Seeds of Faith

Unchanging

Scripture Reflection for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

For me, one of the most appealing aspects of belonging to a spiritual tradition is the presumption that there is far more going on than what I witness before me.  First, the idea that the galaxy we belong to is one of trillions of others in our observable universe, is overwhelmingly awesome.  Beyond the physical space occupied by Earth, there is a spiritual world which sometimes I seem to grasp slightly, while at other times…not so much.  I like to think the spirit world and physical worlds act symbiotically but even that is beyond my comprehension.

God's Love For UsThere is greater work taking place than I could possibly understand, and although it may seem ironic, I have found liberation in letting go of the illusion that I am somehow the one in control of God’s favour.  This not only frees me from worry about not deserving God’s love when I create a gulf between the two of us, but it prevents me from falling into a smug self-righteousness that might accompany me when I consider myself to be on a conventionally proper spiritual path.  It also helps keep me from thinking that people somehow receive what they deserve in life, because this does not appear to be the case.  Good people get sick.  They die too young.  Kind people are taken advantage of.  People of lifelong faith are presented with ridiculous challenges.  At times, selfish, hateful people seem to be abundantly rewarded with financial wealth and good health.  God’s ways are not our ways.

Eleanore Stump, an expert in the philosophy of religion at Saint Louis University writes:

“No one—that is, absolutely no one—is owed eternal life in union with God. To think otherwise is to suppose that you can work your way to heaven. And you can’t. Salvation is God’s gift. (It is) give(n) generously to anyone who will receive it, but it is still God’s gift.”

Although it may seem logical to think a person of life-long faith would have easier and greater access to God’s favour than, say, an ax murderer (to use the example of a colleague) who lurched up to the table at the last minute, God’s thoughts are not my thoughts.  The question is bound to arise, “If God loves each of us unconditionally, why not just go prodigal and live it up…maybe come back in at the end for an encore?”  The reason is this:  when I feel valued, loved, and respected, I will put forth effort to conduct myself in a way that is commensurate with these favours, and while I do not have control over God’s love, grace, or salvation, I do have (sometimes moderate) authority over building my own relationship with God and creation.

~Trevor Droesbeck, Office of Youth Faith Development for the Archdiocese of Moncton

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Freedom in Forgiveness

 

Whenever Scripture speaks of forgiveness I am brought back to the events of a warm June evening in Moncton three years ago, when the city was faced with something a small city of this size would never expect to encounter.  As I write this, these feelings are re-enforced because of news I received on a warm September evening just days ago, which is, in my mind, intrinsically connected to those events of three years ago.

Forgiveness is a fundamental principle and core teaching of our Christian faith.  And it is profoundly difficult.  Yet forgiveness and reconciliation is so important to our relationship with God that it is one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.

Sometimes, for me at least, I even need to forgive God, and while that notion was something I would never have considered when I was younger, it is one I now believe God is big enough to handle.  Even though I know that God is not responsible for actions that hurt us – that sickness, death, mental illness, global issues, environmental disasters are not punishments from God but a result of the human condition, when there is no one else to blame, I tend to turn my anger to God and ask “why?”

When others hurt us, or those we love, it is difficult to respond in loving and forgiving ways.  However, the reading from Sirach is clear: ‘Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord?’ The Lord’s Prayer also says it quite succinctly: ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’ – if we don’t forgive, how can we seek forgiveness?

Last year, during a session on reconciliation and forgiveness with our children in catechism we talked about this concept, and shared certain points with the chChainsildren and their parents which might be helpful for us all to remember: forgiveness does not have to be immediate; forgiveness does not excuse another person’s behavior; forgiveness does not require forgetting the offense or feeling kindly; forgiveness is not for wimps – it is a sacred and holy activity. Think of Rev. Dale Lang, of Taber, AB who, in 1999 forgave his son’s killer; think of Nelson Mandela, who when leaving prison said: “as I walked out the door to the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. It is about the individual who has been hurt letting go and freeing themselves from the pain. It is not necessarily about the other person. And that last piece is, for me, a critical one: forgiveness is as much about me as it is about the one who has hurt me.  “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” I read somewhere once.  Forgiveness does not excuse wrong doing or require us to forget what happened; forgiveness is about our own hearts and health. Hopefully it is a step toward reconciliation, but regardless it is a step toward healing.

Peter asks Jesus, “how often do I forgive … as many as seven times?” “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Now, again, I need to remember those words.

