Friday, December 19, 2014

These Are The Times That Try Men's Souls



Two weeks ago at the Caregiver’s Support Group meeting 91-year old Wally told us that the love of his life, his Annie, had died.  I only know Wally through those caregiver’s meetings, but it felt like I had been punched in the gut.  I hurt for his pain.  In sending notices out of Wally’s loss to members of the group who had not attended that meeting, Alicia responded in sympathy … and noted that her mother had also passed the previous week.
Last Saturday night I invited some friends to a local team’s hockey game.  One of men introduced me to the woman in his life; they had so much in common.  Was marriage in the future?? Probably.
This morning the same man told me that she had been a no-show for a dinner this week.  When he visited her home and asked why, she had responded:  “It’s complicated,” and wouldn’t talk to him --- and hasn’t since.  This morning he expressed his bewilderment, shock, anger, and frustration.  “People who care about each other don’t do this.  They talk; they’re there for each other.  I don’t understand.”
And I could feel his pain also.
“These are the times that try men’s souls” are the words of Thomas Paine.  He wrote those words to help explain to the colonists what things are worth fighting for.  He also wrote them to unite the colonists in thinking that they were citizens of a United States:  some things are worth fighting for --- together.
The Caregiver’s Support Group is what its name implies:  people who are supporting one another, as friends, as a spiritual family.  This morning I was reading words from a great book, This Tremendous Lover.  The author there is talking about the unity of all Christians in the Mystical Body of Christ, to which they are incorporated at baptism.  He notes:  “We have considered the spiritual life as a development of that union (in the Mystical Body of Christ), and a removal of obstacles … caused by our self-love and self-centeredness.”  A bit later he notes that “the essential points of the spiritual life are:  faith, hope, charity, humility, and generous cooperation with and abandonment to the will of God.”
“All He asks is that we put our faith and hope in Him, that we love Him with our whole heart, that we renounce our own pretended strength and our foolish plans by humility and abandonment; He will do the rest.
I recalled how Jesus had asked Peter three times:  “Do you love me?”  It was an answer Peter had to give three times, and it’s one we need to repeat also.  And we need to trust that in our sorrows, Jesus is sorrowing also, because He loves us.  It echoes to me the Scripture passage where Jesus looked down on Jerusalem and tearfully said: “If thou hadst known …”
I am feeling sadness this Christmas week for my friends who are feeling a deep loss, whether expected or not.  “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  But these are also times for spiritual growth.  These may be times when we want to try to understand: “Why did You do this?”  But if we can have faith, and hope, and humility, and abandonment to the will of God, and say like Peter “Lord, You know that I love You,” we may NOT find an answer to our questions, but we may find peace.
Thomas Paine wanted to united the colonists; Jesus wanted to unite the Jewish people.  Both knew their quests would not be easy.  Both knew there are some things worth fighting for --- and dying for.  To be a member of the Mystical Body of Christ means we are willing to die to self -- what we want, and what we have to know -- and have faith, a strong faith.  This is harder for some of us than for others.  These ARE the times which try men’s souls.  But these are exactly the times we need faith.
And then a trust that: “He will do the rest.”     

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Does My Life Matter?



