I once had a very wise spiritual director who said to me about himself, “The most necessary thing in my life is sleep; the most important thing in my life is prayer.” I am sure many of us would agree with his first statement about sleep. It would be good if we also agreed with his second about prayer. Prayer was the most important thing in his life because the most important relationship in his life was his relationship with God.
Prayer is an expression of our relationship with God; prayer helps us to grow in our relationship with God. But who is the God whose friendship and help we experience in prayer? Jesus calls him Father; in fact he calls him Abba which means daddy! To call God Abba Father means that God is not someone who is remote and distant from us, someone who is uninvolved and uninterested in our lives. On the contrary, the God of Jesus is a God who knows each of us personally, who loves us unconditionally and who cares for us faithfully. The Abba of Jesus is a Father who wants what is best for us as parents want what is best for their children.
So how should we pray to this God who loves us to bits? Jesus is clear that we should use simple, honest words when we talk to God. There is no need to babble, to use many complicated words. The best words are those that come from our hearts. The best words are those that are an honest expression of what is in our hearts. What Jesus is asking us to do is talk to God as if we were talking to our best friend.
Jesus is also clear that we should ask God for what it is we need and to keep on asking. Jesus insists that we persevere in prayer. Our prayer must be persistent. Jesus assures us that God does answer our prayers of petition, but we must remember that when God answers our prayers he does so in a way that is best for us. God sees the overall picture of our lives whereas usually we only see the immediate, present really. When God answers our prayers God has our true good, our lasting good at heart. It is important that we do not get discouraged if we do not get from God what we ask for. What we ask for may not be what we truly need at the time. Our prayers are never wasted on God. After all God is our Father.
In the world in which Jesus lived leprosy was a dreadful disease. Not only did leprosy cause awful physical deformity, it also caused emotional suffering. Because the disease of leprosy was contagious, lepers were isolated, excluded, shunned. People resisted contact with lepers; they feared contact with lepers.
Not surprisingly, Jesus did something very different. He reached out to lepers; he made contact with them (see Luke 17:11-19). He understood their physical and emotional suffering and he offered them compassion and healing. The compassion of Jesus saved lepers from their isolation and loneliness; the healing of Jesus saved them from their physical deformity. After their encounter with Jesus the lepers must have experienced immense freedom.
The contact that Jesus had with lepers serves to remind us of two things. One is that nothing, no condition, no situation that we may find ourselves in, no suffering that we may experience is outside the attention and care of God. The second is that the life and work of Jesus was centred on liberation and fraternity. He sought to free people from everything that oppressed them and that held them captive. He also broke down barriers, overcame exclusion and created community between people, community that was based on equality.
Of the ten lepers Jesus healed only one came back to say thanks. Why the other nine did not we do not know. It is unlikely that they were ungrateful. It is possible that in their joy and excitement at being freed from the prison of their suffering they forgot. It does not take a lot to say thanks. We know the difference a ‘thank you’ can make. None of us likes to be taken for granted. It gives us a lift when we are told that our efforts are appreciated. It is good to express our gratitude to others. It is also good to express our gratitude to God. If our prayer does not include an expression of gratitude to God then we may have lost our appreciation of who we are and what we have received.
It is often said that faith is a gift. It is certainly true that some people have faith while others do not. Why some have faith and others do not is a mystery. This mystery becomes even greater when you consider that people from the same background and formative influence may not necessarily share a common faith. Even people from the same family may not share the experience of faith.
For some people faith is the acceptance of divinely revealed truths about God and the meaning of life. This is certainly part of what faith is, but only a part. In fact to only understand faith as the acceptance of divinely revealed truths about God and the meaning of life reduces faith to something merely intellectual, even cold.
Faith recognises a presence and power in our lives, a presence and power that is not our own. The person who has faith is aware of the presence of God in his or her life. But the person who has faith is also aware of the power of God in his or her life. When we are convinced that we have the presence and power of God in our lives we feel safe and secure. Not only that. When we know that we have the presence and power of God in our lives we are able to do things we never thought possible. What is it that enables us to make sacrifices, show courage, be generous, forgive and work for justice? Surely it is the power of God in our lives working through faith. It is the power of God working through faith that Jesus speaks about when he says, “If your faith were the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6).
Of course faith also allows us to access a relationship that our hearts truly long for. There are desires in our hearts that only a relationship with God can feed and fulfil – desires for acceptance, for forgiveness, for healing, for peace, for unconditional love. God offers each one of us a loving, life-giving relationship. It is faith that enables us to take possession of the relationship that God offers us. Perhaps the best way to describe faith is in terms of relationship. Faith is being in a conscious relationship with God.
There is one other thing that needs to be said about faith. Faith does not necessarily solve the mystery of suffering and of why bad things happen to good people. There are many times in the bible when God appears to be indifferent to the pain and suffering of his people. On one of these occasions the Prophet Habakkuk screamed out to God in desperation. In response God tells Habakkuk to be patient, to wait for the day when good will triumph, to trust that he is in charge (see 1:2-3; 2:2-4). Faith is about our willingness to trust God with the mystery of our suffering, our misfortune, our tragedy. To have faith is to accept that God is in control of our lives and of our world.
“Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” These are the words of the renowned psychiatrist, Carl Jung. His experience of those in crisis was significant. When the crisis comes, and it will, we either find a spiritual path or we get stuck in depression and/or addictive behaviour. Finding a spiritual path requires us to surrender; self-sufficiency keeps us in a cycle of attachments and addictions.
There are many different spiritual paths available to us. Some are highly structured and require a lot of discipline; others involve a commitment to the practice of a few core values. A spiritual path gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. It provides us with a way of dealing with painful experiences like hurt, abuse, rejection and negative feelings like anger, resentment, jealousy. It also helps us feel connected to the divine presence in our lives. For many this connection with the divine presence is an experience of unconditional love, forgiveness and protection that they have never felt before.
A spiritual path needs to have three elements. These are prayer, companionship and service. Prayer builds our relationship with the divine. Companionship is the experience of human affirmation, support and guidance. Service is the essential movement beyond ourselves in response to the needs of others. If our spiritual path does not have these three elements it lacks balance and perhaps authenticity.
It is important to remember that every spiritual path is not an end in itself but a means to an end. There is always the danger that we will make an idol of our spiritual path. If we become too attached to our spiritual path we are putting the path itself in the place of God. The ultimate purpose of every spiritual path is to help us surrender to God who wants us to come home with empty hands. “You have made us for yourself O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St Augustine).
Money is necessary. We cannot live without it. We need money not only to survive but to ensure a good quality of life. Yet it is obvious from the Gospel that Jesus had a concern about money. His concern about money seems to centre on two things: (1) How we make money, and (2) How we use money.
There is a good way to make money and a bad way to make money. The good way is through honest work and the responsible use of our time and our talents. The bad way is through unjust practices, exploitation of the poor, taking advantage of other people especially those who are vulnerable.
When it comes to our use of money Jesus has an interesting suggestion. He says, “Use money to win you friends” (Luke 16:9). Obviously we will use our money to satisfy our own personal needs. This is only right and fair. But if we use our money solely for our own personal benefit, if we are selfish with it, then we may become isolated from other people and lonely. This is what happens to the miser. If on the other hand we are generous with our money, if we are willing to share it to the benefit of others then it will make us friends and we are unlikely to find ourselves living in a dark and sad world.
Money is a good servant, but a bad master. When we make it honestly and use it generously it enriches our own lives and the lives of others. However, if we build our lives around money, if we become attached to our money, then it will control and even oppress us. Money may talk, “but it don’t sing and dance and it won’t walk” (Neil Diamond).
The story of the Prodigal is regarded by many as the greatest story ever told (see Luke 15:11-32). It is a story that describes the relationship between a father and his two sons. The father is God the Father of Jesus. The two sons represent humanity.
The younger son asks for his share of the family estate, leaves home and treats himself to a good time. He is wasteful and ends up broke. In fact, not only does he end up broke he also ends up broken. He finds himself broke financially and broken emotionally. He becomes penniless, powerless and friendless. He is stripped completely bare, left with nothing to hold on to. His hands are totally empty. Knowing that his hands are empty he decides to take a risk. He returns home hoping that his father will forgive him and accept him. His hopes are realised beyond measure. His father is delighted to have him back. Without words of complaint or judgement his father clasps him in his arms and kisses him tenderly. Indeed his father calls for a celebration because he has got his son back safe and sound.
The elder son is the dutiful son who stays at home and does the work. His sense of duty while admirable makes him angry. He is angry at his younger brother for being wasteful with the family’s hard earned money. He is angry at his father for welcoming his younger brother back with open arms and no conditions. And he is angry with what he perceives as the unfairness in the life of his family and indeed in his own life. For the elder son love is not free. It has to be earned, achieved by hard work. The elder son is a conformist who has remained loyal, but his heart is resentful. He is not at peace.
The younger son’s failure and emptiness allow him to accept his father’s love as gift while the elder son’s pride does not. The younger son has no choice but to come to the father with empty hands. The elder son needs to have his list of achievements in the presence of his father. Perhaps for the first time in his life the younger son knows that his father’s love is unconditional. The elder continues to see it as conditional.
But what about us? Where are we in the story? Is our experience of God that of the elder son or the younger son? Are we still trying to win God’s affirmation and approval by our achievements? Or are we now able to come to God with empty hands in the affective knowledge that his love is unconditional? Of course the truth is it usually takes an experience of failing and falling like that of the younger son before we can really accept the Father’s love as gift, not achievement.
There is one certainty in life; one thing that is constant, that doesn’t change, that isn’t affected by circumstances, by the situations people find themselves in, by world events, by human behaviour. It is God’s unconditional love. God’s unconditional love for each and every human person is the most important reality in our lives. In the words of the spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, “The only real biblical promise is that unconditional love will have the last word.” The thing that we need the most is the thing that never changes.
