24 July 2016

Who are you in prayer?

17th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
John the Baptist teaches his disciples how to pray. The Pharisees and the Sadducees know how to pray. The Zealots and the scribes can pray. Even the Roman occupiers—with their home altars and idols—know how to pray. Why don't the disciples of Christ know how to ask God for what they need? How could they spend so much time with Christ and not understand the basic rules and methods of prayer? Well, part of the reason could be that every time he needs to pray, Jesus runs off to the hills or the desert, or gets in a boat and flees the crowds. He needs some space, some time alone to properly pray. It could be that pretty much all he does with the disciples is teach, preach, and heal. Or it could be that he is teaching them to pray all along and they don't recognize the lessons for what they are. Regardless, they wanted to learn to pray, so they ask a Master for instruction. What does Jesus teach them? He teaches them that prayer is first about knowing who and what you are in relationship with God. And that knowing and understanding this relationship to God brings exactly what you need.

So, who are we in relationship with God? “Man is a beggar before God.” So says St. Augustine. And he's right. But being a beggar before God and knowing that we're beggars before God are two very different things. What separates the truth from our ignorance is the sin of pride, more specifically, the lack of humility before God and His gifts. We are beggars but we don't know how to beg well b/c we do not yet fully understand what we truly need to thrive as children of God. To learn what we truly need, we must embrace a life of discipleship, the life of a student and learn to beg at the feet of a Master. The disciples—Jesus' students—realize this, so they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And he gives them The Lord's Prayer. He gives them not only the words to pray but shows them the proper attitude of prayer: humility, not demeaning groveling or sniveling toadyism but the truly, deeply held understanding of their creaturely nature. Like all created things, we are wholly dependent on God for our being, for our very existence. Absent this basic understanding of our nature, we cannot properly ask God for anything useful, for anything at all helpful to our flourishing. Humility, then, is the foundation of prayer.

Recognizing our total dependence on God for absolutely everything, we can begin our lessons in how to beg. First, asking God for what we need is not the be-all and end-all of prayer. St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes in her autobiography, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” This surge of the heart might be humility rolling out in force; or it might be delight in love, or anguish during trial. What does she recognize while praying? Does she see her end, her purpose? Does she see-again Christ's love for her on his cross? Maybe she is reminded that she is a creature, a made-being who has been remade in her freedom from sin? Begging before God is fundamentally about knowing who and what we are before a thought or a word can form; before we can even name our need, we must know that Love draws us to beg; Love seduces us into prayer and teaches us to ask. That we must ask is itself a gift precisely b/c the need to ask pulls us into a tighter union with God. This is why Jesus teaches his students to begin their prayer, “Our Father. . .” Our source. Our beginning. Our origin. Think about it: You cannot ask for directions if you do not know where you are going. And you cannot ask for directions unless you know how to speak to the One Who knows the way.

Abraham learns to speak to God, and finds his way. In what may look like a flea market negotiation, Abraham and God haggle over the fate of Sodom-Gomorrah. Back and forth they propose and counter-propose the acceptable number of righteous citizens allowable to save the city from destruction. God finally settles on the not destroying the city if Abraham can find ten righteous souls. The lesson seems to be: God is reasonable with our demands if we are properly respectable but persistent, even if we're trying to save a cesspool like Sodom. Wrong. This story has little to do with sinful Sodom and more to do with Abraham learning the true nature of the God he serves. With each step in the negotiation with God, Abraham learns that the Lord hears, listens, and concedes not b/c Abraham is persistent or respectable or desperately needful but b/c God is merciful. How is his mercy made real in the world? At the request of His faithful servants! God wills that we ask for what we need so that His mercy and generosity can be made manifest, so that His mighty works can be seen and bear witness to His saving love. But in order for that to happen, we must ask for, receive, and then make known the blessings He pours out for us.

So, the first lesson about prayer is that we must know and understand who and what we are in relationship with God: dependent creatures. The second lesson is that prayer—undertaken with all humility in recognition of our creatureliness—releases the already given blessings of God for us to receive. The third lesson is that receiving God's blessings always and immediately merits copious thanksgiving. Gratitude is the essential ingredient in humility. Try making a roux without fat. Gumbo without filé. Try celebrating Madri Gras without beads. Won't work. Humility without genuine gratitude is simply a less obnoxious form of pride. When we receive a blessing from God, our gratitude, our expressed gratitude, deepens and strengthens our bond to God and purifies our humility. If humility is the foundation of prayer, then giving thanks for the blessings we receive reinforces the ground upon which we stand to pray. We come to know ourselves more fully. We come to see and hear God more clearly. And the bonds of divine love that we share among ourselves grow stronger even as our selfishness and pride wither away. 

Jesus makes a significant promise to his disciples regarding prayer. He says, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find. . .For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds. . .” The keys to understanding this promise are selflessness, service, humility. He's not promising us that God will be our celestial Santa Claus, or our divine Sugar Daddy. Ask in humility and you will receive in love. Seek in service to others and you will find merit in sacrifice. Before you give voice to prayer, remember who and what you are in relationship with God. Remember that what you are given reveals God's nature to you and to the world. And never forget that God Himself has no need of our thanks or praise. Giving thanks to Him for His gifts is for our benefit not His. He calls us to prayer so that we might grow in holiness, grow closer to His love, and become beacons of that love for a darkening world. Without His prompting, without the good work of His Holy Spirit, we cannot pray. So know that every urge to pray, the very need to pray is the Holy Spirit working His loving work within you. We can nothing good without Him. With Him, every door falls open.

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19 July 2016

Painting Experiment

I've been experimenting with fluid paint lately. . .below is one example. Basically, I'm figuring out how the paint moves and what colors work best.

 Experiment I


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18 July 2016

Why no signs. . .?

