The Short Story

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”  –William Faulkner

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What’s Filling Your Glass?

Take a moment to consider how your attitude affects your daily happiness -the successes you may or may not enjoy in your life.

My father was a famous glass-is-half-full kind of guy. He referred to what most people call problems, as opportunities. In the course of his life, he had many, many opportunities, but he always kept a positive attitude even through to the very end, when cancer took his life at what seems to me now, the very early age of seventy. We used to say about him, “If he ever stepped in horse manure, he’d respond with: ‘there must be a pony around here somewhere!’”

He’d agree with J. Sidlow Baxter: “What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude toward it. Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity.”

In some ways, we are born with elements of our attitudes. I remember many years ago my wife was back-to-school shopping with our boys. She was in the hustle and bustle of a busy Walmart with our nine and six year olds, and most of the rest of the town on the same mission. She hunted down an extensive list of pencils, pens, paper, notebooks, rulers, socks, underwear, shorts, shoes, shirts, household items, and a basketball. The shopping basket was filled and overflowing. It was Christmas in July.

After her two hour expedition through every corner of the million square foot store, and $500.00 worth of items somehow repacked into the cart after checkout, she headed to the exit. As they approached the doorway, a shrieking alarm went off. Red lights were flashing; a security guard jumped up from his chair and quickly headed their way. Hundreds of customers and clerks all stopped to stare and see what was going on with the frazzled lady and her two kids, apparently trying to sneak some items out of the store.

Time was frozen. In that split second of chaos and activity, the God-given attitudes of the two boys in the spotlight were revealed. One boy slam dunked the new basketball into the shopping cart, and bolted through the doorway into the parking lot dashing to the car, faster than Bonnie and Clyde leaving a bank robbery. The other one looked up at his mom with a sparkle in his eyes and a bright beaming smile, and said, “Mom! What’d we win?”

So, if we are born with our attitudes, does that mean we can’t change them? Not at all. That’s the beauty of the human mind. That’s the beauty of God’s gift of freewill. We have the capacity to determine our outlook on whatever opportunities life places before us. Henry Ford said, “If you say you can or you can’t, you’re right either way.”

I worked for a time in an outbound call center. It was a tough job making hundreds and hundreds of cold calls each week to homes and businesses. Even though it was for a great cause, people weren’t always receptive to our message. That was a job where attitude made all the difference between successfully recruiting people to join the mission, or not. You could have a great day sharing wonderful stories with people, or live each minute as if it were a tortuous, agonizing eternity.

Many people could not last a month on the job. Most would quit within a year. And yet there were a handful that had worked there for years and years. I saw that it was their attitude towards the job that made all the difference.

There have been times in my life when I’ve been discouraged because of difficulties, setbacks, and the opportunities in my life’s journey. And there were times when I questioned why God was doing this or that to me, or just: “God, why are you allowing this to happen to me?”

It has taken time and experience to learn that God does not hand out treats, treasures, or demerits based on effort or performance on my part. There’s no report card with A’s, B’s or even F’s from God at the end of the month.

But, I have learned that along the journey, God is with me. We go through the good times, the bad times, and the everything in between times. God’s there whether I acknowledge his presence or not. But the hills and valley’s of life are made much easier with a positive attitude, and the realization that God is along for the ride with me.

To answer my son’s question: that’s what I’ve discovered we “Win!” when the sirens are sounding, lights are flashing and the opportunities of life comes calling. And when I step in it, I must remember, there must be a pony around here somewhere.

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When Butterflies Rule the World

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Do you ever wonder if your small efforts, quiet prayers, unseen actions ever do any good? I know sometimes I do.

Recently I was reading about the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz (1917-2008). In the early 1960’s he was working with mathematical formulas, feeding them into computers to predict weather patterns. When he tried to shorten the numbers in the formulas, from six decimal points to three, he found the computer’s weather predictions varied wildly. And so, he determined that the slightest variance -.001 vs. .000001, created completely different outcomes. This gave birth to the Chaos Theory also known as the “Butterfly Effect.” To illustrate this effect he said that a butterfly flapping its tiny wings in Africa could set into motion a whisper of a breath, that could ultimately cause a hurricane in North America.

