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Posts Tagged ‘Moses’

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God Asks More of Us

Fans of Mel Brooks fondly recall the movie scene in which Moses has just descended to the foot of Mount Sinai and he’s eager to tell everyone about his chat with God.  Toting three bulky stone tablets on which are inscribed the law, he excitedly announces the terms of the covenant to his fellow Hebrews.  “Behold, the Lord has given us these FIFTEEN — (crash) — TEN commandments!  Who knew that Moses could think so quickly on his feet?

For the record I want to assert that I don’t believe that this is how Moses edited the commandments down to ten, but that’s where it’s been ever since.  It’s a convenient number;  they’re not too complicated;  and for the most part those ten are not all that hard to follow.  I for one have had no trouble with killing people or major theft, but I’ll admit some difficulty with calling down the wrath of God on certain other people.

05B9F330-E6F0-4B45-A217-A41960B78017However, the relative ease of keeping those ten has always troubled me.  Why did God set such a low bar for us?  Why didn’t God ask a little more of us?  Did God in fact expect more us and only intended that the Ten Commandments be little more than a good start?

A few days ago I happened to read Leviticus 19: 1-2, 11-18, and then it hit me.   God did have bigger plans for us, and the Ten Commandments were merely the start of some much more demanding standards.  The passage begins with commands that the Hebrews already knew.  “You shall not steal.  You shall not speak falsely to one another.  You shall not swear falsely by my name.”  But then come some real surprises that weren’t in the original agreement with God.  “You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer.  You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.”  Moses goes on to list several others, but two in particular stand out as pretty demanding, at least in my books:  “Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty….Nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake.”

2FF7DFB7-FF25-4895-A7E6-8A8547F95799Had those been in the final draft of the commandments I’m not so sure I would have rubber-stamped them.  Those require a level of self-awareness that challenges the best of us.  Therein is the point of the covenant.  God doesn’t want a bare minimum of observance but prefers instead a commitment that is transformative for us.  God asks the best of us, and the Hebrews should not have allowed themselves to be lulled into thinking that God would stop with the first edition of the Ten Commandments.

Of course Jesus took it all one step further.  While ten was a nice number, he was content to pare back the number to two.  And if by chance that sounds like a pretty good deal, consider this.  Is it easier to refrain from killing and stealing, or easier to love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself?

If Jesus sets a pretty high bar for us, it’s good for us to take that into account in our Lenten observance.  On the one hand it’s important to set achievable goals, and if refraining from treats or one of life’s other little pleasures is part of your Lenten regimen, well and good.  But a bit of perspective is always in order.  Those little disciplines serve to remind us of the noble and beautiful lives to which God calls each of us.  God expects more of us than we might imagine, but that merely shows God’s confidence in us.

85198045-9288-435D-80A1-C3BF2B2E86A6NOTES

+On 11 March I flew to Fort Myers, FL, where I spent the week visiting friends and alumni of Saint John’s.  The week began with a reception which highlighted our Immokalee Scholarship Program.  This May the first two students from Immokalee will graduate from Saint John’s, and one of those seniors — Alex — spoke to our group on March 12th.  As he has on other occasions, he did a superb job.

+On March 17th I said Mass at the home of an alumnus in Naples, FL, and twenty-five people were in attendance.  This is the second year I’ve done this, and we are now scheduled to do it again next year.

+The photos in todays post show some of the extraordinary scenery of Petra, in Jordan.  It is  a 1st-3rd century city, with a half-mile canyon entrance that was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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We All Have Too Much Stuff

Recently a friend of mine shared a photo of a sign announcing a yard sale.  The wording was brief, unsentimental and to the point:  “Our stuff can be your stuff.”

Actually the composer of the message economized by resorting to a nice four-letter word rather than the five letter stuff, but all the same the message came through loud and clear.  The owners seemed determined to get rid of a truckload of junk, and if pressed they might even pay browsers to cart it off.

Those homeowners are not alone in having too much stuff, because it’s true for the vast majority of us.  Most of us accumulate and hoard, even if done unconsciously.  Left unchecked, however, the gradual accumulation of stuff can enslave us and even squeeze us out of our homes.

