How do we teach others to bleed for Jesus?

I’ve been in deep grief for several months. I guess, if truth be told, it has been for years. I first began with what they would clinically call, ‘anticipatory grief’, and now I am in bereavement. My dad is gone and I feel his absence every day.

Recently, a friend sent me a card that read, grief is the gift of awareness. He went on to write, Jim, because of your loss, you are made keenly aware of the value and meaning of your life. You know how fragile life is and how quickly things can change – leaving us shaken and feeling alone.” I sat with that card for a long while. I needed to ‘hear’ what he was trying to tell me. I needed to find the still small voice of God in this brief, but powerful interaction with a friend who knows me, and knows me very well.

I have noted that as I look around at the grocery store or while on line at the local post office, I have a natural newfound empathy for those around me because I know that hardship is all-too-common. I often look at the faces around me and wonder deep down, ‘are they, too, hurting like me?’ I am all too aware now of how very difficult being human can be sometimes.

Over the last several weeks, since my father’s death right after Christmas, I have been lethargic and have eaten poorly and slept a lot, but not too deeply. After my bathroom scale tipped twelve pounds heavier, I was even more distraught and I went to my family doctor and he wrote on his prescription pad, “Eat, Sleep, Cry”. He reminded me that I suffered a significant loss and that I needed to grieve. He said, “You will be OK, Father, for now just do what I wrote and later you will find your center again.”

So I did just that and allowed myself to cry and grieve. I even had the chance recently to spend two weeks with my mother on and off between my home in Philadelphia, to Florida, and back again. It was a healing time. We laughed, grieved, cried, and supported one another. It was good to have my mom with me. I decided after that visit that it was time to heal. So, I began a new routine at a new gym. The program is called CrossFit and it is intense! The first few days, I could barely walk up the steps to get into my apartment! But I have stuck with it and feel a renewed energy.

CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program that delivers a fitness that is – by design – broad, general, and inclusive. Elements of track & field, gymnastics, weightlifting, and strongman are combined in short intense sixty-minute daily workouts to maximize results. CrossFit teaches functional movement patterns, or, movements that we find in real life such as pushing, pulling, squatting, jumping, throwing, carrying, and sprinting. It is not for the weak at heart, and I will state here that I honestly feel my age more than I ever did before, but I am determined!

So what does this have to do with church life or God? Well, it actually has a lot to do with all of that and more, especially Stewardship, giving, and trusting God! Allow me to explain:

Before you can begin CrossFit you need to sign a bunch of scary waivers about dropping dead (literally!) and also attend a course they call, On Ramp. It is a three-hour introduction on basic movements, safety, and your initial class. It begins at 7:00am on a Saturday morning and ends a little after 10:00am (or, in my case, about 10:35am!) You come home completely exhausted and unsure if you will ever return back!

While I was there at that initial class, one of the coaches watched us perform a basic set of push-ups. He stopped all of us and had us watch him. He explained that, like him, no one ever really explained the proper positioning of a proper push up. He then had us all stand in a line and drop our arms at our side. He said, “Now raise your arms and allow them to go to their natural position.” All of our arms were extended and the palms were up. He said, “Now, turn your fingers up.” We did and what we found was that your body naturally aligns the fingers to point up and parallel to one another and that automatically aligns your fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders with your spine! In other words, when you now fall to the ground to do an actual push-up, you remember that natural positioning and voila! You never get hurt or strain your shoulder again!

I have been going to gyms since college and not one instructor ever taught me that valuable lesson! It was simple and amazing. And it was that little educational experience that changed the way we do Stewardship at Saint Miriam once again!

A few issues ago, I wrote about a new campaign we began called Make Church Matter. It was about changing the way “we do” church! The way we attend, the way we give, and the way we engage. It has made for a stronger parish for us and we are proud of the work we have done and the people we have gained. But, while we did see a significant increase in ‘time, talent, and treasure’, we are still lacking that proverbial ‘comfort zone’. And with a new building looming on the horizon for us, we needed to rethink again.

