Making It Count

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At my nephew’s wedding last night, his brother made a remark during his toast that got a  laugh out of the mostly Catholic crowd. He commented that the wedding Mass was really nice but reminded us that it didn’t “count” for Sunday Mass obligation purposes.

The obligation to attend Mass each Sunday is both a burden and privilege for Catholics. I remember when I was young, my mom would sometimes say we should go to 5 pm Saturday Mass “to get it over with.” Now, my mom is one of the most faith-filled Catholics I know. But that idea of “getting it over with” is something many Catholics experience when it comes to Mass. I know I do.

Being Catholic is not an easy road. There are many such rules and strictures in our church to which we feel bound. Fasting before Holy Communion, making a good confession, abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. There is a host (pun intended) of obligatory behaviors that mark someone as a faithful Catholic.

But no obligation looms so largely, nor so regularly, as the necessity of attending Sunday Mass. This can have a dampening effect on our faith at times. Feeling obliged, we trudge into church on a Sunday morning, still half asleep and wishing we could have slept in on our rare day off. The prayers and rituals are so rote that we could practically recite them in our sleep. In fact, I have noticed parishioners occasionally nodding off during Mass. It’s easy to take for granted what the Mass means to us Catholics, especially the Eucharist, wherein we partake of the very person of Christ.

Yet I see the Sunday Mass obligation as more of a blessing than a curse. I’ve noticed that most of my Protestant friends rarely attend Sunday services or any religious events at all. Without the constraint of Sunday Mass attendance, most of us would naturally minimize our involvement with our faith. The discipline of going to church each Sunday keeps me tethered to my relationship with God in a meaningful way.

The key to preventing Sunday Mass attendance from becoming too routine is to see it as a privilege, not a burden. A communion with God is something to be sought, not just on Sunday, but regularly throughout our days. The readings, prayers, and sermons of Sunday Mass remind us of this communion. It’s up to us to be fully present each time we participate in the Mass, to see it as a new opportunity to get closer to God. That’s the way to make it really count.

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Good Samaritan

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700446167Yesterday’s gospel reading at Mass was about the Good Samaritan. Most people know the story of the man lying by the side of the road, beaten and robbed, while the religious leaders of the day passed by without helping him. The Samaritan, a kind of outcast, was the only one who took pity on the victim and hastened to his aid.

There are many lessons to take away from this parable, but the one the priest focused on in his sermon was this: There is a difference between knowing the right answer and doing what is right – a difference between following the letter of the law and practicing compassion. The pastor’s sermon had special poignancy at a time when President Trump is stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants, detaining large numbers of migrants at the southern border, and failing to unite separated children from their families.

It’s true that there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Many Americans believe that accommodating these millions has become far too heavy a burden and that border enforcement needs to be increased. Donald Trump’s call for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico became a rallying cry for these frustrations.

Border enforcement is one thing. Separating children from their parents and keeping unaccompanied children in inhumane detention centers is just wrong. Many border officers have voiced disquiet at the conditions these migrant children are living under and their role in enforcing President Trump’s policies. Like the Good Samaritan, they see that the fact something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable are following the law as well. Ancient Jewish law prohibited them from exposing themselves to human blood. So in the strictest sense, they were following the rules. The Samaritan, whose mixed ancestry and religious practices made him anathema to the Jewish people, depended less on rules and regulations and more on his heart. There are times when compassion and love trump the law.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” Like many lawyers, this man was trying to get Jesus to misspeak, to contradict the law of Moses and thus bring condemnation on himself. How often have human beings insisted upon following the letter of the law to the detriment of others?

I believe that if someone were to ask Jesus that question today, he would respond with a similar story that might involve our treatment of minorities, would-be immigrants, and other marginalized people.

Who is my neighbor? The one who needs my help, my compassion, and my love.

A Life Well Lived

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IMG_1148Yesterday my beloved aunt Mary was laid to rest after 94 years of a life well lived. The chapel where her funeral was held was filled to capacity with family members, friends, and Aunt Mary’s many caregivers who had come to know her during her last 10 years spent in a nursing home.

Aunt Mary was always a favorite of mine because I was her godchild and namesake. Her presence was always a benign and pleasant one. She seemed to take raising a large family in her stride, and I don’t ever remember seeing her sullen or angry. Aunt Mary was intelligent. Even after a stroke had left her with partial paralysis, she became known for playing Scrabble regularly at the nursing home. She loved music, my cousin once told me, especially opera. And when I visited her, Aunt Mary could regale me with all the doings of her massive extended family. Above all, Aunt Mary was kind. She gave time in service to the church and community. But at the end of the day, what she lived for was to care for her family.

