The Finish Line

This Lenten season I decided to delve more deeply into the four gospels. For some reason the following scripture passage really drew my attention: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (Matthew 16:24)

An appropriate thought to dwell on during lent, right? So I asked myself what can I, a lay person leading a perfectly ordinary life, take away from it? First of all, what does Jesus mean “deny themselves”? Deny myself what? My family? Things and activities that give me pleasure? My family was given to me by God, entrusted to me. So, no. It is my duty to care for them, guide them, and be a Christian role model.

Pleasures? Yes, if they are sinful. But certainly not enjoying a chocolate sundae, or a good dinner, or a nice vacation. But anything that leads me away from God is something He is asking me to deny myself. He wants me to move closer to Him, not away from Him. And, the truth is, I can’t just plant my feet and stand still.

Finally, “Take up your cross and follow me.” What does He mean by that? We all have our crosses to bear, often many throughout the span of our lifetime. Loss of loved ones, illnesses, financial struggles, abuse…just to name a few. Jesus isn’t asking us to pick up a cross, literally, as He did, or even suffer the betrayal, humiliation, and torture He did. Nor hang on a cross for three hours in unbearable pain while onlookers taunted and mocked Him.

I think what He is asking us to do is endure the trials over which we have no control, our crosses, and follow Him–to the finish line. Because at the end of that journey for Christ was not death, but life eternal. No pain, no lack, no loss. He’s asking us to carry our cross, just as He did…to glory.

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What Do You Think?

I always know when I’m starting to get into the Christmas spirit when I feel the urge to purge. Every year I kick off the holidays, around mid-October, by cleaning out my closets and cabinets. Getting rid of the dust and dirt, and anything that is just plain clutter. Oh, I know that nobody who comes into my house notices the difference, but I do. And it makes me feel good–like my house is truly in order.

In thinking about what I could do this lent to put my spiritual house in order, I realized I could do some purging of the part of myself nobody sees: my thoughts. It didn’t start out that way though. It started when I decided not to speak one word of criticism about any other person. Not one! I don’t go in for gossip, and I don’t consider myself a judgmental person (although I’m sure there are those who would disagree), but not one critical word about anybody? Well, I’ll admit that’s going to be tough.

Then I realized what I really needed to do was change my way of thinking. That’s where everything begins, isn’t it?–with thought. Nice words, hurtful words, right actions, wrong actions–all take root in the mind, in what and how we think. There’s an old saying, “You are what you eat.” I believe in a very real sense, we are what we think. Our thoughts, our minds, control our actions. So our first job is to take control of our thoughts. It’s not easy, and it takes effort and practice. If you want to see how you do, monitor how you react to others driving home in rush hour traffic, or try to resolve an issue with a bank, or an insurance company. Yeah, it’s no piece of cake. Am I up to the challenge? I’ll let you know after Easter.

It’s News to Me

Have you ever noticed how everyone’s handwriting–righties or lefties–slants one way or the other? Some more than others. It occurred to me that the same “slant” can be applied to writing or reporting the news. Often the same way: to the right of center or the left of center. It’s called spin.

It’s dangerous, and it can be addictive Rudyard Kipling said it best, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Broadcast news is a necessity. I know that. I once aspired to a career in journalism myself. But there is a distinction between true journalism and broadcasting. Too often the latter focuses on sensationalistic headlines, many of which involve acts of violence, the perpetrators, and the men and women who deal with them. Hate crimes, racial bias, and mass killings, particularly, are grist for the paper (or online) mills.

The truth of the matter is, we as individuals and groups of individuals, are influenced by what we hear and read. We respond on an emotional level. We are stimulated, sometimes even incited, to actions that may be extreme. At the very least, it can alter the way we think and what we talk about. It an change the way we view people–individuals or even entire ethnicities or professions.

Words, written and spoken, are powerful tools. We should all be watchful how we react to what we hear and what we read. More important, it is increasingly essential that we are prudent in what we say, text, post, or tweet.

