Competency + 1

I homeschool our eldest son. The curriculum we use for writing has a pedagogical practice that I’ve grown to admire, not only in teaching the subject of writing but for teaching in general. It’s called the “Competency + 1” model. Here’s how it works: When teaching grammar, for example, a concept is introduced one at a time. The concept is then modeled extensively by the teacher, and when opportunities arise to give examples of the concept, the teacher takes advantage of those opportunities. So if I wanted to teach on nouns, I would introduce a simple definition for a noun. Modeling the concept of a noun is easy. After he writes, for example, we could go back and edit his draft together finding all of the nouns together. While in simple conversation, I could stop him and ask him to tell me what the nouns were in the last sentence he said. Since a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea, I could place tangible things in front of him like a picture or a phone to further the exercise. (You get the point). After these methods of introducing and reinforcing the concept of a noun, he may eventually point out a noun before I do; perhaps in need of recognition or praise. Once we’re to the point of competency, I’m then able to add my “plus 1” – perhaps it’s an adjective that modifies nouns, or a pronoun that replaces a noun, and so on. Here’s where this pedagogical model shines: Once the student has become competent at applying a concept, and even as the teacher introduces new ones, the teacher will still require that the student use the original concept or technique taught within every assignment. For example, suppose I assign a two-paragraph paper, and the original assignment was to underline at least one noun in each sentence. Because adjectives were introduced as his “plus 1”, he underlines a few of the adjectives until he grows comfortable and confident in doing this without additional help. Even if ten concepts have been introduced after the first lesson on nouns, he still has to underline a noun in each sentence. Competency + 1.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus acts as a master teacher to his disciples, the crowd, and most especially to Peter. Jesus has extensively modeled what the way of love looks like. It’s a way that leads to healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy (to name a few). Not only are these concepts captured in parables and stories told by Jesus, but they are also tangibly expressed in seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, and even smelling the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, the sovereign reigns called the Messiah. Peter, acting as the student, has the correct answer for who the Messiah is, and it’s none other than his teacher and friend. It’s Jesus. Peter is competent in naming the Messiah; however, Peter was incompetent with the consequences of what that meant. Jesus then introduced his very own Competency + 1. It’s a hard lesson because it required everything that Peter had learned up to that point, and yet, it needed an even deeper unknowing of everything he thought he knew about what the Messiah was and what Jesus ultimately had to do. The plus 1 Jesus introduced was the cross. The cross was the Messiah’s final destination. As if that lesson didn’t confuse Peter enough, Jesus then foreshadowed his own death and resurrection. His resurrection was only possible by way of the cross. Participating in Jesus’ resurrection, the lesson continued, meant Peter taking up his cross to follow Jesus. This plus one teaching was so complicated Peter could not master it. No wonder Peter initially rebuked his teaching. Why does taking up one’s cross lead to suffering and death?


Above, I said that Jesus’ way of love leads to healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy. How can these virtues be accomplished if suffering and death are involved? It’s with questions like this where we all must travel beyond the concept of Jesus as a great teacher. We now enter into the dimension of faith, which is every Christian’s plus 1. Jesus is not a great teacher among many. Jesus is not a great prophet among many. We claim these truths alongside Peter. The truth that Peter could not comprehend that day was that Jesus was none other than God in the flesh, and the cross he would take up to his death ultimately revealed the great paradox that sacrificing the self in love is God’s way of showing the glory of life in his kingdom. This selfless act transcended teaching, going beyond it into the realm of truth, and is why Peter could never master it. It is why Peter would later find and discover healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy to be gifts of God hewed from the cross.

The truth that Peter could not comprehend that day was that Jesus was none other than God in the flesh, and the cross he would take up to his death ultimately revealed the great paradox that sacrificing the self in love is God’s way of showing the glory of life in his kingdom.

