Saturday, February 29, 2020

tempted in the desert

"At that time, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil..."
(Mt. 4:1; complete text for Mass Mt. 4:1-11)

This Gospel is frequently spoken of in the context of the temptations offered to Christ - in the form of wealth, power, and pleasure - and that is, of course, quite valid, but I think there’s more to consider here.

This Gospel is also ultimately a reminder that evil is present in our desert... in our own world. 

I don’t mean evil in the form of horned devils, running around with pitchforks looking to possess the next wayward soul. Evil is far more insidious than that - because it is much more obvious, yes much less recognized. 

Evil is there, in wars, in discrimination, in the injustices done to the vulnerable and needy, it is there when we lack love for one another. It is there in the everyday evils we tend to ignore when they do not directly impact us, but which are no less grave. 

Evil is present in both our malice, and our indifference… it is, in that sense, both hot and cold. Perhaps, the counterbalance of evil is not simply “good”, as it is the highest form of good: love. Love is the only thing that can overcome both our malice and our indifference. We have seen the enemy, and it is all of us, ourselves included. 

How do we impact our world, then? By meeting every form of evil with every form of love, everywhere we go. 

Indeed, isn’t it possible that the hunger Christ experienced after his forty day fast was not only hunger for food, but for love - specifically the love found in human companionship, following forty days’ isolation?

How relevant this should be to us, living in a world that, despite our technological connectedness, is increasingly isolated at personal levels.

Don’t we all observe this hunger for companionship, for community, for relationship, everyday?

Doesn’t this hunger reside in our own hearts?

How often do we recognize it in the hearts of those around us?

Friday, February 28, 2020

releasing the captives

"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke,
setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke..." (Is. 58:6)

Isn't it great how, on this Friday immediately following Ash Wednesday, the readings of the day call us back to Ash Wednesday, and "rend your hearts, not your garments"? 

It's almost the equivalent of asking, "You're three days into this now - how's it going?"

This is a good chance to evaluate our start, and, just as this reading calls out Isaiah's audience for their fickleness and weakness - it's a good opportunity for us to acknowledge the difficulties inherent in our Lenten observances:

"Lo, on your fast day you carry our your own pursuits, 
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw..."

This isn't just about how grumpy we may be after fasting on Ash Wednesday ;-) (because let's be honest, the hangry is real)... It's about evaluating whether the disciplines we observe during Lent will ultimately lead us to become more other-centered, instead of self-centered:

"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly...
setting free the oppressed...
sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
clothing the naked when you see them, 
and not turning your back on your own..."

And, just as the text makes clear that fasting from material goods without a simultaneous change of heart is not what the Divine asks, so God also reveals that "fasting" by caring for the needs of others (which can include setting aside our own pride and desire to be first or most important), contributes to the healing of our own infirmities:

"Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, 
and your wound shall quickly be healed..." 

So, how *is* Lent going so far? Easier or harder than you expected? What's more challenging - acts of physical self-denial, or using the self-discipline you gain from those acts to fuel kinder treatment and deeper care of others? 

And to a different point, how are you one of those captives, bound unjustly, who also needs to be set free? We don't often focus on the seeking healing during Lent, and I think we should - because our own healing can only help us to do more good for others.

Where do you need healing in your life: where are your wounds? And how can your healing, your freeing, be fueled by "setting free the oppressed" or "sharing your bread with the hungry" in your daily life?  

Thursday, February 27, 2020

life and death, blessing and curse

"I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse." - Deut. 30:19

"Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." - Luke 9:24

Do you plant a garden in the spring?

Prepping those planting beds, making little rows, then filling them with seeds, and covering them up?

Isn't it interesting that we cover the seeds up... we put them in darkness, in the ground - the bearer-instruments of new life - before they begin to grow? And in a very real sense, being buried in the ground is a kind of death, isn't it? We certainly associate being buried with death... and so with seeds, after they are buried, they absorb nutrients from the soil, take in water, and cease to be a seed as they grow into a plant... a kind of death, perhaps, and followed by a resurrection, by new life.

And of course, like plants, in our spiritual existence, we grow and bloom and (hopefully) produce some kind of seed, and experience many different kinds of spiritual and emotional trial and death, over and over and over again.

Life brings us many wounds. All of them bring about some kind of death in our lives, some more severely than others. These emotional and spiritual wounds have real and serious consequences - they can bring tremendous darkness into our lives, and disrupt our relationships with God and one another.

They are a very real form of non-physical death, and returning from the most serious - resurrecting, as it were - is hard work, but at some point, that healing becomes a difficult and conscious choice we make. Though I believe it is true that we are all inclined to seek health (spiritual/emotional/physical), that does not lessen the difficulty of the work we do along the path of that seeking.

We suffer these deaths, but each time we seek healing - we seek life - we experience resurrection. Holding on to our woundedness is akin to choosing death - like those who wish to save their lives, but lose them. In our willingness to engage in the difficult work of vulnerability and healing, we find our lives again.

Let us not choose death in our pain. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ash Wednesday: God wants your heart, not your chocolate

"Rend your hearts, not your garments, 
and return to the Lord, your God." - Joel 2:13 

Guys, God wants your heart. Not your chocolate.

Happy Ash Wednesday. (Yes, if you're looking at timestamps, I'm posting this on Tuesday evening... taking the opportunity to post this while I can!)

I'm not suggesting that giving up chocolate, or other material pleasures, for the duration of Lent is in any way a bad thing... using such exercises in an effort to learn greater self-control is definitely a good. But, I do think we should be careful to focus our Lenten efforts on more than the physical - let's be cognizant of what these things are meant to help us accomplish, spiritually.

Ultimately, "giving something up" for Lent is about removing obstacles from our lives in order to clear our path to God. Exercises in self-control can certainly form an aspect of this, and again, I'm not suggesting such things are bad. Maybe, though, it's good to consider this in other terms, too.

If you go to Mass today, you'll hear in the first reading, "Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God." ... pretty powerful words, right? Well, yeah.

Read them again. "Rend your hearts, not your garments." 

Put in words we're a little more familiar with: "Tear apart your hearts, not your garments."

The Lord wants your heart, and he wants it torn open. He doesn't want, or need, your material goods.

Rend your hearts.

Why? Because God wants to put your heart back together - to heal it of all its ills and pains.

And ultimately, God wants your heart to look like His... so it can love like His.

So for Lent, and for life, can we give up our... 

- Rush to judgment?
- Inclination to assume the worst of each other?
- Knee-jerk reaction to label someone, or their opinions, as "wrong" and dismiss them as such?

Instead of all these things, can we exercise compassion and empathy, realizing we don't know what it takes for others to even get out of bed in the morning, much less interact with the world in any functional way, and we don't know what experiences have formed their hearts?

I know.
Tall order.
And don't worry, we're all going to fail, but unless we choose to begin, we can't even say we've tried. 

Rend your hearts.

And can we engage honestly with our own pain and fear, and seek healing - clear out those obstacles, too, opening the way for the loving touch of God's mercy? This kind of honest engagement can be downright penitential, let's be real. It can mean swallowing our pride and ceding our need to be in control - can call us to deep vulnerability - and can call us not only into greater communion with God, but with one another.

Rend your hearts.

There are as many ways to observe Lent as there are people, but the ultimate goal - drawing closer to the Divine - is universal.

Look inside your heart. Seek out as many moments of silence as you're able today, and inquire of yourself and the Lord: what is yours to do in this holy season?