Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How best should we spend our remaining moments?

A few weeks ago, we were on our way to Mass at St. Elizabeth in Lubbock, a few blocks east of the Texas Tech campus. For whatever reason I cannot remember, we were running late and as we approached one of the side streets down which we would drive to the church, we noticed that the line to get to that street from the left turn lane was backed up. Later it became obvious that the 12-14 car snag was due to a non-working turn signal. Drivers inched their cars across University Blvd. one, maybe two at a time. It seemed to be taking an eternity.
I grumbled and whined to myself and to Karen. Our son, in the car ahead of us with his girlfriend, didn’t hear my displeasure at his decision to take this route. Thank goodness.

Somehow, we made it to the Mass during the opening procession. We searched the mostly-full church. Finding a place to sit is not easy at a 5 o’clock Sunday Mass in a college town.
We finally eyeballed a pew for four, and we settled in just in time for the opening prayer. A two-year-old girl in front of us began to cough and sneeze, blowing her germs on us like a priest sprinkling holy water. We watched as something differently colored dribbled and bubbled from her nose.

And I grumbled some more while looking for a safer more hygienic place to worship. I wondered how long it would be before we would come down with whatever she was spreading.

We made our way through the prayers, the Gloria, and the readings, and then the deacon at St. Elizabeth rose to deliver his homily. He opened with a couple of gentle, corny jokes about the prior weekend’s Super Bowl and then began his homily in earnest. He quoted not so much from Scripture to begin, but instead he pulled from the song “Everybody Hurts” by REM, a band once wildly popular among the college set.

“As many of you know,” the deacon continued, “I have been dealing with cancer which has, thankfully, been in remission.”

My attention was sufficiently grabbed, and slowly, the sick child and the defective turn light began to step out of my personal limelight. I have always been a sucker for a good rebound story and messages about making one’s way back amid the worst of circumstances.

And then came his bombshell.

“This week,” he said, “the doctor told me that my cancer is back. It is in my lungs and in my brain.”
I was struck not only by the man’s words and the honesty in his voice but by his countenance as he made his announcement. I’ve been searching since that day for the word that would best fit him as he delivered that news — “My cancer is back and it is in my lungs and my brain” — to both friends and strangers alike. Courage. Fearlessness. Perhaps those two sum it up better than most others.

There was not a trace of distress in his appearance; no alarm in his eyes, no crack in his voice or waver in his delivery. His message conveyed one of the bravest walks of faith I have heard of late. The man had accepted what lie ahead and it was clear that he would meet whatever the future brings head on, with the help of his faith and his Lord.

Certainly the other message that came through between the lines was this: enjoy every moment. You know not the hour or the day ...

A couple of weeks after the homily we heard in Lubbock, an unrelated post popped up on my parish’s Facebook page. It asked for urgent prayers. There was a clear note of desperation.

The message was posted late on the morning of Friday, February 13. It was written by a young woman whose husband had taken a turn for the worse in a brief illness he had been fighting for the last several days.

The parish community quickly rallied around him and his family with prayers and visits, but by 7:30 that night, a man who had been a friend to hundreds of people in many walks of life in Midland and elsewhere, was dead. He was a good, good man. A newlywed. A doting father. Thirty-two years old. He left a 9-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, a three-month-old son and a 26-year-old widow. The news of his passing was devastating to the community.

I will miss my friend, Caleb. But his passing is not for naught. He taught while he was here. He spread a message of joy, of faith, of family and of love. In his death, he taught us one other thing. Like the deacon in Lubbock, the message of loving others every possible moment you have, of never taking one more day as if you have ten-thousand more is a message we should hold on to. Too often, though, our lives return to status quo before we even return to our work or our homes -- even after a friend’s funeral. News like the return of cancer to a total stranger and the reality of the death of a friend should make us all look at life with more respect -- and not just during the time we mourn at a funeral.

I am ashamed for becoming impatient while driving to Mass that day in Lubbock, and for growing irritated at a sick, innocent child in front of me. I have yet to discover why sweating the small stuff is so easy. What am I missing? Am I so surface that it takes death or illness to show me the way? If so, I owe apologies to the deacon and to my friend.

