Step-Father Bill

Regardless of Lent’s timing each year, the approach of Ash Wednesday takes me back to Lent 1987. My stepdad’s emphysema had gotten the best of him. After days of oxygen and other therapies, Bill remained bedridden. My mom worried because she could no longer care for Bill at home if he couldn’t walk. I didn’t choose the means to observe Lent that year because my stepdad’s illness dictated what lay before me. Bill continued to decline and his doctor eventually transferred him to a nursing home with a terminal prognosis. Between visits, I moaned and groaned the same insistent prayers: Bill’s had a tough time. He’s suffered enough. Dear God, please take him home… My mom took great care of my own dad, and now she’s doing the same for my step-dad. You’re asking too much of her. Dear God, please take him home… Jesus cured the suffering people who came to him. I don’t even want a cure. Just take him home… When my desperation hit its peak, I shamelessly went on: You’re supposed to be our loving Father. If Bill was my son, I’d take him home for Easter!

We celebrated my stepdad’s funeral the Tuesday before Easter. I completed Lent 1987 by attending the Holy Week liturgies at our parish church. During the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, I realized I’d been operating on autopilot. I couldn’t recall much of Bill’s funeral or the other services I’d sat through. I felt exhausted and empty, and I wasn’t sure of where to turn. As the deacon sang the Exultet to announce Jesus’ resurrection, something drew my eyes to the large crucifix over the altar. It was covered with a purple cloth for Lent and I wondered why the purple remained. Suddenly, the servers pulled wires that hung from the cloth. They pulled away the purple cloth to reveal the most beautiful lilies I’d ever seen. The flowers covered the crucifix from top to bottom and from left to right. Their ivory blossoms glowed in the brightly lit sanctuary, leaving not a hint of the suffering corpus hidden behind them. This amazing image took my breath away. Though I thought I couldn’t shed another tear that week, my eyes filled up. I felt alive again! Then it hit me. God had welcomed my stepdad home for Easter. Bill had been gone an entire week, and I’d failed to utter a prayer of thanks. Still, God welcomed me home as well. In spite of my ingratitude and the insolent tone of my prayer beforehand, God gave me new life in the form of some well-placed Easter Lilies. The truth is that I couldn’t have asked for more!

Lent 2011 begins this week on Ash Wednesday. I invite you to seek out the gifts God has hidden along the way. Because each of us comes to the season with our own variety of burdens, I encourage you to join me in opening our hearts to the life-giving possibilities that lie ahead. The Ash Wednesday schedule is printed on the cover of this bulletin. Take home a copy and decide with your family when you’ll come for ashes. Next weekend, we’ll all receive a schedule of the Lenten activities our parish offers this year. Choose something to attend yourself or with your family. We’ll also participate in Operation Rice Bowl. Take a Rice Bowl and find ways to make small sacrifices that allow you to put something into that bank each day. With every drop of a coin or dollar, offer a prayer for those who struggle every day to fulfill their most basic needs. Next Sunday at 4:00, attend the 11th Annual Concert For Life performed by Matt Wessel. All proceeds support the work of the American Cancer Society and every bit of the afternoon will support you as you deal with your personal challenges.

Though Lent 1987 remains etched in my memory, the gift I found in those Easter Lilies lives on in my heart. My prayer has never again sunken to such a desperate level because I’ve allowed God’s gifts to continue to draw me closer, just as those lilies did. One such gift came in the form of Matt Wessel’s music which has carried me through some of the most difficult times of my life, including my mom’s passing. Another gift comes in this weekly opportunity to write for you. This Lent 2011, something –or perhaps Someone- compelled me to do something more. I’ve written SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT… FOR LENT, a book which I hope helps us all as we strive to discover God’s gifts in a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Perhaps it is Lent 2011 that will ease the pain of that Lent of long ago. Perhaps this year your heart and mine will be opened to God’s love more fully than ever before. As I discovered back in 1987, whether we or God choose our Lenten activities, they are filled with more of God’s gifts than we could ever have hoped for!

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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