How Important Are We?

I was bicycling through a city park the other day and came across a statue of a man named Adin Randall.  I found out later that, predictably, he was a man of wealth who helped promote the city in its early years, and he donated the land on which the park now stands.  My first thought, however, was “Even this man, who must have been very important in his day, is now basically forgotten.”  It did not take too many more heart beats for the next, more personal, thought to come to mind.  “Twenty years or so after I die, fifty tops, I will basically be forgotten.”

I was unsure how to feel about that stark truth.  As a boy, like lots of children, I had fantasies about being famous—a sports star, even the President!—and to that boy the idea of being forgotten shortly after leaving this world would have seemed like failure.  Now, I am accepting of the idea, though it begs the question of how to, or even whether to, believe that my life is significant. 

Initially troubled by this question, I soon found an answer which brought me mental relief and spiritual joy.  Even though no one will remember me deep into the 21st century, the effects of how I have been in relationship with people will live on.  To the extent that I now show love and mercy to people and am a trusted companion, I will contribute to the healing of a broken humanity.  Of course, it could cut the other way, but even knowing my potential to create greater darkness only fuels my desire to spread more healing than hurt and more compassion than indifference.  

A line from an old song rings true here.  The composer is probably now dead, and the title of the song I have long forgotten.  But I remember it concludes, “The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”

Pondering both my insignificance and my significance also brought to mind a bit of Jewish wisdom I heard long ago.  Over two hundred years ago, a rabbi, Simcha Bunim, advised his people to carry two scraps of paper with messages on them, one for each pocket.  The message on one should read, “You are but dust and ashes.”  The other should read, “The universe was made for you.”

The rabbi’s advice: Read the “dust and ashes” part to stay humble, to realize that you are a very small part of a much bigger world, and that, yes, over time no one on earth will remember you.  If those thoughts ever lead to despair, then reach for the other pocket.  Reading “The universe made for you” will remind you that God has counted every hair on your head, and that God truly delights in you. That takes a leap of faith to be sure, but it is where faith wants to lead you.  If that idea ever bends you toward arrogance, however, reach for the other pocket. And so on.

So, just how important are we?  Not very, and infinitely! Neither thought scares or intimidates me any longer.  Even made of dust and ashes, and someday not so long from now to become part of earth’s forgotten masses, I nonetheless live in God, and will never be forgotten by God.  

Staying Church Amid Scandal

As a young adult, I was a big Woody Allen fan.  His films made me laugh and made me think.  As a Jew, he knew a good deal of Scripture as when he spoofed Isaiah with the line, “The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”  His film Crimes and Misdemeanors surfaced many instances of sin and grace, and pondered the question of whether or not there was a “moral structure to the universe.”  Interesting stuff.  I used to show the movie to friends and would tell his jokes in sermons. 

Then scandal entered the picture when he married his step daughter and other jarring accusations came to light.  It was the first time someone whose work I leaned on for joy and inspiration came tumbling down in my estimation.  I have to say that it hurt.  It was the first of many such hurts as people to whom I looked for leadership in Church and world proved themselves unworthy of that gaze. 

Maybe your church has been rocked by scandal as mine has, or maybe not.  Leaders with religious authority over their flocks have done everything from criminal behavior that turns our stomachs to less grievous actions that nonetheless stand in stark contrast to the life of Christ.  Surely, this is one big factor in the dwindling numbers of people in our country who identify with any church.

That is one option we have when our church leaders scandalize or fail us, to say good-bye to that church or any and all churches.  We can despair of finding a home, and do our best on our own. 

Even though Church has clearly not been good for all people and has done damage in our world, I am not ready to give up on it.  I remain committed to the idea that standing among God’s People on Sunday mornings is a good thing and an important thing for our world.  Here are some observations that help me stay a committed church person.

First, I need to face up to the truth that good and evil exist in our churches as they do anywhere else, simply because our churches are us.  It is critical to make the distinction between God who alone is perfect and the rest of us flawed followers.  If a pastor or other leader inspires me on a Sunday, that’s a good thing, but I should never look to him or her for salvation, and never be too shocked when I see evidence of their limited virtue. 

