Thursday, January 26, 2017

Walking Alone

Understanding that leadership means influence

Mark 4:21-25 
Jesus said to his disciples, "Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light. Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear." He also told them, "Take care what you hear. The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you. To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

          I have an older brother, Paul, who epitomizes that ancient adage: “even a blind sow can occasionally find an acorn.” That is, sometimes he says something really smart (but not very often). Several years ago he told me that to be an effective priest meant I must also be an able leader. And naturally, I scoffed at the suggestion because I believed all a priest has to do is say Mass, hear confessions, baptize babies, etc. Or, as we say in the church business, “hatch, match and dispatch.” But he disagreed and he gave me a book by John Maxwell called, Developing the Leader Within You. It became the first of many books I would later read on leadership.

          Maxwell has a masterful definition of leadership. He defines leadership with one word, “influence,” nothing more and nothing less, and to influence someone means you’ve inspired them to follow you. Maxwell frequently quotes a Chinese proverb that goes, “Anyone who think he’s a leader and has no followers is just going for a walk.”  Apparently, my brother thought I was just walking around by myself and could use some company. But he helped me see priesthood in an entirely new light: as a priest did I inspire others to want to be Catholic? Did I influence anyone to want to be a priest? Did I help someone to follow Jesus to heaven? In short, was I leading anyone?  Priesthood is about more than saying Mass and hearing confessions (essential as those things are); it’s also about leadership and leadership is “influence,” nothing more and nothing less.

          In the gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples this same lesson my brother tried to teach me: discipleship also involves leadership. Jesus says, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” The question is rhetorical, and the answer should be obvious: clearly a lamp is lit to give light to others. In other words, lamps lead others, they influence others, they enlighten others. The future priests of Jesus Christ, therefore, must do more than say Mass and hear confessions, they must lead others by influencing them like light.
          Today’s feast day is a lovely illustration of this precise point: the feast of Sts. Timothy and Titus, which follows hard on the heels of yesterday’s feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Yesterday we celebrated that Jesus called Saul the Pharisee to become Paul the Apostle, who’s also known as “the Apostles to the Nations.” And the following day we see what he did as an apostle: he influenced two men to become bishops, Timothy and Titus. St. Paul understood well what my brother Paul taught me: leadership is influencing others; otherwise, you’re just going for a walk by yourself.

          My friends, may I suggest to you that whatever walk of life you’re in, you must be a leader, and leadership is influence. And leaders never walk alone. Have you ever thought of marriage as leadership, that is, as “influence”? Marriage is for the purpose of helping your spouse to get to heaven. Are you influencing him or her in that direction, are you leading them there? What kind of leader are you for your children? They look to you not only to feed and clothe them, but also to lead and influence them. How about at work: do you say, “Do this because I’m the boss!” or do you inspire people to want to follow you? Let me tell you a little secret: at this church, the real leader is not necessarily the pastor, but rather it’s the person people will follow, the one with the most influence. Everyone else in this church -  including the pastor perhaps! - is just going for a walk by himself.

          Isn’t that old saying intriguing: “even a blind sow can occasionally find an acorn.” The funny thing is: it’s not always easy to tell who the blind sow really is.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Gospel Grammar

Seeing each other as brothers and sisters 
Mark 3:31-35 
The mother of Jesus and his brothers arrived at the house. Standing outside, they sent word to Jesus and called him. A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you." But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

          Today, I would like to give you a little English grammar lesson. Do you remember the difference between a “simile” and a “metaphor”? They both compare two things, but a simile uses the words “like” or “as” to make the comparison. Here’s a little test to see if you can catch that. When Coach Vitale says, “That’s football, son!” is he using the word “son” as a smile or a metaphor? Raise your hand if you think it’s a simile; now raise your hand if it’s a metaphor. Here’s another example. Coach Meares often comes up to me and says, “My brother, I love the Duke Blue Devils, and especially Coach K!” When he calls me “brother” is that a simile or a metaphor? Notice the absence of “like” and “as” and you’ll notice it’s a metaphor. Now that you’ve got that down, let’s apply our grammar lesson to the gospel.