16th Week OT(M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic, NOLA
Up for the second time that night and headed to the bathroom in a staggering daze, I was shown a truth about my world I had never thought to question. There just about three feet from the floor, hovering in mid-air, is a small glowing object. I stare for a moment, without my glasses, in the dark, and think for just a second or two that perhaps the Lord has sent an angel to tell me something amazing. As I contemplate this greenish-yellow glow, thinking about revelations, dreams, visions, and prophecies, I am suddenly struck by the truth of what I am seeing. There it is, as plain as the shine of a full moon in October, there it is in plain view, and I realize with a nearly blinding clarity: my toothbrush glows in the dark! Then, just being me, the question arises: why would anyone think to make toothbrushes glow in the dark? Stumbling back to bed, I chuckle myself to sleep wondering what we would all look like if our teeth glowed in the dark. 
Strictly speaking, my “vision” of the glowing toothbrush was a discovery not a revelation. Its discovery was accidental and has no meaning beyond what I can give it in a homily about seeking after signs of God’s presence. As a divine sign my glowing toothbrush fails what we can call here the “From Test;” that is, my toothbrush shining in the darkness on the sink cannot be said to be “from” God. And though we can rightly say that anything made is made by a creature who in turn is created by the Creator and reveals his/her Creator as a creature, we cannot say that a glowing toothbrush made by a creature reveals much about God. Signs point the way and make present that which they signify. Divine signs point the way to God and make His presence knowable to those who desire to know Him.

The scribes and Pharisees are understandably both curious and worried about Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God. They approach him and make a reasonable request, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” Traditionally, those claiming to be “sent from God” provide signs that point to God’s presence and make Him knowable. These men are educated, pious, intellectually curious, and therefore rightly seek some indication from this rabble-rousing preacher that he is who he claims to be. Show us a sign. Jesus’ response is unexpected and harsh: “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it…” We have to wonder why Jesus is being so stubborn. We know he is capable of miraculous deeds. Why not show these men what they need to see? 
Jesus says that no sign will be given to them “except the sign of Jonah the prophet.” Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be “in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Jonah is expelled from the whale and goes on to preach repentance to the decadent citizens of Nineveh. They repent and return to God’s favor. So Jesus too, expelled from the grave and risen from the dead, will be a sign to the scribes and Pharisees and a sign to us that Jesus is indeed who he claims to be. Jesus goes on to add that on the day of judgment, “the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, b/c they repented at the preaching of Jonah…” Needing no other sign than the earnest preaching of an honest prophet, the citizens of Nineveh return to God. 
Living here on the edge of the end of the second decade of the 21st century, can we be counted an “evil and unfaithful generation” seeking after signs? What signs could we seek? Crying statues? Marian apparitions? Bleeding Hosts? Yes, all of these and many more. But do we need these signs? We do not. We have a magisterial Church, her Eucharist, a divine guarantee against defeat, and pews packed with priests, prophets, and kings. All of these speak with one voice to say what is good and what the Lord requires: “Only to do the right and love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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17 July 2016

Take the Better Part

NB. This one is short for a Sunday homily b/c I'm not sure I can stand in the pulpit for the usual length of time!

16th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

How do we go about revealing to the world the mystery of God's mercy? We have in the sisters, Martha and Mary, two models of how we might proceed. When Jesus visits the sisters, Martha begins to fuss about, trying her best to prepare a suitably hospitable meal for their guest. Frustrated that Mary is ignoring her domestic duties in order to dote on Jesus, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to admonish Mary for her apparent laziness. Instead of scolding Mary for her inattention to duty, Jesus turns Martha's complaint back on her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” We should notice here that Jesus doesn't chastise Martha for griping nor does he seem ungrateful for her work on his behalf. Rather than soothe Martha's hurt feelings by telling Mary to get to work, rather than tempering Martha's anger with a lecture on patience, Jesus goes straight to the root of her fussiness. Martha is anxious; she is worried. Faced with the presence of Christ in her home, Martha chooses to get busy; she deflects her anxiety by “doing stuff,” hoping, perhaps, that by staying busy she will burn off the fretting worry. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus' feet and listens to his instruction. She too might be anxious. She might be just as wound up and nervous as her sister in the presence of Christ, but she chooses “the better part,” attending to Jesus as he teaches her the mysteries of his Father's revelation.

Why does Jesus consider Mary's rapt attention to be better than Martha's distracted busyness? Let's ask this question another way. Who is most likely to learn: a student who sits in class texting on her cell phone, checking Facebook, or doodling; or the student who attentively listens to the teacher – no distractions, nothing to cloud her mind or burden her heart? If you have ever tried to teach a child a difficult math problem, or convey a set of relatively boring facts, then you know the answer to this question! Mary has the better part because she is more likely to learn, more likely to “get it,” more likely to become the better teacher and preacher of the mysteries herself. Martha will get quite a lot done, but will she be open to seeing and hearing the mystery that Jesus has to reveal? Jesus tells Martha, “There is need of only one thing.” There is only one needful thing, only one thing we need: to listen to the Word, the Word made flesh in Christ Jesus.

When you take up Christ's commission to preach the mystery of salvation to the world, do you first listen to the Word; or do you get busy “doing stuff” that looks Christian, sounds Christian? Do you really hear what Christ has to say about God's mercy, His love? Do you attend to the Body of Christ in action during the celebration of his sacraments? Do you watch for Christ to reveal himself in those you love, in those you despise, those you would rather ignore or disparage? Can you set aside the work of doing Christian things and just be a follower of Christ, just long enough to be filled with the Spirit necessary to teach with all wisdom? It's vital that we understand that Martha isn't wrong for doing stuff. Her flaw rests solely in her anxiety and her worry while she's doing stuff. Being anxious and worried about many things while doing God's work is a sure sign that we are failing to grasp the central mystery of our commission to preach the Good News: it is Christ who preaches through us, not only with us, along side us, but through us. If we have truly seen and heard the mystery of our salvation through God's infinite mercy, then there is nothing to fear, nothing to be anxious about, nothing that can or will defeat the Word we are vowed to spread. Why? Because everything we do and say reveals Christ to the world. If the Church is the sacrament of God's presence in the world, and we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church, then we too are sacraments of God's presence. Individually imperfect, together we are made more perfect on the way to our perfection in Christ.