This kind of reminded me of the words of Mother Theresa, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things, with great love.”

But, thinking of the Butterfly Effect,  even those small things done with great love, can do great things.

What are those small things? Smiling at that co-worker who drives you crazy; taking out the garbage without mom asking; forgiving someone who doesn’t even know they’ve hurt you; checking on an elderly neighbor; laughing at a friend’s so-un-funny joke; running another errand just as you walk in the door, -cheerfully; lending an ear to a stranger who wants to share a story; quietly praying for a friend who’s struggling to find a job, or having a tough time at home.  Sending an unusual note…

Several years ago a man approached me at my father’s funeral. He was a family friend, a big stocky gentleman and a former Marine, like my father. As we shook hands outside the church after the service, “Bob’s” weathered, wrinkled face gently filled with emotion.

“Your dad was something special,” he said in a solemn tone. “You probably don’t know this but every year he’d send me a birthday card.” He paused and looked away, then he laughed to hold back tears that were welling up. “It wasn’t on my birthday, that’s the funny thing. It was on November 10th, the birthday of the Marine Corp,” he paused to pull out a cigarette. “A card on the birthday of the Marine Corp,” he said with another laugh. “Yes sir, I really loved that about him.”

He just fumbled with the unlit cigarette as he quietly spoke about other kind things my father did; but the birthday card each November 10th, “he’d really miss that,” he whispered as his eyes grew misty once again.

The thing is, my dad wasn’t a typical former Gung-ho Marine. He wasn’t even a Gung-ho Marine, when he was a Marine. He served in combat in the Korean War, but he never talked about it.

After his time in the service, he packed away all the pictures, uniforms, medals and mementos from that part of his life. The only thing he shared with us was silly made-up Korean phrases that made us laugh. “Ideo-ship-sho-nay-chingo,” he’d cry out and then Karate chop or high kick the air, with a bread basket on his head. Yeah, he was a real warrior.

But, he knew “Bob,” was a proud Marine. So, he acknowledged that each year with a simple card. I never knew that until Bob shared it with me; an unknown, unseen act that brought a big rough and tough Marine to tears.

So, you never know the hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis your own seemingly butterfly prayers, wishes, and deeds are setting into motion; only the one’s you never put into action.

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Are you Making a Diamond, or Fool’s Gold?

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I went to my nephew’s wedding this past weekend. Our extended family rarely gets a chance to be together so it was a special time, not to mention the wonderful reason for us being there –Rachel and Ben’s wedding.

One of the readings they chose for the ceremony is a perennial favorite of weddings throughout the Christian world. It’s from Paul’s first letter to those rascally Corinthians. Chapter 13…love is

I love this passage. However, as it was read I thought about how I have a different view of it now than I did thirty-plus years ago when my wife and I were married. My guess is that those many years ago, I was hoping my bride was listening carefully to Paul’s words: love is (implying you [are]) patient, kind, forgiving, etc.  I’m sure I was thinking: Bonnie, I sure hope you are listening to this. Yeah, at twenty-four years old I liked the sound of those wise Biblical! words.

After three decades however, I don’t think it really works that way. I believe Paul’s words are directed at us, but more importantly for me to carry out. Almost four years ago I shared this with my own son and daughter-in-law on their wedding day. I suggested, “Insert I into everything love does in Paul’s letter.” When you do this it reads something like:

“I am patient, I am kind. I am not jealous, I am not pompous, I am not inflated, I am not rude, I do not seek my own interests, I am not quick-tempered, I do not brood over injury, I do not rejoice over wrongdoing but I rejoice with the truth. I bear all things, I believe all things in you, I hope all good for you, and I’ll endure all things for you. I’ll never fail you.
So, faith, hope, and love remain. And the greatest of these is my love for you.”

When two people are firmly committed to living this way, through humility, there’s no way they can fail in their marriage.  On the other hand, if each one expects the other to be the one who bears all things, there’s virtually no way they can have a successful long term relationship.

