Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

img_3559One More Marvel in Our Eyes

All of us end up doing a few things that in a million years we never imagined for ourselves.  Many, if not most of these, land in the positive column and fall under the biblical heading of “a marvel for our eyes.”  Such was the case when I was privileged to speak a year ago from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, TN.  The church serves both its congregation as well as the students of Carson-Newman University, and I was there to speak on The Saint John’s Bible.  It was a happy experience, and I remember my time there fondly.

I describe it as an “improbable” event, because as a kid growing up in Oklahoma City I anticipated neither becoming a monk nor speaking from the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church.  In those days the Catholic population of my hometown was 3%, Episcopalians were 2%, and Lutherans were 1%.  In the context of the times, I’m confident that my Episcopal and Lutheran playmates –who were likewise scarce as hen’s teeth — also harbored no such ambitions for themselves.

Last week I returned to Carson-Newman to take part in the dedication of their gallery which will house both the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible and a fine collection of artifacts from the ancient Near East.  It was a lovely two-day event, and among the guests were Donald Jackson, the director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.  Since we are constructing our own Bible gallery at Saint John’s, curiosity was one reason that drove us to see exactly what they had done.  It was well worth the trip.

img_3547On 31 October 2017, Christians in the West will begin a commemoration of the Reformation, an event that has divided them for 499 years.  On the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of the castle in Wittenberg, and that action unleashed a torrent of debate and conflict that endured for hundreds of years.  Only in our lifetime have the passions subsided enough to realize that what we share as Christians transcends the many items over which we disagree.

When we began work on The Saint John’s Bible we did so knowing full well that monks and Christians had made such Bibles for hundreds of years, but monks hadn’t made one in the last five hundred.  In the Middle Ages the very act of making a Bible from scratch defined what it meant to be both civilized and Christian, and we wanted to replicate the experience.  We hoped too that it would remind Catholics of the centrality of the Bible in our theology, spirituality and worship.  We also intended to make the point that, like our evangelical neighbors, Catholics and mainline Protestants were biblically-based.  There was no harm in pointing out what we all shared as Christians, and our hopes have scarcely been disappointed.

As Christians have begun to anticipate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s action, people have struggled over the verb that should best-describe our observance of the event.  Do we celebrate?  Do we atone?  Do we mark it with indifference, as if it were just one more historical date to memorize for tests?  Do we note it with regret?  Do we emphasize our continued separation or our gradual movement toward each other?  From my vantage, I think all these should be factored in.  But no one’s asked for my views, as of yet.

img_3573Still, if we fail to note how far we’ve come in the last two generations, then we forget that quite possibly it is the Lord who has quietly accomplished this.  On a micro level, the mere thought that a Bible commissioned by an abbey of Benedictine monks might someday rest in a place of honor in the library of a Southern Baptist university has to count as a marvel in our eyes.  The fact that Catholics and Baptists can together give thanks for the Word of God is testimony to the Spirit of God stirring in our midst.

It’s also important to appreciate this one event for what it is not.  It is not an isolated instance in which a few Baptists and Catholics swam against the tide to build a wonderful relationship that’s based on faith.  In fact, it’s part of a larger and longer story that stretches back to events that long-preceded World War II and the advent of warmer ecumenical relations.  This common awareness of a shared faith in Jesus Christ is something that has been developing slowly.  It’s happened under the radar and beyond the coverage of the blaring headlines.  But it’s happened nonetheless, and we should cherish it as a sign of hope.

img_3556It’s easy to turn on the news or open the papers and conclude that our world is headed over the cliff and that there’s little we can do to prevent it.  Worse still, it’s easy to look at all that chaos and justify our own inaction.  But despair and sitting on our hands would be a mistake.

In fact, there’s lots we can do, starting with mutual respect for the people whom we run into each and every day.  From our reading of Genesis we believe that God created each and every one of us in his image — be they Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, be they Jew or Muslim, or be they people of little or no faith at all.  It’s a joy — if even a puzzling joy — to know that God expects progress as we try and live in this belief.  But we can do it, and we can do it in the confidence that the Lord is there to help us, every step of the way.

At least for me, and I hope for lots of others, this too counts as one of the great marvels in our eyes.  It’s yet one more sign that life itself is one continuous miracle.


+On October 3rd I presided at the Mass at Saint John’s Abbey.  Who is My Neighbor? is linked to the short homily that I delivered that day.

+On 5-6 October I took part in the dedication events for The Lynn and Lydsey Denton Gallery on the campus of Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, TN.  I had a great time and once again enjoyed their warm hospitality.  Still, my one regret was that I was too early for the fall colors.  It’s a gorgeous landscape, sitting at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.

