Jesus taught, “Love your enemies.”

But to you who hear I say,
love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.
     –Words of Jesus recorded in Luke 6:27-28.

The tenth anniversary of 9-11 will soon be upon us, and I wonder: What I have learned in those ten years? Have I overcome my fears and anger? Have I become more compassionate towards those who are “different” from me?

While thinking about this, I thought it might be worth revisiting a column I wrote at the time of the first anniversary of 9-11, published in The Catholic Spirit and a few other newspapers around the country.

Back then I was pondering the meaning of Jesus’ command to love your enemies, and the context was the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks. Today when I reread it, I think about how so many Americans have turned against each other in their extreme enthusiasm for their favorite political agendas.  At times it seems hostility has become the national pastime.

Being kind to those who hurt us is no easy task, and I certainly struggle with “love your enemies” myself. Nevertheless, if we call ourselves Christ-followers (Christians), then we must strive, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to practice all that Jesus taught.

Here’s that original article:

Praying for Enemies on the Anniversary of 9-11

As the one-year [now 10-year] anniversary of the tragic events of September eleventh approaches, I am pondering the meaning of Christ’s command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Just what did Christ mean? Should I pray for terrorists?

A priest I know did just that during a time of shared prayer at church. Some people questioned what he meant by praying for terrorists. Was he condoning their acts of violence and murder? Did he want terrorists to “win” the war?

Praying for one’s enemies does not mean that we agree with their ideas or support evil. Praying for enemies does not mean staying in an abusive relationship. It certainly does not mean that we eliminate praying for the poor, the oppressed, and victims of violence.

Therese of Lisieux at age 15

A startling example of praying for “society’s enemy” is found in the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. When she was a teenager, Thérèse heard about a notorious murderer named Pranzini, whose story made headline news. While waiting on death row, Pranzini showed no signs of repentance. Because Thérèse felt a great longing to prevent sinners from suffering the pains of hell, she prayed ardently that God would forgive Pranzini, granting him eternal happiness in heaven. On the day following his execution, Thérèse read in the newspaper that “Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing and was ready to thrust his head beneath the guillotine’s blade when he suddenly turned, seized the crucifix offered him by the priest, and thrice kissed the Sacred Wounds.” Thérèse tells us that she felt such joy over this news that tears came to her eyes.

I find it difficult to pray for mildly irritating people, let alone violent criminals. However, someone taught me a method that helps. Setting aside your own agenda (that’s the hard part!), simply ask God to grant this person a pleasant day, peace, joy, etc. If you like, envision the blessings like a gentle rain showering upon this person.

When I pray this way for someone everyday for a month, I often notice a change in myself. Sometimes I begin to see this “enemy” in a slightly better light. I listen to him or her more at meetings.

Some wounds in life—like childhood sexual abuse—are so painful that we cannot do this type of prayer exercise. In these cases, we can pour out our troubles to the Lord, ask for God’s help, seek necessary professional help, and give ourselves time for the healing process. God understands.

Nevertheless, Christ calls us to deepen our love for others by praying for someone we dislike. Why do such a distasteful thing? Jesus explains that because God gives the blessing of sun and rain to all people—both saints and sinners—we must do the same. We ask God to grant our enemies the same love and mercy that God has given us.

Jesus also reminds us that being kind to people we like is not really so special or virtuous. (Even terrorists are kind to people they like!) The Lord Jesus forgave his executioners and the repentant thief during his own crushing agony on the cross. This same Lord promises that when we love our enemies, we will truly become children of God.

Miracles Begin with Compassion

When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. –Matthew 14:14

While listening to Pastor Kevin Olson’s sermon at Easter Lutheran Church this past Sunday, one sentence he said particularly struck me: “Every miracle begins with compassion.”

How different Jesus is from many public figures of our time–he did not work miracles merely to show his great spiritual power, create “special effects,” or convince others he was the Messiah. Jesus was not a politician trying to drive up his approval ratings or a celebrity seeking more media exposure.

Jesus was motivated by compassion. In Matthew 14, the passage read on Sunday, Jesus has just heard about the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He responds by going off to a deserted spot to pray, and, I imagine, have a little downtime to grieve.

But people want to see Jesus so much that they go out of their way to find him. When his prayer time is interrupted, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them or send them away. Out of love, he sets aside his own agenda and calmly responds to their needs.