A marriage is kind of like two jagged rocks thrown into a rock grinder. Over time, the grinder spins and spins, and the rough edges are knocked off and smoothed over. But, there’s a lot of contact and friction going on to make that happen. How do we keep it together while being tossed and turned by the rock grinder of life? We stay together -we actually become one, by living out the marriage vocation, in service to the other. John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” This kind of humility gives us a good direction.

Faithfully living in service to your spouse has many Transfiguration moments –times similar to what the Apostles experienced when Jesus revealed his divine nature to them. This brilliance sustained them through the tough times they were to encounter as Jesus made his way to Calvary. In our married life there are innumerable moments of joy and ecstasy beyond comprehension. It’s those moments that keep us hopeful and fires us with life-giving happiness. But there are also Garden of Gethsemane and crucifixion times in the little details and large events of everyday life. “How many times do I have to take out the garbage? Why can’t he just pick up after himself? Why does he/she have time for friends, but not for me? Who’s cooking dinner tonight; not me again! I know he’s sick, but why can’t he…?”

Marriage is ultimately the formation of a unique, beautiful jewel –a diamond perhaps. And just like the life of a diamond, there’s deep darkness, high pressure and heated moments… But through those times, and through the good times, the multi-faceted jewel that God calls married couples to be, emerges and reflects a brilliant light for family and friends to follow; when we live like this, we build a treasured gemstone, instead of chasing fool’s gold.

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Confessions of an 8 Year Old Bandit

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I got my start in business at a very early age; actual business and funny business. In the summer of 1966, I was the assistant-cashier-shelf stocker-sawdust spreader-feather duster-inventory control manager-and general side kick to my grandpa Oliver, at his corner grocery store in Ottumwa, Iowa. We were inseparable that summer. We enjoyed drinking “pops,” and eating liver cheese sandwiches on dark bread (unfortunately I discovered what liver cheese was made of a few years later… ugh!)

I ruled the roost of that little store from my Bob Cratchit-like perch behind the front counter.  I sat regally along side the wood cased cash register; behind me was a wall of candy, gum, pills, tonics, pipe tobaccos, and cigarettes…I developed a pretty bad “cigarette gum” habit that summer.

After a few weeks on the job I had noticed a shiny pearl handled silver six shooter with a brown leather-like holster temptingly hanging on the toy rack right next to the bright red Coca Cola ice-box.  All day long the drink box hummed away, full of swirling icy water, and “pops.” Since I was the beverage inventory control manager as well, each time I replenished the stock, the pistol called out my name.

After just a few days of fantasizing about joining up with the Lone Ranger or Marshall Matt Dillon, I made the bold decision to simply take the gun and holster for my own. I didn’t want to go to the trouble of asking my grandfather for it. I was too proud to ask. So I simply walked over one afternoon while no one was looking, and I ripped it off the toy rack.  I then made tracks to the only place I could think of to enjoy it -my grandparent’s basement in their house right next door to the store.

There in the dark, cool, quiet confines of my grandparent’s cellar, I tore open the plastic packaging and I savored the cold steel of the prized pearl handled six shooter in my greedy little hands. I strapped on the vinyl brown holster belt and began gunning down bad guys and bringing justice to the Old West.

However, after a while of blissful pretend playing, I realized I had a problem. I couldn’t take the gun out into the world and show it to anyone, after all, it was stolen property. I was pretty much confined to the basement, to clean up the Old West. And then it hit me: regret. I regretted taking the gun and holster, because I couldn’t really do anything with it, except play in the basement, and what was so fun about that? But even more than that, a worse feeling settled in. I regretted stealing from my grandfather.

He probably knew the minute I did it. Surely he noticed the guilt in my quiet, standoffish demeanor for the next few days, but he never said a word about it. I think we must have established an uncomfortable, but mutual understanding for those few days.  I took something I shouldn’t have, and he knew it. But, he was going to patiently let me sort it out. So, on the third day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally broke down.

