Friday, March 13, 2009

Lent... it's a winning proposition!

One of my favorite websites is Busted Halo. Produced by The Paulists, it is self-described as, "an online magazine for spiritual seekers."

For Lent, they have put together a daily calendar called "Fast, Give, Pray" to help those who wish to use this period before Easter as a time to do some spiritual housekeeping. When you click on each day in the calendar, there is an inspiring (and challenging) quote, as well as some suggested ways to use this time before Easter. In their words:

So, let’s get back to the basics…

Traditionally, Lent was intended as a time for personal conversion leading up to Easter during which Christians practiced the spiritual disciplines of Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving. The belief is that our consistent participation in these practices—like exercise we do for our physical health—is a form of purification that improves our spiritual well-being by stripping away all that is unnecessary and by becoming more mindful of our ultimate dependence on God in our lives.

But instead of chocolate, alcohol or tobacco, what if people thought of fasting, prayer and almsgiving in a broader context? What if those disciplines involved practices like reducing your dependence on electronic devices for twenty four hours (fast); contemplating the 1.6 billion people in the world who have no access to electricity for a few moments (pray); and spending the extra time you’ve saved on personal interaction with someone important to you (give)? Or what if people reduced their carbon footprint for a day by using less energy (fast); then reflected for two minutes on the magnificent gift our natural environment is (pray); and finally placed $1 in a bowl they’ve set aside to collect money to be given away to a favorite charity—perhaps one that plants trees—at the end of Lent (give).

These are just two examples of the dozens of exercises in our Fast, Pray, Give Calendar that will help readers enter into the traditional spiritual disciplines of the Lenten season every day in ways that are practical, doable and relevant to their daily lives. Each day, starting Monday February 23, our Fast, Pray, Give Calendar will feature a new quote or factoid related to Lenten history and practice as well as practical suggestions for how to carry out the ancient Lenten spiritual disciplines that day.

So, I gave it a try - and was almost immediately rewarded. This past Monday, I was cleaning out the "Spam" folder of my Inbox and came across an e-mail with the subject, "A Lenten Surprise..." Since I had a hunch this was not a request to turn over personal information in exchange for $150,000,000, or an advertisement for some sort of male enhancement drug, I moved it to my Inbox and opened it. I had won! You see, the other part of the "Fast, Pray, Give" calendar is that there are prizes!

Every day we’ll give readers the chance to enter a random drawing to win a different “Lent Incentive,” including: a copy of The Green Bible; a tin can of Busted Halo M&M’s; the March issue of Magnificat with the Lenten Companion; a bag of Busted Halo Swedish Fish; and a copy of The Sacred Art of Fasting.

I had won a copy of The Green Bible. It arrived in yesterday's mail. Lent has always been a winning time for me. It was almost one year ago today that I won another drawing. I think God has a reason for that, and I think I am cooperating with His plan. As I mentioned the other day, it is my belief that Original Sin is essentially a sin of ingratitude. However, these 'winning' moments provide opportunities to give thanks, and to call to mind all the other, everyday blessings and gifts for which I should be thankful.

And so, in this time of 'giving up' I am receiving. Not just prizes in the mail, but time with my family. I spent last night cuddled next to my son on the couch watching "The Empire Strikes Back." In a time of economic distress, the company I work for has been doing well. The parking lot is full, and I can be thankful that I am not having to make decisions on who to keep and who to let go.

"Giving Up" during Lent does not just need to be about deprivation. In fact it is supposed to be about giving too. This year, I have tried something a little different. Instead of giving up time on the internet, I have decided to spend more time there - blogging. You may have noticed that the tempo of my posts has increased. It is my little way of giving - of my heart and mind. I had no idea how many people were reading this blog, until I started getting feedback from the most unlikely of places - someone whom I have not seen in years sent me a note thanking me for keeping a blog and encouraging me to write more.

And so I will, with the hope that it will continue to be of help to her and to others. With God's help, I know it will. After all, everything we have is a gift from God. By finding small ways to be thankful, we condition ourselves to participate in the ultimate act of gratitude - the source and summit of our faith - which derives its name from the Greek word for Thanksgiving. I invite you to join with me in using this Lenten season as a time to exercise our 'gratitude muscles' so that we can approcah the Easter banquet and celebrate the Eucharist in a deeper way!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

“Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

This past Ash Wednesday, I was asked to assist with the Distribution of Ashes at a family prayer service. Although it would not be the first time I had performed that role, it had been a number of years, and it was a powerful experience. Some observations:

1) I found myself with a huge smile on my face, and as folks approached, their faces (more often than not) lit up as well. A little bizarre, when you consider that I was telling them to "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

2) I have to admit that I prefer the alternate formula - "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." I think it describes the Christian life much more completely. Each time I said "Remember you are dust..." I said to myself "Not entirely!" Our physical body may be dust, but we are much more than that. Even once our bodies return to dust, we will live on in the loving embrace of the God who created us. Lent is a time to turn away from those things that place an unhealthy balance on the physical and reorient ourselves. To turn away, and be faithful! Metanoia, to use the Greek....

3) About halfway through, I realized that for some of the folks that came forth, this may be the last time someone traces ashes on their forehead. "unto dust you shall return." It was a profoundly intimate (and moving) moment for me.

