Tag Archives: God

Looking for the Light

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (The full readings for today can be found here.)

            In the name of the Living God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Well, good morning, everyone, good morning. First, I need to thank you all for your generous hospitality. It has been a joy and an honor to walk with you through this season of Epiphany. And I’m glad we could all be here together for this great feast day of the Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

            And we’ll get to the gospel for today, but before we do, I thought we might spend a few moments reviewing the magnificent kaleidoscope of images the Church has offered us during this season of Epiphany. We began with a crowd of people gathered around this strange prophet John who baptized Jesus by the river. And the sky broke open, and the Holy Spirit came down upon them like a dove, and God spoke: “I am well pleased with my Son, my beloved.” And I’m wondering if you good folk can ever hear God’s voice saying that about you, because I’m pretty sure that’s how God feels. And we wonder if that’s what a life with the Spirit is like—like being the favorite child.

            Now, turn that kaleidoscope just a little bit, and we find ourselves at a wedding. And we overhear Jesus’ mother, nudging him to do that God thing even though he says it’s not time yet. And we see this remarkable image: six stone jars, filled to the brim with astonishing wine. And we wonder if that’s what life with Jesus is like.

            The Church paints in a rich palette of wonder during epiphany—images of God manifest, God becoming clear to us in bright moments. If you sometimes go to church in the middle of the week, you found yourselves in Caesarea Philippi, considered a holy place for centuries, at the base of Mount Hermon, a place where springs of living water flowed out of nearby caves. And it’s there that Jesus asks that remarkable question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers that he’s the Messiah, the son of the living God. But I think Epiphany is about each of us struggling to answer that question for ourselves. Who do you say that Jesus is? And we might wonder: Are we, too, the rocks upon which Jesus will build his church?

            And then, the next week we saw Jesus, back in his hometown, preaching his first sermon. And he told them about God setting the captives free, and blind people regaining their sight because this was the year of the Lord’s favor. And he rolled up the scroll, and he told them (and he’s still telling us): this is going on all around you. It’s happening now. And we ought to be looking around for it.

            And the next week, we heard the rest of that story. We heard how the congregation became angry because Jesus dared to suggest that God’s love wasn’t just for a select few, that it was available for everyone. And the people were so angry they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. And we might wonder about our place in that story.

            And then a week later, we saw these men out fishing on the lake, and they haven’t caught a thing all day until Jesus shows up and tells them to go out into the deep water. And when they do, they get so many fish that their nets are bursting with the catch. And I want you to try and imagine these boats, so full of fish that the boats are about to capsize. And when they return to shore, these men are compelled to follow Jesus wherever he goes, to follow him even to the Cross. And we begin to wonder if that’s what life with God is like—if it’s like going out into the deep water.

            And last week, we hear the story of a brother returning home and confronting his brothers who betrayed him, who almost killed him. And we heard how Joseph, the dreamer, and his brothers wept together. And many of us wept together. And we heard Jesus telling us that we had to forgive our enemies because that’s the kind of thing God does and we are God’s children. And we begin to understand what God is like and wonder if we too can act like that.

            All of this was kind of a long introduction to this morning’s Gospel, the story of the transfiguration. Now, transfiguration is a churchy word for change, but a particular kind of change: a change in which the light of God begins to shine through in a person’s life. And we began this morning with the story of Moses, coming down from the mountain having wandered for a long time in the desert, with the stone tablets. And the people saw that Moses’ encounter with God left his face shining because a genuine encounter with God will leave you changed.

            And we fast forward to the story of Jesus, who takes his friends up on the mountain to pray, and something remarkable happens. Suddenly, they see Jesus bathed in light, with Moses (who represents the law) and Elijah (who represents the prophets). And smack dab in the middle of them is Jesus, who’s about to make his last trip into Jerusalem. And a cloud comes over them and they’re terrified. You see, sometimes an encounter with the living God will do that: it’s not all unicorns and puppies and glitter.

And I want to make a suggestion. I’m not so sure that Jesus was changed at all. Maybe it was the disciples who had changed, and for the first time, they were able to see Jesus for who he really was. And we’ve come full circle, back to that first week of Epiphany, and we again hear God tell us that Jesus is God’s son, and we really need to listen to what he has to say.

