Pentecost* is one of the great feasts of the church. It celebrates the coming down of Holy Spirit on the first disciples. As a result, it sets the beginning of that great family of Christ we call the church.
Acts 2:1-21 describes the events of Pentecost. In this story the disciples are gathered together for a yearly Jewish agricultural feast. By this time in Jewish history, they had long been dispersed across the known world. Even so, those in the diaspora continued to return to Jerusalem for the feast days.
On this Pentecost, something profound happened. The room shook and there was the sound of wind. The disciples found they had tongues of fire on their heads, and they could suddenly speak other languages. They cascaded out of the upper room, proclaiming with boldness the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The lead apostle, Peter, explains what is going on. This event indeed marks the beginning the fulfillment of all that the Scriptures had pointed to. God’s Holy Spirit would be poured out for everyone.
Join us around the virtual table this week as we talk about Pentecost and the work of the Holy Spirit, the expansiveness of the mission of Christ, and what it means to live in the breath of God.
Discipleship is such a churchy word. Why should we bother with it? Before I tell you why I think it is important, I want to tell you why I became a priest. This story contains what I love about discipleship.
Once upon a time, I was going to be an academic. I know that won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but the reason was that I loved the big questions of life: Who am I? What is my purpose? What does it mean to be a good person? I was in a graduate program in philosophy. My goal was to be a teacher, but for me this was less about sharing knowledge and more about being a life coach. I was after the concept of THE GOOD LIFE, a life lived well. Often the culture will give us a vision of the good life as sipping champagne, driving our Porsche, and not having to work.
But studying philosophy challenged that for me. I found that what we often call the good life is really the pleasant life. Beneath the glittering surface, it is the shallow life. Once one starts to look deeper, one finds that being so self-centered is really destructive. Philosophy’s answer is that if you want to get to your deathbed with no regrets, you need virtues and values such as responsibility and purpose; tempering the appetites; having a mission in the world, and so on. I got such joy out of pursuing these virtues that I wanted to share the good news of a life lived well. Then I met Jesus, and he changed everything. Well, sort of changed everything.
In Search of a Jesus-Shaped Good Life
My excitement and vision were still the same. I still wanted to encourage people to live deeper life, and to build their lives around higher virtues and values. But now all these virtues and values were Jesus-shaped. When I read the Gospels, I found that Jesus was doing this with the people that came to him. They heard his teachings and were profoundly impacted. As they stayed to hear more, they also started to observe how he lived, how he treated other people, how he prayed to God. They became his students, not in the sense of enrolling in a class, but in learning and imitating. They became students of wisdom and life. The fancy word for student is disciple.
When I put my first love of philosophy with my greater love of Jesus, I found that something providential happened. Jesus leads us into the true GOOD LIFE. It is also a life well-lived, but centered now on God and God’s plan for our lives. It is powered not by willpower, but by grace, and ends in a heart of love.
This means different things to different people. But when I think of it, I often remember one of the funerals that impacted me the most. It was for a woman whom I had not met. When I started at my first parish as a new priest, she had already been sick with extreme dementia for quite some time. But I got to know her husband well. When she finally died, I led the funeral.
When her four children got up and spoke about their mom, it was the most moving testimony about a human being that I have ever heard. She had not lived publicly in the limelight. Instead, she focused on her family and volunteer work. But the love and grace she had given to her family and friends was remarkable. As I sat there, I remember thinking that if my children spoke like that about me when I died, then I would have lived well. I would have led a good life. So I prayed to God that I would be the person my children could speak about like that.
Becoming that person is not quick or easy. It is made up of small decisions and actions over the course of years, and the process is what we call discipleship. My invitation to you is also to strive to be the person that God has made you to be. Be a disciple.
The hardest part about prayer is probably when prayer goes unanswered. Sometimes when God doesn’t answer my prayer, I can brush it off, like when I fail to get a good parking spot at the mall. But most often, it involves something deep and painful. For our family, it was the loss of Stephanie’s mother in 2010. She was a faithful Christian. She was active and otherwise healthy. We were shocked when she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It did not seem real at first. Honestly, it doesn’t seem real even a decade later.
She belonged to a strong church with lots of people committed to prayer. They came out in force. They prayed for her healing. We prayed for her healing. There was laying on of hands and special communion services weekly in her home. In the end, she died just nine months after her diagnosis. Her funeral service was the hardest one I have ever been to. She had been so welcoming of me in her family, and she and Stephanie were so close. We still miss her. Why didn’t God answer our prayers? I honestly don’t know, and I am still a little frustrated at God for this one. I also confess I take no comfort in Garth Brooks’ line that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. This was no gift. This was a great sadness.