I had mixed emotions as I watched Aunt Mary’s many children, grandchildren, and great-children say goodbye. Whether escorting her casket into and out of the chapel, reading aloud from Scripture, or processing up the aisle to place individual white roses in an arrangement on the altar, her loved ones were clearly shaken and grieving. Even her son-in-law, who in Mary’s last years was a big presence in her life, could barely read  the comforting words of our faith without choking up.

It was so very clear to me that Aunt Mary was beloved. And I wondered, will people mourn my loss some day with such heartfelt love? Will my children and my children’s children miss me so deeply?

A few days ago, I received a text from an old friend. She had seen an obituary for my aunt in the newspaper and had found it jarring since Aunt Mary and I had the same first and last name before I got married. Thinking about my possible death had caused my friend to reach out and affirm her affection for me, and we agreed to see each other soon.

What does it mean to lead a life well lived? In a word, love. Love is what Aunt Mary showered on everyone she met. Love is what helped her endure hardship and loss, including the untimely death of a son. And love is what went with her yesterday and what will live on in the hearts of all those who were privileged to be part of her life.

In the final words of the priest at the funeral, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)

 

Christian Wrong

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billboardThe other day driving in Michigan, I saw a billboard I’d seen many times before. Its message normally was, “Real Christians Obey Jesus’ Teachings.” But someone had covered up part of the sign with a white cloth and penned their own new message: “Real Christians Obey President Trump.”

First of all, let’s agree that our role as Americans is not to “obey” the President of the United States. In fact, he’s our employee. We’ve chosen him (God help us) to do the will of the people. But some Christians on the far right are trying to convince the rest of us that Donald Trump was chosen by God to do His will. That’s more than a little frightening.

There was a recent controversy about another billboard that appeared outside St. Louis. It showed Trump gesturing with his arms outstretched and featured the Biblical reference, “The Word Made Flesh,” along with the tagline “Make the Gospel Great Again.” The implication of the message was nothing short of blasphemy if you are a Christian. It implied that Trump was akin to Jesus, the Son of God.  After something of an uproar, the sign was removed. Good to know that in some instances cooler, more sane heads do prevail.

All of this is but part of a disturbing trend among Christian believers who are willing to suspend all rational thought, not to mention their own deeply cherished beliefs, to follow a man who has no history of devout Christianity and whose many actions could be viewed as the reverse of Christian values. I could just as easily cite Scripture to suggest Trump is the Anti-Christ, who, according to the Bible, is a false leader who will sway many to his side at the end times.

Christians everywhere, whether they support President Trump or not, should decry these attempts to portray the man as a God-ordained leader of the people. Interestingly, I have been studying the figure of King David in my local Bible study group. When the Israelites tell the high priest Samuel that they want to be like all the other nations and have a king, Samuel warns them what that will mean:

He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses … He will make them do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war … He will use your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers …He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves … you will become his slaves. ((1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Samuel’s message is, be careful what you wish for.

America is a great democracy. We do not need a king to rule over us, and we should absolutely feel free to question anything and everything our political leaders do. Real Christians don’t sell their souls to further an agenda.

 

 

Notre Dame, Notre Coeur, Notre Ame

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556629-istock-852755038_primaryThe sight of the venerable Parisian cathedral Notre Dame on fire filled onlookers around the world with horror and sorrow. Unlike most of the disasters that make news worldwide, this one thankfully involved no loss of life. And yet the dismay so many of us felt on Monday as centuries-old treasures of art, architecture, and religion threatened to go up in flames was only too real.

Across the Seine, the crowd broke into spontaneous prayer and hymns as they watched smoke billow up from the spire of the medieval cathedral. To imagine a Paris without the iconic edifice complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses was, well, unthinkable. Notre Dame is one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people have been posting photos and memories of their own visits to Notre Dame since its very existence became imperiled Monday. The wealth of art and the breathtaking feat of engineering that has held up the 12th Century structure for so long are irresistible for art lovers, historians, and even casual tourists.

But Notre Dame is first and foremost a monument to the Catholic faith and the devotion of its followers who risked life and limb to build such a beautiful and imposing structure.  Catholics hold a special place in our hearts for Mary, “Our Lady.” No doubt many Catholics fervently begged Our Lady to intercede with Christ to save her namesake church.

I have nothing but admiration for the tireless efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze and limit the damage to Notre Dame. Much in the same way as the builders of Notre Dame in the Middle Ages, these courageous Parisians risked their lives to save a building. Luckily only one firefighter was injured while working to put out the flames. Still, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention in saving the venerable cathedral.

The fire at Notre Dame has brought public awareness to three other fires that occurred in the past two weeks at historically black churches in Louisiana. The fires were no accidents, however. They were incidents of arson, and a white man has been charged with hate crimes in connection with the destruction of the three historic places of worship. A Go Fund Me campaign has since raised $1 million for reconstruction.

