Two or More

He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts.
Rest assured this troubadour is acting on his part.
The union of your spirits here has caused him to remain.
For whenever two or more of you are gathered in his name
There is love. – Noel Paul Stookey

There was a time during the 1970s when the above lyrics, from a song written in 1971 by the Paul in the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary, were sung at nearly every wedding in every church in the United States of America.

The song, which the songwriter attributes to divine inspiration, uses some of my favorite words from the gospels. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus told his friends, “For where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.”

St. Paul – never one to let anyone have the last word, apparently even Jesus – confirmed this when he explained to the sinning Corinthians in his first letter to those folks that if you gather in the name of Jesus, you can fight evil.

I reminded myself of this fact at Mass yesterday, as I listened – or tried to – the priest’s Pentacost homily. I say tried to because I was faced with a few obstacles. First, the priest who celebrated our Mass was visiting from another parish. He is originally from India, and though his English is perfect, his accent is strong. That would be bad enough, except that he also speaks especially softly. Second, there was a poor, frenzied single father with three small children sitting directly behind us. He was trying his best; there was a lot of shushing going on. But have you ever tried to keep a toddler quiet when he or she is supposed to be quiet? So I wasn’t mad at Daddy or the children, but it made it even harder to hear the priest. And, of course, there was the poor acolyte who passed out, literally crashing to the floor, white as the Holy Ghost himself. She was okay and was revived by her mother who quickly came to her rescue.

These distractions were okay, however, because it gave me time to think about being in church for Mass. In particular, I wondered if there was any grace to be gained from attending a church service in which you can’t really participate for any number of reasons. Of course, if you’re Catholic, the Mass is really a celebration of the Eucharist, so that’s the primary reason why attendance is important. But for me, it goes beyond that. For me, gathering with a whole group of people – some friends, some slightly familiar faces, some strangers  — is an important part of prayer. Where two or more are gathered in his name, he is there right alongside of us, sitting with us, listening and responding to our group prayers.

Everyone’s spiritual needs are different. For some, God can be found in nature. For others, praying is easiest when driving alone in a car. Still others find their peace with God when sitting alone in a quiet church, their nostrils filled with the smell of leftover incense and listening to the sounds of quiet prayers coming from an old woman sitting in the back of the church.

I see God in nature and I often pray while I’m driving to or from a destination. The silence of a church is a perfect place to talk to God and listen for his response.

But for me, I need – and that word isn’t too strong – to gather with others every week and celebrate being a part of God’s family. I need to hear the familiar words of the Mass and the prayer responses. I need to greet others in the peace of Christ. I need to feel part of a church community. I believe that is why following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles were absolutely desperate to gather together — whether in secret or in the open — in Jesus’ name. They remembered Jesus’ word about the importance of community.

I need to gather with two or three or more to feel the presence of God among us. There is love.

This post linked to the GRAND Social

Joseph’s Wonderful Life Redux

This was originally posted last year around this time. I think it bears repeating during the holiday season. It has been slightly modified from the original post.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us.’

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25

Every year, the readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent remind us of the good news that the Jewish people had/have long known because it was foretold by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah – a savior was going to be born of a virgin, and he would be king of all.

And each year when I hear these readings, I immediately think about Mary, and her surprise visit from the Angel Gabriel telling her the shocking news that she was going to be the mother of this Emmanuel. Because I have a granddaughter who is 14-1/2, I can easily picture the look on Mary’s face because I can picture the look on Addie’s face. And I always remind myself that rather than saying, “Let me think about it,” or “Let me look at my calendar and see what I have going for the next nine months,” Mary just said, “Yes.” Oh, she expressed an appropriate amount of confusion about the fact that she was going to bear a child even though she was a virgin, but after getting angel-based clarification, she said, “Yes, I will take on this responsibility.”

But while I use Mary as my model for how to turn my life over to God, I rarely think about Joseph, and his role in this marvelous story of grace.

 I mentioned in a post that I watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time ever. In the movie, George Bailey – played marvelously by Jimmy Stewart – had his life planned out. He was going to travel. He was going to make lots of money. He was going to leave his crappy little town and live a rich and elegant life with his wonderful wife someplace new and exciting. But, things just kept creeping up that prevented his imagined life to happen in the way he had planned. And finally, just as he had given up hope, he learned the valuable lesson about what is important in life.

We often forget that Joseph, too, had quite a rude awakening when he learned that his bride-to-be Mary was pregnant, and he knew HE wasn’t the father. But rather than publicly humiliating her, he quietly set out to end the relationship in a way that would be less embarrassing to her and her family. And then, the Angel Gabriel (who seemingly had quite a busy few days) told Joseph in a dream to not freak out because she is with child via the Holy Spirit, and in fact, she is going to give birth to the Son of God and the savior of all.