“Grandpa, I took a toy gun from the store, …and I’m sorry” I told him with my eyes firmly focused on the ground. My quavering voice squeaked out the …and I’m sorry.  And then I just cried, and cried and cried. He leaned down and reached out and brought me to him; he hugged me and maybe laughed just a bit as my tears trickled into the white apron he always wore in the store. He held me long enough to let the warm embrace and the tears soak in.

“Timmy,” he said, “all you had to do was ask me and I’d have given it to you. Anything in this store you could have -all you have to do is ask.” That made me cry all the more. But as I felt his large hands embracing me around my trembling shoulders, pulling me in tighter, I knew at that moment we were back to being partners. I knew our bond was put back together.

For me, so many years later, this is my experience with the sacrament of reconciliation. When I sin, I realize the sin isn’t as shiny, or attractive as I thought it would be, but instead it has put me in a cold dark lonely place.  It does no good to pile a guilt trip on myself and simply acknowledge personally it was wrong. When I sin, and when I acknowledge that is an offense against God, I have to go to God, and I have to say the words: this what I’ve done, and I’m sorry. For me, in that exchange there’s heavenly grace; it’s nothing less than a miracle that comes from this sacrament.

Today, I see myself as my grandpa Oliver. I think of the bonds and the relationships with my children, and now my own grandchild.   I believe this is a glimpse into the way God sees us as his children. And I think of that re-bonding I did with my grandfather so many years ago. What a miracle it is that I get to re-bond in a similar way with God in the sacrament of reconciliation.  When that happens, my inner spiritual tears of joy flow just as freely as they did, down my freckled little cheeks on that Iowa summer day so many years ago.

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Stay Here and Watch with Me

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Patiently Awaiting Summer’s Flowers

In your relationships, have you ever been in attendance, but not really present; or have you ever wondered why a close friend suddenly becomes distant and out of reach? Have you ever been frustrated by the thought -hey, I’m doing all the heavy lifting here…how about some help?

I am reminded by my friendships that it takes two full participants to make a true relationship. It’s the same with my relationship with God. I need to remember that God is always knocking at my door. To be in proper relationship with him, I need to be present, not just in attendance, at the door; and I need to be watching with the eyes of faith. I need to be prepared to answer at whatever door or form he reveals himself to me.

Some years ago I recall I was regularly in attendance but not present with God. I remember over twenty years ago, our first Sunday at our new church; I quietly surveyed the large congregation, and I zeroed in on our “new” pew. I led the family to the vacant 3rd pew from the back of the church. I did this quickly to head off my wife’s preference for sitting at or near the front of the church. At this point of my spiritual life, I was an attend-at-the-back-of-the-church, preferably under-an-hour-Mass, kind of guy.

I wanted to worship at the altar of parish anonymity. From our new pew, staring at the backs of the heads of nearly 700 total strangers this fit the bill perfectly. Sitting up front, someone might notice us, and invite us for coffee and donuts, or ask us to join some committee or club. No sir, not me. I’m just here for my Sunday hour obligation.  It’s funny how God can have other ideas.

We settled into our new pew, about a mile and a half from the altar. My wife started to cool down from my insistence we sit so far away. I heard the choir start to tune up, the candles were lit, and I sat back for a nice hour (with luck…) of random thoughts about the upcoming week’s activities, a game on TV later on that day, where we’d eat lunch, etc. As I drifted off into my pre-Mass thoughts, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder.

“Would you and your family like to bring up the gifts today,” a friendly older usher asked? His kindly face smiled. However, his big farmer-sized hand remained solidly on my shoulder waiting on an answer.

I am hard headed. I admit that. And in that hard-headedness, I refused to respond to God’s call that Sunday morning. Oh, we did take up the gifts, I didn’t want to mess with that usher, but right after the recessional hymn I hurried our family out of the church; and then I barely did more than fulfill my minimum religious obligations …for the next six years!

