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Fr John’s Reflection 31st Sunday of the Year

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time – 3rd November

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A God of mercy and justice

When we encounter situations which cause us difficulties which cause us to suffer or which cause us harm our immediate cry can be for justice against the person who has caused this event to occur in our lives. We want to see external resolution before we can internally forgive a person. Justice not only has to be done but has to be seen to be done. Yet what we discover is a God of mercy and justice. The ordering of the phrase is important as it helps us understand how God draws us into a life-giving relationship. We need to experience ourselves as loved sinners rather than as redeemed servants. The first recognises that God reaches out to us when we believe that we are of little worth and want to hold God off at a distance. The second is often more attractive because if someone pays the price at least we can try and work off the “debt”. The difference is that if we rely solely on God’s mercy, we start to see every aspect of our life being viewed through the vision of God who seeks the best for ourselves even when we do not choose it. In granting mercy, we can start to see that we are not the centre of the universe and it allows us the opportunity to see how our lives matter to God and to others. No longer do we try to privatise our relationship with God or with others in the terms of a divine transaction or earning credit points to salvation. Rather it is a more radical shift which recognises that all good things come from God and all good actions are prompted from that life-giving relationship. Our life moves in and out of this communion which notices that every action seeks to build the kingdom of God.

In this way we can approach life not as paying off a debt which has already been paid but rather a sustaining and life-giving relationship which calls us to abide with God each day. No longer do we focus solely on what we are doing but rather on who we are called to become in Christ. It is through this life-giving relationship that God sits down with us even when we notice we do not live up to our own expectations of “holiness”. God spends time with us so that we can capture his heart as he captures ours. It is about a constant surrender and yielding to that divine touch which prompts us to respond tenderly and justly to those in greatest need around us. Its focus is that every action seeks to embody that presence of the person who walks close by our side. 

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 30th Sunday of the Year

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 27th October

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To be good or to do good

One of the temptations of the Christian life is to believe that we win God’s love by what we do rather than who we are called to become. If we believe that our goodness is judged by the number of good acts that we perform then we will only be judged by our last good act. We will also start to believe that our relationship with God is based on transactions rather than relationship. We become hooked on a spirituality which is as transparent as our fly buy cards or the number of reward points that we have collected. We can start to treat God in the same way by bargaining our way through life by saying something like,   ” I have done all these good things, now I would like this to happen in my life”. We also start to make comparisons with others especially when from outward appearance their life does not appear to be as holy and devout as our own. We can start to see God as our own personal friend who deals with us exclusively on our own terms.

Yet the reality that we discover is that we are called to be good in spite of all the struggles that we encounter in life. This includes our own internal struggle to live a life which responds to the grace of God in a way that does not just focus on my own goodness. The heart of the spiritual life is to recognise that it is God who loved us first and who wants to enter into a relationship as we are at the moment. This is especially true when we experience our own failures, sinfulness, addictive behaviour and lack of vision. We come before God not because we are perfect but so that we can be perfected in God’s love for us. This calls us to notice that our holiness does depend solely on our good acts as though it can be achieved through our own effort. Rather it is a discovery that God wants to work with us each day to strengthen a relationship which enables us to undertake good actions which flow out of that enduring relationship. In this way, we discover the freedom to be ourselves and creativity which glorifies God with our whole life.  No longer do we engage in God acts because they will bring rewards in the future which guarantee our salvation, we engage in God acts because they are an expression of God’s love for us and our love for God and for others. 

In this way, we discover a humility which does not diminish us but enlivens us to walk with God each day. It allows each day to be a gentle surrender to God’s providence to provide what is needed and how we can be present to others. It is an open-hearted response which says yes to each day to the people I meet and the work that I undertake with love and compassion. 

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 29th Sunday of the Year

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 20th October

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God give me strength!

