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Monday, May 18, 2020

Everything is story

This is pretty subtle thinking, I admit. But the most famous Franciscan scholar, John Duns Scotus, has been given the title “Subtle Doctor.” So I’m in good company, even though my subtlety is infantile compared to his.

Wherever there is a pattern, there is a story.

Archeologists find a hard object, obviously stone. But is it just an ordinary rock, or is it a tool that someone deliberately fashioned out of rock, centuries ago? How can you tell? There has to be some kind of pattern, some kind of design to the way the rock was chipped or cracked.

I taught a course in archeology years ago—I admit, I’m no archeologist, but in those days we were asked to teach courses even if we had to stretch our graduate education to cover materials in courses we never dreamed of. I bought a display kit of typical archeological discoveries. The kit contained, for example, plastic replicates of what we used to call “arrowheads,” but which the specialists called “projectile points.” What they called a “hand axe” looked pretty much like an ordinary rock pointed on one end
But the hand axe had features which a scholar argued could not have come from mere chance. There was evidence that someone had shaped the rock to give it that particular pointed characteristic. There was a story behind that piece of stone. Some human being held that stone and worked it until it was able to be used to chop something. That’s a story. There’s a story there even if no one has ever told it or ever will tell it.

Wherever there is a pattern, there is a story.

The whole physical universe is a packet of stories because it is a packet of patterns. Patterns all the way from mega-galaxies down to atomic particles. We could say that God is the Great Story-teller.

In the beginning was the Word, . . .
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.

I don’t want to be over-dramatic here. But I guess I am subtle. If it is true that all things came to be through the Word, then all things are story.

There is a Franciscan tradition that the mineral world gave birth to the plant world, and the plant world gave birth to the animal world, and the animal world gave birth to the human world, and the climax of the human world is Jesus Christ. The universe grew out of person of Jesus Christ. All things came to be through him. God started with the human body of Jesus Christ and everything in the universe followed from there. And if you want to play with the Letter to the Colossians, you can say that everything in the universe will return there, to the person of Jesus Christ.

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible, . . .
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.

I haven’t read Teilhard de Chardin (they told us his ideas were suspect), but I think he had the idea that history was leading up to the point where Jesus Christ would “reconcile all things in himself.”

The Spirit

So if everything is story, and is actually shaped by the story of Jesus Christ, where does the Spirit come in?

I think the Spirit puts a special slant on the story. The Spirit makes the story a story of love. All these patterns in the universe are part of a story of love. God creating and redeeming out of a desire to be involved passionately, respectfully, vulnerably and faithfully with creatures—all creatures. Not only is the universe crammed with patterns, but the patterns are suffused with love. We are bathed in love. Every sparrow is bathed in love.

Psalm 104 tells the story of all creation, nature, animals, humans, and sums it up with the verse:

Send forth your spirit, they are created
and you renew the face of the earth.

*   *   *

As I said, this is all pretty subtle. But as I sit outdoors on one of the first days this spring when we can do that without freezing, I look at the spruce tree and the maple tree and the three sparrows’ nests under construction on the corners of our patio, I think, “This is all shot through with love. We re all loved—me, and the spruce tree and the maple tree and the three families of sparrows.”

It’s enough to make one break into song.

Saturday, April 18, 2020


Media people know that conflict sells. “When it bleeds, it leads.” When you can show video of people protesting, or quote someone disagreeing with an accepted idea, viewers and readers perk up.

My old theological textbook followed a medieval format that is supposed to go back to Peter Abelard: “sic et non.” Pro and con. Make a statement and then present arguments for the statement and arguments against the statement. The opponents to the statement were the “adversaries,” usually Protestants.

Our textbooks were not exciting—the adversaries were often straw men. The textbook authors didn’t want to make the other side look too appealing, or students might get wrong ideas. Our seminary was physically isolated, in the cornfields of southern Illinois. There were Protestants in southern Illinois, but we never set foot off the property so we were in no danger of meeting any.

We live in a vastly different environment today. We live with adversaries from morning to night, beginning with members of our own families. How many devout Catholic parents lament children who don’t go to church any more? And then there are the media. We swim in world views that ignore religious traditions, a business world that seems never to have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. The Republican Party thinks that the center of the country, where religion still survives, can overcome the coastal cultures that regard religion as your grandparents’ fantasies. But what if the coastal cultures are the future?

They are the future.

We need to use our adversaries, not lament them.

