Five Loaves and Two Fish

Five Loaves and Two Fish

Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.

Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.

The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.

The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.

The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.

Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.

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A Thousand Deaths

A Thousand Deaths

When Jesus was confronted with untrue accusations, do you remember what He did? As the Sanhedrin gathered false testimony, as Pilate presented questions given by the chief priests, as Jesus struggled beneath the weight of the cross and the jeers of the people, as Jesus was maligned while on the cross, do you remember what He chose?

Silence.

How hard it is to not rush to our own defense! When situations are misrepresented, when intentions are skewed, when honest questions are left unanswered, it is a tremendous act of the will to not attempt to set all things right. Sometimes, it is necessary to provide clarity and correctness and other times it is completely unnecessary. And sometimes it is necessary to try to show the misunderstandings, but to ultimately fail in convincing them of their skewed view.

We always feel the pains of injustice acutely when it offends our own sense of justice. I look at the lives of the saints and martyrs and I tend to think about how glorious and courageous were their deaths. Yet each of those martyrdoms was preceded by many, many small bloodless deaths. St. Paul didn’t only suffer beheading in Rome. Before that, he was imprisoned, he experienced riot after riot when preaching the Gospel, he was looked upon with distrust by the Jews and the Christians after his striking conversion, and he spent much time in chains for the sake of the Gospel. His final suffering, the death of a martyr, was simply the last death he experienced in a long line of dying to self.

Most of our stories won’t be quite that dramatic. We probably won’t sit unjustly condemned in terrible prisons awaiting our cruel deaths. We will, however, suffer in other ways. And it will be in ways that will be easy to want to reject or feel the need to correct. As Jesus heard false testimony, I am certain He had at least part of a desire to simply say, “I didn’t say that. That isn’t right. You weren’t there. You are intentionally misrepresenting me.” Instead, He suffered in silence with the Lord. He knew that the truth would be revealed and He rested with the Lord in the midst of being misunderstood. He invites us to do the same, in the small and the large sufferings of our daily life.

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Salt and Light

Salt and Light

This past Sunday, the Gospel spoke of how we ought to be the salt and light the world needs. It concluded with this line:

Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

Matthew 5:16

After we read it in class, we spent time on Friday discussing it. Near the end of our conversation, I pointed to the reaction that we should desire from others. As we strive to live as salt and light, we should desire that people give praise to God for what they see instead of praising us.

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Living and Active

Living and Active

It continues to surprise me how extremely relevant Scripture is to the lives of prisoners. Whether I’m reading an Old Testament prophet or the epistles of St. Paul, the circumstances of the imprisoned are never far from any given page. Listening to the readings in prison, as Paul speaks about the chains he bears for the sake of the Gospel or how many times he found himself imprisoned, adds a whole new depth to the readings.

Earlier this week, as my sister and I drove to prison for a bible study, I read the Gospel passage aloud that we were going to discuss. It was something I’ve heard and read dozens of times and yet my eyes were opening in a new way, something that has happened innumerable times since I started going into the prison. The passage for the upcoming Solemnity of Jesus, King of the Universe, was about Jesus on the cross and the conversation He had with the good and bad thief.

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.” Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23: 35-43

I could hardly believe it when I read the passage to my sister. How striking. A passage about how Jesus, the sinless one, who enters into our lives and takes on our sin, dying amongst criminals who were sentenced justly for their crimes. What would it be like to hear this as a prisoner?

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The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus

If you don’t often feel uncomfortable when reading the Gospel, you might be reading it wrong.

Between a Monday evening Bible Study and Friday classes, I have the great gift of looking at the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel at least six times during a typical week. Sometimes, I’m a little dense, though. It took until Friday afternoon or Saturday before I genuinely started applying it to me.

This past Sunday the Gospel was about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel. It is clearly a rebuke of the rich man’s lack of compassion for the suffering of Lazarus. Also, it emphasized the finality of death and the subsequent judgement.

