I’m grateful for my partner in faith and life, Amy, being willing to write this installment for the Street Theology blog. Allow this reflection to give you a wonderful “grasp” of what the Season of Lent offers us. -Pastor Jim
“Nooooo Anna, that’s mine!” Peter yells as he grabs the toy out of Anna’s hand. This is almost a daily argument I hear between my two oldest children. They each hang on tightly to their toys, their things, their “spot” on the couch-it is something all kids wrestle with, and it’s of course developmentally appropriate. The idea of something being “their own” is a big deal, especially since kids don’t have a lot of control over many things. But as I listen to Peter and Anna argue I can’t help thinking of myself. How often do I want to yell “Noooo that is mine!”? Probably more often than I am willing to admit. How do I teach my children to hold loosely to things of this world, when I struggle with this myself?
Go ahead, think of your life right now. What are you holding onto tightly? Perhaps it is your job or your home, both of which you have worked hard for and earned. Maybe it is your retirement account or your emergency fund. Maybe it is a family heirloom. Maybe it is a beautiful throw or expensive sweater. Maybe it is your secret stash of chocolate you hide from your kids (not that I have any experience with this…). But maybe it is your plans, plans for your future, an upcoming vacation, your next career move, or the number of babies you want to have.
Whatever “it” is, what if you were asked to give it up and change your plan completely?
What if you were more open to the radical kingdom living life God has planned for you?
These are just some of the questions Shannan Martin asks in her book “Falling Free: Rescued from the life I always wanted”. I have been wrestling quite a bit with this idea of holding loosely as described in Shannan’s book. What exactly does it mean to hold loosely? What will I have to give up? How different will my life be?
Each one of us can look back on our lives and point to times when things didn’t turn out the way we planned, when we held tight to our own ways. In the last decade I can name quite a few times when my own plan went out the window. Most recently, it was the plan Jim and I had of moving closer to family, a plan we held tight. However, in less than a year we found our plans turned upside down in the most unexpected and painful way. Before we knew it, we were moving out of a house almost exactly one year from the day we moved in. I would like to say that this experience taught me to hold on to my plans loosely but, if I am honest, the opposite is true. I find myself holding on with a tighter grip.
Shannan continues to challenge me in her book by reminding me how Jesus lived “in reverse” of this world and how he calls us to do the same. She writes: “It’s never the way we thought it would be. It’s not what we would have scripted if the pen were in our hands. That’s what kingdom living is. It’s about holding loosely. It’s about believing-really believing-that I’ll be held accountable for all of it one day.”
Perhaps the season of Lent is the perfect time for all of us to look at what we have a tight grip on. For it is in doing so that causes us to see how we are truly living. We can then ask ourselves the bold question: “is this the kingdom building life Jesus wants for me?”
What would happen if we opened our hands a little more, let loose of our plans and instead focused on relationships, on people, on stepping outside of our comfort zone or our zip code and letting the love of Jesus be our guide?
Sometimes we make it more complicated than it needs to be. Maybe its spending less time adding items to my Amazon cart and more time picking up the phone to call a friend who has been on my mind, bring a meal (or a pizza) to a neighbor, or giving our kids or our spouse 10 minutes of our undivided attention where we truly listen to what is on their heart. Maybe holding loosely means living in a way that is less about me and more about others.
Friends, when we surrender our own desires, we embark on a kingdom living adventure that is far better than we ever could have asked for or imagined!
Dear Lord, cling to us as we let loose of the tight grip we have on earthly things and desires. Open our hearts and our eyes to Your ways. Remind us that your plan is always better than our own. Be with us as we strive to live a kingdom filled life with You at the center. Amen.
Have you ever felt like there is a potential within you that you just have yet to tap? Erwin Raphael McManus’ “The Genius of Jesus” (September 2021) might just offer the key you have been looking for on your search. On my last trip to the library with Anna and Peter I haphazardly came across the title on a ledge that caught my attention. It’s a quick read at 189 pages and offers the reader powerful insights into the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, this book might help any spiritual seeker to sort out questions about what has drawn so many people over the centuries to the carpenter from Nazareth.
McManus lays out his thesis in 8 chapters each describing the different aspects of Jesus’ genius. The author contends above all else that Jesus was a genius and that everyone has the ability to live a similar genius life. McManus writes, “To fail to see Jesus as a man is to dismiss the complexity of his thinking, the brilliance of his ideas, the power of his character and the beauty of who he was in full. Jesus is without question among the world’s greatest geniuses” (22). And unlike other geniuses who’ve lived throughout history, the genius of Jesus becomes more than just a hope in our lives. It becomes a lived expression of being.
The book is an attempt to see and understand Jesus a part from his divinity and in probing his human nature we are led on this adventure of how genius Jesus truly was and how we can tap into that power of genius. McManus suggests 4 marks of a genius: they are heretical, they are original, they are transformative in their filed and they are extremist (16). Jesus checks each box and contends each of us have the ability to have these marks in our own lives.
I think the author does a nice job of unwrapping the person of Jesus using his own spiritual journey, questions and experiences. It will help to know that the author does pastor a church movement called Mosaic in Los Angeles, although that is only slightly referenced in the book. McManus was an immigrant from El Salvador who grew up Roman Catholic but has experienced a wide exposure of spirituality in his life that led him to critically think about the power of genius in Jesus that awaits us all.
The part of the book that I resonated most with was the chapter on the genius of empathy. Jesus didn’t just have sympathy- he empathized and truly took the heart of another person and puts it inside his own soul. McManus is right to say Jesus connected to the human experience at the deepest level and shows this when he weeps over Jerusalem and at the death of Lazarus. In a time when many of us feel broken and broken-hearted, God’s full display of empathy in Jesus shows us that we when we just listen to one another, we can heal our pains and hurts.