+The pictures in today’s post illustrate how late we are with the fall colors at Saint John’s.  The photo at the bottom illustrates a portion of the gallery at Carson-Newman University.

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imageBe Watchful.  Be Alert.

You have to wonder what in the world the disciples were doing when Jesus pushed them to “be watchful.  Be alert.”  (Mark 13: 33).  Had they dozed off during one of his parables?  Had their minds wandered?  Did they assume that, as the ultimate insiders, there was nothing more to learn?  We’ll never know.  But I’m guessing they’d grown a little smug and thought they had nothing to worry about.  Life with Jesus was good.

Whether these words rattled them or not, we’ll also never know.  But one thing seems clear.  This was not an invitation to sit back, relax, and coast through life.  Jesus expected a little more out of them than waiting around for their turn to sit at his right in the kingdom.

What Jesus wanted from his apostles matters to us as well, since this gospel passage inaugurates the season of Advent.  And therein is a dilemma.  Is Jesus trying to scare us to death with talk about burglars breaking in when we least expect them?  Is he trying to make us paranoid with the thought that the loss of everything dear to us is just around the next corner?  Or does he recommend that his disciples and we dial down on the alarmism, but open our minds just a tad to what is going on around us?  It strikes me that we have two options here.  We can hit the panic button, or we can buckle down and tend to the quest of becoming Christian.

imageA popular stereotype of monks is that we are a dour and depressing lot.  People assume that we must worry constantly about our salvation, and that best explains why we spend all that time in church.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help our public image when he tells  his monks to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  Who wouldn’t panic at the thought that today may see the end of everything.  I know I’d be anxious as heck at the thought that by nightfall I would pack it all in and face the grim reaper.

Most monks I know simply can’t and won’t live that way.  None of us can sustain that sort of emotional intensity for very long, because we’d either despair or go crazy.  On top of that, confreres who are like that are tough to live with.  That’s why we usually encourage them to search for God someplace else.  Life has enough difficulty without somebody constantly telling us that it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

With all due respect, neither Jesus nor Saint Benedict were trying to have a little fun at our expense.  They did not intend to cry wolf and scare the daylights out of us, hoping to induce radical change in our behavior.  Instead, they both hoped we’d keep on searching for God, day in and day out.  No matter how boring it might seem.

imageThis point may be tough to tease out, but I think it goes something like this.  For those who expect salvation to be a personal big-bang moment, when God hits us on the head, they’re generally disappointed with the results.  Even Saint Paul, and even Martin Luther, had to deal with the realities of a long life after they fell from their horses.  Life proved too long to put all their eggs in the basket of a split-second conversion experience.  Life went on, and on.  And unlike so many other things for which life is too short, when it comes to the search for God, one life is more than long enough.  It’s a relationship that waxes and wanes through the years.  And like a marriage or a friendship, it’s something that requires regular investment.

So if Advent is an invitation to buckle down and be about our Father’s business, what exactly should we do?  Well, like New Year’s or Lent, one or two resolutions can be enough to nourish our relationship, at least for this interlude in our lives.  And as this passage from the Gospel of Mark suggests, our focus should be on the Lord in our midst.

imageOn the assumption that we should keep our eyes peeled to see Christ where we least expect him, I’ve decided to address one of my many pet peeves where my vision could use some improvement.  I know this sounds a little jaded, but one peeve results from years of experience with taxi drivers in New York.  If ever again a driver asks how to get where I hope to go (as two of them did recently), I’ve decided to take the question philosophically rather than literally.  “Let’s pray about this together, and I’m sure we’ll find the way.”  That’s definitely better than what I said two weeks ago, and on a few other occasions as well.  And the benefits of this approach?  I lower my blood pressure, and the driver is transformed before my very eyes.  He’s no longer the thief in the night, trying to lead me on a long and expensive diversion.  Instead, I realize that maybe he’s only trying to do the best he can.  In such a person it may be tough to see Christ at first.  But if you squint, it’s a real revelation when you finally spy Christ at the wheel of your taxi.

That, I submit, is the invitation Jesus puts to us in Advent.  This is no time to panic because we’ve not seen his face for ages.  Rather, it’s a few weeks when we buckle down and focus on someone who’s been there all along.  And so, if there are people on your list in whom you least expect to find the Lord, be watchful, and be alert.  The Lord may have been in them all along.  What a surprise to realize that — all this time — we’ve be gazing on the image of God.


