Sleeping in church

A committed Christian surprised me the other day with a problem that bothers him.  It bothers me, too.  He is distracted, even angered, by the apparent casual attitude and lack of involvement by some people at Mass.  He’s talking about folks who fiddle around with something during the prayers, whisper during the homily, don’t participate in the songs or Mass parts – all are just variations of sleeping in church.  What surprised me is that this bothers him so much he has considered not attending Mass himself.

So here’s the question… how am I supposed to react when something that is utterly precious to me (namely, worshipping God) is treated with lack of respect or even contempt by people a few feet from me?

Be generous

To start with, I ought to make some allowances, for sure in cases where children are involved or maybe really old people.  If there are issues with physical or mental health that have an effect on attention span or comprehension, well I want to be generous and understanding with a thing like that.   Since I have no way of knowing the conditions in a stranger’s mind, then I ought to make allowances for what I don’t know.  That’s part of loving other people the way I want them to love me.

For that matter, being this way is prudent.  In Luke 6 Jesus says “the measure that you give is the measure you get back”.  In James 2, the idea is expressed that the judgment I will undergo will vary in its rigor according to how harsh or how kind I have been with others.  James says “judgment will be without mercy to the one who has not shown mercy”.  That’s a pretty sobering statement when I consider how much I will need mercy when I stand before Jesus!  So I’m going to do my best to cut some slack for the guy in the next pew who is bothering me.

For goodness sake, I ought to keep worshipping myself!

This isn’t easy.  It is definitely an act of self-discipline and of recollection before God that I don’t allow a distraction in Mass to interrupt my own worship.  In a weird way, I might even be able to turn that distraction into a little prayer and maybe even a conscious reinforcement of my decision to worship God.

Let’s say a couple of kids are squirming around in front of me as Father elevates the consecrated Host.  For that matter, let’s say a couple of teenagers three feet in front of me are nudging each other and whispering and ridiculing almost everything that happens at the Easter Vigil.  (This actually happened to me last week.)  Well, of course, that disappoints me.  I’m human, so it irritates me, too.  But my role is to re-focus my mind even more on the community and the sacrifice and our participation in Christ that is the Mass.

And I must avoid self-righteousness as I try to continue my worship.  By grace and nothing else, I have been allowed a mind and will that seeks to worship God.  I am not some superior human because I am this way – I am a blessed human because I have somehow been given the grace to be this way.  If I harbor thoughts of my superiority to the one who fails to understand the worship – if I grit my teeth and thank God that I am not like other people (read Luke 18:10ff) — then I am sinning more grievously than the person I disdain and I bring that sin literally in front of God’s altar.

This idea of re-focusing on the worship brings up something else I can do

When I was distracted by those teenagers in front of me at the Easter Vigil, chances are that other people were distracted, too.  So maybe I can be of some use to those other people by concentrating on the prayers and the homily, by remaining reverent in gesture and expression, by joining myself to Father’s words as we all pray at the altar.

Mass is a group affair.  It’s not about “me”, it’s about “us”.  If I can maintain myself despite distractions, maybe that will help my friend sitting next to me.

And along the same lines, maybe it will even help Father and our deacon if I do everything I can to put myself fully in the liturgy.  One time at lunch, I told our priest how disappointing it is that there are people in the congregation who seem to have little understanding of the stupendous things that happen at every Mass.  His response was “you should see what I see from the altar”.  He said it with sadness and with a sort of matter-of-fact resignation to what he could not change.

Thinking about what Father said, several things occur to me.  It occurs to me that the care of souls is a real weight to our pastor.  It occurs to me he has given his life to the Church – to her liturgy and to the parish in his care.  Most of all, he has given himself to Jesus.  And in that generous gift of himself to Jesus, Father participates in the pain and sadness of Jesus when people are not responsive to the divine call of love and mercy, when they treat the Mass like a second-rate entertainment.  Perhaps in some small way, if I enter in fully to the liturgy, then part of what Father sees from the altar will be me and others in agreement with the gift he has made of his life together with Jesus.  When he lifts up the holy sacrifice, perhaps somehow our wonder and gratitude and awe can mingle with his and encourage him.  I would be grateful if I could help God’s priest.

This hope that I can benefit both my neighbor in the pew and the priest at the altar is summed up in a verse from Hebrews 10: “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.”

If I am distracted or worse at Mass, it is within my power to recall my mind to where I am and why.