          Jesus is inside a house, teaching the people, when his mother and some other relatives arrive outside and want to speak to him. The people sitting inside inform Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” At that Jesus replies in a way that sounds like he’s using a metaphor, like Coach Vitale or Coach Meares. Jesus looks at those around him and declares, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Let me ask you the same grammar question again: is Jesus using a metaphor or a simile? Neither! You might think it’s a metaphor because he didn’t use “like” or “as.” But when Jesus speaks he doesn’t compare things, he creates things. He is God, who said at the beginning, “Let there be light,” and there was. When Jesus speaks, supernatural sparks fly, and the world is recreated according to his word. This is gospel grammar, and we have to learn it if we want to pass the ultimate test of life and death, not just pass English tests.

          I’m a big fan of the writing and rhetoric of Dr. Scott Hahn (unfortunately, he’s not related to our student, Caleb Hahn!). He’s a professor of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH. He should also teach English there because he knows gospel grammar really well. In his latest book, called The Creed, he insisted: “Like God’s fatherhood, our adoption is not a metaphor. It is real.” Hahn continues: “Pope St. John Paul II saw this as supremely good news; ‘We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures,’ he said. ‘We are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son’” (The Creed, 122). In other words, our truest and deepest identity is “children of God,” or as we say in Latin, “filii in Filio,” literally meaning “sons in the Son.” Scott Hahn himself has 6 children and 13 grandchildren, but he would be the first to say, like Jesus today, those children and grandchildren are more his brothers and sisters than his progeny. And that’s no metaphor, that’s gospel grammar.

          Boys and girls, maybe you’re asking yourself: what does any of this have to do with the price of eggs in China??? Plenty. I want you to try to see each other not just as classmates but as cousins,(if you’re from Fort Smith, you probably are!), even as brothers and sisters. That’s your truest and deepest identity, and that’s gospel grammar. You call me “Father John,” and the prioress at St. Scholastica, “Sr. Maria.” That’s not just some medieval metaphor but truer than to call your biological father or sister those titles. That’s gospel grammar. Sometimes you get into arguments and fights with each other in school. There’s an old maxim that says, “no one fights like family,” so I’m not surprised because you are brothers and sisters! But you should also “forgive like family,” and take care of each other. That’s gospel grammar. Some of you come from broken homes and carry around broken hearts due to your parents’ divorce, abuse or neglect. Please remember that broken family is the metaphor, and your real Family is the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, where there is love, life and light eternal: where there is no divorce, no abuse, no neglect. That’s gospel grammar.

          So, the next time you hear Coach Vitale say, “That’s football, son!” or Coach Meares say, “The Duke Blue Devils are awesome, my brother!” know that they are saying a lot more than they mean. That’s not mere metaphor, that’s gospel grammar.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Leaning Towers

Trying to see and correct our prejudices

Mark 3:22-30 
The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said of Jesus, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," and "By the prince of demons he drives out demons." Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables, "How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him. But no one can enter a strong man's house to plunder his property  unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house. Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them.
 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin." For they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

          Do you have a favorite news outlet? There are two news networks that seem to be the most popular, but I don’t want to use their actual name. See if you can figure them out with these two subtle clues. One network rhymes with the word “socks.” And the other one has the same first letters as “Cooper News Network.” Now, I enjoy watching both of them: each has sharp reporters and they both are quick to capture breaking news. But I’ve also noticed that some of their news shows tend to lean either to the right or left on some issues. And some shows not only disagree with those on the other side of the aisle, they even demonize them, trying to make the other side sound ridiculous or revengeful, anything but reasonable. Sadly, this tendency to lean right or left can also be seen in some church news outlets: either liberal or conservative, either progressive or traditional. When their reporting is obviously slanted to one side, I think of the famous “leaning tower of Pisa.” I don’t believe they will ever fix that tower and make it perfectly erect. Why? Well, because then people would stop visiting Pisa, Italy. Sometimes, people like to see you lean.

