, but something else, causes the joy.

How much more intelligible is such phraseology, then, if the house itself, by its own beauty, makes the inhabitants joyful! For in this case we not only call it joyful by that figure of speech in which the thing containing is used for the thing contained (as when we say, “The theatres applaud,” “The meadows low,” meaning that the men in the one applaud, and the oxen in the other low), but also by that figure in which the cause is spoken of as if it were the effect, as when a letter is said to be joyful, because it makes its readers so. Most appropriately, therefore, the sacred narrative states that God rested, meaning thereby that those rest who are in Him, and whom He makes to rest.

And this the prophetic narrative promises also to the men to whom it speaks, and for whom it was written, that they themselves, after those good works which God does in and by them, if they have managed by faith to get near to God in this life, shall enjoy in Him eternal rest. This was prefigured to the ancient people of God by the rest enjoined in their sabbath law.

But rest is not idleness: it comes after ‘those good works which God does in and by them’. As we read recently, Thomas Traherne reminds us that, ‘The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed.’

Let’s pray for the grace to get on with our task in life, and to observe a Sabbath for our soul’s sake, however and whenever circumstances allow.

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23 August: Faith in the 18th Century towns.

Manchester’s Collegiate Church became its Cathedral in 1847.

In this post from the John Rylands Library in Manchester Kate Gibson uses letters from the Nicholson family to demonstrate that religious faith did not die out in the mushrooming industrial towns of Britain.

Her project, Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is looking at the letters and diaries of ordinary people living in the towns of Northern England, for evidence of the place of faith in their daily lives. Unlike many histories of secularisation which focus on formal church organisations and their records, we argue that looking at the everyday practices of faith, and its relationship with how people thought about their family lives, their identities, their work and their use of urban and domestic space, provides a more vibrant picture of the continued importance of religion in this period. This is a history of faith from the bottom up, not the top down.

Faith in the Town has many interesting posts that may challenge us today, when our church communities have been in enforced hibernation. What can we and our buildings offer by way of space to be quiet and simple, welcoming, common worship for members and non-members alike?

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11 August: An American Story from 1921

Image from SJC

Another serious and humorous story. E.V. Lucas crossed the US from West to East soon after the Great War, staying in hotels or with friends. It was about 14 years since a destructive earthquake hit San Francisco, but California was still booming. There were, though, a few people who were rather more solitary, and here we meet one of them.

I heard many stories in America, where every one is a raconteur, but none was better than this, which my San Francisco host narrated, from his own experience, as the most perfect example of an honest answer ever given.

When a boy, he said, he was much in the company of an old trapper in the Californian mountains. During one of their expeditions together he noticed that a camp meeting was to be held, and out of curiosity he persuaded Reuben to attend it with him. Perched on a back seat, they were watching the scene when an elderly Evangelical sister placed herself beside the old hunter, laid her hand on his arm, and asked him if he loved Jesus. He pondered for some moments and then replied thus: “Waal, ma’am, I can’t go so far as to say that I love Him. I can’t go so far as that. But, by gosh, I’ll say this—I ain’t got nothin’ agin Him.”

From “Roving East and Roving West” by E. V. Lucas, 1921.

There are times when I feel the old trapper’s words are spot on: ‘Love him. I can’t go so far as that.’ That would be an honest but incomplete assessment based on conscience rather than aspiration. Think of Peter at the end of John’s Gospel: he was more than aware of his lack of love, but still said to Jesus, You know I love you.

Perhaps the trapper had pondered these things in his heart during his hours, days, and weeks of mountain solitude, but he was not ready with the right words when the sister touched his arm.

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2 August: A Ugandan ‘thank you’ to Pope Francis for creating the catechist ministry

Oola Bosco, a catechist, teaches at the Palabek Refugee Settlement March 2021 in Uganda. Many of the refugees at the settlement are from South Sudan. (Courtesy of Lazar Arasu)

 

A Ugandan ‘thank you’ to Pope Francis for creating the catechist ministry by Lazar Arasu from National Catholic Reporter, June 30. A taste of the article follows; the whole piece can be found at this link.

