Health and Holiness Don’t Come Easy

 

” … inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.”                 – Matthew 25:34

It’s no secret to those who know me that I don’t like to cook.  I never have.  Granted, this a bit of a challenge since for the past almost 20 years my sole job has been a housewife.  If you were to write a job description for the role of housewife, I think most people would include cooking and preparing meals as a significant part of that job description. I should clarify here that’s it’s also not that I can’t cook.  When I prepare food it comes out pretty good most of the time, and sometimes even really good.  It’s that my heart just really isn’t into cooking, so I try to avoid it except on those days when I have nothing better to do.  And sometimes a trip to the dentist is a more appealing thing for me to do than cook, so I think you can appreciate how little I enjoy it.

While it’s rarely my first choice to cook, it is however, a priority of mine to eat!  I love to eat!  Especially junk food.  All the packaged, processed foods that get all the bad publicity these days?  I {heart} them.  Deeply. 

The thing is, as scientists and nutritionists tell us, those foods really aren’t good for us and have no redeeming value.  The vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that are necessary to human health and long life are severely lacking in these foods.  So we are advised to include them in our diets only rarely, if ever.

In Matthew’s Gospel today,  Jesus provides a similar caution about our eternal health.  Just as many of the perfectly legal and totally enjoyable (but often harmful) foods in the American diet are not advised for health and long life, many of the perfectly legal and totally enjoyable things about the American way of life (egocentricity, promiscuity, money-grubbing) are not advised for our eternal health. Today, Jesus warns us that the life we live here on earth –this brief, worldly life– is in many ways a preview of what our eternal life will center around based on the choices we make while here.

So, while I love  Suzy Q’s and Girl Scout cookies (I’m looking at you, Caramel Delights), I must admit that my health suffers from them when they aren’t taken in small doses. (I say this with confidence as I single-handedly stuffed my face with a box of Caramel Delights over the course of an afternoon and evening this past week.  I mean, I had to off-set all that Lenten fasting with something, right?)

The point is this: most of us enjoy things that are not good for us.  Most of us don’t willingly choose a life of healthy eating, nor do we choose a life of holiness and selflessness.  But most of us also desire to live a long, healthy life and I think most of us–regardless of what we believe comes after this earthly life–would like that time to be spent without pain and suffering.  But our choices matter, and we must train ourselves to desire what is right and good for us in order to get the outcomes we desire…in this life, and the next.

Reflect:  What is the one most unhealthy or unholy practice, habit or addiction in my life right now? In what ways do I rationalize spending time doing this thing I love even though I know it isn’t good for me?  What is one change I can make to put more distance between me and that unhealthy or unholy habit in my life?

Pray:  Lord, thank you for loving us so much you only want what is best for us.  You know our human weaknesses. Though you desire for us to be healthy and holy, you never force us to be.  Help strengthen us to stand firm against our weaknesses.  Make your desire for us, our desires, too! Give us the wisdom to begin building the foundations of healthy and holy habits both in this world and the next. Amen.

 

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Get Your Hands Dirty

“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish…”  -Isaiah 58:6

The man was hard to miss as he came closer to my station in the food line. Not because of his disheveled shirt, tinged and dirty at the edges, nor because of his scuffed and worn sneakers with tattered laces. What was hard to overlook on that hot summer day as he shuffled through the line of our mobile food pantry was his urine-stained khakis. A grown man, no more able to hide his “accident” than a kindergartner in the front row of a school choir concert.

But the line for the food pantry begins to form early in the day, so it was quite possible he’d been waiting in line for over two hours. And line placement is critical because the further back in line you are, the greater your chances for many or all of the food to run out.

And he clearly needed the food.

So he had to choose: Degrade himself by soaking his pants? or go hungry?

That’s all I remember of the man.