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14 July 2016

Audio File: 15th Sunday OT

Audio file for 15th Sunday OT. . .First Mass for Fr. Sean DeWitt.

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Let God do the work

St. Kateri
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic, NOLA

Jesus tells the disciples that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Is this how we experience our lives in Christ? Light and easy? It's a fair question and one many of us ask. However, we shouldn't worry about doubting that the life we have chosen in Christ is light and easy. The demands of growing daily in holiness are few. All we need do is love God and others as God Himself loves us. Be merciful, avoid evil, witness with our every word and deed the way to salvation through Christ. The demands are few, but they are relentless – unwavering and constant. Even the smallest task done all day every day for years will eventually exhaust the strongest body and soul. It's not the weight of our work toward holiness that burdens us but the repetition this work requires that can send us into despair. Anyone can be holy, do holy work for an hour or a day. But being holy, doing holy work for a lifetime is much, much more difficult, if not impossible – well, impossible, that is, if holiness were measured by what we manage to accomplish in a lifetime, or measured against the perfection of achieved by Christ. His yoke is easy and light, and so is the life in Christ to which we have vowed ourselves. Isaiah shares the secret of being a follower and doing God's work: “The way of the just is smooth; the path of the just [God makes] level.”

If we experience our lives in Christ as a heavy burden is it probably because we believe that our work toward holiness includes the arduous task of clearing away the wreckage of our sin. How can I come to Christ and do and be what and who he demands if I am loaded down with the garbage of a dissolute life? Don't I need to be clean before I start down the Christian path? It makes sense to hold that nothing clean can come from a filthy source. We cannot do evil to achieve goodness. And this would make sense if we were talking about human goodness, human evil. But we're not. Isaiah says it plainly, it is God Himself who levels the steep hills, straightens the crooked paths, and sets us right by washing us clean. It is God Himself who prepares us for the work we must do. Christ's yoke on our shoulders is light and easy not because we come to him as self-made, ready-made holy men and women, but because the really hard work of our holiness has already been done for us. All we need do is persist, endure in the work. And even then we persist and endure only because of His grace.

If Christ's yoke is heavy and difficult around our necks it is likely because we ourselves weigh it down, because we ourselves have tried to put it on without Christ's help. Knowing that only Christ forgives us our sins, does it make sense to believe that we are burdened by sin and that we must come to Christ cleansed of that sin? Can sin remove sin? If you believe that you cannot take on Christ's yoke until you are strong enough to bear it, then how do you get strong enough w/o Christ? Can weakness strengthen weakness? Obviously not. The burden our Lord lifts is not only the actual sin that we carry but also the heavy and false belief that the job of lifting this burden is ours alone. It is not. Never has been. It is God's job to smooth the steep hills and straighten the crooked paths. Let Him do His work. It is your job to travel His smoothed-out, straightened-upped Way. Now, that your work is light and easy and the yoke around your neck is a joy, count yourself among the loved ones of the Lord, hurry to Him and find your rest.


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13 July 2016

Loving God is Knowing God

15th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Our Lord declares to his apostles and to us that he comes among us to break the bonds of sin and to bring peace btw heaven and earth, btw God the Father and His fallen creatures. With the bonds of sin forever cut, those who claim their freedom in Christ will find themselves uncomfortably set apart from those who choose to remain slaves to disobedience. The peace he establishes btw heaven and earth disrupts whatever temporary, worldly peace we might hope for in this life. Christ's explosive entrance into human history as a squalling baby and his bloody exit as an executed criminal uncovers a divine plan for creation's redemption. That plan can only be revealed. It cannot be deduced from evidence, discovered by exploration, or guessed at by chance. What God has hidden, no man may find. . .unless God Himself shows the way. In the presence of his apostles, Jesus praises the Father, saying, “. . .for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” Thus, the sword Christ wields against the bonds of sin creates another division: those who trust their own judgment and those who trust the way of the Lord.

We might rightly wonder why learning and worldly wisdom prevents us from seeing and following the way to God's hidden truths. Knowing is not trusting. If you tell me that you trust your spouse's fidelity b/c your private detective lets you know what he/she is doing all day, every day, I would say to you that you might know that your spouse is being faithful but you do not trust his/her faithfulness. If you tell me that you trust in God b/c scientists now know that the laws of nature have an intelligent designer, I would say to you that you might know that there is an intelligent designer but you do not trust him. Knowing is not trusting; knowledge is not faith. Faith is freely given. Trust that comes from evidence, experiment, exploration is not trust. At most, it's a feeling of confidence, an assurance. If your faith is based on the testimony of miracles, apparitions, locutions, based on anything other than the apostolic witness of the Church and your own experience with the power of Christ's sword to sever the bonds of sin, then your trust is not trust; it's knowledge. And knowing is not trusting. Knowledge is not faith.

Does this mean that knowledge has no place in the life of faith? Absolutely not! It means that all that we come to know we know as those who have given their trust to God. It means that we begin with faith, a childlike trust in God, and then we walk His way to a more profound Truth, to those truths that take us behind and beyond the knowledge that reason alone acquires. Worldly learning and wisdom cannot reveal God's truth, but they can supplement all that God has revealed. The trap we must avoid is the belief that knowing all there is to know about creation tells us all there is to know about the Creator. If – in some possible future – we come to know the most fundamental elements and operations of the universe, exhaust every scientific tool we have in the exploration of matter, energy, force, motion, space, and time, and uncover the unifying law of nature, we have learned no more about trusting God than a child learns by loving his mom and dad. Loving God is knowing God. If you will know God, then love Him and love all that He has created. No matter how much we might learn, how wise we might become, nothing can replace the saving power of faith.

