Archive for February, 2017

Do We Need Lent? 2-26-2017

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Someone asked me in the grocery store, do we really need Lent? A good question.
There was a time, of course, when all Christians thought they didn’t need Lent. After all, they had been baptized; they were filled with the Holy Spirit and lived life quite differently from the pagans. The first real Lenten people were not Christians, but those preparing to become Christians. But all of that changed when the old-timers in the Christian community noticed something remarkable at the Easter baptism. They were struck by the joy and the radiant faces of those just baptized. They realized that they had become too ho-hum in their faith and decided to do something about it. And so, the next year, some Christians began to join the catechumens in their preparation for baptism at Easter. They did this so that they could feel once again the joy of rebirth at Easter. And that’s how Lent gradually came to the church, out of need.
The liturgy for the First Sunday of Lent focuses on a need that Jesus had before he began to save the world. Even though he had just been baptized and was “full of the Holy Spirit,” he felt a need to go into the desert. In the desert Jesus realized who he was and what he was called to do. But in the desert, Jesus learned that God cannot be bought and that life is more than bread or fleeting moments of magic and glory. One Ash Wednesday, a few years ago, while I was wondering how to face another Lent, I received a phone call from a former player I coached. He was now a struggling graduate student. The young man was crying out for help. When I got to his apartment, I found a tortured person, filled with self-doubt and booze. Eventually, I got him to go to his first AA meeting. But even though he was an alcoholic, he told me that he couldn’t go back to another AA meeting because, “I’m not like those people.” I’ve never forgotten that line, “I’m not like those people.” It taught me that the first temptation to avoid is to convince yourself that somehow you are different, that you don’t share the pain of life, that you don’t need to go into the desert.
The early Christians, even though they were baptized and convinced of their importance, learned from the desert experience of Lent that they too were in need of renewal and of finding out who they were and who God was calling them to be. Jesus, just baptized by John and “full of the Holy Spirit,” went into the desert and came out with a gospel and a firm faith in his Father that he would take to Cavalry.
My young friend was wrong. We are like those people who share a common struggle and a common pain. We are all driven by some doubts. We sometimes make choices about the most important events of our lives without reflection, without faith, without prayer, without God. We cannot force Lent upon ourselves. Each of us must find a need for it, a need to go into the desert and face both our gifts and our limits, a need to face ourselves, our demons, our God. For those who ask the question, do we need Lent? Trust me – we do! Let’s go into the desert together and see what we find.

Those People 2-19-2017

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

A school had organized a food drive. A teacher was looking at all that had been collected. Not just the usual mac-and-cheese donations, but some pretty high-end items filled the bins: gluten-free crackers, rice pasta, artichoke hearts packed with seasoned oil, and quinoa.
Another woman walked by, and seeing the items that had been donated, smiled and said, “Too bad they won’t know what to do with most of it”.
The teacher asked, “What do you mean?”
“Those people won’t know what most of that stuff is. I mean, really, Quinoa?” The teacher had heard correctly: “Those people”.
The teacher knew “those people.” Eight months before she had been one of “those people”. It had been eight months since the last time she had gotten groceries at the local food pantry. Eight months since the long-overdue child support from her ex-husband kicked in. Even though it wasn’t much, it made the difference between being able to buy enough food for her and her family to make it through the week–and for that she was grateful.
“Those people.”
She remembered the first time she had gone to the food pantry. She drove by several times before working up the courage to pull into the parking lot. “I can’t” she whispered and went home – to the empty refrigerator and kitchen cupboards. Finally, desperation overshadowed pride.
“Those people.”
She finally walked through the door. She could feel the heat on her cheeks as she filled out the paperwork, telling complete strangers her life history, how much money she earned, and what she spent it on.
“Those people.”
She quickly learned that food pantries are hit-or-miss. Some days the shelves are full, and with really good things – and other days you can barely pull a few meals together from the dented cans and spoiled produce. But beggars can’t be choosers, right?
“Those people”.
She made five trips to the pantry over eleven months. When she told her kids, she expected them to laugh or get angry or be embarrassed. Instead, they helped her put the groceries away, quietly. She remembers all the meals she made with the food pantry items. Oven-roasted chicken with quartered rosemary potatoes. Turkey chili. French toast. More mac-and-cheese that she cared to admit. One of her favorites was an organic risotto, flavored with mushrooms and olive oil.
“Those people”.
She wanted to walk up to that woman in the hallway, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her: You don’t know a thing about how it feels to walk into one of “those” places and be one of “those” people. You’ve never looked at your kids and had to hide your tears because you had no idea how you were going to feed them”. But she didn’t. All she could muster was: “I like quinoa”.
If only she knew.