+The monks of Saint John’s celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary festive meal.  Unlike in past years, however, the monks did everything, including the preparation of the refectory, the cooking, and the clean-up.  This gave the regular kitchen staff the day off, though from them it required an act of faith that we would not destroy the kitchen in their absence.  Actually, we are blessed to have several monks who have accomplished skills in the kitchen, and the meal was a great success.  At the end of the day the kitchen was in mint condition, much to everyone’s relief.

+On November 29th the University football team played its second game in the Division III national play-offs.  Sadly, they lost to Wartburg College, thus ending the season.  It was a great season though, and the final loss did come with a silver lining:  no more games in the cold of winter.  The winner gets to go on and freeze another day.

image+Over Thanksgiving I finished reading a book that I’d worked on for a while: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013.)  As a medieval historian I found the narrative immensely interesting, as Heather traces the evolution of a new empire in the West and the development of the papacy from the 5th to the 12th centuries.  I had read a favorable review of it in The Wall Street Journal, which suggested its accessibility to the general reader.  It is accessible, but the novice historian will find the array of names of barbarian chiefs and kings bewildering.  The popes under discussion are slightly more familiar.  This is a terrific book for its narrative of how the Church and empire in western Europe became what it became.

+The prophet Isaiah shows up early in the readings for Advent, and the first photo in today’s post is of “Saint Isaiah”, from Oliva Cathedral in Gdansk, Poland.  The other photos are from the cathedral in Metz, France, which was near the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

+In the post of 24 November I included a gallery of images of the Abbey church.  This week I’ve included selected photos of the Abbey church in use.


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imageAdvent: A Time-Sensitive Invitation

One of the giant figures of the Advent season is the prophet Isaiah.  In the Jewish context he preaches a future in which justice shall reign and Gentiles will look to the descendants of Jesse for inspiration.  And from a Christian point of view, this shoot of Jesse is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.  So it is that Isaiah serves as a prophet in two religious traditions.

All that is well and good, but there are elements in Isaiah’s vision that are a little on the impractical side.  It’s nice enough to imagine the day when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb (Isaiah chapter 11.)  I can also concede the possibility that cows and bears might be neighbors, as they already are on a few ranches in the west.  But it strains credulity that God’s plan includes the day when lions will become vegetarians and children will play with cobras.  Of the many items in the Bible that require a leap of faith, these pose some of the greatest chasms to cross.  I just can’t see myself jumping that far.

Of course Isaiah is speaking in symbolic language, and for good reason.  If you can’t imagine the day when leopards, goats, calves and lion cubs will all hang out together, then you have a rough idea of what it will take to achieve world peace and justice for all.  They are so beyond our reach, that they seem impossible.  But Isaiah appears to suggest that they are not impossible quests.  They are all within reach, despite our almost universal pessimism.

imageThis brings me to one of my pet peeves about a few preachers.  I don’t mean to throw stones, but it irritates me when people use the pulpit to run through a list of impossible items, and then dump them onto an unsuspecting congregation.  I’m for peace in the Middle East as much as the next guy.  I’m for an end to the violence that plagues central Africa and the poverty that still seems to grind at people in the far corners of the world.  But to impose those challenges on the average person in the pew is to stick them with the impossible.  It’s the equivalent of telling them to turn lions into vegetarians, and to do it by the end of the afternoon.  And when you’ve done with that, then go see to the leopards.  In short, all these things are too tall an order for our meager energies.  They’re beyond the talent of most of us in the room, unless I am mistaken here.

imageIs this yet another case of religion placing impossibly idealistic burdens upon us?  I hope not, despite the fact that I’m not likely to achieve world peace all by myself, and certainly not by Friday at the earliest.  But therein is the lesson to be learned.

One of the great points I drew from reading Martin Luther years ago was his emphasis on the total depravity of people.  He didn’t mean to trash people, nor did he imply that we were created as so much rubbish.  Rather, he wanted to convey one fundamental fact: if you are laboring under the illusion that you can save the world, all by yourself, then you are one sad customer.  You can’t.  There’s just too much to save, and you cannot do it all alone.  That’s why, ultimately, we must turn to God for help.  Alone we can do little or nothing.  With God’s  help we’ll be amazed at what we can accomplish.

