Desert Silence

Second Sunday After Epiphany
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time


1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51 OR John 1: 35-42

I woke up this morning and looked out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight on the high desert of the Navajo Nation. It was much quieter than usual in town. It was, in fact, nearly silent, perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because it was Sunday morning, and many were still sleeping.

As the sun rose and the snow began to melt, sounds emerged: water dripping from the rooftop, the low grumble of a raven perched on a lamppost, the chattering of finches and sparrows. Were I back home in Baltimore, all that would have been lost in the background noise from the busy intersection nearby. The desert is blessed with the quiet necessary to notice these subtle changes. It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Prominent among my desert memories are sounds made audible by ambient silence: the wingbeats of a raven flying just overhead, the cheery cascade of notes from a canyon wren, the roar of a Colorado River rapid around the bend, still hidden from view.

Prayer comes naturally in such moments, or rather, I find myself already in an ongoing prayer I had only to notice. I’m not the first person to associate encounters with silence and encounters with God. A long line of witnesses sought God in desert silence: Abraham, Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist. Jesus went to “remote places” to pray and was “cast out into the desert” to be tested. When Constantine made Christianity safe within the Empire, those seeking a less domesticated encounter with God left the cities and became desert fathers and mothers.

Yet, even to me, much of that seems a bit off, counterintuitive. Read more

Saints in the Plural

All Saints (November 1)

Revelation 7: 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

When our two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.”

This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As all of us are.

We may find this to be a daunting proposition. Sainthood, after all, seems to suggest sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster. And maybe it conjures humorless, holier-than-thou-ness.

“Sainthood” might also remind us how small and disappointing our own lives can seem. We know ourselves: our worst impulses, choices we regret, hurts we have inflicted. We know how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of Jesus.

We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints? Read more

The Conundrum of a Coin

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1-7 OR Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Some years ago I was working with a medical team in rural Honduras. We were in a village new to us, seeing many patients while assessing if the area had sufficient need and community interest to establish a permanent clinic there. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week), and there was a lot going on. The small Catholic parroquia was the center of fervent liturgical prayer and sometimes gruesome pageantry, including a Stations of the Cross procession through town on Good Friday and a bonfire on the church square to begin Saturday night’s Easter Vigil.

The medical team, however, was staying on the roomier grounds of the nearby Iglesia Evangelica, which observed the week before Easter rather more quietly. The pastor was an engaging man who worked tirelessly for the welfare of his congregation and extended great hospitality to his North America guests. Without his assistance, easygoing manner, and negotiating skills, the medical mission would have failed.

Judging from his church’s communal worship, though, Semana Santa seemed just another week, with evening Bible study and Wednesday church services that hinted at – rather than calling attention to – the significance of the Sunday to come. Even so, it still surprised me when, on Easter morning, he chose as his Sermon text the opening verses of Romans 13.

As best I could grasp with my inadequate Spanish, we were to understand the Resurrection to mean salvation was now available to anyone who put faith in Jesus and obeyed the secular government. Later that afternoon, I – along with a few others from the medical team – asked him to elaborate. Though I was again hindered by my inadequate command of the language, I managed to ask if Paul’s instruction that “every person be subject to the authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1), was in any way qualified by what preceded it in Romans 12, or by the knowledge that those very authorities later put Paul to death.

Judging from his response, I’d hit some raw and tender nerve. He looked at me and said, “You don’t understand. The reason this country is poor and the reason there are drunks in this town is because there are Catholic churches – like the one just up the hill – with statues in them.” And that, for him, was the end of our discussion.

I share this story not to shame a good man, but to illustrate in a particularly colorful way how certain scripture texts – such as Romans 13:1-7 or this Sunday’s gospel reading – can launch some Christians off the exegetical rails. Read more

The Weeds in Our Hearts

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 20:10-19
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-43

“You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum.
You can strike up the march
There is no drum.
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

– from “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen

I have laid waste my life in pursuit of a better past, grieving twenty-year old mistakes while ignoring my all too present sins. I am also – and by no means coincidentally – overly attentive to the sins of others, at least those sins I know from the inside, through personal experience. As the Twelve-steppers say about calling out failings in others, “If you name it, you claim it.”

The plain sense of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds suggests a world in which the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one are distinct and readily identified, if not easily separated in this life. I trust that is sometimes – perhaps more frequently than I care to admit – the case. I hope those who can reliably tell wheat from chaff or sheep from goats benefit from this parable, reassured that God will identify and deal with each justly and in due time. We may all be grateful in knowing that’s not our job.

For now, however, we must accept that the weeds aren’t going anywhere soon. We can all pray to receive the necessary grace to love our enemies, despite the current climate of partisan rancor and public denunciation. We can all pray to resist the weight and pull of worldly ways.

Yet my own experience of good and evil reminds me of an insight from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Read more

Mission Trips

Second Sunday After Pentecost
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

In June church folk scatter to the four winds. Along with vacations, camps, ball games, and camping trips, many go out into the world on mission trips. A few years back, some youth from a friend’s Appalachian church traveled to the dark underbelly of Pittsburgh to shine for Jesus. At a rest stop along the way they bumped into a church group from Pittsburgh headed to help the poor people of Appalachia. Maybe they could have all stayed home? People sometimes travel a long way to accomplish things they wouldn’t dream of doing in their own back yard. Read more