I recently listened to a TedTalk about happiness. In it, the presenter said that the best gifts God gives us are moments. If we have a bad moment, we’ll always have another one waiting just behind the present one. Moments, the speaker said, are free, and always there for us to make the most of.
Until one day they aren't.

How should we best spend the moments that remain? I know a deacon who knows. And I had a wise friend who made beautiful his every moment.

Lord, show me the way before it’s too late.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Think twice before cursing the driver in front of you, or avoiding someone you think is not worth your time

By Jimmy Patterson

   The man and woman walked into the elevator before us. She was struggling with a walker, he was navigating our way down. Karen and I were coming from a doctor’s visit; the older couple was, too. My wife said something to the two of them and the man, a jovial sort, began talking to us. My mind was elsewhere and all I could remember thinking was that the couple had appeared to have what had been a difficult life. I smiled at what the man said and my mind returned to the trivial concerns my day. All that mattered was my stuff and I missed an opportunity to share a few moments with this couple. Although nothing earth-shaking or life-changing emerged from the exchange, which couldn’t have lasted more than 30 seconds, I missed an opportunity. The man laughed quietly as he spoke, and Karen and he continued small talk during the length of the elevator conversation. Toward the end of the ride, it suddenly dawned on me my actions could have very well been considered rude. But the man quite obviously didn’t see rude in others, he only saw good, judging by his ever-present smile. I finally saw this in him, but by then, the elevator doors slid open, the woman walked out and the man followed her. Karen and I walked out behind them and didn’t see them again.
   What it was that had shaken me out of my selfish thoughts on that elevator was only a fleeting moment, and the words, “What if?”
   A lot of us have the habit of maybe not paying as much attention to strangers as we should. We figure, we’ll never see them, I’m too busy, they might ask for money or tell me their problems. So ... why bother, right?
   But ... what if?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy Lent

By Jimmy Patterson

I've heard and read a few people question the meaning of lenten sacrifices made by Catholics this penitential season. Their questions are not so much about Lent’s literal meaning, but whether Lent truly brings those who observe it closer to Christ – which is, of course, the objective of this the holiest time of the year on the Christian calendar. Some feel such sacrifices hinder us instead of draw us nearer, and wonder how Lent can be considered useful for faith development.

Such suppositions by those not immediately involved in the observance of Lent could easily be reached, I suppose, yet an item or two comes quickly to mind: All this questioning can easily wander off into criticism first, then judgementalism, which doesn’t pass my spell check but all things considered in today’s world, probably should.

We Catholics have taken a fair number of hits for a number of aspects of our faith, all of which I will gladly avoid today except for the subject of Lent. Questions of ‘Why do you guys do that?,’ ‘Why the long face?’ and ‘What is that dirt on your forehead?’ are three of the most-repeated by those who do not observe the tradition. The perceptions of gloominess can be largely laid at the doorstep of the Church, which has in years past stressed sacrifice, suffering and sorrow for our sins. Lately, though, there are some who are moving away from the giving-up aspect of the season.

Lent shouldn’t be about giving up. It should be about handing over. A protestant minister friend takes the notion a step further and suggests Lent is about dying. Not just Christ’s, but ours. My friend does not think Lent is about dying just because sacrificing chocolate can about kill ya, but rather dying to one’s self, to things of the earth, to temptation — and I suppose even to chocolate if you eat 15 Hershey bars a day — and doing it all for the love of Christ. Which brings us back to ‘handing it over.’

I keep hearing that some Protestant churches are becoming more open to lenten practices. A deacon friend of mine took a call recently from a young adult group at a large Protestant church in Midland, asking if they could participate in stations of the cross. Yet questions of “Why do you do that and what does it accomplish because it seems to me to be a traffic jam on your road to faith?” are popping up with more regularity. Yet, if my faith practice draws me nearer to God, why should the how and what of it ever come into question?