Participation at Mass in spirit and in truth centers me in the liturgy and has a positive effect on other people.

Love and a runaway slave

St. Paul converted a runaway slave who belonged to one of Paul’s friends.  This put Paul in a delicate situation.  He ended up persuading the slave to go back to his owner, even though the slave might face horrifying punishments.  Which clearly put the slave in a tough situation, too.

And when you think about it, the slave owner was in a delicate situation.  He, too, was a Christian.  He was rich.  His friends and business associates who owned slaves would expect him to punish the runaway severely; the economy and the political system depended on slavery, so to leave the runaway unpunished would risk both prosperity and stability.  Paul tells the slave owner to love the slave and, beyond that, he gives him no further instructions.

Imagine the scene when the runaway slave shows up

The slave’s name is Onesimus.  The slave owner is Philemon.  The New Testament includes the short letter that St. Paul wrote to Philemon.  It has 25 verses and you can read it here at the Catholic bishops’ website.

Now imagine when Philemon first sees Onesimus.  Everything in Philemon’s experience probably tells him that he is the one who has been wronged, that this slave has harmed him and must be punished.  Everything in Onesimus’ experience probably tells him it is crazy to go back, that he may end up in a situation literally worse than death.  So Onesimus shows up and hands Philemon the letter from Paul.

In that letter, Paul only tells Philemon to do one thing.  He does not tell Philemon to set Onesimus free.  Nor does he tell Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul, even though Paul would very much like for that to happen.  He simply tells Philemon to love Onesimus the way he loves Paul himself, because now that he is a Christian, Onesimus is Philemon’s brother in Christ as well as his slave.

As simple as that.  Paul tells these two Christians that love is more important than physical safety, more important than legal rights, more important than the accepted political and economic opinions of Philemon or his friends and business associates.

This is self-renunciation of the highest order

A few days ago, I wrote about loving what God loves.  The point I wanted to make in that post was that loving what God loves is just about the only way you can give God anything.  And that adopting what God loves as my own is part of what it means to renounce self, the thing Jesus says we must do if we want to follow him and the thing that Lent calls us to.

Now this story about the runaway slave takes what I wrote about a step further.  Loving what God loves is radical – it could even be scary.  Loving what God loves probably will not mesh with culture or politics or economics.

In this situation with the runaway slave, if Philemon loves what God loves (namely his slave Onesimus), then everything, I mean everything, will change in how he treats a runaway slave.  Yes, Onesimus broke the law (Paul knows that; Paul upholds the authority of law; ready the first verses of Romans 13) and yes Philemon has been harmed economically.  Paul doesn’t even deny that Onesimus is property.  But, Paul says the thing to do is to love the runaway as a fellow human, especially since he is now Philemon’s brother in Christ.

If Onesimus loves what God loves (namely if he loves Philemon, a good man whom Paul loves, a man who is good to the church), then Onesimus will trust his owner to “do the Christian thing” and not just knee-jerk react with his legal right or his political and economic interests.  Onesimus will have this trust even though if he is wrong, there will be terrible consequences.

These are huge self-renunciations, full of risk, but oh so full of potential!  Really loving what God loves, not just with words, but also with deeds, is radical.

What this might mean for us today

We must be very careful that what we love is what God loves.  We must be careful not to confuse our own economic interests at a personal level or at a class or national level with what God cares about.  We must be careful not to confuse the interests of our party or class or country with those of God.  We must never allow legal rights or any kind of politics to obscure the humanity of another person or group of persons.

Philemon and Onesimus were called to look beyond personal safety and economics and legal rights. 

They were called to look beyond the accepted culture and social structure of their time.

They were called to love the way God loves.

Love is sometimes dangerous to the status quo.  It trumps everything.

A present for Queen Elizabeth?

Let’s say I want to “do something” for Queen Elizabeth, something that would mean a lot to her, that would somehow make her better off.   She’s one of the richest people in the world and doesn’t exactly have any shortages.  What would I give her?  She likes purses and those hats… but there’s not much point to give her another purse.  A knick-knack?  Probably not.  Maybe I stop by the palace and wash a couple of cars for her?  Honestly, what do I give Queen Elizabeth?  She’s got everything.

The question is not entirely irrelevant.  As a Christian, I am called to serve God and give gifts to him, especially at Lent.  If it’s hard to know what to give Queen Elizabeth, then what in the world can I do for God that will mean anything to him?

