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Article for February 27, 2011

Several years ago, my assistant coaches and I were puzzling over a thorny issue with the second tallest boy on our third grade basketball team. Problem was, that he was only renting his body. That famous saying about how “nobody ever washed a rental car” was never more true than in the case of my nine-year-old backup center, Bruce Hilwood. In those days, Mr. Hilwood, was barely inhabiting the protoplasm, bone, and sinew that combined to form his neglected frame.

While his age-mates were busy perfecting the boy arts of running, jumping, biking, throwing, and kicking, Bruce was busy playing games on his computer. He seemed to view his body as a necessary, but cumbersome life-support system for his very active, science-dedicated brain.

Ever since I started coaching our boys four years earlier, I had toiled mightily against the inborn instinct of a guard to heave the ball from great distances toward the rim. Year after year, the refrain to my coach’s song went something like this, “Pass it to the big fella’s down low. They have a closer shot.” That year, in Third Grade, the guards began to pay attention. That was very bad news for Bruce Hilwood and his rental body. On several occasions, as Bruce stood in the lane contemplating Umberto Maturana’s theory of autopoetic biological systems, or Edward Witten’s String Theory of the universe, a crisply thrown pass ricocheted off the front part of his brain box—the part that bleeds. The three of us, who coached Bruce Hilwood and his rental body, found ourselves wincing and worrying that the soft, doughy, rental equipment that he barely uses, would one day, be unintentionally damaged by increasingly well-thrown passes.

In just about a week and a half, another Lenten season will be upon us. For many in our culture, the New Year is ushered in with sincere pledges, oaths, and resolutions that are as predictable as a January 1 hangover. We Catholics frequently play along with this charade. But deep inside, anyone who was raised on springtime Friday fish sticks and salmon patties knows that Lent is the season that really begins the Catholic New Year. Now is the time when we take our resolutions seriously.

Over the years, my Lenten practices have run the gamut. Some years I have added pious practices. Other years I have subtracted favorite foods, or bad habits. This year, my mind is circling around the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-12a).

In that passage, it was as if Jesus seemed to say, “You want to know what really matters to me? Well here are my core values.” Lent is a time to deepen our identity with Christ.

The Beatitudes serve up excellent criteria for selecting the right Lenten disciplines.

That’s what made me so proud to be one of three coaches on the Rocket’s third grade boy’s basketball coaching staff. By the criterion of the Fifth Beatitude (i.e. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”). Coach Jemal, Coach Theresa, and Coach Tom hit a three pointer. The, “Eureka!” moment came during an after-practice-pub-stop somewhere around the second bowl of deep fried chips. For weeks we had puzzled over the problem of Bruce Hilwood and his rental body. But on that night, God’s creative breath blew through that pub and into our nostrils. “We don’t have a team statistician,” one of us observed. “Maybe Bruce could be like a coach’s assistant collecting data for us?”

For the remainder of our games, a relieved Bruce Hillwood gladly perched himself on the bench for each contest. There, with paper and pen, he carefully placed marks into one of five statistical categories. At half-time, Mr. Hilwood, and his lily white, soft, doughy, rental body was invited into a place of honor at the center of our huddle. Everyone listened with respect as he summarized his data. “Our shot distribution is skewed in favor of John Harry. I’d say we have to get some other people involved if we’re going to win.” When it comes to feeding and watering human beings, a little mercy goes a long way.

As you contemplate your forty-day Lenten journey, consider viewing it through the eyeglasses of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12). Ask yourself if the Lenten practice you are contemplating will assist you in growing a whole-hearted trust and reliance on a power beyond yourself (Beatitude #1). This Lent, in the midst of your fasting, ask a Beatitude-inspired question, “What is it that you really hunger and thirst for in your life” (#4)? As the weeks wind toward Easter consider what would really assist you in becoming a full-time peacemaker (#7). Who in your life could use a little bit of your mercy (#5)? If you have perfectionist tendencies, can you dedicate yourself to the rigorous discipline of gentleness toward yourself and others (#2)? When you analyze how you spend your time, your money, or your consciousness, what attracts your whole-hearted devotion (#6)? Where are you paying a price for whole-heartedly living out the values that you profess by the unspoken word of your life (#8)?

Here at the beginning of the Catholic New Year, the Beatitudes ask us to take a good honest look to determine if we have only been renting our spiritual life lately. Have things gotten a little soft and doughy in this area of our lives? Lent is that time to take ownership of our relationship with God and the people that are given to us to love and serve.

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