 

~Ellen Bennett, Archdiocese of Moncton Office of Faith Development

 

Love is the Fulfilling of the Law

 

Our children were born with a warm, brown skin tone somewhere between my husband’s darker skin and my own pale skin. Our oldest daughter once joked to a friend that she was the “cappuccino” created by coffee and milk. We were blessed, that even though our children were born into the predominately Caucasian community of Moncton, their slightly exotic name and skin tone were rarely a cause for abuse. Only once did our daughter come home from school and inform us that another student in her class has angrily told her to “go back to where you came from.” Her teacher, overhearing the comment, quickly defused the hurtful moment by turning it into a teachable moment. Within minutes the teacher had the children discovering that everyone in the class had roots from “somewhere else,” and that this is what gives Canada its wonderful strength and rich heritage. The teacher’s reaction could be used as a parable for today’s Scripture readings.

In the First Reading, Ezekiel minces no words when he tells us that we must always be alert to evil, and that we are all responsible for confronting it. We may not always be able to change a person’s destructive attitudes or actions, but if we fail to act or to speak out against it then we, too, are guilty of its consequences.

In the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that if someone within the community of faith does something sinful, then they are to quietly point it out to them. If the person refuses to amend their behaviour, the disciples are to get others to help in the effort. If the accused still refuses to change their attitude and behaviour, then the community leaders are to speak out clearly against the injustice. The accused can then no longer claim ignorance as an excuse and is responsible to God for their actions.

Over and over, we are taught in Scripture that being a baptized disciple of Christ is not for “wusses.” It takes a great deal of courage to speak out against injustice both as individuals and as leaders of our faith communities, but inaction is not an option! When we do speak out, we are reminded to avoid equally harmful actionPerson helping anothers and attitudes of finger pointing or angry retaliation. As Jesus tells us, we must discern all actions through the eyes of mercy and compassion and through the help of a community in prayer. As St. Paul tells us in the Second Reading, we fulfill the commandments when we work against injustice while firmly rooted in the love of Christ, for “love does no wrong to a neighbour.”  News worthy acts of violence and abuse begin with small attitudes of hate that went unchecked, unchallenged. Our duty as baptized Christians is to work toward the dignity of all humanity; always vigilant that even the smallest acts, words and attitudes have the power to violate God’s beloved creation.

Mary Joshi, Queen of All Saints

 

Monkeys and Metaphors

Reflection for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

When we think about the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, it is only somewhat helpful to think of St. Patrick’s example of the clover with its three lobes. And it is even less helpful to think of the Trinity in terms of a mathematical conundrum that needs to be solved (“How do three persons square with one God?).

What is more helpful is to think (but not over-think) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their relatedness to one another. Think of the flow between and among them. God is much more a verb than a noun looking for a definition. We flow, similarly, into one another’s lives.

Thinking of God as more of a verb than as a noun is not easy. We may first have to let go, in order to expand, our notions of God. Why? So that our limited ideas about God can give way to the True God, the revealed God. Our Catholic faith is a revealed faith. The truest revelation, of course, is Jesus Christ.

Here is a story about letting go. Monkeys, being so frenetic, are difficult to catch without harming them. Some people have devised a way. They empty out gourds, fill them with peanuts, and then patch up the gourds so only a small opening remains in each one. Then they attach the gourds to trees and leave the area. After a while, when the monkeys feel safe and all is quiet, they come down from the trees, stick their hands in the gourds and grab a handful of peanuts. However, once they do this, they cannot get their hands out of the gourds. To escape, all they need to do is let go of the peanuts. But they hold on, screaming with fear and frustration. Finally the trappers come back and catch them.

Monkeys may offer us clues to the first, the most necessary, and the most difficult step in our spiritual growth….that of letting go. Without letting go we remain, like the monkeys, trapped. Can we let go of our little kingdom, so that God’s great kingdom may come (…thy Kingdom come…)? Can we let go of trying to form others into what we would like them to be? Can we let go our way, so that Jesus who is the Way can redeem us? Can we see every little letting go as preparation of the big letting go, the letting go of our very own lives into the hands of God? Can we let go of our very notion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that a deeper truth of God can be revealed?

Fr. Phil, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity Parish

Pentecost

As I was preparing to write this reflection, something jumped out at me that I had not noticed before.  The psalm that we sing this week is the same one that we sing after we hear the “Creation Story” at the Easter Vigil.  “Lord, send forth your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”  Coincidence, I wondered?  Probably not.