Catholics are often wrongly perceived as having to suffer 24/40 (actually 47 calendar days) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. There is no doubt a portion of people that think we all go hungry, suffer horrible and endless headaches from caffeine deprivation, fall hopelessly behind on “Walking Dead” episodes and rudely disappear from Facebook after we post some mystical message about going dark for the Lord. But God doesn’t want us to go hungry, have headaches or even rid ourselves of earthly enjoyments. He just wants us to be mindful of our hunger for Christ — and the hunger of the poor. I know plenty of people who aren’t giving up anything, but are enhancing their spiritual life — others are even enhancing someone else’s life as part of their Lenten promise.

Personally, Lent has become the holiest time of year. With wisdom taking seed wherever and whenever it can (not always easy for wisdom, mind you), the real message we need to hear year in and year out is the message of the Resurrection. Nothing against the Incarnation, which was of course absolutely necessary for Christ to accomplish all He came to do on earth.

I left the smudge on my forehead after Ash Wednesday Mass. Mostly because I forgot it was there. Ten days later, I still remember the cashier checking me out at the grocery store and seeing her smile and those involuntary glances directed at the ‘dirt’ on my brow. She said nothing to me, but she knew where I had been and what it meant and what I was trying to stand for. So was I a witness? Or was I blowing my horn for all to see and hear as it says we are to avoid (especially since I had a large bag of Hershey’s kisses in my cart)? In some cases, not an easy answer. But when the cashier smiled at me I smiled at her. The message sent and the message received was one of joy.

Pope Francis wrote in his masterful exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” that there are too many Catholics who live life “like Lent without Easter.” Fortunately, more and more of us are making our way through Lent mindful of the Good News while holding close with reverence the suffering He endured for us. Some of us may not eat Cheerios on Tuesdays or drink a glass of Merlot on Thursdays from now until Easter, and, in a perfect world, we would all give up red meat on Fridays during this season. But can a Cheerio-less Tuesday or a Facebook-free 40 days, or life without top sirloin once a week actually qualify as suffering? Or are those all, in today’s parlance, ‘First-world problems?’ For me, abstaining from whatever I choose is not so much sacrifice but rather opening myself up and making more room for God by being more mindful of Christ, the poor, forgiveness, love and my chances of a joy-filled eternity. One man’s sacrifice is another’s open heart.

I recently heard a priest on an afternoon Catholic radio program lean in to the mic and open his portion of the conversation by saying, “Happy Lent!” I smiled.

Not so long ago it would have proved an oxymoron. Not so 21st century Catholicism.

Let us remember — no, let us never forget — Christ’s suffering. But let us also be joyful in living a life with him at the center, by loving our neighbors and our selves; by remembering to forgive others who have wronged us, and for those we perceive to have wronged us, let us forgive ourselves.

Our faith should not be a burden. No one, Catholic or non-Catholic, should see it as such. Lent does not call us to suffer on our journey. It calls us to joy.

Happy Lent.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hold on to that and never lose it

I don't often participate in the "What are you thankful for?" trends that pop up on social media these days. It's not that I am not a thankful person. I guess it's more because we're all thankful, or should be, so why should my story be any different than the next person's?

But this year I am thankful that our daughter sent us searching for her lost Social Security card. God can have his hand in the littlest stuff and I think he was working last week when Kelsey texted and asked for our help.

But back to that in a minute.

When I can, I attend a men's group on Tuesday mornings down at the church. This morning when we finished watching our video the conversation turned to the people in our lives that had most shaped us. Now that I look back, it seems like it might have been a cleverly disguised conversation starter for a more appropriate topic for the day: "Who are you most thankful for in your life?" Not surprisingly, most of the men at the gathering pointed to their fathers.

When it came my turn, I had the opportunity to talk about my dad. I usually don't pass up that opportunity.

I didn't appreciate my dad as much when I was an immature kid as I do now. I suppose that's what happens when the passing of time joins with the onset of wisdom to forge a greater love for someone after it's, well, too late. It's a cruel twist but it's better than not feeling anything when you know you should.

