Seeing the Word is a program of guided reflection that makes it possible to pray with images from The Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey in over 500 years.
Thank you to my friend Rachel Gabelman of Saint John’s University School of Theology for the invitation to participate in this program and offer a week of Lenten reflections on the parable of the prodigal son. These reflections originally appeared on Seeing the Word’s blog.
Day 1: Reading of Scripture
Click here to listen to me read the scripture.
Day 2: Listen
We can easily relate to the two brothers in this story. We understand the impatience of the younger brother who asks for his father’s inheritance upfront, his giving into temptation, his inability to be a good steward of his resources, and the shortsightedness that ultimately leads to his demise. The life he has chosen for himself, which may have seemed a dream come true to him at first, leaves him quite literally hungry and unsatisfied.
Then there is the older brother, who is responsible, practices an exceptional work ethic, follows the rules, and respects his father. Yet, because of this, he develops a complex that causes him to think he is better than others, at least better than his younger brother. He finds it unfathomable that his father would celebrate the return of his younger brother, who squandered his inheritance, when he has been so diligent and responsible all along.
Indeed, there are moments when we can see and hear ourselves in the very human and real laments and frustrations that both these brothers give a voice to in this parable. How do you find yourself reacting to and identifying with each brother?
Day 3: Meditate
It is no mistake that this parable is read during Lent. Like many of the stories we see depicted in this illumination, this is a story about resurrection and renewal, about death and coming back to life. The younger brother thinks he has it all, but when he loses all that he has, he is humbled. What is more humbling than being willing to eat the food that pigs eat and yet not being offered any? To be sure, he is also embarrassed and ashamed at the thought of having to share the news with his father that he lost his inheritance and is now incapable of supporting himself as an adult. But he goes back to his father anyway, because that is all he knows to do. He begs for his father’s mercy. He pleads for compassion. And what awaits him is an unexpected, surprising celebration.
Like the father, God is always waiting for us, ready and willing to accept us with open arms. No matter how badly or how often we fall, no matter how much of our talents we waste, no matter the extent to which the life we seek leaves us hungry and unsatisfied, God is always ready to rejoice with us when we return. Like the father, who tells the servants to quickly bring out the best robe for the youngest son, God promises to clothe us with God’s grace.
Day 4: See
In the same diagonal panel in which we see the image of the father reaching out to embrace the son, we also see two gold bars—the Twin Towers. Suddenly, we realize that we cannot divorce our modern reality from this Gospel message. In this illumination, we are confronted with the truth that following Christ does not only mean we are daughters and sons of the abundantly merciful Father. It also means that we are called to do the difficult work of forgiveness. We are called to interpersonal, intergenerational, interracial, and intercommunal forgiveness.
It is not easy to be like the father in the parable. And certainly not every situation calls us to express our regard for others with a physical welcome and embrace. Some relationships cannot be reconciled because they are too abusive and exploitative. But forgiveness is still essential and it is work we can do with God’s grace. These difficult scenarios call for a different kind of openness—one of our hearts rather than our arms. With open hearts we let the offenses of these relationships go, loosening their control in our lives. Rather than keeping our bitterness, resentments, and anger locked away in hearts, we implore that the Holy Spirit guide us to release them appropriately. In doing so, we experience more freedom. By the grace of God, we are then able to live more fully the life to which God calls us in a healthy, safe, and meaningful way.
Day 5: Pray
O God, our world needs more love, mercy, and compassion. Soften our hearts, renew our minds, open our eyes, and allow us to be transformed by the workings of your grace. Free us from the compulsion of jealousy, help us to value the goodness in others, teach us the way of prudence, and lead us along the path of humility. Thank you for always being there for us. Your unearned, unconditional love is always there ready and waiting to be received. Lasting joy is union with you. Amen.
Day 6: Contemplate
It is often hard to accept another person’s generosity toward us. It is also often hard for us to see someone, besides ourselves, be the recipient of another person’s generosity, when we ourselves did not benefit from that act of kindness. Jealousy and pride go hand in hand. Engrained in our American spirit of rugged individualism is this idea that fierce independence is a measure of strength. But when we value not needing anyone’s help, we also resist when others are helped. This is a vicious cycle that Jesus beckons us out of by offering us the parable of the prodigal son. It is not about taking advantage of generosity by plundering everything we have been given like the younger brother because we know a bail out is on the horizon. Nor is it about striving for perfection in everything we do such that we become haughty like the older brother. Instead, this is a story about the magnificence of God’s love, which lies at the heart of the miracle of our personal, daily resurrections and social transformations. This story calls us, like the two brothers, to contemplate continuous conversion in the face of God’s magnanimous love.