          In the gospel today, there’s no question which way the scribes were leaning in their opinion about Jesus. Mark writes: “The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said of Jesus, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘By the prince of demons he drives out demons’.” Like we see how some media sources lean right or lean left, it was painfully obvious how many Jewish leaders vilified and down-right demonized Jesus, quite literally saying he was possessed by a demon. They were similar to the leaning tower of Pisa, and some people wanted to see them lean. Of course, we know all Jewish leaders were not prejudiced against Jesus, notably, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus, who came to Our Lord at night.

          Today, ask yourself the question: do I tend to lean in one direction or the other? Quite naturally, we all like to think our own position and opinion is perfectly upright, while others are biased and lean to one side. So, today, just like the scientist Galileo supposedly dropped two objects from the tower of Pisa to conduct his experiment on gravity, here are 3 questions to test how far your opinion leans. First, when you disagree with someone do you demonize them, also called “character assassination”? When it becomes personal, you’re probably leaning to one side. Second, before you criticize an opponent, can you state their position clearly and intelligently, without any bias? St. Thomas Aquinas always articulated his opponent’s arguments before stating his own. And he often did it better than that could! And third, can you pray for those who disagree and demonize you? If you’re Republican, can you pray for Democrats? If you’re an Atlanta Falcons fan, can you pray for the Patriots? Remember how Jesus prayed for those who crucified him while he hung on the Cross?

          Folks, no one is perfectly perpendicular. We all lean to one side or the other like the Tower of Pisa, and maybe secretly, we kind of like the way we lean. Why? Well, because if we were perfectly perpendicular, we’d look like the Cross.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Uncertainty Principle

Learning to walk by the certainty of faith
Matthew 4:12-23 
Jesus left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen. As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

          Once a month I have to travel to Little Rock because I serve on some boards that advise the bishop. It’s a long drive, and I try to kill time on the road by listening to Led Zeppelin and Mötley Crüe – I would enjoy these big hair bands more if I had some big hair myself. So recently, I’ve been listening to an audio book called A Brief History of Time by the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking. Chapter Two of this book is called, “The Uncertainty Principle” and explains how we cannot know any sub-atomic particle with any great precision. Hawking writes: “The more accurately you try to measure the position of [a given] particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa” (Brief History, 72, emphasis mine). The reason for this uncertainty is that you use light waves to measure sub-atomic particles (called “quanta”) that “will disturb the particle and change its velocity in a way that cannot be predicted” (ibid, 72). In other words, when light hits a particle, it results in uncertainty either in its location or in its speed: the uncertainty principle.

          At that point I was ready to go back to AC/DC and listen to “Back in Black,” but just then Hawking surprisingly mentioned “God,” so this priest’s ears perked up. With a hint of cynicism, Hawking continued: “We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely (meaning with certainty) for some supernatural being (meaning God) who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it. However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us ordinary mortals” (ibid, 72). I exploded in the car: “Au contraire, mon frère!” (When I get excited, I speak French.) On the contrary, my dear brother, that is of the greatest importance to us ordinary mortals; we do want to know how God observes us from heaven, and we desperately want to know what would happen if his Light ever broke forth into our world. A light that would not disturb particles, but persons; a light not governed by the uncertainty principle but by the certainty principle of God’s truth and love. With all due respect to the eminent Oxford don, every ordinary mortal should be deeply and desperately interested in precisely that: how Light disturbs everything.

          In the gospel today, St. Matthew attempts to answer Hawking’s argument that uncertainty governs the universe, and Matthew offers instead the certainty of faith. Jesus travels to a remote area of Galilee called Zebulon and Naphtali, to fulfill an ancient prophesy about these two towns. Isaiah had written 700 years earlier (our first reading): “Land of Zebulon, and land of Naphtali…the people who sit in darkness has seen a great light.” Isaiah goes on: “On those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” In other words, the eternal Father’s light shining brightly from heaven now walks with two legs on earth, disturbing darkness and death, namely, Jesus. That’s one way the Light disturbs everything.

          But Jesus does more than just fulfill old prophesies. Like the light of quantum mechanics moves every particle it touches, so Jesus light deeply moves every person he touches. He calls two sets of brothers – Andrew and Peter, James and John – to follow him. And how do they react? They “at once left their nets,” and “immediately followed him.” You see, there was no uncertainty principle at work here, but rather only the certainty of faith completely re-ordering their lives all the way down to the quantum level. Jesus’ Light disturbed the apostles’ lives so utterly, they left it all to follow Jesus.