My dad and mom brought me up Baptist and my sullen teenage self somehow convinced them to let me sit on the back row of the church every week, away from them. Most often they agreed. At the altar call every week, my father's eyes would well with tears as people walked to the front of the church. Even when no one walked down, dad still cried. Being a cranky and petulant teenager, I never got that. And so I hid from it by sitting in the back of the church.

My dad never took credit for anything. He never bragged about anything if he was involved in any way. He would brag about my brother and my sister and me and our mom all day long. But the conversation rarely if ever turned to him, certainly not at his encouragement. Maybe one day I will pick up that admirable trait, too.

I also had a moment this morning to talk about my brother. I consider my brother a role model and for him I am also thankful. I didn't always consider him a role model. I watched him come from a troubled man, hopelessly addicted to alcohol to someone who found God and now admirably leads a non-profit center in Dallas. When he signed on to be that agency's new director, he had been on its volunteer board for several years. But when the past director was fired for questionable financial practices, my brother stepped up and took the job. For nothing. No salary. For a year. It was at his suggestion. Giving away salaries of dollars in salary to your employee just to make sure the doors stay open and people can continue to be helped ... now, there's a lesson for you.

My brother has never been a touchy-feely or overly emotional person. He's been nothing like our father in that regard. Yet here's the interesting rest of that story: At the agency he directs, every day he oversees about 140 developmentally disadvantaged adults of all sizes, shapes and colors. The clients, as they are termed, are paid small wages for repetitive motion tasks. It gives many of them a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and a joy for living.

I have visited the center often. I have watched my brother physically embrace almost every one of these people and call each of them by name — without benefit of name tags. I have watched every one of the clients embrace my brother, and shout out his name from across the room when they see him walk through the door. He is making a profound difference in lives. That's what heroes do. I know I am thankful for being given the opportunity to watch him become what he has become in the last fifteen years or so.

Seeing how the people at the center love him would have been enough to bring tears to my father's eyes. Now it does the same thing to me. And I am no longer afraid to admit that.

Our dad left his three children an appreciation for different things. My brother picked up a sense of fairness and decency, and how to treat others. My sister has a love for the outdoors and great compassion for others thanks to our father, but she was formed, I think, more by our mother. And that is a very good thing, too. My father left me a love for baseball, books and Big Bend. I came along with the baseball appreciation early on, but it took me years to develop that love for books and the outdoors. 

Big Bend is a sacred place to me. Some people probably think I'm nuts when I say that, and that's fine. Maybe I am, but I go there to see God and hear dad. I was there with him just once before he died, even though he had tried many times over several years to get me to go with him. 

I was on a mountain pass when a rare cellphone signal enabled a call to come through to me in 2009, one of the few areas in Big Bend where there was a signal at the time. It was my sister. She called to tell me doctors had found a tumor on dad's kidney and he would need surgery.

The night before he went in to the hospital, he gathered the family in the living room and he read a paper our daughter Kelsey had written about someone in her life she considered to be a hero. Instead of making the evening all about him — even though given the circumstances he had every right to -- he turned the attention to his granddaughter and what she had written. And then he told her he was proud of her. And all of us. He went to bed, got up the next morning and packed a bag for what he thought would be a simple surgery. Twenty-five days later he was dead. He was 84.

When Kelsey called us last week to ask for help looking for her Social Security card, we never did find it. Instead, I found this in my same important paper box:

"Hold on to that and never lose it," both Kelsey and Karen told me when I showed them what I had found.

So yeah. That's what I'm thankful for this year. And every year.