In the Gospel Jesus tells me: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

So how does this work? It’s mysterious and all that, but on the one hand, I’m surfing along the outer margins of any kind of spiritual life, and God -through that usher, taps me on the shoulder, knocks on my door. But I don’t answer; I’m spiritually AWOL. And then there are times, when I’m knocking, knocking, knocking on God’s door, but no one seems to be at home? It can be very frustrating. God must have the same thought over the years about me.

This reminds me of an essential piece of good relationships: patience. God called me. I wasn’t ready and so he waited. He quietly, but persistently hung around, just like a good friend would do. And then, I need to be patient too. When I can’t find God in my life, maybe I should take a break from knocking down doors where I think he is, and just sit in his quiet for a while, and listen. Maybe then I can hear his tap at a door I wasn’t even watching before.

As you search for God, keep in mind, he is always reaching out to you too. But if your search is isn’t producing fruit, ask yourself: do I have my eyes focused on something else, or on one particular door -the one door I’ve chosen; am I being patient enough to allow God to speak to me?

Good friends always know how to find each other. With God, sometimes that means being present at all the doors of your spiritual home, fully present, with patience.

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Living on God’s Grid

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Recently my wife and I have been watching Alaskan survival shows on TV. We especially like the one about a competition between three teams: ultra-athletes, ex-military men, and mountain men. These guys race over treacherous terrain. They trek over jagged mountains, through icy rivers and deep, dense forests. They encounter rain, wind, snow and cold; hunger, fear and…bears! Their objective in each challenge is to survive for two and a half days in the unforgiving Alaskan environment with nothing more than what they carry in their backpacks.

A couple other shows involve people, who are moving to, or are already living in the Alaskan back country, -America’s last frontier. Some inhabit crude cabins with no electricity, no running water, and no phones –virtually no connection to the outside world, except for a narrow path or an isolated beach, which means a long hike, snowmobile ride, or boat ride to the next rural town or village.

I find an attraction to these rugged individuals; they brave the most extreme circumstances to be on their own, to do their own thing, to be masters of their domain. They have access to amazing vistas of snow-capped mountain ranges, rushing rivers teeming with wild salmon; and beautiful lush landscapes as far as the eye can see. They’re in a kind of treacherous paradise, and truly living off the grid.

Bonnie and I have no such ruggedness within us. We do like to camp-out at a state park in our tent -with a water and electric connection close by. But off the grid? Using an outhouse in the middle of an Alaskan blizzard? The swarming bat-sized mosquitoes in the summer; the bitingly cold long dark winter months; and the bears… I imagine cabin fever setting in for us, in about a week or two into November, and there might be a dead body to thaw-out come June. But it’s a vicarious treat to watch these folks live their way of life, off civilization’s grid. However, it also reminds me of the times when I spiritually, stray off of God’s grid.

Interestingly I sometimes do this when things are going so well. There’s money in the bank, food in the fridge, warm sunny days, smooth sailing, and all is well with the world. At times like these, I can forget God is part of those good times. I’m large and in charge, on top of the world, and who needs God? I’m living on my own grid; doing things Frank Sinatra style: My Way.

Isn’t that the essence of original sin? It’s the sin of Adam and Eve as told in Genesis. It’s the sin of saying, “God, I don’t need you. I can do this by myself. I can make my own choices and decisions based on what I think are right. I’m going to rely on myself to decide.”

And then, when I’ve put myself out there on that rugged frontier, all by myself, with only my backpack filled with self-satisfaction and an attitude of, I can do this myself, darkness and gloom inevitably comes along. I get a little panicky, –money is running tight, the house payment is late, I’ve lost another big account, my kid’s had a car wreck, a close friend is diagnosed with cancer, and I wonder, “Where’s God? Why have you abandoned me?” Even though I’m the one who cut off the lines of communications; I’m puzzled as to why I don’t hear his voice, or feel his presence. Hey God, where’d you go? I really need you right now. It can get pretty cold and lonely out there lost in that spirit-less wilderness.

And so I pray based on these experiences of spending time on top of the world, and then in the spiritual frozen tundra. It’s a prayer for me and for all those on my prayer list. It’s based on this experience of living spiritual highs and lows, outside of God’s presence.