Well, almost all I remember. I hadn’t been helping with the food pantry very long at that time, and I was still nervous about how to interact with “those people” on the receiving side of the table. I didn’t always know what to say and I sometimes ended up trying a little too hard. With this man, the only thing I kept thinking over and over was don’t stare at his pants, don’t stare at his pants, don’t stare at his pants. And as he got closer to my food station, I worked hard to hold steady and look at his face, though his eyes were  cast down. And then, the moment I’d been waiting for happened as he stopped at my station for the food (was I at the fruit table that day? I can’t recall), he looked up and met my eyes briefly and then cast them down again.

I hope he was relieved to find my eyes there waiting to meet his gaze instead of staring at his embarrassing stain. And I hope the warm smile I tried to flash quick enough for him to see, was in fact seen by him. I’ll never know because the moment was over so quickly, and he never said a word. I don’t know if I made any kind of an impression on him at all. But, I know he made one on me. Not for being a grown man who wet himself, but for having the courage to persevere despite how completely exposed he must have felt.

Like Jesus on the Cross.

Mother Teresa has said about the poor that “each of them is Jesus in disguise.” I sometimes wonder how that can possibly be, but when I think of that man, I somehow understand it better.

Today we are reminded through the prophet Isaiah that while fasting from material things like food and Facebook are good and honorable, the fast that God longs for us to do most is to give up our time to clothe in dignity “those people” who have less than us. “Those people” who suffer with impossible decisions every day like whether they should go hungry or relieve themselves in private.

It’s been a long time since I’ve worked the mobile food pantry line, and there is not one in our area now. But I heard God calling me through Isaiah today, reminding me it is time to “get my hands dirty” again and go out and serve “those people,” so I can better serve Him.

Reflect: What is one step you could take today to bring yourself a little closer to the poor in your community? If you don’t already give money, could you find a charity to support? If you already give of your money, could you give a little of your time to serve? If you already give of your time to serve, could you give your friendship? We can never out-give God. How is God inviting you to practice more generosity today?

Pray: Generous God, we know all good and perfect things come from you. Help us to imitate your generosity, your kindness, your love, and compassion to those who need it most in our community. Open our eyes to those who are most in need and inspire our hearts to make time to love and serve them. Amen.

 

Sacred Cows

As you already know, my Lenten journey this year is about “giving up” my excuses. The first excuse that came to my awareness was in regards to my overall health. I realized I could no longer “cheat” my way to good health knowing full well what every American is taught from birth  (but many, like me, continue to deny in the “land of plenty”):  that in order to lose weight I must make smart food choices (diet) and I must move my body more (exercise).

So I had to take a personal inventory: Did I really want to change? Yes. Was I willing to change?  Yes. Was I willing to let go of old habits? Um…I think so…where are we going here?  Was I willing to let go of my idols? Wait….what? How did this get religious all of a sudden? I thought I was trying to look like a super model. Or at least a local ad model. Or at least the best looking girl in the room (when I’m the only one it). How did this get to be about idols?

But my heart knew.  And it did what it always does.  It waited.  It waited for my head to catch up. And eventually my head did.   I realized that if I looked at the past three or four years, I’d worked out pretty consistently in some way or other for all those years,  but, I’d also successfully lost and then gained and then lost and then gained.  Could idols have something to do with it?  In all those years there was ONE thing I could think of that I had absolutely refused to give up.  That ONE THING was now on my heart, and in my head, so I knew it was time for me to let go.  It was the “sacred cow” I’d never been able to let go of  in all my other attempts to get healthy.

And its name is Diet Coke.

And it pours most deliciously from a fountain out of any McDonald’s restaurant.

And it only costs $1 (a dollar!) regardless of how big or small you want it.

(Large, please!)

And I have been addicted to it for over a decade.

ADDICTED.