~The Rev. brandon duke


Today is the 2nd Sunday in Lent in the year of Our Lord 2021. It was the 2nd Sunday in Lent – 2020 that we last gathered together at St. Julian’s parish. It’s been one whole year since we’ve worshiped together in our spiritual home. As I think back on this year, there were many times that I didn’t get the message and missed the teaching. In my pride, I resented the suffering that I had to go through. I didn’t want to bear the burden of quarantine and mask-wearing. I wanted to travel freely, to see my family, and be with my church family. In these moments, I intellectually knew that social distancing was necessary for the benefit of all, but in my moodiness, it was all so inconvenient. It wasn’t until very recently that my heart remembered that the way of Jesus is sacrificing the self in love. Like Peter, this became my plus one teaching.

2nd Sunday in Lent – 2020


Once known, I started seeing it everywhere. Self-sacrificing love is when a mother cares for her children even when she’s bone tired. Self-sacrificing love is when a meal you could have had ended up on a neighbor’s table because they need it more than you. Self-sacrificing love is donating time to a cause or even an organ to one who needs it most. Self-sacrificing love gives bread instead of a stone or fish instead of a snake. Once I started finding this type of love, I equated it with Jesus. Like a mother, Jesus cares for us in self-sacrificing love. He shows himself to us in family meals, beside hospital beds, and as a shoulder to cry on. In my suffering comes a love beyond myself that suffers with me. It is this self-sacrificing love that was paradoxically born on the cross of Christ. It is still a profound mystery, and we are all privileged when its power gifts us. So as we begin another year apart, turn your eyes upon Jesus and your feet towards the cross. The cross is the Christian’s plus one and the lens through which to experience this world. Know that you are not alone for Jesus goes before you to show you the way.

My Vision

“I long to see you bathed, drowned in the blood of Christ crucified. And I am telling you that then you will have a name, and I will have found my son again! So bathe, drown yourself, in the blood without discouragement, without despondency!” ~St. Catherine of Siena

I was praying on a Friday knowing this was both a day and an invitation to contemplate the cross of Christ. I had just prayed Morning Prayer with parishioners online, and reading through some Psalms translated by Nan Merrill she opined that I am called to “trace [fears] to the source, rooting them out as weeds.” I then turned to my reading on St. Catherine and came across a letter of hers penned to one of her young disciples who suffered from melancholy and anxiety. The realities found in her letter could have been addressed to me, and she advised him to bathe and drown himself in Christ’s blood.

I put my head down on my desk as I knew I was to stop and pray with St. Catherine’s words. I rotated between the two Collects for Friday and a vision of Christ on the cross. I looked up and for a moment was scared because my vision was blurred and I could not see clearly. Although this temporary blurriness was a few seconds it felt like several minutes. When my vision came to I saw a St. Francis-like cross up and outside my window, and realized my past images of Christ’s cross were not bloody enough. How could I bathe and drown myself in His Blood with this image? I prayed to Jesus to show himself to me. I prayed to Catherine to “go and get him for me.” I then saw visions of blood being poured over my fears and anxieties. The blood was thick and ever flowing. My anxieties were like large square ice blocks, but they were not melting. Were they being drowned? I then felt compelled to pray, “Let your blood teach me. Let your blood teach me” over and over again as I imagined Christ crucified. All of a sudden, I felt physically sick like I needed to throw up. My body dry heaved twice. Nothing came out, but I was forced to the ground and onto my knees. Nothing came up, but I had a sense that something was released. I stayed on the ground head first for a while, abdomen pained and still with the vision of Christ’s cross. I then turned over on my back breathing while my tongue and muscles surrounding my tongue hurt and strained because of what my body had done. I then saw a cockroach run up the wall. I imagined it to be my sins? I imagined it to be what I had just thrown up/my anxiety? I imagined it to be the devil? Then the roach fell and flew to the ground toward me. I dodged him before he hit my face getting up ready to see him. I felt I needed to kill him. I picked up a Bible to do so and it was gone. Was it real? I think so, but I have my doubts. The Psalm, “My heart teaches me night after night,” then came to me as a longing for God (not man) to be the one to teach me from now on. His first lesson was an image of His sacred heart. He was pointing to it like an icon. I suddenly realized that His heart (like all hearts) pump the blood through the body. Will his blood continue to drown my anxieties? I prayed for God to drown me in his Blood. I wanted it to be real, to be messy. I wanted Him to drown me and revive me in his Blood taking my breath and replacing it with His own. 