The basic advice received from all the experts we called upon was, ‘Just do a Capital Campaign.” But that advice was somehow lacking for me, as a pastor. I didn’t want just more giving without a real life change. I wanted to focus on covenants and promises and if we truly trust God. So, I chose to begin in Lent.

Look, we all know that the world we live in is full of trouble, pain, conflict, and war. Just turn on the news today and we will witness a plethora of the world’s troubles and in some very horrific ways. Even our own lives can seem tense and troubled, too, at times. Debts can be high, income low, and relationships strained. Our days run into weeks and the clock often controls them. Few of us find ways to simply stop, get off the proverbial merry-go-round, and find a place of peace and refuge, if only for a few moments to commune and gain strength from God. But, we must, or we shall perish like the wheat that falls to the earth. Enter Lent.

As followers of St. Francis at Saint Miriam, we rely on his life and inspiration to follow the pattern of the Gospel more closely. It leads us more deeply into this Lenten season and perhaps allows us to let go of the troubles of the world, as we try and find a closer relationship with Christ. So I asked the following question in one of my blog articles for our weekly newsletter, The Saint Miriam Focus:

How will you dedicate your Lenten focus to God? Will you promise to attend Mass regularly? Give more of time, talent, and treasure? Will you pray more? Give more of yourself, rather than ‘giving up’ chocolates or some worldly good? How will you focus your life more on that which lasts, rather than that which fades with the passage of time?

“God will cover you with his feathers, and under God’s wings you may trust.” (Psalm 91:4) Do you really trust God?

Well, do we? Do you? Do I? It is easy to just say, “Of course I do!” But, I wanted us to stop and to engage it at a deeper level. Do we really trust God?

I then spent the six weeks leading up to Lent talking about trust, covenants, and promises. I spoke of changing the way we engage the word and one another. I was preparing my parishioners – and myself – for Lent, but I knew that I wanted to do more. Enter CrossFit!

After that little demonstration on push-ups, it was like an epiphany to me that many, if not most, Catholics are afraid of tithing. In fact, most do not tithe and have no way of figuring it out. We have even learned over the last few years no one tithes and no one does what we asked in order to figure it out! We gave them ‘Giving Guides” and percentage scales and waited and…nothing! Not one did it! No, not one!

So I took the simplicity of learning to do push-ups properly and brought it to a new campaign that we call, The Dollar and Dime 90 Day Challenge!” It had a lead in period where we placed large stickers on the parish floors (even the restrooms!) telling about all the good we have done over the last year. We changed the pew cards and began to show the image of dollars and dimes, but without giving away the program. We added a webpage about it, but did not make it public, and then we used two Sundays to launch it.

In other words, we began to use the holy season of Lent to look at ourselves more deeply in order to discern if we really trust God. We also began to look at our relationship with our human weaknesses and temptations as we once-for-all decide to look with ‘honest eyes’ at our relationships with fear, trust, and yes, money, too. And then we did the unimaginable! We canceled Stewardship for 2015! Yes, flat out, canceled it!

You see, we wanted people to focus on a better relationship with God this Lent, rather than avoiding coming to Mass because they hated those stewardship talks! In the end, it has worked so far. The uniqueness of the program is in five primary areas, (1) It’s simplicity, (2) The program is engaging, (3) The intriguing and self describing quality of the program name, (4) It’s limited life span of only 90 days, (5) The “safety net” we provide by the covenant we gave the parishioners, (6) and, the way we explained tithing!

We believe that the unique insights that our Dollar & Dime 90 Day Challenge will bring to all of us will be revolutionary in large and small ways for our families, our parish, our world, and ourselves! We have already begun to see results! Giving is up, people’s morale is better, and our parishioners are talking with one another, not just ‘at’ about tithing!

