Faith and Doubt

“Go and tell John this: ‘The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.’”

      “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”  (Matthew 11:3)

Maura O’Donnell was one of the most amazing people I ave ever known.  I met her when she was only a high school student: she was a spitfire if ever there was one.  She was short and slight, and. she had a fresh, Irish complexion. She looked at you through sparkling blue eyes and she had beautiful auburn-red hair.  Maura was an athlete: during her high school career at Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington Virginia she earned nine letters in four different sports: diving, basketball, baseball, and field hockey.  Athletics didn’t deter Maura from being a top-notch student, though, she graduated from DJO with honors. 

Maura was also young woman who had a great deal of faith and saw purpose in her life.  She wanted to become a nurse so she could help kids with cystic fibrosis.  Maura’s brother and sister both suffered from that disease. 

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease, you get it through heredity.  It is a disease that kills the young.  It fills the lungs of its victims with thick, sticky mucus.  Every day, three times a day, at least back in those days, if you had CF you had to be attached to a machine that helped clear the lungs by loosening the mucus.  Then you’d have to cough it up.  CF is a tough thing to have.  You spend a lot of time in the hospital, and over time it weakens your immune system and makes you very susceptible to things like pneumonia.  Maura’s youngest sister had already died of cystic fibrosis, and she had another sister, Brenda, and a brother, Sean, who were both diagnosed with CF too. 

Maura was very close to Brenda who, at that time, was in her early teens.  Maura once told me: “Brenda just prays and prays to be healed.” The whole O’Donnell family went to the National Cathedral in Washington for a healing service led by I Fr. Francis MacNutt, who had a nationally recognized healing ministry. Maura said, “My sister really believed that the Lord would heal her.”  But those prayers apparently went unanswered. When she was only 16 years old and a sophomore at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Brenda O’Donnell died.

What questions must Maura have wanted to ask the healing Jesus in whom Brenda and she put so much faith? Maybe the question the Israelites put to Moses when they suffered in the wilderness: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Or the Baptist’s question of Jesus, who fell so short of John’s messianic expectations: “ARE you the one who is to come?”

When he sent his disciples to question Jesus, the Baptist was in prison.  Here is the mighty prophet, who came on scene like a storm.  People were flocking to see him, to be baptize by him in the Jordan, and to hear his message of repentance. “Be ready.” he proclaimed,  “The one who is to come is already on his way.”

John painted a picture of what the arrival of the messiah would be like: he would baptize, not with water but with fire.  The Messiah-King would come with power and judgment: his winnowing fork was in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.  “The axe” John preached, “was already laid to the root.” Those not producing good fruit – the fruit of repentance and righteousness, would be cut down and thrown into the fire.   Be ready for the One Who Comes!

Then John saw him; he was coming to be baptized.  John said, “No, I should be baptized by you” and Jesus replied “Let it be this way for righteousness’ sake.” 

As John baptized Jesus, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the the Father spoke, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  John had seen the one for whom he was waiting.  And now all that he needed to do was wait and to watch for the power of God to break into the world; to rescue the people; to bring salvation, and judgment, and fire.

Months later John is in prison. There were no crowds anymore, just small cell in the dungeon of Herod’s fortress near the Dead Sea. What’s was he doing there, the Baptist wondered?  In prison John had a lot of time to think, and to follow the ministry of his cousin Jesus from afar. John had once been so sure that Jesus was the One sent by God, the one who would bring him vindication and victory; who would baptize with fire. Now John was disappointed.

Jesus was spending his time in Galilee, in the sticks of rural Judea.  Instead of making waves in Jerusalem, Jesus spent his time preaching to a bunch of rubes and bumpkins.  That was no way to set a nation on fire or to re-establish the Kingdom of David. 

Jesus’ ministry was also not bringing fire to the Romans, or putting Herod, the Roman vassal king, in his place.  All Jesus was doing was healing a bunch of people, not everyone either, just some: a blind man here, a cripple there.  Nice if you’re the blind man or the cripple but this isn’t exactly what John had in mind for the mission of the Messiah. 