This is one way that Jesus and I differ. When I am interrupted in my work or prayer, I don’t always respond that well. Pastor Kevin reminded us that spiritual writer Henri Nouwen pointed out that our true mission is sometimes found in the interruptions themselves. Our real ministry is not only in the “work” we do, but in the midst of people who come our way and “interrupt” us.

Jesus’ compassion doesn’t end at the end of the work shift, either. After a long day of interacting with the crowd, which has now grown to 5,000 (not counting the women and children), the disciples remind Jesus it’s getting late and no one has eaten. They suggest Jesus punch out for the day by telling the people to go to the nearby village to get something to eat.

But Jesus’ compassion for others is so great that he doesn’t want to risk people not getting fed due to lack of money or lack of resources (would a village really have enough food for thousands of people without advance notice?). So he tells the disciples:

You give them something to eat.

The disciples, of course, objected to this impractical—no, make that completely unreasonable—idea. They have some concern for the crowd’s needs, but this idea of feeding the crowd themselves seems ridiculous.

Nevertheless, Jesus asks the disciples to bring him what they have, the now-famous five loaves and two fish. Jesus blesses it and the disciples begin to offer it to others, and, as you know, the food in some miraculous way multiplies to feed them all.

I know I am like those disciples. I sometimes see other people’s needs and feel compassion but stop short of doing anything. I want to help them, but like the disciples, part of me wants to send the suffering away to get help someplace else.

There are many people suffering in our world today who need our compassion. There are those who are unemployed or under-employed, the sick and starving, the battered and war-torn, and the list goes on and on. Each of us, by ourselves, cannot undo all the problems of the world, nor does God expect us to do so.

However, too often we use the vastness of the problems to keep us from doing anything at all. Like Jesus’ disciples who wanted to send the hungry crowd away to fend for themselves, we want to send the suffering away—let someone else deal with the problem.

But Jesus didn’t send people away empty. He filled their lives with healing, love, meaning, and yes, food for their bodies. Through the words of Scripture, Jesus tells us again today:

You give them something to eat.

 Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics

The word “compassion” comes from roots that mean to stand with someone in their suffering. The compassionate person is willing to journey with another who is experiencing pain, agony, confusion, or other trials. Who do you know that is suffering these days? How would Jesus express compassion for this person? Is there something you could do for him or her?

Enuma Okuro’s “Reluctant Pilgrim”

 

You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.– Saint Augustine, in the Confessions

Earlier this year I attended a women’s retreat led by spiritual writer Enuma Okuro. When I first signed up for the retreat, I knew almost nothing about Enuma, but I wanted to meet other women in my latest experiment with finding a church home, and the lure of meeting another spiritual writer in the flesh was more than I could resist.

The weekend retreat was a good experience, and one of the many blessings was seeing Enuma in action. She has what I would call a genuine spiritual presence in an honest, creative, and faithful-to-God way. I couldn’t get over the way she got all of us engaged in creative activities and sharing despite the fact that hardly any of us would normally think of ourselves as very “creative” or “artistic.” 

More recently, I finally had the chance to read Enuma’s book Reluctant Pilgrim–and, frankly, all I can say is, wow.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the book because I think it’s better to read it without a lot of preconceived ideas. However, the subtitle gives the main focus of the book: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community. Enuma hungers for God, but calls herself “half-graced” because, although she was baptised Catholic, she was never confirmed and feels she is missing something, the adult faith commitment and the feeling of belonging to a community of believers. But, to what church should she go? Where will she find a spiritual home, a faith community? To say her background is varied is an understatement. Although her first years of memory were spent in Queens, New York, she is never quite sure how to explain where she is “from”:

Once we moved back to West Africa, I was introduced to my first mosque, and the rest of my early childhood was lost in a whirling dervish of Hail Marys and muezzin cries to holy prayer. I was raised by a Catholic father, an Anglican, somewhat evangelical mother, and endless Muslim aunts, who called on both Jesus and Allah within the same breath, depending on the circumstances. I ran into God beneath the billowing skirts of Catholicism and Islam while learning the cultural steps of being a foreigner in my native country. When people ask me where I’m from, I fumble for answers, take a deep breath, and exhale with, “I was born in the States, but my parents are Nigerian, and I grew up in four different countries. But currently I live in (insert current city of residence) so that’s where I’m from, I guess. (page 17)

Reluctant Pilgrim is a fresh look at the Christian journey in the midst of today’s multicultural, multi-religious, multi-spiritual and even doubting world. It taps into the human hunger for God with the frank admission that we often resist this hunger, and our spiritual communities often seem–at least on the surface–lacking this hunger for union with the divine. 

