I well remember in my early adolescence discovering these words from the Gospel: Jesus telling us when we pray, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”[i]That really got my attention! I began asking away, and for a great many things: that I would get an “A” on my geography test. That I would win the prize at camp. That Martha, my classmate with whom I was smitten, would like me. That Butch Hendricks wouldn’t beat me up after school. That my Aunt Ingeborg would get over her cancer. That I would make the cut on the basketball team, and get a uniform. I prayed almost without ceasing. I asked for everything and anything on my mind. It didn’t work most times. And so I got up early to pray. I stayed up late to pray. I clasped my hands when I prayed. I opened my hands when I prayed. I closed my eyes; I opened my eyes. I knelt beside my bed. I secretly carried my Bible to school in my backpack. I memorized Bible verses. I avoided cracks on the sidewalk. I avoided odd numbers. I promised to eat all my vegetables. I ate all my vegetables. I didn’t chew gum at school. I promised never to cheat. –It was like trying to open a safe which I knew was full of treasure. If I could only get the combination right, I knew I could make this verse work: that I could ask Jesus for anything, and I would get it. It didn’t work. Not often. It sure wasn’t anything to depend on, and I remember “dropping” this Bible verse, like dropping a fad.
It was the context of Jesus’ invitation that I only later discovered. The weight of what Jesus promises is not on the word “ask” but on two other words: the pronoun ‘you’ and the word ‘name,’ Jesus’ name. What about the name?
There is an extraordinary amount of power in knowing someone’s name and then using it. To know someone’s name gives you a clear access to them and a claim on your relationship. To use someone’s name gives you the power of identification. And I suspect we all know when that power is misused. It’s when someone “name drops.” When someone feigns to know another person – who they are, what they believe, how they can be accessed. If someone invokes the name of a person with power, but without the license to use that name, it will backfire, eventually… because other people will always know better… that this person whose name is invoked would not say that or could not have said that. It’s inconsistent or incongruous… and the pretender will be exposed.
Which is the key in claiming this invitation that Jesus gives us: that Jesus will give us whatever we ask in his name. We must know Jesus to invoke his name. We must know the mind of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, the words of Jesus to speak in his name. The purpose, the goal, the reason in invoking Jesus’ name is for one reason, one reason only: it’s for the sake of love, so that we may love Jesus, and be loved by Jesus and then love others in Jesus’ name, that is, as Jesus loves them. If we’re to take Jesus’ invitation and ask for whatever it may be, our asking cannot be just on behalf of our own private self, but on behalf of all whom Jesus claims.
And then, when Jesus says ‘you’ – “whatever you ask” – this is not a ‘you-singular’ but ‘you-plural’: “you all.” This isn’t about me; this is about us, what wecollectively need. The founder of our own community, Richard Meux Benson, calls this “the relative life.” Father Benson says, “Your life must be a relative life. The moment you are imprisoned in your own self-consciousness, in your own separate individuality, in the selfishness of your own separate existence, you commit a worse suicide than taking the life of your body. You destroy the very life of your person.” Father Benson says that we are a relative being, and we have no existence except when we live, ask, and act on behalf of another, in Jesus’ name.[ii]
We should take Jesus at his word, to ask away. Jesus assures us, “I will give you whatever you ask in my name….” In my adolescence, the problem wasn’t that I was asking for too much; I was actually asking for too little. We need to know a great deal about Jesus and the enormity of his love – what Jesus would want for those for whom we pray – and then pray our hearts out. And in our praying, we should presume that Jesus will very likely reciprocate, in asking us, asking you, to be a part of the answer to that prayer.
[i]To make a strong point, Jesus is here repeating what he has said in the previous chapter of the Gospel according to John (14:6-14).
[ii]Quoted from Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, pp. 36-37; 297.
Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16
There’s a cartoon with Jesus talking to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who are sitting in a circle. One of them is looking out the window, distracted; one of them is dozing; one of them is doodling; one of them is fiddling with his tunic. Jesus notices all this, and he says to the group: “Now listen up! I don’t want there to be four versions of what I’m saying….”