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11 July 2016

Weak Love won't cut it. . .

15th Sunday OT (Fr. Sean R. DeWitt's First Mass)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Martin d. Porres, Austin, TX


The lawyer starts by asking Jesus a religious question: “What do I have to do to get heaven?” Jesus asks him a lawyer's question, “What does the law say?” The lawyer gives Jesus a religious answer by quoting from several different books of the Old Testament, concluding with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, “Good job. You know your stuff. Do all that and you'll get to heaven.” Seemingly puzzled, the lawyer finally asks a lawyer's question, “Um, exactly who is my neighbor?” In other words: define your terms! Kids do it to parents. Students do it to teachers. Workers do it to bosses. And we, the children of our Father, do it to Him. “Define your terms, please.” We do it for a lot of reasons. Some good, some not so good. If we make the demand to better understand – truly understand – what's required of us, then we're probably on the good side. However, if we demand better definitions in order to look for loopholes, then we're definitely not on the good side. In fact, we are probably wanting to do what our lawyer friend is trying to do: to justify our weak love.
So, let's define our terms! What is “weak love”? Our Lord answers with a parable. Weak love is the sort of love we have for those for whom it is safe to love. The sort of love that costs nothing; never puts us in danger; always produces immediate reward; the sort of love that the world expects, even demands from us; the sort of love that marks us as “good people” in the eyes of those who watch us for signs of hypocrisy and deceit. Weak love also walks on by in fear, disgust, and self-righteousness. In other words, weak love is not love at all; it requires no sacrifice and yields no spiritual fruit. In order to justify his own weak love, to make right his own unwillingness to love as he ought, our lawyer friend asks our Lord to define his terms – who is my neighbor? Our Lord answers with a parable. Who is your neighbor? Anyone who needs your sacrifice. Anyone who requires your compassion. We can imagine that our lawyer friend is not happy with this answer. He wants to ask, “What do you mean by 'sacrifice'?” and “Can you define 'compassion'?” When you say, “go and do likewise,” do you mean that I can get into heaven by helping a robbery victim with medical care? Does that include follow-up doctors' appointments? I've done it. Maybe you've done it. Weak love compels us to ask these kinds of questions. Sacrificial love compels us to be merciful.

And we are commanded to love sacrificially. As cruel and unjust as it may seem, our Lord commands us to love as he loves us. He loved us all the way to his death on to the Cross. And he loves us still in the Eucharist. If we were left to love as we ought all on our own, we could rightly charge Christ with cruelty. As imperfect creatures incapable of doing anything good w/o him, we would necessarily fail again and again to obey his command to love as he loves us. We would forever be the priest and the Levite who rush past the robbery victim, looking back in fear, disgust, and self-righteousness. We would forever be the testing-lawyer who looks for loopholes in order to justify our weak love. If Christ is not being cruel by demanding the impossible from us, how do we love sacrificially as he commands? How do we show mercy when it seems that we are so irretrievably tied to Self? Here's the Good News: our weaknesses, our failures to love, our lapses in showing mercy – all of it – is made perfect in Christ Jesus. 
Paul teaches the Colossians that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Therefore, Christ is “the firstborn of all creation [and] all things were created through him and for him.” Himself uncreated, Christ comes before creation, and in him the fullness of divinity, all that God Is, is pleased to dwell, and so, “ in him all things hold together…” and through him all things are reconciled for him. We were created through Christ and for Christ. We were redeemed through Christ and for Christ. We are being perfected in our creatureliness through Christ and for Christ. And we will come to thrive in the fullness of God through Christ and for Christ. But we must love! We must love sacrificially. This is not a matter of weepy sentiment or mooshy affection. All things are held together in Christ, and Christ is love for us. Without the passionate divine willing of the Good for us, we simply cease to exist. So, whatever failures we cultivate, whatever lapses we tolerate, whatever targets we miss, all of it is made perfect in Christ Jesus. And if we receive his love – his sacrifice for us – if we receive his sacrifice, and if we take his sacrifice and make it our own – if we own it! – and put it to work for the glory of God and the salvation of man, then we participate in his perfection and grow and grow and grow in holiness. And we approach the supernatural end God set for us at our creation: we become Christs for one another.

Now, you may have heard me say that we shouldn't ask God for clarity; or that we shouldn't think too hard about what Christ requires of us. I'm a Dominican friar. Defining terms and making distinctions comes as naturally to me as breathing. We are all rational animals. Our reason is what makes us most like our Creator. Our reason is the “image and likeness of God” in which we are created. Our questions to God are not only not a problem, they are a necessity for our growth in holiness. Doubts, fears, questions, failures – all of it – are made perfect in Christ. When you need clarity for the sake of loving more perfectly, ask for clarity. When you need a distinction for the sake of serving God's people more zealously, ask for that distinction. However, if – like our lawyer friend – your doubts and questions are a test for God, or an attempt to justify your weak love, keep silent and show mercy to someone who needs mercy. That's your answer. Show mercy and wait for Christ to make your mercy perfect. Because you – none of us – can do anything good w/o him.