John was disillusioned and confused. Could he have been mistaken about Jesus?  So he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “are you the one who is to come or should we look for somebody else?  Could I have been wrong?  Is there someone better out there?’”

Let’s just pause here for a second and look at what John is doing here. 

The Baptist, is being honest.  He doesn’t get Jesus.  He doesn’t understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.  But instead of rejecting him, or getting angry, or grumbling to his disciples, he goes right to Jesus and asks a question that is both honest and courageous. 

Jesus answers John cryptically, He says, “Go and tell John this: ‘The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.’”

Look at that list for a second.

Just rhetorically, couldn’t Jesus have done better?  Wouldn’t you have put the most impressive thing last?  “The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise.”  That’s pretty good so far, it’s an ascending order.  But then Jesus dose something odd, he concludes with “and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Really?  Is that so important? 

To the ears of many people it’s not.  But what Jesus is doing here is revealing to John, and to us, what is in the heart of God.  And the heart of God is expressing this reality: everyone matters.  Everyone! The sickest person in Imperial Point Hospital matters; the poorest person in Broward County matters; the most broken, troubled human being you can imagine matters.  God loves the poor; He has a heart for the broken. You matter to him when you’re old, when you’re sick, when you’re alone. 

No one is ever abandoned by God. 

That’s the most important thing that Jesus has come to reveal.  Jesus says to these emissaries from the Baptist, “Go back and tell them what you hear and what you see.” 

What are they hearing?  They’re hearing the sermon on the Mount.  They’re hearing that the poor in spirit, the meek, peacemakers, the persecuted are blessed by God.  Blessed.  They hear Jesus say, “Forgive one another as you yourselves have been forgiven.  Hold nothing back!”   They hear: “Give freely of yourselves, asking for nothing in return, because that’s the way you are loved by your Father in heaven who lets his rain fall on the good and the bad alike.”

What do they see? A crippled woman standing straight and walking; the servant of the centurion made well from afar; blind man given sight; little girl, taken by the hand and raised from death back to life. 

God loves everyone; no one is inconsequential

When John hears all this he will recall the prophecy of Isaiah 35, that the coming of Yahweh himself to redeem and to save, will be characterized by just such activity.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are fearful-hearted,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Behold, your God will come with vengeance,

With the recompense of God;

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped

Then the lame shall leap like a deer,

And the tongue of the dumb sing.

For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,

And streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:3-6)

“Are you the one who is to come?  Are you the messiah?” John asks. Jesus answer him clearly: “Yes, I AM the messiah, the promised coming of the great I Am himself, of which Isaiah spoke.”  Then Jesus says: “Blessed are those who find no scandal in me.  Blessed are those who take no offense.” 

For all of us who live in a world where God has been pushed to the margins; where belief has become rare and ridiculed; where there’s so many who are offended by Jesus: offended when they hear a prayer in school, offended when they see a nativity scene on the lawn, offended when you say, “God bless you” at work or to the kid who’s giving you coffee at Starbucks.  The name of Jesus has power in it, but it is so easy to take offense when we don’t see the power at work.

And so to us, too, when our faith weakens, Jesus gives sound advice: look and listen. 

Listen for the word that God still speaks into his creation.  Words of life, words of love, words of forgiveness.  Words of caring and compassion. 

Read this Bible and find life in its pages because the Lord still speaks to his people through it.  The Lord still says to us today that if we are meek and kind, we are blessed; if we make peace instead of war, we’re blessed; if we love instead of hate, we’re blessed.  If we understand instead of criticize, we’re blessed.  Blessed are the peacemakers.” 

And then look.  Look and seek that the miracles of healing and transformation going on all around us in Jesus’ name. 

Oh, the the blind people whose sight is restored may be few and far between, as they were in Jesus’ day, they’re out there though.  Other hearings are more prevalent and so less remarkable:  God is changing lives constantly.  God is changing hearts constantly.  God’s giving new opportunities, new chances, second chances constantly. He does it through his people.  He does it because we care about each other, because we make space in our lives for each other, because we don’t turn the poor away. 

The poor still need to hear good news.  