Day 7: Become Christ-like
Jesus summons us to be open: open-minded, open to ourselves, open to daily renewal, open to others, open to transformation, and open to love. In Luke 15:1-3, we see that Jesus tells the parable of the lost son as a way to expand the minds of the Pharisees and scribes, who started to grumble about Jesus’ association with sinners. In doing so, Christ reveals the tender nature of God, who extends a generous welcome to all. Like Jesus, we are called to proclaim this message of good news with joy to the entire world: God’s love is free and available to all! The hope-filled promise of eternal life, which overcame suffering and death on the cross through Jesus Christ, becomes real and transformative in our lives when we love without conditions.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5
Here in Washington, the days leading up to Christmas have been wet, gloomy, and grey. And just earlier this week, we commemorated the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. In the midst of this great season of Advent, a season of joy and light, this confluence of natural events has offered me the much-needed impetus to pause and take some time to reflect on the darkness in my own life and in the world in which we live.
We have a lot to be sad about this season. We have much to be weary of. There are a multitude of reasons to despair. And yet, in the midst of all the pain, brokenness, trauma, and sorrow sustained in our own lives and throughout the world, we are assured of the promise that as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, a new day will dawn.
Therein lies the tension of the faith we live and breathe, a faith that is full of contradictions because we worship a God who is big enough to accommodate the “both/and” realities that are a hallmark of our experience of being human.
Every year, we get pulled into a harried performance of sending cards, baking cookies, making fudge, cooking dinner, hosting and attending holiday parties, buying gifts, and wrapping presents. And as stressful and fast-paced as this performance can be, we must get something out of it. Sure, it is nice to spend time and relax with those we love. And it is nice to bring a smile to another person’s face. But I also suspect this performance offers us a distraction on some level. In all the “acting,” we distract ourselves from confronting head on the darkness that exists in our lives during the holiday season. After all, the message we hear loud and clear is that we are not supposed to be sad on Christmas.
But many people are sad on Christmas. And sadness – darkness – is very much a part of our lives. Yet it is our sadness, our despair, our brokenness, our own experience of darkness that compels us even more to seek after the light. If Christmas is to truly mean something to us, we must take the time to encounter the darkness in our lives and to reflect on the ways that others are light for us, to give thanks for that light and to be that light for others.
It was no mistake that Jesus, the true light of the world, was born in the darkness of the night. Over two thousand years later, we still seek after the same light that led the three magi to the manger where Jesus was laying. As we seek after light this Christmas, may we fall on our knees at the manger in awe and splendor as we marvel at the grace and light that casts out all the darkness of the world. For as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, a new day will dawn.
Empathy lies at the heart of the Christian moral life and I am convinced that it should motivate our political convictions and commitments as well. When we closely examine the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth through the sacred scriptures, we encounter a variety of examples of the Son of God entering into the experiences of others, listening to their stories, and taking on their sufferings as his own. This is the ideal of public service. After all, Jesus was – and is – the model public servant.
But empathy poses a significant challenge to those who practice it, which is what makes this virtue so difficult to acquire. The virtue of empathy entails personal transformation, which requires social obligation. It is difficult to be sensitive to the experiences of those around us, to admit that we are all too often wrong about an opinion that we hold to be true, to be transformed by a new perspective that is different from our own, and to take on new practices that shift how we interact with others.
There is a man in Washington, D.C. who can usually be found near Dupont Circle holding a cardboard sign that simply reads: “Seeking human kindness.” In a world that is connected now more than ever through social media, we seem to be increasingly unaware of the needs of those right in front of us. How is our practice of empathy impacted when our ears are plugged by earbuds and our eyes are fixed to the screens of our iPhones? I wonder how many people actually take the time to read his sign. I wonder how many people look him in the eye and greet him with a simple hello as they pass by. And how many dare to ask him, “How are you?” It is important to have mercy on the overseas refugee, but what about the neighbor who is merely seeking the act of human kindness?
As we gear up for another election cycle, with a lot of conviction swirling around, I am reminded of the quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”
Yesterday, I watched Kim Davis stand on stage to “break her silence” moments after being released from jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds of her literal, biblically fundamentalist Christian conviction – which undoubtedly shapes her conscience. Our beliefs ought to guide our actions and here is a woman who is literally walking the walk, not merely talking the talk like many Christians, myself included, have the tendency to often do. Here is a woman who accepted the consequences of her religious convictions and was willing to go to jail for what she believes to be true. Throughout history and to this very day, there are other examples of Christians who have been jailed for their beliefs. I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul came to think of a jail cell as his home away from home and he would not have had it any other way! I think of civil rights activists. And I also think of my fellow Boston College alumna, Sister Megan Rice, including a host of countless others who are jailed for conscientiously breaking the law or worse yet, jailed and even murdered because of their faith.