Words Matter

The Giving Tree

Every year after Thanksgiving, our church puts up several Christmas trees in the vestibule. Each tree is laden with tags bearing the name of someone in need of a real life Santa Claus. On the tag is written the age, gender, and wish list of what that particular person would like for Christmas. Members of our parish are invited to take one or more tags and play “Santa”.

You  don’t see requests like smart phones, or iPads, or jewelry. What you  commonly see are coats, boots, pajamas, hats and mittens. The necessities of life, not luxuries. We call this outreach program the Giving Tree.

I believe what hangs on these trees are not just tags, but opportunities. Opportunities to live our faith. Think about it. In the gospels, Jesus instructs us to share whatever we have with those less fortunate. Not once, but many times, this message is given to those who would follow Him. Not a choice  but a command…a condition of being a true follower. One example can be found in Matthew 26:40, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” For Him.

We can all use a reminder from time to time of what it takes to be a true follower of Christ. Let our generosity of treasure and spirit to those in need be our gift to Jesus this Christmas. After all, it is His birthday…and that is what He asked for.

Aunt Jess

Aunt Jess was a lover of prayer. She believed in it whole-heartedly, and never missed her morning time with God. Her final prayer was answered on October 14th. Our loving and merciful Lord took her home. She celebrated her 100th birthday in June, a milestone she wanted to make. After that, her health deteriorating, she was ready for God to take her.

Jessie had always been devoutly religious. She never married, and at one point seriously considered becoming a nun. She chose instead a life of service to her family. She remained at home with her mother, and cared for her up until her death. Sister, brother, in-law–it didn’t matter the relationship or distance, Jessie went and helped whenever and wherever needed. Even to the point of living with her sister Ann on a farm in Indiana, not a choice she ever would’ve made being a “Chicago gal”, born and bred. Family meant everything to her, and her life was living proof of that.

And then there was the other side of Aunt Jess: with the caring came candor. You always knew where she stood–and where you stood with her. She was frank and fresh, funny and smart. Much of this came out when she played pinochle, a card game at which she was a master, taking no prisoners. Being her partner was both a blessing and a curse. Your chances of winning increased significantly, but you had better bring your “A” game, because if you made a mistake, she’d be quick to let you know it.

Maybe because of her total honesty and her genuine nature, everyone who met her loved her. No matter how brief the acquaintance, she touched the lives of everyone she knew. Even at the hospital during her final days, when introduced to the myriad of nurses, aides, and doctors, she would look them in the eye and extend her hand in greeting. If she didn’t catch their name the first time, she’d ask them to repeat it.

Perhaps that’s what made her so special: that desire and effort for a personal connection. She never lost that. God bless you, Aunt Jess. You will be missed.

The Quick Fix

As a stand-up comedian, Jerry Seinfeld has a reputation as a commentator on the trivial and the mundane. I remember one routine about the myriad of pain relievers on the pharmacy shelf. Dozens of them, each with its own “choose me” tactic. One claimed to be “long-lasting”, another “fast-acting”. Jerry said something like, “Long-lasting or fast-acting? When do I want to feel better–now or later?”

We all have those times in our lives when we look for something to help us feel better. Better about ourselves, our jobs, our relationships, our lives. Too often we default to a “quick fix”–the Band-Aid approach. Maybe it’s food, drink, drugs, or sex. Or maybe it’s not that extreme. It could be a shopping spree or video games. The point is, it doesn’t solve the problem, and it doesn’t last. The pain comes back, and we’re right back where we started.

If we want pain relief, from any and all kinds of pain: physical, emotional, or spiritual–we need to go to the Great Healer, Our Lord. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest….For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28, 30 NIV)

It’s a prescription that has no expiration date,unlimited refills, and can be taken as often as needed. And one more thing: you’ll love the side effects!

