Thursday, October 5, 2017

Love Loss

Learning to love our failures to find real success
Luke 6:20-26 Raising his eyes toward his disciples Jesus said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.

                I’m going to tell you something today that’s a little surprising or maybe even shocking. And that is we should love our losses. I am convinced that hidden inside the “agony of defeat” is a great good, namely, we grow as a person. Of course, we all want to win and do well. Danny Quintana loved his touchdown run last Thursday against Charleston. You looked good, Danny. Dalton Smith was smoking hot on the golf course yesterday. Watch out, Jordan Spieth. And Kate Goldtrap is happy her hair didn’t catch on fire twirling the burning batons. But as good as it feels to succeed, I believe it’s even better to fail. Why? Well, because in loss and failure, we gain more wisdom, we grow in virtue, and we garner more grace. Let me give you a few personal examples of how I’ve learned to love loss.

                When I was in high school, I played soccer and was on defense. And in one game I even scored a goal, as a defensive player! Unfortunately, the goal was for the other team. I tried to kick a ball away from our goal, but it curved back into our goal. Yeah, I was bending it like Beckham. I was the “Player of the Game” but for the other team. I learned something from that loss – I should find another sport to play. When I was a senior in college, we had to take comprehensive exams in philosophy, over everything we had learned in four years. I sat in front of three teachers and they asked me questions. I was sweating bullets. There was only one question I missed, and it’s the only one I remember: how would Aristotle describe the virtuous man? All the questions I answered correctly – my so-called “successes” – are long forgotten. But our losses are burned into our brains and we never forget them. When I was in seminary the bishop sent me to study Spanish in Mexico. The only Spanish words I knew at the time were “taco” and “bean burrito.” I felt like a little baby learning his first words; it was hard and humiliating. But I learned fast. Y ahora, yo puedo hablar en espanol sin problema! Que chido, no? My point is simple: we hate to lose and we love to win, but we gain so much more grace and wisdom and glory from our losses. We have to learn to love loss.

                 In the gospel today, Jesus teaches the same shocking truth: our losses are really great gains, indeed, we gain heaven. He says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and denounce your name as evil…your reward will be great in heaven.” In other words, when it looks like you have failed in the eyes of the world, that’s when you’ve succeeded in the eyes of heaven. Why? Well, because that’s when you grow as a person, when you gain more wisdom, and when you garner more grace. To put it in one word, you become more like Jesus. How so? Think about it: by all earthly standards Jesus was an utter failure: he died a humiliating death as a common criminal on the cross, all his friends abandoned him, he was poor and pathetic in people’s minds. But that was his moment of greatest glory: because that’s when he was most pleasing to God. No one loved loss more than Jesus; he knew that was the moment of great gain.

                 Boys and girls, I know this is a hard lesson to love your losses. Gosh, that goes against the grain! Everyone loves a winner and no one loves a loser. But I want you to think differently and love your losses. For instance, don’t be afraid to try something new, like Mr. Casey’s “Earth Club,” or Mrs. Marsh’s “Quiz Bowl,” or Mrs. Elskin’s “Drama Club,” or the “Pure Heart Girls.” You may do well, or you may do poorly. But you will grow as a person more from your failures than your successes. Today, we will start praying the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. Don’t worry, I’ll say it really loudly and drown you out so no one can hear you if you mess up. But I promise you: it’s the parts where you say it wrong that you’ll remember best, you’ll feel like me in Mexico: taco, bean burrito. But by the end of the year, you won’t even look at the sheet of paper. Look at the losses you have suffered personally: they can be a great good in your life. If you come from a family where there’s a divorce, you may grow up to be a marriage counselor, or at least not have a divorce in your own marriage. If your family has legal problems, you may grow up to become a lawyer and help others legally. If your father has cancer, you may grow up to become a doctor and heal people. If you go to church and the priest gives boring sermons, you may grow up to be a priest and give good sermons. Bad sermons can inspire vocations to the priesthood! But do you see what’s happening? What looks like loss, failure, surrender, defeat, humiliation, rejection turns out to be the beginning of glory and greatness, just like it did for Jesus.

                 Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, had many failures before he finally found the right filament. He purportedly said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Great attitude. It’s only when we love our losses that we finally find the way to win.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hostilities Exist

Loving our Lord and our land on September 11
Colossians 1:24–2:3 Brothers and sisters: I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God's stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.

             Can human suffering be a good thing? Is there any value in pain and woe? Our first reaction is to say “Obviously not!” After all, our entire health care system is designed to alleviate pain and mitigate suffering, and we Christians even pray for God to heal and make whole those who are hurting. To say there might be something “good” in pain seems counter-intuitive and maybe even a little cruel. But what about suffering that cannot be stopped or shortened or stemmed, that is, suffering that is out of our control? Well, I would suggest to you that hidden in these seeds of suffering are the grains of greatness; suffering can sometimes bring out the best in us.

               Today is the 16th anniversary of September 11, when the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack on American soil. That evening, President George W. Bush said: “Today, our nation saw evil – the very worst of human nature – and we responded with the best of America.” He went on: “With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers, and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” I would say we’ve seen this same reaction to uncontrolled suffering in the wake of the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. In other words, when we see the seeks of suffering in others, the grains of greatness burst into blossom in us in our heroic acts of love of neighbor.

                 In the first reading today, St. Paul senses this same value of human suffering. He says somewhat mysteriously to the Colossians: “Brothers and sisters, I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” Again, this is very counter-intuitive, almost cruel, but St. Paul sees some real good in suffering – his own aches and pains – because when they are united to Jesus’ suffering on the cross, they attain eternal value. Like President Bush saw on 9/11, so St. Paul hopes his sufferings will inspire Christians at Colossae (the Colossians) to love their neighbor at a heroic level, even to loving the gentiles, “with caring for strangers, and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” St. Paul saw suffering for the good of the Body of Christ, just like President Bush saw suffering for the good of the body politic. The seeds of greatness sometimes contain the grains of greatness.

                My friends, what do you do when you cannot shorten, or stem, or stop human suffering? We may cry to the heavens that God is unjust or uncaring. Or, we can allow these seeds of suffering to become the grains of greatness is us. I remember how much my parents sacrificed to send me and my brother and sisters to Catholic schools, and that made me want to study twice as hard. Their suffering inspired me to want to be great in school. Yesterday after Mass, I met a family from Marco Island, Florida, who sought refuge here with a family in Fort Smith. Their suffering made our parishioners great in hospitality. It’s amazing to see our whole parish respond to appeals to help the poor and suffering again and again and again. But do you see what’s happening? The seeds of their suffering make the grains of greatness grow in us.