Like George Bailey, I would imagine that Joseph had his life planned out as well. He and his young bride would marry, kids would soon come along – maybe some sons who could learn the carpentry business and help him, and a daughter or two who would help his wife with her hard work – and they would live a quiet and joyful life in their community of Nazareth. Maybe he would run for mayor. Eventually their children would marry and have kids, and he and Mary would be grandparents, at which time they could feed their grandkids all of the sugary figs they wanted and send them home on a sugar high, like all good grandparents do.

But just as soon as he had that dream, Joseph knew his life wasn’t going to go the way he wanted it to go. God had other plans for he and Mary. And, like Mary, he didn’t Google flights out of Jerusalem, but instead, said, “Whatever you say, God.”

According to St. Matthew, Emmanuel means God is with us. And so the very name of Jesus means that he is with us always, even when it seems he couldn’t possibly be further away. He is within us. We just need to get out of his way and let him lead us.

Pearls Before Swine

May a lightning bolt not come down from the heavens and strike me dead for what I’m about to say. Here goes: There simply aren’t all that many readings in the bible that place women in a favorable light. Ruth, of course, was a good and faithful daughter-in-law. The Blessed Mother was awesome. There was Martha and Mary, but frankly, the Gospel writers kind of portray Martha as a whiner. Mary Magdalen held her own. Esther took great personal risk to help the Jewish people.

But then there’s St. Paul and his infamous women should be subservient to their husbands. You know, the reading that priests and ministers each year try to convince 50 percent of the congregation Paul didn’t really mean it like it sounds. One step forward and two steps back.

But the Old Testament reading from Proverbs (31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31) that was read at this past weekend’s Masses is a winner. In fact, it’s good enough to repeat here:

When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize. She brings him good and not evil, all the days of her life. She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.

The language is somewhat old-fashioned, it’s true. While I work with wool when I do my handicrafts, it’s for fun and rarely to provide warmth for my family. I ply neither spindle nor distaff, having never spun anything into wool in my life. Yet, I like the reading. I particularly like the part where it reminds us that charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting, because man alive, don’t you realize that as you age? There had better be something other than my looks that keep my relationship with my husband alive and well.  Because that ship has sailed.

I was eager to listen to our homily yesterday, first, because I like the priest/homilist very much, but second, the reading, the reading, oh the reading. I couldn’t wait to hear what he said about women being more valuable than pearls.

What he said was exactly nothing. Not. One. Word. At least not one word about the Old Testament reading. Instead he focused on the gospel which was so depressing that prior to Mass, as Bill looked over the Liturgy of the Word as he is wont to do, he leaned over to me and whispered sarcastically, “Wow, that’s certainly a cheerful gospel we have to look forward to.”

As we lead up to the first Sunday in Advent, which prepares us for the birth of Jesus, the Church offers readings that make you want to slit your wrists. End of days. You don’t know the day or the hour. Good reminders, all. But give us a break. I can’t wait for Joy to the World.

And then Matthew tells us that Jesus shared a parable with his disciples. He tells the story of the man giving three servants money. He gives the first servant five coins, the second servant two coins, and the third servant one coins. The first and second servants wisely invested the money and returned it to their master with a profit. The third was too timid to do anything but bury the money, so when his master returned, he could only give back the one coin he had received. The master is pleased with the first two guys, but calls the third guy a wicked, lazy servant.

What? Now Jesus is getting into banking? Seriously, that parable has always puzzled me a bit. It isn’t like the third servant stole the money. He gave it back, but without any interest. Is that so bad?

But maybe the point of the parable is not if or how we should invest our money. God has given us all gifts, and it’s our responsibility to take those gifts and share them with others. If we take the strengths and talents given to us and simply hide away in a room without using them for good, we are wasting our lives. We are like the third servant who was too fearful to take a risk. We want God to take care of us but shy away from the responsibility that entails.

Now, finally, as I ponder the meaning of the gospel, I am able to come back to the good wife in the first reading. The wife who works hard and gives of herself, who doesn’t sit back and watch soap operas during the day, but instead takes care of her spouse and her children and her neighbors and her coworkers.

I’m afraid that many days I would simply bury my coins in a hole.

Tax Collectors and Other Scumbags

I’ve mentioned before that the prayer book I take to Mass with me always includes stories about saints. Generally there is a theme around the saints they choose to feature. This month the theme is saints who didn’t really want to be saints. The saints featured during the past week included St. Matthew, the apostle, Gospel writer, and former tax collector.