There is no judgment within me. Only his blood.

There is no anxiety within me. Only his blood.

There is no fear that I cannot withstand because his blood is within me. 

His heart is my heart. He points to it reminding me. 

I am destroyed. I am no longer. 

St. Catherine: Pray for me.

It is no longer satisfactory or satisfying to know about God. I want to know God – know God more deeply and truly. Paradoxically, I build on my relationship with God by knowing more about the saints of the church to the point of praying to them asking them to intercede on my behalf. They’re friends of God and I want to be in their circle and nobody else’s. 

I know not only am I to have my sins always before me, but also the redeeming, sanctifying, drowning blood of Christ.

I know that I must face my fears by trusting in His Blood. His blood will teach me.

Life Elevated

Mark 1:29-39

Next week will be the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and we’ll read the Transfiguration story. That being said, today truly marks the end of the arc of our journey through this beautiful season. This morning, I’d like to remind us of the gifts this season has brought us by looking back through Sts. Mark and John’s Gospels.

Five weeks ago, I reminded us to be on the lookout for the three miracles of Epiphany – “the baptism of Jesus with the miraculous dove and voice from heaven, the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, and the miraculous star that led the Magi to Bethlehem.”[1] Combining these stories reminds us that we worship a God that participates in our lives in tangible ways, thus elevating life itself. Epiphany is a “green season” in the church. In other words, it’s a time for spiritual growth, maturity, and discipleship. The green seasons are sometimes referred to as “ordinary times” within the church. We might also claim that for the Christian, spiritual growth, maturity, discipleship, and evangelization is what the church does all the time. It’s so common in the culture of the church that we can claim it as ordinary. Even though we sinners fall short of this claim, nevertheless, we hope to always increase the celebrity of Jesus Christ in ordinary and extraordinary ways.

On the First Sunday after the Epiphany, St. Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism leaving behind the Christmas child introducing us to the adult Jesus. Jesus’ first act of solidarity with society as an adult is to go into the human condition’s muddy waters. John’s baptism was a baptism for the repentance of sin. Even though Jesus was without sin, he freely chose to take on the sins of the world to clear the water, to make it drinkable, to change and transform it so much so that when we are baptized, the waters that touch us have already been purified by Christ.

On the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we are in St. John’s Gospel, where Jesus orders Philip to “Follow me” (Jn 1:43). Philip acquiesces and even brings on a few others. His calling signifies not only God gathering God’s people once again but also remembers a spirit of evangelism: Once we begin following the way of love, our spiritual instinct drives us to share that same love with others.

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany brings us back to St. Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus continues to gather his disciples. Remember, Jesus went through those muddy waters of a sinner’s baptism and was now calling his disciples. What does this mean? To shed the sin that one carries, to follow him, Jesus reminds them to repent. Repentance takes the form of Peter and Andrew dropping their fishing nets, now caught up in the way of love.

On the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, we leave images of rivers and oceanic waters to enter into a Capernaum synagogue. Sequentially, God first remembers God’s creation, and now moves into the institutions of humanity. Within the establishment of the church, God does not encounter the holy. Instead, he discovers the demonic. When Jesus drives out the unclean spirit found within the synagogue, the purifying force of God’s love and judgment reveals itself. Jesus orders the demon to “keep silent.” The church had run amuck. It could not save itself. It needed the Savior.

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany is today. Jesus leaves the institution of the church to enter into the foundations of the family. Here, he does not discover the demonic but sickness. Healing Simon’s mother-in-law, the scripture tells us she then gets up and begins serving them. There’s an intimacy to this story that is peculiar and different from the other narratives found in this Epiphany season yet somehow captures their spirit. St. Mark tells us that Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. This little (yet profound) description captures the entire spirit of Epiphany, and within it are its three miracles.