I’m praying for the miracle that each person and I are looking for –and we all need some kind of miracle in our lives; a healing, a closure, security, forgiveness, intimacy with God.

I pray that we feel the presence of God as we wait and journey to that miracle. And then, whatever that miracle may be, I pray that we will enjoy that miracle with God. I don’t want to see the miracles in my life, and then not enjoy them with God. I want to avoid stumbling through the darkened forest of doubt, or to sit on the high peaks of self satisfaction only to find myself faltering, and staggering perilously close to a cliff. I’m trying to stay on God’s grid and avoid those mamma grizzlies prowling around in the dark. That kind of thing is great entertainment on TV, but clearly no fun in real life.

God, help keep me to stay connected to you; let’s enjoy this adventure together. Amen.

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5 Things You Can Do For Lent, Besides Giving Up Chocolate

Let the Lenten Journey Begin

Let the Lenten Journey Begin

Several years ago I gave up adding cream and sugar to my coffee for Lent. Some may say that was trivial and maybe even a little silly. I don’t completely disagree. I thought the same thing when I originally read about the idea from a weekly column in our diocesan newspaper written by Father Bill Stelling . He wrote about giving up sugar in his coffee for Lent one year. A few years later I tried it. I dreaded even the thought of it at first. I mean, I was going to be giving up cream and sugar! Black coffee? Initially it was dreadful. Early on, I even considered giving up the coffee all together. But a funny thing happened during the 40 days of no cream and sugar coffee: at the end of Lent, I preferred black coffee –just as Father Stelling did, and I never went back.

As Catholics we are taught at an early age that it is important to give up something for Lent; but chocolate or soft drinks, or cream and sugar in coffee? Isn’t that just kid’s stuff? Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights and fasted from food and drink. How can I dare to compare giving up such small things to something like that?

But then I do miss an obvious lesson thinking so narrowly. The small things can become big things.  And even though God isn’t asking me to move mountains,  he does want me to start with a mustard seed.  And there’s even a practical wisdom in giving up, or doing something different for forty days. According to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aha! Forming new good habits or breaking old bad habits -changing behavior. Yeah, I think that is supposed to be part of the Lenten experience.

With that in mind, I’ve listed five things you may want to try during this Lenten Season; they aren’t kids’ stuff; but they’re not, let’s-go-into-the-wilderness-and-leave-the-world-behind kinds of things either. They’re substantial, yet completely doable. And, who knows, maybe come Easter they’ll be part of a new you. After all, at the end of the season shouldn’t you feel like, and be a new person in Christ?

“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2: 19b-20)

Give up a bad habit, such as: negativity, anxiety, envy, lust, eating or drinking too much, laziness, anger, pride, greed; you know the deadly seven? Surely something rings a bell here. I like to think of Bill Murray’s character Bob Wiley in the movie “What about Bob.” He was advised by Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) to “take a vacation from his problems.” Why not take a vacation from one or a few of your bad habits or issues for the forty days of Lent?
Set aside more time for prayer and reflection -No time? Turn off the TV, sports talk, or political talk radio. Turn on some chant music, or no music or sounds at all and say a rosary instead. Make an appointment on your calendar each day, to spend time with God. Is there someone or something in your life that has priority over time with God? Maybe that needs re-evaluating. “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy,” a former pastor of mine was known to say.
Fast from Fast-Food  -Heed Pope Francis’ and Jesus’ call to identify with the poor. They can’t swing by the drive-thru for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Enjoy a sacramental meal by preparing with love a dinner for friends and family. Look at it as food for the body and the soul.  For a great pizza recipe try this: Pizza Angelicus
Purchase some needed clothing from a thrift store –Instead of buying a new spring wardrobe, stop by a local thrift store and pick up some gently used items. Often I find it a great exercise of humility to enter those stores, browsing alongside the authentically poor. But the bargains are unbeatable! Name brands are available, if you can’t quite completely let go.
Volunteer –There’s no better way of understanding the plight of the poor than by hanging out with them. As I reflected back around Christmas, somehow meeting them up close and personal, they, become us. There are so many opportunities to work lunch lines, soup kitchens, food drops, etc. Be sure to include your kids. It’s pretty impressive to them to see mom and dad being in service to others.  And you’ll be shocked what you get in return.