                  On December 8, 1971, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt gave another speech about suffering. He said: “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.” But FDR wasn’t the only one who saw what results this suffering would produce: so did the Japanese General Yamamoto, who said prophetically: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve.” And that, I believe, is the only good that can come from human suffering: to awaken us to be giants, not of war, but of love.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Light of the Heart

Moving out of the shadows of the head into the light of the heart
Luke 6:1-5 While Jesus was going through a field of grain on a sabbath, his disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?" Jesus said to them in reply, "Have you not read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry? How he went into the house of God, took the bread of offering, which only the priests could lawfully eat, ate of it, and shared it with his companions?" Then he said to them, "The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath."

             One of my favorite Christian authors is C. S. Lewis. By the way, one fascinating coincidence in his life is that he died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963. If you’re looking for a clear and cogent presentation of Christianity, look no further than C. S. Lewis. He puts the tough teachings of the faith into layman’s terms so that everyone can understand.  Interesting.
But his academic acumen is only half of the story, and in my opinion, it’s really the less interesting part of the story. To really know someone you have to know what they love; you have to get out of their head and peer into their hearts, if you want to know someone. One movie that showcases the love life of C. S. Lewis is called “Shadowlands,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. The reason the movie is called “shadowlands” is because Lewis felt he had moved out of the shadows of learning and into the sunlight of love when he fell head-over-heels in love with Joy Gresham, his love. When the light of love becomes blinding to Lewis, he says this to Joy: “Now, I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. Not waiting for anything new to happen. Not looking around the next corner, not the next hill. Here now. That’s enough.” Lewis experienced love as moving out of his head and into his heart, out of the shadows into the light. A close friend of mine had fallen in love recently, and he received a letter from the girl he was crazy about, and the letter said she likewise loved him. After reading the letter, he remarked: “I looked around and the daylight seemed brighter than it was before.” Love moves us out of the shadows of the head and into the light of the heart.

              In the gospel today, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for staying stuck in the shadows of their heads, and not moving into the light of the heart. Jesus apparently violates a Sabbath rule of not working by picking grains of wheat and eating them. The Pharisees object and question him, saying: “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus calmly replies: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” In other words, the Pharisees are still stuck in the their heads: they know the law, they understand the Jewish traditions like keeping the Sabbath. But these things are only shadows of the Reality to come, namely, Jesus. Their real failure is they have not fallen in love; they have not entered the heart which is where you will really find Jesus, if you are looking for him. And when you find Jesus with your heart, everything else changes, even the daylight seems a little brighter when you’re in love with the Lord. Sadly, the Pharisees preferred the shadowlands of their heads to the bright light of Jesus’ love shining in their hearts.

             My friends, what do you love? More to the point: do you love Jesus, have you fallen in love with the Lord? Now be careful: don’t answer that question with your head but rather with your heart. I would say that’s the clearest characteristic of a Christian: not lots of knowledge, but lots of love. St. John of the Cross said that “in the evening of our life we will be judged on love.” A true Christian, in other words, has moved out of the shadowlands of his or her head into the bright light of love shining in the heart. Please don’t misunderstand: It’s good to read the Bible, to study the Catechism, to read spiritual writers like C. S. Lewis, but it’s only good if it leads you to greater love of Jesus. Don’t settle for the shadows, like the Pharisees did, but come into the light.

                 You know, it’s always easy to tell when you’re talking to a true believer: everything in their life revolves around Jesus, just like all the planets in the solar system revolve around the sun. That’s why we go to daily Mass, why we pray the rosary, why we enduring suffering, why pray for our enemies, why we love our neighbor, why we study the Bible, why we help the needy. Why? Because all these things revolve around our love for Jesus, the “Son” at the center of our solar system.  Everything seems brighter and more beautiful when seen in the light of the heart filled with love for Jesus.

                   A true Christian would say this about Jesus: “Now, I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. Not waiting for anything new to happen. Not looking around the next corner. Not the next hill. Here now. That’s enough.”  And by the way, may I add, that will be the more interesting part of your life story.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Birthdays and Deathdays

Preparing for our birthday into heaven
Romans 8:28-30 Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.

            Sometimes knowing a little biology and a little mathematics can make you a better Catholic. A few weeks ago at the first PTO meeting at school, we had a quiz bowl competition called “Pupils versus Parents and Priest.” One of the questions was: “When is the birthday of Immaculate Conception School?” I quickly hit my buzzer and answered “December 8, 1930.” But I was wrong. The students answered: “September 8, 1930.” And they were correct. It was a trick question, but they were more right than me.  December 8 is when Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, called “Immaculate Conception.” And how long is someone typically in the womb before they are born? That’s normally nine months (a little biology). So, what date is nine months after December 8? Let’s count (a little math): January (one), February (two), March (three), April (four), May (five), June (six), July (seven), August (eight), and September (nine)! So, nine months after Mary was conceived on December 8, she was born on September 8. Apparently, I am not smarter than a fifth grader, and that’s why the Pupils team beat the Parents and Priest team in quiz bowl.

               Today we celebrate the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But that is also a very curious Catholic custom. Why? Well, there are only three holy people whose birthdays we celebrate, namely, Jesus on December 25, Mary on September 8, and St. John the Baptist on June 24. We celebrate their birthdays because they were purified of sin in the womb, so they were born saintly. Mary was purified in the moment of her conception because that conception was “immaculate.”  St. John the Baptist was purified in the womb when Jesus visited him while their mothers were pregnant. Remember how Elizabeth said, “The baby in my womb leaped for joy at the sound of your voice” (Luke 1:41), because John was filled with the Holy Spirit? And of course, Jesus birthday because he is the Holy One of God.

                But all other saints, apostles, and martyrs celebrate not their birthday, but their deathday. Why? Well, because that’s the critical moment of salvation for them and for us: the state of our souls at the moment of death is ultimately what counts. That’s why Captain Kirk said in the movie “Star Trek,” “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” My theology comes from movies.  In other words, it is by dying in the Lord, and dying for the Lord, that the saints glorified God. Their deathday, in a sense, was eternally more consequential than their birthday. Ironically, a saint’s feast day - the day they died - in Latin is called “dies natalis,” which literally means “birthday,” because that’s the day they are “born into heaven.” A little biology – understanding birth and death – can help you be a better Catholic.

                In the first reading today, St. Paul writes to the Romans that Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers.” Now, since Jesus is the firstborn, there will undoubtedly be a second born and third born and so on, which is what Christians are: Jesus’ little brothers and sisters. But does our “birth” refer to our birthday on earth or our birthday in heaven, which is really our deathday on earth? Well, if you’re Mary and St. John the Baptist, it means your birthday on earth – because  they were purified and perfected in the womb – but for the other saints and for us, it means their deathday on earth, or their “dies natalis,” their birthday into heaven. In other words, this world is our womb and it takes us not 9 months but 90 years to be purified and perfected before we’re born into heaven. Our deathday literally becomes our birthday, our dies natalis, when we are born into heaven.

