His Eye is On the Sparrow (Matthew 10:26-33)

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we finally move away from John’s Gospel, where we’ve been for the majority of the fifty-day Easter season and the special Sundays immediately following it, and settle back into Matthew for the majority of this Year A of the lectionary. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples’ fears and worries in a time and place when life was lived close to the edge, and proclaiming your faith in Christ and his message could easily lead not only to rejection but arrest, torture, and death. This is still the case today in many places in the world, as the United Nations lists Christians as the most persecuted religious group across the globe today. 

But you don’t need to be persecuted for your faith in Christ, as so many Christians now are, in order to be deeply reassured by Jesus’ message in this reading. He says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even the hairs of your heads are all counted. So do not be afraid.”

Sometimes, we can wonder where God is. Horrible things happen in the world. Sometimes horrible things happen to us or those we love. Sometimes the daily, unremarkable challenges of life simply leave us feeling worn down, or inadequate, or weak and unable. But if we are open to the small signs in our lives, the gentle whispers of life, the simple gestures of love in the world, the call of a bird and the rustling of the wind, the delicate beauty of a flower and the time it takes for the sun to rise over the horizon, we can feel God’s presence within us and around us. We can know that, as the scripture says, God was there “in the still, small voice,” the whisper of sound. 

Last night I was reading about the remarkable story of Walter Ciszek, S. J. A Jesuit priest who had been sent to minister to Byzantine/Eastern rite Catholics in Poland in the late 1930s, he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at some point after the Russians overran Poland in 1939. He spent eighteen years as a Soviet prisoner. Fifteen of those years he endured under a sentence of hard labor in the Siberian salt mines, living in the same gulag that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made famous with his book The Gulag Archipelago, until the U.S. government finally secured his return home. 

To lose one’s faith and connection with God in those circumstances would have been understandable — even, perhaps, expected. Instead, as he wrote about in his books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, his inner life of spiritual contemplation with God became his only constant and the one thing that sustained him. He sensed God abiding with him and his fellow prisoners in the labor camp, and he chose to offer up his life and his hard labor there to God. He also risked his life to minister as a priest to his fellow prisoners, leading secret Masses, hearing their confessions and offering them sacramental absolution. At any time, any one of them could have reported on him for their own gain and turned him in to meet his death. He returned home to America in 1962. 

As I look out my window and I watch the birds gathering food, building nests, and living quiet simple lives of Creator-endowed grace from moment to moment, I can think of Jesus’ words about the sparrows to his disciples. And I can know that just as he watches them in the fields and trees, and just as he watched Walter Ciszek in the gulag, and just as he watches all of us — I know he watches me, too.

“Why should I feel discouraged

Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart be lonely —

When Jesus is my portion

A constant friend is he

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches me” 

(lyrics Civilla D. Martin)

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

Softening the Hard Heart (John 3:16-18)

Most Holy Trinity (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Gospel for this Sunday — Holy Trinity Sunday, commemorating the Trinity a week after Pentecost’s great celebration of the Holy Spirit — contains a saying so well known that it’s easy to skim over it, and hard to plumb its depths with new eyes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Primarily this verse touches us with its emphasis on God’s radical love for the world and love for us, despite all the suffering the human species inflicts upon itself and on other species. That love means that God is not enthusiastic about condemning. God is enthusiastic about redeeming and forgiving, when the hard heart becomes consumed with remorse and looks to its Creator for forgiveness and love. But God’s respect for our autonomy is such that this is not forced upon us. It is a gift freely offered, and can be freely turned down. Our hearts can soften in the face of God’s love, causing us to follow in the divine way of compassionate kindness; or they can remain hard and intractable, continuing to cause pain to others. 

If “perish” in this passage stands as the opposite of “have eternal life,” then looking more closely at what Jesus means by “eternal life” will help us better understand its opposite. In another passage in John, Jesus asks the Father to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. He then says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus reassures his disciples that simply to know God in an intimate way — and as he told them elsewhere, just to know him is a direct way to know God — leads to eternal life. This is because it is impossible to know God in our depths person-to-Person and yet refuse to love him. And it is that love, which is the greatest transformative force in the world, that brings eternal life. 

It is that gentle yet most powerful-in-its-gentleness force of love that softens our hearts and causes us to see others and all of Creation in the way that God sees. This, in itself, changes our actions and our disposition and leads into the eternal life of which Jesus speaks. We do not need to perform superhuman spiritual acrobatics, he tells us, to inherit eternal life. We do not need to wear ourselves out trying to “earn” it somehow, or prove that we are worthy of it. We will never achieve that. But neither should we relinquish all responsibility to seek and find God, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “well, I’m all good just the way I am, no need to seek God to improve me!” Both such approaches are nonsense. 

When Jesus says, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he is not telling us to ask for the latest hot consumer item, a more luxurious car, or a bigger house. When he encourages us to “seek,” he means seek God, and seek him in earnest, and God will not hide himself but let you find him. When he says “knock,” he means knock on God’s door, and it will always be opened to you.  