The program was formally launched with my homily for the First Sunday of Lent. I addressed the word and descriptions of Covenants: the one we heard of in the sacred scripture lessons from The Book of Genesis about Noah and the covenant that yielded a rainbow, to Psalms, to the one renewed at the Morning Mass that day by our long-term parishioners, Donna and Chester, after 30 years of Marriage! And then we looked the Miriam Covenant! (Yes, my parishioners, too, live by a covenant here at our parish.) Twice annually (At our Fall In-gathering Mass and at the spring, Great Vigil of Easter) we gather all of our new members, those who registered, transferred their baptismal records, and completed our Walk Beside Me Program and present them with their own Saint Miriam Bell and a personalized copy for the Miriam Covenant! Please visit our new website and you will find a pdf version along with its preamble:

“We live by a covenant. One is with God, and one is with each other. Why? Because it makes for stronger community and stronger Christians and even better Catholics!”

The Miriam Covenant is strong and worthy of our attention, because it brings about a better parish, as we serve the living and one true God.

That is why we canceled the annual Stewardship Campaign. It was not enough to just have them complete yet another pledge card and give a little money now and then; it must mean something, too. So, we decided that the ‘ask’ this year was not worth the effort if it cost us souls. We wanted something more. Something that would continue our new direction started some two years ago with Make Church Matter.

This year we wanted every parishioner to know what tithing was and the blessings that can come from it. We wanted every parishioner to know about God’s promises and to examine their lives in this Lenten season. We wanted every parishioner to sit down and spend as much time figuring out what they give to God, as they do calculating a tip for a server at their favorite restaurant. This year we wanted to be blessed, but to have every member blessed, too.

Here is the illustration that I did at that homily:

I held up a single dollar bill. Then, I held up next it a single dime. I said that the intent of the tithing challenge was for every one of the dollars that comes into the household, you promise to give to God and the Church, one small dime. And now here is the best part! (I held up a jar and dropped 90 cents in coins intentionally making them rattle around!) You get to keep the remaining 90 cents and your life is blessed because you gave to God from the abundance, the first fruits, from the top, as they say. In other words, you honored God FIRST!

That’s it! It is that simple! Just like me learning how to do push-ups after all those years of hurting myself and getting strained shoulders. It took one guy to teach me the right way. Perhaps it can take one guy (or gal!) to teach others how to tithe to God? How to really trust God?

In, “The Voice of the Martyrs”, I found the true story of a 10-year-old Filipino girl, Maria. For months she was seen occasionally outside the door of a church, just looking in. The American missionaries invited her to come in, but she politely declined. You see, Maria’s father had strictly forbidden her to have any thing to do with the Christians. But the missionaries kept praying for Maria.

One Sunday, Maria attended and instantly her heart responded to the good news of our Christ! That very day she invited Jesus into her heart. The missionary, so overjoyed, presented Maria with a beautiful white dress as a symbol of being washed from sin and covered in the righteousness of Christ.

The following Sunday, Maria was missing. No one had seen her since the previous Sunday. One of missionaries went to the area where he thought she lived, and finally located her home. He found Maria lying in the dirt at the side of the road in a ditch. Her white dress was torn, filthy, and bloody. Her father had been very angry about her new found faith and in a drunken rage, he beat her, kicked her repeatedly, and left her to die. The missionary gently lifted the fragile girl and took her to a nearby clinic. There the ragged dress was removed. But the injuries were too severe, and soon she would die.

The missionary sat by her bedside, refusing to leave her to die alone. She regained consciousness briefly and made an unusual request. She wanted to hold her white dress. The missionary explained that it was torn and bloody. Nevertheless, she insisted.

With spiritual insight far beyond that of a typical 10-year-old, she whispered to the missionary, “I just want Jesus to know that I was willing to bleed for him, too.”

I pray that perhaps as shepherd of my parish and my diocese, I might encourage others to live their life for Christ in all aspects of their life. I pray that my Franciscan emphasis brings real love of holy poverty. I pray that my illustration and dedication might cause a few to take a moment and consider this challenge. It may just bring about something unexpected: a new relationship with God.

Blessed Lent. Blessed Journey.

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