As I listened to the few words that Kim Davis did say on stage, I also strangely found myself in agreement with her. Yes, indeed, I believe that God is worthy. God is worthy of our belief, of our praise, of our affection, and of our worship. And we Christians are indeed a strong people. It’s true; the early “church” suffered immense persecution, but prevailed by the grace of God, which empowered these early followers of The Way to bear bold, brave, and courageous testimony to the work of the Spirit through their life in Christ. Recall Tertullian’s belief that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
While the scene I watched unfold was eerily reminiscent to the scenes starring Pennsatucky from Orange Is the New Black, I also recognized that this was and is reality, not a Netflix original series. And so, I find myself asking: How can Kim Davis and I both worship the same God, practice the same religion, follow the same Christ, and yet end up with radically different conclusions about what it means to live out our faith?
Sometimes, I despair that there are two different gods at work in Christian revelation, experience, and life. Initially, I am inclined to say that Kim Davis believes out of fear, while other Christians like myself who embrace marriage equality believe out of love. But is it right – is it healthy – for people who believe as I do to condemn Kim Davis and those who agree with her? Kim Davis and those who agree with her will only do the same to us. Is that really productive, does that move us forward? Is it right – is it healthy – to dichotomize Christianity into right vs. wrong, progressive vs. conservative, educated vs. uneducated? What about Jesus? What about the good news? Where does redemption fit into all of this? It is sin that separates, grace that restores and sanctifies. We need all the grace we can get!
Our religious landscape is fast becoming a lot like our political landscape. We talk past each other. Our ego and conceit drive and uphold our belief systems, preventing us from stepping outside and beyond ourselves to learn from the life and experience of someone who is different than us. We have become lazily entrenched in our beliefs and uncompromising in our arrogance when we believe that we have nothing, absolutely nothing to learn from those who believe differently than we do. We wonder why we grow increasingly polarized, but we fail to cast the blame on ourselves.
The best thing that ever could have happened to me after graduating from Boston College was moving to Arkansas. My friends in Boston and Chicago thought I was crazy, but I did it anyway. I have nothing but gratitude for the two years that I spent in the Natural State. The people there made me a better human being as I entered into their lives and learned what they value. And the people in Arkansas are good – some of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met, even though many of the Christians there do not agree with marriage equality. And the activists and leaders there who fight and struggle and work for diversity and inclusion are some of the bravest and most courageous I have ever known.
I’ll never forget meeting one woman while on the campaign trail. As she and I talked about politics and religion, she could not understand how I could be a Christian and a Democrat, especially since, as she reasoned, the Democrats tend to support a platform that embraces a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality, two issues that she thought to be profoundly unbiblical and antithetical to the Christian faith.
Instead of hardening my heart and walking away from her, I risked vulnerability and shared my story with her, including my support of marriage equality. I was patient, spoke in her language, and appealed to her values. By the grace of God, we ended the conversation on a positive note. She later found me in the neighborhood and, with a troubled look on her face, apologized to me for making me uncomfortable and in her words said, “I do not want you to think that I am condemning you.”
I cannot say for certain, but I am sure this woman thought highly of Kim Davis’s stance against issuing the marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But her words remain etched on my heart: “I am not condemning you.” Nor was I condemning her. Both the lady and I wanted to do the right thing. And so, we came to a place where the Spirit opened us up to each other. Of course, I acknowledge that this one isolated incident – graced though it was – is not the case for everyone. Hearts have been broken, relationships ruined, jobs have been lost, housing opportunities denied, and lives have ended because of rejection and condemnation and fear of the “Other.”
But I do have hope. And while I cannot say for certain Kim Davis would be willing to sit down and have a chat with me, I would hope her conscience would beckon her to say yes. I’m a Christian but I’m not … like Kim Davis.
Or am I?
A year has passed since the tragic bombings on Boylston Street and I am still in disbelief that it ever even happened. Evil maimed bodies, shed blood, and ended lives in a place so public and so innocent on a day so sacred and so meaningful. If you walk down Boylston Street today, it would seem as if nothing has changed. And yet, everything has. The memory is stained, embedded, and forever lurking in our collective consciousness. One year later, I find myself having fewer answers and asking more questions.
How could it be? How could it be that evil could make itself known just a few feet away from Old South Church, one of Boston’s most architecturally beautiful sacred spaces? How could it be that evil ended lives and wounded bodies on a day so bright, so beautiful, so crisp, and so full of promise? How could it be that I was not at the finish line on that day, at that hour, cheering on the runners with the gathered crowds in a place so familiar, so comfortable, and so much like home? How could it be?