            But the Church wants to leave us with one more image, one more tableau before we leave Epiphany. We see a father, begging Jesus for his help because his son is terribly ill with something like a seizure. And we think about those troubles in our own lives that will scarcely leave us. And we see the power of Jesus to heal us, even as he’s on his way to Jerusalem, even as he’s on his way to the Cross.

            Sometimes, we see God in these remarkable moments, like the Transfiguration. But more often, we see God in some very ordinary places and times: a crummy day of fishing, at a wedding, a troubled family reunion, a father frantically worried about a sick child, and yes, even a sermon that didn’t go so well. God has a funny habit of showing up when we don’t really expect it. God is kinda sneaky that way.

            Now, throughout this journey the Church has taken us on during the season of Epiphany, we’ve seen the stunning power of God, a light that enters into the darkness of our world. But in each of these passages, people saw the light of God because they were looking for it—sometimes, because they were desperate for it. It’s what one psychologist has referred to as the “scout mindset.”  Think of it like those puzzles you used to do when you were a child, where there were shapes of animals hidden in the trees or the landscape. And you could find them because you were looking carefully for them.

If we go looking for the problems or the trouble in this world, we will surely find thembecause they’re out there. On the other hand, if we are looking for the love of God and the ways it’s shown in the world, we’ll find that, too. Epiphany is about learning to look for the blinding incandescence of God in the world. We train our eyes to look for those moments in which the world is aglow with the burnished presence and love of Jesus. I have seen that light here, in this good Parish, and I know it’ll be here when I come back. Amen.



James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Seeing All Things with New Eyes





How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 

In the name of the living God, who creates, redeems and sustains us.

Well, good evening, good evening my brothers and sisters. Welcome on this holy night, this night when we gather to celebrate the feast of our patron, St. Dominic. And a special blessing upon our brothers Jeffrey, Lee, Mike, Steve and Todd. I wish upon you the special blessing of awe, because what you are about to do is an awesome thing: not in the common parlance or the sense of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (“Awesome”), but in the ancient sense of the word. My hope for each of you is the blessing of awe, of fear and trembling at what you are about to do.

In episode V of the Star Wars saga, the Empire Strikes back, Luke Skywalker tries to assure the Jedi master Yoda: “I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.” And Yoda replies, “Good. You will be. You will be.” When I made my life profession, almost 10 years ago, I was petrified. I was filled with what I now realize was a holy terror. Even that night, I wasn’t sure I was going to go through with it.

And there are good reasons to be afraid, because God is going to change your life in ways you don’t understand yet. And God is going to call you to do work you don’t want to do. God is going to call you to praise, even when you don’t agree with God’s work or understand God’s purposes.   And God is going to call you to be a blessing to God’s children, even when they don’t seem like they deserve a blessing, and you are called to enter into the darkest places of this life, to shine the lamp of God’s light and presence into those places. And God is calling you to preach, even when you don’t have anything to say. God is calling you to preach, even when the world is hostile, or worse, desperately uninterested in what you have to say.

The great theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious….” He continued: “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” And so, my brothers and sisters, I wish you the blessing of awe.

Our brother Thomas’s views rested very close to those of Heschel’s. In his Commentary on the Metaphysics, he wrote, “Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.”

Our world today lies in desperate need of awe. We have seen it all before and are wallowing in the doldrums of ennui. Proverbs teaches us that the people are dying for want of vision. We are paralyzed by our polarized politics. We live in ideological silos in which each side of the political spectrum is convinced that the other threatens the life of the country. The people are perishing for want of a vision.

In Texas, in my home state, there is a church called the Rod of Iron Ministries, which worships with AR-15 rifles and seeks to overcome “political satanism.” In the Middle East, some evangelical pastors are preaching that the Covid vaccine contains the “mark of the beast.” The people are dying for want of vision. And across the world, the loudest, shrillest, most divisive, and most authoritarian voices seem to have some strange gravitational pull on our political discussion. We have reached the point where an argument on Facebook looks like discourse, and that somehow passes for reason. The people are perishing for want of a vision.

I am old enough to remember the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison during the Gulf War. We actually engaged in a national debate over the question of whether torture was an effective way of obtaining information from prisoners. We didn’t ask the question of what kind of people we wanted to be; we asked whether it worked. My brothers and sisters, if we cannot find the humanity and dignity of each and every person we encounter, we will never stand in awe of the majesty of the God who created them.  The people are dying for want of a vision.