It would help to know what she loves

If I know what Queen Elizabeth loves, then it will be easier to decide what to give her or do for her.  Is there a group of people she really loves?  If I could do something for them, then that would benefit her, too.   Here’s one.  She is patroness of a charity called Friends of the Elderly.  Looks like a cool place and if I were to dig in and help that charity, then I really have done something for the Queen of England.  If she found out, of course she would be grateful.  Because I love what she loves.

It goes without saying that if one of her children or grandchildren were in trouble, and I was able to solve the problem, then the Queen would take notice.  I would have done something for her, as well as for her child, because I have aided what she loves.

For that matter, she’s got those dogs.  Is there a charity that looks out for that kind of dog?  If there is, then if I could do something for that kind of dog, I have also done something for Queen Elizabeth, something that really would make a difference to her, not just the dogs.  Again, it’s because I love what she loves.

The principle here is that even if I am in no position to make a given person any better off, yet if I love and work for what that person loves, then I have really and honestly benefitted the individual, too.  Loving what they love is a real gift to them.

It’s pretty obvious how this ties into God

As a Christian, I want to make God happy.  I want to give him something, I want to do him a favor.  But if it’s even hard to do something for Queen Elizabeth, good grief it might be even harder to do something for God.

Yet I know what God loves, because he told me.  Here’s some of what he said.

Romans 5:8  God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  God loves people that are estranged from him.  So… if I will love the people around me enough to live the truth and share the truth with them – if I will find ways to bring the Gospel to them because I love them, then I have given God something he wants, something that actually pleases the Creator of everything.  I love what God loves and that’s about all I can do for him.

Psalm 146:8  The Lord loves the righteous.  God loves the Church.  He loves the people whose lives are hidden in Christ and who obey him.  So… if I will find ways to help the Church prosper in her mission and ways to become more pure in her service to God, then I have given God something he wants.  Since I benefit what he loves, then I have come to his attention in a good way.

Isaiah 58:6,7   Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?  Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?  God loves poor people.  It’s impossible to read the Bible and not come to the conclusion God has a soft spot in his heart for poor people.  So…  if I do something for somebody poor, then I help somebody God cares about.  The Isaiah 58 passage even goes on to say that God will extravagantly bless me if I help poor people and those who suffer unjustly.  I love what God loves and he makes good things happen for me, too.

Matthew 5:44,45   Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  God loves his enemies.  Amazing.  At the end of his life, Jesus talks about people who stone the prophets and kill God’s messengers, yet Jesus says he would gladly have “gathered them together like a hen does her chicks”.  Jesus loved God’s enemies.  So… if I, too, will love God’s enemies (which will obviously include my enemies and that’s where it gets hard), then I’m doing something for the people God loves.  I’m doing something for God, giving him something he appreciates, because I love what he loves.

If you want to do something for God, then love what he loves.

It is a way to imitate God without “playing God”.

Use the things of this world to learn to love the things of heaven.

Why should I do without anything?

There is an interesting “intersection” between something secondary during Lent and something else that is central to the Gospel itself.

The secondary thing is the popular question “What are you giving up for Lent?”

The central-to-the-gospel thing is Jesus saying “Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself.”

Let’s start with the big stuff

It’s sort of surprising how much leeway God gives me in the matter of whether I choose him as my friend or not.  I get to choose, and since he is my master and creator and owner, that’s actually pretty surprising.  God does not overwhelm me with displays of his power or his love, nor does he overrule me if I make the decision to live without him.

But God doesn’t leave me to just stumble around in the dark, either.  There are all sorts of things he uses to draw me to him.  My conscience is one.  My innate need to worship and its counterpart need for beauty.  That story about Jesus that the world just cannot quite get out of its mind.  The Church, which stands constantly as witness to the truth and power and love of God.  These and many more draw me to God.

So when Jesus says I have to deny myself in order to follow him, it is the context of this choice he allows me to make.  What he means is that I cannot remain full of my own desires and my own motives and goals and yet somehow believe I will still be able to follow him.  He means I cannot be so full of me that there is no room for him.  If I follow Jesus, he is going to take up a lot of room in me and I will have to get out of his way.

This is not because Jesus is some kind of a control freak or an egomaniac.  It’s because that’s just how things work when a small creature like me chooses to surrender to the overwhelming Creator of everything there is.  I must make room for him.