To get a small taste of this book and Enuma’s honest, creative style, view the YouTube trailer below. I found myself pondering the spiritual mystery of God and God’s presence in others just watching the preview!

(If this YouTube video does not print in your email subscription, just google “Reluctant Pilgrim” and “YouTube” and look for the trailer.)

Until next time, Amen!

Prayer of Saint Francis

In our broken and hurting world, the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi reminds me what is really important in life. The words of the prayer have the attitude and mind of Christ, who did not seek fame or glory, but rather sought to love and serve others.

The Prayer of Saint Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
 
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.
 
There is a beautiful visual mediation of this prayer on YouTube using the music of Christian musician John Michael Talbot (video by heywaldojr). The photos that accompany this 4 minute song make a wonderful prayer meditation, a good break from the work of the day (if commercials appear, just click on the X to get rid of them):
 
If you cannot see the above video, click on the following link or copy and paste the link into your browser:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXyYm1yIL-g  — or google “Prayer of Saint Francis” and “John Michael Talbot”

Hope this video brings a smile to your heart–I know it did mine.

Until next time,

Amen! 

Invitation: Contemplative Spiritual Practices Group

Sunrise beach walk--photo by Julie McCarty--click to enlarge

Every now and then, I find I have to do something to spice up my relationship with God. Like any relationship, God and I can get stuck in a rut, take things for granted, or let things go a little stale. Of course, it’s not really God who is letting things flounder, but rather I am the one who gets a little lazy or distracted.   (Sometimes the feeling of boredom or being stuck in a rut in prayer can really be God calling one to a deeper way of prayer—but that is the subject of another article.)

One way I hope to put a little pizazz into my prayer life this summer is by meeting with a small faith group to explore various contemplative spiritual practices. For six sessions, meeting every other week, we will be exploring different ways from the Christian tradition to pray and relate to God.

We will be meeting every other Wednesday beginning on June 29th, from 7:00 to 8:30 at a member’s home. Because of my background and training in this area, I will be facilitating the first few meetings. This group is part of the small group ministry at Easter Lutheran Church (ELCA) here in Eagan, Minnesota, but one does not have to be a member in order to join us. So you are welcome to attend if you are interested.

To begin with, the book we will be using is called Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert. The author lives up in the area of Crookston, MN, and is a church pastor with many  credentials and experience in teaching Christian prayer. We’ll be looking at only 2 chapters per meeting so as to allow time between sessions to experiment with prayer on your own. The book is available from Amazon, Border’s, and Barnes and Noble for about $11. Local stores would probably order it for you. Topics include how to pray using short passages from Scripture, journaling, praying in nature, integrating prayer and life experience, finding God in silence, and other topics. The book is very helpful, but you do not have to obtain it before the first meeting.

Creating a Life with God explains how to pray with Scripture using the ancient Christian method called lectio divina (sacred reading), the Jesus Prayer, entering into silence and solitude, finding God in day-to-day experiences, journaling, the role of body in prayer, praying in nature, etc.  It looks at how various Christians of the past used these different ways to build their spiritual lives. You can read more about this book at the publisher’s site here  and a review of it here.

As I mentioned, if you live close enough to join us, we would love to have you come. Just contact me for more info and directions to our first meeting location at a member’s home. (Click on contact page above.)

And if you are interested but cannot attend, think about reading the book yourself. Feel free to send questions to be discussed on this blog if you like.

Until next time, God be with you,  Amen! 

Living Water, Holy Spirit, and Solitude at an Iowa Stream

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now he said this about the Spirit which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.  (John 7:37-39)

Wolf Creek--photo by Julie McCarty--Note: click on photo to enlarge

Flowing water fascinates me. When I was a little girl, my best friend had a house with a creek flowing near her house, and we would play for hours within and around the water.

Jesus tells us that he is the living water that satisfies all our deepest longings. The Spirit is flowing in Christ, flowing through him to everyone around him.

