Building Character for Tough Times
Psalm 8; Luke 9: 18-24
Lent isn’t for everybody. You have to have lived with a certain amount of disappointment and tragedy before you get it and then it becomes obvious. We Americans live such a great life that we can actually live well into our twenties without knowing anyone in our family who has died or without ever having a seriously bad thing happen to us. We just barrel along planning our futures, enjoying ourselves.
But eventually, everyone has to deal with loss, with accidents, with natural disasters and disease. If you live long enough, you start to realize that at best, we get to be self-directed about 75% of our life. But 25% of the time, we just have to respond, to bounce back from something that just about does us in. When really bad stuff happens, all of our plans seem weak and insubstantial, compared to this huge challenge that we are not up to facing.
And then suddenly it is Lent in our lives. I was playing golf with a guy last fall when someone mentioned that I was a Minister to him. They said, ‘he goes to Mass every morning.’ I looked over at him and he remarked, “It is a good way to center myself at the start of the day”. That is the type of thing people say to Priests, so I didn’t think much about it.
A few weeks go by, I see him again, just playing golf at the end of the day. Just before we part he says, “I wonder if you’d pray for my wife. She’s having a procedure tomorrow.” I ask him her name and what hospital she is at. He names a top cancer hospital in the world and tells me the name of the procedure. He turns to walk away.
Because of being around cancer long enough, I realize in a minute that his wife has a life threatening cancer, the kind where you have to suspend long-term planning. They have children, some of them grown. He’s been married a long time. He probably has a great marriage.
I suddenly see him waking up each morning, going to Mass before he heads to the gym, on his knees, day after day, asking God to heal his wife, thinking about her because he loves her, and he would do anything to make her better, really anything, take the illness himself if he could. Just heal her God and help the doctors to find her a cure. Please… Just please.
I think of all those mothers who turned out to see the Pope this week in the state of Michoacan in Mexico, where several thousands of their sons died last year in the drug trade. All of them grief stricken, anxious, wondering how to go on after their child has died.
I think of all of those Mother’s in Syria, whose husbands have been killed by ISIS fighters, with nowhere to go and no one to protect them as they travel, anxious about their children and how their children will safe and normal after growing up in a world where things are all blown up all around them.
You find yourself in a position of praying with real intensity, partly because you have no other options, partly because you are suddenly obsessed with changing reality around this one immediate challenge that is threatening to swamp you and your family.
You suddenly find yourself in need of a pilgrimage faith, not the regular faith of your parish back home. You are ready to go to some place holy and take this one petition of your heart and allow it to be transformed. You are open yourself to becoming transformed.
The pilgrimage best known to Christians goes to Jerusalem. It used to be that you took a boat from Europe that ended in Acco in Israel, just east of Tel Aviv. From there it is about a 12 mile hike to the base of the mountain that leads up to Jerusalem.
These days, not so many people make the full 12 mile hike, but most all of the spiritual pilgrims to Jerusalem gather at the bottom of the Mountain. Until recently the whole side of the mountain going up was covered in vineyards and olive orchards. There are monasteries that are placed along this path, monasteries that are hundreds of years old because people have been making this pilgrimage for thousands of years.
And you cannot believe how many people there are on a given day. It is very sobering. They come, literally, from all over the world. Not very many of them are English speaking. And there are a surprising number of women from Russia, from the Ukraine, peasants that have not been to college like your urbane friends back home. They carry prayer beads that they work over and over. They bring scarves or dolls or other items that they want blessed that they will carry back home and give to their loved ones in the hopes that a miracle will take place. They are more pious than my great grandmother and they are so poor that you wonder how in the world they scratched together the money to make this grand journey and how in the world they even had the wherewithal to get here to begin with. And they are tough. They know deprivation. They are acquainted with pain. And they are determined. They have resolve. And they will hike.
The road up to Jerusalem wends higher and higher and higher. It switches back and the climb takes half of the day. For over half of the year, the trip is very hot, up, up and up. There are a few places mercifully where water runs from a spigot. And then you suddenly find yourself on the outer walls of the ancient city and the wind is whipping around the corner. Suddenly you are cold, even on a hot day, like entering God’s domain makes you nervous at the last moment, and perhaps it should.