In this weekend’s readings, we can see the image of Moses combating the Amalek’s. When he raised his hands up they were victorious but when he became tired they started to lose heart. So, Aaron and Hur sat him down and kept his hands raised. In a similar way, the poor widow keeps coming before the unjust judge demanding justice where he seems to be worried almost to death! Lastly in his 2nd letter to Timothy, Paul insists that we reflect on Holy Scripture for refuting error, guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy, both welcome or unwelcome.

Often this is the dilemma that we confront in our modern world where we are called to accommodate our teaching to suit the audience that we are addressing. Preaching one Gospel to one group of people and another Gospel to the other. What we are called to preach is the same person who is Jesus Christ who leads us into a deeper relationship with God through him. This is where we are called to be people who respond in faith to His voice. This means that what we read in scripture may well challenge us to understand how God draws us into a life-giving relationship which sustains all our relationships. This Good News is not of our making but rather a living Word which draws us into a way of life which builds up the reign of God. Each day we need to turn to scripture which is not a dead letter but a wellspring of hope from which we can draw strength and encouragement to be sustained on our journey. 

As I read during the week in 1 John 2.3-6, “Anyone who says, I know him and does not keep his commandments is a liar, refusing to admit the truth. But when anyone who does obey what he has said, God’s love comes to perfection in him. We can be sure that we are in God only when the one who claims to be living in him is living the same kind of life that Christ lived.”  What strikes me about this passage is that I have often thought this passage was about intellectual or emotional assent to the truth of Christ, rather it is a surrender to the truth of God’s strength which we allow to enter in. When we hold up barriers against the truth of God’s love we try to do everything under our own strength. Yet when we turn in our weakness to God and make this honest prayer, “God give me strength” we open the door to the grace which floods in and allows us to see our life with God’s eyes which is more loving and transformative than our own. We are not called to be self-reliant but rather people created in God’s image and likeness.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 28th Sunday of the Year

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 13th October

Praying for healing and mercy

Even in an age of greater levels of medical care, there can still be a feeling that sickness isolates us from the rest of the community. We start to recognise that our priorities shift and that we start to wonder how this will change the way we live and interact with others. Much has been done to recognise that the way we live with an illness is not just about the treatment provided but the way that the treatment allows the person to be treated with dignity and engaged in the healing process. We are not just worked on as though we are a car going in for a service but rather as a person who has inherent worth which allows them to discover who they are called to become even in the midst of suffering.

This is part of our prayer which deeply engages with who we are and who we wish to become. There is a desire for wholeness and integration which helps a person to recognise who they are in spite of the suffering they may experience. There is a call to holiness which does not just endure suffering but which seeks to assist the person not to become their illness or condition. Just as we see people being labelled as lepers causing them to be excluded from the heart of a community we need to see the person not just their illness. Once we actually see them they discover that even in the midst of great suffering they can still be loved and accompanied as a person with inherent dignity and worth.

This is a call where the gifts of both healing and mercy come to the fore because they seek to help the person discover God’s compassionate face through human hands. They help people to discover that even in the most difficult circumstances that they can experience the healing touch present in a person’s expertise but also in their attitudes. Far from being isolated from the community, they are surrounded by people who look out for their welfare and wellbeing. In being accompanied they discover their true identity in God who seeks them out with grace and mercy. Our whole system of welfare is based on this fundamental dignity of the human person which sees people created in God’s image and likeness. This changes how we see ourselves and see others in great suffering as people who we hold in prayer.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 27th Sunday of the Year

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 6th October

Listening for the still, quiet voice!

Our faith starts from where we are and the place where we encounter Christ. This call to follow him is not just a private endeavour or a personal preference but rather a living response to how Christ calls us to follow. Often, we can feel that when we are perfectly formed, well educated and have our lives together that we will meet God. Yet the contrary is true. God meets us in the midst of our daily lives when we are working hard when we are finding it difficult to find spare time to be by ourselves and when the demands of daily living seem to mount up like a wall of water around us. The focus on the immediate and our availability is tested by many things. 

