Sunday, March 24, 2013

Seeking a Better Life

For four nights during the week before Holy Week, Father Jim Sichko from Texas spoke to over 1000 people in my church of St. Michael the Archangel in Cary, NC.  We have a very large parish, over 16,000 people. The church has daily mass, Saturday evening mass and five masses every Sunday.  Our services are blessed with the gift of an amazing music minister, Wayne Cushner and a very dedicated group of choir members.  I love going to mass. I've gone my whole life and I love the ritual.  I find it comforting.  I am also grateful for the gift of the Eucharist.  I've seen my church's faults and I've chosen to stay and work at change from the inside out. I'm blessed to feel this way. I know not everyone can understand. I am one of the lucky ones. I was born into this faith in which I feel so at home.  

Mass is an obligation for Catholics.  We are told that if we miss Mass without a legitimate reason, we have sinned.  Father Sichko began his introduction to the parishioners by telling them they were welcome to leave if they were at the Mass because of obligation and not because they wanted to attend.  I'm not sure if he had the church's blessing on that direction but I understood what he was saying; don't show up without an attitude of gratitude, embrace the gift, embrace the mystery.

How many times in our lives have we simply shown up physically to some event but didn't commit emotionally?  What we invest in our experience is directly proportional to what we receive from it.  How about school for an example to which we can all relate?  Everyone knows the amount of time and effort one puts into their education directly affects what one learns.  Yes it is easier for some than for others but that isn't the point.  If we aren't fully invested in the process we miss out regardless of whether or not the learning comes easily.  We may not only miss out on how much and what we learn from the classes but from our teachers, peers and the environment.

Catholic Mass is not an entertainment form.  Regardless of the music or the priest's personality, it is a very traditional ritual.  We stand, sit, and kneel, over and over.  I’ve heard it called "Catholic aerobics." The readings change and the hymns are different weekly but the words are always the same.  I can go to Mass anywhere in the world, and I have, and regardless of the language, I know most of what the priest is saying.  I tell you this because I understand how other, more contemporary fun services can attract people.  I can understand why some people come to mass out of obligation and not out of want and it is obvious when a church is filled with people who really would like to be somewhere else.  Many won't be singing, they vie for seats in the back of the church; they don't bother to say the prayers and they leave as soon as Communion is distributed.  I understand why Father Sichko gave permission to those unappreciative Catholics to leave. 

The people attending the mission were there because they wanted to be.  How could I tell?  People came early.  A half hour before the mission began, the church was almost full.  Everyone sang, they were still singing after Father Sichko had walked out of the service.  It was an awesome sound.  I stopped singing for a short time to just listen.  It was like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!  All those people singing a joyful sound.  Why, I wondered did so many people choose to spend four evenings here in this church?  What was of such value that they made an effort to attend?  Certainly, this is not the first event of its type.

I've never attended a traveling preacher's event.  Even living here in the heart of the Bible Belt, I've never gone to hear Billy Graham speak or Joel Osteen who regularly visits our area.  My only revival experience is from watching the movie Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster a "hundred" years ago.  I would hope that's not a good representation.  From the little I remember he was not a very upright person.  But, I can understand how one can get caught up in the experience.  I guess it is like the Super Bowl of faith.  It's exciting, all these people gathered in one place with a similar outlook, rooting for the same team.  My question is why are they here?  What is everyone looking for?  What do they hope to gain? People seem to be seeking something most of us cannot seem to find alone.

My mother was a great fan of Robert Schuler and the Crystal Cathedral.  Thousands of people attended his services and millions watched every Sunday.  Joel Osteen is very popular now.  His church is a former basketball stadium and holds over 18,000 people.  It is full every week and millions more watch his service from home.  You don't have to look to the media for popular preachers or venues.  Here in Cary alone we have other churches that attract large throngs of people each week.  It’s the same throughout the rest of the country.  They represent every denomination: Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Non-denominational, Muslim, etc.  Why?  Why are people coming together?  Is it simply for community or are they looking for something else?  And, why do they continue to return week after week, year after year?  Why did over 1000 people come to St. Michael the Archangel every night for four nights the week before Holy Week?   Was it because it was free?  Maybe they had nothing better to do?  No, I believe it was because we are all looking for something beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding, beyond our wildest imagination.  We are looking for that which will complete us.  We are looking for God. 

People came hoping.  They were hoping they would hear something that would inspire them to lead richer, fuller lives.  They wanted to know more about their faith with the hope that that would lead them to lives of more value.  They wanted to know what knowledge their faith has gathered over the last 2000 years that would bless them and their loved ones today and in the future.  Did they get that?  Did they enrich their lives and their faith?  Father Sichko had a very direct message, a simple one but not an easy one.  He told us to "live the gospel."  Have you read the gospels?  Have you read the words of Jesus Christ?  His lessons are very clear; care for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the suffering of this world.  Love at all costs, all the time.  Don't be attached to your material possessions and trust that God is always here to care for you.  Simple, but challenging mandates.  Father Sichko repeated these directives.  He was able to weave them around some very entertaining stories, some very humbling stories and at the end of the fourth night, he received a standing ovation.  His message seemed to reach everyone there.  It was a very inspirational experience.  The energy in the church was palpable.  It was exciting! I knew I was in a holy place with others who chose to be there.  No one I believed was there because of an obligation but solely because they wanted to be there. 