At first glance, I felt pretty comfortable. I do not look at the suffering of my fellow man with zero compassion. Yet I was prompted to wonder: perhaps the rich man did see Lazarus, did see his suffering, did feel moved–just not enough. Maybe the idea of reaching out made him feel uncomfortable. Or he didn’t know what to do. Or he was nervous that the suffering of Lazarus would be too disturbing to experience up close.

The Gospel suddenly became something I could apply to my life as I remembered a situation where I saw someone suffering, felt bad for them, and then did nothing. There were about three times when I had witnessed a man sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, well past a time when he should have been home or in a shelter. It was an arresting scene: the sun had set, it was a bit blustery, and there he sat in a wheelchair on the sidewalk with a blanket stretched over his entire body, from his feet to over his head. I saw it and I kept driving, every single time.

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He Disciplines the One He Loves

He Disciplines the One He Loves

I promise, I promise that I will not forever be talking about prison on here. At some point, the students will make an appearance again. It simply seems that the most striking things are happening in prison.

The other night, we were following a winding conversation that started from Sunday’s Gospel. We discussed being the one sheep that wanders away and how the generous love of the Father always seeks us out. One of the inmates reflected on how God’s love sometimes doesn’t seem gentle, as He protects us from worse things. He compared it to an experience he had as a father where he had to stop his child from running into traffic but that action made the child cry. Yet it was necessary in order to save the child from greater danger or even death. It was likened to prison, a place I’ve frequently heard them refer to as a place that saved them while also grumbling against it.

Another inmate listened to this and then quoted from memory, “The Father disciplines the one He loves.”

And that other inmate just nodded his head and said, “Thank God.”

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The Beloved One

The Beloved One

Is John the most arrogant of all the disciples?

Throughout the Gospel of John, essentially whenever John refers to himself, he doesn’t use his name. Instead, he says “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” At first glance, it might seem like pure arrogance, pride over the fact that John was one of the “inner three” Jesus drew particularly close to Himself.

Or it might be something else entirely.

When I discuss this title with my students, they are a bit surprised that John refers to himself as the beloved disciple. But then I try to draw their attention to the other claims John could have made.

John, the only disciple at the foot of the cross.
John, the one who leaned his head near the heart of Jesus and sat next to Him at the Last Supper.
John, the disciple who arrived first to the tomb after the Resurrection (because he ran faster than Peter).
John, the youngest of the disciples.
John, the one to whom Jesus entrusted His mother.

What do we see instead? John, the one whom Jesus loved.

There are several unique roles that John played, but when writing the account of Jesus, he chooses to simply be known by the fact that Jesus loved him. More than everything else, the love of Jesus is the most precious to John. He is the beloved disciple.

Contrary to what we might think initially, his belovedness is not in conflict with anyone else’s belovedness. It isn’t John, the one Jesus loved more than all others or to the exclusion of all others. It is simply: John, beloved by Jesus.

It is a title we could all claim.

Is that what I see first, though: my belovedness?

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That Missionary Life

That Missionary Life

“Who is a missionary?” I asked my class, not too long ago.

They came up with a variety of answers: someone who preaches in a foreign country, someone who has very little, someone who doesn’t make money, and the list continued.

It was difficult for them to wrap it all up neatly. Several wanted to insist that you had to leave the country. I think it was because it fit their idea of a missionary better. Flying to a foreign country steeped in poverty seems far more missionary-esque than serving on a college campus.

FOCUS sends people to college campus and calls them missionaries. Are they?”
“Do they get paid?”
“They fundraise their salary.”

Many were on board with that. But for them, there had to be some type of leaving happening–going to a new place, even if they would begrudgingly accept work in the United States.

“What does a missionary do?” I asked.
“Preach the Gospel.”
“So who could be a missionary?”
They discussed for a while. One said, “You?”
“Am I a missionary?”

The whole issue of pay came up again, some saying that would disqualify me from missionary status.

Am I a missionary?