Erwin McManus does a great job taking the reader on a quest to know more about the humanity of Jesus which ultimately means finding out more about ourselves. The book helped me understand better that there is a genius inside each of us capable of doing amazing things. For anyone wanting to know more about Jesus’ humanity and your own potential, this would be a good place to start!
So what might a bathroom, a can of Squirt and Jesus all have in common you ask? Well, each of them in their own powerful and unique way have been able to refresh me with their life-giving flowing energy.
A Bathroom. This wasn’t just any bathroom. It was the back bathroom off the backdoor of the house I grew up in in the southeast suburbs of Chicago. This is where I would come in from outside through the backdoor, up the three steps and into the bathroom you see pictured. I would turn the faucet on and then lean over with my face under the faucet drinking the refreshing cold water that would stream out. There were no cups and no hassles. Boy I could be there for what seemed eternity quenching my thirst. Then I would simply turn off the faucet, wipe my mouth off and then run back outside to keep playing. Never once did the thought cross my mind that the water would not come out of the faucet or be refreshing or not satisfy my thirst. It was always there like a cool amazing waterfall you’d discover in the forest. It was free (at least to me it was!). No strings attached. It was like drinking straight from heaven!
A can of Squirt. The second fond memory I have from my younger years is an older neighbor who lived down the street from me. While others called him “Mr. Cunningham,” he was always just simply “Ed” to me. From an early age, I remember we just hit it off and I think he had all the cool stuff in his garage and yard. He would have these simple two by four blocks of wood that I would play with for what seemed like hours. I think I was like a grandchild for him and he was like a grandpa I never got to know. He would tinker around in his garage or sit down just watching me play. And then he said those magic words: “Jimmy, how about a Squirt?” And we’d both have a cool glass of refreshing Squirt. Don’t remember a lot of what we said, but I remember having those Squirts with him. It was like drinking something straight from heaven!
A Son of God. Jesus used a lot of analogies, metaphors and parables to describe both himself and living in the Kingdom. One of my favorite stories of Jesus occurs in the 4th chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus meets a woman looking to draw water from a well in the heat of the day. Jesus invites her to drink water which will never make her thirsty again. Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). When we belly up on Jesus, we are refreshed, renewed and restored for life! Especially in the desert moments of my life, Jesus has been the One who quenched my thirst for life. It IS like drinking heaven itself!
Who or what has been a source of God’s wellspring of refreshing goodness for you? Sometimes we can end up drinking from wells that might be unhealthy or unholy for us. God gifts us with many holy and life-giving ways to fill up our tank. Sacramentally, in water and the Spirit we are baptized into this endless stream of grace. And the eucharist, or holy communion, sustains us with Jesus’ body and blood. The Living Word of the Bible can help feed our soul with stories of forgiveness, hope and love. These are good places to start. Yet don’t think for one moment God can’t use a bathroom faucet or a neighbor offering a cold drink to quench our souls. When God offers it, drink it up!
There’s a great scene in the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” where Neal Page played by Steve Martin tells John Candy’s character Del Griffith: “You know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it a lot more interesting for the listener.” It’s a great line and reminds me of something my dad would say. He’d often ask if I needed any stories or tips for my sermons. Of course I couldn’t use any of his bad jokes so he was no help there! I can remember him seeing which priest we had for mass and I could look at him and just tell by his heavy sigh whether the mass was going to be long or short. Ultimately what my dad was expounding in his sighs and eventually telling me as priest and preacher was “move it along and get to the point!”
Thinking of dad and getting to the point, I remember a time when I was flying to Florida for a learning retreat. I was in the middle seat and had two folks on either side of me. The man next to the window quickly put his plugs in and slept most of the flight. The other fellow and I exchanged some pleasantries and then he asked where I was headed and why. I told him that I was headed to Fort Lauderdale for a retreat. He subsequently asked: “What do you for a living?” I told him I was a pastor that I was headed for a renewal retreat for pastors of different denominations. My admission of being a pastor usually ends the discussion or it propels into something deeper and meaningful.
The guy, Dave, replied almost immediately: “My family and I have always attended church. It has been a very important part of our life as a family. Until recently, that is. So I asked the logical question: “Okay so, what happened?”
He replied that “All of a sudden we decided to have a family meeting. The kids growing up and having jobs and then having kids themselves and my wife and I having jobs and activities- life had become unmanageable. So we got together and talked about all the things we were involved in and did an audit.” I replied: “An audit?” Dave responded: “Yes, everyone was asked to list everything they’ve involved in and most importantly they were to share what they got from the activities. In other words, what did we gain from our work, activities, time with friends, church, etc?”
I asked him what happened. He replied: “Well, we no longer attend church. Apparently, of all that we have going on, attending church fed us the least.” Wow. That struck me. I didn’t judge. I just listened to Dave share all of this. I look back on this conversation as a great reminder to me as a pastor, preacher and disciple that there better be a point to it all.
So what is the point, dear friends? What’s the point of it all? Christianity? Faith? Forgiveness? Grace? What’s the point? There’s no easy answer to any of these questions but I do think belonging to the Body of Christ feeds us in ways we can’t describe, imagine or fully know. There is a wonderful song called “Build Your Kingdom Here” by Rend Collective that includes these lyrics:
Come set Your rule and reign In our hearts again Increase in us we pray Unveil why we’re made
Come set our hearts ablaze with hope Like wildfire in our very souls Holy Spirit, come invade us now
We are Your church We need Your power in us (Let’s go)
You see, friends, there just might be a point to it all. Worship, belonging to a church- the Body of Christ- does feed and nourish us. Augustine, the great early Saint of the Church is attributed with saying “our hearts are restless until they rest in you O God.” We often find ourselves wondering what the point of anything is in our lives- work, bills, illness, masks, pandemics, burdens of child rearing, church, etc. The point of any worship is a WHO not a what. It’s always about Jesus. Mainline Christianity could do itself a favor to reclaim our roles as followers and not just fans of Jesus. Isn’t every Gospel story about what Jesus does for us? It’s about God’s incredible strength lifting us up to be Christ-bearers in this world! God’s whole point was love. Let that love feed your soul this day.
