Psalm 23 has always seemed to me to be the peaceful psalm. Its reading consoles those who are troubled. It gives hope to people who are downtrodden. It eases the grief of those who have lost a loved one. The statement that shepherding is anything but peaceful gave me reason to pause.
I believe that we must pray about what our gifts are from God and that we be guided by the Holy Spirit in how we use them. THAT is what will make us extraordinary! God would not make anything ordinary.
For Sunday, April 26, 2015, 4th Sunday of Easter
I was recently reading a book review by Horatio Clare on the UK’s The Telegraph website about a recently published title, The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks. I can’t say I really know a lot about sheep and shepherds. A few years back, I was traveling the Australian countryside to work with parishes and I know I saw more sheep than I ever imagined I would in an entire lifetime. However, I didn’t see many shepherds, at least not matching the image I have in my mind.
Two things struck me when reading the article. The first was the statement, “Shepherding is not peaceful.” Psalm 23 has always seemed to me to be the peaceful psalm. Its reading consoles those who are troubled. It gives hope to people who are downtrodden. It eases the grief of those who have lost a loved one. The statement that shepherding is anything but peaceful gave me reason to pause. The writer went on to share about difficult weather, buzzards and crows attacking sheep, men screaming for order, and more. That is not what I think of when I see all those paintings of Jesus holding a snuggly little lamb on his shoulders and all the other snuggly little lambs as his feet seemingly wanting nothing other than hugs!
The second thing that struck me in the article was a paragraph about was how Rebanks portrays the work of a shepherd. Clare wrote:
The “clever, purposeful” ways in which men shear sheep, and the feeling of being “alive, necessary, needed” when the winter comes (Rebanks steps out into “that Brueghel painting of the snow and the crows”), the stress of haymaking and the fulfillment of a full barn, the sweet bounty of the meadows and their grasses, timothy, common bent, fescue and yellow rattle, all baled and stacked like the obedience to “a commandment from God”, are beautifully told.
It struck me that in the face of a professional experience that is not peaceful, the shepherd receives a divine mandate to create that which is not there: peace.
Then I got it! Psalm 23 gives almost a false sense of peace because that is what shepherds do. The paintings I have seen, and continue to hold in my mind, represent the point of view from the sheep. They do not see the critters that choose to attack them. They do not have enough intelligence to understand the disorder they create with their own natural movements. They are sheltered from the harshness of the weather by someone who leads them to safety. If the paintings reflected what really is happening, they would show chaos, fear, and danger, and then the shepherd whose job it is to protect them from those things.
When my own three children were young, I had a responsibility to protect them from the realities of the world. When you are first awakening to the world you do not need to know about the wars, the poverty, the suffering, and the sin in this place. You need to know love, patience, and comfort. When my children placed their heads on their pillows at night, fear needed to be the last things on their mind, even though the world can be a scary place.
Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd in John 10 and he brings to us what cannot be truly found in this world: peace. Death could not even keep him from tending his flock. The risen Lord is alive so we can rest on his shoulders, so we can walk freely without being the prey of evil, and so we can have peace in the face of chaos.
But there are still those in our world that know all too well the peril that surrounds them. They have not had a chance to enter into the world with a naiveté that allows little ones to know what safety feels like. They do not know the peace of a shepherd because they have never seen one. Consider the experience of those growing up on the streets of the US, those who hear explosions all day and night in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. Consider the orphan who has never had a real hug, or the children who saw their parents murdered before their very eyes. Consider the children in hospitals who suffer from terminal illness and experience short lives of constant pain.
These are his lambs. They need Jesus. These are those who need real peace. And who will bring to them the Shepherd? Perhaps we should adopt a new moniker for ourselves in addition to the body of Christ: the body of the Shepherd. He is leading his flock this very day into places where weather, buzzards, and chaos threaten. If we have been with him for any real time, we know how peace feels. We can bring Jesus to these places. Consider the paintings of the Good Shepherd. Everyone deserves at some point to be the snuggly ones who just call out to be hugged.
Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS
A psalm of David.
there is nothing I lack.
to still waters he leads me;
he restores my soul.
for the sake of his name.
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff comfort me.
in front of my enemies;
my cup overflows.
all the days of my life;
for endless days.
