Years ago, after my father had lost the grocery store and had gone to work as a custodian at the parish, he would discuss his day at the dinner table. People used to do that. I should have paid more attention because he was usually talking about something that had broken down, something I’ve now inherited.
Remember how, sometimes, things could get so bad that Batman had to call upon Superman, or vice-a-versa? The hero of my Father’s story was always Glenn Breford, a local heating and air conditioning man. Dad quoted Glenn like folks quote Genesis: Glenn says those filters need to be changed every autumn; Glenn said you can’t run compressors at that level for that long. Glenn may not have been a superhero, but he was definitely the one to call when something went wrong in our little Gotham.
Let’s move forward, about 30 years. Dad has been gone for 17 years, and Glenn is now the Mayor of Woodhaven, the local nursing home. It’s not an elected position. It’s a title I’ve given him.
Visiting residents of a nursing home, as a group, before and after Mass, is a lot like visiting the second grade. You’re never sure who is going to speak, and you’re rather certain that each will begin talking before the first person finished. Another similarity, you’re not always sure what you’ve just heard, but it’s heartfelt.
Glenn carries an oxygen tank with him now. I asked him about it. “Some doctor in league with oxygen tank salesmen. I don’t need it.” Every week, either before Mass, or after Mass, Glenn rises from his chair, tank in tow, and comes up to me at the altar and to say, rather solemnly, “Father, we want to thank you for coming to say Mass for us.”
“You’re welcome, Glenn.” That’s either not the right response or it’s insufficient, because Glenn typically repeats the expression of gratitude, as though he wanted the local press to hear and to record it. “No, we are very grateful.” Clearly, it matters a great deal to Glenn that I know this. Learn to watch for gratitude, in yourself and others.
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” says the Lord through the Prophet Amos, “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” (8: 4, 7).
Some say that talk of money doesn’t belong in the pulpit. Some have a long list of what doesn’t belong in the pulpit, and not without some point, I might add. But it’s hard to say that our relationship with money has nothing to do with our relationship to God, not when Jesus warns us that:
Sometimes preachers need to ask for money, and they shouldn’t be ashamed to do so. Money makes the world go round, as they say. It pays for heating and air conditioning.
Yet there’s a lesson deeper than stewardship here. Ideally, we ought to reverence God and owe money to no one. But many of us reverence money, and we owe it to just about everybody, especially credit card companies. Leave the words of Amos to deal with the credit card companies. What about us?
Why do so many of us Americans spend beyond our means? Why do we indebt ourselves and then try, as much as possible, to ignore those who are genuinely in need: the poor ones of the nation who don’t choose, or create, their lot? Many, too poor to have a credit card.
Remember Glenn, the Mayor of Woodhaven? A little excessive in his thanks? Earlier this week, I stood for several minutes and watched a nearly full moon pass in and out of dark clouds. How beautiful! How much would people pay to see such a site, if heaven charged for its blessings? What if cats charged us to be petted, or dogs wanted a dollar for each lick they gave?
The best things in life really are free. Take a walk through nature. Watch leaves turn color and fall. Look up at the moon or the sun. What would people pay to see a rainbow, if it came with a price tag? Watch a child open a present. Watch a nursing home resident receive Holy Communion. Then, consider the list of things you’ve bought on credit with your cards.
How does it happen that the best in life is free and that we take it for granted? Why do we spend money, which we don’t have, on things, which we don’t need, when so many around the world, and in our neighborhoods, go hungry? For them, the best things in life—housing, health care and food—aren’t free. They’re denied. What does it mean to tell a child without fresh water to enjoy the sun?
St. John of the Cross suggested that the first movement of an authentic spiritual life wasn’t an acknowledgment of sin. That’s probably second. The first movement of the spiritual life is gratitude: an awareness that all of nature, all the world, all of life comes to us as gift. It need not be. We need not be.
People like Glenn, the Mayor of Woodhaven, have a lot to teach us. There are two ways to look at the world: seeing what you can get out of it or to recognizing what you’ve been given in it.
Amos 8: 4-7 1 Timothy 2: 1-8 Luke 16: 1-13