Don’t kids say the darndest things!? My 4 year-old son Peter recently asked me this great question. Now I have fielded questions from young ones my entire ministry ranging on faith, God, the commandments, life, vocation, etc. Of my three kids, Peter is my thinker, often centering himself in quiet reflection before asking one of this thought provoking questions, as well as the obligatory “how many more minutes until we get there” questions.
A few weeks back our family took a little trip down to the Great Smokey Mountains. We took in the incredible scenery, the fresh mountain air, the winding roads up and down the hillsides, the sighting of bears and even embarked on a few trail hikes. With three little ones, we started early and did just enough before their little feet wore out. It was amazing to see the tall massive trees, the beautiful cascading waterfalls, the views from high on the valleys below. As we were hiking I was struck by the roots of the trees. Some of the roots were visible exposing their massive, mighty, thick and twisted nature.
The root system of a tree is one of its most important elements, providing several vital functions. Roots store nutrients for the plant during the winter and transport water and minerals during the active part of the growing season. Roots also provide an anchor to the plant, keeping it from toppling during extreme weather conditions. Roots grow through the entire life of the plant or tree. While most roots are under the surface, some grow exposed above the surface. Seeing the strength and power of these roots got me thinking about how we allow our children and ourselves to be firmly rooted.
How can we root others in God?
More research and surveys show church attendance, and for that matter religious instruction or formation is continuing to decrease at rapid levels. A recent Gallup Poll from March 2021 showed church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. Today, that church membership stands at 47%- a drop of nearly 25% in just 20 years! For the first time in nearly 90 years there are more non-believers, other-believers and non-affiliated believers than those belonging to an organized faith community.
So, what do we do? How can we root ourselves, with purpose in the God who loves and draws us near? I have seen parents be overzealous in the athletic and extracurricular activities of their kids- going to every game and practice, doing the fundraising, etc. Yet when it comes to faith formation (aka Sunday School, Confirmation, Worship attendance, etc), that zeal tends to fade.
I think we all want our children and grandchildren to be well-rounded, kind, service-oriented people in this world and yet our practices seem to say otherwise. Don’t get me wrong here- this is not an attack on sports. I love seeing kids compete and excel and learn all the wonderful things that comes along with being on a team. I’m talking about “deeper” roots that will help sustain and nourish them the rest of their lives.
Ethicist Barbara Holmes once wrote “We come from mystery and return to it at the end of the life journey.” If we are attentive enough, though, we will realize that mystery in the here and now only if we find ourselves rooted with purpose. This begins with faith.
Peter’s wonderful question “Dad, where is heaven?” was only realized because Amy and I have spent the time and hard work in helping lay a root system to help anchor these precious gifts God has entrusted to us. We take our three kids to church (not just because I am a Pastor) but because we believe in it for them. We made the promise at baptism. Here are some simple things you might try to help plant and grow roots of faith in your child’s life:
Pray. Pray for them. Pray with them. Show them how you pray. Pray at meal times and bed times.
When playing a game or going for a walk, tell them about God in creation and how they are loved. Listen to what they have to say.
Trace the sign of the cross on their forehead as a way of blessing them.
Attend worship as a family even if online. Establish a rhythm they can count on. Growing up, I knew we would be going to Saturday 5:00pm mass every week. It was something I looked forward to.
Teach your kids to write thank you notes. Faith is being grounded in a spirit of gratitude.
Read and talk about some of your favorite Bible stories. Let them hear this incredible Word and promise God has made for them.
All these little rituals over time will help to build our little one’s root systems so that when the winds of this world come (and they will come), they will have a support system that will help them withstand the storms. These roots provide an atmosphere and base where they can simply ask about heaven, God, faith and their place or vocation in it.
Instead of focusing on answering Peter’s question, I wanted to relish the fact that he even asked the question. His mind was thinking about something faith related. I wanted to just en-joy the fact that this little boy, who at times can drive us crazy, was stretching his roots in the soil of faith. The truth is that sometimes our kids can teach you and I a whole lot about God, faith, and joyful living. We just need to give them the chance.
What would it look like if you simply tried to help a child, grandchild or young person in your life to grow roots of faith? What might it mean for a young person to hear why you believe in the stories of Jesus or why you belong to a church or read the Bible? Giving ourselves and our little ones the chance to grow their roots intellectually, athletically, emotionally, and spiritually is one of the best things we can do for them. I give thanks for my parents, pastors, teachers, family members, coaches and all those who have helped me to build my own root system. When we create a space for others to think, wonder, love and grow, we follow in the footsteps of the One who created the root of life for us. For when our roots are deep in Jesus, there will be no reason to fear the wind. “So dad, where is heaven?” It’s right here, buddy with you and me.
“Today was a Difficult Day,” said Pooh. There was a pause. “Do you want to talk about it?” Asked Piglet. “No,” said Pooh after a bit. “No, I don’t think I do.” “That’s okay,” said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend. “What are you doing?” Asked Pooh. “Nothing, really,” said Piglet. “Only, I know what Difficult Days are like. I quite often don’t feel like talking about it on my Difficult Days either.” “But goodness,” continued Piglet, “Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you’ve got someone there for you. And I’ll always be here for you, Pooh.” And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs…he thought that his best friend had never been more right.
A. A. Milne
I agree with Winnie the Pooh – Piglet was so right. To be present for another in the darkest moments of life is perhaps the greatest gift we could ever offer. It is certainly one of the most sacred gifts we could receive. Every time I sit and visit with a parishioner whether it be in my office, at the hospital, nursing home or their home, it is a privileged “gifted” time.