I know it may seem laughable that I would think that giving up Diet Coke (it’s Diet, for crying out loud!  ONE CALORIE!) would  be a significant step towards good health.  (Though there are lots of articles to say it is a significant step).   The truth is, an addict is an addict. It really doesn’t matter what we’re addicted to. Sure, some things are arguably much more harmful than others, but the behavior is really the same.  In fact, I would argue that the behavior itself is the most harmful of all!  When you look at the definition of an addict: to devote or surrender (oneself) to something habitually or obsessively, you can see right there that anything we’re addicted to, other than God, is breaking the first commandment.  I had been addicted for years.

So…with a deep breath, much prayer, a hard look at my lifestyle, (and the reality of having just turned 40), I decided that I needed to stop drinking Diet Coke.  I knew it was my “sacred cow.”

You see, when I think of  “sacred cows,” what I think of are false idols.  And I realized that not only was Diet Coke  a “sacred cow” for me  in the figurative sense —something immune from question or criticism–every time I’d tried to get serious about my health before, but it was also a sacred cow in the Biblical sense, something that takes your focus off of God.  I specifically think of the Biblical story of Moses and Aaron. Remember that one?  Where Moses went up the mountain to talk to God and receive the commandments, while Aaron, his brother, stayed down with the people who grew increasingly doubtful and impatient, so he built them a cow out of gold to worship?  (Exodus 32: 1-35)

Yeah.  It seems so ridiculous in its ancient context that it’s easy to think it has no meaning for us to today.  I mean worshipping a golden cow?  Laughable!

Until you realize that Diet Coke is your golden cow, and you’re a Diet Coke junkie.

Then it’s not so funny.

Then climbing that mountain for God seems really, really hard.

I can finally write about this because it’s been over a month now since I’ve had a Diet Coke or soda of any sort.  And while that may seem like no time at all, those who know me know what a lo-o-o-ong time that is.

And no one is more surprised that I could do it than me.

Even more surprising to me is the fact that I really don’t miss it.

Or at least very rarely.

I have made some other changes, too.  I’m doing this awesome Jillian Michaels workout every day, and out of respect to my last year’s Lenten sacrifice, I eat with more self-respect, consciously making better choices (most of the time).

I wish I had more news than that. You know, something real impressive like, I lost 10 pounds as a result!  But, as of right now, I haven’t.  (An unimpressive 3 pounds?  Yes.  An inspiring 10 pounds?  Not so much).

Even so, something else has changed. Something even more important, I think, and that is this: I’m focusing on the change, and I’m letting the results be whatever they’re going to be.  I trust they will come.  Not in my time frame, but in God’s.

So why am I telling you all this? Is it because I think you should feel guilty for going to McDonald’s or drinking Diet Coke? Of course not.

But I do think you need to look at any “sacred cows” that may be getting in the way of something you say you really want.   (Exodus 24:3)

And then take another look at just what’s stopping you from getting there.

Because no matter how hard you try?

You cannot climb the mountain while holding on to your sacred cow.

My 12-Step Lenten Journey

Despite living all of my 40 years on earth as a Catholic, I tend not to “give up” things for Lent.

You may have noticed that whenever I talk about what I “gave up” for Lent I always put “give up” in these cute little quotation marks like this: “give up “, see?   That’s because my Lenten prayer is not just about a 40 day fast.  At least not anymore.   Sure, for years it was like that.  I’d give up candy, or soda, or a favorite dessert for 40 days…or as long as I could stand…or until I forgot.  But that’s not how I “do” Lent anymore.

Four years ago, I listened to my priest as he encouraged us to not just “give up” some THING for Lent, but to make it matter.  He said that if we were going to “give up” something for Lent, the best thing to “give up” was our sins!  Right then and there, my Lenten prayer changed from my telling myself what I would (try to) “give up” to my asking God what he would like to see changed in me.  In that moment, Lent was changed forever from my “giving up” my favorite things, to my offering God my willingness to change.  And what a difference it has made!