—Psalm 23. Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
When you place everything in God’s hands, you don’t always wonder what happens next. What happens next is part of the miraculous journey of life. If it is a blessing, to God give the thanks. If it is a challenge, accept it head-on and with the fortitude God gives you. If it is a burden, let God help you carry it.
For Sunday, April 19, 2015
Do we really believe in the Resurrection? Jesus’ resurrection? Our own? During the past three weeks I’ve traveled in India and am currently in Uganda, Africa. In India, our tour group boarded a wooden boat at dusk and shoved out into the Ganges River. It was Tuesday of Holy Week, the evening of the Chrism Mass in my diocese back home. Our group of Americans was quiet as the guide explained the customs surrounding the death of a Hindu. Many of the elderly in India move to Varanasi so that they can be close to the Ganges at their time of death. If they are cremated there, they are guaranteed a happy afterlife.
As we motored up the river, we came to the area of cremation. Ghats (steps) went upward from the river. Fires burned on intermittent platforms. At that moment, five bodies were being burned. The chief mourner, wrapped in white cloth, with head shaved, ignited the sixty pounds of wood beneath and above the body. He had come from the top of the ghat where the eternal fire burned, down to the pyre where his loved one lay. After igniting it, the burning lasted about three hours. A sobering sight.
Three hours. The traditional time that Jesus hung upon the cross. It was Holy Week. My thoughts turned to Good Friday.
Three hours led to three days. In that interim, I moved from India to Uganda, Africa. My travel partner and I arrived at Stella Maris College for Girls after a five-hour ride, mostly on dirt roads churned by spring rains and hardened by the sun. There are over a thousand girls here from ages six to eighteen. On Good Friday, we spent almost five hours with them as they sang and prayed. All one thousand walked the outdoor stations, some barefooted as penance. The road was rough and rocky. This was followed immediately by the liturgical service. Every girl venerated the cross as they sang hymn after hymn from memory. There was no fidgeting or talking among themselves during those five hours. Unbelievable!
That five hours turned into another three hours the next night. The Easter Vigil. A thousand candles caught the light from the new fire atop the Easter candle. ALLELUIA! Sung in full voice with drums and clapping! “HE IS RISEN!” “HE IS RISEN!” The rejoicing was deafening! At the baptisms and confirmation they clapped their support! The faith and joy of these young women and their teachers was tangible! My heart rejoiced and my arms could hardly be restrained from joining their raised arms and voices of joy!
I thought of America, of my experiences of the Easter Vigil … my wondering why we are so restrained. Then I also remembered a number of times hearing fellow Christians say, “When I’m gone, I’m gone. That’s it. There is nothing else.” I thought of the Hindu belief in the afterlife. I also remembered seeing a human body floating in the Ganges and wondering how that person had died and where his or her mourners were and what about his or her afterlife. In these days, in this season, we all ponder life and death and our beliefs in the afterlife.
These are perennial questions of all thinking human beings no matter what age or nation or century. Even in today’s Gospel, St. Luke tells of a resurrected Jesus encouraging the disciples to touch him and to give him something to eat. Commentaries suggest that Luke was greatly aware that his Greek readers were skeptical about Jesus rising from the dead.
Are we skeptical? At the vigil here in Uganda, Father Joseph asked the universal questions, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ … he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day?” A joyous shout rose from a thousand young throats. “WE DO BELIEVE!” And he continued, “Do you look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come?” Again, the joyous shout thundered, “WE DO BELIEVE!”
Today’s Gospel concludes with Jesus affirming his own history of suffering, death, and rising from that death. He then commissions his disciples to go to all nations as witnesses. In my experience, these young African students have witnessed to me their belief in the Resurrection. Can I catch their joy and enthusiasm? Can I bring it home halfway around the world?
In America, it seems that in our youth-oriented culture we don’t want to recognize or think about death. In India it is very present. We Americans tend to keep our public grieving as short as possible, some not even having a funeral. We talk about a person “passing” rather than dying. There’s an obituary and then it’s time to move on. How can we celebrate resurrection when we pass over death? Maybe we need to learn from our brothers and sisters of India about death. Maybe we need to learn from our young sisters in Africa about resurrection. Maybe we need to think about, meditate on, and talk with each other about these taboo subjects.