It’s not that we “hate” others: it’s our attitude of superiority over those who don’t measure up to our “standards” of what is good and right and correct, it’s that lack of respect and empathy for the poor that Jesus condemns. The Kingdom of God is first realized when we can see “those people” as our brothers and sisters, worthy not only of our help and understanding but of our respect; that, in their perseverance and courage as they struggle to make lives for themselves and their families, the love of God dwells in their midst, as well as ours. The Kingdom of God begins when we realize that “those people” are us.

Billy, Billy, Billy 2-12-2017

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Not very long ago, I was having dinner at some friend’s house, and got a chance to sit next to….Billy. Billy is somewhere between one and two, probably closer to two, and has strong opinions about what he likes and what he doesn’t like. No matter if mamma is telling him in a sweet voice how nummy-nummy the mashed peas are, no matter if dad ends up eating half of the loathsome vegetables himself in order to show him how mmm-mmm good they are—if he doesn’t like them, he starts throwing. He threw the spoon, he threw the cup, he threw the bow…and finally, in an unguarded moment, he threw the Gerber’s jar and the peas…right at me.
Billy is young. He hasn’t had a chance to learn yet how to respect things. He doesn’t know that when you throw things, they sometimes get dinged or cracked or broken. He’ll learn. In fact, that is one of life’s great accomplishments…learning respect. It’s a life-long process. I remember comparing how my cousins and I used to do dishes, compared to the way my grandmother did, for instance. As teenagers we tore into those dishes as quickly as we could, they went flying. There was always at least one fatality, quite often an old cup or plate. We were a little better than Billy, but we had a way to go. Things still got dinged and cracked and broken.
And then there was Grandma. Perhaps she was like most old people. She handled the dishes slowly, with a sort of reverence. Her wrinkled old hands took hold of each platter and glass as if it were a special old friend. I don’t remember her ever breaking anything. She had learned respect. She knew how easily things can get dinged and cracked and broken. She knew how to respect food and clothes, and pencils and pens….and people.
Because if unimportant things get dinged and cracked and broken when they are not respected enough, so can people. If people are abused or roughed up or overlooked and banged around often enough…they get dinged and cracked and broken.
It isn’t enough, Jesus says, not to murder. You have to show respect to everyone. Not harbor anger against them. Not use abusive language against them or hold them in contempt.
It isn’t enough, Jesus says, to avoid the actual act of adultery with someone. What is needed, is respect for someone else and their relationship, and respect for yourself, that you don’t even entertain the thought.
It isn’t enough, Jesus says, to avoid swearing to things that are false. What is needed is so much respect for the people around you that you don’t swear at all, you just say yes when its yes and no when its no.
We Americans are just now learning how important it is to respect things instead of wasting them; respecting the environment, the rivers and streams, the soil and air, instead of abusing them.
And we need to grow in respect for ourselves and for each other. This means, not having to dominate every conversation. Not having our own way. Not inflicting our moods so freely on each other. Respect is one of the most basic types of love.
And why should we show ourselves and each other so much respect? Because God has shown complete respect to us!
1. Do I show respect to myself?
2. Is there someone close to me that I am disrespecting?