About 15 years ago, I was given the task of buying a King Cake for a Mardi Gras party, and so I called a bakery and inquired, “Do you carry King Cake?”
“You mean, Martin Luther King, Junior Cake?”
“No, ma’am. King Cake. For Mardi Gras.”
“No, no! We can’t do no Mardi Gras, no Lion King, none of that Disney stuff.”
That’s a true story, and the only reason I am sharing it is that it’s that time of year again–and it’s funny. We are coming up on Lent, one of the most interesting and individually interpreted seasons of the Church year. In these days leading up to Ash Wednesday, I am usually thinking, “Am I giving anything up this year? If so, what? Do I want to replace a bad habit with a good one? How will that bring me into a closer relationship with God? What do I need to change about my present life to make me a better human being?” I know others are asking themselves similar questions, but many find the very idea of Lent silly, unnecessary, or too Catholic.
When I was younger, I typically approached Lent with the idea that I should give something up because others around me were. So, I would give up chocolate, red meat, or alcohol, but doing so never strengthened my Faith or changed my life in any way.
Then, I was introduced to the idea of doing something for Lent instead of not doing something—I might read Dietrich Bonnhoeffer’s Meditations on the Cross or making a donation to a charity or developing the habit of a morning walk and outdoor prayer. One year, I committed myself to writing a daily, spiritual journal entry that I would share with others. Most of what I wrote during those 40 days wasn’t worth sharing. I can’t force myself to write daily and produce anything worth reading. The creative process just doesn’t work that way for me.
Three years ago, I came back around to giving up something in order to replace it with something better. I gave up Facebook and all other forms of social media. And did it work? Did I replace it with something better? Yes. And no.
Because I couldn’t contact people via social media, I had to make an effort to reach out with a phone call. I had to speak with them and genuinely enjoy their company beyond the two seconds it takes to read and like a status update. If I couldn’t call at that moment, I would offer up a prayer that they be abundantly blessed. So, yes, abstaining from social media made me feel more connected in my personal relationships and made me more prayerful.
Did I use that time I would have spent on Facebook to do great things? Did I contemplate what it means to live a Christ-centered life? Did I love more deeply? No. Mostly, I surfed the Internet reading celebrity “news” and not comment because if social interaction resulted from the comment, it might violate my No Social Media Rule.
So, I was thinking about giving up the Internet all together this year. Then, I heard a radio interview with recording artist Danny Gokey. Frankly, I had never heard of the guy, but apparently, he placed third on American Idol a few years ago, and now, has a hit country song. I listen to country music sometimes, but I pay little attention to the names of recording artists. I don’t know who sings what. That I don’t know who this guy is or what he sings is no reflection on his musical talent. Yeah, for someone who just admitted to reading celebrity “news,” you would be surprised how little I know of popular culture.
Besides, he was not on the radio talking about his music career or promoting his latest album. No, he was discussing Sophia’s Heart, a foundation he created in the memory of his late wife. Among other things, Sophia’s Heart has a homeless shelter, and the interviewing DJ said the rooms at the shelter looked more like a luxury hotel than temporary, emergency housing.
Gokey responded by explaining that he feels called to treat other people as he would treat Christ. “If Jesus were coming to your hometown and you had to find a place for Him to stay, you would want it to be the best. You would put him up at the Ritz-Carlton. That’s our goal at our shelter, to treat our residents as we would treat Jesus.” Okay, I hope that I would invite Jesus to stay in my home with me, but I do get his point!
Wow. To treat other people as you would treat Christ. That’s a lofty goal and an inspiring message. I got a little teary-eyed hearing him say that.
And I think Gokey is spot-on! We ARE to treat other people as we would treat God-on-Earth. I truly believe that we are all created in God’s image and so every human being, no matter where they are in their own spiritual walk, has something divine within their soul that should be honored.
And even if I didn’t believe that, the Bible commands us to love one another. COMMANDS. Repeatedly. If love came naturally to all human beings, no one would have to command us to do it. Love is an easy thing to talk about, but a hard thing to live—at least, that has been my experience.
While kindness is an outward act of love, loving others is a little deeper. It’s going above and beyond to give, to sacrifice, and to serve in the most selfless ways—as if each human being on this planet were God-on-Earth. And this is regardless of what they have done in the past or may be doing right now—and human beings do some pretty despicable things. I know this. This is regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, character, sexual orientation, education, and income. This is regardless of their political affiliation and ideology—and man, oh, man, that’s the biggie in the United States today. We are a politically divided nation and every freakin’ issue is so polarized! Have you noticed that people say they “hate” each other because they disagree on politics? Yeah, that’s gotta make God really happy. Think about that on a Sunday morning instead of watching news programs that intentionally fan the flames of hate. Okay, I’m sounding a little preachy. I’ll stop.