Second, I need to take the long view.  In light of the latest scandal or headline, I need to remember that I was baptized into a tradition that is filled with spiritual treasures and has carried Christ through the centuries even as He has carried us.  It is a tradition that has inspired us with saints even as it has scandalized us with sinners.  Those who in community heard the same Bible stories and celebrated the same sacraments were inspired by them to lead courageous and holy lives. 

Third, I need to wrestle with the two ways of viewing evil articulated by Jesus.  He speaks of those who would harm “little ones” as deserving a millstone wrapped around their necks before dropping them into the sea.  Those are strong words from the one who told us that only the sinless should throw a stone of condemnation at anyone.  Alternately, he speaks of the co-existence of good and evil like weeds that grow among the wheat, and encourages us to let them grow together until harvest when God will sort it all out.  In these two passages I hear both a need to have firm boundaries on what cannot be tolerated, and an overall attitude that doesn’t expect perfection in this world while doing our best to be light amid darkness, to sow more wheat than weeds. 

Fourth, I take inspiration from the English theologian Timothy Radcliffe, who said that he makes the choice to remain a faithful part of Church because Christ has chosen to remain faithful to us.  In other words, who am I to give up hope and leave the community where Christ remains and continually seeks to bring us through death to life?  

Lastly, I don’t think I can improve on the words of John Gehring, who this summer wrote an article that concluded, “Ordinary people who live our faith in the shadow of scandal and hypocrisy are not blind to the flaws of our church.  We persist because we search and struggle together, connected in spirit and memory to all those who did the same before us, and to future generations who will take up this difficult, worthy pilgrimage after we are gone.”  Whatever your faith tradition may be, I do not know your pain, and I understand if you leave or have left already.  But I hope you will stay or come back, and help us all be better.  

Walking Each Other Home

One of the great things about summer is all the people out walking in the evening.  Whether it’s a quick walk around the block alone or with a dog, or something longer, people take advantage of the warmer weather to exercise and reacquaint themselves with neighbors.  Would we even say hello to neighbors if it weren’t for summer? 

At the beginning of June, I joined five other church friends on a very special walk known as the “Wisconsin Way.” Modeled after the famous pilgrim route through Spain, the “Camino de Santiago” or “Way of St. James,” the Wisconsin Way starts near Green Bay and ends near Milwaukee, with stops at religious shrines along the way.  While we were shuttled by van for most of the distance, we did walk ten miles per day before arriving at place to pray with each other.  It’s one thing to visit holy places by car or bus, and quite another to arrive there by foot.   

You sort of get the idea after a few miles that a pilgrimage walk is a metaphor for life as a whole and our one common pilgrim journey from God and to God.  Especially on a 90-degree day, which was every day for us, you get in touch with your need for water. This reminded me of the frailty of my physical existence and my need not only for water, but for other people, and for God. Also, in a group, needs bounce from one person to the next.  Someone needs to cushion a blister; another needs a bathroom. Often, one person is in really good shape and has to slow down for the rest of the group, while another person has more physical challenges than the others.  Accommodating each other in a spirit of love and community mirrors our life in society, leaving no one behind.

I learned this lesson while on a previous walk, backpacking through the mountains with three others.  As it happened, I was the strongest in the group.  It was years ago and I hope I’ve matured since then, but I have to say I was less than gracious at being “slowed down” by my companions.  I wanted to see more, do more, cover more miles! Then, guess who sprained his ankle?  Suddenly I was “the slow one.” In response, my companions could not have been kinder.  They treated me with a compassion that I had not shown them.  It was an experience of grace: a love I did not deserve.  I think it changed me; I hope it did. 

A few years ago, a Benedictine sister shared a quote with me from the spiritual writer, Ram Dass, who described the meaning of life by saying “We’re all just walking each other home.” I thought of that line often on the Wisconsin Way, as my fellow pilgrims and I wended our way through wheat fields, county highways and state forest trails.  Walking with others, I could see clearly that that in life our individual journeys all flow in and out of each other, each of us dignifying the others’ journeys with our care and attention, certainly, but also by simply walking alongside and sharing the road.