For as long as there have been people, there has been a need for the Holy Spirit; a need that God has met throughout our history.  In the Old Testament we hear stories of the Spirit at work in the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis, the lives of Moses, David, Solomon and many others.  These prominent people in the story of our salvation were all connected to God in a way that allowed their greatest gifts to be used in the carrying out of God’s plan.  Does that mean that these people were perfect in how they lived and how they treated others and thus worthy to be used by God?  Quite the contrary; they were a lot like the apostles of Jesus’ time and a lot like you and I.  They struggled with life at times and didn’tnolde_pentecost always get it right with God or with community.  Yet God saw in them something he could use; through all their weakness and human frailty, God looked at them and said: “I can work with that.”  God says the same thing to us today.  All we are asked to do is be open to where God is calling us.

In the Second Reading Saint Paul tells us that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” and, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  We may not be aware of it, but God can use us wherever we are in life to bring renewal to something or someone.  For proof of this, just look to how our church began on that first Pentecost.  God took those first disciples, who were not well educated; not well travelled; had a history of bailing out when times got tough and were now cowering in fear in a locked upper room, and used them to be the foundation of the world wide Christian church.  God took all their fears and their past failings and transformed them into something positive and good through the Holy Spirit.  What fears or past failings may be stopping us from leaving our rooms and bringing God’s message to the world?  Do we trust God enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to the criticism or judgment we may encounter if we accept this mission?

We are the means by which God will “renew the face of the earth”.  We need to have faith in the fact that God will continue to send the Holy Spirit, as promised, to be with us in our work to make disciples of all whom we meet.  Easy? No.  Doable? Absolutely.  Oh, almost forgot.  Happy Birthday, Church!

~Mark Mahoney, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity Parish 

Exploring our Faith

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension Sunday)

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD

Today we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, a special day in the Church. When I was young, the Ascension, forty days after Easter, was Ascension Thursday, a holy day of obligation. Because I attended a Catholic elementary school, I had the privilege of having the day off school. After I attended early morning Mass with my family, I had the day ‘free’ unlike my non-Catholic friends. Often it would mean riding my bike as a new spring activity and preparing said bike for the priest’s blessing of the bikes during our Mary, Queen of the May parade later in the month. I recall also my concept of the Ascension : I pictured Jesus rising in a cloud, then sitting at the right hand of God the Father, ready to help me if I needed Him or be my ‘advocate,’ ever- present as I prayed to Him. It was a picture symbolizing the love of the Father and the Son, a gift to all. To me, the Ascension has always been a ‘positive’ aspect of my religious formation.

The Apostles returned “with great joy”. With the gaze of faith, they understood that, even if they were gone from view, Jesus remained always with them. They were to continue His work, make disciples of all nations, teaching others to obey what Jesus had represented. This solicitude passed from generation to generation down to our own day. Now, we don’t have to go around preaching the Good News to all around us, pontificating about Christ’s teachings; rather we continue this by living as examples and models of our Catholic beliefs. I learned at an early age that even if you don’t have much materially, you can still give to others. My quarter in the mission box at school every week was helping some other girl or boy providing food or warm clothing. Today there are numerous ways people exemplify the ideals Jesus instilled so many years ago. Think of those who give others strength and consolation in times of despair; those who can sit in silence with their fellow man not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there (which can bring new life to a dying heart); the parents who not only nurture  their family with food but with their companionship; the retired couple who take their neighbour to doctor’s appointments, weekly Mass; those who give – be it a smile, a handshake, a word of thanks, a word of love, a part of their life. All these continue the works of the disciples after the Ascension so long ago.

Pope Francis reiterates my early concept of the Ascension – “we are never alone; the Crucified and Risen Lord guides us and there are many brothers and sisters with us. They live their faith every day, and bring to the world the lordship of God’s love, in their family life and work, in their problems and difficulties, in their joys and hopes. If we entrust our lives to Him we are sure to be in safe hands, in the hands of our Saviour, our Advocate.”

Take heart in the words of John Paul II who said “Let us renew our faith today in the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has gone to prepare a place for us, so that He can come back again and take us to Himself.”

