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Are you brave enough to give without conditions?

This  morning I came across a post over at Momastery that really stopped me cold. I mean, I do my little charitable stuff here and there, but I have never done anything anywhere close to as generous as what you’ll read about in the post below. I hope someday maybe I’ll have the courage, the trust, the faith to take that leap and giving without counting the cost — not on a calculator, not in my head, not in my heart. Because a lot of times I think we’re still counting the cost even when we’re trying our hardest to be generous. It’s hard to break that hold, to give and not register it somewhere. Read more

Ash Wednesday: The start of something beautiful

I am going to admit right up front that I am a huge fan of Lent, always have been. It’s my kind of season. Perhaps that makes me weird, but it’s true. For me Ash Wednesday is a new beginning and Lent a time of possibilities.

From the moment the ashes are smeared on my forehead — “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — I feel renewed. Does that sound odd considering the penitential nature of this season? For me it makes perfect sense. I like the idea of focusing on where I’ve fallen down, where I could do better, where I need to strip away the unnecessary stuff to get to the heart of the matter: God.

Sure, my fasting often involves giving up sweets — which doesn’t seem all that significant to some — but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about changing habits, removing obstacles, getting down to our spiritual core in hopes of changing our lives for the better not for 40 days but forever.

I know that’s putting an awful lot of pressure on Lent — and myself — to perform, and maybe that’s why I often struggle with my Lenten promises (see my previous post, “Lowering My Lenten Expectations” HERE), but I really believe each and every time Lent rolls around that this year can be different. And one of these years I’m going to be right. I also firmly believe that even if I don’t make monumental changes in my life over the course of the 40 days, I probably do make minor changes that go unnoticed but strengthen my faith life in subtle ways.

So…I start today. I am filled with high hopes for the journey we have just begun, hope that by Lent’s end I might find myself at least a few steps closer to God. But I’m going to need all the support I can get, so I’m looking around for resources and hoping to share them with you along the way.

For starters, here are some places you might like to look:

— Busted Halo has a high-tech Lenten calendar posted HERE. You can click on each day as it arrives (no clicking ahead allowed) for suggested practices related to fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Today, in addition to reminding us to fast and abstain from meat, the calendar suggests giving some time to someone you know who is lonely. An added bonus of using the Fast Pray Give calendar at Busted Halo? You’ll have a chance to enter a contest to win an iPad, in addition to smaller prizes, like today’s “The Spirituality of Fasting” by Msgr. Charles Murphy. Great book, by the way.

Catholic Relief Services has an email service connected to its Operation Rice Bowl project, with reflections to help us remember those who have less and to focus our own Lenten fasting on something bigger than ourselves. If you’re not doing Operation Rice Bowl this year, try to pick up a bowl and calendar at your parish and join in.

— Mike Hayes over at Googling God is hosting a 50-Day Give Away. A few days before Lent, he started giving away one of his possessions every day. I had hoped to join him in this inspiring endeavor, but, as I told him, I realized that my effort would have had to be the 40-Day THROW Away because no one would want the stuff I need to shed from my life. Still, I plan to follow his lead, at least in part, and find some things I can strip out of my life and offer to someone else. You’ve been warned.

— Of course, you can follow my other blog posts over at OSV Daily Take, where today I’m taking a survey on whether people include Sundays in their Lenten fast. Head over there and voice your opinion on this critical issue. (For the record, I don’t count Sundays in my Lenten fast, although I try not to overdo it on the stuff I gave up.)

— Finally, I’ll be reading daily reflections in my Magnificat Lenten Companion 2011, which is sold out online, I believe, but may still be available at your local Catholic bookstore.

I had actually considered giving up some element of Facebook use as part of my Lenten fast. I couldn’t give it up completely because it is part of my job to be there (and here). But, as I reflected on that possibility, I realized something big: Facebook has become a really important part of my spiritual life. Does that sound crazy? It’s true. I am blessed to be FB friends with so many wonderful people, so many wonderful writers, and they continually amaze me with their own blog posts and the links they provide to other powerful spiritual writers. As some of those posts and links come up, I’ll share them here.

Today, for example Brother Dan Horan, O.F.M., over at Dating God has a wonderful Ash Wednesday post, courtesy of Thomas Merton. Check that out HERE.

And Elizabeth Scalia has a great post full of Lenten links over at The Anchoress on Patheos. She also posted her Ash Wednesday “homily” at the Catholic portal of Patheos. She had me at “Moonstruck.” Go HERE and you’ll see what I mean.

Much more to come in the days ahead. Enter the desert joyfully. Wear your ashes full of hope. It is a new day, a new season, a time of new possibilities.

Lowering my Lenten expectations

Lent is one of those seasons that always begins with the best of intentions and rapidly goes downhill, at least that’s how it usually plays out for me.

I plan to pray more and eat less and find creative ways to make my favorite time in the Church year meaningful for my children. Unfortunately, the ashes hardly have time to settle into the wrinkles on my forehead before I’m feeling like I’ve already failed.

I think maybe part of the reason is because I tend to set my sights too high, forgetting that, like a baby learning to walk, I’m going to have to take a lot of wobbly first steps before I can run full steam ahead. Lent is a time to put one foot in front of the other as I hesitatingly toddle toward the rich spiritual experiences I know are waiting to be had.