We’re all the poor, if the truth be told.  We’re all someday going to be sick, and old, and maybe forgotten. We all need forgiveness.  We all can be on the margins of our community’s life. 

The Lord calls us to create the space for each other where we can hear and proclaim the good news of God’s abundant love; where people come and be embraced and welcomed just the way they are. 

Recently a guy came to our church, he was in his early 30s, he had a scraggly beard and longish hair and was shabbily dressed.  He seemed nice enough. He was very articulate,  but he also smelled to the high heavens.  He visited on a Sunday around nine A.M. and asked  what time we held services (there was one at ten.

I thought to myself, “Oh, my goodness.  I hope he’s not coming to church – the folks who sit around hi will gag (he was that pungent). I invited him to the 10:00 o’clock service anyhow and he said he’d be there. 

At ten o’clock he was sitting in the congregation, still smelling to high heavens.  On reflection, though, his presence was a blessing; Lord’s way of reminding us that everyone needs to be welcomed in his house.  Everyone!  It’s our grace to speak good news to the poor.

When I turned around about halfway through the service he was gone.  Could the Lord have visited his people that day disguised as a poor smelly man?  And if he did, thank God, we passed the test.

Lord doesn’t always look like we want him to look and doesn’t  always act like we want him to act. Blessed are we when we take no offense in Him.

After Maura’s sister Brenda died Maura said to me: “You know, Brenda really believed God would heal her, and I think he did, better than she ever hoped he would. He took her home to be with Him.” 

Blessed are those who take no offense. 

Maura didn’t get what she prayed for, at least not the way she wanted to get it, but she saw Brenda’s death as the ultimate healing. She trusted the Lord through the darkest moments of her life.   

Maura’s passion for finding a cure for cystic fibrosis was such — she was still a high school kid remember — she went to her principal, Jim McMurtrie, and aske: “Can we do a dance to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation?” 

He said, “Sure.  Go ahead.  Knock yourself out.”

She did: not only did she organize the event, she danced for more than 20 hours. At this one event her high school raised $91,000 for cystic fibrosis research.  Denis J. O’Connell High School has continued   doing that dance for CF research every year from the late 1970s to this day.  Over the years they have raised over $5 million because of the initiative of one young woman who had a passion to find cure for kids with cystic fibrosis.


Maura graduated with honors.  She was the state diving champ in Virginia that year too.  She went on to nursing school at Marymount College in Arlington Virginia, her home town. 

At the end of her second year as a nursing student Maura died because she also had had cystic fibrosis.  She never let it hold her back; she never let it stop her from living; she never gave up or lost her faith.  If anything, her sickness made her embrace it more.

The challenge of John the Baptist and of Maura O’Donnell is to ask honest questions.  When our prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be answered, when our world doesn’t work the way we think it should work, it is certainly fair to ask God “Why?”

But an honest question is not doubt.  It’s simply a way that God uses to grow and expand our hearts.

And what the Baptist invites us to do, and Maura as well, is to grow our hearts.  Faithfully believing that the Jesus is our Savior and our Lord – we need to wait for no other. In him the poor still have Good News!

In the Water With Jesus

At the Jordan, Jesus he goes into the water with all of sinful humanity

In a classic Charles Schultz cartoon we find the Van Pelt family in action. Lucy, ever the crabby one, is having a bad day, Lucy only has bad days.  As the cartoon open she’s sitting by herself, looking despondent and saying “Phooey!” 

At just that moment her little brother Linus comes along, he sees her in distress and he asks, “What’s the matter?”

“My life is a drag.  I’m completely fed up.  I’ve never felt so low in all my life.” she responds.

Trying to cheer her up Linus tells his sister: “When you’re in a mood like that you should try to think of the things you have to be thankful for.  Count your blessings.”

That goes over like a led balloon. Lucy says: “Ha! That’s a good one.  I could count my blessing on one finger.  I never had anything, and I never will have anything.  I’m nothing … I don’t get half the breaks that other people do … Nothing ever goes right to me!” “And you talk to me about counting my blessings?” she continues, “You talk to me about being thankful! What do I have to be thankful for?”