4) "It felt right." I have been more intentional about discerning experiences related to public ministry over the past few months (especially those of a liturgical nature). The smile on my face, the prayerful meditation that took place while performing the act of tracing the cross on the faces of those who came forward, my ability to connect the physical rite to the underlying reality of our Faith - all of these strike me as signs that I am exactly where God wants me to be, and that this public form of ministry will be a good fit.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Valentines Day

My wife and I started dating in January of 1995 – halfway through our junior year in college. Of course, the timing presented an interesting conundrum: what to do about Valentine’s Day. Since we were dating, I knew that I should do something. However, I did not want to go overboard; filling her room with roses and showing up with a tuxedo to take her to the Williamsburg Inn for dinner might scare her away. After all, it had only been two weeks since our first date. And so, I opted for something more low key: a small flower arrangement and a mix tape.

If you have never listened to music on anything but a CD player or an iPod, some background may be helpful. There used to be these things called Cassette Tapes. One could purchase them at the same stores you currently purchase CD’s. They replaced vinyl record albums and eight-track cassettes, but that is another post… Making a mix tape was not quite as easy as dragging and dropping a few .mp3 files from one column to another with iTunes and then clicking ‘Burn CD.’ You had to queue up the tape, start the song you want to record, and start the recording. At the end of the first song, you had to pause the tape, queue up the next song, re-start the recording, and so on and so on. As a result, if you were recording a one hour tape, it took a little over an hour to do so.

Anyway, I dug into my music collection (and that of my roommate) and came up with a collection of songs that I liked that also expressed the emotions I felt at the beginning of this relationship. They weren’t all sappy love ballads, nor were they all even explicitly about love. But they did a pretty good job of expressing how I felt.

Valentine’s Day came along, and I presented Katie with my gift. She appreciated the thought I had put into it, and quite often when I came to visit, she and her suitemates would be listening to it. (Relationship Tip #482: ALWAYS get on the good side of the roommates). Several of the songs quickly became favorites, especially ones with which they were not familiar.

At the end of the semester, I headed back to New Jersey to begin a summer internship with a public accounting firm. Katie returned to Appomattox, Virginia to spend her summer working at a day care center. We spoke nearly every other day on the telephone, and wrote letters (before the days of cell phones and e-mail) almost as often. We planned on meeting in Washington DC after about a month apart, since it was mid-way between us and a number of our friends lived there. A couple days before I was to make the trip south, I received a package in the mail. It was a cassette. Katie had recorded a mix tape for my trip! The four hour drive flew by listening to the tunes and thinking about being together after so long.

Over the next three years of our courtship, there were many other drives, and several more mix tapes. I had listened to mine so often, that when I heard one of the songs on the radio, I expected the next song to be the next one on the tape!

Fast forward ten years, four children, four jobs, and two houses into the future. Things are a bit more complicated then they were back in our days at William and Mary. Through the highs and lows, our relationship has grown all the stronger. Without a doubt, she is my best friend.

In the past few months, she has mentioned that she wanted to burn the songs on those mix tapes onto CDs since neither of our cars have cassette players. So, for Valentines Day this year I decided to surprise her and burn the songs on that first mix tape onto a CD. Finding all of the songs was no small feat. I had lost some of the CDs, and there were other tunes that I had originally recorded from borrowed albums. Luckily, Napster and similar sites allowed me to round out my collection for $0.99 a song! In a little less that thirty minutes I was done, and I did not need to keep hitting ‘pause’!

I have been listening to the CD on the way to and from work, and an unintended consequence has come to light. Listening to those songs, in that order, has brought me right back to those early days in our relationship. It does not do so in the same way that a documentary or history book might. I do not remember that on such and such a date Katie and I went did this, but it does allow me to make present in my mind the feelings and emotions that I experienced when that particular event took place.

Good liturgy does the same thing. It invites us to enter what the Greeks used to refer to as kairos – a concept of time that is not focused upon measurement as much as experience. Since for God there really is not beginning or end, it is how God ‘knows’ time. I can only imagine that for the early Christians, the service that we know as the Eucharist would have had much the same effect. The words, smells, and tastes would have brought the early believers back to an experience of Jesus when he physically walked the Earth. The mystery of the sacraments is that, if we let them, they allow us to make that experience truly present for us as well!

Sure beats a box of chocolates!

Monday, March 2, 2009

“Sitting in a chair in the sky.”

The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving. In the Catholic faith, we use it to describe the liturgical action whereby we enter into communion with God. Thus, we enter into relationship with God first and foremost by expressing gratitude.

The stain of Original Sin is blindness to the truth that we are made in the image and likeness of God. It is the inability to acknowledge what I recently heard described as our “Original Blessing.” Thus, on a very basic level, our Original Sin is really the offense of ingratitude.

The Ironic Catholic recently posted a video clip that points out one way this Original Sin is still present in the world today (Warning: the language is a little bit rough around the edges, but the message more than makes up for it):

We are called to enter into relationship with God. To give thanks for the reality that all we have is Gift and we already are Blessed and Chosen by the Almighty Father. Until we do, we will always be searching for the forbidden fruit, and will feel cheated by the very fact that it is forbidden!