I think that’s a question we all ask ourselves at one time or another.  Does it matter that I’m alive?  Now first, to state the obvious, those words are not those of a saint.  Those are the words of someone who is looking for something, but does not yet see it.  They are the words of someone still on their faith journey --- but so are we all!  No man is in heaven until he gets there, and it will not happen here on earth.  And here on earth we will sometimes pause and look around us and notice:  “I’m not going anywhere.  I’m not making any progress.  Does what I’m doing here matter?”
There are two important points to note when you find yourself in this situation --- well, actually three.  The first I already stated:  We’re all at that point sometime in our lives; do not think this is about you.  It’s about us.  The second point is that if you are not going forward, you need to do something.  If you are sitting on a bike, you need to start pedaling.  If you are in a car, you need to take your foot off the brake and put it on the gas.  And if you are standing in front of God, you need to find His will for you.  You need to pray, to ask.  You need to read, to know more about what He usually asks people to do, and to consider those things He did.  And you need to listen, because He said:  “I will always be with you” --- and God doesn’t lie.
Your starting forward, making a difference in your life and those around you, starts with your taking action.  Advent is a good time to start on this.
But there is a third point regarding our feelings of making no progress or of unimportance, and it is a point we often don’t think about, and one which I wish to focus on:  We often forget about all the progress that we HAVE made.  And it is important that we remember.
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I’ve known Sister Margaret Mary, Sister Peg, for perhaps twenty years.  She joined a religious order which cared for mentally-challenged young people, largely, because of her experiences with her brother, whom she loved deeply.  I met Sr. Peg at the nearby facility where she worked.  I once took her and another sister to a Michigan football game, in the U of M stadium with 100,000 other fans.  The two sisters were dressed in their black garb on a warm sunny fall day.  And did they cheer!  Their enthusiasm helped offset the noticeably reduced noise (and cursing) around me versus a typical game day. 
But Sr. Peg’s order has locations around the country, and too soon she moved.  I visited her once when she was stationed in Chicago for a few years, but she continued to move wherever she was sent.  Besides the occasional email, our contact was largely around Christmas, when I tried to send her a book or two, or something needed for those she cared for.
Since I hadn’t heard from her since last Christmas, I recently sent her an email, asking how she is, WHERE she is, and would she like a book or two this Christmas.  She responded:
"You come to mind often and especially when I re-use your books.  I am doing well and ministering to the elderly now, by running a day program for them.  I enjoy it very much.
(She gave me her address in Rhode Island.)
Let us keep in touch.  I often think of our sharing that Michigan football game :-)  That was a highlight of my life.       God bless you.          Sr. Peg”

I recall Sr. Peg fondly.  We weren’t close friends, and even when she worked nearby I infrequently met her or had an occasional meal with her.  Once I took her and some of her young charges to a charity dinner; I remember the looks on their faces in that hall full of people, and how thrilled they were when they found out there was music after dinner.  I think they all danced every dance.  Sr. Peg was a friend to me, like so many casual friends we all have, just someone I knew.  But it may be that Sr. Peg viewed things differently.  I often went out to dinner; I had many friends; I went to many sporting events, and concerts and plays and all sorts of big gatherings.
But for Sr. Peg, that one Michigan football game she went to was a highlight of my life.  Something I rarely remembered might be a treasured photo in the album of her life. 
“Does My Life Matter?”  I think that sometimes I have feelings that my life does not matter to ME; it seems so unimportant.  But looking at my life from Sr. Peg’s viewpoint --- it might be a highlight in hers.  Peg told me her feelings in that note.  How many people have feelings about YOU that haven’t put it in writing?  How many people have you influenced, and while your memories of them faded, theirs of you have not?  Remember the classic Christmas story, A Wonderful Life?  Remember all the lives which would have been changed if George had never existed?
YOU are a George.  Your life mattered in the past; it will matter in the future.  Think some on these things; don’t let where you are at emotionally now dictate your future.  God has plans for you.  This is Advent, a time of looking forward toward Christmas, when He comes.  Prepare!  He will come to you also.
And if you get some time, think back on all those people who would think that YOU mattered in their lives.  It might be a good time to drop them a card, to let them know you are still thinking of them.
Merry Christmas. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why Doesn't God Hear Me ?