                My friends, there is one very plain and practical application of today’s celebration, namely, that there’s hope for all of us who trudge along in this “valley of tears,” these 90 years in the womb of the world. That is, we can still change and live for God instead of for ourselves. Think of someone who needs to change their life: a dictator cruelly oppressing his people, a boss who cares more about his work than his workers, a friend who has betrayed you, a son or daughter who has left the Church, an ex-spouse who has divorced you, or maybe even yourself (we can lose hope even for ourselves). There’s always hope for us while we walk on this earth, while we’re being formed and fashioned in the womb of the world. Why? Well, because we haven’t died yet and we can still change. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that we haven’t been born yet.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Economy, Stupid

Fishing in the deeper waters of divine love
Luke 5:1-11 While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch." Simon said in reply, "Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets." When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them.  They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.

            Do you remember the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”? It was popularized in the early 1990’s and helped Bill Clinton win the White House because the country was in a recession.  Everyone was worried about the economy, having a job, making money. Last year, it may well have helped Donald Trump occupy the Oval Office, too, because people hoped he would invigorate the economy. (See how I navigated those two examples very diplomatically??) Elections outcomes have a lot to do with the economy. If you don’t realize that, someone might say to you, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

            I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Christopher Dawson called Dynamics of World History. He taught history at Harvard. Dawson traces this preoccupation with the economy back to the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and the birth of “modern cities.” He writes: “It is useless to seek to understand the rise of the industrial city by looking for an internal process of development such as we can find in the history of Greek or the medieval city. The new towns…were the organs of a nationalist-imperialist movement of economic expansion.” He adds a little later: “The real note of the period was not liberty, but economic expansion and exploitation” (Dynamics of World History, 202,203). In other words, in the modern city, we place our trust not so much in Almighty God, but in the Almighty Dollar.  That’s the fundamental difference between the Greek and medieval city and the modern city: who are “God” is. And if you didn’t understand that, someone might say to you, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

              In the gospel today, this concern about the economy was prevalent during the time of Jesus as well. As a matter of fact, it’s precisely the economy that’s at issue when Peter and Jesus first meet. Peter is a fisherman, he understands the business of fishing, and he is a very good fisherman because his livelihood depends on the fishing economy. But Jesus happens along and says: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Peter might have objected saying, “It’s the economy, stupid,” I know how the fishing economy like the back of my hand, and the economy is bad right now. But instead of that reply, Peter obeys Jesus’ command, and he caught more fish than he could haul aboard. In other words, when Jesus invites Peter to “put out into deep water,” he is saying: “Let me show you something deeper than the laws of economics, deeper than market forces, deeper than free trade, and deeper than hedge funds. Let me teach you the laws of love, the deeper currents of existence.” That is, don’t stay in the shallow waters of economics, but immerse yourself in the ocean depths of divine love. Jesus would say, “It’s not the economy, stupid.”

            My friends, ask yourself today: how deep do you fish? Are you like Peter and staying shallow in economics, worried always about money and finances and the future? Of course, we have to give time and attention to economics. Or rather, do we dedicate our energies to diving deeply into divine love, the deeper currents of existence? I tell young couples who are preparing for marriage, and have college loans and no savings: “Hey, look, at least you know she doesn’t love you for your money.” These couples have put into the deep. Every year we go to Honduras and are surprised how happy the Hondurans are with so little material or economic wealth. But they have their faith and their family; they have “put out into the deep.” Sometimes the more wealth we have the more worry we have that we might lose it, so we install cameras and security systems and live behind gated communities. We are still fishing in the shallows.

         Modern Americans, living in the modern city, say to Christians: “It’s the economy, stupid.” But Jesus replies, “Put out into deep waters and prepare your nets for a catch.” Why? Well, because it’s not the economy, after all.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Full of Crap

Learning how to wash the waste out of life
Luke 4:38-44 After Jesus left the synagogue, he entered the house of Simon. Simon's mother-in-law was afflicted with a severe fever, and they interceded with him about her. He stood over her, rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up immediately and waited on them. At sunset, all who had people sick with various diseases brought them to him. He laid his hands on each of them and cured them. And demons also came out from many, shouting, "You are the Son of God." But he rebuked them and did not allow them to speak because they knew that he was the Christ. At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, "To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent." And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

               Boys and girls, how many of you enjoy sleeping? Please raise your hands. Heck, Ross Bieker is already sleeping, and I just started this sermon! I’m just kidding; I only pick on you if I like you. Today I want to explain why sleep is so good, and more than good, it is really necessary and essential. Five years ago, in 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester discovered that while we sleep “the system that circulates cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and nervous system was pumping fluid into the brain and removing fluid [with toxins lethal to brain cells] from the brain in a very rapid pace” (“Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep,” NPR, Oct. 17, 2013). The lead neurosurgeon of the research, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, said, “It’s like a dishwasher.” Just imagine seeing all the dishes at home dirty and piled up in the sink or sitting in the dishwasher and never washing them. Nasty, right?! Well, that’s your brain without sleep, because the waste material and toxins your brain naturally produces in the course of a day’s thinking and reasoning and evaluating and guess on test answers because you didn’t study, never gets washed away. As a result, you might say your head is full of crap. That’s why it’s good to sleep, indeed, it is essential to sleep because our brains need a good washing.

                 In the gospel today, we see that sleep is also critical for Jesus. St. Luke simply says: “At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place to pray.” Clearly, Jesus had spent the night getting some sleep, and now he was getting up “at daybreak” to be alone to pray. Jesus needed to sleep so his human brain could get a good washing and remove all the toxins poisoning his thinking. Sometimes, we can think Jesus is so holy and divine that his human nature is virtually canceled out. But that’s not what we believe: Jesus is actually 100% God but also 100% man, so he needed to sleep and to eat and to talk as much as you and I do. Maybe not talk as much as Greta Beasley and Catie Barrett love to talk (remember that means I like you!), but Jesus enjoyed talking and teaching and he needed to sleep like the rest of us. That’s why after Jesus awakens from a good night’s sleep it was clear to him that he needed to go to other towns and preach the good news. His brain was not full of crap; it was full of doing God’s will.