So, what do we do with unanswered prayers? I want to offer a few thoughts that have helped me over the years.
1) We don’t know why God doesn’t always answer our prayer
To say that I don’t know why God didn’t answer my prayer is not a cop-out or surrender; it is an important and honest admission. The fact is, there is so much about the universe that we don’t even begin to comprehend. There are mysteries about God and life and death that are beyond our understanding.
What I mean by all of this is that we have no idea why or why not my mother-in-law wasn’t healed of cancer. There is a bigger picture and much more going on that I am completely unaware of. I am reluctant to try to find the ‘reason’ or ‘meaning’ to it. I don’t think there is the kind of ‘reason’ that will make it all better, even if I understood it. It is not about God needing another angel, or that it was her time, or that it was God’s greatest gift. We say it is a mystery for a reason. I think we need to leave it there.
2) Hold onto God’s love
The great difficulty with pain and grief is that it is easy to believe that it means that God is not loving. After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis wrote that he wasn’t in danger of ceasing to believe in God, but he was in danger of losing his belief in the goodness of God.
This is why we need to turn to the cross of Christ. There, we see more than anywhere else the love of God meeting the pain and suffering of the world. God himself knew that pain. The cross is the unlikely fount of the healing of our world. In Jesus, we see that even if we don’t understand these mysteries of why and why not, we can trust that through it all God is nothing but love and mercy. In Jesus we see that God is not in the business of hurting people and standing back to see what happens. God is genuinely working for healing and wholeness, even when all the evidence in our lives seems to be pointing in the other direction.
We don’t know all the reasons why, but the cross shows us that the path of healing the world passes through suffering. Part of our faith is knowing that in the end, in eternity, God is going to make this right. He is going to overthrow sin and death. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” God will make this right for Pat. By faith, we have to hold so tightly to the truth of God’s love. We cannot let this go. God is love.
3) Be honest
The biblical word for being really honest with God is Lament. We lament when we tell God how angry we are, how sad we are, and how frustrated we are. When God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer, we need to get it out; it can’t stay in our hearts. If you are surprised that we should come to God in this way, consider that almost two thirds of the Psalms are laments. Lament holds a central place in the story of the Bible. Like many of our ancestors in faith, we can be honest with God.
4) Give it to God
The theological name for this is the Prayer of Relinquishment. It is the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked God to take away the suffering, then prayed, ‘but not my will, but yours be done.’ We don’t know what God’s will means here exactly, but the prayer gives it over to him. It says, I don’t know everything, but I know I trust you and that you are love. Please get me through this.
My mother-in-law taught me this more than anyone else. Before she died, she wrote a beautiful reflection, which was read at her church on Good Friday that year. I have included an excerpt below.
“Lord, not my will but thine be done.” Yes, I’m dying, but I’m not afraid any more. If anything in this time of weakness gives glory to God, then I’ve served the biggest purpose for which I was created. I’m looking forward to the end of pain and sorrow and to seeing the face of the One who gave me life. The beautiful images of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation become brighter and more vivid as time goes on:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 17:13-17)
– P. Crane
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In this reflection, I want to write about my own experience with Lectio Divina, praying with Psalm 131. I want to show you that this process can be very personal. Because it is personal, my meditations here won’t be the same as you would have. That is exactly the point. Lectio Divina is a way to listen to God speaking to YOU, personally. I chose this particular Psalm to share with you because God used it to lead me on a bit of a roller coaster ride.
Psalm 131 is extremely short. I read through it very slowly and still finished it quickly. So, I read through it several times. Even though it is only a few verses long, three images really leapt out at me. They were all from the first two verses, while the last verse didn’t seem to impact me at all. In this session of reading prayerfully, I just left it as an afterthought and never returned to it.
The first image was this strong declaration from the writer, David, that his heart isn’t proud. This declaration drives to a second declaration that he doesn’t concern himself with things beyond his understanding. He just leaves them alone. Third, he uses the vivid image of a child, just past the stage of nursing, content to be in his mother’s arms. For David, this image of God as a mother, gently holding him, hit me somewhere deeply inside.
I started to ponder this passage and ended up having a bit of a spiritual crisis. It came from the second part of verse 1, where David reflects, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” I found that verse emotionally compelling. As I read it, I felt that I wanted to be in the same place that David was, spiritually. But, as I read, I realized I wasn’t even close.