Do I really believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Do I really believe in my future resurrection? In this springtime of new life, in this Easter season, when we hear the Resurrection stories, we need to contemplate these deep mysteries and, hopefully, shout with full voice, “I BELIEVE, ALLELUIA!”
Pat DeGroot, OblSB
you are attentive to the voice of our pleading.
Let us find in your Son
comfort in our sadness,
certainty in our doubt,
and courage to live through this hour.
Make our faith strong
through Christ out Lord,
—Order of Christian Funerals © 1985, ICEL.
Have you ever participated in or witnessed activities that were supposed to instruct you on the topic of trust? Some of these activities feature people falling backward with their eyes closed, sometimes even falling off a chair or table. One variation is when the voice of the person asking for trust trails off into the distance. Secretly other people have crept in and are ready to catch the subject when they fall backwards, but they are being asked to trust the voice that they know is no longer near them. It is often not easy for the person who is being asked to trust, especially if they have never done this before.
Trusting in God is not always easy either. Sometimes we are scared to give up our freedom. Other times we are consumed by doubt. After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared a few times to his disciples. One time when he appeared right after some of them had encountered him on the road to Emmaus, he asked them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts?” Even with him in front of their eyes they had a hard time trusting. They were being asked to trust and believe, but just like those in the trust activities mentioned above, that was easier said than done.
What is keeping you from trusting in God? To live a stewardship way of life, trust in God is necessary. There are times when we will begin to question if we can persevere or if this way of living is even valid and worthwhile. That is only human. But through the church, sacred Scripture, and the sacraments, our hearts and minds will be opened to the real crucified and risen Lord. And then, if he asks, we will be able to trust and fall back into his loving arms.
Christian stewardship began this night in the upper room. Ordinary humans witnessed the Son of God humble himself to a point they could not have imagined, all with the purpose of serving them. That night the ordinary became extraordinary. Jesus demonstrated for them true love and how to share that love with those outside that room. But how could they win hearts for Jesus when they saw themselves as so much less than their teacher? The answer is that he would then feed them with his very self. They would not see him much longer, for the events that began with that evening would lead to his torture, death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father. But in his body and blood they would be nourished for the task at hand: to witness to the whole world the good news of Jesus Christ.
In one night, Jesus gave us a true example of stewardship and the path to follow. By his example he showed us how to empty ourselves to the point of becoming the servant of all. The path is the holy Eucharist, through which all is possible. When we partake in his banquet, we become Christ to a world in need of Christ. It would be a truly daunting task if he hadn’t shown us how to BE Christ. A simple act of washing feet taught us more than any sermon or sacred writing.
As good stewards we believe all we have is a gift from God. That night, before the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus commanded us to wash one another’s feet. In essence, he gave us to one another. If we claim to belong to him, then we by definition belong to one another. May the Christ in each of us propel us to our knees so that we may never stop washing one another’s feet.
For Sunday, March 22, 2015, 5th Sunday of Lent
Time sure flies by. I remember a time not so long ago when we were preparing for the end of time. We weren’t in doomsday cults, but we were normal everyday people who were told that the entire world would be thrown into a tremendous chaos and we would suffer immeasurable hardships. The crazy thing about it was the fear had nothing to do with a judgment day by a mighty Creator who was finally fed up with the sins of all humanity. It actually had to do with the belief that the great technology minds at Microsoft, IBM, and other entities had not allowed for computers to read the year 2000! Y2K was the name given to this terror and some feared all their money would disappear, planes would fall from the sky, and pacemakers would stop hearts from beating. Of course, nothing happened!
Except if you were Catholic, something did happen that was pretty big: the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The colorful Jubilaeum AD 2000 logo was everywhere, parishes incorporated special prayers into their Masses, and we had a year of prayer and reflection on the mercy of God. The holy doors of the various churches in Rome were opened to usher in the year of graces and then closed at the end of our observance. In the end, it was a much bigger deal than Y2K.
Now Pope Francis, the pope who likes to surprise, has announced a new jubilee year from December 8, 2015 to November 20, 2016. It is to be a Holy Year of Mercy. Pope Francis stated in the announcement that the doors of the church “are wide open so that all those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness.” This really was a big announcement, and now the church must prepare itself for this observance.