However, the still quiet voice of God rings out in the midst of this seeming never-ending activity. It calls us to bear witness to the Good News not at a time when it is convenient but in the middle of what seems to hold our attention. This is not one of compulsion but rather a loving voice which creates a response in a way which is present to people with grace and power. This is the ability to respond with a loving heart. Nothing is foreign to God yet in all situations he calls us to hear his voice and not harden our hearts. 

This level of faithfulness is not just generated by a stoic resistance to the events of life but rather slow, patient anticipation of the unfolding of God’s vision. Even when world events proclaim doom and disaster we are called to respond with mercy and grace. In an age where we can be provoked to make a response based on the latest headline or the most recent news report. This steady and careful gazing at what is real allows us to be contemplatives who take action for the good of others, for the good of ourselves and the good of God. In all things, we seek to be people who seek silence, stillness and solitude which touches that which brings life and Good News to our world.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 26th Sunday of the Year

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 29th September

The climate is changing!

In our post-modern age, we often live as though our world is empty and meaningless and where we are called to define our own meaning. Things become what we want them to be rather than what they are. There is a sense in which this retreat away from reality stands in stark contrast to even our understanding of the natural world which underpins much of our scientific research and our theological thought about the source of all life. Things, when viewed solely by their utility rather than by their essence, lead us into unchartered waters where we start to view something as having value and worth if it is useful to ourselves. This causes us to act in a way which is centred solely on what we need for this moment and this day and ignores both the physical and spiritual reality that at the heart of life we have a connection with God which shapes how we become stewards of all creation.

Hence, when we close our hearts and our minds to the reality of the world we live in and focus solely on what we need for the moment we can rob others of the vitality with which they need to live. It can cause us to look for what will make us wealthy, successful and relevant at the expense of others and future generations. We can become driven by immediate concerns rather than looking to that which can sustain life in all its beauty and diversity. When we look solely at what we own, the power that we possess and the status we have achieved we have an ability to divide people into categories: rich and poor; liberal and conservative; citizens and refugees; the haves and have nots. Such divisions are based on artificial constructs some of which are based on birth, opportunity and identity. They can cause us to see others solely through the prism of the label we put upon them rather than as people equal in dignity and worth. When we lose our sense of humanity we live on shifting sand for it would be too easy for us to lose what is essential to life, the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Wealth, power and success can become illusory and can be stripped from us by sickness, unemployment, failure and ultimately by death. We can actually construct a philosophy devoid of hope, which lacks faith and denies charity rather than a philosophy which proclaims life in all its wonder and diversity.

In seeking to discover who we are called to become we need to listen to the heart of God which beats through all creation. This is a recognition that we are not called to just use our environment as we please but rather as a stewardship entrusted to us by God. This starts not only with how we treat each other but how we seek to care for the environment in which we live for the good of God and the good of each other. We are not called to live as aliens in a strange land who seek escape from reality either through denial or apocalyptic rhetoric. We are called to be a living witness that God created all things and sustains them in being. We are called to be co-creators who seek to live that vision which we encounter in the person of Jesus Christ. This way of life seeks us to be present in our current situation with grace. We seek the truth of life by reflecting on what challenges we face and what moves us into action. We seek to discover how our life changes through these encounters in a way which lies at the core of who we are. As people on a pilgrimage, we are called to travel with each other by acknowledging that each of our stories interweaves with the divine story. We are not called to be people removed from our current reality but people who live an incarnate faith which engages with the way we live in our world and creates a way of life which professes what we believe.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 25th Sunday of the Year

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 22nd September

Who plays the tune of our lives?

The news programs are often timed to occur at the traditional times when people would gather from prayer at morning, noon and evening. These hours seek to let us know issues of importance which are occurring in the world and in our local community. Often what we are presented with is a surfeit of information which can have an impact on our lives but over which we are powerless to change. There can be a sense that we are formed to receive but not engage with the reality of life. Even when we see events occurring in the world we become observers, not participants, in issues which create the world we live in. We stand by the sidelines cheering or shouting but not being personally moved in a particular direction. 