Cathy Keirstead, St.  Elizabeth of the Trinity

Exploring our Faith

Scripture Reflection for the 6th Sunday of Easter
(Year A)

Saint Augustine in one of his best known sermons said, “love, and do what you will.” He was reiterating the essential message of today’s Gospel. If we truly love Jesus, then our hearts will be aligned with him and our desires will be aligned with his desires.  Sin, or rejection of Jesus’ commandments is not so much a lack of obedience as it is a lack of love. When we open our hearts to Jesus, he sends the Holy Spirit to live within us; we are welcomed into the heart of the Trinity. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” There will be no part of us that is in conflict with God because the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of right seeing and right understanding, will live in us. We will not need to ask “where is God?” or “how can God allow this?” because we will be able to feel God’s love even in the most painful circumstances.

As I reflected on this passage I was reminded of a hospital experience that I had some time ago. I was privileged to spend time with a husband whose wife was dying in the hospital. Over the course of many weeks her ability to communicate clearly gradually decreased, and she was able to find fewer and fewer words even though her desire to have a conversation with the people around her remained strong. Whenever she could not find a word she would look to her husband to supply it. As the weeks passed she was counting on him to fill in almost all of the words in all of her sentences and expressing frustration if he did not choose the correct ones.  Day after day, he carefully selected the words that expressed the things that she cared about, and each time that he chose the wrong word and she scowled at him, he would gently apologize, speak words of love and comfort to her and try again. She would look at him and her annoyance would fade away into a look of trust  and the sense of anxiety and tension that surfaced when she could not express herself would slip away as she felt “heard” by him.  For his part, her husband relied on the love of God to sustain him. He stated that he would never have imagined that he could spend day after day in the hospital, because he was someone who was always on the go, but now there was nowhere he would rather be. Every time that I entered her hospital room, I could sense the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Truly these two people were one with each other and one with God. Love bound them so closely that I could not see one without seeing the other – not the wife without the husband, not the husband without the wife, not the two without God … The words of today’s Gospel came alive for me in that hospital room in a way that they never have before.  The Holy Spirit, the One sent by God to help us, is as close as our willingness to choose love and has the power to transform even the deepest suffering into something incredibly beautiful!

Pam Driedger, St. Jude’s Church

 

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly

Scripture Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Scripture contains many stories that use the analogy of sheep and shepherds to teach us about our relationship with God, and the qualities of good leadership. Yet few of us today have much direct experience with either sheep or sheep farming. In many cases, our only knowledge of sheep herding comes from “You Tube” videos or the movie “Babe” and in these examples a shepherd uses hand or voice signals to direct sheepdogs to herd skittish sheep from behind in the direction indicated by the farmer.

In the time of Jesus, and in many areas of the Middle East today, several shepherds may graze their sheep in common pastures. At the end of each day, each shepherd calls to separate his own sheep from the many, and they confidently follow him to smaller enclosures of stone or briar walls for the night. Each shepherd is familiar with their own sheep, and the sheep have been raised to recognize, trust and follow the unique call of their own master. After leading his sheep in to the protective enclosure, the shepherd will place himself in the narrow opening all night, to keep any hapless sheep from wandering away and to ward off any thief or predator who wishes to steal or harm the vulnerable sheep.

sheepOnce we understand this style of sheep herding its easier to recognize ourselves as the sheep in Jesus’ parables and Jesus as both the shepherd and the gate; the one who leads us to “rich pastures,” guides us to shelter and who laid down his won life to save us from the destructiveness of sin. As in Jesus’ time, we are surrounded by many voices that care little about our well being, that make false promises of a better life or may even wish us harm. So how are we to discern the voice of Jesus amongst the many other voices competing for our attention?

Saint Peter, in the second reading, tells us that we need to be like apprentices learning a craft, by modeling and practicing the actions and attitudes of our Master, Jesus Christ, until they become so familiar they become habit. Only then will it be easier to discern the voice of Jesus amid the noise of the world. Even when our choice to follow Jesus is met with confrontation or leads to suffering, Peter tells us we are to emulate Christ in truthfulness, refrain from retaliation or threats and to place our fears, doubts and anger into God’s hands. Like a good shepherd, Christ will comfort us and lead us to pastures of abundant life.

Mary Joshi, St. Augustine’s Parish

A Church Unafraid

Reflection on the Word – 3rd Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Hospitality is a fundamental cornerstone of Christian faith, arguably the most important ministry of the Church.  This Sunday’s Gospel, the story of the journey to Emmaus, is, among other things, a story of hospitality: hospitality extended to a stranger – “stay with us, because it is almost evening” – well understood and lived in Atlantic Canada; and hospitality extended by ‘the stranger’ – meeting these disillusioned and disheartened disciples of Jesus where they are and listening to their stories.  We need to share our stories, and listen to one another’s stories.