          My friends, we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, not just at the level of sub-atomic particles, but in our everyday lives. Have you felt this uncertainty in your life? For instance, many people celebrated on Friday when the 45th president was sworn in, but at the same time others felt great uncertainty, especially immigrants and other minorities. Pope Francis expressed his uncertainty about the future of our planet if we don’t take better care of our “common home” in his encyclical Laudato Si. I don’t know about you, but I feel a twinge of uncertainty now whenever I’m in a crowd of people in a public place always looking over my shoulder and wondering if I’ll be interviewed on CNN tomorrow because of a bomb or some psychotic shooter. If you are a parent, don’t you look into your children’s eyes and feel some uncertainty about the world they will inherit tomorrow with the rise of virtual reality, robots, and artificial intelligence? Many people feel uncertainty in their marriages, at least the 60% who get divorced feel it. Babies in their mother’s womb feel great uncertainty about whether they will be born or be “terminated” in an abortion. Heck, maybe your only uncertainty is what I’m talking about in this homily! All this uncertainty makes us want to turn up Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top! But no matter how loud you turn up the music, that won’t make the uncertainty go away. So, what will?

          Only the in light of Jesus will we find the certainty of faith. He is “Light from Light” as we profess in the Creed, and he comes to disturb the darkness, and the doubt, and even to destroy death. Jesus offers us the same faith that he gave to Andrew and Peter, James and John, so that we, too, can drop all that causes us uncertainty in this life, and cling only to Christ. You know, to his credit, Hawking quoted the greatest physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, even though Einstein disagreed with him. Hawking humbly wrote: “Einstein never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were summed up in his famous statement, ‘God does not play dice [with the universe]’” (Brief History, 73). But the only way to be certain that God does not play dice is by faith, and not by cranking up Def Leppard.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Run, Forrest, Run

Running because we are in love with Jesus

Mark 3:13-19 
Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles, that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach  and to have authority to drive out demons: He appointed the Twelve: Simon, whom he named Peter;  James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.

          Boys and girls, I went for a run this morning. Does anyone know why I went for a run? It’s because I’m training for a marathon, the Fort Smith marathon called “True Grit” on February 12. But WHY am I running a marathon? Well, it’s because I’m trying to raise money for Catholic schools (boy, that sounds familiar!), because I love Catholic schools. Here’s the connection I want you to see: when we love something we feel the need to run. Ask yourself today: why do I feel like running sometimes? When it’s time for recess, do you walk to recess or run? Most of your run to recess because you love recess! But when it’s time to take a math test, do you walk or run to class? You try to stay in bed and pretend you are sick! When you don’t love, you don’t run. We run to what we love; we run because we are in love.

          In the gospel today, we see the 12 apostles are ready to go for a run as well. Jesus calls them to him by name, and then what happens? He “sent them forth.” That means they loved Jesus so much that they ran all over the world to tell people about him. That’s why I am an Indian, but I am also Catholic because they apostles ran all the way to India. That’s why Fr. Pius is from Nigeria but also Catholic because the apostles ran all the way to Africa. The apostles ran all over the world faster than you run to recess! But one of the 12 apostles did not run like the others. Who was that? It was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. He only ran to collect the 30 pieces of silver, because he loved money more than he loved Jesus. The apostles ran a lot farther than a marathon because they loved Jesus. We run because we love.

          Boys and girls, how many o you love Jesus! Wonderful, I love him, too. But how many of you run to Mass on Sunday to see Jesus? I know some of you live too far away to actually run to Mass, that’s okay. And I know your parents must drive you to come to Mass. But we should still WANT to run to Mass. One student in our school actually cried one Sunday when her parents didn’t bring her to Mass. She would have run to Mass if she could.  A few years ago a lot of ice fell in Fort Smith, and no one could drive anywhere. But two gentlemen in our church still drove to early morning Mass and crawled on their hands and knees across the frozen parking lot to Mass. When you love Jesus that much, you’ll even crawl to come to see him.