One of my fellow pilgrims had just lost his job a week before our journey began.  After our four days together, walking and praying, eating and laughing, he reflected on the ride home. Minutes before, we had concluded our journey on a high hill, “Holy Hill,” and celebrated mass there.  Now next to me in the back seat of the van, he exhaled a satisfied sigh, and said, “That was just what I needed.  I’m OK.  It’ll be OK.”  When life deals us hard blows, it is good to be walking with others.  Together, we will make it home. 

Their Story as Our Story

Whenever I started something new in life, I could count on an encouraging letter from my mother that always included the words, “Change is hard.”  I appreciated those words every time.  I guess they made me feel normal in the midst of my anxiety. It helps me to know that my experiences fit into a larger truth.

Years ago I read a book that impacted me for that very reason.  In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser draws on the events Christian communities commemorate this time of year as a way of interpreting our own experiences of change, grief, and new life.  Specifically, he names five experiences:  Jesus’ Crucifixion; Jesus’ Resurrection; the 40 days of Jesus’ continued presence on earth in his Risen Body; Jesus’ Ascension into heaven; and the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Consider an experience of loss and grief:  A death, a divorce, or termination of employment.  The initial pain of our loss is like the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ crucifixion with its pain, sorrow and disillusionment.  We wonder, Is this the end?  Will I ever see happiness again?  That’s how we feel and that’s how it felt to Jesus’ followers. Life as we have known it and wanted it to be has fallen apart.

Then, we witness that we survive, and even though our hearts are heavy, there are moments when we glimpse hope.  For Jesus’ followers, that was the empty tomb and the message that he is not there, but is alive.  Where death was supposed to be, death is not.  Hope enters.    

And so we walk into a new reality with unsure feet.  All that we had known is now changed, and we begin the process of learning to live without the familiarity and comfort of how it used to be.  For 40 days, the followers of Jesus learned to see him in a new light, often not recognizing him right away for he had also changed.  To help them see him anew, he spoke their names, invited their touch, grilled them fish and broke bread with them.  Their steps become surer week by week.

In our experience of loss and change, if healing is to occur, we come to point where we accept that the old way will never return.  We let go.  We do not yet know what the future holds, but we allow ourselves to be free from the past and open ourselves to the will of God to lead us into what is next.  Like this, on Ascension Day, the followers of Jesus witnessed his departure and let go of their Lord and friend whom they could touch, and hear and see.  And they waited and prayed, unsure, because he told them to. 

Then, and this is a great grace, after our experiences of pain, hope, testing the waters of a new reality, and saying good-bye to the old reality, we find firm ground again, fully embracing a new reality with joy and a sense of purpose.  We sense that once again, even though our past love and pain will always be part of us, our hearts are full, and we are ready to fully invest again in our new lives.  So it was for those first followers of Jesus whose faithful waiting was rewarded by the driving wind and swirling tongues of fire that filled them with the Holy Spirit.  They went forth from that upper room confident and joyful, at long last.

Moving from pain and loss to healing and wholeness is a mysterious journey that takes most of us more than 50 days.  But we are given these 50 days on the Christian calendar to remember the story of Jesus’ first followers and make it our own.  Making their story our story is a pretty good definition of faith, actually, because it leads us to trust that God is working in us as surely as God was working in them.  For the person of faith, suffering is never the end of the story. 

The Love that Saves

People in our families see us at our best and our worst.  Especially our parents.  If we are lucky, we have or had parents who never stopped loving us, even when we were at our worst.  I was lucky.  I remember one time—never mind how old I was—when I was talking to my mom on the phone and lost my temper. Vile words flew out of my mouth at high volume, most of them just angry bluster but some of them that could certainly have been hurtful to her.  A lot of people, upon hearing all that, would take offense and return fire with fire.  In the aftermath of my rant, however, even before I could apologize, my mom just paused a second and said “Who is this that I’m talking to?”

She was baffled more than hurt.  She didn’t allow my bad behavior to stop the flow of her love. She called me back to my better self.

