“I’m devoted to yard and garage sales, and love to spend time with friendly strangers in scuffed front yards and oily, dim garages. Here’s a poem by Matthew Brennan, who lives in Indiana, from his 2016 Lamar University book, One Life.”
Ted Kooser, United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (2004-2006).
“There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful.”
— Emerson, Nature
The renters bring out their greasy table,
End of the month again: It sags,
Weighted and warped like them, unable
To hold much more than glasses and rags.
Old clothes and rusty tools compete
For space with magazines they stole
From garbage bins behind our street;
Each shoe reveals a run-down sole.
A few come by, inspect, and leave,
Almost always with empty hands.
But when, at sundown, all things cleave
To slanted light, and when it lands
So rubber, glass, and metal glint—
And for a moment make you squint—
You’ll see our neighbors bathed in gold
As if their worth cannot be sold.
“My late friend, the poet and novelist Jim Harrison, used to tease me about the buckets of bent nails in my barn, which I planned to straighten on some rainy day but which only accumulated. Here’s a fine bent nail poem by Thomas R. Moore, from his new book Saving Nails, from Moon Pie Press. Moore lives in Maine.” –Ted Kooser, former U.S. Poet Laureate
I strip the porch roof, pick out the used
nails, and toss the shingles down onto
a drop cloth, remembering when I shingled
my grandmother’s roof fifty years ago:
the tar smell, the brackets, planks, and
ladders all the same, but level now
with hemlock limbs instead of locust.
I lug four shingles up the ladder, kneel
and drive the old nails home, slide
another shingle into place, pound,
toes bent, knees creaking. Miserliness,
a friend jokes about the nails, but I call it
caring, thinking of the man who gave
us this land on the cove, the cottage, the boat-
house full of boats. The only time I saw
him he was at his work bench, a rich
man straightening nails, moving from
the bent can to the anvil to the straight.
Once there was a bird who loved to fly. But one day, while she was high up in the air, it began to rain, and her feathers became so heavy that when she tried to land, she crashed and broke her wing. Eventually, she healed, but there was a problem. Every time she wanted to fly, something inside stopped her from leaving the ground. Day after day, her fear and anxiety held her down. She forgot who she was.
But one day, a strong wind came, caught her, and lifted her high into the sky. Terrified, the bird had no other choice but to open her wings.
And that’s when she remembered how to fly.
We all have moments like this in our lives. When we are frozen. When we forget who we are. Like when a bill arrives and you have no idea how you are going to pay for it. Or, when someone at home has an addiction. Or we have to deal with controlling boss. Or when we forget to complete a school project. Or a medical situation just drops into our lives, one that we never would have imaged we’d have to deal with. What are we supposed to do? We forget how to be happy. We’re overwhelmed. We have no idea what it means to ‘go in peace’.
But God remembers. And God gets to work.
Not by taking away our problems, our fears and anxieties. But by reminding us of who we really are. By being that strong wind that will life us up… just like that little bird.
That’s exactly what happened to Abraham in our first reading from Genesis. We know the theological meaning here – a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus; a testimony to Abraham’s faith – but let’s be real: what was dinner like that night at Abraham’s home? Imagine his stress, his anxiety, his confusion when he looked into the eyes of his son. He must have questioned why that whole episode had to happen in the first place.
We’ve all been there. Struggling with God’s plans. Maybe it’s your Lenten journey this year. The prayer, the fasting, the almsgiving. We might think: “Ugh. Here I am trying to make through today, and I’m also supposed to not eat meat, to be diligent in prayers, to give my money away to a charity.” Like that little bird, we’re frozen. We know what we’re supposed to do, but we just can’t.
Abraham reminds us that God always has our best interests in mind. We need to remember and trust God through not only the blessing of what we can do, but maybe even more so in our greatest losses, our greatest disappointments, our broken dreams.
You can’t help but hope that the student marches in Parkland to protest gun violence are going to make a difference. That out of a horrible event, our nation will be changed for the better. The same with the Dreamers, as our Cardinal Cupich has spoken about quite a bit this week. Both reminders that God provides us the gift of hope in the moments of our greatest despair.