Well, we have four versions of the Gospel, all quite similar, and yet each one distinctive. Today we honor the witness of one of these Gospel writers, Saint Mark. Mark was not one of the original 12 apostles; however Jesus also appointed a wider circle of 70 disciples, believed to have included Mark.[i]Information in the New Testament about his life is sketchy, though we know that Mark was a fellow missionary at various times with Saints Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy.[ii]We can infer Mark had a close relationship with Saint Peter, who writes about “my son Mark.”[iii]And according to the Acts of the Apostles, his mother’s house in Jerusalem was a center of Christian life.[iv]In Egypt, the Coptic Church remembers Saint Mark as its founder and patron, Mark having been martyred in Egypt in year 68.
In his Gospel writing, Mark keeps a secret. It’s actually Jesus’ secret. In Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus will typically ask something, listen to something, do something like perform a healing or other miracle, and thenJesus will say, “Don’t tell anyone.” In many instances, Jesus insists on silence.[v]And it’s not just with outsiders. The same pertains to his relationship with the 12 apostles. Early on, Jesus asks them, “‘Who do yousay that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.”[vi]
So what’s going on? Why the secret?
In Jesus’ day, palms were carried in joyful, triumphant processions by Jews and Romans alike. Roman soldiers, returning from a successful conquest, would wave palms as they returned home to their welcome. Jews used palm adornments for their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to the Festival of Tabernacles. And palm decorations were carved in stone within the Temple. Palms symbolized an oasis in the desert, victory in public games and in conquests, and a sign of blessing and homage.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem replicates how the Roman Emperor and his emissaries would enter the city: on a roadway strewn with palms, and with the crowds waving palms, shouting their praise. The crowds welcoming Jesus are shouting, “Hosanna,” which, in Hebrew, means “savior.” “Savior” is the very title already claimed by the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor’s titles included the “Savior of the World,” and “Son of God,” and “Lord of Lords.”[i] That’s the Roman Emperor. Unlike the Emperor and his party, whose processional entry would be on magnificent Persian stallions, Jesus is on a donkey.
A Retreat Is Not an Advance: Why We Retreat & What To Anticipate
A retreat is not an advance. For much of life we are on the advance as we anticipate, investigate, instigate, navigate what is ahead. A retreat is moving in mostly the opposite direction. A retreat is a time to recover, restore, redeem, renew what has been spent or lost in life. If you only live life on the advance, you will completely miss the perspective you glean by looking back on your life. Your retreat experience will give you gratitude for the past, clarity and strength for the present, and hope for the future.
For many people, life is navigated at a pace which may blur their being able to see clearly what is going on. Sometimes what is happening in your life is so close to you, you cannot make sense of it. It’s blocked. Only by retreat, by stepping back, can you find perspective and clarity. The psalmist calls this experience “being lifted up.” Or you may have passed through a period of suffering. It is very difficult to see clearly through pain and tears. We want to escape from suffering. And yet, there may be something important to redeem from what is otherwise only pain or loss. Something incredibly good may be claimed from what was undeniably bad. The significance of something lost on you is now found. Until an experience is remembered – until life is remembered – it’s not a complete experience, because life looks very different looking ahead than it does when you look back and see it from behind. What even may have seemed a black hole at the time may well prove to be a goldmine, in the fullness of time. A retreat is an invitation to get on good speaking terms with the whole of your life, for “the eyes of your heart to be enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18).
A retreat is also a graceful time to look and listen deeply into life. Entering a monastic setting, you will come into a place of silence, sanctuary, and sustenance:
Silence, where you can be still and listen deeply to your life, where God is meeting you, leading you, healing you, nourishing you. The psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Sanctuary, where you feel safe, where you can let down your guard. Who you are, what you are, why it is you are the way you are, God knows and God loves. A retreat is often a breakthrough. Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German Dominican, said that “the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love”
Sustenance, where you are fed deeply. The psalmist speaks of our hungering and thirsting after God; Jesus speaks of his “food that will last.” Soul food. And yet, Jesus went to many dinner parties and also knew that people are hungry for real food. A retreat time will help assuage your hungers.