In the prayers I lead on Sundays, we have a penitential rite during which we ask Christ for mercy.  This Lent, we have been placing incense beneath the cross at this time, and before asking for mercy, I say a prayer something like this: Lord, as we honor your death on the cross, we see your great love for us.  ON that Good Friday, we gave you the very worst of ourselves, mocking you, taunting you, and calling for your death.  And yet, even in our worst moments you loved us just the same.  This gives us confidence today to ask for your mercy as we place our lives as they are at the foot of your cross.  Forgive us, heal us, change us.  Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

I have found the saving power of Christ in this: No matter what I do, Christ loves me.  The cross tells me this is so.

Some might say that continuing to show love in the face of the sins of their children leads parents to spoil their daughters and sons.  In matters of religion, some might likewise argue that many people of faith have become too complacent, having taken for granted God’s unconditional love.

I am not willing to let go of that part of my faith, however. I think unconditional love is the only thing that heals us and changes us for the good. My hope is that after consistent exposure to a love that never stops, we will finally grow up and realize with tears that we have been loved beyond any measure of what we deserve.  Taking this truth into our hearts, year after year, draws us deeper into the heart of God and changes us.  And we become more like those who have loved us.

Suffering and Faith

In many Christian churches, a passage from the Book of Job was recently proclaimed.  Job, you might recall, had a lot of good reason to feel really bad.  His children, his wealth and his health were all taken from him as a result of a wager Satan made with God that Job would not remain faithful in the face of such suffering.  Satan would lose that bet, but Job certainly came close to making him a winner.  Part of what we proclaimed in church was Job, in the midst of pain, saying, “Is not our life drudgery? My days come to an end without hope…I shall not see happiness again” (Job 7:1,6-7).

It is one thing to simply hear those words, and another thing to put yourself in the writer’s place and imagine the depth of suffering out of which those words flow. Some of us might react with curiosity about Job’s experience and try to relate to it with remembrances of our own past pain.  Others of us, like those very many of us who suffer with depression or other persistent hardship, will hear an articulation of thoughts and feelings that we know all too well. 

The fact that depression, pain, and suffering are right there in the Bible tells me something.  While very unpleasant, they also can be holy experiences.  They can be holy because they are our experiences and God loves every part of us. They are also holy, when, like Job, we speak our pain to God.  Our pain becomes our prayer to the one who holds us.

I have been reading a new book by James Martin called Learning to Pray, in which he lists 10 common reasons people do not pray.  One is that when they prayed in the past for their pain to go away, it didn’t work.  God did not grant their prayer and so they figured “What’s the point of praying?” 

Others with the same experience of unanswered prayer actually grow closer to God, and have the deepest faith of any of us.  I think this happens when they look to God less to take away their pain and more to help them live in the midst of their pain. Faith for them is not an accessory but absolutely essential for them go forward in life with a sense of purpose and hope.  And even, sometimes, like Job, to go forward without a sense of purpose and hope.

Honestly, I don’t know if I can say I have a deep faith or not.  I know for sure, though, that it’s a lot deeper than it would be if I had never suffered.  I went to church consistently during my first twenty years, but, while religiously observant, my spiritual life was quite shallow.  Then, I suffered.  The beautiful Marie, with whom I was wildly infatuated, dumped me.  Body slam! I know people suffer much worse, but I had never experienced such emotional pain as that.  I don’t wish it on anyone, but I do credit it for teaching me that I can lean on God for consolation and strength when I am hurting.   

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get closer to God by just eating candy?  That doesn’t seem to be how it works, though.  There is usually some suffering involved.  How it worked for me was that in my pain and great frustration that reality was not the way I wanted it to be, I asked God to help me. Though the process of healing took many months, right away I got this sense that there was more to my life than this loss.  Jesus was inviting me into a more expansive life.   It was as though Jesus were saying to me, “It’s OK not to get what you want.  It’s OK to feel bad. You can let go of all those self-centered needs, accept my love and mercy, and follow my lead.  You can judge each day not by whether you got what you wanted but by how well you followed my lead. You can even find joy in it!” I think this is what people mean when they speak of “Letting go and letting God.”

Following God’s lead is not just for the strong.  It is also for the weak, the self-doubting, and the failing. In fact, I think we do it best when we are weak because then we know that following God’s lead it not just a good idea but the only thing that will keep us afloat, the only thing that truly saves. 

