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The Heart of Religion

Yesterday I read a short reflection in Plough  magazine about a woman who, according to the author, "was a every person who crossed her path." This woman's example impressed on me the idea that the sources of one's devotion--religious doctrine, methods of prayer and meditation, forms of worship, theological convictions--are peripheral to the work of love to which all human beings are called. One implication of this idea is that if my particular form of devotion is not making me a better neighbor (or parent or partner or friend or community member), then it is not worth pursuing. I am reminded of Jesus's Parable of the Good Samaritan , narrated in the Gospel of Luke. Part of the point of that parable is that the good Samaritan was a Samaritan , and not a Jew. The source of his devotion, his religious milieu, differed greatly from that of Jesus and his listeners. Yet Jesus insisted that this religious outsider grasped the heart of religion more clearly

The Birth of Love: An Advent Reflection

The season of Advent is a time of waiting. But as Henri Nouwen writes, this waiting is not passive, but active. We wait in anticipation, in expectation, for the arrival of the Christ. Jesus tells his followers that while they wait, they should watch and be ready, because the moment of arrival is unknown. Brother Ron Fender, in his book These Things I Have Seen , writes that the world is full of mangers. One thing this means is that Christ arrives all the time, but like the manger in Bethlehem, the mangers of today are likely to be overlooked. We must watch and be ready for these arrivals or we will miss them. Where do we look? Jesus says suffering and calamity are good clues. Wherever people are hurting and institutions are failing, look for Christ. Wherever there is oppression and injustice, prepare for the arrival. Whenever your heart is besieged by anger, fear, greed, shame--make way for the birth of love. Of course, many of these things are happening every day. The world is full of

A Sabbath Day

I am thinking of the mulberries we picked today,           nearly black knobby fruits,           their juice spilling so easily from thin skins. I held a branch down while you picked them double-fisted,           dropping them into the empty bottle where they crashed,           spurting tiny jets of juice. The girls ate them by the handful,           stuffing the dark sweet berries into their small mouths,           purple smears like bruises blooming on their hands, legs, cheeks. We had hoped for ice cream but were foiled,           and returning from that failed trip           we found the trees, dangling their fruit in offering. We ate, and it was good. It was very good.

Casual Holiness

About a year ago I was on my way into a church to attend a meeting. As I approached the door I passed a woman sitting on a red, overturned milk crate near the door. She had dark hair, and she was leaning forward, her bottom coming off the crate, her hands reaching just off the edge of the sidewalk and toward the asphalt of the parking lot. She appeared to be slowly falling forward, tumbling off the crate in slow motion. I had stopped to hold the door for a man who was entering the church just behind me, and as I watched, he approached the woman on the crate. "Here's two of them," he said, handing down a carton of Marlboro Light 100s. "Have a good day." I realized then what the man with the Marlboros must have recognized immediately: the woman had no doubt been reaching for a discarded cigarette butt that someone had tossed down on their way into the church. I felt awed by the man's simple act of compassion. Without the slightest trace of judgement or distast

A Living Body of Poetry

Reading and listening to the news makes the Psalms come to life. Children threatened with separation from their families, international tensions, indigenous people displaced from their homeland. Even in this too-brief sampling of common headline topics a person can find plenty of reason, as the psalmist did in his own context, to shake a fist at heaven, tear one's garments, beg for mercy and cry out for justice. When I am caught up in my own mostly comfortable life, the Psalms are hard to reach, both their anguish and their ecstasy remote from my daily grind. As soon as I graze the surface of human suffering, however, the words of the Psalter become vivid, potent, a living body of poetry pulsing with human feeling and desire. Here is at least one good reason to read both the news and the Psalms: to remember that I am part of the human family, which is also to remember my responsibility for the welfare of that family.

The Kingdom of Compassion

When Jesus is called the son of God, or especially the only son of God, in the gospels and the New Testament letters, it is not, as I was taught, to set him in opposition or claim his superiority to other faith leaders. Neither the gospel writers nor Paul had likely ever heard of the Buddha. Muhammad wouldn't come on the scene for several hundred years. The gods of the Hindu pantheon don't seem to have shadowed their writings. Who's divine pedigree was being denied, then, if not the gods and leaders of other faiths? According to several prominent scripture scholars, and, if one reads closely, to the New Testament writers themselves, it was the political and military rulers of the day, those who exercised absolute power, especially over the people on the margins of society. Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man of his time, actually claimed divinity for himself. He called himself the Son of God. The gospel writers knew this. Paul knew this. Jesus knew this. Caesar&#

Books That Have Rescued My Faith

I am reading a moving book by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, which works to educate and employ gang members in Los Angeles. Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart , is a beautiful testament to what the kingdom of God can look like in the twenty-first century. In the book, Boyle sprinkles his heartful stories with quotes from various Christian writers. Reading these quotes, all gathered in one place and in such a spiritually powerful context, I realized how much these same writers have done to rescue Christian faith for me, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully retrieving it from the confines of the fundamentalist package in which I originally received it and giving it new life and meaning. Yesterday, as I read another of these quotes from Boyle’s book, a surge of gratitude welled up in my chest. I lifted my face and thanked God for these beloved teachers, without whom my relationship with the religion of my childhood, of my culture, would