A retreat also affords time for a reckoning with life. Life is a gift, and it will make a world of difference to you if you live your life as a gift, rather than as a given. Take nothing for granted; rather, live your life in gratitude. A retreat will offer you space to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” to recollect how your life teems with blessing (Psalm 34:8).
I am not suggesting you should sugarcoat an experience of life that is bad; however I am saying that claiming gratitude for so much that is so good in your life will be a significant counterweight on the scale of your life. Gratitude will rebalance your life. The psalmist speaks of this as “the sacrifice of thanksgiving,” where you have the time and perspective to name, claim, and offer your gratitude to God for the wonder of life that God has shared with you. (The psalmist speaks of “the sacrifice of thanksgiving” in Psalm 50:14 & 24; 107:22; 116:15). Gratitude transforms life from the inside out. Make your retreat time a sacrifice of thanksgiving as you reckon with your life.
Will your retreat time be difficult? Maybe. The clarity gleaned in retreat may be comforting; the clarity may also be confronting, exposing you to a spiritual trial. In the SSJE Rule of Life, we acknowledge there may be an emptiness in retreat time that “may compel us to face the painful signs of our need for healing that it was easier to overlook during our usual routines. So our retreat times will be opportunities to strive against everything that would discourage us from radical dependence on the love of God” (SSJE Rule of Life, Ch. 29, “Retreat”).
Will your retreat time change you? Yes and no. Much of what you leave behind at your home and work will still be waiting for you, unchanged, upon your return from retreat. However your retreat will help you garner perspective and strength to do some old things in new ways. Think of the captain of a ship going to sea. In the course of the journey, the captain will need to adjust the ship’s course multiple times. It’s not likely that the captain will make radical, 180° course adjustments; more typical is the adjustment of the course by a fraction of a degree. Those slight adjustments will make all the difference, and will ultimately bring the ship to different port of call. A retreat will be a significant help to get you on course (or back on course) in life. In the SSJE Rule of Life, we speak of this as “lifelong conversion.”
What should you bring with you on retreat? Bring with you your emptiness, your ache, whatever fills, overjoys, or breaks your heart. Bring your questions. Bring your desire. Bring your exhaustion and your need. God is already powerfully at work within you “to accomplish abundantly far more than all [you] can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Minimize whatever will likely prove distracting. Don’t bring a satchel of books or work projects. Consider taking a sabbatical from your electronic gadgetry: email, social media, mobile phone. Bring a notebook to log what is catching your heart’s attention. You may want to bring walking shoes or exercise clothing to enjoy movement and the beauty of God’s creation. You may want to bring something for gentle recreation in solitude: sewing, drawing, painting, photography.
God has already caught your attention. Take Jesus at his word that he is with you until the end: the end of your retreat, the end for which God has created you, the end of your life. Your retreat will be an answer to prayer, an answer to God’s prayer for you.
Br. Curtis Almquist
Versions of these kinds of complicated family dynamics exist throughout the world – always have, always will – but as for this particular Gospel story, that’s what it is. It’s a made-up story by Jesus about two lost brothers and their father. This is one of Jesus’ parables. As were the two parables that Jesus tells immediately preceding this: about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
Sheep may know they are lost, but they are certainly not repentant. Lost coins are completely clueless. And yet, when either is found, there is rejoicing. The scholar Amy-Jill Levin reminds us that in Jesus’ parable about the brothers and their father, no one has expressed sorrow at having hurt one another. No one has expressed forgiveness.[i]And yet there is rejoicing. Sort of. Two out of three. So what’s Jesus’ point? What’s his point in this trilogy of parables?
Don’t wait. Don’t wait until your offender “gets it.” Don’t wait until you have received an apology. Professor Levin says, “share a cup of coffee; go have lunch.” If creating a banquet for this other person is too much of a stretch, at least keep in mind that’swhere this is headed: a heavenly banquet, where all will be well, and all will be reconciled. In the meantime, if you cannot begin to reconcile, cannot even imagine doing it, know that some day you will, if not in thislife, then the next. In the meantime, don’t be mean. Move away from resentment… a right move which will help prepare the way in your own heart and maybe in the other’s. Jesus reminds us he’s come “to seek and save the lost.”[ii]All of us get lost periodically. Most of us, most of the time, cannot find ourselves without help.
