February 21, 2010


Jesus returned from the Jordan & was led by the Spirit into the desert.

- Luke 4: 1

Here are four contemporary realities to provide a backdrop for our Lent:

1) In 2007, Congress passed new rules to curb the lobbyists’ influence by prohibiting them from treating those who make our laws to meals, trips, stadium box seats, or the discounted use of private jets with their enormous use of fuel. That was show. The reality: According to the New York Times, by the simple subterfuge of paying political fund-raising committees instead of the legislators themselves “Lawmakers invited lobbyists to help pay for a catalogue of outings: lavish birthday parties in a lawmaker’s honor, martinis & margaritas at Washington restaurants, a President’s Day weekend at Disney World, parties in South Beach, Miami, & even Broadway shows.”

Apparently it’s hard to let go, not to sell oneself & one’s influence for money & high living, not to mention that all that bribery money should have found its way to the causes of the poor & needy. The sad thing is that people in Congress feel a sense of entitlement, not shame. They’re not serious about reform.

2) A man at the airport security area, about to put his shoes into the tub, spots printed across its bottom an advertisement for Rolexes. It suddenly jolts him to the realization that there is no half inch on earth that does not have an ad enticing us to buy. It has been estimated that we see, absorb, ingest & breathe in 5,000 advertisements each day without even realizing it. And they do affect us.

Corporations that spend millions of dollars on a 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl are not wasting their money. They know they’ll manipulate our fears & poor self-esteem & we will buy their brands if we want a happy life, enhanced figures & financial rewards – the hallmarks of success. This should remind us that every day we are being brainwashed into the secular gospel that we DO live by & are judged by bread alone.

3) Author & columnist Tom Friedman writes that when he was in Paris his African-born taxi driver talked ceaselessly on a phone while watching a dashboard mounted TV. Meanwhile, in the back seat, Friedman was sending a story to New York on a laptop while listening to an iPod. “Technology is dividing us as much as it is uniting us,” he reflects. The two of them hardly communicated at all, & both were sitting two feet from each other.

We see this all the time. Watch friends walking down the street, each one talking separately into a cell phone, in effect being everywhere but where they are. Friedman suggests that “continuous partial attention disorder” is the disease of the internet age. Less time, less space, for family, for people, for God.

4) When New Jersey allowed casino gambling for Atlantic City in 1977 the idea was that a portion of its gigantic revenues would help relieve the terrible poverty & decay of that city & other blighted areas. Today, apart from the Boardwalk, the blight, the poverty, the drugs, the homeless are still very much there. What happened?

What happened is the money never reached its destination. Casino officials got the law changed that allowed the Gambling Authority to take the money earmarked for the poor & funnel it back into the casinos themselves. Translated, that means that millions of dollars have gone for casino projects: new hotel rooms, an IMAX theater, parking lot beautification, & so on. The Authority, with a straight face, says that the money diverted from the poor is needed to help
Atlantic City maintain its image, as if the casinos could not take some portion of their billions of dollars in revenue to do their own improvements, instead of robbing the poor.

Against this backdrop, allow me to make some suggestions for Lent. Unlike Congress, be serious about change, about recovering your spiritual balance, about making this a good Lent. Make a day of recollection or a few days of retreat where you can step back & do some introspection. Do daily spiritual reading, visit a nursing home or hospital weekly. Make a daily or weekly visit to church for some quiet time.

Next, protest those daily, unrelenting, value-shaping, consumer-inducing commercials by practicing Biblical tithing. Give ten percent of your income away to charity instead of spending it on yourself. Not just for Lent, but as a way of Christian life, sending the message that you do not live by bread alone. How about this? Give up TV for Lent, or if it’s too hard to break that addiction to escapism, take one day a week when you don’t watch TV at all. Fill in the time with spiritual reading or comforting the sick.

Third, be aware of the “continuous partial attention disorder” that withers human relationships. Join a faith-sharing group like the Men of St. Joseph & spend an hour a week discussing the Sunday readings or a good spiritual book. Again, never bring your cell phones to the dinner table without turning them off. That is sacred space, at home or out with friends. You’re not that important – people are. Attend to them.

Finally, depriving the poor is not morally neutral. Try going cold turkey when it comes to gambling. For addicted aficionados, at least go less often, or, if you do go, be sure to visit a few blocks down & witness the poverty & depression of the poor & disenfranchised. You need to see where your money is NOT going. Who knows what Christian decisions you might make?

Let me end with these words from the Rule of St. Benedict:

In these days of Lent, let us add something beyond the moral measure of our service, such as private prayers & abstinence in food & drink. Let each one, over & above the measure prescribed for him offer God something of his own free will in the joy of the Holy Spirit. AMEN!