If we are honest with ourselves, as much as we might portray on social media and other means that our life is great, that each day is perfect and runs according to “plan,” many of us admittedly have difficult days. We might have had a difficult day at work, at home, with a co-worker, with our spouse or kids, with a fellow church parishioner, with a neighbor or friend. Maybe nothing went right that particular day. Maybe these just past holidays weren’t so jolly because of the absence of a loved one or friend. Winter in the northern hemisphere with weather teetering on cold, somewhat gray (although we have evaded the snow) can be a time many people experience depression, great anxiety and difficultly. We can have and do have difficult days.
I find that as a pastor when I get those incredible brief sacred moments of love and support I get to offer someone and there are no words, no real actions, no magic formula that I use with them- that’s a holy encounter with the Spirit. Simply said, it’s just the gift of presence. To sit with someone sobbing and hurting in grief is sacred. To listen to someone who is facing incurable illness or diagnosis is holy. To bring Holy Communion and prayer to someone at the hospital, nursing home or home is gift itself. Just showing up itself to be with another person is real gift, the presence of Christ, in our world.
It’s a matter of fact that every human being will experience “difficult days” and go through aging, sickness, loss of job, death and loss among other things. It’s part of our human condition. There’s a mysterious place called Octopus Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Octopus Springs is one of the unique places on Earth that’s labelled an “extreme environment.” For life to exist here it’s poised with “against all odds” defying challenges. The fact that life can even exist at all is nothing short of a miracle. But life does exist. Against all odds, it finds a way. So too for us against all odds in those difficult moments and days, we can find a way:
Don’t resist “difficult days.” They will come and happen. It’s a reminder we do not have much control over external situations. Accept what you cannot change.
Be open to helpers. Be open to the “Piglets” in your life- those who will simply come without judgment and sit with you in your difficult moment. It’s help from heaven.
Rest. Relaxation is the best medicine for survival and helps quiet the energy of our minds. Jesus took time to rest to help him overcome difficult trying times.
Have faith. Developing faith can help us cope with hard times. Faith is friendship with God. God never promised an easy life but rather promised to be with us always. Read the Bible. Journal. Talk to God. Find a welcoming worshiping community of faith that embraces you and feeds your soul.
Change your perspective. You might not be able to change the difficult situation you find yourself in. But you certainly can change your perspective on it. Cultivate having a gratitude practice. Be thankful. Piglet didn’t try to change Winnie’s difficult day. He just reminded him he was with him through it all.
We all have difficult days. What if we could be the “Piglets” who simply sit with others having those challenging moments and days? Who has sat with you in your trying times? Maybe as we turn the page on a new calendar year, we can offer the best gift to each other of our time and presence. Difficult days are so much easier when you have someone there for you. For us people of faith, God walks with us. Receive this blessing: May God go before you to guide you; be behind you to encourage you; above you to watch over you and beneath you to support you. But may you discover the presence of God within you and know that God will always be your friend.God has our back, dear friends. Just don’t be afraid to simply sit and have the back of someone in need in your life. You’ll be giving the best gift ever.
I wanted to briefly talk about the book that has most influenced my life other than the Bible:
It’s funny how God works in our lives. I’ve seen this over and over and over in ministry and my own personal life. “Tuesdays with Morrie.” What? Why that book? Why not some theological heavy weight like “The Book of Concord” or “The Lutheran Confessions” or some even back to my Catholic Seminary days and a Thomas Aquinas book. Why “Tuesdays with Morrie?” I’d like to think that as the Spirit prodded me to give that response, the platform with how I base live and minister seemingly came to the surface. If you have never read the book, go get it. It won’t take you long to read at a short 192 pages. It’s a quick read. If it’s been a while, go check it out from the library and re-read it. If you’ve never heard of it, here’s the summary from the inside cover of the book:
The book was turned into a movie and Mitch Albom has gone on to write several other wonderful little books including “Have a Little Faith” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” But “Tuesdays with Morrie” is the one that touched my soul and spirit and continues to help guide me to this very day.
I don’t want to necessarily write a review of the book- there are plenty of them you can find and read. The book was first published in 1997. I had graduated from high school in the Spring and would be heading to St. Meinrad College in St. Meinrad, Indiana for what would end up being a year of school. St. Meinrad would close its college program the following Spring. I remember my dad driving me the 300 miles south down Route 41 with all my stuff (way too much stuff as I recall). I remember being anxious, excited, frightened and eager at being away from home for the first time in my life. All of my other siblings had remained closer to home for their college education. I was going the furthest. And even though it would only be for a year, it was huge for me and for my dad. He and I by this time had forged a unique bond. My mom had died in January 1991. The rest of my siblings moved out of the house and were living their own lives. It was dad who would help me survive high school. It was dad who became the cook of the house. It was dad who did the laundry and cared for both of us. I don’t know how he managed to do it all, but he did. Love gets us to do things we never thought possible. Albom recounts one of his conversations with Morrie quoting him:
“Do the kinds of things that come from the heart. When you do, you won’t be dissatisfied, you won’t be envious, you won’t be longing for somebody else’s things. On the contrary, you’ll be overwhelmed with what comes back.”
Dad and I had become best buds. Heck, we even worked together on the maintenance team at our church and grammar school. At times, it might have been a little too much “Dad” for me, but I wouldn’t trade those days for the world, either. I got to know Dad in ways my siblings hadn’t since we lived and worked together.
