The Many Loves of Valentine’s Day

Remember Valentine’s Day parties in elementary school? I recall making “mailboxes” out of two giant hearts stapled together leaving an opening at the top, and then taped to the front of our desks. The rule was, if you brought valentines to hand out, you had to bring one for every person in the class– so that no one would be left out.

Before Valentine’s Day was celebrated with cards, roses, and chocolates, the church calendar had a feast day celebrating Saint Valentine. Just who was Saint Valentine? The internet is filled with articles trying to determine who he was, what he did, or even if there were three saints with the same name. One thing seems fairly certain: Valentine was an early martyr for his beliefs in Christ. It is thought he was executed on Feb. 14th in the year 270 — when Christianity was still illegal and punishable by death in the Roman Empire.

If we could have a conversation with St. Valentine today about love, he would likely ask us which kind of love? In the English language “love” is a multipurpose word in that we say we love our parents, love our school, love humanity, and even love chocolate. This would have been puzzling to someone of St. Valentine’s lifetime, because people used more specific words for various kinds of love.

In New Testament Greek, a language that was used widely throughout the Roman Empire of St. Valentine’s life, there were four types of love: eros (romantic love), storge (familial love), philia (deep friendship love), and agape, the deep, sacrificial love for all humans, all of humanity (the kind Jesus showed us). Valentine must have had agape love for Christ: “Greater love (agape) has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

In the Hebrew parts of the bible (Old Testament), there are many words describing different types of love, at least ten different words. One is hesed (also spelled hasad), which is so difficult to translate into English that we see phrases like “loving kindness” or “faithful love” in English bibles. Hesed implies a strong, loving relationship that is also filled with deeds of love — not just feelings, but action:

what does the Lord require of you 
but to do justice, and to love kindness [hesed]
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

God’s love for us is often described as hesed — God is faithful, kind, merciful, and always doing deeds proving his love for humans. Jesus experienced the hesed of God and returned the same kind of love towards God the Father. Jesus also expressed the ultimate form of agape love when dying on the cross and rising to new life so that humans may experience reconciliation with God and eternal life. Saint Valentine participated in this agape love when he died for his faith in and love for Jesus.

When my grade school teacher told us to bring valentines for everyone in the class, she was teaching us, at a child’s level, agape love: let no one be left out, for all are loved by God.

Be Mine — collage by Julie McCarty —

Until next time, Amen!

Jesus and Politics?

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest… my kingdom is from another place.

John 18:36

Religion and politics don’t mix.

Well, they don’t completely mix. The two do overlap in some healthy ways in a democracy.  If I vote for someone because he or she has outstanding quality traits or virtues I admire in my religious values, that might be an appropriate “overlapping” of these two categories.  If my religious beliefs about love of neighbor create in me a desire to vote for someone based on the ways that person will help other people through politics, that might be a good thing. There are many other similar examples.

However, I am concerned that some Americans are placing all their hope, trust, and energy into their political party, making it the ultimate center of their lives — treating it like a religion or cult — while at the same time treating those outside their political party as a demonic force. Genuine patriotism involves a love of country that is stronger than one’s alliance with a political party. Additionally, for a Christian, their love of God and God’s children (all humans) ought to be even stronger than their love of country.

Jesus doesn’t seem to be very interested in politics.  He breaks all sorts of cultural and religious taboos in order to live according to still higher moral virtues.  He heals people on the Sabbath, eats meals with tax collectors and prostitutes, and has a long, theological conversation with a foreign woman at the well.  When religious leaders try to involve Jesus in their religious/political bickering–wanting him to “take sides”–Jesus proposes answers to their questions that completely transcend and transform the conversation.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is “in our midst,” and yet the fullness of the kingdom also transcends this world. The kingdom of God is both close at hand (involving healing, praying, forgiving, feeding the hungry, providing justice for the oppressed, etc.) and at the same time transcendent, higher and deeper than our wildest imaginations, not to be completely accomplished until the next life or the Second Coming.

In his earthly life, Jesus eschewed opportunities for political or earthly power. While praying in the desert, the devil offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Matt. 4:8-10). At another time, one group is so enthusiastic they want to make Jesus king — but he runs away to a mountain to keep that from happening (John 6:15).

Jesus said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

Matthew 4:8-10

When Peter begins to fight with a sword to keep him from being arrested, Jesus tells Peter to put it away (John 18:10-11). In a conversation with Pilate just prior to his death, Jesus says, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37, NIV).