I guess I need to think about Lent the way I tell Noah to think about piano: You don’t get to be an expert by simply sitting close to the lesson books. You have to work at it a little every day in order to see true progress. And so it is with God. We can read books about God, even write books about God, but until we put everything away and spend regular quiet time with God, we’re going to have a hard time getting out of the starting gate.

Somehow that concept seems a lot easier to understand when I’m explaining it to my children. As they face their own Lenten challenges, I remind them that if they fail one day, they can just get up, dust themselves off, and start over. I remind them that Lenten sacrifices and promises are not about making us feel bad but about clearing out a space in our lives where God can squeeze in. Big rewards can often spring from small actions.

I remember going to a birthday lunch with some friends during Lent a few of years ago. When it came time for dessert, I quietly ignored the chocolate cake sitting in front of me, hoping that no one would notice. Someone asked me if I wasn’t eating the cake because it was Lent, never mind that half the women present were skipping dessert because of various diets. My friend went on to say how silly it is to give up insignificant things like sweets for Lent when there are so many important things I could be doing to make a difference in the world.

Point taken, even if it was through gritted but smiling teeth. And yet, as I mentioned to my lunch companion that day, while we are called to pray and help the poor during Lent, we are also most assuredly called to fast and sacrifice. That is not some antiquated notion without meaning in our modern lives. Giving up a daily bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream or a nightly glass of wine might not seem like much of a sacrifice on the surface, but if those small actions inspire us to contemplate Jesus’ own sacrifice for even one moment, if they make us empathize with those who have less than us, then what may appear silly to others is in reality spiritually significant to us.

As I contemplate what I’ll do for Lent this year, my promise is simple: Make the sacrifices and the actions meaningful even if they are not monumental. And if, as in year’s past, we get to the end of Lent and realize there are only a few lonely quarters clanking around in our Rice Bowl because we forgot to make regular donations throughout the 40 days, we’ll write a last-minute check to make up the difference and bring it with us to church on Holy Thursday, taking one more wobbly baby step in the right direction.

A Thanksgiving Day to remember

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I got to thinking back to the first Thanksgiving Dennis and I spent as a married couple. We had moved to Austin just a few months before and decided to give thanks in a different way that year. So today, I am rerunning a favorite Life Lines column in honor of the holiday and in recognition of all those folks who will not sit down to a feast of food on Thursday. Here it is:

In the past, whenever the dolls and Legos would overflow our kids’ toy bins, we’d give things away to charity. We figured it was a good way to do something nice, clean our closets, and teach our kids the importance of giving to others all at the same time.

Ever since Noah turned 2, he knew that many of his toys would eventually go to “the poor.” We never really put a face on “the poor,” but whenever a toy was conspicuous by its absence, Noah would ask if they had it.

We thought we were teaching him a valuable lesson in Christian charity. Then one night he took the globe off the coffee table, spun it around and randomly put his finger on Egypt. “Is this where the poor live?” he asked.

I tried to imagine what was going through his head. I had visions of hungry children on the other side of the world opening boxes filled with Teletubbies and beeping plastic steering wheels.

And so began our quest to teach our kids just how many people are desperately poor, not just on the other side of the globe, but on the other side of town. We tried to find ways to drive the point home: a brown bag full of cans from our pantry at Thanksgiving, a gift for the Giving Tree at Christmas, an Easter basket for a needy child. They were all lovely sentiments – and important in their own ways — but hardly enough to convey what the Gospel challenges us to do.

The first Thanksgiving after Dennis and I were married we volunteered to serve breakfast to hungry men and women who didn’t have plans for a home-cooked meal, or a home for that matter. A woman who ran the Catholic Worker House was happy for the extra hands and told us to be at the day labor corner at 7:30 a.m. to hand out hard-boiled eggs, tortillas and hot coffee.

The woman was known around town as “The Egg Lady” because she was out there with her eggs not just on Thanksgiving but every day. She drove homeless people to AA meetings, let them shower at her house, gave them clothes and offered them prayers. She reached out a hand where many would recoil in fear. She told us how one man she’d been helping stole her car. She said it without a hint of anger, without an ounce of regret. Then she boiled more eggs and went back out to the streets.

Now that is a lesson in Christian charity. Talk about living the Gospel. It’s not nearly as neat and easy as throwing some canned corn in a paper bag. In fact it’s the kind of charity that I find downright scary. But it’s exactly the kind of charity we need to embrace if we’re going to teach our kids about compassion and our duty to make sure people have eggs and coffee and a generous serving of dignity and respect.

Maybe this year we’ll hold onto the extra Elmos and try a different approach – like talking about the fact that there are poor people right here, that they’re just like us except they don’t have a way to pay for food or doctor visits or heat during the winter. Bags of food and boxes of toys are a good start, but they won’t end poverty. We end poverty, and not just with a checkbook but with a change of heart. Maybe that’s a naïve idea, but people like The Egg Lady put it to the test every day.

Unfortunately there are plenty of opportunities to test our mettle. Spin the globe. Put your finger down. Anywhere. That’s where the poor live.

Originally published in Catholic New York, November 2001. If you would like to learn more about the real “Egg Lady,” click HERE.