A Question of Fairness
August 8, 2004
“The Son of Man is coming at a time you least expect.” None of us can tell when dramatic change might enter our lives. In fact, there are two kinds of days: days which unfold according to plan and days which change everything. 9/11 was a day of the latter type for our country. Which one of us getting out of bed that morning could have predicted the dramatic event that would forever change our nation? And yet, for each one of us, there have been days or will be days of crisis that will just as profoundly affect our lives as 9/11 affected the soul of America—a day on which a son or daughter is in a serious automobile accident, a day on which our spouse files for divorce, a day on which the results of the test for cancer comes back positive. These days of crisis change our lives forever. Frequently they come without warning.
The Gospel today says that we should be prepared, that we should be ready and alert for such days. But how can we prepare for the unknown? How can we prepare in a realistic and healthy way? This is an important question because, knowing the days of crisis that will certainly come, we can all too easily become over whelmed with fear. So how do we prepare for these days of crisis in a way that will help us rather than harm us?
I can never ask this question without thinking of Martha. Martha was a woman of faith that I came to know while serving in a community in Akron. She was a woman in her late forties, bright, funny, with three adult children. I liked Martha a lot and had a deep respect for her. She was very involved in the life of her family and of our church community. It was while I knew her that Martha had her day of crisis. While shopping one day in the super market, she fell and was unable to get up. After numerous medical examinations, she was diagnosed with a rare muscle disorder that was not fatal but within a matter of weeks removed her ability to walk. I watched Martha deal with this crisis. I watched her (now in a wheel chair) re-assemble her life, re-commit herself to her family and to her church community and find a new way of living. But although I am sure that there were many days she had internal struggles, I was particularly amazed with her ability to remain positive and optimistic.
One day after a church meeting I could not resist but ask her, “Martha, how do you do it? How do you remain so positive and optimistic?” She must have anticipated my question for she had a ready answer. “It’s not easy,” she said, “I routinely fight a battle against self pity, but what I find most helpful to me is the question of fairness.” “Fairness?” I asked. “Fairness,” she said. “When I met Tom, my husband, the love of my life and my foundation, I did not ask God, ‘why did this happen to me?’ I accepted him as a gift, as a gift for my future. When I had three healthy children and over the years watched them grow into amazing adults, I did not ask God, ‘why did this happen to me?’ I accepted it as a grace in my life. As I met my life long friends and found in each one of them a blessing and a way to open a new aspect of my life and personality, I did not question God, ‘why did this happen to me?’ I accepted each relationship as a gift. So how can I now, sitting in this wheel chair, and ask God, ‘why is this happening to me?’ I am always surprised by the twists and turns of life, but when you look at it all, there is so much more good than bad. I know that it is by being thankful for the good that I find the strength to deal with the rest. To live any other way is dishonest and ultimately unfair.”
To this day, I am not sure that I could live Martha’s faith as well as she did, but I know in my deepest soul that she was right. Each one of us will have to face days of crisis in our life, days that will change everything. But we are called to prepare for those days not with fear but with gratitude. It is only fair to look at all of life. The best way to prepare for the crisis that is to come is to be thankful for the blessings of today.
Love and Detachment as Treasure
August 12 2007
Luke 12: 32-48
“Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” This is an extremely important line in today’s Gospel. It tells us that what we treasure will control our hearts. What we value will determine the way that we live. This is so important because we do not have enough time and energy to treasure all things equally. We therefore need to make decisions for what we will place first, what we will value most, what our treasure will be.
I do not think that most of us go from day to day conscious of our treasure. I think we move along trying to do everything. Then, when our time or our energy run short, we end up responding to that which speaks the loudest or to that which seems most attractive. We do not necessarily choose what is most important. Work is important but is it the highest value in our life? Money is essential but should we set that above everything else? Popularity and influence are good but are they worth having at any price? We need to know what it is that we value. We need to be conscious of our treasure.
How do you find out what your treasure is? Take your calendar or your smartphone and examine it. See where you have been placing your time over the last six months. To what do you give your time? How much to work? How much to friends? How much to yourself? Where your time is there will your heart be also. Take out your checkbook or look at last year’s tax return? Where is your money going? How much to your own comfort? How much to your family? How much to those in need? Where your money is there will your heart be also. Examine the data at your fingertips. Roll through your rolodex. Check out your address book in your email. Look at the family schedule on the refrigerator. Notice which web pages you bookmark. Where you place your energy and attention, your heart will follow.