Ironically, I say that it’s easier for me to be kind to strangers than to be kind to members of my own household, but obviously, I love my family. I loved my children the moment I knew they were growing inside me. I’ve loved my sisters for as long as I can remember. I love my husband so much that I want to live with him for the rest of my life.
I have to work at loving my mother-in-law, and frankly, it is the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. When she fell almost two years ago, I didn’t have much of a relationship with her. We were never unkind to each other the way some mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law are, but we didn’t have much in common and our conversations were never very deep. We were pleasant enough and cordial enough, but that’s about it.
Before I met my soon-to-be in-laws—and our relationship was so fast-paced that my husband and I were practically engaged before we met each other’s families—my husband told me his parents would love me. “My dad will love you because the two of you have a lot in common and I can see you getting along well. My mom will love you because (pause) she wants to see me married and you are an appropriate person for me to marry.” Um, yeah, “appropriate.” That sounds like a warm welcome to the family, doesn’t it?
He was right. His father and I became great friends right away. We enjoyed each other’s company and I genuinely looked forward to time spent with him. I hope he felt the same about me. I believe my mother-in-law does find me an appropriate mate for her son. I’m not too young or too old. My background isn’t too questionable. Her son seems happily married at last, and I’ve given her two more grandchildren, and so, that’s that.
No, it was never a warm-and-fuzzy relationship, and yet, I’ve been called to love her in a very personal way—even though it’s not what I want.
“I love my mother-in-law, but I could never care for her the way you care for yours.” Yeah, I’ve heard that about a gazillion times from a lot of very good-hearted, well-meaning, truly wonderful people. I always have two reactions to that statement: 1) Never say never. Believe me, I never expected to be in this position either. 2) You don’t really love your mother-in-law—at least not as you claim you do.
Take that sentence and replace the word “mother-in-law” with someone you really love. Try “I love my children, but I could never care for them the way you care for yours.” Yeah, I’ve never heard anyone say that because most parents would run into a burning building for their own children. When you truly love someone you will do anything and everything to ensure their well-being. And when a stranger rushes into a burning building, jumps into a raging river, throws herself in front of a bullet, it’s a love so great and so rare that it makes the news, and we call that person a hero.
I have a friend whose son has allergies—the deadly kind. She watches what he eats, touches, and breathes with vigilance. Because of this, people say to her, “You are such a good mom.” And of course, she laughs it off because she knows that yes, she is a good mom, but really she’s just doing what is necessary to keep her kid alive. Keeping him away from peanuts is no different from feeding him, clothing him, or bathing him. It’s what she does because she is his mother, and part of being a parent is loving your child. Period. I liken her attention to her son’s allergies to my care of my mother-in-law. Sometimes, love means scooping the chewed food out of a person’s mouth—no matter what your relationship is to that person. It’s never a matter of being good.
So, what does any of this have to do with Lent? Well, if you are a Christian, Lent is the season leading up to what we celebrate and commemorate as the greatest act of love humankind has ever known—Christ dying on the Cross for us and our Salvation. As John 3:16 says, “God so LOVED the world…”
Most of us are never going to be called to give up our lives or even risk our lives in an act of love, and yet, we are commanded to love so that we would run into a burning building if that is what is asked of us. Jesus even said what we do to others—how we treat our fellow human beings—is ultimately how we are treating Him.
So, for my Lenten journey this year, I’m not going to give up Facebook or chocolate. I am not reading anything by Bonnhoeffer. I am going to follow Danny Gokey’s example and treat others as I would treat Christ. I don’t know that it will really change the way I behave towards other people because overall, I treat people well, but it will certainly be a change in attitude. Just think, if I am cooking a meal for my family and thinking, “I am preparing this meal for God-on-Earth,” am I not going to do it with a bit more enthusiasm? When I am dressing my mother-in-law and thinking of her body as the body of Christ, am I not going to do it with more care? When I hold a door open for someone I’ve never met and honor that sacred part of their soul that is Christ, can I possibly feel impatient should they move a little slower than I anticipated?
This commitment, although not something that will be obvious to the outside world, is huge to me. I have a long way to go in the attitude department, but it’s the little changes–the inward changes–that completely transform lives. So, I’m really going to work at treating others as I would treat Christ, and hopefully, it will take hold in a way that will continue beyond Easter 2014.