What surprises me when I read this passage today is the part about the water of the Spirit flowing out of those who believe in Christ. In all the times I heard this passage proclaimed at church, I never noticed that part. Here’s what the footnote in my bible says:

Jesus is the true water of life, who turns the symbol into reality. . . Believers become channels of life to others, through Christ’s Spirit given at Pentecost after he was glorified (crucified, risen, ascended).    –From the Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV.

Not only was Christ both human and divine, his human side was a channel of the Holy Spirit–and we, too, are called to be channels of the Holy Spirit, flowing out to give to others in abundance.

Today I am offering you a gift that relates to this meditation: a 2 minute escape from your present work into the environment of a flowing, modern day stream named Wolf Creek. This is a very short video I took on a recent trip to our favorite country getaway in the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, the “Morning Mist Cabin” owned by Larry and Jo Thein. (Thanks to them for letting us share it, and thanks to my husband Terry for his techie expertise in getting it setup on YouTube.)

As you watch this video, you might want to just enjoy the ability to getaway for a moment from the busyness of daily life, taking in the sights and sounds of God’s creation in nature. You might consider Jesus, the Living Water, and how the Spirit is the water that flows through you to others. Or maybe you just want to wait and see what the Spirit might inspire in you this day.

Note: You can enlarge the picture using the little box with four arrows in the bottom right of the picture to enhance the experience of “getting away from it all,” but just be aware that the picture won’t be as sharp. Move your mouse to see how to reduce it again. 

Until next time, Amen! 

Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Married Contemplative

Some Christians think of the month of May as a time for honoring the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, known also as “Mother of God” or the “Theotokos” (the God-Bearer). Where I live, May is the month when the earth comes to life again after the long Minnesota winter, and families celebrate Mother’s Day. Below is a spiritual reflection I wrote about Jesus’ mother, a short excerpt from a book I wrote.
 

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. –Luke 2:19.

Was Mary a nun or a wife? Growing up Catholic, I associated Mary more with nuns than with married women. After all, she wore long, voluminous garments and a veil like that of the nuns who taught my religion class. Her statue was displayed clear across the church from that of Joseph; even in the manger scene they kept a respectful distance. Although I hadn’t a clue about the meaning of the phrase “ever virgin,” I clearly understood that Mary and Joseph were a special case.

The above Scripture verse (along with a similar one, Luke 2:51) is often used to represent the prayerful, contemplative side of Mary. She marvels at the surprise visit of the shepherds, who speak of heavenly beings revealing that her baby is the Messiah and Lord. Mary carefully stores the amazing details into the motherly scrapbook of her heart.

In the Bible, the “heart” is the hidden center of the entire person. In the heart one thinks, discerns, feels, hopes, reasons, and intuits. The heart is the inner space within, the place in which one encounters the Living God. When Mary ponders things in her heart, she is prayerfully mediating on the mystery of God acting in her life. Luke paints a picture, not of a stereotypical peasant woman, thought to be of no account, but of a woman who thinks, reasons, remembers, and meditates, trying to put all the pieces of her life together to make sense of God’s plan.

Because of this, Mary is sometimes called the contemplative par excellence. Yet, contrary to what we might subconsciously think, Mary was not a vowed nun. She experiences God’s presence while cooking for her family, nursing her baby, or stroking her husband’s hair as they drift off to sleep. She meditates while walking to the town well to fetch water and prays while baking bread or weaving fabric. Mary’s heart is open and pure, praying and acting in total communion with God at all times. In short, she is the married contemplative.

–Excerpt from The Pearl of Great Price: Gospel Wisdom for Christian Marriage by Julie McCarty (Liturgical Press), pages 28-29.

Spiritual Aerobics

For journaling or small group discussion 

1. How do I think of prayer and the life of married couples, families, or other laypersons? Is deep holiness and prayer only for those viewed as the “professional religious” (priests, ministers, parish staff, nuns, etc.)? Is that what Jesus taught in the gospel?

2. Get creative: How would you portray Jesus’ mother in drawing, collage, paint, clay, or other art form? You don’t have to be an artist. How do you imagine her daily life? How did she pray when the angel Gabriel wasn’t visibly present?

3. Is every Christian or every human called to be contemplative? Just what does that word “contemplative” mean to you, and what might it mean for the future of Christianity?