If in these exercises you discover that your heart has been given to something rather secondary, to something that is not worthy, then the gospel calls you to invest in a treasure that will last, a treasure that cannot be stolen or destroyed.
How do we secure such a treasure? In two simple but somewhat contradictory choices: a choice for love and a choice for detachment.
I think most of us in our heart of hearts know that love is necessary to build a lasting treasure. The love we give to others is something eternal. The time and energy that we give to our children, our spouses and our friends, even to strangers will not die. I can witness to this from personal experience. I have been privileged to be with people at the moment of death. I will tell you in those last hours the only thing that matters is love. Nothing else has importance. It is the pride parents feel in their children, the years that someone has shared with a spouse, the good times and the intimacies that have been shared between friends which count. When the heart is given to love, when love is its treasure, then the heart is at peace. Even in the face of death, the heart knows that it possesses something which time cannot destroy.
The second way to secure a lasting treasure is detachment. This at first seems contradictory to love. Love reaches out and holds on, whereas detachment lets go and sets free. But the deepest of love always involves detachment. It realizes that no human love, however deep, will stay the same. The deepest love of a parent includes enough detachment to let go of his or her children so that they might develop their own lives. The deepest love of a spouse carries enough detachment that life can go on even when death intervenes. The deepest moments of friendship contain enough detachment to allow cherished memories to fade without regret.
Love without detachment can become manipulative and stifling. Love that is willing to let go is freeing. It does not seek to control and realizes that every human love, no matter how deep, is only a reflection of a greater love. God alone can satisfy us forever.
Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. So give your hearts to love, and love with detachment. In this way you may savor as deeply as possible every person whom you love and at the same time realize that no matter how deep that love is, you will in time need to let it go. Loving deeply and letting go will not betray us. They will lead us to the deepest love—the love of God who alone is our treasure.
The Beauty Remains
August 11, 2013
Today’s gospel seems harsh and demanding. We are said to be servants waiting the return of our master. Of course, the master is Christ who will return at the end of time to establish God’s kingdom. But, until that time when Christ comes, Jesus expects us to be active, to be vigilant, to be busy. Jesus expects us to work.
The gospel seems demanding because its emphasis is on our work, our service, our responsibility to build the kingdom of God. Just as soon as Jesus lowers that obligation upon us, it is easy to flee for cover. We can all look for excuses. “Yes, I know I’m supposed to be loving, generous, forgiving, patient, and kind, but I have only so much energy.” “I’m not feeling all that well today.” “I have other things that I have to do first.” So, there you have it. Christ calls us to build the kingdom of God, and we have all kinds of reasons why we are too busy, too depressed, too tired, too old, or too weak to do it. So, how do we turn this around? How do we become the servants that Christ asks us to be? How do we motivate ourselves to build God’s kingdom?
It might surprise you, but what might be missing in this enterprise is beauty. August Renoir was one of the greatest painters of all time. His paintings are alive with color and beauty. Yet, for the last 20 years of Renoir’s life, he dealt with crippling arthritis. His hands were twisted and gnarled. He actually had to tie his paintbrush onto his hand in order to hold it. The arthritis also inflicted his back so he could not stand while he was painting. He required assistance to move from one position to the next. Every brush stroke, every movement was torture. On one occasion, his friend Matisse asked him, “August, why do you keep torturing yourself in this way? You don’t need the money. Why do you keep painting?” Renoir answered, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Renoir was able to push through the pain of his arthritis because he saw the beauty in what he was creating. He was able to accomplish what he could not out of obligation but out of the realization that what he was doing was important. We can apply this same attitude to doing the work of the gospel, because the work of Christ is both beautiful and important.
Yes, it is difficult at times to be patient and understanding with our children, with our parents, with our spouse. The fact that Christ commands us to do so doesn’t make it any easier. But, if we could see the beautiful parts of the people in our family, if we could recognize their sincerity, their innocence, their honesty, their energy, we could push through all the frustrating peculiarities and love them.
Yes, it is difficult at times to find the time and energy to help others: to give some time to the elderly neighbor who lives on our street, to work in a soup kitchen, to volunteer to teach a child to read. But, if we could remember the beauty of the people that we help and how important it is to have them fed, literate, and not alone, we could push through all the complications of our schedules and serve them.
When we’re dealing with grief or arthritis or discouragement, it is difficult to remain positive. But, if we could see the beauty of the smile that we could bring to another’s face, and understand the way that our attitude can lift the attitude of others, we can push through the pain and be the presence of Christ to those around us.