So the next time some preacher assigns you the task of ending violence in America, and to do it by Wednesday, take it with a big grain of salt.  Whatever the homilist may have meant, interpret it as an invitation to look at the big picture first, and then go and begin to do your own part in achieving the impossible.  Generally the impossible begins with our own lives, because the impossible has to start somewhere, somehow.  And if I don’t work with God to get my own life in order, then the big goals will always remain just beyond my reach.  World peace will never come if I don’t make a place for it within my circle of friends, within my own home, and deep within my heart.

imageThat, it seems to me, is a central message of Advent.  If some of life’s aspirations are too much to do all by ourselves, then call on the Lord to help with that burden.  And then get down to the business of doing what it is that the Lord calls us to do.  After all, that is why Jesus comes as Messiah.

There are two other bits that are worth keeping in mind.  First, the invitation that Advent puts to us is non-transferrable.  The Lord invites us to do what we alone can do.  We can’t pass that off to someone else, hoping that they will carry our burden of responsibility for us.  Second, the invitation is time-sensitive.  Sure, Advent lasts about four weeks, and we hope that there will be more Advents to come.  But what if this is my last?  What if this is the moment when the Lord has chosen to speak to me?  Will I have the nerve to tell God to get back to me later, when I finally have the time?  I hope not.


+On December 2nd I was a guest speaker at an undergraduate theology class at Saint John’s University.

+On December 4th I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and you may read the text of  the homily, Jesus as Leader, in Presentations.

+Once again, during the past week I avoided the airport, and it allowed me the chance to enjoy a major seasonal change in Minnesota.  First came a big ice and snow storm.  Then came the cold, and cold it was.  By Friday I finally caved in and turned on the space heater in my room, for the first time this winter.  Last  year I wrote a post on the acquisition of this space heater, which I use only when it gets desperately cold.  Normally I don’t turn on the antiquated radiator in my room, simply because the two options include “cold” or “full-blast tropical.”  But by Friday I had little choice.  Happily, the space heater still works.

image+On December 7th Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud came to Saint John’s to ordain to the diaconate Brothers Bradley and Michael Leonard.  Though Bishop Kettler had visited Saint John’s a few weeks ago to attend a football game, this was his first official visit as bishop to the Abbey.  He set a nice tone with the opening lines of his sermon.  “I’m supposed to read a canned sermon of instruction,” he said, “but I’ll get to that in a little while.”  He did read the printed text later, but we all learned that he can speak just as well for himself.  It turned out to be a wonderful event, and Bishop Kettler joined monks and guests for lunch in the Abbey refectory.

+In a homily last week our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann spoke about the overabundance of great Advent music.  He cited two hymns that we had sung particularly well that week, and lamented that Advent is just not long enough to sing all we’d like to sing.  I agree completely, and with that in mind I recommend for your listening The Holly and the Ivy, sung by the choir of King’s College Cambridge.

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imageHear God Locally

Travel does strange things to people.  Of course it broadens our horizons.  We meet new and interesting people.  We see things that amaze us.  And we discover that people who live in remote and isolated places like New York and Los Angeles also lead happy and productive lives.  Who would have thought.

But travel rarely leaves us unchanged.  In fact, there’s an intensity that comes with a change of scenery that makes such days so different from others in our routine.  On travel days things get seared into our memories, and they assume an importance that makes other days pale in comparison.  So it is that from ages ago we can recall a single day in Omaha, as if it were yesterday.  Meanwhile, entire years become a blur.

Last Tuesday was one of those days.  I rarely get the chance to drive along the Mississippi between Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I always relish the opportunity.  It’s among the most beautiful stretches of scenery in the Midwest.  For miles you can follow the river as it cuts its way between the high bluffs that flank it.  With its barges that work their way up and downriver, and with the trains that run on either bank, it has the feel of the Rhine.  And so the prospect of driving from Saint Paul to Winona, and back, lifted my spirits.

imageThe trip down was uneventful enough, save that the views lived up to the expectations.  A few clouds dotted the sunny skies, and together they framed the scenery to best advantage.  And the traffic was minimal.  It was a great day to enjoy a perfect route.

I expected the return to Saint Paul to be nice as well, even if it was via the inland route by way of Rochester.  Many times I had enjoyed the slow climb that the road takes to reach the top of the bluffs west of Winona.  Along the way you pass through quiet towns which seem to have stood still since the 1950’s.  In fact, in one town I thought I had stumbled into a Hollywood set.  As I slowly passed through, kids played softball in a park.  Others sat in two’s and three’s on benches, chatting and eating ice cream.  I could hardly believe it as I gazed on  young couples strolling arm in arm down the shady streets.  There were no fast food joints nor other signs of the prosperity that has destroyed many an American town.  What these people seemed to lack in material wealth they more than made up for in apparent happiness.  But it wasn’t my town, and I drove on.

imageOnce out of the hills, you climb onto the plain and some of the richest farmland in America.  In the waning daylight the industrial-sized stands of corn stretched out for miles.  There was not a farmhouse nor human to be seen.  But the rows of corn that reach forever testify to the organization that we’ve stamped onto our landscape.  It’s hauntingly beautiful, and lonely at the same time.  It’s a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

The weather service had warned of storms to the north, and as I turned from Rochester toward Saint Paul I could see them in the distance.  They looked fierce, but I hoped I might be able to skirt them as they pounded their way into Wisconsin.  But it was not to be.