E85EE367-F9A8-4638-B9A9-A73CCF01215AMy own need for stuff hit home on the eve of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  In the days leading up to departure I agonized over what I should take along.  After all, I had no idea of what I might need to survive two weeks in the Holy Land.  Only later did it dawn on me how silly my fears were.  Why would the part of the world that invented international trade no longer have stores?  How absurd to think that I needed to assemble a miniature caravan to drag all my possessions along!  Needless to say, I convinced myself that there were no stores in the Middle East and that I needed clothes and a personal pharmacy worthy of long-term residence abroad.

Not for the first time did I return from a trip with half the stuff in my bag unused and untouched, save from what comes from packing and repacking a half a dozen times.  Once again, I realized, I had been the person who accompanied my baggage on a trip, rather than the other way around.  Nonetheless, I thought, the trip would have been impossible without all that stuff in tow.

Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent.  Like my sojourn in the Holy Land Lent is every bit a pilgrimage.  It’s a time when Jesus invites us to take an inventory of our lives and dispense with some of the self-imposed burdens that can make life so difficult.  During Lent we can rediscover that it really is possible to get by with a lot less than we had imagined, and we can appreciate the benefits that come from traveling through life with less.  When we travel unencumbered we actually get where we’re going more quickly.  Even better, we travel less distracted by the burden of all that material and emotional stuff that we tote around with us.  That’s when we begin to realize the reality of what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  It really is when compared with the burdens we like to impose on ourselves.

C1D426D9-DAD9-4A7D-9CF9-1C951A7DFF13If we begin Lent with the depressing thought that we are carrying around just too much emotional and material baggage, then it’s time for housecleaning.  After all, life doesn’t require that we travel like beasts of burden.  We should never assume that all that stuff is absolutely indispensable and that our lives would be impossible without it.  Jesus in fact suggests otherwise.

On our recent pilgrimage we made a stop at Mount Nebo, where Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the promised land which he was never to enter.  Moses was the quintessential pilgrim, and as a nomad he had little choice but to travel lightly.  So it’s a real stretch to imagine him dragging a U-Haul with a ton of possessions necessary for life in the desert.  It just didn’t happen like that, and it would have been impractical anyway.  He was too busy serving others.  He simply had no time to be a beast of burden in service to his own stuff.

So what’s the take-home from all of this?  If our lives may be too cluttered with stuff, and if we’re dragging around way too much personal baggage, then it may be time to have a mental or even physical yard sale of our own.  And there’s no better time to do so than on our pilgrimage through Lent.

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NOTES

+In last week’s post I mentioned several unexpected encounters with friends during a short stay in Boston.  The trend continued once I arrived in the Middle East.  You can imagine our mutual surprise when I and a fellow board member from Saint John’s came face to face at a hotel restaurant in Jerusalem.  That evening the world became smaller than we ever imagined.  On the plane back to the US I got to meet the president of Sierra Leone, and I even invited him to visit Minnesota.  That in turn led to a pleasant conversation with the shuttle driver at the Minneapolis airport.  He too had been born in Sierra Leone; and while he had not met the president, he had a few choice adjectives to offer about him.

+On 9 March I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible at Chapman University in Orange, CA. I was honored to be the main speaker at their annual Founders Day celebration.

+One of the most pleasant surprises of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land was an introduction to the Roman city of Jerash, located in Jordan.  It’s one of ten cities built by the Romans in the region, and for that reason they were collectively called the Decapolis.  There are references to them in the New Testament, and Jerash is the best-preserved.  It is worthy of a visit because it shows the outlines of a Roman cityscape better than Rome itself.  I was mesmerized.

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Moses:  He Let His People Go

I’d not been to Mount Nebo in Jordan in many years, and I was unaware of the changes that had taken place there.  Located on the east bank of the Jordan River, it was the place from which Moses gazed into the promised land, and on the earlier occasion I had left with memories of the great views across the Jordan and a real empathy for Moses.  After all, it had to be bittersweet as he bade goodbye to the people he’d led for more than forty years, while he stayed behind to die.

Moses was a singular figure in history, but like most whom God chooses he wasn’t perfect.  Whatever gifts he may have had, he could also be angry and headstrong, and he was a murderer.  He had killed an Egyptian who had mistreated an Israelite slave, and that would always be a mark against him.

590C123E-124D-4FA5-B8B5-5B80A459539CMoses was not destined to be a leader, but against his own will he emerged as God’s chosen representative.  That said, his work was not a piece of cake.  He managed to anger God, and on many occasions he angered his own people.  But transformation happened anyway, and not just in spite of those conflicts but perhaps because of them.