When Sean wrote to me in February of this year and asked me to vest him at his priestly ordination and to preach his first Mass, I rushed to the mirror and counted my gray hairs. . .in my beard. One of my U.D. freshmen was being ordained a priest! I first met Sean in 2007. He took Literary Traditions I & II with me at U.D. I left U.D. in 2008 and moved to Rome for advanced studies and missed out on teaching him theology. Though I was not part of Sean's formal seminary formation, I like to imagine that I had some part of play in his intellectual formation, meaning, of course, that I hope I managed to plant a Dominican seed in his head. . .one that will grow to fruition for the good of the Church. I visited with Sean only a few times in Rome while he was there. And I saw in him then a young man with a sharp mind, a faithful heart, a passion for serving the Church, and a zeal for the Gospel. Please don't tell Bishop Vasquez, but I worked overtime to lure him into the Order of Preachers. Bagging a vocation like Sean would have earned me three toasters and a shiny new habit rosary. Despite my best efforts, which I am ashamed to admit, included massive amounts of begging and bribery, Sean chose to return to home and serve you. Yesterday, Bishop Vasquez charged him with preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, and celebrating the sacraments. Today, as the fisherman who let the Big One get away, I take this opportunity to make my own charges. Fr. Sean, I charge with the duty to bear up under both the burden and the privilege of bringing the apostolic truth to God's people in season and out, whether you or they like it or not. I charge you with the burden and privilege of hearing and listening to God's people as their spiritual father, always compassionate yet never wavering in teaching the apostolic faith. I charge you with the burden and privilege of throwing yourself on the mercy of God when you fail – and you will – and asking for forgiveness from those you offend. And lastly, I charge you with the task of growing in humility through thanksgiving and praise to God. You have been set aside for a holy purpose. Never forget that you are an instrument. You are not the Carpenter. You are his tool. And so are we all.

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07 July 2016

Staking a spiritual vampire with Yes or No

14th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Jesus carefully instructs his newly appointed apostles on how they are to do their jobs in his name. He instructs them on what to say: “As you go make this proclamation: 'The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” He tells them what they are to do: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.” He tells them what not to take with them and how to greet those to whom they will preach. Then he concludes this lesson in practical ministry with an ominous statement: “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” Among our Protestant brothers and sisters, this is what is called a “hard-saying of Jesus.” It's not hard b/c it is difficult to understand or carry out, but b/c it offers both the apostles and those who hear the gospel from them a hard choice between saying Yes or No to God's offer of salvation. This a hard choice b/c there are no soft options between receiving the Word and not receiving the Word. So, is there any sandal dust outside your house?

First, think about what Jesus is telling the apostles to do here. Notice that all of his instructions in this gospel passage give his apostles practical ways of dealing with common human flaws. He tells them what to say, thus eliminating the temptation to preach falsehood. He tells them what to do, thus ruling out a long list of work not properly done for the gospel. He tells them what to take with them, thus limiting the temporary stuff in their lives, freeing them to travel more efficiently and to bear witness to eternal matters. And finally, he tells them what to say and do when the Word is ignored or rejected, thus saving them from the temptation to hang around a stubborn household or town and waste what little time they have. Jesus' demand for either a Yes and a No to God's offer of His salvation puts one of our most obstinate habits into hard relief. We want what we want when we want it. We like options. Lots of them. And we like to change our minds when what we want turns out to be inconvenient, not what we thought it would be, or something better comes along. Jesus stakes this spiritual vampire squarely in the heart.

But why would he insist on such a black and white choice? Why stand so resolutely against the beauty of diversity and difference when choosing a spiritual path? His instruction to the apostles seems downright mean, even cruel and intolerant. Jesus is not only a careful teacher but an expert on the human soul as well, a divine psychologist, if you will. He understands the human heart and mind and knows that our love for vacillation and change is quite nearly hard-wired in us. The habit of loving and trusting our own preferences over and above what is true, good, and beautiful is too deeply settled in us to root it out with half-made choices and soft commitments. God knows that our answer must be Yes or No, or we will be tossed around with every storm that comes. We will be lost if we are not anchored. And our anchor must be unshakably caught in His Word, Christ Jesus.

Let's not pretend that saying Yes to the gospel once is all it takes to make us perfect followers of Christ. We know better. We are offered the Word everyday and everyday we say Yes or No. We live out that choice in all we say and do or fail to say and do. Does this make the sum total of our lives a long, drawn out Maybe? No. What it means is that we are committed to making the choice between Yes and No. We are refusing to settle for the lazy way of a Daily Maybe, a little life of soft compromises and easy choices. Say Yes or say No. There is no browsing in the marketplace of squeamish options. We are given the Word daily; there can be no muttered Maybe.

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06 July 2016

Break Up a New Field [Audio Link added]

14th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If you are confused after hearing the gospel, you're not alone! The same teacher who tells his disciples to go out into the world and preach the Good News. . .the same teacher who heals Gentiles in the presence of those disciples; talks to an unclean Samaritan woman and fusses at his disciples who tell him not to; and even eats with tax collectors and prostitutes over the objections of his disciples. . .the same teacher who sets himself the task of breaking just about every purity law on the books and earns for himself a reputation as a dangerous heretic and madman. . .this same teacher is now sending those same disciples out as apostles to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, saying to them before they go, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” After violating so many Jewish taboos, why is Jesus suddenly so squeamish about his apostles preaching to pagans and Samaritans? Jewish officialdom has rejected him, so why waste time and energy preaching to those who have heard the Good News and said, “No, thanks”? God promised the Messiah to the Jews. And so, to the lost sheep of Israel are the apostles sent.

How do we reconcile Jesus' words and deeds during his public ministry with his parting orders to the newly minted apostles? The Lord knows something that his apostles do not: the apostolic ministry to preach the Good News will not end when the last of them dies. In fact, their preaching ministry as apostles won't truly commence until the Holy Spirit arrives and sets the whole bunch of them on fire! Given the Lord's inclusive words and deeds in their presence; then, his instructions to limit themselves to the Jews; and then, the Holy Spirit's inspiration to set the whole world on fire with his Word. . .we can safely assume that Jesus isn't limiting their ministry, he's concentrating it; that is, with a truly daunting task ahead of them – evangelizing every living creature – the Lord focuses his apostles on a workable task: just preach to the Jews. If we think about this for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Who is better prepared to hear that the promises made by God through His prophets have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ Jesus?