God speaks to Job, 12th c.

Thirty Minutes in Bethlehem

For three months, I lived on the edge of Bethlehem.  If I walked at a good clip, I could be in Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity, in forty minutes. I took this walk often, and most often I would walk right past the church, through the square and down the hill until I reached the L’Arche Community. There I would spend a morning or afternoon working alongside people with and without intellectual disabilities, making Christmas crafts out of felted wool from local sheep.

After those many weeks, we sort of got to know each other.  I say “sort of” because only a couple of them could speak English and I spoke just five words of Arabic.  We communicated with gestures and words we knew the other could not understand. Mostly we communicated with kindness.  My favorite moment with them was when, after being at the work table together for an hour, one of the intellectually disabled young adults, Haddid, said something in Arabic to one of the English speakers.  He smiled and nodded.  I asked, “What did she say?”  “She said that you seem happy to be with us.” 

If I could have communicated only one thing to them, that would be it exactly.  ‘I am happy to be with you.’ To hear those words in Bethlehem, no less, where by Jesus’ birth God showed us how much he wanted to be with us, was a beautiful thing.    

You can imagine, then, that when I left them for the last time, I was sad.  After the hugs and good-byes, I walked teary-eyed into the streets of Bethlehem, back up to Manger Square with the sun now set over the western hills of Judea. City workers had just finished setting up the large artificial Christmas Tree in preparation for its ceremonial lighting a week later.  I stopped close to that tree and stared at it as I felt the holy grief of having loved and been loved and saying good-bye. Then, like a sign from above, that Christmas Tree lit up for the first time as the workers sought to confirm that all the lights were working.  The beauty of the tree confirmed the goodness, even the holiness, of the jumble of emotions I was feeling.  If I could freeze a moment in time, I might choose that one.

Then the moment was interrupted.  After witnessing the lights for less than a minute, three young teen-age boys approached me, aggressively trying to sell me Bethlehem souvenirs.  I told them “La shukran,” “No thank you,” but this did not deter them.  After asking them politely to leave me alone again and again, I finally relented and gave them five shekels for what they said cost three shekels. They refused to give me my change, and one of them tried to put his hand in my pocket to get at the other coins in there.  I was so frustrated and angry that my sacred moment had been interrupted, but when they started to paw at my clothing I felt a sudden violent urge to strike at them with my fist—an impulse I’d not felt since I was their age, probably. Thankfully, I did not follow that impulse.

My only escape was to literally run away, and so I ran the hundred yards or so to the door of the Church of the Nativity, and entered where the boys would not follow.  There are no chairs in this church, and so I leaned against one of the sixth century pillars, fifty feet away and a floor above the birthplace of Jesus. Here, with my pulse starting to calm a bit after the rush of adrenaline from fleeing, I reflected on all that had happened in those last thirty minutes.  I had felt the joy of love and communion, the sadness of loss, the awe of beauty, and then annoyance, anger, hatred and fear—the whole spectrum of human experience.   

This was the human experience God chose to enter when Jesus was born here, I thought.  He wanted to be with us.  He enjoyed being with us.  He desperately tried to show us how to love another by embracing the outsider, and showing mercy to all, even those who hurt him and stripped him of his clothing.  I renewed my desire to love like Jesus loved even as my heart continued to beat with residual fear. Sometimes love is easy.  Often, when it matters most, it is not. He taught us that, too, thirty-three years after his birth, up the road six miles from Bethlehem on a hill outside Jerusalem.  

In This Our Exile

I was sitting outside church last weekend, and I noticed two older boys bicycling around me.  They were both masked, and my eyes aren’t so strong without glasses, so I did not recognize them right off.  Then one of them stopped, put both his feet on the concrete, and said, “Hi Father, remember me from church?”  

Squinting, I could see the color of his hair under his helmet, and his eyes and forehead, and it was enough.  “Hi, Sean!” I said.  I’m pretty sure we both had big smiles under our masks as we felt the joy of renewed connection. 

But the comment made me sad.  It was a sign of the times that this young man who joined his family every week for Sunday worship up until March 15, 2020, would now wonder if his priest even knew who he was anymore.  “Remember me from church?”  I wondered how many church members could be asking this question now of their pastors or of one another. 