So, what will your black coffee moment be, when Easter arrives 40 days from now? Will you, like kids and some adults around the world, gorge yourself on the chocolate or sodas or negative habits you have been living without for six weeks? Or will you continue  new,  faith-filled practices into the Easter Season and beyond as a new person in Christ?

And now for a unique Ash Wednesday reflection, I offer an NPR piece from Heather King.  I assure you, you’ve most likely not heard such a wickedly funny, poignant, and heartwarming spiritual reflection like this before.

Ash Wednesday Journal

Peace to you on your Lenten journey.

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Squeezing Through the Eye of the Needle

Backyard 6.2.13 010A few years ago I tweeted: “If attaining wealth and power is your life’s purpose, you will bankrupt your soul in their pursuit.” This was a thought I had from seeing some people I knew who were striving for status items that were clearly beyond their reach. They were wonderful people, but their expectations were way beyond reason. I felt they were being blindsided by our culture that tells us not only are these things -designer clothing, jewelry, luxury cars, mansions, etc. attainable to everyone, but also that they are worth pursuing.  A Twitter follower replied back something to the effect that –only those without money, talk about how bad it is. I laughed to myself as I  thought, well I certainly fit into the first part of his tweet.

In today’s first reading at Mass, St. James lights into the 1% of his time:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5: 1-4)

Those are pretty harsh words for the rich, but I’m not condemning the wealthy here. I’m questioning the motivation for, and the attainment of extraordinary wealth, at the expense of others.  Jesus says: “Again I say to you it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) But, he didn’t say it was impossible.

And so, I think it comes down to a matter of motivation and attitude. There are many wealthy people in the world today, who attained their wealth through a passion of something else, not simply the pursuit of cash and shiny things. I think of Bill Gates, Bono, maybe even Warren Buffet.  I believe they pursued their particular passions, -technology, music, making a deal, and in that successful pursuit, they became abundantly wealthy. And to demonstrate that wealth was not their ultimate goal, they are giving away vast sums of money to various causes.

I look at the reading from James today not just as a warning to the wealthy, but an admonition to the rest of us in the 99%, to not make, making money our life’s pursuit. Our modern culture and Madison Avenue advertisers would like us to believe otherwise. They desperately try to brainwash us into thinking that it’s possible that we all drive BMW’s and wear TAG Heuer watches; and that ultimately, doing so it will make us happy. The truth is, following our passion, and sharing what we have through our time and treasure -limited as it may be,  is the real road to a happy life. Let the 1%, hoarding their earthly treasures, worry about squeezing through that eye of the needle.

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Happy Birthday, to Me!

Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal SonToday is my birthday. It’s not my actual birthday, but it is, what I consider my spiritual birthday. Here in the “buckle of the Bible-belt,” we hear a lot about born-again experiences. Well, on this date in 1996 I had what a friend of mine refers to as a born-again-Catholic experience.

I was born and raised Catholic with two amazing, faithful, practicing Catholic parents who dearly loved the Faith. They practiced what they preached, and we as a family observed all the aspects of the faith in love and charity. And all through my life, I lived a life of faith, however at times with varying degrees of devotion and spiritual intimacy. Looking back, there were many times of my life I was just going through the motions, as if the Faith were a club to belong to with a checklist of rules and regulations to follow; and there were times when going to Mass was an hour obligation to check off the list of weekly things to do –or simply to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with my mother as to why I was not at Mass. She had a saintly subtlety to her approach, and learned from my father who had graduated from law school the lawyer’s most basic rule –never ask a question, you don’t already know the answer to. “So, what did you think of Father’s sermon Sunday,” she’d ask on Monday morning, knowing full well I had skipped Sunday Mass. God bless her, her quiet voice prodded me, whispering in my ear: go to Mass on many occasions, just to avoid her stealthy, yet loving line of questioning.