A few years ago, Bill and I were audited by the IRS. It was from the year that I spent a month in the hospital. As you can imagine, our medical bills that particular year were extremely high, and our tax return reflected this. Since it was so unusual for us to have such high medical payments, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to us that we were audited. Eventually the IRS dropped the audit and we weren’t liable for any extra taxes, much to our relief. But the audit raised angst and ire in my family. One sister was irked that the IRS would seek more money from us when there are so many people that get away with paying far less in taxes than they should. As for Bill and me, we were simply concerned about how much more they would require, and whether or not we would be put in prison for tax fraud, thereby requiring my brother to bake a cake with a file in it to bring to us in prison.

According to what I read in my prayer book, tax collectors were abhorred during the time of Jesus as much – if not more so – than now. Right up there with prostitutes and Samaritans. The reason was that tax collectors were independent contractors who paid the taxes for the people up front, and then collected the money from those same people afterwards. No rules. They could collect as much as they wanted, and in any manner they saw fit. So not only were they cheating their fellow Jews, but they were colluding with the Romans, the Jews’ sworn enemy.

So no one was a fan of Matthew. And yet, while passing through Capernaum, Jesus called him to “follow me.” According to Matthew’s own recount of the incident, his response was this: And he got up and followed him (Matthew, 9:9).

Though I had heard this story many times, reading it on Sunday morning resulted in me putting my prayer book on my lap and thinking about why Jesus seemed to want to particularly reach out to those folks not well regarded by the Jews. In his gospel, Matthew gives the reason, quoting Jesus: Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do….I did not come to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew, 9: 12-13).

What a relief that is, because if there is anything I do well, it’s sinning. Perhaps I can’t compete with Matthew-the-tax-collector, or the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Still, I do my share of not being a good and faithful follower of Jesus. I don’t always forgive easily. I take the Lord’s name in vain. I frequently am not the most gracious of wives. My sins go on and on. Still, I know that God forgives me and invites me every day to be with him in heaven.

As an aside, prior to our big adventure in 2008, I had never heard of the Italian artist Michelangelo Meris da Caravaggio, who painted in the early 1600s. Caravaggio’s art was initially somewhat controversial at least in part because of his realistic portrayals and his use of dramatic lighting. We saw several of his paintings that hang in various churches throughout Rome, generally totally unprotected and hanging in the dark unless you have a coin to put into the slot which thereby turns on the lights. But my favorite was the painting called The Calling of St. Matthew. In it, you see Jesus and St. Peter who have entered the room in which Matthew sits at a table with other tax collectors. Jesus has just asked Matthew to follow him. In the painting, the man assumed to be Matthew is pointing to himself with a surprised look on his face, presumably saying something like, “Really? Me? Are you sure about this?”

23conta

I can only presume that in real life, not only was Matthew surprised, but I suspect that all of his apostles were pretty shocked.

Jesus loves sinners as much as he loves everyone. Thank goodness.

This post linked to the GRAND Social

Lilies of the Field

Every year about this time, I start itchin’ to plant something. Anything. Flowers. Vegetables. Trees. It’s good that I now greet Spring while in Arizona. I’ve wasted a lot of money planting hundreds of dollars’ worth of plants in Colorado because we have a week of 60s and 70s, only to have my garden thwarted by a spring freeze. I can’t seem to help myself.

I’ve lived in Colorado long enough to know you DON’T PLANT FLOWERS BEFORE MOTHERS’ DAY, STUPID.

The funny thing about my desire to get my hands into the soil is that, much as it pains me to say this, I simply don’t like to garden. I only like to look at and eat the results of gardening.

Clearly Jesus loved gardening, as many of his parables talk about planting seeds. In yesterday’s Gospel reading from St. John, Jesus reminded us that our faith is like a kernel of wheat that must die before it can grow. In other sermons, Jesus talks about tiny mustard seeds that grow into large plants when nurtured, and suggests we should have faith in God like the lilies of the field.

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. –Matthew 6: 28-29

Beautiful parables based on gardening.

Though I’m glad to greet Spring in the desert, I don’t want to start a lot of plants here in Arizona, however, because it won’t be too long before we are packing up and heading back to Denver. However, I certainly enjoy my potted flowers and my herb plants…..

herb plants

 

petunias hanging plants

And there are such beautiful desert plants that burst in bloom about this time of year…..

cactus plant

 

bougainvilla

And in an entirely unrelated note, because, try as I might, I can’t figure out how to tie these two topics together and so you must WORK WITH ME PEOPLE, Bill and I spent the afternoon with other branches of our family tree (Yay! I did find a gardening connection!), specifically my sister Bec and my cousin and her husband Marilyn and Roger, who are visiting from Columbus.

I’m thrilled to tell you that thanks to her faithful readership of my blog, Marilyn wanted to eat the sandwich I described with such delight in this post. It was as good as I described, I’m happy to report. But the best part was connecting up with my much loved family, always a gift from God….

Bec, Bill, Kris, Marilyn, and Roger enjoying Guidos.

Bec, Bill, Kris, Marilyn, and Roger enjoying Guidos.