And what does it mean to us on a parish level? It means that we must turn our focus toward God’s mercy, not just for us, but also for all the children of God. It should be a time of reconciliation with those who have walked away from the church. Perhaps sin has led them away, or maybe the sins of those in the church have pushed them away. It should be a time of reaching out to those who desperately need God’s mercy: the sick, the hungry, the persecuted, and the disenfranchised. It should also be a time of reflection on our own need for God’s love and mercy, and a focus on the unconditional love of our Creator.
The reading from Jeremiah for this Sunday speaks of the New Covenant God has with his people. God says, “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” So often we walk upon this earth like there is nothing written upon our hearts. We begin to believe a lie that tells us that we have placed too much distance between God and us. By our actions, we have widened the chasm between the divine and us, and there is so much work that goes into bridging that divide. But nothing is further from the truth. The fact is, each time we have moved away, God has moved with us. God has never been far away.
This Sunday most will hear a Gospel of John reading where Jesus says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” Some at Masses with a Scrutiny will hear the story of the raising of Lazarus. Who is this Jesus that draws all people to himself and has the power to raise the dead? Do you know him? The question is not, “Are you a Catholic, or Christian, or do you go to church on Sunday?” The question is not, “Do you say prayers at night, or grace before meals, or wear a cross around your neck?” The question is, “Do you know him?” Pope Francis wants to make certain you do.
Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS
in whom mercy is endless
and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible,
look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us,
that in difficult moments
we might not despair nor become despondent,
but with great confidence
submit ourselves to Your holy will,
which is Love and Mercy itself.
—Closing prayer from the Divine Mercy Chaplet
For Sunday, February 15, 2015, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I needed to get some work done, including this reflection, but my eleven-year-old son kept bugging me to play basketball in the driveway. It had been cold recently, but on this day in North Carolina, it was sunny and close to seventy degrees. So I couldn’t blame him for wanting to challenge Dad to a game of H-O-R-S-E before the sun called it a day. I can’t say basketball was on the top of my list, but my responsibility to be present to a little boy who wasn’t so little anymore outweighed the work I needed to do. The work will always be there; my son won’t.
“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”
—1 Corinthians 10:31
While I was dribbling and shooting the ball, I thought of Dean Smith, the longtime basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. I just heard that morning that he had passed away. He was older and had been in decline for some time, but when a sports icon dies, it causes people to reflect. He was one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history, but more importantly, he graduated 96% of his players, with over 50% of his players going on to play professionally. USA Today’s headline on his death was “83 Years of Caring and Giving, a Legacy of Selflessness.” I am a Duke graduate, so I always have had a love/hate relationship with the school down the road in Chapel Hill. But Dean Smith was first-class. He was a religious man whose convictions led him to speak strongly in the 1960s against a segregated state of North Carolina. I didn’t always agree with all his political stances as the years went by, but I always respected him as a man trying to be the best he could be, not just as a coach, but also as a child of God.
As I was about to take a shot and show my son who is the boss, I was hoping that when I pass from this world, I will have become the best version of myself that I could be. Through his writings, Matthew Kelly, the Catholic speaker and writer, always has me reflecting on this. God has made me on purpose for a purpose, and I hope that all I do moves me closer to the best that God has created in me.
“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”
—1 Corinthians 10:31
Do you ever think about how every action, even that of eating and drinking, can be done for the glory of God? We sometimes divide up our lives into church, family, job, and self. There is no need for separation of these things, unless we are unwilling to hand it all over to God.
Unfortunately, we too often fight God, tethered to the lie that handing it all over leads to anything but freedom. Dietrich von Hildebrand, the Catholic philosopher and theologian, wrote, “The more our life is permeated by God, the simpler it becomes.” True freedom rests in the ability to lay everything at the feet of God. The questions of life become easier to answer, and that which is still a mystery is no longer threatening.