We should never state a religious belief without engaging with the people who don’t accept that belief. I think that reading the Gospels makes my life richer. What makes your life richer? What does a rich life look like?

Straw men won’t work. We need to be talking directly with living adversaries, people who have really different ways of looking at things from the ways we look at them. Our goal isn’t to convert the adversaries. Our goal is to understand our own beliefs better.

This reminds me of the “rules for ecumenical dialog” that I first heard from the Jesuit Gustav Weigel back in the early 1960s:

1. I state my belief as clearly and honestly as I can.

2. You state your belief as clearly and honestly as you can.

3. Let the Holy Spirit determine the outcome.

Now we can’t just walk up to people on the street and start talking religion. We need a pretext to talk religion. We need a structure to make conversation acceptable.

One such structure is the PSR class, the “parish school of religion” that most parishes use. Here is what we say as Catholics, and here is why we say it. Who disagrees with it? Can we listen to people who disagree? Can we imagine what they are thinking? Can we get one of them to come to the class and talk with us about what they think?

There have got to be other pretexts for talking religion. Let us get creative.

Catholicism has a rich history of engaging with secular cultures. After a clumsy start (Galileo) we have engaged with the sciences. We don’t need to protect each other from dangerous ideas. We need to face dangerous ideas head on, trusting that the Spirit will help us in the exchange.

I have a sense that much of our religious instruction is boring. It’s boring because it doesn’t make us use our intellectual muscles. It is grounded in fear. It doesn’t capitalize on our adversaries.

Adversaries are not enemies. They are people like us, trying to live rewarding lives just like us, swamped by cultural demands and forces just like us. Sure, there are some people with bad intentions among them, but there are people with bad intentions among us. Even the evil adversary can become an ally—look at Saul of Tarsus.

We should welcome adversaries, and use them to deepen our understanding of what we believe and live by.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Prayer books

When I was gathering data for my dissertation on St. Peter’s Church in Chicago back in 1969, an elderly woman was robbed at 5:30 in the morning as she was entering the church. The most precious thing whose loss she mourned was her prayer book.

That reminded me of other prayer books I have seen: my mother’s, dog-eared and stuffed with prayer cards. Millions of people used those little books.

Prayer books are artifacts of folk religion, tools used by millions of people who exist beyond the world of graduate research and billion dollar foundations. What are all these people doing?

They are enjoying an everyday spiritual experience not unlike the experience that musicians or artists enjoy. On some days the enjoyment is calm, everyday, reassuring. On other days it is zestful, in touch with the gods.

The gods. We Christians speak of one God. One triune God. Father, Son, Spirit.  Are we any more right than a Muslim who speaks of Allah, who is One? I cannot prove we are. I believe it. I accept the Father, Son, and Spirit on faith. That faith is not unlike the faith I have in a person who I know loves me. I could be wrong about that love. But I know I am not.

Prayer-book worshipers are not interested in metaphysics or theology. They are using a simple tool to experience their God. Theirs is an everyday God, a God to be enjoyed before breakfast.

That does not mean that prayer-book worshipers are devoid of large group experiences of God. Billy Graham revivals and papal stadium Masses provide a different experience of God, just like rock concerts do for so many people. Rock concerts make lots of money, and money leads to power. Where religions go off the rails is when religious gatherings turn into political movements, the marshaling of religious enthusiasm in the service of economic and political power. This has been the bane of Catholicism since Constantine. These days it’s the bane of Evangelicals.

When rock concert religion deflates to prayer-book religion all is well. Let the politics to secular politicians.

These days secular politicians seem to be religiously tone-deaf. Some of them are like Sigmund Freud, seekers of truth who believe that they must reconcile themselves to a disenchanted world. They pity the prayer-book religionists and tell them to grow up.  But more likely those secular politicians are just thoughtless, too busy with Facebook. The prayer-book religionists pity both groups and tell them they don’t know what they are missing.

Religion is like music and art. Beauty leads one to God, no matter where you find it. When you find beauty, you know what faith is all about. Ask Beethoven.

Each morning I open my Kindle to the psalms of the day. This morning it was Psalm 119: “Sharing God’s words brightens everything, and gives understanding to young people.” Yes, I say. That’s what God’s word does.

There is everyday religion, and there is rock concert religion, and everything in between. Some people make religion into the center of their lives. I am one of those people. I love the Muslim Imam. I know what he is doing. He is helping other people to experience God on an everyday level.

Scientists may not be consciously doing things like that, but I hope that they look for the divine in what they observe. Politicians may be religiously unmusical, but I hope that they can see the beauty in their efforts to lead people toward more full lives.