Excess Baggage

Recently I was curb-checking my bag at the airport, and I had mistakenly thought the weight limit was 60 pounds. Turns out, it’s a 50 pound limit, and I was three pounds over. Our flight was due to board in twenty minutes, and the dreaded security line still lay ahead. I opened my “overweight” suitcase and frantically rummaged through, extracting some of the heavier items to stuff into my over-the-shoulder carry-on. Too much baggage on trips has always been a weakness of mine, but never has it caused so much stress.

That little scenario at the airport reminded me of how much baggage we all carry with us every day. And the older we get, the more of it gets stuffed into our emotional suitcases: old wounds; failed relationships; severed family ties; untenable working environments. You name it.

The funny part of it is, as much as we hate hanging onto the “excess baggage” from our past, too often we just can’t seem to jettison it away. We let it define who we are. And redefining ourselves can be a scary thing. What does redefining mean? It means taking down walls, opening ourselves up, accepting accountability, and not using our past as an excuse for present behaviors.

But “purging” our emotional baggage is so freeing. Just think how much more pleasant our lives would be if we let go of guilt, grudges, regrets, and resentments. The room it would create for new and healthier experiences–for real growth.

If you’re like me, and you don’t like to throw anything away, give it away. Give it to God. Ship it off to heaven and leave off the return address. He’ll know just how to handle it. I promise.

God Bless America

I have a sort of laundry list of things I give thanks for every day. Big things, little things, past and present things. One item that I never forget, and never want to forget, is my gratitude for being an American citizen. Another is being a parent to four amazing children.

There’s a similarity, I think, between being a parent and being a citizen. We can and should have a great deal of pride in both. I love being an American, and I love my country. But countries, like children, aren’t perfect. After all, a country is the sum total of its citizens–of us. Of all that we are and do; of how we feel toward one another, and act.

It is comprised of those who govern and those who elect them. Because of this, our country isn’t perfect. We’re not perfect. But we’re also not finished. As countries go, we’re young…we’re still evolving.

So, as we celebrate our country’s birthday, let us take pride in all that is good and give thanks that we have been blessed to be a part of it. But let us also take an honest look at what we could do better–our vision for America’s future–and strive to get there.

GOD BLESS AMERICA!!

A Daughter’s Memories

The most vivid memories I have of my father are after my mother, the light of his life, passed away. We grew very close back then. I treasure that time with him. He’d suffered with emphysema for many years, and it was increasingly compromising his quality of life.

(So for all you dads who smoke…if you want to light up your children’s eyes for years to come, I implore you, do not light up that next cigarette.)

Anyway, Dad had his good days and his bad days, and I could always tell which one he was having by his greeting when he called me at work. If it was a bad day, he’d say, “Oh, I’m hangin’ in there.” But if it was a good day, he’d always start off with, “Hi, hon, it’s Daddy-O.” Often the call was made after he’d scootered down to the park with his oxygen tank in tow and his flip cell phone in case anything should happen. I used to love those days.

Like all dads, mine had his strengths and weaknesses (and the corniest sense of humor). But he was the most giving, the most empathetic, the most generous, and–bar non–the kindest man I’ve ever known. Thank you, Dad. I miss you. Happy Father’s Day.

No Greater Love

Like many others, I come from a family that has “lent” more than one member to Uncle Sam for service to the good old USA. My father was a navy man, my great-uncle, son, and nephew all wore army khaki, but they all served and sacrificed to defend our country and protect our freedom. We who waved goodbye and waited with faith and hope for their safe return sacrificed too. Service is a shared sacrifice, and when those who wait at home send a loved one off, they never know just how great that sacrifice will be.

As we celebrate another Memorial Day, I want to take this opportunity to say “thank you” to all those who have served our country. Our Lord said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV). Jesus Christ laid down His life so that we may be saved; many have laid down their lives so that we may be safe. To all who made the ultimate sacrifice and to those whom we welcomed back with open arms, I give heartfelt thanks. May God bless and keep you.