“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”
—1 Corinthians 10:31
When driveway basketball was over, I proceeded back to my home office. I reflected on Paul’s words to the Corinthians about doing everything for the glory of God. I had spent time getting exercise for my physical body, tended to my domestic church by spending time with a son I truly love and for whom I give thanks, and I was able to experience all of this outside, in God’s wonderful creation. A smile came across my face. In this seemingly simple event, I not only gave glory to God, I personally encountered God.
Lent is upon us in a matter of days. What will Lent mean for you this year? You don’t have to give something up this year, but instead you could add something: more time with a loved one, volunteering in a shelter or soup kitchen, visiting someone who is lonely. Whatever you do, or give up, be sure it is for the glory of God. Don’t overthink the whole thing. We have the chance to glorify him at every turn. You do not have to travel far. Sometimes God is calling us to places as simple as the driveway.
Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day
for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world,
for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians,
and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father this month.
—Morning offering by Fr. François-Xavier Gautrelet.
For Sunday, January 11, 2015, Baptism of the Lord
Baptism is powerful stuff! The act of pouring water or submerging someone in water and saying a few words, given to the early Christian community by Jesus, seems non-threatening at face value. But the implications of such an action can send ripples of disruption through the life of the one baptized, as well as those around him or her.
Did you hear about the atheists who went ballistic when a few Alabama high school football players were baptized on the football field? It happened one day after practice. I am not sure the setting was the best decision, but I guess water and words can seem pretty offensive to some, no matter where it happens.
Some churches have apparently realized the power in these actions to the point that they have staged spontaneous baptisms during their services. Elevation Church in Charlotte has been accused of doing just that. Of course, a supposed guide instructs those involved to keep the baptisms to thirty to forty-five seconds, in order to keep the service flowing. Baptism is very powerful, but apparently can get very boring if it takes too long.
The power of baptism can still be seen in popular culture also. Have you seen how many celebrities still get their babies baptized? If Celine Dion and Fergie still seek out this sacrament for their children, it must be powerful stuff. Even the royal families of the world, with all their power and money, seek assistance from a higher power for their little ones.
But alas, churches everywhere are sparsely populated on Sundays, and a growing secularism is engulfing many modern societies. Parents often bring their children for baptism, and then leave for seven years until it is time for first Communion preparation. This is not cynicism. It is fact.
Either the actions and words of baptism are not really that powerful or something is wrong. As people baptized into the body of Christ, we know that there is real power in the sacrament. Somehow, by our actions and words after baptism, we have allowed that power to be diminished. The power of baptism to radically change the world has been compromised.
When Jesus came to John to be baptized, he accepted a commission, one that would lead to his death on a cross. After his baptism, he went into the desert to prepare for the living out of this commission, and to be tempted and tested. It was the baptism that served as a sign of new beginning. It also was the preparation needed to survive in the desert. The people at the baptism witnessed Jesus’ direct purposeful experience with the entire Trinity. That experience provided what was needed for the next steps.
When we were baptized, we were also commissioned. We also then journey in a desert where life is not always easy, and we are tempted at every turn. But if we allow ourselves to suffer a type of sacramental amnesia, we forget that we have received anything at all. We enter into the world without the power that is our birthright as adopted sons and daughters of God.
The good news is the power of baptism is always there for us to reclaim. We must never fall into a trap of believing perhaps what happened as an infant does not have a bearing on our lives as adults. When baptized individuals come to the Catholic Church from other denominations, they are never re-baptized. They are assisted in reclaiming that power that was always there. When Catholics who have journeyed away from the church return, it is the power of the baptism received years ago that worked to bring them back.
When we reclaim that power, and we again accept and take seriously our commission, we become an instrument of God that can literally change the world.
What Jesus received from John, Jesus transformed into a direct purposeful experience with him. This new baptism brings about new creations. That which is broken is now repaired, and a world that is broken has the opportunity to begin again.
What are those atheists on that football field so afraid of anyway? Do they think those players will really be different after some simple words and actions? Will those players then feel they have received a commission to go into the world and make a radical difference? I hope so.
Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS
Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go;
flood my soul with your spirit and life;
penetrate and possess my whole being so completely
that all my life may be only a radiance of yours;
shine through me and be so in me
that everyone with whom I come into contact
may feel your presence within me.
Let them look up and see no longer me—but only Jesus.
—Prayer for Christlikeness, John Henry Cardinal Newman