Steve walked up to me at the coffee shop last week.  He hasn’t been around much lately.  “Hey, Tom,” he said.  “Did you know Our Lady of Good Counsel Church will start the 6:30A mass again?  They’re starting with Fridays during Advent, and may move to other days next year.”
His words gave me pause, and later I even prayed over them:  “Lord, after the 6:30A mass --- which I liked very much --- stopped, I began attending the Friday morning men’s Bible study at 6:30, and attending a 5:30P mass.  I really like the 6:30A mass, but now so often it seems You are with me in the Evangelical church Bible study group.  What would You have me do, Lord?  And even as I prayed, I perceived the situation as being one of a “here is what I want” versus a “here is what You want” decision.
I chose to continue with the Bible study group, but still I wondered:  Is this really what God wants of me?  Did he hear my prayer?
- - - - - - - - - -
The Third Order Franciscan group is a close-knit group of friends, living humbly as they have vowed to do.  I only attended two of their meetings and remember few of their names, yet they invited me to their Christmas celeb ration in one of their homes.  I thought to do what I would usually do:  I purchased some books for each of them, and planned on baking my cherry cheesecake as my contribution to the celebration.  I knew they would like it.  But during my nightly prayers I was having second thoughts about the party invite:  This event will make me happy, but ….. will it bring me joy?  These are close, humble people, and a stranger would attend their party with gifts and special food, and then they’d thank me and talk to me and focus on this stranger in their midst --- and, yes, that would make me happy.  ME.  At that moment in the chapel, I suddenly realized, my happiness would arise from being noticed, and not from the joy for which they gathered, as a faith family.
I didn’t like the way I had planned my “scene” at the party.  I liked my plans, but saw into my heart, and didn’t like my motives.  This was not about me.  And so I sent a polite denial to their invite.  If I actually become a member of this faith family, there will be other celebrations, hopefully at a time when I am more humble, as they are.
- - - - - - - - - -
As the men gathered for the Friday morning Bible study, I gave each a copy of the book I had originally purchased for the Franciscan group.  Then I sat off to the side, reading my Morning Prayer.  The words I read spoke loudly to me:
We know that we have never wholly striven,
Forgetting self, to love the other man.
Free every heart from pride and self-reliance,
Our ways of thought inspire with simple grace.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve the need of others,
Help us to give and not count the cost.
I recalled my question to God about attending this Bible study group, and my reflections on selfishness.  My Morning Prayer readings continued with Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
O wash me more and more from my guild
and cleanse me from my sin. ….
My sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.
As I read further, I saw that the day’s feast day was of St. Jane Frances De Chantal.  She wrote about a “martyrdom of love” where love of God “divides us from ourselves.”  In such a love, we are totally humble, unselfish.  Again, the words seemed to speak to me.
Meanwhile, the men at the Bible study were discussing the difficulty they found in persevering in evangelization, in “a world where no one cares about God.”  Some said it irritated them and made them difficult to be around.  They I read them some quotes from another book I was reading:  “A saint should be a very easy person to live with,” and “it is only by dying to oneself that one can give life to others.”  The words gave them much to think on.
And then, suddenly, on this feast day of St. Jane Frances De Chantel, I read these words in my second book (This Tremendous Lover):  “Might we refer then to the example of St. Jane Frances De Chantel?  While she was still living in the world, St. Frances De Sales became her director.”
I felt God’s presence, as I glanced across the table at a copy of the book I had earlier given to the men:  Roses Among Thorns, quotes from St. Francis De Sales.  Jane Frances and St. Francis, in the brievery, in a meditation book, in a gift book.  How had all these things come together in this one hour?  My thoughts and purchases over days, and writings and books written over the years all converged to provide me a clear message of humility, of doing not for self first, but others, and of seeing not coincidences, but the face of God … smiling on me.
“Why doesn’t God hear me?” was the question I had when I first prayed.  I can see the clear answer now as being but another question:  Why am I not listening?”  In seeing the feast day of St. Jane, the book I gave by St Francis, and the opening of my meditation bookmark to the exact page relating the two, to the men’s Bible study discussion being about humility:  I heard God’s answer to my prayer.  All the blessings and contemplations He blessed me with were so I could convey them to the Bible study men.  I was meant to be there.
I pray the men enjoy the meditations of St Francis De Sales in the book I gave each of them.  Perhaps there might even be one thing put there just to touch their soul --- if they are listening.  Then they too can hear God’s answer to their prayers.
- - - - - - - - - -
As I drove around I listened to the Christmas music sung by Amy Grant:
Trust me and follow me,
And I will lead you home.
--- from A Christmas Lullaby
Listening and trust.  This Advent is about preparing for His coming, His birth.  Are you preparing?  Are you reading, are you praying; are you listening?  “Why doesn’t God hear me?” is the question of a person with little faith.  He is God!!  Of course He hears you.  The question is, this Advent season, do you hear Him?  Are you really preparing to celebrate His coming; are you listening?
The Christmas hymn asks: “Do you hear what I hear, said the shepherd boy to the little lamb?”  He is coming.  Do you have to be thrown off your horse like Saul and have God speak loudly to you the answer to your prayer?  Do you think you are that important?  Or is God’s answer to you in the quiet of the night, like that whispered to the little shepherd boy?
“Do you hear what I hear?”  Advent is a time of preparation.  We prepare by doing something.  What are you doing, that you might hear His answer to your prayers?
I didn’t go to the mass I wanted to go to on Friday morning, and in the events of the Bible study I heard His answer to my prayer.  I read recently that martyrs today are not one who die, but ones who die to self.  I saw that in God’s answer to my prayers.  I’ll pray that you hear His answer to your prayers, and this builds to you having a joyous and Blessed Christmas celebration of His coming, to you.
- - - - - - - - - -
I wrote the last of the above words, finished my night prayers, and set out for home.  Driving through town, I said I’d stop at the local bar for a glass of wine if I saw an empty parking space.  There was one.  And as I turned toward the bar, the car in front of me signaled it was taking the empty space.  Rats!  I pulled into a side lot, taking the last space there.  And as I walked around toward the crowded bar, I saw across the street and town park the marquis of the local movie theatre, brightly lit:  “Miracle on 34th Street.  December 12, 13, 14”.  Huh, today was December 14th.  I walked across the park to the ticket window, glancing at my watch:  7PM.  “When does the movie start,” I asked.  “It’s starting right now,” the young woman answered.  Behind me I heard a woman say to her young daughter:  “Great, we’re not too late.”  I told the ticket agent: “Give me three tickets, so we won’t be late.”  The woman thanked me as we all rushed in.
The movie WAS just starting, and the theatre was jammed.  I found a lone seat near the back and sat down to watch the classic movie.  Rather quickly I determined, from the comments I could hear and the laughter at some of the old lines, that most of the people there had never seen this classic movie.  To me, this was odd, but it made watching it all the more enjoyable.  And I remembered the joy from when those lines were new to me also.  But it was one classic line which caught my attention and the attention of everyone in the theatre:  there was dead silence when it was spoken.  “Faith is believing when reason tells you not to.”  Everyone got the meaning of that line; it hit home to everyone.  Miracles happen; it is not wrong to believe in them.  It is not wrong to expect them ---- even if you don’t understand them.
It’s what this whole post has been about.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Let The Christmas Thoughts Begin!