Last year, in Minneapolis, a police officer took an unarmed black man into custody and placed him in handcuffs. The officer then pressed his knee upon the black man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died. And in India, where our Sister Pamela lives, over 4 million people have died of Covid. And it’s just another bloody statistic. We have lost the capacity for wonder; we have lost the capacity for awe. The people are dying for want of a vision. As the Book of Samuel observes, there is no lamp that will bring light to darkness of this world other than the light of God.

Who will bring that light to the people? Or, as the author of Romans asked: “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” How are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? It’s an important question. Well, my brothers and sisters, it’s an odd thing, but the Church has authorized me to do this. And I am sending you, each of you (Jeffrey, Lee, Mike, Steve, Todd, and every single Dominican sitting here or watching on your computers), to proclaim the love of Christ in world. That is your work, that is your vocation.

We are called to speak to the world of the love of God. We find ourselves in a moment in time, a moment in history, when “spin” is struggling against history, when some claim to have “alternative facts.” I cannot recall a time when the world so desperately needed that which the Dominicans proclaim: veritas, or truth. But the truth we need is not mine or yours. As John’s Gospel reminds us, Jesus said: “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.”

We are not called to announce to the world our own speculations or opinions. We are called to proclaim the glory of God, the wonder of God, the awe of God. We are called to preach to the world the desperately counter-cultural message that living for others is a better life than living for yourselves. We are called to preach that God is ready, that God is desperately eager, to forgive sinners. We are called to preach that there is a better way, a new life, waiting for every single child of God on this planet.

Tell them that Jesus is alive, that God is alive, in the world today. Tell them that how we treat the least of God’s children is the best indicia of how we feel about God. We are called to preach that Jesus offers a way out of pain, a way out of sorrow, and that the darkness in this world cannot and will not overcome the light of God. Preach that, my brothers and sisters. Preach that.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021

The Still Hour

    

So beautiful is the still hour of the sea’s withdrawal, as beautiful as the sea’s return when encroaching waves pound up the beach, pressing to reach those dark rumpled chains of seaweed which mark the last high tide.
     We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships.  We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb.  We are afraid it will never return.  We insist on permanence, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth and fluidity–in freedom in the sense that dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.  The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping even.  Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

Today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer suggests a problem many of us struggle with in our spiritual lives:  the gravitational pull of the past and present which distracts us from the current movement of the Spirit. I wonder if that’s not, in part, what Jesus had in mind when he said, “[I]f I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”  John 16:7.  As long as Jesus remained physically with the apostles, they were trapped in the memory of their failures or lost in their Messianic expectations for the future.  God had something quite different in store for them.

The past and the future bind us in a kind of Pushmi-pullyu struggle.  We hear this in our churches regularly.  “I really liked the music before they changed it” or “I’m really worried about the direction our new minister is moving the church.”  I think we do something similar in our own lives.  “I was not brought up in a home where reading the Bible was important so that’s just not a big part of my spiritual life.”  “Maybe once the kids are gone we will go to church more regularly.”  We feel the gravitational pull of the past and the present, sometimes longingly, sometimes full of anxiety, but always distracting us from the present moment.

Sometimes, we encounter the diversion of longing for a time when we felt really close to God, or when church offered a more meaningful experience.   In Letters to Malcolm,  C.S. Lewis compared this to shouting “Encore!” to God.  We tell the Almighty things were better before, and want Him to make it like it used to be.  Lewis wrote, “It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.”

Whether we find ourselves diverted by the past or the future, we confront the difficulty of locating God (and ourselves) in the present moment.  The movement away from the immediate always assumes that God’s presence today will not suffice.  We go chasing after a richer yesterday or running away from a distressing tomorrow, and run the risk of overlooking the presence of the Spirit today.  Perhaps we undervalue the advice of the psalmist:  “Be still and know that I am God.”

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Unblemished, Unqualified Mercy

But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins.  For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer.  Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this.  With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings.  If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be.  God is a God of the present.  Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).

My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327.  A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology.  Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period.  Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas.  The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.

In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world.  The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and  incomplete.  Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.

We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.  Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 43.  There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with.  After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity.  Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us.  As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution.  Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience.  Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”

Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget.  It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.  As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.”  We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us.  As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice.  We find mercy and grace.  If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.

Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging.  We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults.  We strain to share the grace of the present moment.   It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis