Tag Archives: generosity

Easter joy

Every year for Lent, my parish distributes a daily reflection booklet that begins with a “plan your Lent” section. We are encouraged to spend some time with God discerning which Lenten disciplines will help us grow closer to God. Over the course of the forty days, there are reminders to check back on our “plan” to see if we are on track or if the plan needs to be tweaked.

That booklet is followed by an Easter version, with daily reflections for the fifty days of the Easter season. But there is no “plan” involved.

I recently read an article that suggested we Catholics are very good at Lent—the whole world can see our ashes to start the season and we share openly what we are giving up, etc.

But how are we at celebrating Easter? Can the world see that something has happened which makes us incredibly joyful and celebratory? Are we different because of Easter?

God-faith-prayer

For most of my twenties, I lived in southern Virginia, a minority Catholic in a sea of Southern Baptists. A woman from work once took me to a revival, where the preacher spent a fair amount of time talking about Catholics. That seemed a bit odd to me because I could not recall ever hearing a Catholic priest talk about Southern Baptists.

This preacher wanted his audience to know that Catholics did not believe in the resurrection and were, therefore, not saved.

Afterward, I asked my companion why the preacher thought Catholics did not believe in the resurrection.

“Crucifixes,” she said.

What?

She explained that having crosses with the body of Christ still on them was proof that Catholics did not believe in the resurrection.

That memory returned to me as I pondered this article about how Catholics celebrate Easter and made me question my own response to the resurrection.

The disciplines of Lent are so clear—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But what marks the Easter season?

Reflecting on the past two weeks, I can honestly say that I have not been singing Alleluia every day, and I doubt that anyone would say I have been more joyful these past two weeks or that there is any discernible difference in me.

Why is that? And what would need to change to make this time more joyful?

Throughout the Easter season, we hear stories of the early Church community, about how Jesus’ disciples preached boldly and cured the sick. The Acts of the Apostles tells us how these super-excited Christians prayed together and cared for one another, sharing everything they had and being especially mindful of those most vulnerable among them.

Perhaps prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the disciplines of Easter, but instead of being done from a position of penitence, they are carried out in a spirit of freedom, joy and deep gratitude.

The early Christians were dramatically changed by Jesus’ resurrection; they embraced a completely new way of living. I wonder how open I am to a new way of living.

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Temptations

Thirty years ago, my co-worker and I were part of an evaluation team for a nonprofit organization in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. We were to spend a week there in mid-October, and we packed work and casual clothes—plus winter gear, since Winnipeg in October was as cold as mid-winter in Philadelphia.

Our evaluation team spent the first day in intensive interviews with the nonprofit’s staff and then the next three days meeting program participants. Part of each day involved time with the staff, and we got to know them fairly well in a short period of time.

On the third day, my co-worker confided in me, “I think I packed more clothes for this one week that the staff have in their whole wardrobes.”

I could see her point. She had brought at least two different outfits for each day—complete with shoes and purses—while the staff wore the same shoes every day and on the third day were wearing what they had worn on the first.

I was somewhere in the middle of this wardrobe continuum.

Later, when I moved to Winnipeg, the contrast became even clearer to me. The truth was that people who earned about as much money as I did bought fewer clothes. When I returned to the States after living in Winnipeg for a few years, all of my clothes fit into one small closet.

This memory came back to me the other day when James Neal invited his readers to reflect on modern-day slavery and to take a survey at End Slavery Now.

We begin Lent reflecting on the temptations of Christ in the desert and how those temptations appear in our lives. I think of the temptations as the accumulation of material goods, the desire for power and the worship of idols; and I could spend more than the first week of Lent gaining a deeper understanding into how these temptations infect and affect my life.

Each day this week, my Lenten reflection book has offered insight into different ways we might get hooked by the temptations and how cleverly those temptations may be disguised—tricky business dealing with evil.

As I moved through the survey at End Slavery Now, I started thinking of how much stuff I have and, even more importantly, why I have as much stuff as I have. I certainly don’t need my 75 scarves or 50 pairs of earrings. So why have I accumulated them? What is the attraction? The temptation?

Whatever things we collect—clothes, electronics, books, gadgets, etc.—Lent invites to reflect on the why of our collections.

The survey James Neal invited me to take raised my awareness of the human cost in the global market. It also invited me to greater awareness of my own attachment and enslavement to things and made me wonder how free I am. Could I lose my scarves and earrings and still be ok? Could I lose all my possessions? How attached am I?

Good questions for Lent.

God of abundance

I spent several years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, as a full-time volunteer, and for part of that time, I worked in an office downtown. My walking route to work took me past a shoe store a few blocks from my building.

Usually, I am not much of a shoe person, so the window displays offered only a passing interest.

Then one day, I noticed a pair of brown leather boots. They were ankle high, medium brown, with thick, cream-colored fleece rimming the tops. I could imagine the soft leather hugging my feet and how the fleece would keep snow out. From the first time I saw them, I loved them and knew I had to have them. I began to plot how I might make them mine.

The problem was that the boots cost nearly $200, and my monthly stipend was $50—and that had to cover my food, transportation, clothing and fun. I was living very simply, walking the three miles to work and packing a PB&J sandwich for lunch every day. Breakfast was oatmeal and dinner was usually rice and beans or homemade soup. I didn’t mind the simplicity of my life because I am frugal by nature. So why had these expensive boots caught my fancy? And why did I feel such a need for them?

Day after day I stopped by the window to stare at “my” boots.

My infatuation continued to grow as the days went on.

At my next monthly meeting with my supervisor, I told him about the boots and my compulsion to have them. Material things did not usually grab hold of me in this way, and I was honestly confused about the attraction of this particular pair of boots.

During that conversation, though, I had an “aha” moment and realized the boots had come to symbolize the things I was denying myself because of my limited income. As we talked, I came to see that I was adopting a worldview of scarcity. I explained to my supervisor how my God had always been so abundantly generous to me, and I rarely had the experience of “wanting.” But, there I was, coveting a thing.

abundance-God-Lent

This memory came back to me during Mass on Ash Wednesday.

Twice this week, I heard the Lenten journey compared to a space mission (pre-set time, limited activities, etc.). I wondered if astronauts use their time in space to look inward. Do they reflect on their actions and process the events of their lives to see if they need reconciliation? Do they set new goals? Do they seek a different perspective?

Preparing for Lent, I wondered if I could view Lent like a “space mission” and take a step back from life and gain a different perspective.

Perhaps the “boots” memory came back to me because it reminded me of the abundance of God. During Lent, I want to try to live out of abundance and not scarcity—faithful in prayer, fasting from negativity and generous in almsgiving.

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gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

Thankful every day

A big part of living in gratitude is noticing little events throughout the day that have a positive impact on us—and taking the time to register these small events as the gifts they are.gratitude-mindfulness-kindnessFor example, the other day, I received a check from a doctor I had seen two years ago. The accompanying letter said an audit showed they owed me a refund. Being somewhat skeptical, I called the billing department (I didn’t want to cash the check and then find I had actually enrolled in a Vitamin of the Month club). The billing department confirmed this check was legitimate.

“Merry Christmas to me,” I said to the billing department staff person. Yes, this was a gift, pure gift, and I was grateful. It was only $20, but it was an unexpected $20, something I didn’t have the day before.

As I drove to work soon after that call, I recalled the check, my response to the billing department staff person and my happiness at having received this unexpected gift. I added “unexpected gifts” to my litany of gratitude for the day, and reminded myself to be more mindful of other unexpected gifts throughout the day.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When I got to my office, I found a note taped to the door with a picture attached—just someone thoughtfully stopping by to say hi and to leave a little gift.

I allowed myself to feel the delight that welled up inside me, and the gratitude for this person’s thoughtfulness. Again, a small thing, but one that touched me because it was unexpected and because it was a random act of generosity.

Later that day, a volunteer came into my office to work with me on a project. This one-hour meeting would lead to her spending many more hours of follow-up work at home, all of which will strengthen our nonprofit organization. She embraces her volunteer work enthusiastically, happy to be able to use her skills to build up our nonprofit, and her commitment to our organization makes a big difference. I was grateful, thanked her, and added her to my litany of gratitude.

And so the day went. Seemingly little things adding up to make a big difference.

It can be easy to see what goes wrong in a day—the rude driver or the phone call that does not end in my favor or the volunteer who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. But, shifting the focus to what goes right and giving more energy to noticing the good things creates fertile ground for gratitude to grow.

It can be a subtle shift, but one that results in significant changes because we are more likely to see what we look for. If we only focus on what is going wrong, we cannot see what is going right.

Focusing on what is going right sets us on the path to seeing and receiving more good things—more things for which to be grateful.gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

 

 

gratitude-God-Examen

Living in gratitude

A friend posted this message on social media.gratitude-God-ExamenWhat if?

The question gave me pause, and I realized my life would be poorer by far. It is not that I am ungrateful; I am grateful. But do I express my gratitude every day? Especially to God? How often do I spend time just thanking God for all the good in my life?

When Jim was sick, I created a litany of gratitude, and every day I added to it. Nothing was too small to be included in my litany—a smile from a stranger, sunshine, the funny antics of the dog.

There were bigger things on the list, too— our faith, Jim’s excellent health insurance, living near a hospital with a cancer center and the generosity of friends and family.

I read the list to Jim every day, too, to remind him of all our blessings.

In those first days and weeks, when it felt that fear and anxiety might overwhelm me, I consciously sought blessings—something, anything, for which I could be grateful.

Jim’s death was imminent and God’s generosity was abundant. Those two realities co-existed.

I would often tell Jim about the day he got sick, because it was the day I started my litany. He had no recollection of that day or any of the days he was in ICU, but I would regale him with tales of the wacky things people said and did, which had not seemed funny when they happened but took on a comedic hue in the re-telling. I was grateful I could laugh at what had caused me so much anguish.

I lived in gratitude even though I knew I was on the verge of losing something precious—or perhaps because I was on the verge of losing something precious. Remembering my blessings helped me focus on God and gave me hope.

How could I not trust God when so many blessings were being poured out on me?

My awareness of God’s generosity was probably more acute during Jim’s illness than at any other time in my life.gratitude-God-ExamenAnd then Jim died, and I grieved. I got out of the habit of adding to my litany of gratitude and out of the habit of reciting it.

My litany of gratitude came back to me last weekend when I facilitated a Day of Reflection for a volunteer group. They are at the beginning of their year of service, and I wanted to offer them some tools to help them navigate the ups and downs of service and community living.

I shared with them my own volunteer experience in l’Arche and what I learned about expectations and letting go—two subjects that continue to pop up in my life. I encouraged them to pray the Examen, an Ignatian prayer that helps keep us moving in the direction of God and gratitude.

God continues to pour abundant blessings on me, and I want to be more mindful of thanking God every day for my blessings
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envy-vulnerability-trust

Envy

We took my mom’s car when we went up north a few weeks ago; it is a classic “low mileage, only driven to church and shopping” elderly person’s car. As I adjusted the mirrors, I was aware that the blind spot on the driver’s side was a bit different from the blind spot in my car, and I made a note to pay attention.

A few days after that trip, the idea of blind spots came back to me—not the car kind but the psychological sort. I had been reflecting on a conversation from earlier that day; I had been criticizing someone’s behavior. In replaying my words, though, I realized I was actually envious.

It was an epiphany.

I pride myself on being able to accept life as it is, on being content with what I have. But, I now see that this has been a blind spot, and I am not as content as I like to think—at least in some parts of my life.envy-vulnerability-trustOur brains are predisposed toward patterns (or so says the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon) so once our brains register something new, we are naturally more inclined to see this thing again.

My first awareness of being envious happened a few months ago, and I was surprised to recognize this trait in myself. But now, a few months later, I can see much more clearly that envy has long been part of my life. It was probably there all along, but I was blind to it.

Now that my eyes have been opened, though, I am quite aware of how often I think and say things that betray my idealized self-portrayal.

And upon reflection, I see past times when I thought I was merely being observational, but really I was envious.

I remember one incident from college that I now see in a different light. I went to a Catholic college run by Augustinian Friars who take a vow of poverty. Fr. John was my confessor. He was smart, kind and compassionate. And he was a frequent traveler—to Florida over Christmas break or Rome on spring break or someone’s shore house in the summer or….

“My goal,” I told him, “is to be as poor as you are so I can see the world on someone else’s dime.” He laughed. At the time, I thought I was merely being observational (and perhaps witty); now I can see that I was envious.

Ironically, I have traveled the world on other people’s money. I have been showered with an abundance of opportunity, generosity and kindness. And I am deeply grateful.

Yet, here I was the other day, grousing about someone getting a workshop paid for—even though a month earlier, I had attended a workshop that someone else paid for. Talk about a blind spot!

Now that this blind spot have been revealed, I can be more attentive to the insecurity that causes me to be envious and take steps toward being more grateful and content.envy-vulnerability-trust

God-generosity-gratitude

The invitation of memories

Every Good Friday, I participate in the Living Stations at my church, an adaption of the Stations of the Cross that incorporates eye-witness accounts from those Jesus met along the way to Calvary.

My role is Pilate’s wife, and I share the story of my dream about Jesus and how Pilate was conflicted about condemning Jesus.

The presentation can be very moving and emotional as different characters talk about their encounters with Jesus.

This year, the words spoken by Simon of Cyrene brought back a memory.

Simon talks of how he thought he had bad luck because he was just minding his own business when a guard pressed him into service. But then Jesus looks at him with gratitude and he realizes it was really a privilege to carry the cross.

I was taken back thirty-four years to the day a woman moved into the guest house where I was the hospitaler. I was opposed to her moving in because she had cerebral palsy and was  difficult to understand and very unsteady.  Truthfully, I was afraid to live in the same house with her.

She did not know I objected to her moving in.

Like Simon, I thought it was my bad luck, but in the end, living with Margie was my good luck. She taught me so much about God and myself and the world. She taught me about fidelity, hope, persistence, expectations and acceptance.God-generosity-gratitudeI believe that when memories resurface, they contain something beyond the original event, some message for today. So, what message was God sending me? What invitation was being extended to me by this memory?

At first glance, many things can seem like bad luck, like I am getting the short end of the stick. But with time and distance, what had once seemed unfortunate turns out to be quite fortunate.

Is God reminding me of that lesson because I have been on the verge of forgetting it? Or am I in the midst of something that I am thinking of as bad luck—and God is reminding me that one day I will look back on this as a time of good luck?

Back to the memory of Margie moving in with me. That first evening, she typed a one-page thank-you letter and slipped it under my bedroom door. Her note expressed her gratitude for my generosity. If only she knew!

As I read her words, I was filled with humiliation at my lack of generosity. I had aggressively and vocally opposed her moving in, and was quite angry that my wishes had not been respected.

But in that moment when I felt such humiliation, I was also given the gift of humility.

God showed me that my resistance was just a symptom of my fears and that my fears were unfounded.

Like Simon of Cyrene, I felt “pressed into service,” and it was a moment, an event, that changed my life direction and moved me one step closer to letting go and trusting God.

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