Hosea sets the scene for us. The nation God gave to His people is decadent, luxurious, ripe to the point of being rotten. The more it prospers under His blessing, the more it turns away from Him to idolatry, erecting altars and pillars to alien gods. They blame their spiritual adultery on political turmoil, and Hosea asks, “Since they do not fear the Lord, what can the king do for them?” Then his prophesies, “Sow for yourselves justice. . .break up for yourselves a new field, for it is time to seek the Lord.” And it is time for those who belong to the Lord to seek His lost sheep; thus, Jesus sends his apostles to those who are in most urgent need of the Good News, those who know the Covenant of Abraham yet live as if Abraham never spoke to God. Peter, James, John go to the lost sheep of Israel and along the way they find more and more lost sheep needing a shepherd. The Holy Spirit will not let them leave these abandoned, so the Word – like a wild fire – spreads. And the people of God, those adopted as His children, grows and grows, beyond the lost sheep, into a nation of priests and prophets, a body of apostles sent out to find and rescue the lost, the wounded, those thrown away, anyone who desires to be loved as a creature created in the image of God. Go out, then, and show the world that no one is too small, too poor, too idolatrous, too sinful to be called unworthy of the Father's saving mercy!

04 July 2016

Two Revolutions

Independence Day

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

St Dominic, NOLA

Jesus says to John's disciples, “No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth...People do not put new wine into old wineskins.” What does this bit of homespun wisdom have to do with weddings, fasting, the Pharisees, mourning the death of a bridegroom, and the price of camels in Jerusalem? Better yet: what do any of these have to do with the American Revolution and this country's declaration of independence from the tyranny of Old King George? Is Jesus teaching us to party while we can b/c we won't be around forever? Is he arguing that we ought to be better stewards of our antiques—human and otherwise? Or maybe he's saying that the time will come when the older ways can no longer be patched up and something fundamentally new must replace what we have always had, always known. When “the way we have always done it” no longer takes us where we ought to go; when the wineskin, the camel, the cloak no longer holds its wine, hauls its load, or keep us warm, it's time to start thinking about a trip to the market to haggle for something new.
We celebrate two revolutions today: one temporal and one eternal, one local and the other cosmic. The political revolution freed a group of colonies in the New World from the corruption of an old and dying Empire. The spiritual revolution freed all of creation from the chains of sin and death. Today, we give God thanks and praise for the birth of the United States of America by celebrating our 4th of July freedoms. And we give God thanks and praise for the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ by celebrating this Eucharist, the daily revolution that overthrows the regime of sin and spiritual decay.

The revolution of 1776 not only toppled the imperial rule of George III in the American colonies, but it also founded a way of life that celebrates God-gifted, self-evident, and unalienable human rights as the foundation of all civil government and social progress. The revolution that Christ led and leads against the wiles and temptations of the world fulfills the promise of our Father to bring us once again into His Kingdom—not a civil kingdom ruled by laws and fallible hearts, but a heavenly kingdom where we will do His will perfectly and thereby live more freely than we ever could here on earth. In no way do we understand this kingdom as simply some sort of future reward for good behavior. This is no pie in the sky by and by. Though God's kingdom has come with the coming of Christ, we must live as bodies and souls here and now, perfecting that imperfect portion of the kingdom we know and love. No revolution succeeds immediately. No revolution fulfills every promise at the moment of its birth. The women and slaves of the newly minted United States can witness to this hard fact. That we continue to sin, continue to fail, continue to rebel against God's will for us is evidence enough that we do not yet live in fullest days of the Kingdom. But like any ideal, any program for perfecting the human heart and mind, we can live to the limits of our imperfect natures, falling and trying again, knowing that we are loved by Love Himself. With diligence. With trust. With hope. With one another in the bonds of Christ's love, we can do more than live lackluster lives of just getting along. We can work out our salvation in the tough love of repentance and forgiveness, the hard truths of mercy and holiness.

Christ is with us. The Bridegroom has not abandoned us. His revolution continues so long as one of us is eager to preach his Word, teach his truth, do his good works. Today and everyday, we are free. And even as we celebrate our civil independence from tyranny, we must bow our heads to the Father and give Him thanks for creating us as creatures capable of living freely, wholly in the possibility of His perfection.

03 July 2016

Go and be a fat and happy lamb for Jesus [Audio Link Updated]

Audio File Link

14th Sunday OT 2016
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP

Isaiah tells God's people to rejoice with Jerusalem! Their mourning is over. Flourish and rejoice! The psalmist leads us to sing, “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth, sing praise to the glory of his name; proclaim his glorious praise.” And our Lord watches the seventy-two he appointed return to him rejoicing from their work against Satan in the world. So much shouting and cheering and rejoicing. Jerusalem returns from exile. Rejoice! God rescues His people – again. Rejoice! Christ's workers return victorious from the field. Rejoice! It may seem obvious to us why there is so much rejoicing this morning. There's homecoming and divine rescue and victory against an enemy. And that's probably why many of those rejoicing are rejoicing. Can we rejoice with them? In a way but not truly. We can only share their joy second-hand through scripture, believing – as we do – that God again and again fulfills His promises of protection and loving-care. Fortunately, we have our own reasons for rejoicing. Our Lord says to the seventy-two and to us, “. . .do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven."

Our names are written in heaven, but we still live in this world. Our citizenship is in heaven, but we abide – like alien residents – in a foreign land. That's the paradox of being a child of the Father and a subject of the world. Our hearts and minds are aimed at our perfection with Him, yet we still have to eat, sleep, love, work, and die among the temporary things He created. And not all those created things welcome our presence as witness-bearers to Christ. Our Lord appoints and sends out seventy-two witnesses to preach and teach the Good News. He says to them, “Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Note: they do not choose themselves for this work. They do not decide to go among the wolves as lambs and take charge of demons themselves. They are picked to do this and they are commissioned in Jesus name. He didn’t ask for volunteers. He named his workers. Matthew. John. Simon Peter. Philip. Paul. He named them. At no point did Jesus ever stand before the crowd and say, “I need seventy-two volunteers to go like lambs among the wolves! Let’s see those hands, people!” Jesus knows what he is sending his workers to do. And he knows where he is sending them to do it. This is why the seventy-two are appointed ministers and not volunteers. Jesus knows that the harvest is abundant – it’s HIS harvest, after all – but he also knows that there are wolves among the sheep. Satan has fallen like lightning from the sky. 