By that count, I can tell you what my last 4 Lents have involved “giving up”:

2010:  Pride

2011:  Judgment and Jealousy

2012:  Negative self-talk/image (i.e. Loving myself)

2013: Excuses

Looking at this  list, you’d think I’d be just about near-perfect by now,  wouldn’t you?  (Ha!)

Of course, through this process, I quickly learned (SPOILER ALERT!) that “giving up” my sins  really needed to be more than a 40 day undertaking.

Now, as a result, Lent is less about spending 40 days in the desert and more about beginning the process that every “12-stepper” already knows.  It means admitting that  I,  myself,  am powerless over the very things I attempt to “give up.” 

Yep.

Pow.Er.Less.

That’s so much nearer the truth!  I have no more power over my pride now that I did in 2010, no more power over my judgments and jealousy now that I did in 2011, no more power over my negative self-talk/image than I did in 2012, and no more power over my own excuses (for doing things I shouldn’t and not doing things I should) than I did when Lent began this year.

So, why bother then? you may be thinking.  Great question!  And the answer is this:  because while I don’t have power, I DO have awareness.

Awareness of how I am weak.  Awareness of how I am imperfect.  Awareness of how I.am.not.God.

And, though it may not sound like it…that is Good News!

The even better news is that, for those who are able to take that “first step” and are fully honest with themselves  about their powerlessness, there is a second step.  And that step is that with my new (and usually painful) awareness:  I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.  (Because, trust me, as soon as you get honest enough with yourself to see all that exists inside of you that you cannot control…you would quickly be headed for the loony bin, if it weren’t for this second step!)  And  that sanity comes for me in the form of compassion, which God readily puts on my heart, for those who “suffer” the same weakness.

The best way I can think of to describe this process of awareness and compassion is like a river gently washing away the roughest edges of a stone.   Over time, as the “waters” of God’s mercy flow over me,  I find myself, bit by bit, letting go.  And then I take the next step.  And then the next.  And then the next. Until finally you can use your experience to help others in the best possible way:  you can say, I understand what you’re going through.  I struggle with it, too.  I’m here for you.

That’s the best example I can find of what Lent is for me: a lifelong 12-step program whereby God shows me the places in my heart where I need to improve, and I do my best to follow.  And, just like the washed-out drunk who has the courage to get real honest about their weakness with alcohol,  I’ve come to understand that while my journey may begin by my “giving up” something, it’s a decision I have to continue to make day after day after day for the rest.of.my.life.

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fasting from, say, Diet Coke or M&M’s for 40 days to help yourself experience some of what Jesus suffered in the desert.  I’m just saying that, to my understanding, it wasn’t just suffering for 40 days with no food and water that changed Jesus.

It was his choosing not to succumb to his temptations.

And doing that didn’t just change him for 40 days.

It changed him forever.

A Technology Fast… I’ll Call Him John

For a little over a week now, I’ve been taking what I believe is a Lenten fast from technology.

To be fair, I can still browse using technology  without much difficulty.  But, this has a bit of a one-way mirror effect for me.  I can browse out in Bloggyville and throughout cyberspace, but I’m almost forced to abstain from corresponding with it, or sharing my thoughts.   In effect, I’ve been the equivalent of “struck mute” in the technological arena. In other words…I can really only “listen” to you, and can’t really “say” much in reply.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, this fast has NOT been voluntary.

Regrettably, a family member (who shall remain nameless) spilled apple juice on our laptop over a week ago.  This resulted in keys that very inconveniently now type two letters at a time (and sometimes even perform random functions!) with the touch of only one key.  Were it not for our family Christmas gift of an iPad (or some serious patience with editing, I’d not be able to write you at all).

Ju6st so you6 know what I+’m talki=ng abou6t, I+’ll leave thi=s sentence u6nedi=ted.

See what I mean?