I remembered thinking that as he drove away after dropping me off at St. Meinrad. I know he cried. I did, too, without my fellow classmates seeing. He had become my rock after mom passed. And I’d like to think I had gave him something, too. We really hadn’t talked about how, when or what time we would talk with each other. It happened organically. This was the days before cell phones. My room had a phone….and Dad never got nor wanted a computer. That just wasn’t his style. As I settled into the fall semester, we got our reading list and “Tuesdays with Morrie” was on there for one of my classes. I read the book and instantly connected with it. It’s a wonderful story of the heart, human connection, friendship, mentoring, and love. We all have that person in our lives we want to listen to and want their perspective on things. As Mitch remembered, reconnected and resurrected his relationship with his old professor, I realized that mentor in my life was my dad. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Mitch and Morrie settled on Tuesdays for their sacred time together. Dad and I settled on Wednesday and Sunday nights as our “Check-in Call Time.” Just about 8:00pm on those days I could always expect a call from dad. And yes, he insisted on making the phone call so I wouldn’t have to pay for long distance calls. Sometimes the calls would last mere minutes, other times 45 minutes. We would catch up only after he would share a joke or two. He would ask about classes, the monks (St. Meinrad was operated by Benedictine monks), classmates he had gotten to know of mine (my class had a total of 13 of us so it was small- really small), about meals, and just about everything he could think to ask. I would ask about other family members, happenings back at home and church. Those Wednesday Night and Sunday Night “Check-in calls” would be our lifeline. They probably helped me survive that year away. Now don’t get me wrong…I loved my time at St. Meinrad. It was a fun and awesome year. But I missed Dad. And now I miss him in a different way after his passing in January 2017. Like Mitch was for Morrie, I am nostalgic for Dad’s voice…for those phone conversations…pieces of advice and jokes he would share. We hustle and bustle this time of year and we can forget or just look past the precious gifts right in front of us.
Morrie offered this wisdom to Mitch:
“We’re so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks- we’re involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing? You need someone to probe you in that direction. It won’t just happen automatically.”
Pages 64 – 65
I can’t help but think as I read the book the first time it was like I was reading about my dad. Dad wasn’t dying of ALS like Morrie was, but my dad had a unique perspective and wisdom about things. I loved hearing his stories, his opinions and other times I would just enjoy our banter about sports, religion and politics. Dad was raised in a certain era and that helped to shape his world vision. Dad was the one who prodded me to think differently, to see the entire picture, to listen more clearly and to think for myself. Dad loved people. He loved being with people and enjoyed being on the phone with them. I was one of his students. My siblings and I were his favorite pupils until the grandkids came along!
As Mitch began to record his weekly visits with Morrie and the idea of putting those notes into a book came to fruition, it changed him. Morrie helped Mitch to rediscover himself that had gotten lost in the busy-ness of his career as a sports writer. Dad helped me rediscover myself time and time again. Those Wednesday and Sunday Night calls when I first moved away from home were my lifeline. I would sit at the foot of dad on those phone calls listening for his wisdom, his heart and his love. One of the lessons from the book is really finding your purpose and living it. As Morrie helped remind Mitch of that, Dad did that for me.
What I have found in the almost 21 years since I first read “Tuesdays with Morrie” is that how I function as a human being, how I relate as a husband and father, how I minister as a pastor, how I connect as a friend, how I see my siblings- it’s all about relationship and even more specifically- it’s about finding our purpose. We can be so busy about doing things, we forget what we are and often the people right in our midst. I’ve tried to let the model of Mitch visiting Morrie, of the phone calls and interactions with my dad help guide and form my life. The Bible helps lay the framework for our purpose. Our humanity and faith looks like something, sounds like something, feels like something, tastes like something…whether I’m preaching a sermon or visiting someone in the hospital, whether it’s a council meeting or helping trim the weeds on the church grounds, I try to live my purpose by just being with those I am with. For Jesus, it always, always, always was about the person he was interacting with at that specific moment. His purpose in living was to show us that the meaning of life was in our relationships. “Tuesdays with Morrie” has shaped me more than I’ll ever really know. It helped me to realize the gift of my dad and his role as mentor in my life. To Morrie, Mitch, and Dad, thank you for helping me to be me. I hope to keep the cycle going and be that person for Amy, Anna, Peter and Liam.
Here’s how the book finishes:
“The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week, in his home, by a window in his study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink flowers. The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience. The teaching goes on.”
Who was it for you? Who is it for you today? Who is your Morrie? Can you still reach out to them? Is there a book that has had a profound impact on you? Why? Remember your purpose. Rediscover YOURSELF in that purpose. Thanks, Dad, for being my Morrie.
I looked forward to Sundays. We did church on Saturday nights for the most part when I was growing up. If it wasn’t the 5:00pm mass, then Dad and I would attend the first Sunday morning mass. But Sundays were generally slower. I didn’t have the plethora of sports that are rampant today. I even remember the local grocery store closing at noon on Sundays! But after mom passed away, Dad and I developed this routine called the “Sunday go meeting car.” We would use mom’s 1987 Red Plymouth Reliant for special adventures on Sundays. Most of the time it was a drive to find a new ice cream parlor to test out their chocolate malts. Sometimes we would safely follow police or fire trucks on the way to an emergency call. The time was special, though. It was almost as if time stopped itself. I think in his own sort of way Dad was teaching me how to Sabbath.
Fast forward some almost 30 years to today. Life is fast paced and constantly getting faster. We are on the go all the time. And as Ferris Bueller reminded us so famously, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Our addiction to sports, social media, and our phones / tablets keeps proving this point. Thinking of a “stop day” or Sabbath day seems so out of date let alone unrealistic. And many of us Americans don’t want to use vacation time because we are worried of the work load waiting upon our return. We are working longer, faster and harder than ever before. Thanks to the pandemic, many of us can simply log on anytime and tend to our work. It’s never ending. And I wonder what are we sacrificing or giving over because of our need to constantly be doing something.