If we are to be faithful and faith-filled Christians (Christ-followers), we must keep Christ at the center of our lives, and above every other priority.  A person can say they believe in Christ, but if that belief is genuine, it means you want to live the way Jesus taught: to love one another. All people, be they Republican, Democrat, member of yet another party, or a citizen of another country, are loved by God.  Those who are truly Christian will strive to love all people as Jesus did.

You have heard it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48)

Until next time, Amen!

2021 Focus: Creativity

Creativity is God’s gift to us.
Using our creativity is our gift back to God. –Julia Cameron

As I wrote in my last post, I often choose a “sacred word” as a theme for the new year. Sometimes I actively plan my word, and occasionally it seems as if the word is given to me. Focusing on a single word helps me to reflect more deeply on some aspect of faith or life.

For 2021, my sacred word is creativity. Being at home so much during the pandemic has made me think a lot about my life. I observe that throughout my life I have participated in various arts: music, writing, painting (sort of) and nature photography. Many times I have seen these things as “hobbies” — and yet, these creative pursuits have given me so much joy in life.

When I think about creativity and spirituality, especially Christian spirituality, various questions arise. For example, why is it we call God the Creator and yet — in my experience at least — not make the connection between the Creator and creativity? Wouldn’t creative-type gifts be a gift of the Creator? And isn’t God called Father because he created us all? Do we think of Father God as being a creative type? (To even say “creative type” brings a lot of stereotypes into my mind that probably aren’t true.)

Was Jesus creative? How could he not be creative, if he was “one with the Father”? But, why have I never thought about this before?

The Holy Spirit could be easily seen as the inspiration behind spirit-filled artists. Indeed, an artists or writers might see the Spirit as the spiritual force that inspires their creativity, what some call their muse.

Was I the only one that did not make these connections between God and creativity before? Was it my upbringing or the people who I hung out with that made me miss these ideas?

But it’s not just these questions (and others) I want to explore with this theme of creativity. I want to DO creative things. I want to paint and write and take photos and reflect on life in new ways. I want to make ordinary household chores more creative in how I approach them. I want to look for creative expressions and creative solutions to old problems. I hope to learn from other creative people what creativity is all about.

I don’t know where all this will lead, but I’m planning on enjoying the journey.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. — 1 Cor. 10:31 (NIV)

Until next time, Amen!

Sacred Word for New Year 2021

New Year’s resolutions are fine, but if you’re like me, they won’t last beyond a couple weeks. For the past decade or more, I’ve engaged in what some call a “sacred word” for the year. As I wrote about in 2011, this spiritual practice has some grounding in ancient Christianity. The word itself isn’t an idol or divine, but rather a spiritual theme for the year. One can reflect upon the deeper meaning of the word and draw strength and wisdom for one’s own beliefs, decision-making, and actions from dwelling on this theme over a longer course of time.

This past week, I put out a request on Facebook for 2021 sacred word ideas. Some responses were these words: hope, gratitude, acceptance, healing, empathy, forgiveness, mercy, wisdom, and worship. I have heard of others using words like consecration, birthing, welcoming, question, grace, wonder, beauty, recover, relinquish, or joy.

Often I have chosen a word that is something I want more of in my life, like beauty (inner, soul beauty). Once I broke with the single word idea and used a short bible verse: Speak, Lord: for your servant is listening (see 1 Samuel 3:10). One time I selected a word in early December, but then felt that the Holy Spirit gave me a different word later in the month. This past year I used two words: pray first, which helped me to develop more discipline (combating laziness) when it was my planned time for prayer.

To keep your special word in mind during the year, here are some ideas:

  • write or draw your word in a decorative doodle
  • photo your decorated word and place on homepage or screensaver of cell phone or electronic device
  • tape your word to the mirror in the bathroom where you get ready in the morning
  • put your word at the beginning of each journal entry
  • insert your word on the first day of every 2021 month in your electronic calendar
  • tape on your refrigerator
  • paint your word
  • reflect on your word while exercising
  • find prayers, quotes, or bible verses about your word
  • write a prayer or letter to someone using your word
  • share your word with trusted friends or faith group: listen to their ideas about the theme

I can say from experience that pondering or ruminating on one word, theme, or bible verse over an extended period of time produces inward — and outward– fruit. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, we can treasure these virtues, truths, or themes in our heart with the help of the Holy Spirit.

…Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean. –Luke2:19 (NET Bible)

Until next time, Amen!

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Preparing Thanksgiving 2020

Note: When I began writing this post, Minnesota residents were preparing for another partial shut-down due to the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, just as the holiday season is about to begin. By the time I was finishing the post, the CDC had issued guidelines urging people to remain home this Thanksgiving.