It hit me that I actually live my whole life “concerning myself with great matters.” This is what I am all about. I am driven to seek out answers to hard questions. As I ponder, I am never satisfied with simple resolutions. I spend huge amounts of time wrestling with big questions like, Who is God? Why is there suffering in the world? Which religion is true? What do we really mean by atonement? What is true justice? This is not just a drive. Indeed, I love having conversations with people about big questions. I love reading and absorbing what people in the past have said. It fills me joy and energy and purpose. It is literally my favourite pastime.
This was my personal spiritual crisis: I felt the truth of what David was writing, but I also felt that God has called me to be a thinker and writer. I genuinely believe that this is my vocation.
As I brought my dilemma to God, I prayed: How do I put them together!? The way forward was beyond me. Then, praying with Psalm 131 gave me an insight. I saw the irony: this is exactly what David was talking about. I believe that God spoke to me that day through this realization. Of course I couldn’t put it together, because there are “great matters” that are beyond me.
I didn’t feel that God was forcing me to an answer to the dilemma. He was just revealing it to me. The answer wasn’t so much a solution as an invitation to continue to ponder and pray. As I prayed, I would grow. But I needed to trust God even when I couldn’t see the way forward. This pondering led me into silent rest in God.
Silent Prayer (Contemplatio)
I realized deeply in my soul that, although I love the act of thinking and wrestling with big questions, ultimately all of that points beyond itself to God. I don’t have to have all those answers just to sit and love God. In fact, my calling can also be my idolatry. Sometimes I need to set them aside and be with God. As my praying with Psalm 131 led me to silent contemplation, I imagined myself as this weaned child just resting in the arms of his mother, and that was enough.
Over to You
Obviously, Lectio Divina doesn’t always lead to a spiritual crisis. As we pray, we often just discover insights about ourselves and our relationship with God. But because we each come to God with our own concerns, this way of praying through Scripture can be very personal. God is speaking to your questions, your situation, your joys, your fears. Our task is to listen, not to know the answers. As we said at the beginning of this series, ‘listening’ is one of the most important spiritual skills we can develop.
Last time, I said I would reflect on my own personal Rule of Life. This is not an advertisement for what I am doing. It is rather the result of how I have worked out my own Christian pilgrimage over years. It works for me because I have lived in it and changed it organically. I used to have a complex Rule of Life, but it has gotten simpler over the years as I have shaped it to my life. It may or may not fit someone else’s. I only share it as one concrete example of how a particular Christian (me) lives out his Christian life.
As an adult, my biggest learning about Christian faith is that it is a whole way of life. It is no accident that the early Christians were called followers of The Way.
When I was a kid growing up in the church, I received A LOT of biblical teaching. This focused on God, salvation, atonement, incarnation, sanctification and redemption. Some of the teaching was great; some was much less great. As a child, I missed how the story of God enriched and upheld the story of my own life and gave me meaning and purpose. I learned a lot of facts about God, but I didn’t know God. I didn’t learn how to be a disciple.
Discovering a new vision
When I came back to faith as an adult, it started with an encounter. Through the Catholic writer Thomas Merton, I met Jesus again for the first time, and he ‘looked’ so different than the Jesus I knew growing up. His teaching was challenging and compelling. I saw a vision for the kingdom of God that hit me deeply. It was a vision of a community marked by vigorous peace, love, justice and faith bringing good works and faith to those in need.
Meditating on Jesus’ death, I saw a profundity in the love of God I had never seen before, the miracle of transforming connection with God. In his resurrection, I saw a vision of a world renewed in the love of God. In the Eucharist, in the soft taste of bread, and the sweet taste of the wine, I tasted and felt the deep presence of God within me. All of this stayed with me long after I left the church building.
I found that questions were being answered, and new ones were emerging. At the same time, I was becoming more attentive to other people in a way I wasn’t before. Going to church in the inner city, I started to see human need in a way that I had found easy to ignore before. I wanted to talk to people about my faith and ask them questions about things that were hard for me.
As I started to look at the intricacy of nature as an example of God’s handiwork, I saw beauty where I hadn’t before. As I read scripture, I was meeting Jesus again and again. But I was still dealing with my perpetual weight issues. I still procrastinated and lost my temper at stupid things. I forgot to do things I said I would do. All of that became part of my prayer. I grew to love the quiet time in church before people came. I looked forward to singing, something I had never really payed attention to before.
For me, discipleship happened accidentally. I met Jesus, and he has been changing me for the better ever since. And I am so grateful for this path. May I walk it every day of my life (or at least most days.😊)