To learn is to change your mind. When Jesus said “Make disciples of all nations,” he was saying, “make learners of as many people as you can.” He also told the apostles to baptize those learners, but the learning should come first, and learning cannot be rushed. When we came to the Americas and baptized people by the thousands, we caused way too much destruction. We became conquerors and oppressors. Not good.

The road to salvation is narrow and there are few who find it. When Jesus used that metaphor, he was not doing statistical analysis. He was saying that at any given moment, there are more people not yet ready to learn than there are actual learners. That doesn’t mean that hell is filling up. He also said that it only takes a little yeast to leaven a huge amount of dough. That isn’t a statistical analysis either. Learning is a slow business, but it does occur, and eventually it occurs for the majority of us.

The chattering classes, and I count myself among them, project the death of religion. I doubt it. There may be big changes in how people do religion, but that is us humans floundering around as we always have. A loving Lord is patient. All will be well.

Friday, January 24, 2020

On Hell

The London Tablet recently ran an article by an Orthodox theologian attacking the traditional Christian understanding of hell. The piece recalled to me an essay I wrote in 2008 on the same topic, which I thought is worth sharing again.

On Hell

            When I think of hell, I think of three famous literary descriptions of it. The first is Dante’s Inferno. The second is the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the famous New England Congregationalist, Jonathan Edwards. The third is James Joyce’s description of an Irish Catholic retreat master’s sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

            What is my description?

            The first problem I face in trying to describe hell in my own way is the mismatch between the image of God preached by Jesus and the idea of unending torture inflicted on his creatures by that same God. My problem is not new. Already in the 200’s the theologian Origen had suggested that God ultimately redeems everyone. The Church rejected his suggestion. A watered-down version of the same idea is one that I have held for many years: “I have to believe in the existence of hell, but I don’t have to believe that there is anyone actually present in it.” Is my solution too easy?


            “Eternal fire.”

            These two words are metaphors for hell. Jesus himself used them in his description of the last judgment in Matthew 25. I want to examine them one by one.


            Many writers, including Dante, see the term “fire” as a metaphor for other kinds of punishment. Part of Dante’s hell is a frozen wasteland.

            But what about Jesus’ use of the term? Doesn’t he use the term “fire”?

            Yes, he does. But Jesus often used metaphors in his preaching. He told his followers that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. I know of only one person in Christian history who took that statement literally. St. Anthony of Padua is supposed to have restored the foot of a man who cut off his own foot because he had kicked his father. Instead of praising the man, Church tradition praises Anthony for reversing the action.

            Once the Church had made peace with using judgment and power as legitimate ways to further Jesus’ kingdom, fire became a useful metaphor for social control. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who burned heretics and witches, no doubt justified their behavior by saying that such punishment is trivial compared to the fires of hell. The fire metaphor has served to justify many practices that we today consider inhuman.

            We no longer burn heretics. Most thoughtful Christians today probably see fire as a metaphor for “a really bad experience,” and quit trying to spell out the details.

            But we have more trouble with the other metaphor, “eternal.” I can see how some people deserve really bad punishment for the evils they have done. But eternal punishment? The punishment is disproportionate.

            The term “eternal” immediately suggests the human experience of time. Some theologians reject the relevance of that experience for life after death. They describe heaven as a sort of an instantaneous “now,” with no relationship to time. There is something to be said for this. But I have two problems with the explanation.

            The first problem is that, when I hear the word “eternal,” my human way of thinking seems naturally to go to my experience of time. The second is our belief in the resurrection of the body. For me, “body” means “physical,” and “physical” means “time.”

            I recognize that Einstein shook up our human conceptions of time. Perhaps an Einsteinian theologian could come up with an eternal “now” that would be compatible with what we understand as physical. But the solution seems far-fetched. We humans know what we experience as time, and it is not compatible with an instantaneous “now.”

            Why could we not see the term “eternal” as metaphorical in the same way that we see the term “fire” as metaphorical? Maybe what Jesus means was just “a really long time,” just as he meant “a really bad experience” when he used the term “fire.”

            I would like to think that the resurrection of the body means that heaven, and hell, will continue our experience of time. More specifically, heaven and hell will continue the most significant aspects of our experience, our interaction and involvement with others and with God. If love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful involvement, the experience of such involvement will be the essence of heaven.

            But what about hell? Theologians agree that hell will be the absence of love. Presumably a man or woman whose life here on earth was characterized by an absence of love will continue that experience in eternity.

            I like to think that purgatory will be my having to face each person I have harmed, and work through the painful process of reconciliation with that person. My lack of love in this life will be healed by the fire of a reconciling involvement in eternity.

            I have wondered if God’s redeeming love is so powerful that there is no person who will not be able to experience that kind of healing. But suppose that the lack of loving involvement will continue indefinitely. Suppose that hell means that I will continue to reject all attempts by others and by God to involve me in love. Here is where the mystery of our experience of eternity joins up with the mystery of our experience of freedom.

            Surely heaven will not mean the end of my experience of freedom. I will continue to love freely. But if I can continue to love freely, perhaps I can continue to reject love freely.

            Our Christian belief in hell seems to imply the possibility that I could go on indefinitely in a free rejection of love, on and on and on in a self-perpetuating cycle from which I will never escape. As the theologians say, it is not God who puts me into this state. I do it to myself, freely.

            Will it never end?

            Maybe our faith forbids us to answer that question. We are like Job, addressed by God after all his friends have tried to explain his suffering rationally. “Be still. I am God. That is all you need to know.”

            Scary thinking. Jesus may have been using metaphor when he spoke of “fire” and “eternal.” But he did not take away the mystery that surrounds our existence as creatures who experience time, freedom, and love.


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Transubstantiation Two

The term "transubstantiation" is a term coined in the middle ages. It uses a theory going back to Plato and Aristotle, based on two terms: "substance" and "accident." A table is a substance (think "tableness") which can be m modified by accidents, such as size, weight, color. and so on.

Medieval theologians, reflecting on Jesus' words at the Last Supper, and on the centuries of Eucharistic practice between their time and the year 1000, used the categories of substance and accident to describe what happens when a priest says "This is my Body" over a piece of bread. They said the substance of bread ("breadness") is replaced by the substance of the body of Jesus, but the accidents (color, shape) of bread remain.

This theory--and as a human theory it should be subject to human modification and improvement--fit well with the almost magical practices that can grow up around the Eucharistic bread and wine. Taken to absurdity, it asks questions like this: a priest is going by a bakery, and he pronounces the words "This is my body" over all the bread in the bakery. Does all the bread in the bakery become the body of Christ?

When I was a child serving Mass at St. James Parish in Decatur, Illinois, we were forbidden to touch the chalice or paten used at Mass, much less the consecrated Host. The first time I touched a consecrated host was after my ordination as a deacon. But when Jesus walked among us, he was jostled by the crowds. When the woman touched the tassel of his cloak and was cured, and he asked, "who touched me?" the disciples asked, "You see all these crowds around you and you ask, 'who touched me?'"

A non-Catholic person was said to have commented, "If I really believed that Jesus Christ is present in the host in a Catholic church, I would crawl to that church on my hands and knees." I was impressed by that story, but have since reflected, is that how Jesus himself wanted to be approached while he was on this earth?

Having offered these reflections, I don't want to condemn the ideas and practices that so many people find spiritually fruitful. We all have our individual ways of coming to God. What I want to offer is mine, as regards the Eucharist.


My body is composed of atoms and molecules. Science tells me that 99% of the molecules in my body today were not there a year ago. In fact, many of them were not there a week ago. My body is a constant coming and going of chemicals. Yet my body is something. What makes those chemicals into my body?

There is a structure to those chemicals that make up my body, a structure and a history. The chemicals have been in a distinct place at a distinct time. The medievals call that structure "substance." I call it my story.

My body is my story in two senses. On a purely physical level, it is a history of the comings and goings of chemicals into and out of the structure that is my body. On a human level, it is the history of that unique structure, starting with its conception and continuing down to the body that is me today.

For some unknown reason, God let a bunch of chemicals come together to form me, and so far those chemicals have hung together and kept coming and going in a predictable way. Scientists claim that the whole pattern of my body is the result of millions of years of natural selection. Okay. That's remarkable, and in a way it makes the Creator an even more impressive source of organic complexity than if God were to have set up the pattern instantaneously in the Garden of Eden.

This is My Body

When Jesus said those words, he was saying that his story, his history, was being attached to the chemicals of the bread, just as his story was attached to the chemicals of his physical body. But his story is attached to more than just that little piece of bread. He said "Do this in remembrance of me." His desire was to have that story attached to the bread in the context of a sharing of the bread in a gathering of his followers. His story is also linked to that gathering, and to all the gatherings down through the years since he lived here physically. We speak of the "Mystical Body of Christ," the people who make up the Church.