                Today, I want to give you 3 examples of where sleep and rest are essential, so our brains will function at optimum levels because all the crap has been removed. First, I’m in awe of how busy you all are with school and your extracurricular activities. Some of you play football, and at halftime, you don’t get to rest with the team, but run to grab your instruments for the marching band. That’s amazing and awesome! Many of you are involved in multiple groups and clubs, and often at the same time. And I’m glad you do all those things, because you discover your gifts and talents. But sometimes I wonder: when do you guys sleep?? Don’t skimp on sleep or your brain will be filling up with crap that you never get rid of.  Take time to sleep and wash your brains.

                 Secondly, I hope you will find this school a place of rest, but I’m not saying you should sleep in class to get that rest. I mean a very different kind of rest, emotional rest. Some of you come from homes and families that have serious issues and challenges – maybe a divorce, maybe lack of money, you may be facing serious sicknesses like cancer, or worse there’s physical or emotional abuse – and this school is the only place you can rest from all that emotional exhaustion. Please reach out to Mr. Casey, our counselor, or me, if you’d like to talk about those things. We want Trinity to be a safe place where some of the toxins of your personal life can be removed. After talking to someone about your problems, you feel much better and relieved, almost like you’re waking up from a good night’s sleep. Why? Because you don’t feel like your brain and life is full of crap; it got a good washing.

                And thirdly, that’s why we come to Mass once a week: to rest in the arms of Jesus. Again, that doesn’t mean we should sleep in church. But it does mean we should pray, and ask Jesus to remove the toxins, the poisons, of this world out of our heads and hearts. What do I mean by the ways of the world? I mean things like alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, racism, pride, ego, greed, selfishness – these are poisons to our souls. That’s what happens at every Mass you attend: those poisons are washed out of our souls. But what if you never go to church or if you never pray? Just think of that sink filled with dirty dishes; that’s what our souls look like if we never rest in Jesus and let him remove those toxins; our souls need a good washing. 

                Boys and girls, there is nothing like a good night’s sleep. When we wake up, we feel refreshed and ready to rock and roll through another day. And the reason we feel so good is because our heads are not full of crap.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Saints versus Scholars

Growing in holiness as well as intelligence
Luke 4:31-37 Jesus went down to Capernaum, a town of Galilee. He taught them on the sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man with the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out in a loud voice, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!" Jesus rebuked him and said, "Be quiet! Come out of him!" Then the demon threw the man down in front of them and came out of him without doing him any harm. They were all amazed and said to one another, "What is there about his word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out." And news of him spread everywhere in the surrounding region.

              Ladies, is being smarter the best way to be more saintly? To be sure there is a deep compatibility between science and spirituality, academic intelligence and angelic inspiration, faith and reason. Even a simply survey of human history reveals that some of the brightest intellectual lights were likewise highly holy, like St. Augustine, Blessed John Henry Newman, St. John Paul II, and St. Catherine of Siena. And we hope that at Catholic schools, we’re educating the next generation of both saints and scholars, whose goal in life is not only to get make it to Harvard, but also to make it to heaven.

               And yet, unfortunately, sometimes we can be too smart for our own good, especially for our own spiritual good. Sadly, getting a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you’ll go to church every Sunday. There’s a yawning divide between faith and science, which is reflected in the yawning of young people at Mass who are bored by spirituality but can’t wait for the next discovery by science.

               This showdown between science and spirituality took center stage in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925 in Tennessee. At issue in the trail was whether evolution could be taught in Tennessee public schools. That may surprise us today, but you might remember that at the time Biblical creationism was the standard teaching, not evolution. Arguing against teaching evolution in school was the famous William Jennings Bryant, who warned in his closing arguments: “If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene” (that’s Jesus, of course). He continued: “His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.” In other words, going to college as a scholar doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be canonized as a saint. Sadly, sometimes you can be too smart for your own good.

                Today’s gospel gives us another glimpse into how high intelligence does not equal high holiness. An unclean demon cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” As you know, demons are really fallen angels, and all angels are beings of incredible intelligence, insight and intuition, even the fallen ones. The brilliance of an angel would make a Harvard Ph.D. feel like a preschooler. But notice: even though this demon/angel knows with precision and perspicacity exactly who Jesus is – the Holy One of God – that knowledge did not save him. In other words, being a scholar didn’t make that angel a saint; the fallen angels are too smart for their own good, indeed, for their eternal good.

                     I think this tension between saints and scholars has a very practical application to the Immaculate Conception Ladies Auxiliary. How so? Well, I think of the late Sally Frick. She never got to go to college, but she provided scholarships for kids to attend UAFS. Sally didn’t go to Harvard, but we can be pretty sure she is in heaven. Sometimes, you may feel a little less than “tech savvy” because you cannot figure out how to use a cell phone, or use Facebook, or you only use a landline. That may make you feel small or not very smart, but just remember that sometimes people can become too smart for their own good. Many tech savvy people don’t see why they should go to church; they are better scholars than they are saints. Some elderly people lose their memory and their mental capacity through dementia and Alzheimer’s, and people question why they even live since they are not “useful” to society anymore. But that “usefulness” is measured by scientific standards, not by spiritual ones.  We never lose our capacity for holiness and being disciples of Jesus, in spite of mental or emotional illness or incapacity. In other words, your value should not be measured just by your smarts, but also by your love.

                     So, do not diminish the value of what you do as the Ladies Auxiliary: singing at funerals as the Dead Choir, preparing meals for the funeral receptions, purchasing items for the liturgy at Mass, and of course, the great annual Bazaar. Those activities have a value beyond this world, when seen from a spiritual point of view, not merely a scientific point of view. And most importantly, don’t ever become too smart for your own good. Why? Well, because in the end, it won’t matter who got into Harvard; it will only matter who got into heaven.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Labors of Love

Appreciating the labors of love of those who raised us
Luke 4:16-30 Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He said to them, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, "Is this not the son of Joseph?" And he said, "Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon." When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

             One of the most effective forms of police interrogation is called the “good cop-bad cop routine.” Have you heard of that? When a suspect is brought into custody, and the police are trying to solicit a confession for a crime, one officer will try to be nice and sympathize with the suspect and offer some reward for cooperation. He’s the good cop. When that doesn’t work, a second officer enters the room and interrogates the suspect with threats and severe punishments. “Cooperate or else,” he demands. He’s the bad cop. The idea is that between the good cop and the bad cop the suspect will slowly break down and eventually confess to the crime. It’s fascinating to watch this in action, and especially when the same cop tries to play both roles of good cop and bad cop.