What might have been his salient features?  Curiosity might have headed the list.  After all, it was curiosity that caused Moses to detour and visit the burning bush.  Curiosity led him to gaze long and hard into the fire, and in search of understanding it was his curiosity that finally led him to transformation.

Perseverence might have been next on the list.  When Yahweh asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt I’m sure Moses had no idea of what he was getting into.   All the same, if he thought it would take a few months at most to reach the promised land, then he was badly mistaken.  It took 40+ years.  That required incredible patience and perseverence.  Along the way the journey took on the character of purification of a sinful people.  It was also a period of uneven growth both for Moses as well as for the people;  and wandering in the desert was symbolic of the wisdom and maturity that come only with time and experience.

Finally, I have to admire Moses for his readiness to let go.  He had served his people for forty years, but they were God’s people and not his own.  As much as he must have relished the thought of leading his people across the Jordan, it was not to be.  He had to let go of the reins of leadership, and like Pharoah before him, he too had to let the people of Israel go.  They left for the promised land west of the Jordan River, while he stayed behind, prepared to die, east of the Jordan.

88113F95-2C1C-4951-9434-38B9EFCAEB79So what — if any — are the lessons we draw from the life of Moses?  First of all, we all need to cultivate our own sense of curiosity.  The minute we start to believe that we know everything is the moment when we need to go back to school.  We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we deserve to have the last word on everything.

Second, we can all use a little perseverance when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.  Like it was for Moses, our own path to God can be rocky, circuitous, surprising and disappointing.  But that’s the story of any relationship that is meant to grow.

Finally, a healthy sense of detachment is important for us all.  Serving others does not mean we can put them in our debt.  It doesn’t mean we help others and then demand the right to make the major decisions for their lives.  Authentic service means that we help others — not because they are Christian but because we are Christian.  And then we let go.  We help others because we see in them what Christ sees in them:  people created in the image of God.

Ironically, then, Moses as leader and servant is one of the best examples we can choose as our model.  After forty years of service in the desert he let his people go, and there are moments in life when we have to do the same.  As parents, teachers, mentors and friends we must learn to let go of the people whom we serve.  It’s the very least we can do, because very likely God has plans for them — plans of which we can only imagine.

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NOTES

+On Tuesday 19 February I left Boston for Amman, Jordan, where I met up with a group of members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, to begin a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  However, my final hours in Boston reminded me once again  that the world can be a small town.  On Sunday I traded texts with a couple from Minneapolis with whom I’d hoped to meet for months.  It turned out that we were four blocks away from each other in downtown Boston.  Then on Tuesday, as I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for a taxi to go to the airport, I looked up to see a friend from Minneapolis.  Minutes later I met unexpectedly with another friend, this time from Seattle.

+On 20 February I arrived in Amman, Jordan.  After a tour of the city our group left for Petra, and en route we visited Mount Nebo, where tradition says that Moses gazed across the Jordan River to the Holy Land which he would never enter.  Since my last visit the Franciscans have built a church on top of Mount Nebo that lovingly encases the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church.  The photos in today’s blog show the results of their work, and we were privileged to celebrate Mass there.

On 24 February we visited Petra, a truly over-the-top and extraordinary place.  In a future post I will include photos of that amazing place.

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Conversation:  The Experience of Transformation

Last week I had the opportunity to preach once again on the Book of Exodus.  In the liturgy we’ve been marching through that text for several days;  but despite seeing The Ten Commandments as a kid and reading from Exodus more times than I can remember, this time I picked up on some things I’d not noticed before.

For one thing, I now realize that Moses spent a lot more time on Mount Sinai than I had once assumed.  I’ve always presumed that he had hiked up Mount Sinai for a brief chat and afternoon tea with God.  At the end of it he climbed back down — carefully — with two souvenir stone tablets.  Not so.

More likely, their exchange was not nearly so brief and dramatic.  For one thing, Moses was up there for a lot longer, and his chat with God was pretty wide-ranging.  It’s too bad we don’t have a complete transcript of their conversation, but it wasn’t all pyrotechnics, despite what the movie suggested.  That’s reinforced by the behavior of the Israelites, who were camped at the foot of the mountain.  There they waited for Moses, and while they waited and waited they got bored and got on with the business of making a golden calf and getting on with their lives.