The fact that he said those words the night before his passion puts extra meaning into the saying "This is my blood." We are remembering not only the physical presence of Jesus, but the story of his death and resurrection, and of how that story is meant to be our story. The story is what makes us Christians, and the story tells us how to be Christians.

Shortly before he died, St. Francis of Assisi wrote a "testament," a final reflection on what he wanted his followers to remember. He wrote: "I see nothing corporally in this world  of the most high Son of God himself, except his most holy Body and Blood. . . . These most holy mysteries I wish to be held in highest honor and veneration and be kept in precious places." And then he added, in words that some think grew out of his contact with the Muslim Sultan Malik al-Kamil, "Wherever I chance to find his most holy names and written words in unseemly places, I like to gather them up, and I ask that they be gathered up and set in some fitting place."

Francis makes similar parallels in other places in his writings between the Eucharistic presence and the Words of God present in written form. The Bread is also the Word.

That little piece of bread in front of me when I say the words of consecration is a set of chemicals attached to the story of Jesus just as much as Jesus' physical body was a set of chemicals attached to his story when he lived on the earth. But it is not just the chemicals in the bread that are attached to that story, but the whole action of a group of us gathered to do what he did in remembrance of him.

I like to think that when I die, God will remember my story and some day attach that story to another set of chemicals--the resurrection of the body in a new heavens and a new earth. The Eucharist welcomes us into the story of Jesus so that our story will be just like his: death followed by new life as a gift from the Lord.

Heaven isn't just a beatific vision. It is our stories continued as part of the story of the Word made flesh.

Monday, December 16, 2019


Ivan Illich once said: "I like the [Catholic] Church. It lets mushrooms grow."

That image makes me think of a lattice, within which various life forms develop. I think of old tires dumped into lakes to provide cover for small fish.

A few weeks ago I attended a funeral at St. Peter's Church here in Quincy. St. Peter's is the wealthy church in town. The structure was built in 1960, but updated after Vatican II. Today it has a ramp leading up into the sanctuary for disabled people, two projectors with screens that can be rolled up and hidden, and a fine sound system. The funeral choir included a pianist, two guitarists, eight or so singers, and a professional cantor. The priest, ordained just a couple of years ago, preached and presided with warmth and devotion. After Communion a lay member of the family read an emotional remembrance of the deceased, seasoned with humor.

All this was the lattice. A mushroom is the meaningful involvement with God of each person in the building. All the people involved in the service, including the presider, the musicians, the family, and the rest of the congregation, surely have different degrees of personal involvement with God.

One of the parishes where I help out over in Missouri is in a place called Indian Creek. The church is small and old. It seats maybe 150 to 200 people. It is a pastor's dream. Every time I have been there, the Mass, at 8:00 on Sunday morning, is crowded, with many young people, from crying babies through school age children, teens, and couples. One family acts as greeters for the Mass. Since there is only one door, everyone has to pass by this family and greet each member of the family, children included. Two musicians, an organist and a pianist, accompany the music, and the congregation sings heartily. Everyone greets a young woman, severely disabled and in a motorized wheelchair, who can hardly speak and can receive Communion only as a tiny piece of the host. Everyone seems to know everyone else.

A few months ago, reflecting on this place, I concluded that the beauty of this place is largely cultural, not necessarily religious. It depends on rural isolation and strong kinship ties, grounded in the cemetery next to the church, which goes back to 1833--the oldest parish in the diocese. Once members of the congregation leave the area, do they continue the same spirit of community?

That parish is a lattice, within which mushrooms can grow.

We are too focused on numbers. The Church in the U.S. has about 60 million or so people who claim membership. Among that number, maybe 40% see the inside of a church once or twice a year. Another 40% appear one or two times a month, mostly out of routine. There may be a few percent who have not been to church for years but still say they are Catholic. Finally there is the small percent who regularly attend. Among all these groups, from the "never-attends" to the "daily attends," there are likely people who have developed their own ways of being involved with God. And, equally likely, there are others who have no such involvement at all. The church is a matrix within which mushrooms can grow or not grow.

The path to salvation is narrow, and few there are who travel it. The road to perdition is wide. There are a lot of people on that road.

Too often I have seen evangelization as trying to enroll people in the institutional church. I thought that the numbers are what is important. I need to relax, and simply be open to each person I talk to as someone who can be called in some small way toward deeper involvement with God. That process is more in God's hands than mine. I shouldn't sweat the small numbers in the institution.