                 But this method of good cop-bad cop has a much broader application than merely police interrogations. It can be very effective in schools and education. I remember how my high school principal, Fr. George Tribou was both good cop and bad cop towards us high school boys. While we were in 9th and 10th grades, he was gruff, unfriendly, demanding. He put the fear of God in us, or at least the fear of Fr. Tribou. But in 11th and 12th graders, he mellowed somewhat and became almost like a gentle grandfather figure. The original fear and obedience we once felt was replaced by admiration and love. Whether you’re a criminal in custody or a high school student – both of which feel very similar – the best way to obtain your obedience is the good cop-bad cop routine.

                In the gospel today, Jesus uses the same technique of the good cop-bad cop to get his hometown people to accept him as the Messiah, to get them to make a confession not of guilt to a crime, but a confession of faith in him. He preaches at the synagogue and at first he plays the role of the good cop. We read: “All spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But Jesus knows like Fr. Tribou that often “the carrot” is not enough in education, and you also have to use “the stick.” So, a little later he criticizes them for their lack of faith, and how do the people react? Luke records: “They were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, to hurl him headlong.” In other words, Jesus knows that to solicit a confession and to education in faith requires both tenderness and toughness, sympathy but also strictness, the carrot and the stick, the good cop and the bad cop. That’s the best way – nay, the only way – to deal with recalcitrant criminals, selfish teenagers, and backsliding disciples.

                  Today is Labor Day in the United States and we honor all those who work for a living, putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage. But I’d also like to tip my hat to all those who labor in love at home, as moms and dads, and whose only paycheck is the hugs and kisses of their children. I’m always disappointed, by the way, by people – usually men who work outside the home – who think they really work while the stay-at-home mom sits around watching soap operas and eating bon-bons. Raising children is a tremendous and thankless labor of love, which starts in the womb and culminates in “going into labor” when the baby is born. Sadly, sometimes moms have to be both good cop and bad cop in raising and educating their children as citizens and saints, especially when there is a divorce or a death of a spouse. And as usual, we grossly undervalue what all our parents did in raising us, until the tables are turned and we are wearing their shoes and have to teach the next generation. We usually don’t grow up until we have children whom we have to help grow up.

                  Today I’d like to pray for all those who labor, but in a special way for those who labor in love and raise the next generation in the human and divine virtues, moms and dads, teachers and principals, deacons and priests, whose only reward is the hugs and kisses of their kids. Oh, and also the knowledge of pleasing the heavenly Father.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

We Happy Few

Embracing the cross so we can embrace Christ
Matthew 16:21-27 Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you." He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct."

               Is your way of thinking like that of the rest of the world, or do you think more like Jesus? Now, to be sure, sometimes we can walk arm-in-arm with the world, but sometimes – indeed, most times – Christianity and the cosmos are at cross purposes. William Wordsworth, the great English Romantic poet, wrote in 1807 these challenging and chilling words: “The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; / Little we see in nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” In other words, when we’re in lock-step with the world, we are the losers, but when we distance ourselves from the ways of the world, we become winners, spiritually-speaking.

               Someone sent me this story via email recently that makes the same point. An Irish man said: “I went to the confessional box after many years of being away from the Catholic Church. Inside the confessional I found a fully equipped bar with Guinness on tap. On the wall there was a decanter with fine Irish Whiskey and Waterford crystal glasses. On the other wall was a dazzling array of the finest cigars and chocolates. When the priest came in, I said to him, “Father, forgive me for it’s been a very long time since I’ve been to confession. But I must first admit that the confessional box is much more inviting than it used to be.’ He replied, “You moron, you’re on my side’.” Folks, that’s just a joke – there are no Waterford crystal glasses in the confessional. But you see how easy it is to slip into the way of the world, for priests and for people, alike. The Christian path, on the other hand, requires carrying the cross. Christians are always at cross purposes with the world.

                 In the gospel today, Peter finds it hard to stop walking with the world and to start following Christ closer because the cost of closeness to Christ is the cross.  Jesus explains that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Peter is appalled and argues: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” I’m sure Peter thought he was being brave and trying to save Jesus. But Jesus scolds him severely, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do.” In other words, Jesus was worried like Wordsworth that the world was too much wtih Peter, shaping his thoughts and decisions and actions. To follow Jesus, however, you must embrace the cross. If there is no cross, there is no Christ. Following Jesus always puts us as “cross purposes” with the world, because we think, choose and act differently from others.

                My friends, ask yourself today: where is the cross of Christ in my life? Why should you ask that? Well, because if there is no cross, then there is no Christ, and “the world is too much with us.” Let me give you three examples of how to embrace the cross so you can embrace Christ. When I was in high school I started thinking about the priesthood. And do you know what was one of the peculiar things that pulled me to the priesthood? It was celibacy, the sacrifice that priests cannot get married. Why was that attractive to me? I wanted to do something hard to show my love for Jesus because I realized how much he had sacrificed for me. Have you ever felt that before? It’s a deeply Christian instinct to want to suffer voluntarily for Jesus, to carry a cross. When you find the cross, you find Christ, and you feel at cross purposes with the world.

               Secondly, I’m always so pleased when Catholics have large families, lots of children. We used to call them “good Catholic families.” Last week I had the funeral of Brian Schluterman, who was one of nine children. His father, J.T. said to me: “I don’t know where all these kids came from! Maybe Betsy and I should not have shared the same bathwater!” But I know where those kids came from : they came from J.T. and Betsy carrying the Cross by being open to more children. They were thinking like God does, not as human beings do. When you find the cross, you’ll find Christ, and moreover, and you’ll find yourself at cross purposes with the ways of the world.

                 And thirdly, let me return to the well-stocked confessional, loaded with Irish whiskey and chocolates. When was the last time you went to confession? No sacrament is a better litmus test of whether you’re walking with the world or carrying the cross with Christ than going to confession. It really separates Christians into two camps. Why? Well, because confession is hard, it’s embarrassing, it’s humbling, it makes us realize we are still sinner and not yet saints, it empties our egos. But if we avoid the cross of confession, Jesus says to us like he said to Peter: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Or, in the words of Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us.” We are not at cross purposes with the world because we won’t pick up the cross.

                 One of the most stirring speeches in Shakespeare can be found in the play “Henry V.” When King Henry wanted to rouse his men to fight the French he said these famous lines: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (Henry V, IV, 3). In other words, to be a brother to King Henry, you had to shed your blood; you’d become a sort of “blood brother” to him. And that’s true for Jesus; we must carry our cross if we are to be Jesus’ brothers and sisters, is “band of brothers.” Christians are called to be at cross purposes with the world, and maybe that’s why they’re always “the few, the happy few.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Best Bride

Being a wise bride when Jesus the Groom arrives
Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The Kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise.  The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise ones replied, 'No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.' While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, 'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!' But he said in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.' Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

            This morning I will need two volunteers for my homily, a boy and a girl. Now, let me ask the boy to don this black suit-coat, and the young lady to put on this white veil. Please stand in the sanctuary now and hold hands. Can anyone guess what this beautiful couple looks like right now? They look like a bride and a groom on their wedding day! Boys and girls, how many of you would like to get married some day? If you didn’t raise your hands, your parents are very happy because you just saved your parents $30,000.