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A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene

A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene

Tastes and preferences change over time, for which I am grateful.  When I was younger, I didn’t like spicy food like hot sauce or horseradish sauce.  Over the past couple years, I’ve started to enjoy sprinkling (sparingly) some fiery sauce over my eggs or potatoes or whatever might seem good.  The surprising craving for horseradish came as a result of an encounter with a Blue Apron recipe I tried.  After roasting broccoli and potatoes, the recipe called for a creamy horseradish sauce to coat the vegetables.  Since then, I’ve been randomly working the interesting flavor into different meals.

As taste buds change, so also personal preferences change.  What used to be unattractive, has changed over time into something which draws my heart.  St. Mary Magdalene is one person who fits into this category.  I’ve met several people over the years who have loved her and for many of those years, I was a bit confused.  The people seemed to have nothing in common with this well-known sinner-saint, yet they were attracted to her life and witness.  I can now number myself among those who love St. Mary Magdalene.  While I don’t identify very closely with the particulars of her life, I identify very much with her heart.

She was a woman who was forgiven much and loved much.  In an act of total self-surrender, she broke her jar of precious ointment and poured it on the feet of Jesus.  Wiping His feet with her hair, she laid her entire life before Our Lord.  In exchange, she was one of His closest followers, one who sat at His feet to listen to His stories and who was driven by grief to weep at His tomb after the crucifixion.  In her need to be close to Him, she was sent as “the apostle to the Apostles” and was the first to witness the resurrected Christ.

St. Mary Magdalene loved with a love that was all-encompassing.  That need, that desire to be a total gift for the Lord is something that resonates within my own heart.  Earlier this summer while on retreat, I prayed with that passage of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus.  In a way that it hadn’t before, the words of the Gospel moved my heart and invited me to share more deeply in the relationship Mary had with Our Lord. Continue reading “A Heart Like St. Mary Magdalene”

Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?

Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?

The Gospel reading from this past Sunday is one that I find intriguing.  Jesus presents a parable that speaks to the nature of God.  Yet it is a nature that we struggle to understand since it is far beyond what seems natural to our humanity.  The line that stood out to me was near the end.  It was a lovingly spoken parting blow from Jesus, aimed at the egos of His followers down through the ages.

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

Sometimes.

The situation that came to mind was from a recent class as we discussed a few attributes of God.  We spoke of the limitlessness of God’s knowledge, love, and power.  As we waded into what it means that God knows all, questions arose, as I was certain would happen.

“If God knows everything, then why did He…”

You can fill in the blank with whatever you would like.  Sometimes they questioned why God would create specific people, knowing the hurt and pain they would inflict.  Other times they questioned if we truly have free will since God knows everything we will do.  They are interesting questions and ones I try to wrestle with for my students.

The closer to home I can make the examples, the more they seem to understand.  Why would God create people who do evil things when He knows they will do them?  I connected it to free will and asked, rather than answered, another question.

“Is it free will if God only chooses to create the people He knows will be good?  What would it mean if God surveyed our lives and then only created the people who would follow Him anyway?”

While still a difficult concept, I believe they began to see that God loves and creates people regardless of their future actions.  As humans, we are quick to separate ourselves into different groups.  There is Hitler and other really bad people on one side.  On the other, good people like you and me.  So I decided to pose another question to them, one that tries to pry into their idea of “good people.”

“If God chose to only create the people who were good, would we have been created?”

Our instinctual reaction of “I’m a good person” kicks in, only to be checked by, “Am I?”  I do not know what I will do in my future, maybe it will be something awful.  From my vantage point of the present, I can see the mean and sinful things I have done in the past.  I want my students to realize that appearances can be deceiving and goodness difficult to measure if we use subjective standards.

“I am uncertain that I would have been created if God only made the good people.”

This is where I think it connects to St. Matthew’s Gospel from Sunday.  At times, I question why God permits certain things to happen, certain atrocities to be committed by other humans.  Why does He create them at all?

Granted, this is a different situation than the Gospel, but it makes me pause and wonder.  Am I envious that God generously creates everyone, even when I find it difficult to love people who willingly hurt others?  Do I wish He applied a stricter test to people’s futures before He made them?  I don’t think I do, but I question His level of generosity. Continue reading “Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?”