Evil has no explanation. Evil has no justification. If we try to search for answers, we will become bitter, overcome with resentment, and paralyzed by fear. Evil has a way of gripping, binding, and hindering the human spirit.
This year, people from all walks of life and of every age will faithfully line the streets to cheer for the runners as they make their way to the finish line. The crowds will be bigger, the cheering will be louder, and the emotion, passion, and energy will be more palpable than ever before. This is the “miracle” of Marathon Monday – that nothing, not even bombs that take lives, fragment flesh, shatter bone, or spill blood can hinder the resilience of the human spirit. Marathon Monday is living proof to us that evil does not, cannot, and will not ever, ever, ever have the last word.
If you do not believe in the miracle of resurrection, a trip to Boston on Marathon Monday will be all the evidence you need. There, you will find the spirit of those we lost one year ago alive with each mile that is ran, with each cup of water that is handed to a parched runner, with each smile that is shared, each laugh that is had, each sign that is made, and each cheer that is exclaimed.
This is Boston getting stronger. We are Boston strong.
Dark and heavy clouds began to swirl and swell, so I went outside to take in the impending storm above my head. As I stood outside, barefoot and eating sections of a tangerine, I was oblivious to the pair of young men dressed in suits that were canvassing the neighborhood. Catching a glimpse of movement in the corner of my eye, I turned around only to see the two of them approaching me with casual smiles on their faces. I smiled back, thinking to myself that they were either Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.
And I was excited! While most people do everything they can to avoid these missionaries, I had for quite some time longed for a pair to show up at my doorstep. I love nothing more than to have conversations with people about what makes them come alive, about where they find their place in the world, and about the faith they live and breathe. Now, the opportunity had presented itself and I was eager to seize it.
I suspect they were shocked by their encounter with a not-so-typical person like me. I confessed that I did not know much about Mormons, but was very interested in learning more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While I was clear to them that I was happy with the church community that I am a part of, I also noted that I was deeply disappointed by the frequent mischaracterizations of Mormons that are perpetuated by many Christians. In fact, the prior evening I had heard someone say that Mormons were not Christian. I knew in my gut that that was wrong, but I did not know enough about Mormons to justify my challenge of the person’s misguided statement. I was ashamed by my lack of knowledge.
So, after asking them why they were passionate about their church, why they have chosen to face the elements by going door-to-door to boldly give witness to their faith, I asked them how to respond to such blanket mischaracterizations in the future. I could tell they were relieved and impressed by my desire to correct the common misconceptions that abound among so many Americans. What followed was a very cursory overview of how the Mormons came to be coupled with a short presentation of The Book of Mormon. I was given my very own copy of the important text and promised them that I would add it to my library. After listening intently to their explanations, I asked them how they were received by the folks they encountered in the community. I was not at all surprised to hear that most people do not open their doors to hear the words and witness these courageous young men have to offer. I was saddened that even some opened their doors only to slam them in their faces.
But then the conversation took an unusual, graced turn. Perhaps it was the foundation of mutual trust that we had carefully laid together, but I began to tell them about my own church, how it came to be, how our common worship unites us, and how a great diversity of opinion is able to exist in the midst of a unity of believers. They listened as carefully to me as I had listened to them, taking in each word with respect and rapt attention. In a way, I suppose I was witnessing to them as much as they were witnessing to me.
I then took it upon myself to inquire about how persons who are gay are received by their church. It was a trick question. I knew what the answer was going to be, but I wanted to hear how they responded. As expected, they did not deviate from their church’s position. But when I revealed to them that I disagreed and had done my due diligence to study the scriptures and early church writings, had gone to graduate school to earn my master’s degree and had studied in depth the intersection of religion and sexuality, they continued to listen to my dissenting perspective with the same respect and rapt attention as before.
I doubt they left the conversation with a change of heart or mind, just as I did not leave with the desire to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But I do know that our shared experience of being marginalized within American religious and political discourse and our common commitment to the person of Jesus Christ was enough to guide us through any disagreements we had. In fact, it did more than that. I suspect that together we moved ever more closely from a place of mere toleration to a place of acceptance. As we gazed into each other’s eyes, we could each see the humanity in each other, first and foremost. Not a superficial, nominal recognition of each other’s humanity, but the real, deep, transformative kind that is enough to give a person hope.
So, when they asked to pray with me, I happily welcomed their sacred words to a God for whom we both share such a deep and lasting affection. The prayer was one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, encouraging, prayers I have ever heard.