Yet the Good News takes a very different approach which seeks for us to discover the person who can make a personal difference to our community and to the way we live. This is not based on how much we own, what status we have received or even whether our opinions mirror those of everybody else. Rather it asks the question, on what foundation do I lay my life? Whom do we trust to give us meaning and purpose? Do I measure my life on my material value or my eternal values? Depending on how we answer these questions will become the focus of how we live our lives. Do I seek to engage with God with my whole being which influences the way I act in my relationships with others or do I engage with what I own which shapes how I seek to build walls around myself to protect my stuff?

These are fundamental questions that we need to answer especially in the light of recent debates around abortion, climate change, relationships, gender identity, refugees, and migration. It determines how we see ourselves as human persons in relationship to God and to each other. When we seek to redefine what is truly human on our own terms without reference to the reality that we are made in God’s image and likeness, we can start to treat others in a way which seeks our greatest utility, what is convenient to use and our own immediate needs. People become a means to an end or rather can become treated as objects to be used or rejected. Our economy of life is built solely on ourselves.

Yet the divine economy sees us drawn into God’s plans for the whole of creation which sees us as co-creators. We are not isolated from the life which can sustain all life. We start to see God in all things. It helps us to see the human person from conception to natural death in a new way. It helps us to engage in relationships which seek to provide for the needs of others, especially those in great need. It does not see life as expendable or the life of another as disposable depending solely on our choice. The value is that we see the creator at the heart of all creation and us as stewards of the life entrusted to us. Our life sings with the glory of God and not a staccato beat which jars the senses based solely on our own sense of rhythm. Our lives have eternal value and worth which draw us into relationships which sustain each other and are sustained by our being drawn into the mystery of God.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 24th Sunday of the Year

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – 15th September

To whom do I confess my sins?

There has been much debate over recent months since the Royal Commission on the sacrament of confession and about the seal of confession. Many jurisdictions have enacted laws or are proposing laws to mandate what is heard in this sacramental setting as reportable if a person confesses to having abused a child to the priest. The question has largely focussed on what is being confessed and who it is being confessed to. In the civil understanding, the knowledge is revealed to another human being whereas in the sacramental understanding the priest acts in the name of Christ and so that the person is bearing their soul to God. I think what lies at the heart of the issue is whether a person is truly penitent and therefore able to take responsibility for their actions before God and before the Christian community. A person should never approach confession solely for their own good but out of genuine desire to reform their lives and to be open to being transformed by God. The sacrament should never be seen as cheap grace or a get out of jail free card! The fruits of a good confession should prompt a person to care for others and not just for themselves. It is never just about the healing of the individual but the healing of the whole community.

So how do we assist a person to make the first steps towards a good confession and a penitential life? I think that we should not see a good confession just as a private act which a person undertakes solely for their own redemption. This is not just about having a private conversation with God but a place where we consider how our actions have both seen and unseen consequences on those around us. These can either cause harm or benefit the life of another. This is where we need to reflect the orientation of our life and the direction in which we are heading. When we look at the younger son we see a person who wants to have all the benefits of the Good News on his terms rather than with the closeness of a loving relationship with God.  In a similar way, the older son sees himself as slaving for the Father but lacks the insight of what this relationship means. He lives in the same house but also the closeness of that loving relationship alludes him. The difference is that the Father looks out for both of them and takes the initiative. He provides the grace necessary for us to take the initiative to reach out to those who may seem lost or even to ourselves, when the focus is on an open squandering of the gifts or the critical judgment of others. God enables us to be attentive to that need for mercy, healing and forgiveness.