Because so many of our churches are now either closed for Sunday worship, or do so on a much more limited, physically distant, basis, I have been searching for an image from the Bible to help me interpret the meaning of these days in a way that will keep hope alive.  I think I found it in Israel’s experience of exile.

In biblical history, there was a significant block of time, estimated at 597 BCE to 537 BCE, when the people of Israel, after being defeated in war, were forcibly removed from Jerusalem, and exiled to Babylon.  From there, they experienced years of yearning, both for their homes, but more significantly for their Holy City, Zion (Jerusalem), where God dwelled.  Psalm 137 is written about this this time of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept as we remembered Zion.”  After giving voice to this pain of separation, the psalmist urges the people never to forget the holy city, saying, “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither; may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above all my delights.”  

I applaud people who have been able to find silver linings in this dark cloud of physical separation.  For some, their homes have become more spiritual places, “domestic churches,” as families and individuals make sacred space for video worship or other prayer.  Others tell me these months have been a time for deeper reflection on the meaning of life and heightened their desire to live for God.  Similarly, many scholars trace the current form of Jewish faith with synagogues and rabbis to their time of exile over 2500 years ago, when they had to keep faith alive without their temple.  Often, we grow through times of adversity.

Even with gains like these, I hope it does not get missed that there is a lot to miss. I hope we will not forget the goodness of handshakes, singing with full voice, coffee and doughnuts, and, mostly, the power of standing shoulder to shoulder with the People of God and realizing a deep mystical communion even with people we do not know. 

Will we get back to those days?  Will there come a time when faces once long-familiar become familiar again?  To paraphrase Psalm 126, when we return from our exile, will it be so good that we will think we are dreaming? As a way of keeping the dream alive, this Advent I intend to pine for those days like a Jerusalem left behind. 

A Question for Our Final Test

Fr. Charlie died on October 15, after celebrating 100 years of life two weeks before.  He taught me two classes during my seminary training, one on the 20th century German theologian Karl Rahner, and another with the impressive title, “Christian Anthropology,” which examined what human existence is like in the light of faith.  Honestly, he was not my favorite teacher.  I was unable to earn an A in either class.  But he was a character to remember, which I do as I look out my window at snow falling hard and steady, unseasonably, in mid-October.  

I remember being frustrated taking his first test. After studying what I thought were all the important facts, I failed to answer correctly a question which asked, “If a monkey sat in front of a typewriter randomly striking keys, what are the chances he would type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets?”  Apparently he mentioned that in class once in an attempt to show us just how unlikely it is from the viewpoint of physics that human life could have formed on our earth.  He liked science.

Fr. Charlie was most famous for his annual attempt to walk through a door.  Again, with his passion for science, he tried to show his first-year students how some miracles in the Bible could have scientific explanations.  Noting that all matter is more space than substance, because atoms and molecules have all that space between electrons, he said the same is true for human bodies and for doors.  So, is it theoretically possible for all the atoms and molecules in a person’s body AND all the atoms and molecules in a wooden door to align in such a way that a person could walk right through a locked door (John 20:19).  In an attempt to prove his point, he walked right into a door!  It was funny then, but even funnier three years later when my classmates and I heard a loud thud from down the hallway of the classroom building.  We all looked up, curious, and someone said, “Fr. Charlie’s trying to walk through the door again.” Indeed.   

As I said, he was not my favorite teacher.  I didn’t know why I needed to know about monkeys randomly striking a keyboard, and trying to show how Biblical miracles can occur according to the laws of science seemed to eclipse the brighter light of their spiritual truth.  His greatest impact on me came from something that took place entirely outside the classroom.

My prize possession when I began my seminary studies was my boom box.  Yes, I am dating myself.  It had a radio and dual cassettes so that I could dub one cassette from another.  If cd’s had been invented yet, I was too invested in my many cassettes to bother with them.  Then my boom box broke.  It wouldn’t turn on, which is a problem.  One of my classmates, sensing my anguish, said, “Take it to Fr. Charlie.” 