Jesus came to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. Jesus came into our condition, takes us by the hand in the waters of baptism, and elevates our spirit. Jesus goes to a wedding in Cana, takes the ordinary water, and makes it extraordinary by becoming wine. He elevates the water’s mood. As a baby, Jesus took the Magi’s hands and lifted their heads heavenward to the guiding star. We might even claim that this secret little passage foreshadows a reversal of the human condition of sin. Remember, Adam and Eve used their hands to grasp the fruit they believed would make them like God. Instead of allowing God to come to them, they hid. Instead of being lifted up to God’s presence, they found themselves east of Eden. To right this wrong, God came to us, and with pierced hands, was lifted up on the cross. Jesus came to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up. In this little passage is the whole of the Gospel! In this short narrative is God’s M.O. In this small passage is God’s promise to us. We’ve already tried to grasp and be like God. We continue attempting to hide from God. When we are brought low, we instinctively drag others down with us – east of Eden. 

Epiphany has reminded us that we still need a savior, that we still require the savior of the world who calls us to follow him, first by the act and ongoing acts of repentance. Epiphany has reminded us that there is not a place so low that God is not and has not gone to take us by the hand and pull us up and out of the mud and muck. After the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the scriptures tell she was able to serve them (Mk 1:31). After we have encountered God, do we desire to serve him and our neighbors? What would it look like to share the blessing, to share the truth, that the great Epiphany of this world is that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to take us by the hand and lift us up?


[1]                J. Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Season, Church Publishing: New York, 2014, 36-37.

Dropping the Nets that Entangle

         Mark 1:14-20

Today’s Gospel makes no practical sense. There, beside the Sea of Galilee, you had Simon and his brother Andrew doing what fisherman do, that is, fish. Fishing was their livelihood. It’s how they fed their families, not only from the fish themselves but from selling the surplus in the local market. Folks in the market would know Simon and Andrew to be brothers in business together. They were hard workers. They were fair with their pricing, and persons respected them. Another generation of family fishers was James and John. Their father, Zebedee, and perhaps his father before him made their living from fishing. They’re discovered in their boat alongside their father and hired men, all mending their nets. Were Zebedee and his sons wealthier than Simon and Andrew because of the mentioning of their boat and nets, or did Simon and Andrew discard boats, preferring the shallow shoreline to the deep waters? Regardless, they all were fishermen, and fishing is what they did. Fishing was a part of their vocational identity. It is unconscionable that they would be anything more than this, and yet, life happens when we least expect it – Like waking from a deep sleep our eyes open. We look back on our old, slumbering selves and forward to a bright reality wondering how we ever fell asleep in the first place. How could we be sleeping for so long? The question disappears like a breath as we turn and face a new dawn, eyes wide open towards hope. Hope springs eternal as eternity speaks a word. Surprisingly, it’s not a word of inspiration. It’s not some credulous maxim to believe in yourself. It’s not a song to say you are beautiful in every single way. Saying such things just keeps us comfortably asleep. No, the spoken word creates new life, awakens the dreamer, and shocks the practical. The word is “Repent.” “Repent” is the first action verb of the first line of Jesus’ preaching ministry. It’s not practical but personal. It’s not respectable but relational. It doesn’t alienate but aligns. It’s not easy, it’s hard. St. Jerome once wrote, “The sweetness of the apple makes up for the bitterness of the root. The hope of gain makes pleasant the perils of the sea. The expectation of health mitigates the nauseousness of medicine. One who desires the kernel breaks the nut. So one who desires the joy of a holy conscience swallows down the bitterness of penance.”