And for added fun, when I try to delete something, I get this:  33333

Currently, we are working on trying to figure out the best way to replace the keyboard.    Until we can figure out the most cost-effective cure for us (yes, we are even running the old keyboard through the dishwasher),  I am mostly silent in cyberspace.  I trust there is a reason for this, though I find it incredibly frustrating to have been rendered “mute” in the season of Lent.  I think of Zechariah and his being struck mute until his wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to and named their son John (the Baptist), as God directed.

Right now, I’m not sure what this forced “silence” is trying to tell me, but when I figure it out, I promise I’ll share it with you.

In the meantime, until my technological “voice” is returned to me, I ask that you head on over and visit  my good friend, Anne at Making Room for God.  She has been kind enough to share her insights and observations with all of us daily as a Lenten Reflection.  So, please go on over and visit her, and I’ll be sure to let you know when all my technical difficulties finally cease.

Until then, I promise you all that if I give birth to anything new in the days to come, I’ll share the news.

And, of course, I’ll name the newborn John.

“Do Not Judge!” (Oh,But I Do…)

The older I get, the more I understand that any rule I am given out of concern for my own well-being, is worth taking a second look at.  Especially because such rules, at first glance, are ridiculously easy to understand, (i.e., go on green, stop on red), but many more, while just as easy to comprehend are far more difficult to carry out  (i.e., while I understand a speed limit of 55 mph means that 55 mph should be my maximum speed for the safety of myself and those around me, I very often go 60 mph because that is the speed that I deem will keep me “safe” from getting a speeding ticket).   Such rules, then, as we grow more confident and comfortable with the intention of them, quickly become something we dub to be “rules of thumb” rather than “hard and fast” rules (i.e., don’t drink and drive).

Many of the rules that Jesus gives us can begin the same way:   easy to understand, but difficult to follow.  Most recently, I came across this passage in my Bible study class on the Gospel of Matthew:  “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1).  And upon reading this, I was hit with two thoughts:  Yikes!  That sounds impossible!   and almost at the same time:   Thank goodness I don’t judge people as much as some people I know!  (Read that sentence again if you missed the irony of it).

The truth is that both of my reactions to this rule are just that:  reactions.  And reactions,  by their very nature, don’t take into account the larger picture of the reason for the rule.  Reactions don’t cast light on the myriad of ways in which we judge others, ourselves, and even God.   In fact, because I was so busy reacting, it wasn’t until I read the passage a second time that I was even able to comprehend the rest of the sentence–the part that  explains WHY we shouldn’t judge– “so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1)

I was reminded then of how, years earlier, I’d made a Lenten promise to “give up” my sins of judgment and jealousy.  Now, I knew this would be a challenge, but I thought I could at least go a day or two before I would really be tested in the process of “giving them up.”  Much as He always does, though, God had other plans.

Ash Wednesday morning, (a.k.a. the FIRST DAY of Lent), I had a petty thought about a friend of mine:  I immediately “predicted” she would fail to “properly observe” the Holy Day by wiping off the ashes on her forehead after attending morning Mass.  (As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that doing so is a big “no-no”).  I’m embarrassed for having entertained this thought now on so many levels, but at the time, I didn’t see my “prediction” as a judgment at all.   I merely saw it as a “logical prediction of future behavior based on past behavior” and all but accepted it as “fact.”   Later that day, when I bumped into my friend,  I was shocked to see the ashes still on her forehead.   Shocked only because I’d been proven wrong.

After some introspection, (a.k.a. an inner tantrum-throwing fit whereby I attempted to vehemently defend my inexcusable judgment of my friend to God), I was able to be grateful for the gift of having been shown my fault.  If my friend had behaved as I’d expected, I would likely have been able to go the course of the entire day patting myself on the back for having successfully “given up” my sins by having made no judgments at all.  It was only in being proven wrong, that my eyes were opened to the fact that I’d judged my friend.

To this day, I think that being wrong about such a “prediction”  of my friend’s behavior on the first day of Lent was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I shudder to think about how long it may have taken me to realize that I was judging someone else if my “prediction” had been “right.”