Prayer Preparing for Thanksgiving
During a Pandemic

Creator God,
I find myself struggling these days
while deciding how to best celebrate
the Thanksgiving holiday.
I long to see my friends and family,
to feel a sense of normalcy,
to let go and enjoy life once more.

But I know I may put others in danger.
Health authorities and other leaders
are warning us yet again
to be extra careful. . .
How much longer, Lord?!
How much longer must we wait
for this pandemic to be over?

Perhaps the answer to my questions
relies partly on the choices I make
— we make —
in response to the situation.
Will I be ever-mindful of the safety of others
(as well as my own)
or throw all caution to the wind
(and later regret it)?

This Thanksgiving, in the midst of stresses,
confusion, worries, or even illness,
help me to remember
there are many healthy ways
to celebrate
and many meaningful ways
to express thanks
that are not reliant on human traditions
or physical gatherings.
Create in me a deeper understanding
of giving thanks, counting blessings,
and being a blessing to others,
even when I can only
be with them in Spirit.


Remembering Sister Mary Christine Athans, BVM

I recently learned of the death of one of my seminary professors, Sister Mary Christine Athans. As a teenager, I admired her from afar at my Catholic parish in Arizona.  After many years, I returned to school to study theology, and there she was again, a dynamic professor of church history at — get this long title she used to say — “the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota.”

When Sister Christine retired as a full time professor at the seminary, I was asked to give a talk at her retirement celebration.  She was a pioneering and professional religious woman, and lived through many interesting times in the Catholic church.  Below is a copy of the talk I gave on that occasion.

Ode to Sr. Christine Athans, BVM, by Julie McCarty
May 5, 2002

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Sr. Christine’s new book about the history of this seminary. [To Work for the Whole People: John Ireland’s Seminary in Saint Paul] In reading the opening chapters, I was struck with how pioneering the early Catholics of this diocese were. Out of their dedication to the Catholic tradition, the church leaders were willing to venture into the unknown and endure the harsh asceticism of Minnesota weather, “to boldly go where no man—or woman–has gone before” (well, at least no Catholic).

When I look at Christine, I see a Catholic pioneer.

Pioneers must be creative, because things do not always go the way you plan. When I asked a number of students (both seminarians and commuter students) what they would remember about Sr. Christine, one thing they named was her creativity. They recalled she would do whatever it took to interest them in church history, even if it meant singing songs or shelling out reams of time lines. This led to the discovery that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Pioneers need to build on the past but move into the future. Explorers use their past experiences in new ways when encountering new situations. Christine made sure students learned not only the European roots of church history, but also the history and spirituality of the church in America. One student mentioned his appreciation of Christine’s truthfulness in teaching not only the “good news” but also the “bad news” of church history. Recognizing the human side of the institution is necessary for one committing to a lifetime of church service.

Pioneers also need courage and perseverance “to boldly go where no woman has gone before.” Christine has done a lot of things earlier generations of Catholic women might have enjoyed if given the opportunity, like earn a doctorate or teach seminarians.

When I first met Christine, it was over twenty-five years ago, in my home parish of St. Francis Xavier in Phoenix, Arizona. It was the roaring 70’s and I was a teenager, thrilled with the exciting new things that were happening in the church. I remember the admiration I felt for the BVM[1] sisters in my parish. The BVM’s nurtured my faith with their hospitable ways. I saw them as friendly, devout, and intelligent women serving the Church with gusto.

I will never forget the surprise I felt, when, as a teenager, I opened the parish bulletin and read about this new organization called “The North Phoenix Corporate Ministry.” This was a consortium of five Protestant congregations, two synagogues, and my own Catholic parish, in what was the very beginning of the ecumenical movement in Phoenix. This bulletin insert had photos of five ministers and two rabbis—all men, of course—who were on the Corporate Ministry board ….  and when I looked for my parish priest—OOPS! What was this?—There was Sister Christine, not only on the board, but serving as the full-time executive director.    (It was sort of like the icons you see of the Upper Room at Pentecost: a bunch of male apostles with one fairly important woman, Mary.) You have to remember, back then, my only understanding was that sisters were teachers or nurses: there certainly weren’t any sisters working as leaders at the diocese offices! Christine’s professionalism convinced me that a woman’s place wasn’t only in the home, but also in church ministry.

So much did this impress me, that one Sunday, after Mass, I approached Sr. Christine with a question. Here I was, this little 15 year-old—keep in mind that it was the seventies and all sorts of things were being discussed–and I asked her, “Do you think women will ever be priests?” I can’t remember her exact answer because she replied like the typical theologian: with neither a simple yes or no. Hers was a rather long, careful response. I do recall that she was very graceful, tactful and honest about the whole thing, neither overly optimistic nor bitter.