The disciples are discouraged – “we had hoped” … what do we hope for?  What hopes do Emmaus Artwe have for ourselves, for our children, for our country, for our Church, for our world? To live in hope, to be people of hope is another key aspect of Christianity.   How awful it is for us when hopes are dashed, which is what these two are living as they leave Jerusalem – they have lost their hope in Jesus.  According to the Jewish teaching of the time, it is impossible for Jesus to have been the Messiah if he was crucified and died.  Yet, Jesus presents a new interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  This is a fresh concept for them to absorb.  Through their conversation with Jesus, they are transformed, even before they know it is him.

How do they finally recognize Jesus?  In the ritual action of the breaking of the bread.  Rituals are a vital component of our faith; our Roman Catholic tradition has many vibrant rituals, which speak to us in ways that words cannot.  Powerful rituals which generate immediate response.  As soon as they recognize Jesus, the gospel tells us “that same hour,” they return to Jerusalem – a place they had left in despair only hours before.  With no regard to the danger they may be facing in Jerusalem if recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples, or even danger they may encounter when travelling on the road at night, they return to share what was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  Jesus Christ has restored their belief and sent them back on the journey.

In a 2013 address to the bishops of Brazil, Pope Francis, acknowledging that today we see many like the discouraged and disheartened disciples of Emmaus, said: “We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning. …  We need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the ‘night’ … a Church which realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return.  But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus. … Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home?”  We are the Church.  What is our response?

 

Ellen Bennett, Office of Faith Development
Archdiocese of Moncton

Essential Doubt

Scripture Reflection for the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A)

What are you most certain of?  Have you ever had a firmly-held belief shaken, or challenged?  When I was 19 years old, I attended a faith development workshop where I was introduced to the idea that our creation stories from scripture should not be understood literally; they were instead used metaphorically by our early ancestors to describe how our universe and humanity came into existence.   At one point in our workshop, the facilitator of the workshop posed the question to one participant: “You do not actually believe we are all descended from the same two people, do you?”  I struggled to conceal my own shock, because yes, up to that point, I did believe that, and from the look on her face, so did the young woman receiving the question.  As I lookDoubted around the table, I could see 15 other young men and women, jaws on the floor, every one of us just having had a fundamental component of our belief system challenged.  At the time, I remember I did not like what I was feeling because I felt as though someone had pulled the rug from beneath my feet, and I no longer felt certain of anything.  Liars, those catechistsHad I always been this easy to fool?  Later, I realized that if someone had tried to explain to me in fifth grade catechism that our creation stories are metaphorical, I would have been confused beyond reparation.  The good news which arose from this shocking Creation Story Incident started me on a path of questioning my faith when I saw contradictions that did not make sense to me, or that were inconsistent with my experience of the world.

I tell this story to: 1) illustrate the real discomfort I felt in connection with having my certainty challenged, and 2) show that in doubt can, for some people at least, yield spiritual fruit.

Doubt is an unwelcome word for some people of faith, particularly if you are 100% certain of everything you believe, but my experience has been different.  My own spiritual struggles have deepened my faith in ways I would never have expected.  In fact, it has been precisely doubt that has helped my faith to develop in the way it has.  Some even suggest doubt is an essential part of faith, because the absence of doubt suggests not faith but certainty.  According to English novelist Graham Greene, if you were to abolish doubt, you would not be left with faith, but with “heartless conviction,” and from there, a slippery slope to fundamentalism.

I have an ongoing circular conversation with an atheist friend who routinely tries to bait me into a theological debate about the existence of God.  He says he does not believe in God, and does not understand how anyone could believe in something they cannot see, or something that is not proven by science.  Because it is not my job to debate the existence of God, my usual response is to remind him that whether you believe in God or not, either position is still a belief.

It has been several years since the creation story incident, and during the years between then and now, I have become less worried by doubts when they arise.  This is because I have learned that no one person has all the answers and also that, even amid doubt, it is possible to keep the faith.  In today’s gospel, even though Thomas expressed doubt over Jesus’ resurrection, “After eight days…Thomas was with them.”  He remained faithful amid his doubt.

Trevor Droesbeck, Office of Youth Faith Development
Archdiocese of Moncton