                Now let me ask you a strange question: do you think Fr. John is married? Raise your hand if you think he is married. Now raise your hand if you think he is NOT married. Well, you’re all correct because I am both married and also not married. How is that possible? I am not married like other people (like your mom and dad), but on the other hand, I am married to the Church. In other words, you all are my bride! I have the best bride in the world, and I feel like the luckiest groom in the world!

                  In the gospel today, Jesus is also talking about a wedding, a groom and ten young girls waiting for him to come to the wedding celebration. Now, the groom is really Jesus, and the 10 girls are like the bride – notice he doesn’t mention the bride herself in the parable, because the ten girls are like the bride, like you are my bride. Jesus’ real point in the parable is how to get ready if you are the bride. Do the best brides wait to get ready at the last second? Do they wait till their wedding day to grab a dress, and drag a brush through their hair, and run to the church and up the stairs to be on time? No, they prepare for months, sometimes for years to get ready for their wedding day. The foolish ones get ready at the last minute, and we would laugh at such a bride! The wise ones prepare for a long time so they will be ready when the wedding day comes.

                Boys and girls, do you know what’s going to happen at the end of time? When Jesus comes back he will return as a Groom and we will all be his bride(including me), the Church, just like you all are my bride. Now, do you want to be the best bride, a wise bride, who prepares well in advance, or do you want to be a foolish bride and wait till the last second? Of course, we all want to be wise and not foolish. Well, there are three ways to get ready for the wedding day: prepare your mind, your body and your soul. And that’s really what we do here at a Catholic school, isn’t it? We prepare the whole child – mind and body and soul – not just for earthly success, but for heavenly success, and ultimately for the heavenly wedding day, so you can be the best bride for Jesus. At recess and sports, and eating healthy lunches you prepare your body; while you study and do your homework you prepare your mind; and when you come to church and pray, you prepare your soul. We do all these things in Catholic schools because we want you to be the best bride in the whole world, wisely prepared for the return of the Groom.

                Boys and girls, how many of you want to get married? I’m sorry if you don’t want to get married, because we will all get married one day, that glorious wedding day when Jesus returns in glory, because he will return to claim his Bride. Get ready for that day by being a wise and not foolish bride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

A Diet of Love

Learning to live on the love that fed Jesus
Matthew 24:42-51 Jesus said to his disciples: "Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant, whom the master has put in charge of his household to distribute to them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing so. Amen, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property. But if that wicked servant says to himself, 'My master is long delayed,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with drunkards, the servant's master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."

              Few pleasures are as rich and rewarding as being able to feed other people. Have you ever given someone else something to eat and felt the satisfaction of seeing them be satisfied? There’s a beautiful saying in Spanish that conveys this truism that goes: “Panza llena, corazon contento.” That means when your stomach is full, your heart is happy. That’s why my father’s life-long dream was to run an Indian restaurant. He wanted to feel the joy of feeding others. That’s why my parents can’t wait for me to come home, so they can feed me – and I love to let them feel that pleasure! I don’t feel too bad either. Mothers love to nurse their babies and then post pictures of their cute, chubby babies on Facebook so others can see how well fed their babies are!

             But something more is going on when we feed others than making sure others are not hungry. Even more than making others happy – panza llena, corazon contento – it also make the one who prepares and serves the food happy. Even slaving over a hot stove doesn’t seem too great a sacrifice because of the reward of feeding others. This joy is the taproot of why God created us to begin with. How so? Well, the Second Vatican Council taught this: “Man, the only earthly being God has willed for itself, finds himself in a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et spes, 24). In other words, when we feed others, we too are fed: we feed on love, indeed, we not only feed ourselves on love, we find ourselves in love. This is what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples in John 4, when they were worried if Jesus had anything to eat, he said: “I have food to eat that you know nothing of” (John 4:32). Jesus lived on a steady diet of love, which is even better than chicken curry.

               In the gospel today, Jesus also talks about the job and the joy of feeding others. He asks rhetorically: “Who then is the faithful and prudent servant whom the master has put in charge of his household to distribute to them their food at the proper time?” In other words, Jesus is talking about the job of feeding others, but he’s also referring to the joy of feeding others. And I think we need to interpret this passage of Scripture in the broadest sense possible, that is, not only feeding someone chicken curry like my father wanted to do in his restaurant, but in all the manifold ways we care for each other, the wonderful ways we love each other. Why is that the best interpretation? Well, because then we may feast on the food that nourished Jesus – the steady diet of love – that sadly, many people know nothing about because they’re too busy feeding themselves rather than feeding others. To put it in the language of Vatican II, “we find ourselves by making a sincere gift of ourselves.”

             Let me suggest a few examples of how we can do this. First look for those who are in need, like the victims of the flooding in Texas. Look for ways to “feed” them by providing whatever is within your means to give. A good way is through Catholic Relief Services, but the Sebastian County Sheriff’s office is collecting water and granola bars. Second, give your time and attention to someone. In our busy and rushed world, taking the time to talk to someone and not be distracted by your phone, that is a precious gift. You feed others with your loving attention and compassion. And third, even if you’re confined to your home or hospital, offer up your sufferings and aches and pains for others, especially for those who have left the Church. When I visit someone in the hospital and give them the Anointing of the Sick, and then I ask them to offer up their sufferings for others, and if they can’t think of anyone, to offer them up for me! Or, if you can’t think of anyone else to feed, invite me over for supper, and I would be happy to let you feel the joy of feeding someone who’s hungry.

              “Who then is the faithful and prudent servant whom the master has put in charge of his household to distribute to them their food at the proper time?” My friends, you and I are called to be that “faithful and prudent servant who distributes food to others.” When we distribute food in the proper time, we discover the joy of Jesus, who had food to eat of which others know nothing of.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Face Your Feelings

Integrating our emotions and our expressions
Matthew 23:27-32 Jesus said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets' blood.' Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out!"