[i]My inspiration is Amy-Jill Levine in her Short Stories by Jesus; The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (2014); pp. 25-70.
[ii]Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10.
Jesus spoke of people in four categories – they are either family, friends, neighbors, or enemies – and he tells us to love them all, including our enemies. Who is your enemy? This is someone who is out to destroy your life or destroy your vocation or reputation… or (more likely) someone who irritates you, who has a way of ruining your day, who is “not helpful to your program.” An enemy. And Jesus says to love our enemies and to forgive them. It’s a very tall order. Several thoughts come to mind.
Jesus tells us to “love our enemies,” notbecause it makes for more pleasant living, though that may be true. Rather, we love our enemies because our enemies can be our teachers, sometimes our best teachers. Our enemies can get us in touch with “our own stuff,” and like no one else can. Those outbursts or eruptions or emotional reactions that rise up in us. Where do they come from? And why are they sometimes so disproportional to the “offense” we have experienced from this other person? Our enemies expose us. They can be extraordinary agents for our own conversion. I’ll call this the “Velcro principle.” When the hooks of someone else’s “Velcro” sticks to our own “Velcro,” there’s something there in us, to look into, to open up, to offer to God. Our enemies can be our teachers.[i] Don’t hate them, love them, Jesus says.
Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 6:7-15
Our first lesson, from the Letter to the Colossians, is sometimes called “the Creation Hymn,” how things came into being from the very beginning. The Son of God existed prior to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. What we experience in the human form of Jesus – using the language from Colossians – “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The Son of God had already lived forever, eternally, prior to his taking on human life as Jesus.
The best sense the Church has been able to make of this comes from experience. There is One God, the Creator of everything who, while remaining God, takes on human form: God the Son. This is Jesus, who grows, ministers, prays, dies, is resurrected, and returns to the life of God who has no beginning or ending. Jesus departs from earth. He ascends. He leaves us, not abandoned, but leaves us with another manifestation of the One God, whom Jesus calls “the Spirit,” the Spirit, another Person of the One God. It took the Church several centuries to find the language to try to describe the mysterious yet undeniable experience: that there is One God in Three Persons.
God took on human form in Jesus. How did God make this decision? I’m speaking here very anthropomorphically. How did God decide to become human? What was the “cost” to God to become human? The great Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, in his poem, “The Coming,” pictures God’s decision in a primordial conversation between God the Father and God the Son. The picture is of a desolated, hopeless, helpless earth.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
“Let me go there.” And that was the decision.
God comes to us as a child of Bethlehem. We know him as Jesus, who grows up, like we grow up, and after many, many years, finds his voice and claims his power. He also prays. Jesus prays, enough so to catch people’s attention. This is God the Son in a very human way praying to God the Father. Very mysterious, and yet, clearly, this is what is happening… frequently.
The Gospel lesson appointed for today is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question how to pray. Jesus gives us what we call “the Lord’s Prayer.”[i] What I find most revealing in the Lord’s Prayer is the opening word, the plural pronoun, “our.”[ii]“OurFather.” Consider the context:
- Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and Jesus’ prayer envelopes his disciples as if he and they are all one: the 1stperson, plural possessive pronoun: our. How to pray? Jesus says we begin like this: OurFather…
- Jesus here regards his disciples not as his servants, but as his friends. They are his peers. They share the same prayer. He doesn’t say, “My Father,” or “Your Father.” He says, “Our Father.”
- The name Jesus uses for “Father” shows a very tender, childlike, trusting intimacy. A better, sweeter translation of the Greek word would be “Papa” rather than “Father.” “Our Papa in heaven.”
- Jesus speaks as a human being, as human as you and I are, and as full of as many wonders and needs as the rest of us. His prayer isn’t just “heavenly”; his prayer includes our need for food – for daily bread – and this isn’t metaphorical. This is table bread. This is about sustenance.
- Just prior to this – the preceding verse – Jesus has said, “Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”[iii]So Jesus is teaching us to pray, but this is notabout the dissemination of information to God. God already knows our needs. God is God. This is about our trusted and tender relationship to God.