All of this has occurred in the midst of the Lenten season and Holy Week, the preparatory 6 days before Easter, the Christian celebration of resurrection and new life. In the past few weeks the flames of hatred and destruction have raged. On Saturday night, the flame of the Easter Candle will be lit at churches all around the world to symbolize the return of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The response to the fires in Louisiana and Paris, whether religious or secular, has shown that the human spirit will always rise up to champion goodness, beauty, and hope. A fitting message for the Easter season and the arrival (finally!) of spring.

 

Thoughts and Prayers (Part 2)

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54432764_10218769922861934_369198906342375424_n“What if we’ve been thinking and praying about mass shootings for decades and Jesus sent us an army of determined Moms in red shirts”
– @BobbyHoward63 on Twitter

The quote above refers to an activist group of intrepid women who form the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In recent years, the Moms in their bright red t-shirts have been seen all across the country in statehouses trying to get common sense gun legislation passed.

The mission of Moms is simple: Restrict gun ownership to law-abiding citizens by strengthening background checks and eliminating loopholes in gun laws. Demand the safe use and storage of guns so that children and other innocent people aren’t victims of accidental shootings. Create laws that get illegal guns off the the streets.

As part of a larger advocacy group called Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action was a response to the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that scarred the nation perhaps more than any other mass shooting in the past few decades. The thought that first graders can’t even be safe in the confines of their school got these moms on the march.

Over the past five years, this stalwart group of women has had many successes in the realm of gun safety. Everything from getting background check legislation passed to getting candidates favoring gun safety elected has been part of a slowly winning agenda. While there is still much work to be done, there is hope that America can gain control over the terrible scourge of gun violence in our country.

The Twitter quote above reminds me of a story about faith and action. A man’s home was being flooded, so he climbed to the roof and prayed for God to rescue him. After some time, a boat came by and offered to ferry the man out of danger. “No, God will save me,” he assured the would-be rescuer. A while later, a police helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a lifeline down for the man. “No, God will save me,” he said as he declined the rope. Eventually the floodwaters covered and drowned the man. When he got to Heaven, he demanded of God, “I prayed for you to rescue me. Why didn’t you?” God’s reply? “I sent you a boat and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Sometimes we fall back on thoughts and prayers because we feel helpless and scared. We think meaningful change is out of our hands. The women of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America beg to disagree.

Don’t mess with the Moms!

Self-Centered

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file-20171123-6020-aa3n9nThis week I have had dozens (if not hundreds) of negative and mean-spirited thoughts. I have had to stop myself from posting nasty comments on Facebook and sending scathing emails that might make myself feel better but also might hurt someone else. The only thing standing between me and this vitriol is a little book of reflections I’ve been reading each day of Lent.

Today’s reflection by Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic writer and employee in the Diocese of Albany, New York, was about “looking out for #1.” I think what’s at the heart of most negativity is an elevation of the self over others. We may not be technically selfish. That is, we may give generously to charity, take care of our families, and help friends in need. But at the heart of our lives, most human beings are self-centered. We simply have a hard time seeing things beyond how they relate to ourselves.

It’s not without good reason that a common sarcastic remark people make is, “It’s all about you.” It’s an effective chastisement to remind us that the world does not revolve around us. And it’s necessary because our human nature leans toward the self-involved. I guess part of this is an instinct for self-preservation. We find fault with things and people we feel might harm us or, at the very least, not do us good. We grasp at material things for ourselves for fear that we will be left without. Even our good deeds are sometimes an effort to bring honor or renown to ourselves.

Poust reflects, “What would it take to flip that, to soften our hearts and open our minds to the stunning fact that everyone – from our most beloved family member to our most despised enemy – is grappling with some deep-seated insecurities, issues, heartaches, and suffering?”

We can start where we are: in our own families and communities. Instead of lambasting our child for being irresponsible, we can find out what he/she needs to be better organized and prepared. Instead of diatribes on Facebook or Twitter, we can refrain from our need to have the last word. We can try to be happy instead of envious of friends whose fortunes seem to be greater than our own. We can treat cranky neighbors or even strangers with compassion, realizing that they might be in some physical or psychic pain.

I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy stepping outside of oneself and thinking of others first. We need guides and inspiration. For me, prayer and reflections by spiritual mentors are great reminders of how I should be living my daily life. And in the public domain (even on Facebook!), there are heartwarming stories of ordinary people making a difference in someone else’s life.

The greatest calling we have is to die to ourselves and spend our lives in service to others. That is the path toward true happiness in this life. That is the way to center ourselves rather than being self-centered.