Moses Kiggwa is a dedicated catechist in Kamuli parish within Jinja Diocese, which is about 70 miles east of our capital of Kampala. Besides training as a primary teacher, he also trained himself as a catechist.

“I find joy in being a catechist more than anything else,” Moses told me recently. He eventually gave up his teaching career to be a full-time evangelizer. He noted with pride that he has helped to found several sub-parishes in the remote areas of his parish, along the Nile River.

Now in his late 50s, he is still committed to educating people to faith. Riding his bicycle for several years in his evangelization efforts has created serious health problems, but he is only happy that he has sustained the faith of several hundreds of people.

Surely there are lessons for the rest of the Church from the long-standing ministry of catechists in countries like Uganda?

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21 July: Dancing in the aisles.

African music on the march at the St Maurice Pilgrimage, Switzerland.

A few years ago the Missionaries of Africa came to help celebrate the centenary of our parish school. Every parishioner I spoke to at the time was struck by the reverence shown by the African Missionary students as they danced the book of the Gospels to the lectern to the sound of drums. Other Masses that I have attended with African music and dance were also accessibly prayerful. So I was disappointed to read some of what Sister Freda Ehimuan describes in this article; a mismatch between Christian faith and practice in Africa. She reports that:

  • For the African, worship is the expression of feelings (negative and positive) toward the Divine, in different ways and through various media. Since worship is the expression of feelings, songs, dance, drums and incantations are significant to African worship. Physical expression is important in African worship; even if the person remains motionless, they may be crying, or making sounds from their throat. Without these expressions, Africans think that their worship is not deep enough and that it lacks the ability to reach God. They go through the rubrics of worship without experiencing an internal impact.

She describes one mismatch below:

  • A bishop has been speaking against dancing in the church for many years. One day he got a donation from some organization to build a pastoral center. He was so full of joy that right there on the altar he began to sing and dance. All the parishioners were so surprised that they spontaneously danced with him. Of course, he stopped when he realized what he was doing! When some Africans — who feel that they are civilized and too dignified to dance in worship — are shaken by incidents or experiences, their true nature comes out. Physical expression is their natural way of expressing faith whether they deny it or not.

I urge you to reflect on the article in the light of the recent posts about reforming the liturgy. Not just to ‘tut, tut’ at the missionaries whose predecessors had insufficient understanding of African cultures: they laid the foundations people like Sister Freda can build on today. But also to wonder what a truly local expression of faith would look like in your home town. What would you like to see happening in our celebrations? Read all of Sister Freda’s article here. (from Global Sisters Report, National Catholic Reporter, 12 July 2021.)

Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.

Psalm 149.3

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17 July, Review: Something nobody can explain.

The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the: Adam Blai

Fifteen minutes walk from my home in England is a gallery in stained glass of healings at the tomb of  Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral. Many miracle stories can still be traced there, almost 500 years since the martyr’s shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII. 

In 2020 a shrine was reinstated in Saint Thomas’s Catholic church, a hundred yards away, but I have not yet heard of any miracles there. On the other hand, there have been occasions when each of my children came close enough to accidental death for me to be immediately and eternally grateful to God for their preservation. Divine intervention? It felt like it!

This is a review of Adam Blai: The Catholic Guide to Miracles – Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. Manchester New Hampshire, SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2012.

So what is a miracle? Adam Blai starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition: ‘a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain’. (p 2) Creation was the first miracle, the Universe made out of nothing. 

Adam Blai takes us through Old Testament Miracles: for example, the healing miracles brought about through the prayer of Elisha and Elijah before him, each restoring to life the son of a woman benefactor. Strangely though, Blai does not acknowledge that many of the Plagues of Egypt have plausibly been ascribed to natural causes.