The world we live in welcomes us – our labor, our money, our votes – but it is less than welcoming when we bring the Gospel and try to live out our faith. Jesus give the seventy-two careful instructions. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; pray peace on whatever house you enter; stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered; cure the sick where you are; preach the coming of the kingdom of God; and, if any town refuses you hospitality, shake off their dust – Sodom’s fate will look kind compared to what will happen to this town. Know this: the kingdom of God is at hand! Clearly, Jesus knows that the wolves will attack his ministers, calling them money-grubbers, moochers, long-lingering guests, spiritual and civil provocateurs, and snake-oil salesmen. We hear these accusation this even now. We've heard it all before, and we will hear it again. And so, our witness to God's enduring mercy must be motivated by veritas in caritate, truth in love. That's our defense and our offense. Truth in love. We cannot defend ourselves by lying to the world – we tried that and it blew up into the abuse scandals in 2002. We cannot defend ourselves by hating the world – we've tried that too and it led us to hate ourselves as embodied souls. So, we endure as witnesses to God's mercy by telling the truth and loving our enemies. No easy task!

It is no easy task to watch this world pass by and find a reason for rejoicing. It's difficult to see why anyone could be joyful. Where do they find the time and energy to rejoice? So much to do! We could count the sources of temporal joy if we need to. But there is just one source of eternal joy: Christ Jesus. For those chosen for this work – all the baptized! – our delight, our moment of joy is bringing the peace of Christ to the world by preaching his gospel with our hands and feet, our words and deeds. Our enduring joy comes from the knowledge that our names are written in heaven. We are, you and I, inscribed – essentially, substantially – carved into the very book of God’s Beauty; we are Words of Truth and of Goodness. And so we rejoice not b/c of our power or our gifts or our deeds. We rejoice b/c we belong to God! And His kingdom is at hand. Remember that when the wolves begin to prowl: God's kingdom is at hand, and you have been chosen as His witness. Think of Paul. He writes to the Galatians that he bears the marks of Christ on his body. That he has been crucified to the world and the world to him. He is a new creation for whom the old law means nothing. How have you been crucified to the world? Does the peace and power of Christ rule your heart and mind? If so, rejoice!

And what good does rejoicing do us? God doesn't need us to rejoice. He doesn't need our prayers or our praise or our thanksgiving. We rejoice and pray and praise and give thanks b/c we need to do things to grow in holiness. We need them all to do the work we have vowed to complete. If we live in the world as citizens of the world, then rejoicing and prayer and praise all seem pointless, utterly useless wastes of time. However, if we rejoice and pray as children of God living in the world, then we bear witness to God's mercy and show – with our words and deeds – that His promise of eternal life is true and good and beautiful. Like hard exercise that builds muscle, or intense study that builds knowledge, persistent rejoicing and praise nurtures holiness, and we grow closer and closer to our Father. Think of it as getting fat on prayer! And go preach and teach and bear witness where you are. And wherever you are, rejoice b/c your name is written in heaven as long as you endure in his name. That assurance, that promise is sure spiritual protection from whatever the Enemy can throw at you. So, go out rejoicing, serving, preaching, teaching, bearing witness, being merciful, and all the while grow in holiness until you meet Him face-to-face.

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01 July 2016

Warts and all. . .

13th Week OT (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Moses was tongue-tied. King David was a murderer and an adulterer. John the Baptist was smelly locust-eating hobo wandering 'round the desert. St. Matthew was a tax-collector for the enemy of his people. Saul hunted down and jailed Christians before the Holy Spirit got him. Jesus himself named St. Peter “Satan,” and Peter later lied about even knowing Jesus. . .three times! St. Moses the Ethiopian was a murderer and a gang leader. St. Augustine was a fornicator and a heretic. St. Francis was blowing his daddy's money on wine and women. St. Patrick worshiped idols and Blessed Giles worshiped the Devil. St. John of the Cross nearly drank and gambled his life away.* When Jesus hears the Pharisees criticizing him for eating with tax collectors and hookers, he says, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. . .I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” If the blood of the martyrs waters the seed of the Church, then the repentance of sinners is the harvest she reaps. Our Lord sees us exactly as we are, without filter, without sentiment. . .warts, scars, scabs. . .he sees it all. And he says to each and every one of us, warty, scabby, and scarred, “Follow me.”

To follow him, Jesus says we need to learn the meaning of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Our Lord is paraphrasing the prophet, Hosea, pointing us toward what is fundamental to our life in the Spirit – if we will to follow the Father's will for our lives, then we will show mercy and receive mercy rather than rely on the sketchy effectiveness of sacrifices and ritual purity to relieve us of the burdens of sin. A life lived in mercy necessarily grows in holiness. The one who receives mercy is relieved sin's guilt, and the who shows mercy is relieved of the burden of seeking restitution for the offense. Everyone is freed from the stain of sin! And holiness is possible only when we are free. The animal sacrifices and ritual purity of the Pharisees only temporarily imputes cleanliness; that is, they can only pretend to be clean and only for a short time. This means that Pharisaical holiness cannot grow; it is holiness on a meter with the clock ticking down. When Jesus quotes Hosea, he turns us toward the First Commandment of Love, and says, “How you show and receive mercy is how you love one another.” Shut out the adulterer b/c he is an adulterer, or refuse to love the thief b/c she is a thief, and the entire Christian project fails. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. . .I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

And what did he come to call us sinners to? Repentance. He calls us to turn ourselves around, re-orient ourselves toward righteousness, and come home to our loving Father. Showing mercy to the sinner in no way implies approval or acceptance of his/her sin. Receiving mercy as a sinner in no way implies that my sin is not sin. I can only show another mercy for a sin; in other words, if there is no sin, then showing mercy is pointless. And I can only receive mercy for a sin; in other words, if my sin is unconfessed, then mercy is pointless. The whole purpose of mercy is to destroy the power of sin and death over those caught in its grasp. Confession and repentance are necessary, otherwise sin and death squeeze just that much tighter. All the saints I mentioned before are saints b/c they all tired of the oppression of sin and sought their freedom in God's mercy. They all grew to be saints b/c they practiced mercy. Being free of sin and death, and living toward eternal life. . .that's why we were made and re-made in Christ. Our Lord says, “Follow me.”