IMG_6720Had Moses been gone for only an hour or two, the story would have ended differently.  For one thing, though I’ve never made a golden calf before, I’m guessing that even the most efficient goldsmith needs more than three or four hours to make one.  On top of that, preliminary design issues and discussion with the client would have chewed up all kinds of time.  Finally, there’s the business of finance.  Who’s ever run a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to make a thing like that?  Where in the desert would you find the campaign consultants?  And whoever heard of a capital campaign that would take only gold? — and no pledges please!

The New American Bible translation of Exodus describes the exchange between God and Moses as a “conversation,” which suggests this was a fairly benign encounter.  Still, there had to have been a few moments of high drama as Moses and God hammered out the details of the Ten Commandments.  In the process they created the template for all future negotiations in the Middle East.  But in between they did what all diplomats and politicians worth their salt do.  Who knows what was on God’s mind, but I’m certain that Moses digressed to the the weather, to the food and to a growing list of complaints.  To my mind at least, “conversation” sums up their encounter rather nicely.

IMG_6743Meanwhile, Moses had no inkling of what was happening to him, but the people waiting for him noticed the change in his face right away.  Moses hadn’t looked in a mirror, and so he had no idea that his face had become radiant.  Conversation with God had transformed him, but Moses had scarcely noticed the impact on him.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that there’s no fireworks when I pray to God.  I learned long ago not to expect it, mainly because God generally doesn’t work that way.  I’ve also come to realize that prayer doesn’t upend our lives in an instant, because that’s not how prayer and conversation work.  Prayer changes us over time, and sometimes it takes a lifetime to make a difference and a lifetime to notice the difference.

For all the times when we expect prayer to yield immediate and dramatic results then, it’s good to remember Moses.  He scarcely realized what had happened to him, even if the Israelites could see the transfomation more readily than he.  Therein I find a bit of personal consolation.

I’ve been going to prayer in the monastery for most of my life now.  With gratitude I can assert that never once have I levitated or slipped into some sort of ecstatic reverie.  However, I’ve also come to appreciate the way ordinary conversation with God has impacted my life.  I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty or thirty, and to that my brothers in the monastery would utter a hearty “Amen.  Thanks be to God!”  Happily, I can say the very same for them as well.

IMG_6748Notes

+On August 2nd I presided at the Abbey Mass and preached on the Book of Exodus.

+On August 4th I hosted two dear friends for lunch and a tour of Saint John’s.  This just happened to be the day when, ten years earlier, I had visited them at their home in New Brighton, MN.  Because of the stop at their home I ended up driving over the I-35 bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  I seldom take that route, but that day, exactly one hour after I crossed, the bridge fell into the river.  I’m glad to be alive today.

Our tour of Saint John’s was a bit surreal, and not just because it was a perfect day weatherwise.  As we walked around campus the music of the Eden Prairie High School marching band serenaded our every step.  The band was here for several days for its annual camp, and their music was terrific.  We ended the tour with something from the other end of the spectrum when we visited the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.  There we stood outside two seminar rooms — one hosting a language program in Syriac and the other in Armenian.  That’s quite a contrast from the music of a marching band, but it makes for a very interesting summer day.

+On August 5th my mother and sister and brother arrived at Saint John’s for a four-day visit.  They’ve not been here for several years, and it has been wonderful to host them.

+The photos in today’s post show some of the flowers in the cloister gardens on either side of the Abbey church.  All are visible from the pews in the nave as well as from the choir stalls, and during the summer any flowers we might place inside the church are entirely superfluous.

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Corpus Christi:  A Reflection

[The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi at Saint John’s Abbey, 18 June 2017.]

In my idle moments I’ve sometimes wondered what we’ll do to keep ourselves busy for all eternity in the kingdom of the Lord.  Fortunately I’m not blessed with the ambition to be on the entertainment committee — the committee charged with keeping people happy and satisfied.  That’s akin to the job that Moses had for forty years in the desert, and I don’t think he found it all that fulfilling.

However, there’s one thing I know I would like to do in heaven, given half the chance.  That’s the chance to interview a few people who’ve played starring roles in the human story.  Certainly high on my list would be Moses who, if truth be told, is one of the reasons we are all here today.  Had Moses heard about the burning bush and simply rushed on by because he had deadlines to meet, then that would have been the end of the story.  But curiosity made him pause, and his curiosity has made all the difference for him and for us.