           Do you know what a “poker face” is? How many of you have ever played poker? Good, I’m glad not many of your raised your hands! In this card game you have 5 cards, and you have to guess what the other players may have while you disguise your face and your emotions so others cannot tell what you have in your hand. I don’t play poker but I love to watch a T.V. show called “World Series of Poker,” where thousands of people try to win a million dollars playing poker. You see characters like Doyle Brunson with his cowboy hat, and Phil Helmuth cracking jokes, and the legendary Johnny Chan who no one wants to mess with, and a guy called “the Unibomber” with a hoodie covering his head the whole time. Scary dude. Do you know who always walks away with the million dollar prize? It’s the person with the best poker face, the person who can hide not only his or her cards well, but also hide their emotions well. You don’t let your face reveal what’s in your heart or in your head. For instance, if you get four Aces – a great hand – you don’t jump up and down doing your happy dance. That means you don’t have a very good poker face, and you lose.

            Now the look on your face is important not only in playing poker but in real life. One day President Abraham Lincoln was interviewing candidates for a cabinet position. One fellow had a great resume and seemed eminently qualified for the position. When he left, Lincoln said to his aide: “We won’t be hiring him.” The aide was surprised and asked, “Why not? He was perfect!” Lincoln answered, “I didn’t like the look on his face.” He went on to explain: “Every man over 40 years old is responsible for the look on his face.” That man apparently did not have a very good poker face. In other words, the look on our face can speak a lot louder than our lips. Abraham Lincoln was a genius at reading people’s faces and therefore their hearts. The 16th president would have been a great poker player.

                In the gospel today, Jesus tells the Pharisees not to use their poker faces with God. He criticizes them severely saying: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. On the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.” In other words, Jesus was even better than Abraham Lincoln at reading faces and reading feelings. They could not hide their hypocrisy from Jesus no matter how pretty they smiled, even though they could fool everyone else with their poker face. Lincoln would not have hired them for a cabinet position, and Jesus would not invite them to be disciples.

                Boys and girls, today I want you to think about the look on your face, and the look on other people’s faces. There’s nothing more fascinating than a human face. Do you know what expression your face wears right now? For instance, A’Sence Farmer is falling asleep, Lauren Redding is rolling her eyes right now, and Noah Ottman is picking his nose. No, I’m just kidding, no one is doing those things. But teachers notice the look on your face right away, and often know exactly how you’re feeling. Even though you try to have a poker face, we can tell what’s in your heart by the look on your face, just like Lincoln could and Jesus could.

                Haven’t you also read the looks on other people’s faces, even though you’ve never played poker? Has you mom or dad ever given you “the look” when you knew you were in trouble. That look that said, “Son, I’m going to rip your head off, jump down your throat and do a tap dance on your lungs!” Mom or dad didn’t have to say a word; their face said it all. You know, they tell us teachers this rule of thumb: “Never smile before Thanksgiving.” Why? So your students know how serious you are. Teachers and students are reading each other’s faces all the time.

                 Boys and girls, my point today is that we should integrate our face with our feelings. What does that mean? Well, we need to avoid just being pretty on the outside but being ugly on the inside. That’s the hypocrisy that Jesus didn’t tolerate. On other hand, we should feel genuine love in our hearts and then express that emotion on our faces. Have you watched all the tragic flooding in Houston? Doesn’t that break your heart? We should show shock and sadness on our faces; integrate your face and your feelings. When someone you love is sick, like Mrs. Marsh, or someone dies, it’s okay to cry and express your emotions, like anger and sadness. That’s not the time to play poker and hide your feelings. When our volleyball team or football team wins, when Emily Forsgren kicks a field goal, you should cheer loudly and not hide your joy and excitement. Your face should show your feelings because the two are well integrated.

                 Boys and girls, part of the education you receive at Trinity is an education of your emotions. We teach you how to integrate your face and your feelings so you don’t walk around like a zombie all the time. Sometimes you need a good “poker face,” and sometimes you just need a good “human face” that reflects the feelings in your heart. The hard part is knowing which face to wear when.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Clone Wars

Knowing ourselves when we get to know Christ
Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

            Do you know who you are? To make that question a little more concrete, how would you complete the sentence: “I am a …?” Perhaps you’d say, “I am a mom,” and that’s a wonderful thing! I love my mom, and she loves me! Or, maybe you’d answer, “I am a business man.” That’s a good thing, too, because you provide jobs for people and then they can put more money in the collection on Sunday. Most of us would proudly say, “I am a Razorback!” You better not say “I am an LSU Tiger!” I’m sorry, but I’ll have to excommunicate you. Maybe you’d use ideological terms like “I am a conservative,” or “I am a liberal.” Perhaps we’d answer patriotically, with hand over heart, “I am an American.” This is how we define ourselves, our self-understanding.

               Now, let me take this line of reasoning a step further. How would you define a human being in general? How would you complete the sentence, “A human being is …”? About 20 years ago, some precocious 8th graders asked me this question in a religion class. We were discussing cloning, and one student asked: “Fr. John, if we cloned a human being, would it have a soul?” Wow, that was from a 13 year old! My answer surprised even me, when I said: “Well, if the clone could kneel down and pray to God, then it would be proof that he or she had a soul, and moreover proof that it was truly human, because a human is a sort of hybrid being. How so? Well, we are both like the animals, but we are also like the angels.” That’s how I would define a human being: a human being is a hybrid – a composite – of soul and body, animal and angel, of earthly origins but with a heavenly destiny. That understanding of human nature – what people are in general – should complement our self-understanding. That is, if we are to be more than clones – people who are good moms and businessmen and Hog fans – we also have to pray. And I don’t just mean pray at Razorback games so they win. To be human is to connect to God through prayer.

              In the gospel today, Jesus is seeking some self-understanding, too, or so it seems. He asks his apostles: “Who do people say that I am?” Now, is Jesus really confused about his identity? Of course not. As usual, though, Jesus’ every word and action has many layers of meaning; let me share with you just one such layer. What happens when he asks about his own identity? Peter pops up and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus immediately replies: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” Notice how Peter’s identity and self-understanding were linked to knowing who Jesus is. When Peter discovered Jesus, Peter likewise discovered Peter! Henceforth, Peter would answer the question, “Who are you?” by saying, “I am Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his Church.” Peter was no longer a clone – an obscure fisherman from Galilee – but he was a Christian, a man who prays, who has a connection to God, and therefore really a connection to himself, he knows himself.

               The Second Vatican Council made this connection between God and man crystal clear in the document called “Gaudium et spes” which means “Joy and hope.” It reads, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word [that is Jesus] does the mystery of man take on light.” It goes on to say: “Christ…fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22). In other words, when Peter answered correctly the question, “Who is Jesus? “he found the answer to the question, “Who is Peter?” Peter was no longer a mystery to himself. Through a conversation with Christ – that’s the best definition of prayer – Peter overcome being a mere clone (a mere fisherman) and emerged a Christian. To be human is to connect to God through prayer.