Finally, pioneers need enthusiasm, or they will not survive the journey. The overwhelming response I got from students when they were asked about Christine related to her enthusiasm, her high energy for education, her friendliness, what one student called her “joyful presence”… I once heard that “joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” It is this “joyful presence,” this enthusiasm, that this community will miss the most.

However, I know that others will benefit from Christine’s enthusiasm for doing God’s work. You see, I’ve noticed that professed sisters never retire, they just shift their priorities a bit, continue the Lord’s work, radiating that “joyful presence” that has its source in God.

Christine, on behalf of all your students—and there were hundreds of us–I wish to thank you, for your pioneering strength and beauty, for the many gifts you have given us, and for your joyful presence. May God bless you. Shalom.


[1] Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary


The Canticle of Creation

It’s Oct. 4, the day many Christians remember the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Below is a prayer St. Francis wrote as he was approaching his own death.  One can see the way Francis viewed all of creation as being a gift of Creator God.

I invite you to take a moment from your busy day to pray this prayer.  Read it once to get the feel of it.  Then read it again, as a prayer of your own, giving praise to God.  If you enjoy this prayer, you might enjoy writing your own prayer of thanks for all that God has created.

The Canticle of Creation
By Saint Francis of Assisi

O Most High, all-powerful, good Lord God,
to you belong praise, glory,
honor and all blessing.

Be praised, my Lord, for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light;
he is strong and shines magnificently.
O Lord, we think of you when we look at him.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon,
and for the stars
which you have set shining and lovely
in the heavens.

Be praised, my Lord,
for our Brothers Wind and Air
and every kind of weather
by which you, Lord,
uphold life in all your creatures.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,
who is very useful to us,
and humble and precious and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you give us light in the darkness:
he is bright and lively and strong.

Be praised, my Lord,
for Sister Earth, our Mother,
who nourishes us and sustains us,
bringing forth
fruits and vegetables of many kinds
and flowers of many colors.

Be praised, my Lord,
for those who forgive for love of you;
and for those
who bear sickness and weakness
in peace and patience
– you will grant them a crown.

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death,
whom we must all face.
I praise and bless you, Lord,
and I give thanks to you,
and I will serve you in all humility. 

Until next time, Amen! 



God Creates All Things New

My niece in Arizona had her first day of kindergarten recently.  I was moved by pictures of her first day of school. Such an innocent, fresh, excited look on her face!  Everything around her was new– new clothes, new school bag, new school, new teacher.

One of my favorite lines from the bible is found in the book of Revelation, when God says:  “Behold, I make all things new.” (21:5)  Although the context is about the end of the world and the forming of a new heavenly reality, I think it points to a deep reality about God:  God is Creator.

God did not merely create the earth in six days and then set his creative talent on a shelf until human history comes to the end of the world.  God is Creator, and God is still creating today in many ways. God planted traces of his own creativity in the creation: just look at how the seeds develop and mature, how life continues among animals with the birth of little pups and kittens, how the calendar of the earth time cycles around and begins again.

Our own lives can be instruments of God’s creativity when we try new things on for size.  We may try a new recipe, paint a room a new color, overhaul an engine, or show new skills to a young child.  We may reach out to a coworker and discover a new friend. Perhaps we travel to a new place or try a new way of volunteering.

Sometimes trying something new coaxes us out of our comfort zone. It can feel a little awkward and we may be a little tense (am I doing this right?).  But in stretching us a bit, the Holy Spirit seeks to re-create our lives into something new. We may make mistakes along the way, but that is part of the learning process, God creating new awareness within us.

As we enter into a new season of the year,  let us pray to the Holy Spirit to guide us and to re-new us.  We ask that the Holy Spirit to deepen our prayer lives and show us each how to use our unique giftedness to serve others. Let us pray for one another as we continue to move forward into this new chapter in our faith community. Let us put our hope and trust in God to re-create us.

Hey, is that fair?

Let me be honest: every now and then, Jesus says something that rubs me the wrong way.  I can feel that resistance inside myself that says, I don’t want to hear that right now. Could we just talk about that some other time? 

This Sunday’s readings are one of those times. We hear the gospel parable about the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). The property owner goes out early in the morning to find people to work in the vineyard.  Once the early birds are working, the owner goes out several times during the day to find still more workers standing around idle (read that: can’t find work), so he hires these other workers as well.