So, I took it to Fr. Charlie’s room, walking through the dark and mysterious wing of the faculty dormitory before knocking on his door.  I wouldn’t say he was happy to see me, but as the Lord heard the prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:3), Fr. Charlie heard me in my distress and invited me into his quarters.  There I saw all kinds of electronic gadgets.  Apparently his interest in theoretical science was accompanied by the more practical skill of actually knowing how to things work and how to make broken things work again.

He ran a few tests on my boom box and concluded that my AC power source was burned out but that he could solder the wires of my power cord to the spot where the batteries delivered DC power, and then it would work.  This was over 30 years ago, so the details are a little foggy, and I’m not sure even then I understood him.  But I knew that he was doing me a great favor, and sure enough three days later my boom box, fully operational, was sitting outside my door. He must have again failed to walk through a locked door. 

I don’t know how Fr. Charlie was eulogized at his funeral this week.  I’m sure he was praised for his life-long service to the intellectual formation of priests who went forth to serve people all over the world.  But I remember him for this one great act of kindness and generosity, doing what he could to help a hapless young man with a broken boom box. I wonder how often he did such things.  I wonder how often I will, and you will, do such things worth remembering.  That question will probably be on our final test. 

Feeling Good v. Being Good

Some years ago, I visited a man in the Dunn County Jail.  He was serving time, again, for starting a fight in a bar.  He shook his head, angry at himself and said, “It happens every time I drink too much.” 

Knowing that a pastor should probably have a better, gentler way of asking a follow up question, I nonetheless said, “Well, then why do you drink too much?”  I’ll never forget his response.  Looking me right in the eye, he said, “You know, Father, sometimes I just need to feel good.”

My first reaction was compassion. I understand that experience.  Fortunately for me, that need to feel good finds expression in less damaging ways.  It’s why I too often add a cream-filled long john to my gasoline bill at the convenience store, or why I “reward” myself by finding my way to a bag of chips after getting through a stressful day.  It’s why for years I was on-again/off-again with tobacco.  I’ve done a lot of things because feeling bad—empty, stressed, alone—seemed too much to bear in the moment. 

I’ve been remembering that conversation in the jail fairly often since our days of social separation began in March.  It seems that much of the continuing spread of our COVID pandemic is due to the fact that people are emotionally sick and tired of not having fun in their usual ways and so we see scenes of maskless crowds of people in bars, on beaches, at a giant motorcycle rally.  People want to feel good!

I understand the need to gather and be close.  I have been feeling the pain of distance.  I never knew that a simple affectionate elbow bump could feel so good! But it does, after weeks of no physical contact with anyone. 

So, what do we do with the need to feel good, when often what makes us feel good puts others and ourselves at risk?  It’s a question for our time, but it’s also a question for all times.  Too often, what makes us feel good is harmful—satisfying our greed, our lust, our cravings generally provide us with short-term good feelings but long-term wounds and addictions. 

A spiritual counselor once told me, “Everyone needs to experience pleasure, and so everyone will find a way to feel good.  But we can choose whether to do it in a wholesome or an unwholesome way.” 

One time I was driving to the home of a family who had kindly invited me for dinner.  I was running a few minutes late and was almost there when one of my favorite radio shows began.  I was conflicted! I really really wanted to hear the host’s monologue which often touched on spiritual topics with insight and humor.  I knew it would make me feel good to drive around for another ten minutes soak in his words instead of pulling into the driveway.  God’s grace held sway with me that night, however, and I was able to do the right thing by putting aside my need to feel good.  While I felt the sting of loss when I turned my radio off, I was also surprised at how quickly that feeling of loss was replaced by wholesome joy.  I knocked on the door with a light heart, lifted, I think, by the knowledge that I was acting in a way that made God proud of me.  Overcoming selfishness can be a pretty good feeling, it turns out.

Sometimes spiritually-oriented people can convince ourselves that a selfish action is OK with God because God loves us and wants us to feel good.  I would qualify that, however, by saying that God wants us to feel joy (John 15:11).  What I learned that night in the driveway, and countless times since, is that joy comes not from doing something to make myself feel good; it comes with the effort of actually being good.  Being good is harder than grabbing a beer or a bag of chips, but it gladdens the hearts of many, including our own.