I have preached numerous times on the Ten Commandments. But today I want to emphasize and suggest that perhaps of all the commandments the third one might be the most important. Now, don’t get me wrong. All the commandments are important and essential and each of them provide for us the fundamentals of a moral and spiritual life. The challenge and invitation for us is to be grounded in the fundamentals before making our spiritual journey. Just like professional athletes need a spring training or preseason we too need to be rooted in the basics of what it means to live a glorified life in God.
A book I recently read got me thinking differently about the importance of the third commandment. The name of the book is 24/6: a prescription for a healthier, happier life by Matthew Sleeth, MD. It’s a short wonderful reflection on taking Sabbath in our lives. Matthew was an ER physician for a number of years and a non-believer. He became a Christian in the early 2000s which totally reoriented his imagination and life around faith, prayer, work and Sabbath. He uses storytelling, his own experiences, the Bible and faith to help bring alive the word “Sabbath” reminding the reader that perhaps this commandment is the one that helps ground us in the sanctuary of God’s grace and love. It got me thinking about my life and my approach to the third commandment. Remember.
When I was first ordained in the Catholic Church, my “day off” was Wednesdays. If one could receive a grade for the way a day off was used, I would easily have gotten an “F.” It was hard to disconnect in the middle of the week. I was thinking about sermons for upcoming masses, planning ahead, and thinking about an ever-growing “to do” list. Sometimes I would visit my dad but I often be thinking of something needing to be done back at the parish…an email to respond to…a quick trip to the office would easily lead to me being there 3-4 hours. I never really learned how to Sabbath or have a “stop day.” No one else was off on that day so it was hard to embrace the gift of that time.
Taking or making a sabbath is not easy. It’s a change of pace from the other days of our life. Amy and I made a conscious and intentional decision that we needed to have a Sabbath for our sakes and for the well-being of Anna, Peter and Liam. It meant taking a one day pause from the normal activities to rest, relax and not have any agenda for the day. It meant seeing the day and time as a gift and not a burden. It meant “remembering” the command from God. Since most of us pastors work Sundays, we chose our Sabbath day to be Fridays. This day looks and feels different from other days. And we use the other days of the week to prepare for our Sabbath. We clean on other days and we do a little more homeschooling Monday-Thursday so Friday is free of assigned classwork. We shop on other days of the week.
You may ask what do we do on sabbath? We sleep in (well as long as Liam and the kids allow for) and have a casual approach to the day. We may take a walk or go to a park or stay home and watch movies or play games. We unplug and stay off devices. The kids have gotten into it and will even say “Happy Sabbath!” But with anything new and different, it’s a “work” in progress. Dr. Sleeth in his book reminds the reader that Sabbath gives balance and perspective. It takes a conscious effort and choice on our part to make it happen. Sabbath balances the active and holy parts of our lives. And as our kids age and get involved in sports and hobbies, we will make the conscious effort not to participate in those events on Fridays because of our commitment to Sabbath. Some may think that might be over-the-top. Maybe it is. But God intended all of us to have a day of rest, relaxation and reverence. In fact God commanded it. If we don’t make the decision to live into this gift, others and things will take that time away from us. Our world has us going 24/7. Subtracting a day of rest each week will have a profound effect on our lives. One day a week adds up. Fifty-two days a year times an average life span is equal to more than 11 years! Sabbathing has multiple physical, spiritual, emotional, psychological and mental benefits. It’s good for the soul and body. I don’t go to the gym on Fridays. I rest.
I look back on those Sundays with Dad and the “Sunday go meeting car” as an introduction into Sabbath living. And now Amy and I are trying to create that special impression and memory for ourselves and the kids. Many of us have unfortunately equated the Sabbath with simply attending worship which misses the mark and meaning of the third commandment. Sabbath is a transition for us- a way to digest what was and pause before entering what will be. Hafiz, a Persian mystical poet from the 14th century, once wrote:
Sabbath helps to make clear that we can’t nor should we do it all. We are human beings; not human doings. Sabbath helps to both make and restore mind and memories. And that’s the hope Amy and I have with our family. Fridays are something different. TGIF! We look forward to our Sabbath. It still might be clumsy and awkward-looking but with God’s grace we’ll keep being open to it. Don’t let the world dictate how you live your life. Let the world know that you still “remember” while pausing for the gift of Sabbath. Here’s some simple tips for trying a Sabbath for yourself and your family.
Read the book 24/6 by Dr. Matthew Sleeth.
Decide which day works best for you and/or your family. It might not be Sunday. Maybe it will be Monday. Experiment.
Allow yourself grace. This takes time to develop into a habit. Keep with it.
The Sabbath is a gift. Don’t be afraid of what has been given to you.
Rest, trust and enjoy this time you will never have back.
What you will find below is like an examination of conscience from national speaker and author Fr. Ronald Rolheiser for helping us to think about Sabbathing, quieting down, being still and resting. Pray on it and accept the gift of those precious words: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
Be still and know that I am God. Scripture assures us that if we are still we will come to know God, but arriving at stillness is easier said than done. As Blaise Pascal once stated, “All the miseries of the human person come from the fact that no one can sit still for one hour.” Achieving stillness seems beyond us and this leaves us with a certain dilemma, we need stillness to find God, but we need God’s help to find stillness. With this in mind, let’s pray for stillness.
God of Sabbath, stillness and of quiet …
Still the fever I inhale from all the energy that surrounds me, that makes my life feel small. Let me know that my own life is enough, that I need not make an assertion of myself, even as the whole world beckons this of me from a million electronic screens. Give me the grace to sit at peace inside my own life.
Still my anxiety, my heartaches, my worries, and stop me from always being outside the present moment. Let each day’s worries be sufficient onto themselves. Give me the grace to know that you have pronounced my name in love, that my name written in heaven, that I am free to live without anxiety.
Still my unrelenting need to be busy all the time, to occupy myself, to be always planning for tomorrow, to fill every minute with some activity, to seek distraction rather than quiet.