             Let me ask you my original question again: Do you know who you are? Another way to ask that same question now is “Do you pray?” Why are those just two ways of asking the same question? Well, because prayer is our connection to God, and God is our connection to ourselves. If you don’t pray, you’re little more than a clone. You’ve touched the animal side of your nature, but not the angelic; you know you have a body, but don’t realize you have a soul; you know your journey began on earth, but don’t know it will end in heaven. You’re a clone, not a Christian.

             Let me give you two tips about prayer, so it’s a little easier and not so overwhelming. First, you can pray anywhere and everywhere, at any time and all the time, not just in church. You can pray as your drive down the road (you may not curse at other drivers), you can pray as you fall asleep at night, you can pray you win the lottery, like Mavis Wanczyk. St. Theresa of Lisieux gave a great definition of prayer: “raising of our minds and hearts to God.” Have a conversation with Christ, like St. Peter did, and you’ll get to know Jesus better, and in the bargain, also get to know yourself better.
Secondly, pray with your heart, not just your lips. Even a clone can mouth the words of a prayer, but they have no soul to send them to heaven. Don’t make the mistake of Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, who had murdered Hamlet’s father to usurp the throne of Denmark. Claudius was a clone mouthing the words of prayer when he said: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts, never to heaven go” (Hamlet, III, 3). Claudius was a clone, and not a Christian, because he failed to pray with his heart and soul.

             Who are you? A mom, a businessman, a Razorback, an American? Good, those are all good things to be. But those are all things that a clone can do, too. If you want to be more than a clone, if you want to be a Christian, then you must pray, you must connect with Christ. “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light...Christ…fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” These are the real clone wars.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Permanent Pope-mobile

Learning the lessons of humility our bodies teach
Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

             One of the most beautiful lessons our bodies teach us is humility. Unfortunately, we are not very good students and we fail to learn these lessons. Have you noticed how the first ten years of our life are very similar to the last ten years? What happens in those years? It seems like at least three basic features can be identified which all help us to be more humble. First, we lack mobility and others have to carry us around, or push us in carts or wheelchairs. This is the case in the first ten years and the last ten years of our life.  Second, we don’t look our best physically: our hair is either coming in or going out; we have baby fat or sport “love handles”; we’re short in stature because we haven’t hit our growth spurt or we’re shrinking because our bones are brittle or arthritic. Third, others have to teach us things; we can’t always believe our brains. Our minds fail us, as babies and as elderly. These are some ways our bodies help us to be humble, but we forget where we came from and where we are headed. We become proud instead.

               In the gospel today, Jesus extolls the virtue of humility and he decries the sin of pride. Jesus uses the Pharisees as an example of peacock-like pride. He says: “All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’.” In other words, the Pharisees have forgotten the humility that their bodies taught them as babies, and the same humility they will experience again in old age. Instead, Jesus says his disciples should be humble. He therefore adds, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” One wonderful teacher of humility is our own body, if only we will be good students and not forget what it teaches us, especially humility.

               This is one virtue that I think Pope Francis really takes to heart, namely, humility. Look at where he lives, the kind of car he drives, how he asks people to pray for him. He also wants priests to practice humility, and that’s why he is not making any more monsignors. Dang! He’s reminding us where we come from (we were helpless and humble babies once) and where we are going back to (back to being like babies). Pope St. John Paul II let us share in his old age by letting us see his Parkinsons and slurred speech, and being confined to a wheelchair, a permanent “pope-mobile.” How humbling that must have been for him, who used to run up the mountains; and how pleased Jesus must have been with him. Take time to visit people in nursing homes and in hospitals because their bodies are teaching them this precious lesson of humility, and we need to learn that lesson, too.

            “Whoever who humbles himself will be exalted, and whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” That pattern sounds like the human life cycle itself: we start off as humble babies, then we exalt ourselves in the prime of life (the pride of life!), and then we are humbled again in old age. Humility - exaltation - humility. If only we would embrace this lesson of humility on earth, will Jesus finally exult us in heaven.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, August 25, 2017

The End Comes First

Keeping our end as heaven to find our way on earth
Matthew 22:34-40 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law, tested him by asking, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

              Back in 1989, Stephen Covey published a ground-breaking book on leadership called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In fact, we even teach these habits to our students here at Immaculate Conception School, in a program called “Leader in Me.” Most of Covey’s habits are just principles of common sense, which sadly are not very common these days!

             The second of these seven habits is both profound but also practical. It states: “Begin with the end in mind.” That means before you start something, think about the end result first. Before you start your first day of medical school as a dentist, for instance, you think about those three-day weekends you’ll enjoy (dentists traditionally don’t work on Fridays). Before you go into the seminary to be a priest, you look forward to working only one day a week on Sundays, we have six-day weekends. Dentists have nothing on us priests! When I sit down for supper at parishioner’s home, they remind me, “Fr. John, we have cheesecake for dessert,” and I make sure to leave lots of room! The end of the meal changes how I begin the meal. Before you go on your first date, ask yourself, “Is this the girl I might marry someday?” When we think about the end, we know best how to begin.

                In the gospel today, Jesus uses this second habit to answer a Pharisee’s question. One of the Pharisees, a scholar of the law, asks Jesus: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” It was not an innocent question; it was a trap. But Jesus eludes the trap and answers him with Covey’s second habit, “begin with the end in mind.” Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord, you God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” But then Jesus adds, “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, the end goal is to love God (the greatest commandment), and that is what you should keep in mind as you love your neighbor; just like I keep that cheesecake in mind as I eat my Caesar salad. The Pharisees had forgotten this habit of highly effective people (that’s why they were not very effective leaders): they tried to love God while despising the people. And in the end they loved neither God nor neighbor. When we think about the end, we will know best how to begin.

              My friends, do you begin with the end in mind? And may I suggest to you that your “end” needs to be heaven, not just earth? Some people begin their first day at work dreaming about retiring early. But should early retirement really be the end? Not at all. Heaven should be the end. That’s why I tell people who work for the Church: the pay is poor, but the retirement plan is out of this world, that is, it’s in heaven! The end comes first. That’s why parents send their kids to Catholic schools: not just so they go to Harvard, but so they go to Heaven! The end comes first. That’s the job of married couples. The fundamental task of a husband and wife is to make sure their spouse gets to heaven. If he or she isn’t in heaven yet, your job isn’t finished. The end comes first. And that’s why we become priests: because we believe that these silly sacrifices we make on earth will be richly rewarded in heaven. The end comes first.

              Can you see how different your whole life becomes when you begin with the end in mind? But you have to remember that your end is heaven. Why? Well, so that the light from heaven can illuminate your path on earth. When we think about the end, we’ll know best how to begin.

Praised be Jesus Christ!