Reason for the Season

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It feels special to me that the first Sunday of Advent has fallen on December 1, the same date on which we open the first window on our Advent calendar. When my kids were young, they would fight to be the one to open the little window and extract the toy that would hang on the Advent tree. Today at Mass, the Advent Wreath is blessed and the first candle lit. It is the start of a season of waiting in darkness for the Light of the World.

I love the month of December with its promise of Christmas. It’s true that the weather has turned cold, and there’s always the possibility of snow to slow things down. The trees are stripped bare, and nature looks stark and uninviting. Nighttime comes earlier and earlier as we head toward the winter solstice, and many nights I long to go to bed early, a bit of human hibernation.

During this season, I love to play George Winston’s aptly titled album December as I drive around doing Christmas errands or sit at the kitchen table addressing Christmas cards. The gentle piano music puts me in a meditative mood that is just right for the season of Advent.

Advent is about waiting: waiting for families to come together, waiting for healing strength, sometimes even waiting for a miracle. Contemplating the story of a poor and helpless infant being born in the dark of night, in the unsanitary conditions of a stable with a feeding trough for a bed: it’s hard to fathom the mystery of this tiny child being the salvation of the world.

It’s a joyful kind of waiting, though. Christmas is coming. Hope and love are its harbingers. The twinkling lights and jingle bells of the season break through the darkness and fill us with anticipation. Our spirits lift, and we pour out the excess on the people we encounter.

It’s easy to get lost in the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. There is so much to do: gifts to buy and wrap, cookies to bake, travel arrangements to make, holiday meals to plan. Advent is designed to help us keep our hearts and minds on the reason for the season: the birth of the Christ child and what that means for our world.

In the stillness of the winter, we can listen to the promptings of the spirit and truly prepare ourselves to receive the greatest gift of all.

 

Retire the Prosperity Gospel

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Sunday seems a good day on which to reflect upon matters of faith, especially when the local paper reports that Donald Trump has invited televangelist Paula White to become a member of his administration. White is a proponent of the so-called prosperity gospel, a disturbing interpretation of the Bible that insists God rewards true believers with material wealth and even good health. The prosperity gospel is especially popular in the televangelism arena because it helps the Joel Osteens of the world get rich on the backs of people desperate for hope and relief from their own difficulties.

Mainstream Christians reject the tenets of this belief system. It is absurdly in conflict with a suffering savior who died on the cross for our sins, who emptied himself and became a servant in order to save our souls.

Today’s gospel at Mass concerned the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus. Inspired by Jesus singling him out on his visit to the town of Jericho, Zacchaeus declares, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8) In other words, salvation does not come to believers when they amass great wealth by exploiting others. It comes when they give freely of themselves, imitating the life and mission of Christ.

Evangelical leaders like Osteen and White cherry pick verses from the Bible to shore up their own grasping ambitions. And it’s not hard to see why the grasping, greedy Trump would find this “gospel” appealing. What bothers me is that there has been no objection on the part of the Christian Right to Trump’s embrace of what many view as heretical beliefs.

The prosperity gospel is insidious because it implies that if you are poor or a victim of cancer or other serious illness, it’s due to your own lack of faith. If you were more of a believer and gave more of your hard-earned cash to support Joel Osteen’s teeth whitening treatments, you’d surely be doing better.

I can’t really think of anything more reprehensible than twisting the divinely inspired words of God to one’s own ends. I wish more Christians would speak out against such fraud and let the true message of the gospel shine forth.

Letting Go

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On this day of the autumnal equinox, we welcome the season of fall. There was a bit of a chill in the air during outdoor yoga this morning as our instructor encouraged us to draw energy from the Earth on which we posed – and at the same time, emulate the autumn trees shedding their leaves by letting go.

I’ve seen this metaphor quite a bit this year, and it’s a lovely image. The trees let go of their leaves, returning them to the earth where they rejuvenate the soil and nourish the very tree itself. Likewise, our minds and hearts can practice letting go of all that is dead in us: thoughts, prejudices, worries, anxieties, anger and fear.

What a graceful release it can be to let go. In child’s pose, we curl ourselves toward the ground. With every breath we surrender control of our bodies, and in doing so give them renewed energy and peace as we sink into Mother Earth.

It can be liberating to let go. So much of our lives is spent with clenched teeth and held breath. We worry about our children, our health, our finances, the weary world. But as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:27, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

I once heard the mantra, “Let go and let God.” That simple advice has run through my head many times in days of stress and heartache. If you believe that there is a force greater than yourself, a force for good, you will be able to surrender to that force and stop trying to control everything around you.

I know. Easier said than done. Yet I’m confident that if we can let go of our burdens as the trees let go of their leaves this fall, we will be able to move forward with great joy.

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.

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.