I feel that the deeper question that our community faces is how do we see reconciliation as a communal activity rather than just a private matter. At the heart of this activity is the seeking of the will of God which brings healing to our communities. This is more than just an attitudinal shift which seeks the restoration of what has been lost but rather the development of a reconciled heart. Much has been done to ensure that our communities become places where children can grow to maturity in safety but there is a deeper call to encounter a God who transforms our lives to heal and be healed from the harm that lies in the human heart. This is never about just pious intentions but a genuine desire to allow God’s grace to be discovered and lived. Without it, we will live in quiet desperation looking for a person who can rescue us for ourselves rather than reaching out for the person who can restore us into full communion. It will rely more on our efforts rather than God’s promptings to be reconciled and reconcilers.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 23rd Sunday of the Year

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – 8th September

Building on good foundations

Planning is an essential part of life. It calls us to seek out a vision which inspires us into action and also to review the place from which we begin the journey. Nobody starts life from ground zero even when we have the desire to make all things new. We are formed not only by our own development but also by the history and the community in which we live. Our relationships are created by recognising that we are living stones, not dead weight which is the burden of our circumstances. We start to recognise that what we build on is not just an infrastructure created by an institution but a living hope to encounter what we most value in our community.

Yet as Christians we are more than bricks and mortar. We are called to recognise that we are flesh and blood. This is essential if we are to live the Christian life. It is always too easy to focus on the material and tangible outcomes rather than on who we seek to become as disciples. We notice this even in our Churches and related institutions where the first order of business is given to finances, policies and procedures. These are all necessary but they should flow from whom we seek to become rather than consuming the majority of our energy. They should seek to be tools not masters of our destiny. The first order of business which Jesus addresses to his disciples and then Paul addresses to Philemon is the desire to surrender all to Christ. This is the sense of being available and directed by the spirit of God in all things.

Yet, in seeking to discern where we are led, we grapple with the reality of our own humanity. We seek a pearl of practical wisdom which sees dimly the glory of God in our daily lives. God works with us not against us in making the first step from what we know about ourselves and what we know about others. It is this relational aspect which helps us to see our life as a gift which is to be lived for God and for others. Our lives are not formed solely by our own works but rather by how those works reveal the fundamental life-giving relationship which is their source. People are formed by this relationship rather than carefully prepared programs or projects which we can initiate out of our own desires. God calls us to seek together that which leads to peace in our own hearts and the hearts of our community. What God seeks is for us to surrender our whole selves in the service of the Kingdom. This should be the foundation on which we build which is the living heartbeat of God and the way our lives echo that rhythm in our own lives.

Fr. John Armstrong

Fr John’s Reflection 22nd Sunday of the Year

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – 1st September

What’s in it for me?

What am I doing this for? This question can loom large in life when we seek to discover what the result may be for all our effort. We can consider whether the goal is worth devoting our energy to and whether the reward is really worth it. The emphasis is on engaging in a particular task for the hope of a promised or anticipated reward. This makes common sense, in many fields of life we are called to discover what we want to spend our life doing. Yet the problem is that once we have achieved one thing we start to feel a sense of dissatisfaction and start to look for a new endeavour. Our life can easily become a to-do list which we tick off at the end of each day.

The readings for this weekend promise a deeper reality about how we can find a place within side ourselves where we discover a God who calls us to be humble and at home. When we hear the word humility we can start to react strongly against it for fear that it will diminish our abilities or limit our choices. Yet Jesus points to a very different reality that we are not the centre of the universe and that our spiritual journey is not a pilgrimage we make on our own. He points to a connection between our prayer, our environment and our actions. This is not just about seeking the best for ourselves but seeking an outcome which is good for those who are considered to be on the margins of our society. Jesus does broaden our vision beyond narrow self-interest to a more global perspective where each person is seen as daughter and son of God. This is a vision which sees that the realm of God is proclaimed and we live in a world where our actions are directed towards living out that in vision.

What this calls us to consider each day is how we examine how God has been guiding us in each day and how ready we are to respond to those promptings. The focus then seeks to discover how we live each day in a communion of faith which embodies the Gospel. Our way of living changes to see what we are called to become. In this becoming, we start to notice the way to live and act differently. The Gospel is no longer words written in scripture but words written on our hearts and translated into action by our lives.

Fr. John Armstrong