Maybe that’s why we read the Transfiguration in today’s Gospel. Our destiny, our “destination” – a peek into heaven. For just a brief moment, God’s provides a strong wind to get us in the air again. We see the promise of our own resurrection, our life in the presence of Jesus the Lord. He flew first, through death into new life. He showed us the way.
The sacrifice of Isaac happens at the beginning of Abraham’s life. Yet he is promised so much for doing what God asks him to do. Through his effort, the nation of Israel begins.
Imagine all the wonderful things God has in store for your life after you – like Abraham — face your difficult moments. To know that your problem is not the end of the story.
That’s’ the promise of Easter. That’s the reminder of Lent.
The great Billy Graham, who passed away this week, once said, “I’ve read the last page of the bible. It’s all going to turn out alright.”
May that be the wind beneath our wings this morning.
Blake Sheldon. Jennifer Hudson. Adam Levine. Miley Cyrus. The Voice. The judges. Last season. Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve seen the commercials. Blind Auditions. A nervous singer on a dark stage, judges facing the opposite way, towards the audience.
Talk about stress. I bet it takes a lot of courage to be willing to be judged like that on national TV. Imagine how that must feel? If the judges like what they hear, they hit a red button, and the chair spins around in approval. A sign lights up beneath their seat. “I want you.” Wow.
We’ve all had anxious moments like those singers, haven’t we, when we wanted so badly to be chosen? Will the coaches choose me to start on varsity? What if my chemistry project doesn’t get chosen? Will I get accepted to my first choice of colleges? What if none of my friends show up after school?
Sometimes we are chosen. But sometimes we are not. Let’s face it: sometimes we are not at our best. Maybe we let ourselves down, took a few shortcuts, maybe started doubting ourselves. The mystics and psychologists tell us that if we dig deep enough, we’ll always find some stuff we are not proud of. That’s the core of what St. Ignatius refers to as a ‘loved sinner’ in the Spiritual Exercises. It sounds something like this….
How could anyone choose me? Why would any of those judges’ turn around for me?
When I was in high school, I used to think Lent was a sort of blind audition for God’s attention. A dark obstacle course, controlled by a God facing the other way. I used to think… if I pray, if I fast, if I abstain – just like what Jesus’ asks us to do in Matthew’s Gospel today – maybe God will judge me favorably. Love me a little more. Maybe bless me a little more.
But to paraphrase that great philosopher Dustin Henderson from Stranger Things, “Sometimes, my total obliviousness just blows God’s mind.” No, it took a few years for God to teach me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. That there is nothing any of us can do during Lent – or any other time — that will get God to love us any more than He does right now. You can’t earn God’s favor. During the next 40 days, we’re all called to look with humility on our sinfulness… but the intent is to change our actions, our hearts, our minds — not God’s.
What am I saying? It’s simply this: before you were born, before you even knew what an audition was, God had already hit the red button. His chair had already turned around. The creator of the universe is calling out your name, a smile ear to ear, despite your failures, your sins, your flaws. That’s what Jesus did, ransomed our sins through His death and resurrection. An economy of grace. Not an economy of merit.
You know, those Blind Auditions are only the first few episodes. The rest of the season continues with the Battle Rounds, the Knockout Rounds, the Playoffs. The real work begins after they singers have been chosen. Just like us.
Imagine the bottom of God’s judging chair not saying “I want you”, but “I need you.” To serve the poor, to go to confession, to defend the marginalized, to honestly repent, to get involved in your parish, to help out with our school service programs, to go to Mass… these are the most important ‘acts’ you will ever perform. That’s what the ashes mean. You are marked by God. To do great things.
But unlike The Voice, you’re not up on a stage all alone. As the Prophet Joel instructs the Israelites in our first reading, “call an assembly; gather the people, assemble the elders….” So, too, with us. Just look around.
If the #Me Too movement has taught us anything, it’s that one courageous voice, multiplied by thousands – millions — can and does make a difference.
Just like the ocean of neon, our student cheering section, dressed so colorfully behind the basket at the Jesuit Cup. E Pluribus Unum. We all could feel the love. And win or lose, your cheers did not stop. And that’s the type of solidarity and support our world so desperately needs today. Are you up for the challenge?
C.S. Lewis said it best, of course. He almost always does.
Even though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. A love not wearied by our sins, or our indifference. A love quite relentless in its determination to heal us… at whatever cost to us… and at whatever cost to Christ.