It’s been a week since I got back from Arizona; the bags are unpacked; the clothes are washed, and a series of meetings I had set up are over.
And I received my first Christmas card. 
I guess it’s time.
I set out two Advent candles on Sunday in a couple of silver candlestick holders --- I wonder where the Advent candle holder is among the decorations in the basement?  I went to see A Christmas Carol play on Saturday.  (If you are within a couple of hundred miles of Detroit you MUST go see this play at Oakland University; it is outstanding!!  Great singing, great costumes, great staging, and great special effects --- it makes you so happy --- and yeh, I cried in happiness at the end, again.)  And on Sunday I made a list of all the things I must begin to do:  today.
A friend said she’d come over and help me put up my Christmas tree and decorations on Wednesday.  I had some vague thoughts about skipping the work this year, but a: “No!  You’re not going to do that!” changed my mind.
After coffee with friends at the local Panera’s this morning, I walked through the park in the center of town.  Christmas trees are everywhere, decorated in honor of deceased loved ones.  Some companies and organizations also put up and decorated trees there in honor of those they serve.  And the local newspaper has a large Holiday Helping Hand ad in the weekend edition, noting that donations of food and new winter wear will get you discounts at all the downtown eateries.  And this Thursday night is designated as a Christmas in Plymouth night, for shopping and dining downtown.  To me, that means Christmas music in the stores, along with apple cider and munchies.  It is a small town America unique experience which I love, but will unfortunately miss, because Second Thursday nights are my caregiver’s support group meetings, something also unique about small towns:  people care about one another.
I dug out my pile of Christmas CDs last night, and on the way to and from mass this morning listened to Andrea Bocelli’s My Christmas album.  I think it’s the only CD I ever reviewed here (http://do-not-be-anxious.blogspot.com/2009/12/sing-out.html).  And that too made me cry.
I guess I’m getting in the Christmas mood.