Jesus calls us to build God’s kingdom, and that is work. But if we see the beauty of the people in our families, the people in the world, and the importance of the people that we help, we can push through all the excuses and become Christ’s servants. The pain passes, but the beauty remains. Choose today to be a part of the beauty of God’s love.
An Examined Life
August 7, 2016
In today’s gospel, Jesus wants us to be vigilant, to stay awake. But why is this important to him? To answer this question, we have to understand what staying awake means. In the biblical sense, staying awake does not mean that we should try to get by with three hours of sleep or include Red Bull into our diet. Staying awake is something deeper. The Greek word to stay awake is also the word to stay alive. So Jesus’ call to vigilance is really a call that we live life as deeply as we can. You see, God’s will for us is not to run about hectically from one thing to another, become stuck in mindless routine, or give ourselves to something that is insignificant. Jesus calls us to live life to the fullest and to pull out of life as much joy as we can.
So how do we do this? How do we live life more deepIy? I can answer that question in one word: reflection. Twenty-four hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates told his students that the unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates taught that we need to examine the lives that we live and the people we are. He was convinced that living was not simply about doing, but about reflecting on what we do and what we should do. Socrates understood that when we become busy, begin to struggle, or become distracted, reflecting on our life is something that falls by the wayside. But a life that is not examined quickly becomes empty and disassociated from purpose and meaning.
For Christians, prayer is a way to examine our lives. Prayer calls us not only to reflect upon the lives that we live but to situate our lives in our relationship to God. Prayer need not be complex or time consuming. Prayer can be as simple as taking five minutes each day to ask ourselves, “What three things am I thankful for today?” Once we identify those three things, we should bless God for those gifts. This simple exercise of reflection reminds us who the people are who loving us, what opportunities we might have to act and to serve, and how God is blessing us and directing us this day. In this simple reflection, we deepen our lives, and are more likely to live our lives with joy.
The unexamined life is not worth living. This is why Christians pray. This is why Jesus tells us to be vigilant, to stay awake. He does not want us to go through life sleepwalking or in a daze. He wants us to understand how much God loves us and how blessed we are to be God’s daughters and sons.
At an Hour You Do Not Expect
August 11, 2019
Luke 12: 32-48
“At an hour you do not expect the Son of Man will come.” What is Jesus trying to tell us by this disturbing statement? One way of understanding it is that Jesus is referring to the time of our own death. And when we read it this way, his statement is certainly true. We all know that we will die, but the hour of our death remains unknown. You could die in a traffic accident this week. Those of us who have kept vigil with a dying parent or friend know that Jesus’s words are true then also. Even though we know that death will come in the next few days or hours, the exact moment of death is still something we cannot predict.
So why is Jesus drawing our attention to the uncertain timing of death? He wants us to be ready. As he says, “Blessed are those servants whom the master will find vigilant at his arrival.” Jesus wants us to be prepared. But how do we prepare for death?
Father John Shea tells of a former student in his twenties who made an appointment with him when he found out that he had incurable cancer. “Father Shea,” he said, “I just wanted to come and thank you. Something you said in class years ago has helped me immensely to face my death.” “Really?” said Father Shea, not knowing what to expect. “Really!” said the young man. “One day you said there are only two potential tragedies in life. Dying young was not one of them. The two tragedies are: going through life without ever having loved and going through life without telling the people you love that you love them. When the doctors told me that my cancer was terminal, I began to think of all of the people who love me and whom I love. I took time to tell each one what they meant to me. I have expressed my love. Now when someone asks me, ‘How is it to be a twenty-four-year old person who is dying,’ my response is this: It is better than being an eighty-year-old person who is dying but who has never loved.”
The way then that we prepare for death is by loving others and by letting them know that we love them. And both of these parts are essential. I am sure that most of us here have a handful of people who we love deeply and who love us in return. But when was the last time that we expressed that love? When was the last time we told our spouse, our son or daughter, our friend how much they meant to us? Love that is not expressed is incomplete. If we find that we are having difficulty expressing our love to someone who we say is important to us, that is a warning that something might be going wrong in that relationship, a warning that we must do our utmost to address.
We should not wait to express our love until our fiftieth wedding anniversary or our daughter’s graduation or our friend’s birthday. When we express our love, it deepens our life. It enriches our appreciation of the people who sustain us. When we express our love, we come as close as we can to knowing the true meaning of life. We also prepare ourselves to welcome the Son of Man, when he comes at an hour we do not expect.