          Boys and girls, we run to what we love, like to recess; we run because we are in love. Let us always run into the arms of Jesus at Mass, and if you can’t run, it’s okay to crawl.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

New Sheriff in Town

Allowing Jesus to rule and reign in our hearts
Mark 3:1-6 
Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, "Come up here before us." Then he said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.

          “There’s a new sheriff in town.” Have you ever heard that expression before? In the United States, county sheriffs are elected positions, and I’m glad Bill Hollenbeck, a good Catholic from St. Boniface, is now Sebastian County Sheriff. The role and responsibility of a sheriff is to be the chief law enforcement official in a given county, and to make arrests, when that’s warranted. But the expression, “there’s a new sheriff in town” goes a lot further than that. It expands and even exaggerates the authority of the sheriff to be virtually a dictator or despot, “the judge, jury and executioner,” the final arbiter of right and wrong. Sometimes, when I am assigned to a new parish, I’ll walk into the church office and announce sternly to the secretary, “There’s a new sheriff in town.” And the secretary smiles and says, “That’s nice, Father, you have a call from the hospital.” She’s not impressed.

          Now, my favorite sheriff of all time is Andy Griffith, the sheriff of the imaginary town of Mayberry. I love watching the Andy Griffith Show, and seeing how Andy kept the peace without a gun, and only using his sweet southern charm, a lot of common sense, and a touch of good humor. That reminds me of another reason why there was peace in Mayberry. Some joked: “It just occurred to me why Mayberry was so peaceful and quiet…nobody was married. Here are the single people that come to mind: Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea, Floyd, Howard, Goober, Gomer, Sam, Ernest T. Bass, the Darlin family, Helen, Thelma Lou, Clara, just to name a few. In fact, the only one married was Otis…and he stayed drunk.” What is the secret to Mayberry’s peace: Andy being the sheriff or everyone being single? Maybe a little of both.

          In the gospel today, we see Jesus acting as “the new sheriff in town.” Indeed, it is helpful to visualize all of Jesus’ behavior in throughout the gospels as that of a new authority figure, who takes upon himself the role of judge, jury and executioner, the final arbiter of right and wrong. And that’s not an exaggeration. Today, Jesus cures a man with a withered hand, and he performs this miracle in plain sight, and on the Sabbath, when no work was allowed. Notice what Jesus asks the Pharisees: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” (italics mine). The question is a legal question, and if the Pharisees were true authority figures, they should know the answer easily. But they remain silent. It becomes clear to everyone watching – and painfully clear to the Pharisees – that “there’s a new sheriff in town,” who’s enforcing the law now like Andy in Mayberry: with personal charm, common sense, and a touch of good humor. The Pharisees understood precisely what was at stake in the arrival of this new sheriff: they were about to lose their jobs as the ultimate authority in Israel, and so they sought to kill Jesus.

          My friends, Jesus did not come just to replace the Pharisees as the new sheriff of Israel. He came to oust all illegitimate authority figures everywhere, most especially in our own hearts. Ask yourself: who is the “sheriff” who is calling the shots and telling you what to do? Who is your own judge, jury and executioner; who plays the role of final arbiter of right and wrong in your own life? Surprisingly, sometimes, we are our own sheriff and we don’t let anyone else tell us what to do, and that’s especially true among young people today, and Catholic youth are no exception: excusing themselves from Sunday Mass, living together before marriage, who’d rather marry on a beach or wedding chapel rather than in a church, who believe all religions are essentially the same. They have become a “sheriff” unto themselves; their own arbiters of authority and truth. But Jesus has come to replace that authority figure no less than he came to dethrone the Pharisees. He has come to be the new sheriff in the only “town” that ultimately matters, namely, your heart.

