Do You Bring Joy to Others?

At the Mission Roundtable lunch at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on Wednesday, the speaker was Judge Anne McKeig, the first Native American to be appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court (and the first female Native American to serve on the high court of any state).  Her remarks were both sobering – some of the statistics regarding the plight of Native Americans in Minnesota are shocking – and inspiring to our students.

At one point in her talk, she quoted Maya Angelou’s words: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

I was reminded of those words at the gym yesterday.  While I exercising on the elliptical machine, The Bucket List was on the television screen in front of the machine I was on.  At one point in the film, the Jack Nicholson character and Morgan Freeman character are in Egypt, sitting in a high place with a view of the pyramids.

The Morgan Freeman character shared with his friend that the ancient Egyptians had a belief about death.  They believed that when the soul got to the entrance to heaven, the gods would ask them two questions, the answers to which would determine whether or not they would be admitted.  The two questions were: Have you found joy in your life?  And, Has your life brought joy to others.

I have no idea if there was any such ancient Egyptian belief.  But I do think both questions are good ones.  It was the second of the two that brought me back to the Maya Angelou quote.

Perhaps we might ask ourselves the question today, asking it in the present tense: Is my life bringing joy to others?  Or, in Angelou’s phrasing, what do people remember about how I make them feel?

The Poor Have Names

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Interestingly, we are not given the name of the rich man, only that of the poor man Lazarus.  Amy-Jill Levine, in her book Short Stories by Jesus highlights the significance of the fact that the parable identifies Lazarus by name.

Naming someone forces us to notice the person.  It is a lot hard to ignore or even mindlessly toss a coin in someone’s direction without making eye contact if we know them by name.

Levine’s challenge echoes that of Pope Francis – that we actually encounter our brothers and sisters in need.  “Know the names of the destitute,” says Levine, for “each has a story to tell.”

The facilitator of a discussion group for Levine’s book posed these questions.  Perhaps they will make you a bit uncomfortable – they did me.

Do you know any homeless people by name?

If so, how has that changed or softened your heart toward them?

If not, where are some homeless people you can reach out to this week?


To Die Without Regret

In a book titled The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed, Australian nurse Bronnie Ware talks about the common regrets expressed to her by the people she took care of.

A reference to her book and the “top 5” list appeared this morning in my inbox in one of the newsletters I subscribe to.  Although today was not the first time I came across such a list of the top regrets people have as they are dying, the list caught my attention, perhaps because we are in Lent, a time of reformation.

The top five regrets Ware identifies are these:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

If there is an item on this list you think you would express if you were to die today, perhaps you might take it on this Lent as something to try to change.

Merciful as My Father is Merciful

Yesterday was the first session of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living that Marta Pereira, my successor as director of the University of St. Thomas’ Office for Spirituality, is offering at the law school during this season of Lent.  The theme for Marta’s reflection was Merciful as my Father is Merciful.

After sharing some thoughts on the subject, Marta invited us to take some time reflecting on what God is calling us to so that we can embody God’s mercy.

As I sat with the words from yesterday’s Gospel, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” what immediately leapt to my my mind were two characteristics of God’s mercy that we often fail to mirror.  First, that God sees what we do in the best possible light, yet we so often adopt the worst possible interpretation of what another says and does.  Second, that God sees the totality of the picture, yet we often look just at outward appearances, limiting the ability to understand where another person is coming from.

When I returned to the office, continuing to think about the invitation to imitate God in these aspects of his mercy, I looked up at my bulletin board.  Tacked to it was a sheet of paper containing the following prayer – a prayer that I have placed on the bulletin board of every office I have inhabited since a friend sent it to me in 2002.

Heavenly Father, Help us remember that the jerk who cut us off in traffic last night is a single mother who worked nine hours that day and is rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry and spend a few precious moments with her children.

Help us to remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who can’t make change correctly is a worried 19-year-old college student, balancing his apprehension over final exams with his fear of not getting his student loans for next semester.

Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking bum, begging for money in the same spot every day (who really ought to get a job!) is a slave to addictions that we can only imagine in our worst nightmares.

Help us to remember that the old couple walking annoyingly slow through the store aisles and blocking our shopping progress are savoring this moment, knowing that, based on the biopsy report she got back last week, this will be the last year that they go shopping together.

Heavenly Father, remind us each day that, of all the gifts you give us, the greatest gift is love. It is not enough to share that love with those we hold dear. Open our hearts not to just those who are close to us, but to all humanity. Let us be slow to judge and quick to forgive, show patience, empathy and love.