It is the New Testament that tells of the greatest miracle:

And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14) 

In the years before the cross and resurrection, Christ performed many miracles, miracles that Blai tells us ‘were proofs beyond His words of who He was’ (p13). Those who see the Church’s preaching as empty will explain them away, and many of the healings at Thomas’s shrine could now be attributed to natural causes. The Church is well aware of this, which is why so few – 60 or 70 – healings at Lourdes in 260 years have been verified as miraculous, a minute proportion of the pilgrims who visit in hope of healing. Blai, like the Church herself, is not naive in the face of healing miracles, but he points out that they are the miracles most open to investigation and so are resorted to in the process of canonisation of saints.

There are, of course, other miracles – he cites the appearances of Mary through the ages, and the healings and other phenomena that people other than the visionaries themselves have witnessed. There are also apparently supernatural events recorded around certain saints: stigmata, levitation, bodily incorruption, and miracles deriving from the Eucharistic elements. Although many such stories were reverently told in my Catholic school, a more mature faith leaves them open to question. Adam Blai accepts God’s interventions but he would not build his faith on these accounts. 

In fact Blai is at pains to point out that there are counterfeit miracles. Discerning the difference between supernatural miracles, counterfeits brought about by demons, and mental illness is an important part of his work for the Church (p129); for example, once correctly diagnosed the mentally ill person may be led to accept appropriate help. Yet there are those whose delusions are deep-rooted but also have the charisma to attract others to what becomes a dangerous cult.

Counterfeit, charismatic faith healers are another dangerous group who use people’s fascination – or gullibility – around miracles to line their own pockets, dividing families in the process. 

A greater concern for Blai in his work, if not for the average believer who may live a lifetime without coming across such people, is demonic possession and fake miracles. A devil cannot produce a real miracle, but can set up counterfeits, and during exorcism may cry out in protest at being evicted.

I knew someone who was using a ouija board which went silent when, unknown to her, the local priest called on her parents; another young woman was greatly distressed to be told that her boyfriend was soon to die horribly in a road accident. The spirit that may be conjured up in such seances cannot be relied on to be truthful, as I told her; the accident did not happen, but the distress was real and hurtful. The reader will find a full exposé of the ouija board in this volume.

If miracles and the supernatural interest you, this book will give substance to your enquiries. It’s important not to get carried away by miracles that add nothing to the revelation of God’s love for all women and men in Christ Jesus. See them as a new expression of his love, for one person or for many, often for a limited time, like the miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.

I was glad to read this wise paragraph from Adam Blai’s conclusion (p164).

Real miracles are proofs of God, but we cannot build a faith based only on them. We need a living relationship with God through His Church. The main vehicles of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments, instituted by Christ. The center and goal of Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

MMB

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10 June: More Passion flowers

One day earlier this month, my walk took me through Canterbury cemetery once again. This time I saluted a few familiar names, since I passed near the Catholic corner, but then wandered into an older section I’d not visited before and found two passion flower crosses to add to our collection. One was covered in multicoloured lichen and not suitable for reproduction, but then there was this, erected in the first years of the XX Century.

It combines the Celtic Cross, the Greek Letters IHS – short for Jesus – at its centre, with the halo of passion vine leaves around it, and the passion vine itself, bringing the Cross to flowering splendour.

The passion flower represents the saving death of Jesus. There are ten petals for the ten apostles who did not deny him – leaving out Peter and Judas. There are five stamens representing the five wounds; three stigma for the nails, and the fringe of filaments around the flower stands for the crown of thorns. The beauty of the flower proclaims the resurrection.

By carving this flower over their dear ones’ graves, the family were indeed proclaiming that the dead would rise again with Christ. When you see a passion flower let it remind you that Jesus is real, his death was real, as indeed will ours be – but so, too, will our rising. And when you see a passion flower on a gravestone, pray for those lying there.

An earlier post about Passion flowers can be read here.

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