         “Repent” was the first action verb of the first sentence of Jesus’ ministry. “Follow,” was the first word of the second sentence in Jesus’ ministry. For Simon and Andrew, repentance was imagined as nets dropping out of the fishermen’s hands. We may also note that they did not release the nets reluctantly, but “immediately” is how the scripture described it for us. Notice too that their nets were empty. Does this represent a lost cause, a hunger that needs filling, a forgotten longing? “For God alone, my soul in silence waits,” the Psalmist reminds us today. “Truly, my hope is in him,” it continues. Was it this Jesus for whom the soul had been waiting? Was he hope and the spring eternal enfleshed? Knowing and yet somehow unknowing the answer, they left their nets and followed him down the shoreline to find men who were just like them – men they knew needed the one whom they were now faithfully following. Like Simon and Andrew before them, now it’s James and John’s turn to leave their livelihood to discover Life. Leave their earthly father to follow their spiritual one. Leave their empty nets in need of repair. Little did these fishermen know that God had captured them in his net only to be rereleased – not into the uncertainties of the sea but into the mysteries of love.

         If this story is not a story for our lives right now, then I don’t know what it is? This past year’s collective tragedies have made us all reconsider our vocations, values, and beliefs. Like the first disciples, we have discovered empty nets collecting nothing but air. Many of our institutions are like torn nets we never realized needed repairing. Closets have opened, revealing skeletons. Mirrors tilted toward ourselves, and we didn’t like what we saw. Nature abhors a vacuum, so political and cultural ideologies crept in undercover, promising certainty. Certainty morphed into cult, cult into mob, mob into physical and psychological violence, disdain, cancellation, and corruption. These nets, although profitable, are still spiritually empty.

I would argue the nets cannot be mended but must be dropped altogether. “Repent,” and “Follow,” the One who calls us each by name. Come to him if you’re weak and heavy burdened. He will give you rest. He will lighten the load. His name is Jesus. We know this, but at the time, Simon and Andrew did not. He’s the savior of the world. We profess this, but James and John could not have known. He’s your savior, my savior, their savior, the world’s savior coming into the world to untangle the net of sin and mend the net of death that separates. Right now, today, and this week pray to God for the grace to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

Found and Found Out

Luke 2:41-52

Today’s Gospel story is a story of mission, and its undertaking has consequences that effect humanity and divinity alike. God’s mission takes the form of an incarnational one. It discerns real vocation and pursues plain purpose. It beckons us to remember God in familiar places, but cries out to us in the wilderness of our lives to rediscover Him in unconventional ways. “Look for me here, instead of there,” that still, small voice of a 12-year-old boy might sing. When we say ‘yes’ to God’s direction, we act like His Mother: there’s a lot to ponder, hearts will be pierced, but in our own wreckage we discover the One who would be broken for us all. This is good news as it shows God’s trustworthiness over and against our own.

In many Bibles, today’s reading is sometimes labeled as “The Boy Jesus in the Temple.” It’s an honest, yet surface-level reading of the text. If I was to rename the headline, it might read, “God Invites Us to Join in His Mission,” or at the very least, and to quote The Blues Brothers, “We’re on a Mission from God.” Initially, there were two missions happening. One, Jesus’ parents were on a mission to find him. Two, Jesus’ mission is to be found and found out.

The first mission had Mary discovering Jesus in the Temple, waiting to be found out. The scripture reminds us that she treasured his [mission] within her very heart. What may have started out as two missions quickly began coalescing into one as she grasped her role to play in the great Theo-drama of God. Before this marriage of missions, however, she and Joseph searched for Jesus among their caravan of friends and relatives. Ultimately, they not finding him there. We may pause and ask, “Is their seeking Jesus among friends and family a form of discernment?” Is it not our friends and family who oftentimes help in our sensitivity of where God is and where God isn’t? I find comfort in the fact that even though their friends and family had insufficient answers for Mary and Joseph, their presence alongside the Holy Family allowed them to get a little closer to where the mission of God would ultimately turn out to be.

The second mission invites us into contemplation and discernment about the mission of God. Jesus, the text reminds us, was puzzled over his parents’ anxiety and scolding, but through these Mary and Joseph discovered something about discernment. Perhaps their trepidation was a test and a trial for everyone involved? Through their suffering and losses they found deeper respect and relationship for and with God. Put theologically, Mary and Joseph not only discovered their son, but uncovered the Son of God. Again, the Son of God allowed himself to be found and found out. In doing so, Jesus invited his parents into intimate communion where words fall short, but hearts expand.