          Bishop Robert Barron aptly assesses this new authority of Christ in these words: “Jesus Christ is Lord...Jesus Christ, the God-man risen from the dead, the one who gathered the tribes, cleansed the Temple, and fought with the enemies of the human race - he is the one to whom final allegiance is due.  Christians are those who submit to this Lordship” (Catholicism, 35)  That’s what a Christian should mean when he or she says, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Marathon Minions

Running the relationship race so as to win
Letter to the hebrews 6:10-20 Brothers and sisters: God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones. We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises. This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil, where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

          Boys and girls, on February 12, Fort Smith will host the True Grit Marathon and I plan on running it. I’m running in order to raise money for Trinity Junior High, and because I love this school more than I love my knees! There’s actually a group of people who are running with me – that I call my “marathon minions” – and it includes some of your parents, like Hunter Criswell’s dad, and Eve Gilker’s mom, and Mr. Edwards. You’re welcome to run with us, if you think you can handle being a “marathon minion,” but first talk to your parents, and then talk to your knees! You don’t have to run the full marathon (26.2 miles), you could do the half (13.1 miles) or form a four-man team, and do a relay, where each runs 5-6 miles. I would love to run with you, and see if you can keep up with this old priest.

          You can learn a lot of life lessons by running a marathon. For instance, all good relationships – friendships, family, sports teams, and even marriages – are more like a marathon than like a hundred yard dash. In a dash, you just give it all you have and run as fast as possible because you know the race will be over soon, like Eusain Bolt does. That’s easy. But in a marathon, you have to be patient, not come out too fast, you must pace yourself, and you have know own weaknesses and limitations. In every marathon you will sooner or later hit “the wall,” a moment when you feel complete exhaustion – both physically and emotionally. You simply want to give up and you cannot go on. This usually happens around mile 20, and so experienced marathoners often say, “The real marathon starts at mile 20.” All human relationships also have “a wall” – where we want to give up on other people or on ourselves – but that’s when the real friendship and the real basketball team and the real marriage start.

          In the first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the ancient author says we should have a “marathon mentality” when it comes to our relationship with Jesus. That relationship is called “discipleship,” and it, too, has “a wall” that we eventually hit. So Hebrews says, “We earnestly desire…that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises.” And a little later he describes Jesus as the “forerunner” to drive home the point about running a spiritual marathon. In other words, sooner or later, we hit the wall in being a disciple of Jesus, we’re exhausted, we doubt our faith, we’re bored at Mass, we want to give up on the Lord. But remember what experienced marathons say, “That’s when the real race begins,” and that’s when real discipleship begins.

          This wall looms especially large at two decisive moments in our marathon with Jesus throughout life. First, in our teens and twenties. Do you have any older siblings in high school or college who don’t go to church anymore? Why is that? It’s because they’ve hit the wall. But now their real relationship with Jesus has just begun. The second time is in our forties. Do you know any adults in their forties who are struggling with their relationships – marriage, occupation, faith? Don’t worry, I’ve had similar struggles myself. But they’ve hit the wall; they feel exhausted and think they can’t go on. But now the real relationship has begun. In a sense, you could say that we are all “marathon minions” – whether we like it or not – and we’re all running a marathon called “life.”

          Every good and meaningful relationship is more like a marathon than a hundred yard dash. And to run a successful marathon, you have to be patient, not come out too fast, you must pace yourself, and know own weaknesses and limitations. And when you hit the wall – which you will sooner or later – just remember: that’s when the real relationship has begun.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Classic Internet

Evaluating everything in light of eternity 

Mark 2:18-22 The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to Jesus and objected, "Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answered them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak. If he does, its fullness pulls away, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins."

          We live in a culture that’s crazy about the latest and the greatest. We anxiously await the arrival of what’s new and improved. People camp-out overnight to buy the latest version of smartphones or Ipads. The most recent revolution has been in virtual reality – you have no doubt seen commercials of people wearing headsets grasping at imaginary objects in the air – and artificial intelligence or AI. Have you heard of something called the “internet of things”? Well, just like the original internet – we might call it the “classic internet”! – connected you to information on the world wide web, so now the internet will connect you to things, like your coffee pot, your martini shaker, and your refrigerator. We priests are not immune from wanting the last in the line of best and brightest either. One priest friend always leases his car, so that whenever the newest model rolls off the assembly line, he’s waiting to jump into the driver’s seat.