One of my newer affirmations is "I read something inspirational every night and motivational every morning."  For the four nights of Father's presentation I was inspired.  Listening to him was even better than doing my reading.  It was the difference between looking at a photo of a bowl of my favorite ice cream and actually being able to eat it.  I came looking for a way to enrich my life and to add to the blessings of my family and friends and perhaps some part of the world and I found it.  I found it in Father's reminder to "go live the gospel."  I know I'll need reminding.  I'm sure to find a reminder in my daily evening reading of the New Testament.  That, along with Father Sichko's lessons will sustain me, I hope for quite a while to come.  I only wish, and hope that some of those non-appreciative Catholics did show up on a night or two and they too were inspired, inspired to the point where they find themselves wanting to come to mass, not just showing up because they think they need to in order to escape the everlasting fires of hell but because something magical happened, something mystical and the veil that had hidden the blessings of their faith from them was pulled back and they can finally see the beauty, the gift of the Mass and especially of the Eucharist.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is God is a Feminist?

Affirmation: I believe that when the gifts of women are recognized and honored, the world is a better place. 

This week, the second week of March, 2013 the Catholic Church elected a new pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis.  It didn't seem to matter if you were a Catholic or not, the event dominated the headlines around the world.  World headlines are normally dominated by some dreadful disaster or horrible tragedy.  I found this focus on the election of a new the pope to be more uplifting and inspirational. The election only took two days and five votes before white smoke, the symbol announcing a new pope, rose above the Sistine Chapel.  Tens of thousands were there waiting in the rain for the news.  Curiosity was abundant.  There had been much speculation about who the new pope would be and now, we were to finally find out.  The questions were about whether or not he would be a Vatican "insider."  Would he be from Europe as were most of the former popes or would he be from another continent?  Would he be younger than popes of the past?  Would he possess a conservative or a more liberal theological perspective?  The questions and speculation were endless and went on for weeks.  There was only one question no one was asking.  Would the new pope be a man?

This same week of March there were at least two specials, one on 60 Minutes and one on Good Morning America about a new book that had just been released by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.  When asked if she was trying to reignite the feminist movement she said "yes."  She gave the statistic that only 4% of the Fortune 500 companies were led by women and that women still only made 70 cents to the dollar that men make.  "The woman's movement has stalled." she said.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, her book being the reason many attribute to the beginning of the woman's movement. 

Whether or not you consider yourself a feminist you cannot deny that the role of women here in the United States and in many civilized parts of the world, has changed.  Many would argue it has not been for the better.  Many would argue women have only begun to make inroads into being the dynamic influential presence they need to be in order to bring more balance and compassion into our universe.  It seems to be a topic with many emotional ties and not a simple one.  Women's roles in the Catholic Church have always been a topic of discussion and controversy.  Change comes very slowly to my church but with the election of Pope Francis, I have renewed hope. 

In the short time he has been pope, the one word that is repeated most often is "humility."  His first act after being elected was to ask the throngs waiting in the rain to see him and to hear him was to ask for their prayers.  Stories abound about his association with the poor, not just in name but in deed.  He cares deeply about his people, us the church.  His theology is conservative. There will not be any changes made to the church's stand on the sacredness of life from the womb to the tomb.  I can guarantee that.  But, perhaps with his humility he will be more encompassing of the role of women in our church and see them as not just holding a place of service but also deserving a place of leadership. I once heard someone say that Jesus Christ was one of the earliest feminists.  He promoted the ethical treatment of all people without regard to their status, race or sex. 

My thirteen year old grandson asked his mom if I was a feminist.  The word feminist was said with a tone of derision.  "Why" she asked. He told her it had been explained to him that feminists hate men.  Thank heavens for the wisdom of my daughter.  "Yes" she answered, "grandma is a feminist.  I am a feminist.  Your step-father and your grandfather are feminists."  She went on to explain that a feminist doesn't hate men.  A feminist promotes the well being of all people regardless of their gender.

I received the message at an early age that I needed to be responsible for myself.  I needed to be independent.  It was before the feminist movement but it was clear to me that I needed to find a way to care for myself. A married life, if I married, of total domesticity would tie me to the success or failure of another and of that relationship.  Many women have suffered devastating losses because they did not take any steps to create a life whereby they could care not only for themselves but perhaps for others that might come to depend on them. 