- And the rest is history. I mean, our ownhistory.
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar, probably to most of us, perhaps too familiar to some of us for us to be mindful of its profundity. These are Jesus’ words, words which completely embrace us as if we, with Jesus, all belong to the same Father, the same Papa. You might inspiration for some meaningful meditation for Lent:
- Reflect on God’s “deciding” to become human, and its “cost” to God to be truly human and truly divine.
- Take R. S. Thomas’ haunting last line in his poem, “Let me go there.” Why? Why did God the Son say to the Father, “Let me go there?” Why did Jesus come?
- Why does Jesus pray? Jesus prayed and he presumed we would, also. He says to his disciples, “When you pray…” What does it mean to pray – to quote Jesus – when “your [heavenly] Father already knows what you need before you ask him.” So why is Jesus praying? Why are we praying?
- And lastly, where I began with the Lord’s Prayer, with the plural possessive pronoun, our: “Our Father.” What does that pronoun “our” invite in terms of your relationship to Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. And if you get in touch with some resistance within you – resistance to that kind of intimacy with God – then pray about your resistance.
[i]Matthew 6:9-15. See also Luke 11:2-4.
[ii]The Greek word (ἡμῶν) literally means “of us”: i.e., “Father of us.”
Commemoration of John Cassian (360-435)
We remember today a monk named John Cassian, born in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus in a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart. In many ways his world was not unlike our world today, minus the electronic technology. As a young man, John Cassian traveled to Bethlehem and later moved to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits.
At the heart of the desert spirituality was the conviction that we have been created in the image of God, and nothing will ever change that. “Original sin,” which we read about in the Book of Genesis, or our own subsequent collusion with sin, never coopts our “original blessing.”[i]We are created in the image of God. At our very core, our soul has the capacity and yearning to love God with the same kind of passion with which God loves us. The aim of the desertfathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, was to rid themselves of the anxieties, and distractions, and self-judgments that called their attention away from knowing and practicing the love of God with their our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
This Gospel passage appointed for today is about blindness – a blind man whose sight Jesus restores – however there’s more going on here than meets the eye. In the Gospel according to Mark, there’s a recurring theme of blindness – blindness as a metaphor – of people seeing but not understanding. They have sight, but they do not have insight or foresight. The “eyes of their hearts” are notenlightened.
Just prior to this scene in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus miraculously feeds a multitude of people, and two different times. The disciples witness both of these miracles, but they are blind to what is really going on, twice. They miss the meaning. Jesus asks, rhetorically: “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?”[i]
Mark uses a particular verb for seeing in this Gospel story and multiple times throughout his Gospel. The verb Mark uses for “seeing” is actually the verb for “perception”: which is observing something and then understanding correctly what it means.[ii]But the disciples don’t. They don’t get it. Repeatedly. They’re blind. Mark takes his inspiration from the prophecy of Isaiah, who writes recurringly about the Messiah’s coming to heal blindness, blindness of the heart to perceive and understand.[iii]
There are two ways we can hear this Gospel account appointed for today: This is a two-thousand year-old story about Simon Peter, James, and John who fished by trade on a lake in Palestine. This is history – rather patchy history – about how Jesus began assembling his inner ring of 12 apostles in the northern region of Galilee.
or:This Gospel story is autobiographical. Like Peter, James, and John, we each have been summoned by Jesus. Jesus has caught our attention, and we have followed him. This story gets us in touch with our ownstory. It’s part of the backdrop of why we’re here today.
Is this Gospel story about them, or is it about us, about you? The answer is “yes.”
On the one hand, we’re introduced to Peter, James, and John, who continue to figure into Jesus’ life and story. These three leave everything to follow Jesus. Sort of everything. Peter is married, and he doesn’t leave his wife. None of the three leaves his ego behind. That will become obvious. All three of these men are shown to have very mixed motives for following Jesus. Complicated. Sometimes quite duplicitious. Tradition has it that all three ultimately and willingly accept martyrdom for being followers of Jesus… but we’re a long ways from that when we first meet them here in their boats.