Monday, March 3, 2014
A Difficult Lenten Resolution
I shuffled my deck of past Lenten resolutions, penances I have offered to God in years gone by. There were things I gave up --- things I liked: coffee, beef, alcohol, reading novels (that was tough last year), or food in general. And then there were the things I resolved to do some years --- things good for me, of which I didn’t do enough: attending daily mass, taking weekly Communion to the senior home, giving to the PB&J food collection, or serving at the soup kitchen. All those were good things I’ve done, and I’ll probably pick from them again this year. All those things will be good for me to do, penances I need and should offer to God.
But I’ve thought of another different, better thing --- a more difficult thing, but first a bit of background:
The friend I breakfast with each Saturday morning told me his business building is finally sold. He has a month to sell or scrap all the machines he’s worked on for so many years. They’re kind of like old friends to him, he said. He sighed as he considered all the work he has to do this month, but then he asked: “But what will I do then?”
He is off to a good start in his retirement: recently he began attending daily mass, and on some days he stops at McDonald’s for coffee with some of the mass guys. Staying in contact with old friends, and making new friends, is important for retired adults. But so is doing something meaningful with your life, knowing you are still making a difference. We talked some about the things I was doing (or at least trying to do), and some things he might do with his newly freed time. He looked unconvinced, and was perhaps unsure how to start --- how to start doing “something.” But really, it shouldn’t just be “something” he does, but it should be something with a purpose.
Lent, I believe, is a good time for each of us to seek some new purpose for our life.
I’m reading a book titled “Rich in Years,” by Johann Christoph Arnold. Its subtitle is: “Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life.” The book seems to be focused on answering my friend’s questions. It answers the question: “In my old age, I can’t do as much as I used to --- indeed I can’t do some of the things I used to do at all --- so what smaller things can I do with my smaller capabilities?” The book addresses my friend’s questions about purpose, but as the subtitle describes, it also talks about finding peace in your life.
This is a book aimed at old people, but don’t we all desire purpose and peace? And don’t we sometimes feel that on some days, weeks, or heck, even some years, we are not at all at peace, that life is hard, and that others don’t understand us and our needs? Perhaps don’t we sometimes feel misunderstood, even by those we love the most?
I was late for the men’s Bible study group again last Friday. (I’m always late because I go to mass first.) I never did find out what Scripture passage the guys were considering, but as I walked in they were engaged in a vehement conversation about married life. For each of them there was some time or some topic for which either their spouse or their kids “just didn’t get it.” The guys were very supportive of one another: “I know just what you mean; here’s what my spouse said along those lines,” or: “Well, you won’t believe what my kid did last week …” Their discussions may have wandered a bit off topic (whatever it was), but they were acting as a faith community, supporting one another, and that was a good thing. Then, after one particularly exasperating example, one of the men commented: “It’s times like that in which there is nothing we can say or do to make things better. And so the best thing we can do is just shut up and have faith in God. Even out of this situation, we need to trust He will make good.”
And there were nods all around.
But then another thought came to me: “Having faith in God, particularly in bad times, is a good thing, but in the examples you guys were discussing, I think it is a copout!” The conversation, which had been very lively, came to a sudden halt. And they all looked at me.
“Look,” I said. “In conversations with your spouse it is certainly good to remember that God is part of your marriage. You made a marriage vow to your spouse, and to Him, also.” Then I brought up the Bishop Sheen book, Three to Get Married (I’ve reviewed it here before). Everyone married or planning marriage should read this book. It explains like no other book I’ve ever read just what that marriage vow really means. It is a vow among three people, including God. And implicit in that vow is that they --- all three of them --- would love, honor, and TRUST one another.
“So,” I said to the men, “telling God that you trust in Him when your spouse is unreasonable or is unjustly angry at you (in your opinion) IS a good thing. But what about that vow you made to trust in your wife? At the time when she seems unreasonable, at the time she’s angry (for no good reason), or at the time you just want to scream “You just don’t get it, do you?” --- at those times most of all, it is important to remember that vow you made to trust. It’s important right then to say to yourself: “Even if I don’t understand her thoughts, her anger, or her silence, I will trust in her.” The commandment to love God and love your neighbor is doubly important when the neighbor you are talking about is your wife! And what greater evidence of love is there than to trust --- to trust that despite actions you may not understand, that she loves you also. To trust that despite words and actions to the contrary, that she loves you --- and even trusts you, right now. “That,” I said to the guys, “is the real trust we need to have in marriage --- and we so often forget about: trust of our spouse and our kids --- AND of God.”
There was a thoughtful silence among the men, each thinking, I believe, about the particular bad argument with their spouse or their kids they had in mind during this morning’s discussion. Each had initially thought that he was the wronged one, and had to put up with his family, but upon reflection, they all came around to thinking that perhaps they were the ones who had wronged another. It gave them something to think upon, and as one said: “I think that may give me something to work on this Lent.”
And that is the different, difficult Lenten Resolution I propose to you. Don’t resolve this Lent to do something which is good for you, but rather resolve to do something that is good for another, even if it is most difficult for you, even if you don’t like it. Now you can describe what I am proposing as simply a “Love Your Neighbor” suggestion, but it is more than that. I am proposing that you love your neighbor more than yourself; deliberately putting yourself second --- or even last. So, for your spouse and kids, you might resolve to agree more, to compromise more --- even if you KNOW you are right. You might smile more, especially when you’ve had a terrible day at work. You might visit that soup kitchen or that senior citizen home with the avowed goal of making at least three people smile, to make their day better. And perhaps even to God, you might spend some time in chapel asking for His help, and then taking even more time to tell Him how thankful you are for all the help He’s already given you, and spending some time recalling with Him just how blessed He has made you. Don’t make your Lenten prayers all about you.
Is this Lenten resolution I propose really a penance? I’m not sure, but it has the same purpose as a penance: to help improve our lives. But it has something more; it has a purpose of improving the life of someone else. While we go through our Lenten walk, we often ponder the Passion Walk of Jesus, and we think of our own personal passion. Sometimes we may think: “Lord, I will walk with You.” This is a good thing. But we must not forget WHY Jesus took that walk, and why we must also. It wasn’t just for Himself, it was for others. That should be the reason we are willing to take our passion walk also.
But it is a resolution, a difficult resolution, we must make.
As for me, I’ll try to remember these things, and I will give up meat and alcohol, and I think I’ll buy a copy of Rich in Years for my senior friends, including my newly retired breakfast friend. It may give each some measure of peace, or so I shall pray.