And yet most people find it hard to accept that they are loved unconditionally by God. They can accept it perhaps in their heads, but not in their hearts. It is the heart where the difficulty lies. The Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, said that we do not really experience what it means to be saved until we accept the fact that we are accepted unconditionally by God. Accepting acceptance is a matter of the heart.
The greatest sign of God’s unconditional love is of course Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). There was nothing more God could do to convince us of his love than the gift of his own Son. Those who have children must surely know what this means. If the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus aren’t enough to convince us of God’s unconditional love, nothing will convince us.
God’s love is expressed in God’s compassion. According to Jesus compassion is a word that perfectly describes God. Many people were brought up on the fear of God. God was a judge waiting to condemn them for doing wrong, for stepping out of line, for messing things up. It is not easy to unravel where this emphasis on judgement came from, but it did a lot of damage. It is certainly not the Gospel. “God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (John 3:16). The God of Jesus is not a God of condemnation, but a God of compassion. The God of Jesus is a God who is personally involved in our lives, a God who understands our weaknesses and forgives our failures.
Jesus sought to create an inclusive community, a community that would be a reflection of the Trinitarian life of God. This is why we find Jesus in his teaching challenging those who think they are better than others. Jesus criticised those who used titles to make themselves important. Titles create distinctions between people and distinctions cause division.
Jesus’ desire to create inclusive community was also reflected in his behaviour. Jesus reached out to those who were on the margins, to those who felt excluded – lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor. Everything Jesus said and did had the objective of breaking down barriers and overcoming isolation. In the community which Jesus created there was to be no more Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. The members were to be sisters and brothers, equal in the family of God.
So what is it that creates this inclusive community? Jesus mentions two things in particular: humility and service. The word humility derives from the word humus which means ‘from the earth.’ To accept that we are from the earth is to accept that we are dependent on God. Indeed it is to accept that we are also dependent on one another. Our dependence on God and on each other guarantees that we keep our feet firmly on the ground and that we have a sense of gratitude.
And then there is service. In the community of Jesus service is a must. The followers of Jesus must be willing to wash each other’s feet. This service is the true measure of greatness. The late Martin Luther King once said: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” The love in our hearts is what makes us great. It is this love expressed in practical, humble service that makes our world a safe and caring place. It also makes it a place where no one feels inferior or excluded.
Through his humility and his service Jesus brought people into the inclusive family of God. Through our humility and our service we can help people today to know what it means to belong to this great family.
“The ship in the harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.” Ships are made for the open sea and so are we. In reality however most of us prefer to stay close to the shore. The shore is safe and secure. It is also familiar.
Jesus constantly invites us to leave the shore, to go out into deep and unchartered waters. It was out in the deep waters were Peter and his companions caught a huge catch of fish (Luke 5: 4-11). The deep waters are fruitful. It is in the deep waters away from the comfort of the shore that life in abundance is to be found.
So what do the deep waters represent for us? No matter what age we are there is always something new, something unknown, something unfamiliar that Jesus is calling us to. But do we have the courage to respond? No doubt Jesus had to ‘fight’ with Peter to get him to respond. Peter needed some ‘pushing.’ He had his reservations and his fears. Jesus will probably have the same struggle with us. We too will have our reservations and our fears. We know what Peter’s reluctant cooperation produced. Our cooperation whether reluctant or wholehearted will also produce much fruit.
And let’s not forget that the Jesus who invites us to the leave the safety of the shore promises to be with us all the way!
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Many of us are familiar with this verse from the poem by William Henry Davies. Many of us too are familiar with the experience the poet is describing. There are perhaps a number of things that prevent us from taking time to stand and stare. One in particular is rife in our culture today. It is called busyness.
Why are we so busy? The practical reason might be because we seem to have a lot of things to do. But there may be a deeper reason. Perhaps we are busy because we need to feel productive. Perhaps we keep ourselves busy because we do not feel good about ourselves when we are doing nothing. Perhaps we need to be busy because our value comes from what we do, not from who we are. Measuring ourselves by our usefulness is called utilitarianism, a philosophy that originated back at the beginning of the 19th century and has penetrated into the very core of our being. The Anglo Saxon work ethic dominates our western culture and has a huge impact not only on the way we see ourselves, but, more importantly, on the way we feel about ourselves.
Perhaps another reason we keep ourselves busy is because we believe that we need to earn the acceptance and approval of Jesus. “Look busy! Jesus is coming!” is a voice that has influenced our religious experience. It creates a double whammy that leaves us struggling. Not only is busyness something we expect of ourselves; it is also something Jesus expects of us. This is bad religion and a terrible misunderstanding of the good news of the Gospel. Jesus’ love does not have to be earned. It is GIFT, not achievement. Who we are is much more important to Jesus than what we do. He allows us to be and to rejoice in our ways of being. This is what it means to be loved unconditionally by him. Jesus is happy for us to take time to stand and stare. Our culture may make us feel guilty doing it, but Jesus doesn’t!
Summer offers us an opportunity to leave aside our busyness and to take time to stand and stare.