Those who are a part of other faiths can truly seek and know God in their own way, for the spark of the Creator dwells deep within each of his creations. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) made this, in fact, a part of doctrine when it wrote that those who are not familiar with Christ and his revelation of God “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16). 

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “It is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, and to see him, and to love him, is the one thing that matters.”

Holy Trinity, triune God, help us always first and foremost to seek you, to knock on your door, to invite you to come and stay with us. By doing so let us open our hearts to be softened and changed by the transformative knowledge of you and your love. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Hearing the Beautiful Sound, Letting the Yeast Leaven

Recently, my husband and I decided that we would like to add to our family by adopting a little girl out of foster care through DCF. This has meant that I’ve spent a lot of time navigating a struggle between two states of mind: (1) the better angels of my nature, as Abraham Lincoln said, which want to do this wholeheartedly, and (2) my darker angels: fearfulness and selfishness. I can describe the first state of mind as a feeling of being gloriously open to the radically freeing and life-giving love of the Holy Spirit. This state feels as though I am standing on a mountain on a sunny day, where the air feels so pristine in my spiritual lungs that to describe it as merely “fresh air” would be to do it an extreme injustice. This state is to be open to love, to life, to faith, to giving, to God. This is to know what Jesus meant when he said, “Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air,” and “Which of you by worrying can add even one cubit to your span of life?”, and “Fear not, little flock, for your heavenly Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom.” This is where I want to give joyfully all that I am.

The second state of mind I mentioned, the one characterized by fear, is the one in which I think mostly about myself. This state feels as though I am standing in a small room, where the air is a bit stuffy. In this room, the Holy Spirit really has to shout loudly through those closed windows for me even to acknowledge that I might possibly hear, perhaps, a faint beautiful Sound coming from somewhere. But I’m doing my best to ignore it. This state is one of self-preservation, and prefers the safety of “known quantities.” In this state, I look askance and reluctantly at the one who calls himself my Shepherd, who claims me as a little one of his flock and beckons, “Come, follow me.” In this state, I’d rather not hear my Shepherd calling. I’d prefer to be one of the sheep that kind of trundles along beneath his radar (as if that were possible) and keep my head down, comfortably munching my patch of grass and pretending I do not hear his voice. But, as he said before, he goes looking for the ones that are out of range and can’t hear him. He’s dedicated like that.

This unknown child that we might adopt would have been removed from her birth parents for one reason or another, most often drug use and concomitant neglect. She would be probably 4-6 years old, and will have been through more confusion and dislocation in her short life than any child should have to deal with. It will be very hard at first, she will not know us, and it’ll take her a while to feel like she’s part of the family. There probably won’t be instant attachment. This is the point at which I hear my own fear whisper to me: “You already have a wonderful, biological daughter. It’s not worth the effort to do this, and you might disrupt things. What are you thinking? Stay comfortable.” This is the state in which I fear all the worst-case scenarios.

But if we are not willing to silence fear, have a little faith, and be open to some level of the unknown, we can surely miss out on wonderful things that can change life forever for the better. When you are expecting a biological child, you don’t know what could happen either. You don’t know what the child will be like in terms of personality, or whether they will be healthy, what they will be like when they’re older, and you don’t even know if something will go wrong with the pregnancy or delivery. And, let’s be honest, if the first stages of having an adopted child in your home are tough, having “your own” biological infant is pretty tough for the first few months too. They’re both tough. Neither one is a bump-less road.

Someone might ask, okay, if you think you’d like to have a second child, why not have another biological one? Well, for us, the first and foremost reason is that there are many good children right here in our own state whose birth parents could not or would not take care of them, and they need a stable forever family to love them and to be a part of. Many of them languish in foster care for much or all of their childhoods and are never adopted, and never have that stability that is so critical to a human’s development. They deserve better than that, and if we would be able to give them better than that, then we feel like we should.

Our faith has a big role in this, too; and often, my husband does a lot better job than I do at listening to the Shepherd’s voice over the whispering of fear and self-centeredness. My husband takes seriously what Jesus said about “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”; and “take up your cross and follow me”; and “whatever you do to/for the least of these brethren, you do to/for me”; and “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” My husband takes seriously too the admonishments in the Old Testament (validated again in the New) for each and every able person to take special care of “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger/foreigner in your midst.”

And as for the reality that this road will be hard at first, my husband also inspires me in his willingness to accept that Jesus never promised there would be no suffering in this imperfect temporary world; that promise only holds true for the eternal world to come. In this world, we are supposed to walk with him through suffering and know that he suffered too and continues to suffer with us; and we are also supposed to join with him as “coworkers in the vineyard,” to help alleviate the suffering of others and bring about as much of the loving kingdom of God as we can on Earth. God gives all of us the chance to be co-creators in this way with him, because that is what he wants for us.