          Now, the funny thing is we know that in a year, today’s technology and innovations will be obsolete: slower, more cumbersome, and less reliable compared to next year. And we will rush head-long to embrace the newest baubles. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying any of this is necessarily bad; in fact, we use some of these advances in the church office to provide better pastoral care for you. But I would like us to pause and ponder what we do, and not blindly be carried along by the tide of technology. The ancient philosopher, Socrates, is supposed to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And the best way to examine our life is under the light of the gospel, the light shining from heaven, illuminating what is of real value.

          Today’s gospel shows Jesus advocating for what’s new, and replace what is old. He gives the example of unshrunken cloth (new cloth) and new wine as incompatible with old cloth and old wineskins. He concludes: “New wine is poured into fresh wineskins.” Jesus’ examples would have elated modern marketing gurus because it seems he recommends the latest and greatest. In with the new, out with the old! But is that really his point? Not really. You see, Jesus himself is not just the last in the line of innovations, and therefore to be replaced in a year. Rather, what Jesus touches he makes eternally new with the newness of heaven, which never becomes obsolete or out-dated. Revelation 21:5 refers to Jesus when it says, “The One seated on the throne says, ‘Behold, I make all things new’.” In other words, Jesus is not advocating the “internet of things,” but rather the “eternity of things.” His newness makes everything else new.

          My friends, as the slow march of progress picks up its pace – it won’t get slower but only faster, it’s always revving up its engines – take a moment to evaluate things in light of your faith, in light of Jesus’ newness. Many innovations are good and useful, even Pope Francis sends papal tweets and posts things on Instagram. These advances advance the gospel message. On the other hand, be careful in criticizing the fact that some things will never change, like monogamous marriage, the male-only priesthood, the Holy Mass, grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe, and Mean Jean’s Moose Milk. Somethings are not ever going to get any better. That is, examine all tradition and all progress in the light of the gospel: not by the internet of things, but by the eternity of things. And then your life, examined by eternity, will also be worth living.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

My Wife’s Cooking

Understanding our existence as rooted in God’s love
John 1:29-34 John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, 'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.' I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel." John testified further, saying, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."

          “Why are you here?” What a provocative and potentially prickly question! If I asked you right now, “Why are you here?” how would you answer? You may say, “My mom made me come to Mass, otherwise, I would NOT be here.” That’s an honest answer. Or, you might reply, “My wife won’t cook dinner if we don’t come to Mass!” And that’s a selfish answer. But I’m still glad you came, regardless of the reason. What if we expand that question to mean, “Why are you here on earth?”? Whoa. Some of us may suddenly squirm uncomfortably in our seats because we rarely take time to ask THAT kind of question. Maybe we would say, “Who knows why we’re really here? I’m just here on earth to eat my wife’s cooking. That’s why I’m here.”

          The first time I heard that question was in the movie, “Star Trek, the Wrath of Khan.” Khan, the malevolent genius, asks two star fleet officers why they have stumbled into his shipwrecked spaceship. He stares probingly into their eyes and asks, “Why are you here?” It’s a chilling scene, and the two officers hesitate to answer, lest they betray their mission and put their crew in jeopardy because Khan will kill them. We hear echoes of this question throughout the movie. James Kirk has been promoted to Admiral and has a “desk job,” and asks himself the same question, “Why am I here in an office, instead of captain of the Enterprise?” Spock gives a shocking answer to this question by laying down his life to save the ship. His reply was a “heroic sacrifice” to the question, “Why are you here?” “Why are you here?” is a question we all must face sooner or later, and you are not just here to eat your wife’s cooking.

          Each of our readings today attempt to answer this same staggering question, “Why are you here?” Isaiah explains why the people of Israel are here, saying, “I – meaning God – will make you a light to the nations; that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Not a bad reason to be here - a light to the nations! Psalm 40’s refrain –which we all repeated – goes, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” That is, we are here to do God’s will, not necessarily our own will. St. Paul proclaims why he’s here, namely, because he is “called to be an apostle by Christ Jesus by the will of God.” The English word “apostle” comes from the Greek word “apostolos” which means “one who is sent.” Paul is here because he was sent by God; he’s a apostle, a “sent one.” In the gospel, St. John the Baptist answers this question by saying, “The reason I came baptizing with water was that he – meaning Jesus – might be made known to Israel.” John the Baptist is the last great prophet, the Precursor, Elijah redivivus (Mt. 11:14), who will announce the arrival of the Messiah. Notice that if Khan had asked Isaiah or Paul or John the Baptist, “Why are you here?” not one of them would have hesitated to give an answer. And because they could answer without pause, they felt peace and purpose in their life. It is an important question, nay, maybe the most important question, and we should not avoid it with cheap and evasive answers.