We walked at the edge of the sea, the dog,
still young then, running ahead of us.
Few people. Gulls. A flock of pelicans
circled beyond the swells, then closed
their wings and dropped head-long
into the dazzle of light and sea. You clapped
your hands; the day grew brilliant.
Later we sat at a small table
with wine and food that tasted of the sea.
A perfect day, we said to one another,
so that even when the day ended
and the lights of houses among the hills
came on like a scattering of embers,
we watched it leave without regret.
That night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly—Ah, Happiness!
then we turn and go on our way again.
But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns—
that day by the sea, that happiness,
though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.
Peter Everwine lives in California, and his most recent book is Listening Long and Late from the University of Pittsburgh Press.
“How can this be?”
I can remember asking that same question when I first heard about on-line shopping. No cash needed. I remember asking that question when somebody explained to me what a GPS system was. And when I was told I could now adjust the thermostat in my house with an app. Or when I could lock my car from 20 feet away.
“How can this be?”
Now if you’re under 25, you’re probably thinking “What’s he talking about?” But for those of us who are a little older, all these things that we couldn’t even imagine a few years ago are now part of our daily lives, thanks to technology. Like Charles Kettering quote about the Wright Brothers “They flew right through the smoke screen of impossibility.” Think of how different your life would be without MRI’s? They can see inside you now! Laser surgery? Even without e-mail?
So tell me,… why is it that when we think of all the other unquestioned impossibilities in our lives, we give up so easily?
We say, I just can’t forgive that person. I’ll never get rehired in my line of work. I’ll never lose that weight. I won’t be able to beat my addiction. I’ll never get a good medical report. I’ll never get over the loss of my mother… my father… my son… my daughter… my wife… my husband. That’s impossible.
But today’s Gospel has a different message for us. One of the most amazing messages we will ever hear!
When the angel Gabriel tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” he’s talking to us as well. Nothing is impossible with God. Most people thought that God becoming man – the Incarnation – was impossible. They thought rising from the dead was impossible. Miracles were impossible. Unconditional love was impossible.
And they were wrong. We are wrong.
You know, that word “overshadow” in the original Greek means “to envelop in a haze of brilliancy.” Well, God has enveloped your life “in a haze a brilliancy,” too. Sound impossible? Think for a moment how many people are happy to see you, depend on you, who love you so much. You are a bright light to your friends and family, to all gathered here today. God has made your light possible, your life possible. You are living proof that miracles happen.
Winston Churchill thought many things in his life were impossible. He was held back a grade during elementary school. When he entered high school, he was placed in the lowest division of the lowest class. Later, he failed the entrance exam to the Royal Military Academy — twice. He was soundly defeated in his first effort to serve in Parliament. He finally began his political career as Prime Minister at the age of 62.
When asked if he ever doubted he could do the impossible, Churchill replied, “No. My attitude always was to never give up, never give in, never, never, never, never.” Shouldn’t we be even more trusting in God’s providence, knowing all the miracles Christ has woven into our lives?
Scripture tells us that when they lowered a paralyzed man down to Jesus through the roof on a stretcher, Jesus told him to rise because his sins were forgiven. When he did, the doubters were amazed. How could this be? They didn’t believe Jesus could do the impossible.
So why are we still doubting? If Christ can make the lame walk, imagine the miracles he can work in your life? Sometimes I think we are guilty of thinking God is too small. We are not dreaming enough.
Where do you need to start believing? In your ability to forgive someone from years ago? Physical healing? Getting straight “A”’s? Think about it: If technology can do so much, imagine how much more God can do for you when you ask in prayer, when you receive the Eucharist, when you follow Him, when you believe.
Today let’s not ask God “How can this be?” I mean, Mary has already asked that in her youthful insecurity and unknowing.
No, maybe let’s pray a new prayer this Christmas season…
“Lord, I know you can make the impossible possible. You’ve done it before. You can do it again. I know nothing in this life is perfect – starting with me – but you make all things new. Give me the grace to face the uncomfortable situations, the harsh realities, the impossibilities in my life, knowing You are by my side. Help me to stop doubting, and start believing that You can change all things – because You have changed all things. I’m not asking for a perfect ending to my journeys. I’m asking to begin to learn to trust You as Mary did. And may my trust begin today.”