Finally, Jesus was in conversation with his Heavenly Father about what his mission was and will be. This required a few things from him. He was to sit and pray; ask questions, and listen. Put simply, he was to contemplative the things of God. In his contemplation there in the Temple, he received his mission. From there, he returned to Nazareth accompanied by his parents, being obedient to them as well as to his Heavenly Father. (The paradox being that God is the one who accompanies us, both within our obedience and disobedience). Once his (read here our) priorities and mission were/are in order was when he/us may “increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

This little story has a lot to say to us at the beginning of a new year, if not for the rest of our lives. It’s now 2021. In 2020, we were a lot like Mary and Joseph. We discovered that we can lose and lose out when we take gifts of God for granted. We falsely believed that God wants us to be more comfortable, fall in line with selfish status quos, and feast – day in and day out. This was and remains a false conviction because God is calling us to mission. Part of the mission is discovering God over and over again in places familiar and not so much. Like a child, God plays hide-and-seek just waiting to be found and found out. Like a lover, He wants us to remember him by remembering who we are – in him. It’s more intimacy than falling in line. Remember, Mary and Joseph were in line to go home! This is where they could have gone, would have gone, and maybe even should have gone. They did not. No, Mary and Joseph turned around. They went against the crowd. They did call on their friends and family from within the crowd for answers for a time, but discovered those answers ultimately fell short. They didn’t need answers. They needed The Answer, and so they went to church. They got The Answer. Then they went back home. While at home and in their daily lives they never took God for granted again. Like a child, they got giddy anytime Jesus wanted to play hide-and-seek because they knew that all God ever wanted/wants is to be found and found out. Their mission now collapsed into God’s mission, and they were forever changed.

How has God changed you through the inconveniences, disruptions, and losses of 2020? What will you never take for granted again, or when you do, turn around and go back to him? Christmas reminds us that everything changes with the birth of Jesus, and we’re able to experience that change when we do as he does. When we sit and pray; ask questions, and listen at church, in our homes, and in our daily lives. This year may we all discover (and perhaps rediscover) the mission of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Truth is a Person

In Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens characters Rey, Finn, and the droid, BB-8 are on board the spaceship Millennium Falcon. The Falcon has had many owners, but its most famous pilot is the arms trader and renegade smuggler, Han Solo. This time, however, the tables are turned as Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are the ones who stole (for the greater good) the Millennium Falcon. All these characters clash aboard the Falcon as pleasantries are skipped and survival instincts take charge. The Falcon is being chased by other illegal arms dealers and ships from the remnants of the evil galactic empire now called the First Order. The characters buy themselves some time with the Falcon warping into light speed, outmaneuvering their pursuers. Once they find themselves cruising to a safe planet occupied by the resistance, Rey discovers that Han Solo is THE Han Solo and the rightful owner of the ship she just stole. Solo is also the one who once knew THE One – Luke Skywalker, of the order of the chosen Jedi warrior class. Upon this revelation, Rey asks a poignant question with awe resonating in her voice, “The Jedi were real?”
With a boyish grin that quickly turns into a serene seriousness dripping with mysticism, Solo replies, “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is… it’s true. The Force, the Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”
The beginning of The Gospel of Mark takes into consideration Rey’s question of reality. Like Han Solo, the Gospel names personified Truth as the reality. The whole of the St. Mark text then expounds on the answer, not through logic and reasoning, but with a reckoning and a realization that God is just crazy enough to reach out and deliver the truth to us in person. Today’s Advent story is a story of God coming out to meet us (and even greet us) in the wilderness that is our lives. Even though this meeting place initially begins in the wilderness, it will finally find its culmination in a garden. The garden, this side of heaven, looks a lot like Gethsemane – wrought with worry and weeds – while the heavenly garden on the other side is like Eden. Here, we will find ourselves walking with Truth incarnate. God will walk alongside us in the cool of the evening. John the Baptist is that Advent voice crying out to us in the disruptions of our lives. He boldly orders us to repent and wash up. These preparatory acts make us ready to receive the Truth that is coming. It’s the Truth we’re not worthy enough to find, so that same Truth comes out finding us.
2020 has been a year full of disruption, disorientation, disillusions, and disorder. Institutions, as well as individuals, have all walked blindly into the wilderness together. In many respects, 2020 has been one long season of Advent. We’ve been collectively watching and waiting for some sense of normalcy for over nine months now. Thank God for John the Baptist’s voice today. He seems to be the only voice of reason in the world, a voice calling us all to repentance. John’s not interested in preaching repentance to make his listeners feel guilty. No, he’s preaching penance because it leads to forgiveness, which lightens the load. A softer cargo always helps when one backpacks through the wilderness of disruption.
We’ve all had to examine our packs this year, and not always because we wanted to, but because we had to. If these examinations led to repentance, you’ve more than likely left a few things behind on purpose. You’ve discarded some stuff. You’ve now named what is essential and what needs to be let go. You’ve repented. Like John, you pray that the world does the same, not to judge or make someone feel guilty, but because forgiveness (you’ve discovered) is not only something you do but is an attitude we have.
2020 has put truth on trial. If you’re like me, you’ve taken a look at the state of society this year and have wondered out loud, “What in the world is going on?” If this painfully confusing, disorienting year has taught me anything, it’s that the world needs Truth incarnate now more than ever. The world needs God. The world needs Christ. He’s the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He’s the reformer. He’s the healer. He’s the Savior who comes to us. Like John, we must be bold in these proclamations, not only with our lips but in our lives. So much of the world believes these faith statements are a bunch of mumbo jumbo, but honestly, I don’t want to be anywhere near the alternative. What I do know by faith is that it is all true—all of it. Truth has come into the wilderness of our lives, lightened our burdens, inviting us to follow Him. If you haven’t already, now is the time to allow yourself to be found (and found out) by Truth.

Spiritual Dynamite

“The Church’s responsibility is not so much to make itself accessible to the world, but rather to transform the world. It is the mustard seed, the leaven, the tiny ark of Noah. In Augustine’s terms, it is the City of God making its way within the City of Man.”
~ “Moving Beyond a Beige Catholicism,” Talk, Bishop Robert Barron


Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day where the Church reminds herself that God is God, and we are not. It’s a day to remember that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Finally, it’s an invitation to shed all presumptions and abstractions of love and be bold to tangibly express the love of God by loving one’s neighbor. Jesus makes for us the now-famous connection, that to love the other is, in turn, loving him. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Called to love like Jesus, his words act as touchstones to our purpose as Christians. In his teaching, Jesus reminds us that our very essence is, in fact, God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit has animated us into His image, calling it good. In His essence we find our existence, so that, in looking around, we’re surprised to find our family in the whole of the human race. What a revolution! Jesus shows that when we feed hungry mouths within the family of God, we nurture the One who fasted for 40 days. When we house the unhoused, we welcome the holy family who had no room at the inn. When we give drink to parched mouths and lips, we offer water to the Crucified One who said, “I thirst.” This teaching is radical, and when the Church embraces it, it’s like dynamite exploding.

“Someone who operated very much in [this Spirit] was St. Teresa of Kolkata. Much of Mother Teresa’s day was taken up with prayer, meditation, Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and the rosary. Still, the rest of her time…was spent in the grittiest work among the poorest of the poor, practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, blowing up the dynamite of the Church. Father Paul Murray, the Irish Dominican spiritual writer and sometime advisor to Mother Teresa, relates the following story. One day in deep conversation with Mother, he was searching out the sources of her spirituality and mission. At the end of their long talk, she asked him to spread his hand out on the table and touching his fingers one by one as she spoke the words, she said, “You did it to me.” (“You Did it to Me,” Bishop Barron, The Word on Fire Bible, pg. 151).