Here’s part of how St. Paul describes the process of getting out of Jesus’ way

St. Paul wrote this toward the end of his life.

Whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ.  More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.   Philippians 3:7-11


St. Paul had been prominent and even powerful in his corner of the world before he became a Christian.  All of that had to be given up after he followed Jesus – in fact, there was an amazing amount of physical suffering (beatings and imprisonments and betrayals and the like), plus mental suffering after he became a Christian.  And Paul says that is ok with him.  If you read the whole book of Philippians (go ahead and do that – it’s a great read), it turns out St. Paul is happy to suffer for Jesus and give up “whatever it takes” for him.

The Philippians passage shows two reasons for St. Paul’s willingness to do without for the sake of Jesus.

First, he wants to know Jesus and giving up stuff is part of that process for him.  St. Paul made a lot of powerful enemies when he became a Christian, so of course that has a price.  Having powerful enemies usually costs quite a bit.  Other things that he gave up had to do with his old religion, a religion that had been perfected and fulfilled in Jesus.  So he had to give up that old religion, too.  Here’s the point – he absolutely could not have held onto old friends and old religion and at the same time been able to know Jesus.  He had to give these things up and he was glad to.  Jesus is worth it.

Second, there’s a huge payoff for St. Paul in giving stuff up.   He says he accepts the loss of all things.  And he says that in return he receives the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ, plus he will be resurrected from the dead.  That’s huge!  You think Warren Buffett gets a nice return on investment?  He gets nothing compared to what Paul and every Christian gets.

So the bottom line is that St. Paul does not give up things just to be giving them up.  Giving up things is part of the process of coming to Jesus and staying with him.  What St. Paul calls “the loss of all things” is pretty much what Jesus calls “denying self”.  The giving up – the denying of self – is done in order to obtain something even better.

So what does this have to do with giving up something for Lent?

If you received ashes last Wednesday, there are two things the minister may have said to you.  One of them is “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  So the big thing about giving up something for Lent has to do with sin.  If you are still refusing to repent of some sin, if you are willfully engaging in some sin, then by all means repent.  Give up that sin.  The stakes are high.  This is a huge part of the self-denial Jesus talks about.  It is even the way that St. Mark opens his Gospel.

After John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

In addition to repenting from sin, the Church also encourages what could be called ritual renunciation, the giving up of small things during Lent.  These do have a connection with the self-denial that Jesus says is required of every one of his disciples and the “loss of all things” that St. Paul speaks of in his own life.  These ritual renunciations can enrich our lives and draw us closer to God.  Even though we all make jokes about giving up our boss for Lent or something like that, we ought to be thoughtful about engaging in ritual renunciations.

  • Given the crowded nature of our schedules these days, consider giving up something that will free up some time – then give that time to God and the Church in prayer or Christian service.
  • The Church has always encouraged what are sometimes called mortifications, physical disciplines on the body that constitute a form of exercise of our will over our flesh.  The most obvious example is fasting, but there are others.  St. Paul mentions in I Corinthians 7 that a married couple might refrain from sex for a period of time in order to devote themselves to prayer.  I hear of folks who temporarily give up television or some favorite pastime in order to devote themselves to some Christian service or study.
  • The thing I give up will cause me discomfort.  (Duh.)  And that discomfort can itself be offered to God as a sort of prayer, a plea that God will use my discomfort in whatever way may please him to unite me more closely to Jesus.  Or unite me more closely to people all over the world who suffer in a similar way, but whose suffering is forced on them, rather than just voluntary like mine.
  •  So in a particular way, I can offer my discomfort, my small sacrifice in Lent, to God and ask him to unite that discomfort to the suffering of Jesus and the world, and thus draw me closer to him in love.
  • This is not masochism, nor is it superstition, nor is it some tactic to force God to give me a special favor.  It is simply the response of one person to another (me to God) saying I want to become even closer to you.  I want to grow in love and devotion.  I want you to be not merely the center of my life, but the whole of my life, and I offer you this small sacrifice of time and comfort in Lent hoping to be united more closely to you in eternity.
  • These voluntary deprivations may, if it pleases God, be part of schooling for real and deep suffering later in life.
  • We hope to use the things of this world to learn to love the things of heaven.

Use Lent to make some extra room for God.

Offer God your sacrifice in union with Jesus and with those who suffer involuntarily.

It will help you to celebrate Easter with joy.