IMG_6428It was never easy for Moses.  First of all, he promised freedom to all who would follow him;  but on more than one occasion people seemed less than enthusiastic about following.  When faced with challenge and risk, they conjured up fond memories of a simpler life of slavery in Egypt.  More than once they complained about the food, about the indecisive leadership, and about the hazards of a hostile environment and people.  To put it simply, they preferred the devil whom they did know to the devils they were sure they would meet in the wilderness.  And for Moses, who had spoken with God and had lived to tell the tale, it had to be exasperating.  These people he tried to lead had defied him at every turn, and he must have believed they deserved whatever punishment the Lord had sent their way.  Conversely, Moses must have marveled at the mercy God showered on a people that scarcely deserved mercy.  In short, Moses must have grown impatient both with his people and perhaps even with God.

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses speaks to his people as their wanderings are just about over.  It’s been forty years, and they stand on the brink of the promised land.  And in one of his last big sermons Moses reminds everyone of what’s happened to them in the course of forty years in the desert.  For one thing, most of those who had left Egypt had long since died.  And Moses knew that even he would not cross into the promised land.  It was an entirely new people that stood before him.  Before him stood the children and grandchildren of the pioneers who had taken those hesitant steps out of Egypt.  For forty years the desert experience had shaped them, and manna had nourished them.  Perhaps the change had come upon them so slowly that they had scarcely noticed;  but they who were once no people had now become the people of God.

IMG_6414Now they stood at the threshold of the promised land.  Could they sustain the covenant — the commitment they had made with God at Mount Sinai?  Only time would tell.  But of one thing they could be sure.  God would walk with them.  God would nourish them.  God would never desert them.  God would continue to transform each and every one of them.

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi — the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In our opening prayer we spoke of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood, and it’s truly right to speak of it as a mystery.  It’s mystery in part because the Eucharist is bigger than anything we can imagine.  The First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of it as a participation in the body and blood of Christ.  It is Jesus Christ with us, and we believe his presence is real and not metaphorical.  And so we reverence the body and blood of Christ as we keep vigil in prayer before it.  But we also take and eat, just as the Lord Jesus commanded us.  And in that eating we become one with the Lord.

IMG_6454In a few minutes we will once again call down God’s blessing and pray for the transformation of our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  And then we will take and eat, and Jesus will once again become food for our journey.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve received and fed on the body and blood of Christ in the course of my life.  What I can say with surety is that the degrees of intensity of the experience have varied.  Sometimes I’ve been blessed to realize the enormity of what I was doing.  At other times it’s been an almost unconscious experience.  But every now and again I feel blessed with the insight of what God continues to do to and with me on my pilgrimage of life.  By now my pilgrimage has been longer than the forty years in the desert, and yet I’m also keenly aware that my pilgrimage is far from over.  God continues to pull me — and you — along, just as God led those Hebrews wandering in the desert.

In a few moments we will stand to repeat the Nicene Creed.  Much like the Hebrews did before Moses, so we must decide whether we will continue to uphold our part in the covenant.  Will we walk with God or wander off now and again?  Simple curiosity might justify the journey.  The emptiness of alternative paths might argue in favor of the wisdom of walking with God.  But we have to decide.

IMG_6405Should we decide to walk with God, our pilgrimage becomes a statement of faith.  It is our belief that God walks with us and gives us food for the journey.  The Lord sustains us in good times and in bad.  And just as the Lord has already done great things for us, so will the Lord continue to do great things through us.  This is our faith.  May God make strong that faith in us.

Notes

+On June 17th I and my confrere Brother Neal drove to Onamia, MN, to attend the diaconate ordination of Brother Alex Juguilon, OSC.  Alex is a member of the Crosier community there, and he did his seminary studies at Saint John’s.  Despite the fact that their priory is only 65 miles away, and I’ve known several members of their community through the years, this was my first visit.  It was definitely worth the trip.

+On Sunday June 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and the sermon that I delivered serves as today’s post.  Some months ago I decided that I just did not have the time — nor the imagination — to write a second reflection for my blog.  So on the occasion when I’ve prepared a sermon, it now does double duty.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from the monastic garden, behind the monastery.  It is particularly lush and green this year, and at the moment the ladyslippers are in bloom.  They are the state flower of Minnesota, and we are fortunate to have them scattered around the property.   On another note, I do not aspire to be a wildlife photographer, but I could scarcely resist the turkey who strolled by me in the course of taking these pictures.  Most mornings and evenings we see turkeys cutting through the garden, and they seem reasonably tolerant of our presence.

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