“Well, for one thing,” Linus answers, “you have a little brother who loves you.”

Lucy looks at Linus for a moment with a blank look on her face, then breaks down in tears and hugs him as he observes: “Every now and then I say the right thing.”

When Jesus comes to be baptized in the Jordan by John we see another family in action.  John was the marque act in Israel at the time: he was big news and the best ticket in town. He had created a huge stir. 

The voice of prophecy had been silent among the Jewish people for the better part of 500 years, since the time of Mica.  Now, again, the Jews hear the voice of someone who speaks the power of God into their lives, into their culture, and into their communities.  John dresses in a manner reminiscent of Elijah.  He also does crazy things like prophets often do.  His message is clear and urgent: folks better get ready because God is about to do something great and powerful.  Repent and be ready for what is coming!  Reform your lives because God’s kingdom is at hand. 

People came flocking to John by the thousands.  They came out into the desert, an arduous journey that they had to take on foot or traveling on mules or burros since there were no Mustangs of Broncos back then.  Throngs went to John at the Jordan to be baptized. When the prophet speaks what do they hear?  They hear a message of hope.  They hear that God isn’t finished with them yet.  God isn’t finished with his people.  John says: “Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever your mistakes might have been, just turn back to God.  Repent, be baptized, and start fresh. But you better do it soon, time is running out.”

Tax collectors came out to John, prostitutes came out to John, all sorts of sinners came out to John.  Why?  They came because, in a society that had largely written them off, John gave them hope. 

The religious elites, scribes and the Pharisees, went out to see John too, but he didn’t welcome them quite so warmly.  He turned away nobody.  He, and he didn’t turn them away either, but he certainly chastised them. “You brood of vipers,” he calls them, “who taught you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Then he said, “Bear fruits worthy of your repentance.” 

The scribes and the Pharisees went out to be baptized too, but they didn’t think they needed to repent: they were so perfect, they were so self-righteous. They weren’t sinners, like all the others who went into the Jordan to be baptized, they were righteous men.

John says to them, too, “You are sinners too, you just are too blind to know it?  Repent of your sins.  Confess and begin living into the kingdom of God.  You do that by caring about people.  You do that with your kindness and your decency and your honesty.  It’s what you do though, not what you say or think, not how you dress, and it certainly is not about your pedigree as pious Jews: after all God can make children of Abraham out of stones.”

Then John’s cousin Jesus comes along and John is thrown completely off his game.  He has been welcoming sinners, and chastising sinners who don’t know they’re sinners, but now, for the first time in his ministry, John sees someone who is sinless.  Jesus. And he is coming to John for the baptism of repentance. John is flummoxed – why would the sinless one repent, what does he have to repent OF? It made no sense to the Baptist, and perhaps it makes no sense to us. 

The Baptist goes up to Jesus and, in the conversation that we only hear in Matthew’s Gospel, he says, “Really?  I mean, shouldn’t you be the one baptizing me?  And now you want me to baptize you?  I don’t want to do it.  You have no sin.”

Jesus responds to that, in the first words he hear from his mouth in Matthew’s Gospel, (Chew on that for a moment because first words matter.  And the author of the Gospel of Matthew knows that.  This is a very consequential utterance and it’s easy to pass it over).  Jesus responds, “No, it must be so for now so that all righteousness may be done.

What is he talking about?  All righteousness?  Righteousness doing the will of God, and Jesus is saying, “John, I understand your problem; I know that you don’t get that I have to go in the water with sinners, but that is precisely what the Father wants me to do.” 

In fact, this is what the cross is all about too, and this moment at the Jordan prefigured and prepares us for the great theophany of the Cross.  On the cross the sinless one carries the sins of the world and suffers for them in our place.  At the Jordan, by going into the water with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, the broken, the bedraggled, and the lost, isn’t Jesus saying “I want to be one with you?  My father loves you.  And by God, I love you.”

At the Jordan, Jesus he goes into the water with all of sinful humanity.  He goes into the water with the sinners long past.  He goes into the water with the sinners of the Jordan and he goes into the water with us! because he is the one who carriers our burdens.