Still in me the congenital fear the nagging suspicion that I’m forever missing out, that I’m odd, an outsider, that things are unfair, and that I’m not being respected and recognized for who I am. Give me the grace to know that I’m a beloved child of a God whose love need not be earned.
Still in me my doubts, my anxieties about your existence, about your concern, and about your fidelity. Calm inside me the compulsion to leave a mark, to plant a tree, to have a child, to write a book, to create some form of immortality for myself. Give me the grace to trust, even in darkness and doubt, that you will give me immortality.
Still my heart so that I may know that you are God, that I may know that you create and sustain my every breath, that you breathe the whole universe into existence every second, that everyone, myself no less than everyone else, is your beloved, that you want our lives to flourish, that you desire our happiness, that nothing falls outside your love and care, and that everything and everybody is safe in your gentle, caring hands, in this world and the next. Amen.
Dear friend, the Sabbath has been made for us. We don’t “have to” Sabbath…we “GET TO” Sabbath!
P.S. Don’t look for me on Fridays. I’m off resting with God, Amy and the kids. It’s our “Friday go meeting” time!
Once upon a time a miserly baker once lived next to a poor kind and generous soul. Every morning the smell of cinnamon buns and sweet rolls wafted out of the bakery and the neighbor would enjoy the aroma as he ate his breakfast of oatmeal. The baker watched from his window – he could see the neighbor enjoying the scent of fresh rolls. The baker’s miserly heart was struck and he thought to himself: The smell of my rolls and bread make his lousy food taste delicious! He should have to pay me for it! Well he went next door and handed his neighbor a bill. The neighbor laughed and said: Thank you for the wonderful smell of your rolls but I don’t have enough money to pay this bill.
Enraged, the baker went to the judge to plead his case. Everyone expected the judge to laugh him out of court but after listening to the baker he said: This is a very unusual case. I must be fair to both parties. He ordered the baker and the neighbor to appear in court and he ordered the neighbor to bring along five gold coins. The neighbor was nervous! Five coins was all the money he had left in the world. Still, he showed up the next morning with the money.The judge made his decision. I find you guilty of stealing the baker’s smells, he told the neighbor. Do you have the five gold coins I told you to bring? Sadly the neighbor started to hand the coins over but the judge ordered him to stop. Not yet. Drop the coins from one hand to the other. After the neighbor had done this the judge asked the baker: Did you enjoy that sound? The baker answered, Oh, very much sir. The judge smiled to the neighbor then turned back to the baker: Then you have been repaid, said the judge. The pleasant sound of money is I think a fair payment for the sweet smell of your rolls. Case dismissed!
Now here is a story that is more than just a cute fable about wisdom – more – it is a story about our connectedness to one another. We are bound to each other in sounds and smells, in works and ways of which we are often not even aware. In these times of societal, political and even church division, I thought it a good analogy to use.
Jim Wallis, the well-known commentator on religion and values in American society wrote an article for TIME Magazine entitled Whatever Happened to the Common Good? Like the baker in that story, Jim Wallis writes that many Americans are so focused on their personal rights they fail to see their connectedness to their neighbor. It’s my right to refuse the vaccine. It is my right to own a gun. It’s my right to refuse to wear a mask. It’s my right to speak my mind however I choose. It’s my right to do this or that – and so on and so on. More and more, we seem to be so consumed with our personal rights! Jim Wallis maintains that we have forgotten a principle at the heart of community, a principle that has been a building block of both protestant and catholic ethics for centuries – we are in this life together. We are connected to one another in a social contract that should not be broken. We are on a journey to the kingdom as one human family. This is the Common Good!
In philosophy, economics, political science and even religious circles, the common good refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community. This term first appeared as a philosophical concept in the 13th century in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. More writers such as Machiavelli, John Locke, Rousseau, James Madison, Adam Smith and Karl Marx would continue to develop the concept and the practicalities of such a lived experience.
Jesus too spoke about the sense of common good when he shared the Parable of the Good Samaritan and asked a young man: Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? And the writer of James speaks of common good we he writes: Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is faith? And again St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit into one Lord.
Recently this past spring, Anna got us all watching “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” on Disney. The series is based on the popular movies from the 90s as we are introduced to a new era of kids wanting to make a difference playing hockey. Without giving the entire storyline away, the Ducks have changed and some kids are forced to create their own new team, the “Don’t Bothers” who must fight all odds to have any resemblance of a hockey team. Anna watching it and for me it was neat to see how the kids on the “Don’t Bothers” didn’t just play for themselves. They fought hard and played for each other. In their own way, they played for the Common Good!
I wonder if a renewed commitment to the Common Good might help our country heal in a time of deep division. How might we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another? These are the questions of the Common Good. In the end these are the questions of how we love our neighbor as ourselves. Jim Wallis ends his reflection with a challenge of love:
The common good should impact all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, congregational, communal, and yes, public lives. It is those individual and communal choices—from how we raise our own children, to how we engage with our local communities, to what we are willing to bring to our elected officials—that will ultimately create the cultural shifts and social movements that really do change politics in the long run. Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.
Perhaps this is a good reminder for all of us entering the school and fall seasons. How can we all work together to deepen and strengthen our families and larger communities? How can we create a culture here that widens our circle of inclusion that truly welcomes everyone? I want to encourage all of us to commit ourselves to the Common Good as we strive to welcome and connect everyone helping them grow in their faith journey so that we can go be church after church sharing God’s love everywhere!
What if we went back to the basics and focused again on the Golden Rule?
This past January’s events in Washington D.C., the continuing politicization and violence around vaccinations and masks really begs the question, doesn’t it? Sunday schools taught it; politicians have quoted it; parents repeated it. The words have hung in public spaces — a kind of pluralistic and even secular creed — Do Unto Others. It’s clear and plain in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” or as The Message (Eugene Peterson) translates it: “Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior- Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them!” What if we all just simply tried living by the Golden Rule again?