So, fast forward to my early 30’s; I am confronted with 3 major challenges. My wife had been dealing with multiple sclerosis for two especially difficult years. My father was diagnosed with cancer. I was trying to decide if I should leave my job and start a new business. In the midst of this turmoil, I felt a longing for something more. I’m sure at some level I was seeking some peace, but I also felt like I needed something to fill a gap that was growing inside me -while all this crap was going on around me. About that same time, our parish welcomed three new priests.

The new pastor was a youthful, energetic, great-hugging Italian, with a wonderful singing voice. One of the associate pastors was newly ordained and extremely personable. The other associate pastor looked frightened as he introduced himself from the altar that first Sunday. Father Bruce and Father David had made eloquent and humorous self-introductions, but this one … “My name is Father Ed, and I’m glad to be here,” was all he said. He then quietly stepped back to his chair. In my not-so-holy attitude at the time, I thought to myself, “Wow, this one’s going to be a gem at homilies; a real spellbinder. I need to find out when he’s scheduled so we can skip that mass.” And then I checked my watch to see how my hour obligation was coming along. These introductions were putting me into overtime.

I came to learn there was however, something to Father Ed’s homilies. At first I approached them with misgivings and apathy, but something was coming through. In his simple manner; in his quiet demeanor; in his dour look, there was humor; there was warmth; there was …love. And it was penetrating the clutter of my crusted outer shell, not like a knife, but like a needle. He was needling me with the kindest, gentlest, most remarkable conveyance of the message I had ever heard. There was a lot of crust to break through, but it was working its way to my core. And Lent was approaching.

I remember going to Ash Wednesday Mass that year. It was a school mass with all the children of the parish school. As I sat in my back pew, I felt I wanted to belong. I wanted to have some of the innocence I saw in the faces of the uniformed kids that filled the church that morning. I wanted something more than I had. The Holy Spirit whispered into my ear. I didn’t want to listen to this. I didn’t want to do this. …But, I decided to go to confession at the next opportunity.

The following Saturday afternoon, February 24th 1996, I remember approaching the church with a sense of dread and anxiety, and yet feeling an irresistible power drawing me in. I had been reading about perfect contrition, and in order to achieve this I had to tell all. It had been more than a few years since my last confession, so I had a few things to share. Poor Father David; he got the full double barrel story. (He still speaks to me to this day, so maybe he’s heard worse…)

I walked out of that confessional, a new man. I felt like I was floating into the church to say my penance. And afterwards, I floated out of the church into a completely new sunshine. I continued to float for months, years afterwards. To this day, reconciliation is still a favorite sacramental experience for me. I feel the grace in the sacrament. I feel the renewal. I feel the spiritual intimacy like no other experience. That’s not a knock on beautiful sunsets, or holding my grandson, or seeing my wife laugh and smile, or even the Eucharist; it’s just very special for me.

So, it’s been 18 years. They haven’t been all floating on clouds, I can assure you. I’ve had my dry times, desperate times, strayed from the path. In today’s Gospel reading the father with a sick son says to Jesus, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) That’s me, many, many days. I hope I’ve matured in my faith, and yet kept a sense of the humble, and the simple that Father Ed continues to preach today. I’m still figuring it out, and still searching. When I get frustrated I think of what Peter said to Jesus after many of his followers abandoned him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

If you are Catholic and haven’t been to reconciliation in a while, I encourage you to give it another try, especially with Lent around the corner. If you aren’t Catholic and you have something that keeps you from being close to God, try giving whatever it is for you, up for 40 days …maybe starting next Wednesday, March the 5th… If you’ve hurt someone, tell them you are sorry. If you’ve been avoiding God, tell him you’re sorry, and then open up to the possibility of getting your relationship going again. If you’re searching for something, if there’s a space in you, a place that needs filling, St. Augustine said: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

As I celebrate my spiritual birthday today, I pray for Jesus to accompany you in your search. I pray for the miracle you are looking for in your life. And I pray that God will be part of living that miracle with you as you journey on. Peace!

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