The Late-arriving Workers by JESUS MAFA*

At the end of the day, the early-bird workers are paid the full day’s wages.  But then a surprising thing happens:  the other workers are also paid a full day’s wages, despite the fact they worked fewer hours.

Naturally, the early-bird workers, who toiled long hours in the hot sun, are jealous of the Johnny-come-lately workers. They complain to the owner, who responds, in effect, Hey, what’s the big deal? Didn’t I give you the full day wages I promised you, for your full day of work? Can’t I be generous with my own money if I want, and help these other men feed their families tonight if I want to? 

The parable ends with Jesus saying these now-famous words:

the last will be first, and the first will be last…

The point of the parable is not about how much a person is paid per hour, but rather about the generous love of God. Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of heaven, in which God’s love and mercy are abundant and infinite.  In the kingdom of heaven, the newly converted Christian takes his or her place at the table along side those who followed Christ their whole lives. Those who are of “little account” in the world will have a great place at the heavenly table.

I think some of us are reluctant to dig deeper into this parable because it challenges our status quo.  We who are the “early-bird Christians” might secretly feel we are better than the newly converted Christian.  The people whose families have been in the United States for generations secretly (or not so secretly) despise the new Americans. Those who are heterosexual may have trouble accepting people who are in same-sex relationships. People working long hours may resent those who receive government assistance.

Jesus’ parable reminds us today that God’s love is far more abundant and far-reaching than we can imagine. We may be jealous of others, or secretly think we are better than others–and therefore more deserving of God’s attention and love–but to this Jesus says we are wrong.  God loves those “other people” just as much as God loves me or you. God’s generosity, mercy, and compassion are without end and for all people–much more than we can begin to fathom.

And if God is loving, merciful, and generous towards all people, doesn’t that mean those of us who claim to follow Christ should do the same?


*Artwork credit:
JESUS MAFA. The Late-arriving Workers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved September 22, 2017].


Hope in God

O Lord, we wait for you, 
our God who helps and protects us.
In your presence we discover joy. 
We entrust ourselves to your care. 
Pour your faithful love upon us 
as we place our hope in you.

(Psalm 33:20-22, my paraphrase)

As we transition from 2016 to 2017, I am given to thinking about the past year and looking to the future. What were our best moments and greatest challenges? Where are we headed in 2017?

movingHistory will remember 2016 as the year of Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, but in our home we will also remember it as the Year of the Great Move. My husband and I spent most the year transitioning from the Twin Cities area to a less populated, more rural place in west-central Minnesota. We gradually sorted our belongings with an eye for what was really needed, prepared and sold our home. This process made us think about our dreams and goals for the next chapter of our lives.

In the midst of the long transition, I was looking for part-time work in some form of pastoral ministry. As it turned out, there was a small Christian community whose pastor had just left, and they needed someone to lead worship.  Because of our move, I could not become their pastor, but I did lead worship a number of times–and the community ordained me as an ecumenical minister of Christ.

And so it is, I write to you now as your sister in Christ and one who has been commissioned to serve others as an ordained minister.  This idea of “women priests” or women ministers is something I had wrestled with internally for many years, often doing my very best to resist and deny my own calling (!).


Now 2017 is just beginning after a year-long transition to a new place and a deepening calling to minister to God’s people. I have rented a new office in Alexandria (MN) and will be continuing the spiritual direction ministry there (and on Skype). I will also be continuing writing and painting in the studio portion of my office.

As for the rest, I cannot see the future, but I believe that God will use my ordination for a divine purpose. I love the area I’m now living in. For the next few months I will be listening and learning about the needs of people here.

The new year holds much promise, but also a lot of fear for many Americans who are feeling nervous about the transition of leadership and about the direction our country might take in the future. I’ve been trying to think how to approach this new situation (it feels new to me) and I don’t have a magic wand to wave over the situation.

The thought I have today is that no matter what happens in the world, God is still with us. We might ignore God or turn away from God’s wisdom, love, and mercy, but God is still present, witnessing our struggles, sharing in our pain (as Jesus did), encouraging us to make wise choices, and watching over us with loving care.

44dcfc01a695be50b1f0edcd3ec3c2e0-hope-in-godAs we begin 2017, I choose to hope in God and to do what I can to make the world a better place.  I do not expect that everything will be easy or fair or successful or even peaceful.  Although there is much good, beauty, and love in the world, there is also selfishness, greed, cruelty, hate and any number of evils.  We humans are simultaneously both saints and sinners (thank you, Martin Luther), myself included.

Because humans are fallible creatures, we place our hope in God. 

The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope.  –Romans 15:13

Until next time, Amen!