Mother Teresa’s witness does two things for me. I’m reminded that practicing my faith leads to a greater capacity to love, not in the obscure and abstract, but tangible love in thought, word, and deed. It also reminds me of St. James’ famous line, “faith without works is dead.” As we finish another liturgical year, where are you with Christ’s revolutinary teaching? Where do you think St. Julian’s parish is with his teaching? Are you/we “showing forth God’s praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to God’s service?” In this unprecedented year, may we all be challenged yet again to tangibly love our neighbors because in doing so, we serve Our Lord.

~Christ the King Sunday, 2020

Dew Drops

Every other night I read J. a book entitled Dew Drops. It’s a picture book with a flower on one page and the flower’s name on the other. No matter that the bloom depicted is a rose, tiger lily, or tulip, each has a dewdrop somewhere on its pedal, stem, or leaf. With every page turn, a new flower awaits, and a hidden dewdrop is discovered. While J. is too little to read the names of the flowers, one day, he will. He might even wonder where words come from and discover that words are symbols, and symbols point to something that is at once present and transcendent. Learning that a rose is a rose is a rose may one day lead to wondering where that rose came from, which ultimately makes one contemplate life itself.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asking the Pharisees to look at a picture. It was a picture of the emperor. The emperor was a symbol of power and empire. The emperor was also a symbol of death and taxes. The power of the emperor and his kingdom would one day kill Jesus in a state-sanctioned execution. The irony is found in what cannot be captured in a picture or on the face of a coin. Even though Jesus would be executed by the powers of this world, he would be raised by forces that transcend it. He would be visibly raised by the invisible God. He would render God his very self; thus, rendering life to all – including the Caesars, sinners, and saints of this world.

It is perfectly acceptable to give the government its due in our own day in age. It is simply unfortunate if we do not also contemplate more than what the pictures reveal. This week, look beyond the image. Look beyond the symbols and discover mystery rendering herself to you. 

Stillness

Psalm 23 was balm in an otherwise chafed week. As I read its words again for the first time, I found myself dropping all pretense allowing its words to massage my soul ineffably. In particular, I found comfort in its second verse:

[The Lord] makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.


Where do you find stillness these days?

Where do you find quiet?

Like the Psalmist, do you believe God leads you into stillness?

Like a caring Father who knows our needs better than we, does God make you lie down in order to find rest?

We find ourselves climbing a mountain with Isaiah and companioning with the church’s early female saints in today’s readings. We were called out of our complacency by Christ, and Christ serving as a judge pointed to outer darkness as a threat to our souls. Complacency and apathy are not the only dangers to our souls these days. Another may be refusing the Lord as Shepherd, the Lord who leads, the Lord who not only made the heavens and the earth, but makes us lie down in green pastures. It is this Lord who pats us on our backs to settle us. It is this Lord who whispers, “Get some rest.” “Go to sleep.” “It’s okay.” “Everything’s going to be alright.”

This fatherly sentiment is something the great hymnist Isaac Watts discovered in the 23rd Psalm. Today I’ll leave you with his paraphrase of this arresting Psalm.

My Shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is his Name;
in pastures fresh he makes me feed beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake his ways,
and leads me, for his mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death, thy presence is my stay;
one word of thy supporting breath drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes, doth still my table spread;
my cup with blessings overflows, thy oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
Oh, may thy house become abode and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
~The Hymnal 1982, p. 664


Where do you find [childlike] stillness these days?

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

While outside, J. does not like being in his stroller. Walking and pointing out things are more his style. Yesterday afternoon’s walk took on this new game. He rebuked the stroller, reached for my hand, and pointed down the street. J. wanted to walk. He wanted to walk and see the Halloween decorations a few houses down, and that is what we did.
It’s a small miracle when my child takes me by the hand and leads me. Just like he was reluctant to take a ride in his stroller, I was unwilling to follow his lead, but am forever grateful for choosing his way instead of my own. Yesterday J. reminded me of innocence, surprise, and delight. J. showed me joy, invited me to play, and to see – to see. When was the last time joyful innocence caught you by the hand and pulled you along to surprise?