When an opportunity comes to your door for personal transformation, you have the choice to embrace or reject it. And the relationship, if it is truly good, will be a mutual witness to a love that drives out all hate, all fear, and all the sin of the world.
Our desires play such an important role in forming who we are as persons. Who and what we value and who and what we want to become all shape what we do to realize those desires.
Many of us desire a certain level of success in life. Certainly, a successful life can mean a great many things for a great many people. The ancients thought success was attained by living the “good life,” a life spent thinking with others about what it means to be human in a socially complex world. And Plato’s Republic begins with a very simple question: “What is justice?” An important question many are still rightfully pondering to this day. Centuries later, the great medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas took this quest to an even deeper level by insisting that success was beatitude, a sort of eternal happiness given only by the grace of God after living a virtuous life.
Setting aside these important contributions from philosophy and theology alike, success today has taken on a variety of different meanings. For many, success is measured by a promotion, a six-figure salary, or fame, glory, prestige, and honor. Still yet, for many, it can also mean raising children to be fully and freely themselves, a healthy marriage, and the personal fulfillment one feels in one’s gut when living out one’s own vocation, whatever that may be. It can also be a combination of some of the above, or perhaps none of the above.
Success is also very much a mindset. There are two things I think we should all be particularly mindful of: (1) a “zero-sum game” type of success (e.g., Person 1 is successful only because Person 2 is not) and (2) a “compare and despair” mentality of success. For starters, I am not at all interested in playing the “zero-sum game” and I will not stoop to such a low level as to enjoy seeing another person fail. Think about how much better we would all be if we worked together as a team, helping to empower every person in every context to succeed. Imagine the possibilities of this enriched world! Moreover, the “compare and despair” mentality is pervasive … amplified, unfortunately, by social media. It should always be a privilege to share in the joy of another’s success. But when we become jealous of another person’s success that ought to tell us something about ourselves, which should stop us in our tracks. Negativity is always a self-fulfilling prophecy and no one enjoys being around a negative person. Instead of comparing and focusing on what you don’t currently have, focus on what you do have in the present.
I believe an enduring challenge for all of us is to live in the moment, to focus on the present. All too often, we desire something that only inhabits the future and we lose proper perspective about what is most real in our lives, which is the very thing we most often miss: the thing that is before our eyes, in our midst, so close we can taste, touch, and feel it. Like sharing a smile with someone whose name you do not know and taking the time to celebrate the little things that make life so special. And the list goes on and on.
When we have those moments of awe and splendor that are only attainable by surrendering to the fast and forward pace of a single second in time, that is desire becoming real in our lives. And when desire (good and right desire, of course) becomes real, it is then that we have found meaningful success. Valentine’s Day is a time when we can become attuned to our different desires. It’s a time when we can step back from the business of life and assess who and what we desire. It’s a day that invites us to reflect on how our desires are shaping the person we are becoming. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a day that every person can participate in and celebrate, not just those who are in a relationship. And this special day of the year means so much more than a dozen red roses or even a box of chocolates could ever possibly convey.
Our world is pregnant with possibility, despite being suffused with suffering.
One of the hardest things for me to do is to wait. And waiting in the midst of hardship can be so painfully cruel. All the time, it seems that we find ourselves waiting. Waiting for an answer. Waiting for a better opportunity to emerge on the horizon. Waiting for new life. Waiting for new love. Waiting for a cure.
One of the worst – and easiest – things to do when we are waiting is to grow weary and impatient. We can grow so weary and impatient that we begin to take matters into our own hands when some things are just simply out of our control. As someone who loves to take control and make everything right, resigning to the fact that I cannot make everything good and better and perfect is very frustrating. And so, I sit and wait in frustration.
And frustration begins to put in a wedge in all of my relationships, including my relationship with God. It is so easy in the midst of our impatience to forget the promise of God’s providence. God cares for us and loves us in such an incredibly intimate way. We hear this all the time, but do we lavishly bask in the reassurance that God is with us?
Advent is a season of return as much as it is a season of waiting. The journey to Bethlehem is a metaphor for our return to God, our acknowledgement that we need God and the gift of salvation that God freely gives us and that we cannot be in control of everything. Advent also invites us to contemplate God as a screaming, crying, vulnerable infant – desperately in need of the love, care, and support of human beings, God’s own flesh and blood. God is not above and beyond us – but with us every single step of the way.
God waits with us. When we return to God, we find freedom in the waiting. The waiting period becomes a gestating period. And, together, we can give birth to new possibilities that we would have never before imagined.
Our world is pregnant with possibility, despite being suffused with suffering.
Because God is with us, the beginning is near!