The message of this Gospel is pure grace.  We can’t save ourselves.  And so he goes into the water and is baptized.

Water is a significant symbol. Water was there at the very dawn of time.  The Spirit hovered over the water, like a dove that descended on Jesus at his Baptism.  Jesus, by going into the water with sinful humanity, is presiding over the re-creation of humanity.  In the water with Christ we are all transformed.  We are made new.  We are a new creation. 

Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea, bringing them from slavery to freedom.  In the water with Jesus we go from slavery to everything that is death-dealing: slavery to materialism, slavery to careerism, slavery to every ism you can thing of, slavery to our compulsions.  Whatever we feel bound by, whether that be the urge to be the most powerful guy in the office or to be the most popular kid in school or to be the wealthiest guy on the block. In Christ we are set free from all if it. 

Jesus says, “I’m freeing you because there’s only one thing that gives you joy and happiness and life — doing the will of my Father; doing the work of his kingdom.  The Father wants you love with his heart and see with his eyes and act with his hands.” 

Water cleanses.  Naaman, in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 5), goes into the Jordan at the command of Elisha and is cleared of his leprosy.  In the Jordan Jesus cleanses us from everything that might make us feel dirty. 

Coming up out of that water of the Jordan three things happen to Jesus: the skies open; the Spirt descends like a dove hovering over that water, and the Father speaks, “This is my son, the beloved.  I am well-pleased.”  “This is my boy and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”

We are in the water with Jesus.  We are made new in Christ.  Nothing of this world can ever possess us.  The answer to every struggle we have is obedience and submission to God.  When we can be one with the spirit who still hovers over the waters of our world there is nothing beyond our reach.  No chain can hold us when God keeps us in his care.

We’re not only in the water with Jesus, we’re in the water with each other.  As we are transformed we become not only the recipients of grace, we become the bearers of grace.  God gives us gifts so that we can gift each other.  Every great thing we have is given to us so that we can bless with it. 

We need to look around to see who needs us.  Who needs to hear a word of kindness from you today?  Who needs to hear, “I love you,” or, “I forgive you”?  Who needs a little bit of help?  Who needs our time, our interest, our investment of self?  I guarantee you that every day God sends us people who need us more than they need anything else. 

My sister, Barbara, died of ovarian cancer 19 years.  She died on January 4th at ten o’clock in the morning.  And I was with her pretty much every day for the last year of her life.  Towards the end, in her last couple of weeks, she was in a hospice, Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.  The closer she got to death the less she could do for herself. Ovarian cancer is a very uncomfortable disease. I was with her one night and she was spitting up gunk (to use the technical medical term), which was dribbling down her chin.  I couldn’t call the nurse for everything, so I began to wipe the stuff off her mouth as often as she needed the stuff removed. At one point, as this was going on, Barbara looked up at me and, in her very weak voice, she said: “You know, you’re good to have around.”

Those words mean more to me than any words anyone has has ever spoken to me.  They mean more to me than any accomplishment I’ve ever attained.  Just a few simple words spoken after doing next to nothing; wiping a little bit of drool.

We’re all good to have around.  That’s why we’re here, it’s our mission.  We are called to be good brothers and sisters to each other: to speak words of love, and to care for each other tenderly.   

In fact, in the Spirit, we are all good to have around; and every now and then we all say the right thing.

Liberating Freedom

To be truly free is to choose well: to choose to live into our best selves, the person we were created to be.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed … (Luke 4)

If ever there was a person in prison it was Lorraine and the prison was of her own making. Continue reading “Liberating Freedom”

Being Grateful

Awareness of our blessings makes us desire to be a blessing to others! And disciples of the Lord are, before all else, aware that we are loved forgiven, and redeemed sinners.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form or thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  -G. K. Chesterton

Gratitude lies someplace close to the heart of discipleship.

When we follow Jesus we know that we have a savior because we need a savior! None of us can look back over our lives without regret – there is so much we would do differently, if only life would allow us a “mulligan” every now and then. But it doesn’t. Continue reading “Being Grateful”