My role in the Church is to move in and out of the lattice, helping to maintain whatever structure the community wants, using that structure to cultivate a tiny mushroom in one of the holes in the lattice.

Today it struck me that the lattice is physical, incarnate, like the Word incarnate. The Word came into the world to provide a lattice where the Spirit of God could create life. The lattice can take many forms--we cannot program the action of the Word. Our calling is to rejoice in being in the lattice and open our eyes to any chance to spur the growth in it of the people God sends into our lives. The numbers are irrelevant.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Sunday, Week 4 . . .

[Random musings arising from the psalms for Sunday in Week 4 of the Liturgy of the Hours.]

Today is October 13, 2019. We had the first frost of this fall the night before last. The trees I can see from my window have not yet gotten the message--still all green.

Sunday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time. The church year ends with Week 34. Then a new church year begins. Another Advent. I am 84 years old. How many more Advents will I see? What I have seen is more than enough. Like Simeon, now I can die in peace (Luke 2:29).

The "Invitatory Psalm"

Psalm 95 is the traditional psalm to begin every single day throughout the year.

"Come, let us make glorious noise for the Lord."

The Lord. Our Lord. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The God who made us into a people. "Lord" is the personal name, so sacred that Jewish practice doesn't vocalize it. Four consonants on the page. No image of this God.

"The Lord is a great God, king among all the gods."

The Lord has competitors. A few weeks ago I decided to name the two competitors who have controlled my day for years: Excellence controls my work day. It is truly a competitor god for me. In its name I have to be the best at every moment of my work day. I am too focused on being excellent to be aware of the people who flit in and out of my work day. They are shadows, ghosts. I need every available moment to be Excellent.

My other competitor god is Leisure. When I am not at work I want to be absolutely free to do anything I want. There are many intrusions on my free time. Most of them I accept voluntarily. But Leisure is always beckoning me from the shadows. I will sacrifice time as long as the sacrifice is scheduled. But an unscheduled intrusion? Resentment. Anger. Leisure rules.

"Don't harden your hearts the way the people did in the desert. Your fathers just had to test my faithfulness."

"Moses, why did you lead us out into this desert where we are dying of thirst?"

In so many of the psalms the majority of the people are doing the wrong thing. The minute Moses was out of the picture they made the golden calf.

Are we all that different? How many people baptized as Christians are living as Christians? Many of them are official "fallen-aways," but how many of the ones staying have their hearts in it?

When Pope Benedict XVI said that he foresaw a smaller, more committed Church, I heard him calling for a community of the Pure, like the Puritans or the Pharisees. But maybe he was just acknowledging the fact that at any given moment, the majority of so-called Christians are not really Christians. So what else is new? The majority of the children of Abraham at any given moment were questioning the Lord's relevance in their lives. And not just questioning. Ignoring the presence.

"I was with that crowd for 40 years and their hearts were always somewhere else--anywhere else but me."  So then the Lord shares frustration: "By God, they will never see the kind of world I wanted for them."

Psalm 118

This first psalm of morning prayer on the Sunday of Week 4 is a prolonged song of praise of the Lord.

"Praise the Lord because the Lord is good. The Lord's steadfast love lasts forever."

Steadfast love. The word is often translated as "mercy." This noun is paired over and over and over in the psalms with a second noun: "faithfulness." The Greek word can also mean "truth," but here the truth is that the Lord never gives up on the people.

Steadfast love and faithfulness. What a description of God, our God, the Lord. Much better than all the other gods: wealth, control, esteem, health.

But maybe our picture of the Lord is just a creation of our own wishful thinking. Maybe we aren't strong enough to face the brutal truth: we are chance products of a blind evolution that will chew us all up and spit us out just like all the other species that come and go on one tiny planet in a universe where they may be billions of planets just like ours.

But then there's love. Human love. Woman, man, child, parent. I have experienced love. Is it wishful thinking when I say that this particular person loves me? I could be deceived. I could even go the way of those 18th-century philosophers who questioned whether there was anything real beyond the limits of their head. I know that everything I perceive with any of my five senses is shaped by what goes on in my neural system.

But, No! I cry. I am not deceived. This person loves me. I love this person.

The Lord loves me. I love the Lord. Is there any difference?

How much more impoverished is a world where there is no love.

Now that is not an absolute proof for "the existence of God." Maybe we can never come up with an absolute proof. But in the meantime we have to live. We want to live. We want to live more abundantly,

So most of our fellow travelers never think about the Lord. What else is new?