-- jimmy

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Love of family, country trumps all else for Syrian refugees (Pt. 7 of 7)

By Jimmy Patterson

   AMMAN, Jordan — Tears are prevalent here. They come from the eyes of Syrian refugees driven from their homes by the violence of the Assad regime and the forces that oppose his rule in their homeland. In two years of fighting, the bloodshed quickly escalated and grew into the deadly conflict it is today. The latest numbers are startling: Over 2 million have fled the country. Of the ones who stayed, more than 115,000 are now dead. Those who escaped are left to face a future of uncertainty. No one knows when or if they will ever be able to return home. Or if they will ever see their family members who stayed behind to fight for Syria.
   In America, our greatest uncertainties can amount to what time a soccer game begins or when a spouse will get off work so that dinner can be on the table and warm for the family. So many of us have such minor problems in comparison.
    The killing in Syria is not unlike the stories of war and brutality we’ve heard for as long as any of us care to remember. War has been with all of us for most of our lives, it doesn’t matter our age. We have not learned.
   Certainly next to those who give their lives or suffer injury, and their families, the people who lose so much in war are the peaceful among us; citizens, such as the Syrians in this case, lose so much; they are forced to give up their homes, husbands and sons. Forced to trade lives of security for the unknown. Peace-seeking people are left out of the political equation of war. People like us and Syrian refugees — who are like us — are all one, perhaps especially so when part of the body is hurting.
   I learned a lot in the Middle East. Most lessons came from people who say they are hopeless, but who still hope anyway.
   When I left America on October 4, we were embroiled in much bitterness. Disgust flowed from our lips and anger through our Facebook status — our modern day stage and soapbox. We were faced with the bleak reality of having a government in tatters, unable to pay its bills and its people but continuing to spend. When I returned home, we had traded a government shutdown for a healthcare lockdown. The rage remained, only the object of the rancor had changed.
   I learned a lot from the people I was fortunate to meet from Syria and Jordan. Like many people in America, nothing is more important than love of family and country. Many Syrians step out in courage instead of understandably suffering through pain and depression. Just that one attitude can teach us a valuable lesson.
    But there’s also this:
Love your family. Anyone who has survived a fire or a natural disaster knows what it feels like to lose everything, When family emerges from the rubble, they know what it feels like to have everything. People driven from their homeland know both those emotions in an especially compelling way.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of the These: Church Pastors Serve as Living Witnesses for Refugees (Pt. 6 of 7)

Jordanian priests walk the walk in helping Syrian refugees, children navigate through impossible time

By Jimmy PattersonEditor / West Texas Angelus

   KARAK, Jordan — Watching Syrian refugee children flock to both Fr. Elie Kerzum and Fr. Wissam al-Massadeh is a powerful story of witness. As the two men walk into the courtyard of the schools they oversee, scores of elementary- to high school-age children crowd around them. The two priests look truly like the shepherds they were ordained to be.
   The jobs these men are tasked with aren’t easy. Both confessed to having initial reservations until prayer and guidance led them to the positions they finally accepted to lead the refugee children along with their own Catholic students for the greater good of love and solidarity.
    Fr. Elie serves the Jordanian town of Zarqa, a larger urban area near the Syrian border; Fr. Wissam is tucked away in the small southern village of Karak, 129 kilometers south of Jordan’s capital city of Amman. A generous donation by anonymous Midlanders is helping both priests — along with priests in three other Jordanian cities — provide education, counseling and care for the Syrian children they and their educators oversee.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Refugee overcomes depression to help other displaced women (Pt. 5 of 7)

Her home reduced to rubble by air strikes, Tehane
left Syria, and then sank into a lengthy depression

By Jimmy Patterson

   ZARQA, Jordan — The day Tehane left Homs, the Syrian town where she had grown up, the warplanes thundered overhead. From one came a bomb. The percussive boom, fire and collapse of her home served as the moment everything changed for the 25-year-old university art student, who, in a single moment, became a “refugee,” on the run from an unchecked civil war that was destroying her homeland.
   Following a lengthy journey across Syria, the neighboring country of Jordan became Tehane’s new home. She, her husband and their two small children arrived in Zarqa like over a million others who have walked days through deserts into often dank, dimly-lighted living quarters in unfamiliar cities of Jordan and Lebanon, two of the several countries in the region that have opened their borders to the refugees. Zarqa is an industrialized town in the north central part of the kingdom that, by American standards, was poor even before the refugees arrived. But it was now home for the family, and together they would make of it what they could — as soon as Tehane could bring herself to accept her new life.
   Severe depression froze her every move for months.