Monday, January 27, 2014

Sometimes the Kingdom Breaks In....

As a college student educated in the 1960's and 70's, I became acquainted with the poetry and other writings of the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Years later, I read his Precocious Autobiography. One passage moved me to tears.  I share it with you during these dark and cold days of endless winter, as a sign that, at times, even in terrible circumstances, the light shines and the Kingdom breaks through:  

It took place in Moscow in 1944.  Yevtushenko and his mother stood in a crowd of Russians, watching 20,000 German prisoners of war marching through the streets, most to die in Russian forced-labor camps. This is what Yevtushenko said of the occasion — he was eleven years old at the time and, like every Russian, knew what had happened at Stalingrad:
The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.
At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors.
‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying,’Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.
This reminds me that the actions of one person can bring light and life to moments that are dark and hopeless.

We have choices to make, you and I.  We can go on hating and resenting--or, we can reconcile.
How can we act this day to bring light to another's darkness?

Steven D. Olson

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holy Family. Our Family.

A priest I know recently told the story of a lawyer who lived a considerable distance from her father.  Months had passed since they had seen each other.  When her father called to ask when she might visit, the daughter came up with a laundry list of reasons why she couldn’t come to see him--her court schedule, meetings, new clients, work, work, work.  When she finished her list of reasons why she could not come to visit, her father asked, “When I die, do you intend to come to my funeral?”  The daughter’s response was immediate:  “Dad, I can’t believe that you would ask me that!  Of course I would come!”  To which the father replied, “Good!  Forget the funeral and come now!   I need you now more than I will then!”

On this Feast of the Holy Family, we are reminded that modern families, like the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, have to cope with many challenges and stressors.  One challenge that many families face is the challenge of finding time to be together.  

An added challenge today is that when families are together in the same space, each person is often tethered to their own technology.  They may all be in the same room and still not interacting with each other.

What challenge is your family facing?  Serious illness? Unemployment? Money problems?  Or is your family coping with the loss of a loved one this Christmas?

When you look just beneath the sentimentality of the Christmas story, you see just how tough life was for the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph:

Mary’s pregnancy in the little town of Nazareth made for confusion and stress in her relationship with her fiancĂ©, Joseph, and nearly caused a scandal in that little town.  Joseph even considered divorce before the angel intervened in a dream.  Mary barely escaped being stoned…

Then there was the tax-census ordered by the Roman Emperor, requiring this young woman and her betrothed to make a long journey in Mary’s last days of pregnancy.  Arriving in Bethlehem, they were forced to have their child in the squalor of a cave.

Unable to enjoy the wonder of the birth of their child—robbed of the joy of celebration--this young couple was suddenly uprooted and forced to flee to a neighboring country to protect their newborn from the terroristic threats of King Herod.  

By the time Jesus begins His public ministry, we no longer hear anything about Joseph.  Mary, now a widow, had to face the present and the future alone.

Her son’s public ministry must have taken a toll on her.  Old Simeon had predicted that a sword of sorrow would pierce her soul.  It must have been downright unpleasant the day when Jesus returned home to Nazareth (Mark 3:21) when his relatives considered taking Him by force, convinced that Jesus was out of His mind.  Not a pleasant experience for any family, no matter how holy.

And then there was the growing hostility by the Jewish authorities that must have caused great pain for both Mary and Jesus, as it became increasingly clear that Jesus would have to pay for His mission by dying.

Finally, we have the image of the Blessed Mother, standing at the foot of the cross, enduring the crucifixion of her son.  

How did this family, how does any family, survive all this?

Through love and faith.  They survived all their crises through love for each other and faith in God.

If life in our families is difficult or stressful, let’s remember what the Holy Family did:  they kept God at the center of their lives and worshipped regularly.

If you have been estranged from God and God's people, consider a New Year's resolution to return home to your faith family.

Steven D. Olson

Saturday, December 21, 2013

That Elusive Christmas Spirit...

One Christmas I read a newspaper article written by a reporter who had been searching for the meaning of “the Christmas spirit.” When he concluded his quest, he rated this answer as the best: “It’s in your heart. It feels warm and glowy. You can’t buy it, and you can’t get it from anybody else.”

 That’s the popular concept of “the Christmas spirit”—it’s inside us. We just have to “get” it. So, does it hit when we unpack our decorations and start playing Christmas music? Does it require a Christmas tree? One strand of lights? Two? Is it more presents? Or does it come down to out-dazzling our neighbors with a bigger outdoor display? Does it come when we share food our family served when we were children?  Or when certain special people are with us? 

In pursuit of the Christmas Spirit, I decided to re-read the Christmas story in Luke.  I wanted to study the reaction of those shepherds—working the night shift!—who were the first people to get the news of the birth of Baby Jesus. After seeing Him, we’re told that they returned to their sheep “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:8-20).

Shepherds in those days weren’t the gentle, soft-spoken people that greeting cards portray. More likely they were rough-cut and hardy. When the Bible says they were glorifying and praising God, it’s describing something like the last second of a playoff game when the home team wins, and the whooping and hollering cut loose! That was likely the only kind of “glorifying” they knew how to do…and they were awestruck!

 Christ’s birth, enthusiastically celebrated by hard-working shepherds, changed everything! That baby was the living proof that God really did love the world so much “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

And that baby brings us back to the question, “What is the Christmas spirit?” I believe it’s a deep-seated joy in knowing that the story of the Christ Child is gloriously true! Many will celebrate Christmas this year, experience gifts and excitement, but never connect the celebration with the reason for it. 

For many of us, capturing the Christmas Spirit will be especially challenging this year.  Many are out of work and the economic picture has deteriorated for many of us.  Some of us have lost friends or family members this year.  For many of us, the trappings of Christmasses past have changed or are gone altogether. 

That’s the difference between those who really have the Christmas spirit and those who don’t. For those who have it, you could remove the trees, lights, presents, food, and music, and their joy would still be intact! 

That's the Spirit I'm praying for today....the only gift that matters.

Steven D. Olson
Solstice, 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

People Are Often Unreasonable....

Mother Teresa's Anyway Poem

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

[Reportedly inscribed on the wall of Mother Teresa's children's home in Calcutta, and attributed to her. However, an article in the New York Times has since reported (March 8, 2002) that the original version of this poem was written by Kent M. Keith.]