Twenty miles from Saint Paul my luck ran out.  The rains came, and gone was my pleasant evening drive through the country.  This was no gentle storm, and hard rain in the twilight is a challenge.  But this section of Highway 52 had just received a new coat of asphalt.  So fresh was it, that there were no lane stripes, save rather short hash marks in the middle.  In the rain, in the darkness, this was scary stuff.  Then came the hail, and lots of it.

imageThe hail was so thick that even the most insane drivers had to pull to the side of the road.  Even the semi’s, those dreadnoughts of the road, feared to go on.  And so there we sat, and there we waited.  Stretching out ahead of me was a long line of brake lights, but how far I could only guess.

Eventually the hail stopped, and it did so as quickly as it had started.  It was almost as if someone had flicked the switch to off.  And there it was: the winter landscape we’d not seen since April.  In the faint light the sides of the road looked full with snow, and the road itself had a thick layer of ice pebbles.  It was tough to drive on and crunchy to hear; and being summer, the hot road-bed sent up clouds of steam to make it a real challenge to pick your way along the road.  But worse still, now no one knew for sure where the road-bed was at all.  Your life depended on following the tracks left by the cars in front of you.  You dared not fall behind.

This was a true white-knuckle drive.  That evening most of us, if not all of us, became kindred spirits to Martin Luther, who had also found himself on the road in the middle of a storm.  With no convenience store to pull into, and in a panic, Luther invoked the aid of Saint Anne, and he sealed his bargain with a promise to become a monk.

imageThat night on Highway 52 many of us made bargains with God.  As is usual in such cases, God seemed to hold the winning hand, and we knew it.  So I’m guessing that drivers that night were willing to promise pretty much anything under the sun.  But since this stretch of 52 is lined with Lutheran towns, I suspect few vowed to become monks.  And I didn’t care to stop and ask.  But deals were struck and we’ll never know how or when God will come to collect on the winnings.

In the Old Testament we read of the prophet hearing the voice of God in the gentle breeze.  On Highway 52 people thought they also heard the voice of God in the hail.  But as different as both cases might seem, each is consistent with Saint Benedict’s advice to look for God in the simplest of things.  It’s in these that God speaks to us most eloquently, Benedict writes.

So what did I hear God saying to me last Tuesday in the hail on Highway 52?  First, God seemed to be suggesting that you don’t need to go to Paris or Tehran for a life-changing experience.  You can find such an experience quite close to home, including on a highway through the farmland of Minnesota.

imageSecond, don’t make vows that are impossible to keep.  Since I was already a monk, I could not duplicate Martin Luther’s promise to Saint Anne on that stormy night in Saxony.  But I didn’t rashly promise to be a perfect monk either.  I may not be overly bright, but I’m not stupid.  Instead, I vowed to be a slightly better monk, insofar as I am able.  God, having dealt with attorneys through the centuries, understands that kind of language.  And while God’s not getting the moon, at least there’s hope for incremental improvement in the petitioner.

Finally, it’s not always the big bomb-shells that create the lasting memories.  Hail may not be a big deal when compared to a show on Broadway, but if I can remember and write about it even five days later, then it says a lot.  If I can make a mountain out of a mole-hill of hail, so can you.

This August, see America — or your local version of it — first.  You might be surprised at what you’ve been missing, and you might find God right in your neighborhood.  And who knows what God will have to say to  you.  But give God a chance.


+On August 5th I revisited the dentist to finish work on a new crown.  The installation went so quickly that there was no chance to fall asleep this time around.

+On August 6th I spoke at a luncheon for members of the class of ’64 of Saint John’s University, held in Edina, MN.  Later that afternoon I drove to Winona, MN, where I attended the opening of an exhibit on The Saint John’s Bible, presented at the Minnesota Maritime Museum.

+Recently the Abbey completed the redesign of its homepage, which you can visit at http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org.

image+In the course of the summer those who have walked through the hall outside the chapter house have enjoyed an exhibit of paintings by our confrere, Fr. Jerome Tupa. The paintings narrate his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2005, and the large and bright canvasses fill the space beautifully.

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