Let us be slower to judge, and quicker to offer compassion and mercy to others.

Lust as Disordered Desire (Or A Distortion of Means and Ends

Yesterday was the final session of the Novena of Grace to St. Francis Xavier at the church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul. As I noted in an earlier post, the general theme for the novena reflections was the Seven Deadly Sins. In this final session, Fr. Warren Sazama, the pastor of St. Thomas More, offered a reflection on lust.

He began with the dictionary definition, which speaks of lust in two different ways: first as an intense craving or desire, and second, as intense or unbridled sexual desire. Although Fr. Warren made some great comments about the sexual aspect of lust – distinguishing between the beautiful sexual love celebrated by our faith and the self-absorbed objectification of another that lust entails – it was the first definition that caught my attention.

Desires can be very positive. Although a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about desires, Fr. Jim Martin suggests that “Jesus sees something liberating in identifying and naming our desires.” St. Ignatius did as well. Gilles Cusson, in his book on the biblical theology of the Spiritual Exercises characterizes Ignatius’ spirituality as “the dynamism of desire.” Ignatius believed that our deepest desires are God’s desires for us, meaning that to live vital and passionate lives requires that we pay serious attention to our desires when we discern how we are intended to live and love in this world.

So the sin of lust is not a criticism of desire. Rather, the lust we label sinful is what we might call disordered desire. (Buddhists use the term “craving,” to capture the cause of our suffering, believing it is our clinging and craving for things outside of ourselves in the belief that they will satisfy us that is the suffering of our lives.)

Disordered desire keep us from being free. Disordered desires are those things – and they can be objects, experiences, activities, or even other people – who become the focus of our desires. When that happens they become our aim, rather than God.

Think about the language of St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation:

All of the things of this world are gifts of God presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more easily. We appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons.

God is our end; the gifts are the means. Lust is a distortion of means and ends.






The Faith of Abraham

In today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis, God instructs Abraham (then Abram): “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”

How easy do you think that was for Abraham?  Before I drive to a destination outside of the Twin Cities, I Mapquest the directions to be sure I’m clear about the route (even for a destination I’ve been to before), I put the address into my phone so I can call on Siri if I miss a turn or there is some detour, I fill a water bottle in case I get thirsty on the drive, and I check the weather forecast.

Abraham couldn’t check online to see what the weather or the terrain would be like as he went forth from the land of his kinsfolk. He couldn’t text friends in the area to see if his route would be a safe one.  On top of that, Abraham was 75 years old!

Yet Abraham “went as the Lord directed him.”  In the New Testament Book of Hebrews we read:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise…By faith he received power to generate even though he was passed the normal age – and Sarah herself was sterile – for he thought that the one who ha made the promise was trustworthy.

By faith Abraham said yes to God’s call.

Notwithstanding Mapquest, Siri, and all of our other modern aids, the road we walk in response to God’s call can sometimes seem as unclear and even as frightening as Abraham’s.  Yet God’s promise to us of his love, fidelity and blessing is no less than that to Abraham either.

May we walk with the faith of Abraham.

Health Care Is A Basic Human Right

Pope Francis observed last year that health “is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.”  He is not the first Pope to speak in those terms.  In Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII identified health care as among the basic rights flowing from the dignity of the human person. In an address to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II included as among the human rights endorsed by the Catholic Church the right to sufficient health care. The American bishops have also been vocal in their stance that access to adequate health care is a basic right necessary for humans to realize the fullness of their dignity.

None of this is new, but this seems a good time for the reminder.

Congress is now at work in its efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Despite promises by the President that the Republican plan would have insurance for everyone that is better and less costly, it is becoming clear that the bill being considered would kick millions off of their health coverage and force many to pay more for less coverage.  (It also, in the name of “choice” eliminates the requirement that Medicaid cover basic mental-health and addiction services in states that expanded it.)

Lack of health insurance makes it virtually impossible for lower-income people to get health care. No insurance typically means choosing between medical care and other basic necessities. Thus, uninsured adults typically do no receive preventive care, fail to fill prescriptions and skip medications for chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes.   Those who do get health care then have difficulty paying for food, heat or rent because of their medical bills.  The very poorest of the poor have access to Medicaid, but how effective that will remain if the federal government shifts to a block grant approach is questionable.

The Affordable Care Act was no panacea.  But whether you are Democrat or Republican, love the Affordable Care Act or hate it, if you are a Christian you can’t ignore the effect of any proposed legislation on the least of our brothers and sisters.  We can disagree about specifics of approaches, but we cannot disagree about the need to ensure adequate access to health care.