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30 June 2016

An interview with me. . .

Matthew Coffin at Big C Catholic has posted an interview with me. . .

Check it out!


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26 June 2016

Excuses, excuses, excuses. . .[Audio Link Added]

Audio Link

13th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

I was seventeen when I first heard the call to priesthood. And I wasn't even Catholic at the time! For the second seventeen years of my life I answered God's call with “Maybe” and “Not Yet.” I used an array of excuses and dodges. I need to finish college. Then, I need to finish my Masters. Then, I need to finish my doctorate. All the while I was playing around with all sorts of spiritually dangerous ideas and practices, and not in the least bit interested in hearing anything God had to say to me. I went to my Episcopal parish off and on, and basically just managed to stay right out on the edge of the faith. Joining the Church in 1996, I revisited my vocation and decided to give it a whirl. The order I applied to rejected me in the summer of 1998. Not too long after that, I got an internal staph infection that went undiagnosed for three months and came within a few days of dying. That woke me up, and I got serious. I entered the Dominican novitiate in 1999, and I've never looked back. When Jesus hears our excuses, our delaying tactics, even our good reasons for not following him, he says things like, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

So, yes, I spent seventeen years dodging God's call to priesthood. My excuses/dodges/good reasons all sounded excellent at the time. I did need to finish my studies. I wasn't yet ready to fully embrace chaste celibacy. My parents weren't keen on me being Catholic. My set of university-educated, politically-progressive friends hated the Church. There were a few things the Church teaches that I couldn't yet accept. I was living the typical life of a impoverished twenty-something grad student, which means I managed to stay alive in the fall semester by stealing fried chicken and liquor from the tailgaters in the Grove at Ole Miss home games. Don't ask how I made it in the spring. And I was still too much of a hard-headed, big-mouthed, and cynical redneck to let anyone tell me what to do or believe. So, yeah, it took seventeen years and almost dying from an undiagnosed staph infection to get me to shut up and sit down long enough to actually listen to what Christ was saying to me. I finally heard him, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” No more excuses. No more dodges. No more “good reasons.” Put your hand to the plow, and don't look back.

So, Jesus is walking the countryside, preaching the Good News. He comes across a guy and says to him, “Follow me.” What does the guy say in return? “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” A perfectly good reason to delay following Christ. Burying the dead, especially your dead parents, is an ancient obligation, one blessed by countless generations of families. This guy didn't say he wanted to finish his workday and get paid; or that he needed a shower and a clean change of clothes; he didn't say that he wanted to discern for a few years and attend some retreats first, or consult with his spiritual director. He wanted to bury his dead father! Knowing the urgency of the Father's Good News, and knowing how many hearts and minds longed to be turned back to God, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What did the man do? Did he drop everything and follow Christ, leaving his father unburied? We don't know. Maybe we aren't supposed to know b/c “that guy” is you and me. Luke doesn't tell us how he responded b/c you and I are still responding. We are still answering (or not answering) Christ's invitation to follow him. You are That Guy. How do you answer Christ?

While you're considering your answer, think about this. Christ was not indiscriminate about who he invited to follow him. While he walked the earth preaching and teaching, he selected his close followers for personal instruction. Think of the Twelve. He chose them all by name to become his ambassadors to the world. He stood in front of thousands in his three years among us, and only occasionally to a very few did he say, “Follow me.” The universal call to discipleship and holiness comes after the Holy Spirit's visit at Pentecost. Only after Christ ascends into heaven does everyone receive the invitation, “Follow me.” While he was still among us, he carefully chose whom to invite. That Guy – the one with the dead and unburied father – wasn't just some random guy randomly chosen. Jesus knew him. Heart and soul, Jesus knew him. And he knows each one of us. The universal call to discipleship and holiness is directed at each one of us in the Church AND to the whole world. Jesus knows each one of us b/c we have died with him and we have been buried with him and we will be raised with him on the last day. We are members of his body, the Church. We have been chosen and invited. And so, he says to us, all of us, “[Anyone] who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is [not] fit for the kingdom of God.”

If we will be fit for the kingdom of God, we will not look to what we have left behind. Leave it behind where it belongs. Whatever “it” is. Leave the excuses, the bad decisions, the terrible mistakes, even the deliberate acts of vengeance and violence; leave the angry self-accusations, the guilt and the shame, all the junk that gathers around you when you wallow in sin. Leave it all. And plow forward. Go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Why not? You aren't smart enough. You aren't articulate enough. You're shy. You're afraid that people will think you are weird. Your family and friends will be embarrassed. You'll lose long-lasting relationships. You might lose your job. People will stare. What? You need to go bury your dead father? Let the dead bury the dead. When I entered the novitiate in 1999, I lost more than half of my friends and former grad school colleagues. By 2010, I had lost my two best friends of 24 years. When I say “lost,” I don't mean that they died. I mean that they cut me out of their lives b/c they hate the Church. My family – thank God – didn't turn away. Though they still look at me like I'm some sort of circus monkey with a bad perm.
What and who are you willing to lose to follow Christ? You might not lose anyone or anything but your sins and those who encourage sin. You might not leave behind much at all. Or, you might have to leave everything and everyone behind. The decision to follow Christ is the decision to make him Master of your heart and mind. That means putting aside whatever or whoever else rules you. It means stepping off into another world of freedom, peace, forgiveness, and mercy. And it means giving to others anything that you have received from Him.
You have plow. Now, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

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