I clearly remember reading The Feminine Mystique.  It was a time before the Internet, before Oprah Winfrey and Doctor Phil. I had just had a baby and quit my teaching job (not in that order) when we moved to Norwich, NY, a town of 7000 people.  I knew no one and I was lonely. I was lonely and I couldn't figure out why I was struggling.  I had, I believed, everything I needed.  The baby was healthy, I was healthy.  My husband was kind and generous and we were beginning a whole new life.  Help!  I think if I had already read Ms. Friedan's book, I would have wondered if my sense of frustration was created because of it but I had not.  When I read it, I knew she had written some of it just for me.  I was not alone.  It gave me some comfort and a sense of hope. 

I read that most men today want their wives to work.  They want them to bring in another income.  The days of Leave it to Beaver, Dick VanDyke or even the more recent, Raymond are gone.  The main issue however is that women are still the main caregivers for the children and the home.  It's a heavy load and I don't have any easy answers for how to lighten the burden other than to choose a partner who will willingly do their share.  I am in awe of any single parent who manages not only to balance all their responsibilities but guides their children to successful, productive lives. 

I know there are young women out there who never think about the opportunities they now have as being hard won by women and men before them but they were hard won.  If it weren't for their efforts, we wouldn't have women physicians, scientists, politicians, and attorneys.  It needs to be remembered there are women in third world countries who are very aware of the opportunities available to women in other parts of the world and they can only dream about them.   

Sheryl Sandberg's book and Betty Friedan's book lead women to believe they can have it all.  I hope that's true.  I hope it's true too that with the installation of Pope Francis my church, the Catholic Church will finally recognize what it has been missing all these centuries.  They haven't uplifted at least half of their population, the women of their church so many of whom are keeping the faith alive and vibrant.  Yes, I am a feminist.  I'd like to see women priests.  Id like to see a woman pope.  I'd like to see women being treated with respect and dignity and women having the same opportunities as anyone else.  Who knows, if my wishes are granted maybe I'll even get to one day see a woman become president of the United States.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Savoring Joy

Affirmation: I savor all the joyful experiences of my life.

I have read that most people remember their negative or sad experiences better than they remember their positive, happy experiences. According to the article we have a tendency to dwell on the negative and sad and to barely notice the joyful experiences therefore, not fully absorbing them. The advice given was that we take more notice of the uplifting events; that we let them soak into our cellular structure by savoring them, not letting them slip by unvalued.

Recently, I adopted the tool of each morning writing out three joys experienced the day before.  The practice is helping me pay closer attention to what enhances the quality of my life.  I notice those things that make me smile and make a mental note.  Then by writing them out the next day  Im recording them not only on paper but in my heart. 

My mother-in-law turned 92 this year. Have you ever wondered what youd be like in your old age, or if youll even have an old age? (Thats a whole other topic.) My mom, Margaret is 90 this year.

My mother-in-law is named Yolanda. They both live independently and are lucky enough to live in adult communities that offer not only a myriad of services but easy access to community. They are also in very good health.  I visit my mom regularly.  Getting old is not for the faint of heart.  It can be a very difficult time of life.  I often wonder what that will be like for me.  I've been taking note of how different people approach what appears to be the same situation.  I'm taking notes with the hope that I will learn how to maintain my sense of joy and adventure.  Is it a deep abiding faith?  Is it cellular, once an optimist, always an optimist?  Is it being able to review your life and value, truly value, all you've accomplished?

My husband and I usually travel to see Yolanda for her birthday. I spend the time soaking in the joy that Yolanda eludes. She counts her birthday cards and reads each one to us and tells us about the people who sent them, if we don't already know them. If we do know them, she tells us about them anyway. She tells us how wonderful they all are. How kind and talented and smart they are. Its such fun to listen to her take pleasure in her family and friends. Shes one of the most non-judgmental, unconditionally loving people I have ever met. Ive been blessed by having her for a mentor and a friend. Ive learned so much from this woman who readily accepted me as her daughter simply because her son loved me.

We moved away from the New York area very soon after her first granddaughter was born. Melissa was six weeks old and we moved to a farm town five hours away. They must have been so unsettled by our decision. But, they never let on, neither she nor Sandys dad, Joe. They simply showed up any chance they got bringing home cooked meals and gifts galore. I was young. I was a little defensive about keeping my own space, my own house and I didnt fully appreciate what a gift I was being given.  Now, a grandmother myself I fully appreciate all she and Sandy's father did for us.

She now lives in Savannah. She moved there right before her 90th birthday. We drove her to the airport; she got on a plane and began a whole new life. I was in awe. I can only hope that when Im 90 I will have the gumption to make a lifestyle change.

There are so many lessons to learn about life from Yolanda. She has a deep abiding faith.  She loves people; they are usually good and kind and generous, according to her.  She's lived a rich life caring for her family and pursuing a career.  Her whole view of life is flavored with love: love of God, love of family and friends, love of memories, love of being alive each and every day.  Im sure you have people in your life from whom you too have learned a lot. But, one of the lessons I took away from sharing Yolanda's celebrations with her was how important it is to savor the joys of our lives and to absorb them. I believe it will color our attitude, our health, our quality of life not only now but for the rest of our lives and then maybe we too can be 90 or 92 or 100+ and giggle and enjoy all the wonderful moments and celebrations of our lives.