If we have trouble trying to live it out ourselves, maybe we could think of someone who exemplified and lived out this ancient code of conduct and try to follow their example. It might be a parent, a colleague, a friend, a teacher, a pastor, a neighbor, a fellow church member or even a boss. Somewhere in your life’s journey there’s been a person who rose above everyone else with the level of kindness they showed. Who’s the kindest person you know? Someone who really exudes “nice.” Who is always willing to help without a complaint. Who offers a smile and an encouraging word. One of the kindest persons I have seen is Fred Rogers. “Mister Rogers,” as he’s known to countless children (and adults!) seemed to be the manifestation of kindness. There was a national buzz about a year ago about Fred Rogers with the release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks as our favorite next-door neighbor. The movie is loosely based upon an Esquire profile of Fred Rogers “Can You Say…Hero?” done by Tom Junod back in 1998. I encourage you to read that article and then see the movie. Fred’s wife, Joanne, recently passed away and once again his name, work and mission is being lifted up as something we should all aspire to be like.
His slow, quiet, and patient demeanor and his way of accepting everyone were indicators of what a kind man he was. He did the same small good thing for a very long time. But Mister Rogers the celebrity — who by all accounts was the same as Fred Rogers the man — had to work at it. Every day. He admitted as much in his counsel to everyone about what it takes to build relationships:
“Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain. We need to accept the fact that it’s not in the power of any human being to provide all these things all the time. For any of us, mutually caring relationships will also always include some measure of unkindness and impatience, intolerance, pessimism, envy, self-doubt, and disappointment.”
In the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers. Now, if you know anything about the actor Tom Hanks, it’s that he is widely considered one of the kindest people in show business. So much so that, according to a recent New York Times article, a journalist who attended a panel suggested that Tom Hanks is just playing Tom Hanks, but “slower.”
“But the slowness of Fred Rogers — the un-self-conscious, considered slowness — was hard, Hanks said. It felt ridiculous when he first tried it out. He studied hours of tapes, because sometimes he couldn’t imagine that he was supposed to go this slowly… ‘It’s a combination of procedure and behavior that was singularly Fred Rogers.’”
But there’s something to that notion of needing to slow down. If the worldwide pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are going way too fast. When everything is calling us to go faster (work, technology, calendars, etc), perhaps we all could simply slow down the brakes, pause and appreciate. When you need to weigh things in your mind, you need peace and solitude to allow that to happen. And you need to choose deliberately what you’ll do. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Maybe when we slow down we can see each other as “people” and not things; we can interact with one another instead of just swiping or scrolling on to the next thing.
It’s up to each and every one of us how we choose to respond in life’s situations. Every situation involves some level of emotion, and it’s easy to simply react in the moment. But Mister Rogers, in his deliberate, reflective way, at times like these, would ask himself one simple question that guided his response: “What would be the kindest choice?”
Kindness doesn’t happen unintentionally. You need to direct yourself there. And in those quiet moments of reflection, consider how those on the other end of your response might react. What would our lives (and even world) look like if we all asked that question of ourselves each day: What would be the kindest choice? Would we engage in road rage? Would we shout and scream at our spouse and / or kids? Would we get into shouting matches over differences in political ideologies? Would we give the silent treatment to family members or friends who seemed to have wronged us? Would we gossip and talk ill of others? Would we not forgive?
If you’re unkind or abrupt, how will that ripple effect into other people’s lives? I often ponder what Anna, Peter and Liam think of my use of words and how that impacts the way they think about the world or themselves and how they in turn will use words with others. At times I let my impatience and anger get the best of me. I may take out things unfairly on them or others for something that was my own fault. I know I fail at times with Amy being short and curt instead of thinking thoughtfully through my words weighing how they will affect her. Names do hurt. Our word choice can have lasting intentional or unintentional consequences. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.
Kindness. Empathy. Patience. These are some of the tenets that guided Mister Rogers every day. And they can guide us too. Fred had many great quotes about life, faith, kindness and love. Once he quipped, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” It sounds so elementary and so basic and yet isn’t a heavy dose of kindness what we all could put forth in this world?
Some say he was quirky and odd wearing the cardigan sweaters and trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t. I don’t think he was fake. He was someone who believed in helping children and making a positive impact in their lives. He impacted mine. I couldn’t wait as a little boy to see what next adventure he would take me on. I couldn’t wait to go to the land of “Make-Believe” on Trolley. I couldn’t wait for Mr. Rogers to say those precious words to me (and everyone else): You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are. And now I see Anna and Peter hearing those words from Daniel Tiger, the cartoon version of Mister Rogers. The cycle of kindness can carry on, dear friends.
So, what would be the kindest choice for me and you today? It’s a question that should be on our mirrors, on our phones and devices, in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in our churches, in our homes and in our neighborhoods. In this crazy world of fake news, sensationalism, selfishness, getting ahead, individualism and people willingly doing what they know they should not…what if we all became the heroes Fred Rogers thought we were and could be by simply living the Golden Rule and being kind? It actually works. His life was proof of it. And I know another person whom Fred adored that lived with kindness, hope and peace: Jesus Christ. Try it. Practice asking the question each day: What would be the kindest choice? And then thoughtfully and intentionally do it. What might be the kindest choice with a fellow church member, neighbor, co-worker, spouse, child or friend? How might we as a church family grow kindness together and in the larger community?
As we venture forward in the midst of this unsettling on-going pandemic, perhaps we can turn again to an old friend and neighbor whose niceness is available and free to all of us. Darkness is overcome by the light and we can reflect that light in our words and actions. It’s really not that hard. What would be the kindest choice? Or to put it another way: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for teaching us kindness is really the only way to live a life worth living. Continue to Rest in Peace, dear neighbor.