And you stand there for a moment, looking back on this huge throng of people that have formed this river of prayer that extends for a few miles back down the mountainside. And you realize that people have been coming like this day after day for 2000 years, over 730,300 days from all over the world. The come bearing the deepest concerns of their hearts. They come hoping against hope for a miracle.
And you stand there for a minute, just taking it all in. Already you have been blessed with one of the main things you needed, even though you didn’t know you needed it, perspective. You can place yourself, your tiny little self in the midst of this huge river of humanity that began so long ago, you couldn’t even see that far if you wanted to. And you just know that it will extend so far in the future, you cannot really even conceive of it. You are not an exception. Right now you don’t stand out in any way.
You know when the millions of pilgrims descend on Mecca for the beginning of the Haj, the very first thing they do is shave their heads, bathe, and then wrap themselves in a simple burial shroud, a white cloth you wrap around your body. It is a visceral reminder that you are mortal, like all humans are mortal, that you will not escape those things that we all have to go through, whether we want to or not.
So it seems right that when you actually get to Jerusalem, you walk down the Via Dolorosa that Jesus walked down carrying his cross to Golgotha, and you are wandering down these cramped, narrow warrens that have no grand boulevard procession to them.
It seems right that you enter into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus died and was buried, cramped, overfilled with people from all over the world, filled with incense from the continuous Masses that are performed in Greek, in Latin, in Russian, in Syriac… in languages so old that no one actually speaks them anymore.
It seems right that you wend your way through this ancient church, pressed from someone from Nigeria in front of you, someone from the Philippines behind you, someone from Brazil at your side. It seems right that you have to bend down to fit into the prayer chamber over the place where Jesus died and you have just a moment to make your petition, speak your vow, and then you have to go.
God loves you. The divine image rests upon you. And there are millions and millions of other people that God must attend to as well. And they have come from before the dawn til late into the night, each and every day, week after week, year after year for thousands of years.
And you walk up to the city walls and you climb up those medieval ramparts and look out over what is below, with the wind in your face, blowing up the mountain face. And you feel what Abraham felt 35,000 years ago before there was ever a city. And he first came here with his son Isaac, the first recorded pilgrim to this place.
Perhaps, you decide to make a change in your life, to tackle something that is really difficult in your character. Perhaps you decide to give up a pleasure, like drinking wonderful wine, because every time that you have to go through the pain that comes from not doing something you love, you remember what your spouse is not able to enjoy right now. And you stop, and you pray for them, for God’s blessing in their life, and you ask God to fill you with genuine spiritual purpose. You want to be spiritually stronger for them and you know like hell that you need to be stronger spiritually for yourself.
We aren’t binding the Almighty. We can’t bind the Almighty. But we know we want to strengthen our spiritual capacity for compassion. We know we need to be strong for the people around us that we love, the ones we have to take care of.
And we know that we have to live without all of the answers, we have to live in a world of unknowing. We can’t control the outcomes. We can only focus ourselves. We can only concentrate the force. That is what love does for each other.
And sometimes you come back changed, not just for a while, but for good. I’m always struck by the people that return from the Haj to their hometowns changed. They had a whole career, a developed identity before they went to Mecca and they come back as people that are going to live the rest of their lives principally in the spiritual realm. Usually they are in the retirement age. They know that there is not an endless amount of future they can explore. And through this quest, they have come to see what is most important in their lives, forming their spiritual character, growing in their spiritual lives.
I wish you could avoid pain and loss in this world. But you cannot. I hope for you an awakening when real difficulty tracks you down. I hope you grow in character as the challenges comes at you. I hope that you find the spiritual zone and concentrate spiritual purpose in your being as you become a channel of God’s compassion towards those that you love and those that you are responsible for. I hope for you clarity as to what is most important for you in the time that you have left. And may God bless you and keep you. For God is not done with you yet…. God is not done with you yet…. Amen.