In one of his many parables about what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus said that “the kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast that a woman put into her batch of dough, and it worked its way through and leavened the entire batch.” Like yeast, it is slow but sure, and needs certain nourishment. But give it a chance and it will leaven. Sometimes, if you’re willing to trust, and accept the unknown, you receive life, and receive it abundantly. Somewhere, I’m sure I hear a beautiful Sound. And even in the moments when I can’t hear it, I’m going to do my best to remember what it sounds like.

copyright © 2015 Elizabeth Keck

The Triduum

This year, I didn’t even realize it was Holy Thursday until just after noon, while I was standing in the sacristy of our church doing some routine clean-up tasks. What a moment to have such a revelation.

I serve in the Altar Guild of our church, which means every 7 weeks or so it’s my turn to wash and iron the Communion linens and return them (and, if I’m unlucky according to the liturgical calendar, change the altar paraments). So I was standing there in the sacristy and I heard, coming through the hallway and the walls, the pastor’s voice leading as the congregants began to chant a certain part of the liturgy. Suddenly I thought: “My God, this is Holy Thursday and I didn’t even think of it till now.”

I used to be aware of every minute — every second — of Holy Week. Just a few years ago, forgetting any of the Triduum days was about as likely for me as suddenly being crowned Olympic champion in curling. Oh, of course I had known it was Holy Thursday somewhere in my brain, just as I had expected the Triduum the entire week and its culmination in Easter. But that morning, I had been preoccupied with preparing pizza chena: a traditional Italian Easter dish. At my grandmother’s recent passing, I determined that the tradition would not die, and that I would begin making it, for the first time this Easter. It is an arduous recipe and was occupying most of my finite brain. But I acknowledged that there was another reason one of the three holiest days in the Christian calendar did not actively occur to me until I heard the service listing in through the walls.

The truth was I hadn’t been going to church a lot over the last year. Actually, since the birth of our wonderful daughter 3 years ago, we had been going less and less. Finding that our lives, with which we were very happy and in which we would not change a thing, also made us….tired! Not unmanageably so; just enough not to have the motivation. But it wasn’t just a question of motivation. It was also a question of mental space. With so much going on in our lives that we have to track — not bad things necessarily, just a lot of things — we find the downtime together on weekends to be almost sacred. Especially for my husband, who works not only a full time job but also a difficult night class every semester. And maybe we were too lazy to manage getting a small child to (and through) church every week. We still count ourselves steadfastly Christian. Liberal Christians yes, Christians always interested in wisdom from other religions — but still stalwart ones. We hadn’t become any less spiritual about our religion. We just didn’t go to church as much anymore, even though we had and have no intention of giving church up for good. Had we joined the ranks of those who are religious yet for whatever reason don’t go to services very often? Possibly, for now. But not forever, I can’t help feeling.

So, I had gone to church on Palm Sunday, was actively anticipating Easter, and Holy Thursday still snuck up on me. Whatever that means, as I stood there in that sacristy listening to the beautiful strains of the liturgy, I felt both like an outsider for having “forgotten” and yet, in my deeply individualistic way, also a profound sense of belonging. Belonging to this faith that celebrates an unfathomably sacred Triduum each year: Maundy/Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in Easter. These three days are so sacred because we commemorate a Creator God who took our own form on Earth in the most mindblowing act of empathy and identification that anyone can imagine. Even without the Crucifixion, just the act of that God assuming human form — in some mystifying emptying of Godself — is the ultimate act both of identification with human beings and sanctification of human beings.

In thinking of this, I also thought those thoughts that many people of faith find uncomfortable and try to avoid. This uncomfortable avoidance is natural, and I often find myself doing it, though less so since reading Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, contended that questioning, confused, or even doubting thoughts are not signs of weak or no faith, but are in fact integral to the nature of faith itself, which is dynamic by nature and is “the state of ultimate concern.” As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I think automatically of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis. It was only after that all-night wrestling match that God’s messenger blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel.

The unsettling thoughts, of course, revolved mostly around suffering. Jesus’ suffering. Why? To become fully human, including to experience suffering, in the ultimate demonstration of the Creator’s solidarity with the created? To act in keeping with the biblical tradition, which states that restitution for sin is accomplished through deliberately, voluntarily sacrificing something? So God decided to sacrifice Godself — once and for all — in human form, for humans? I thought of the old debate, dating to the beginning of Christianity: was Jesus fully God or was he like God? I feel that if the Christian story is true, Jesus would have to be truly God in human manifestation for the Crucifixion to make any sense at all — it would have to be God assuming that suffering on Godself, not simply a man handed over to torture. How could that, indeed, accomplish anything? Such a cosmic act requires a divine participant. God deciding to suffer alongside humans, and thus to redeem them in the most magisterial way possible, I can appreciate and be grateful for. But the question inevitably tied to it is the question every faith has probed in every time: why suffering in the first place? No answer, many theories. It is, in the truest sense, a Mystery. Just as the nature of the Universe itself is a Mystery.

All this I pondered as I stood there in that sacristy. Now, the pizza chena is finished and sitting in the fridge, and I am home with my daughter. Not long ago, I actively realized it is Good Friday. Tonight, I will take some time to think about the impenetrable mystery of a God who willingly became a human.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010