          I read in the news lately about a lady who is 108 years old, and you know she’s been asking herself that question for a while, “Why am I still here??” Carrie Lou Rausch lives in a nursing home in Columbus, OH, but was running out of money. So, a “GoFundMe” page was set up for her which raised $50,000 so she could stay in the nursing home. Her daughter explained: “It is close to all the family, I decided to move her there, knowing that ultimately they didn’t accept Medicaid. The honest thing to say is – I didn’t know she’d live this long.” In other words, her daughter is candidly answering the question, “Why is my mother here?”  She’s not sure! It’s not an easy question to answer for anyone, especially if you’re 108 years old!

          My friends, let me ask you that provocative and prickly question again, “Why are you here?” And I’m asking you to consider your answer in the biggest and broadest context possible, that is, not just why are you here at Mass today, but why do you exist at all? Why did God make you out of nothing? And now that you will exist for all eternity, for what purpose are you here? Why are you here? Some content themselves with shallow and feeble answers like, “I’m here to make lots of money!” or “I’m here to enjoy all the pleasures this planet has to offer!” or, a little more noble, “I am here for my children and grandchildren!” or “I’m here to help people, and maybe cure cancer!” While some of these answer are adequate, they don’t go deep enough. After all, why is Carrie Lou Rausch still here: she’s not doing any of those things.

          The best answer is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself.” It continues, “Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (Catechism, 27). In other words, like Isaiah and Paul and John the Baptist, we must root our answer to this question in God’s love, in God’s will, and in God’s goodness. The reason you are here, the reason Carrie Lou is here, the reason I am here, the reason anyone is here, is because God loves us.  Or, as the Catechism used to say, “God made us to know, love and serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the next.” Oh, and also to eat your wife’s cooking.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Leading with Heart

Seeing others more with the heart than with the mind
Mark 2:13-17 Jesus went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. Jesus said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed Jesus. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors and said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  Jesus heard this and said to them, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."

          Several years ago I read a book on leadership by Coach Mike Krzyzewski, or “Coach K” for short because no one can pronounce or spell his Polish name. The book is called Leading with the Heart and explains his leadership principles and philosophy. Here’s one memorable maxim Coach K shares: “When teaching, always remember this simple phrase: ‘You hear, you forget. You see, you remember. You do, you understand.” Great advice, and I’ve certainly seen that’s true in my own life: seeing and doing make lessons last longer.

          Another Coach K lesson leaped out at me as curiously counter-intuitive, but likewise has helped me. He said that sometimes when he meets an exceptionally able assistant coach, even though he doesn’t have an opening or room on his staff, he will hire them anyway, and build a new staff position around the new hire. Coach K is not just “filling holes” on his roster, rather, he wants to surround himself with talent. A leader is only as good as the team around him. I believe Coach K possess that rare talent to see talent in others, whether they are assistant coaches or players, and then he recruits them for his own team. That’s how his heart leads him. The heart often sees what the mind misses.

          In the gospel today, we see Jesus behaving a lot like a college basketball coach: looking for talented assistance coaches and players to surround himself with. First he spots Levi a tax-collector, and calls him to be an apostle (kind of an assistant coach). Levi (his Hebrew name) would become St. Matthew (his Roman or Latin name), one of the 12 apostles and writers of one of the four gospels. He was no slouch of a saint. Then Jesus dines at Levi’s home, sitting at a table surrounded by so-called sinners, who were like the players on his team. The scribes and Pharisees took great offense and turned up their noses at keeping such company. Yet Jesus defends his behavior, saying, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinner.” Sinners, mind you, who would become saints, thanks to Jesus’ healing grace. Like Coach K, Jesus “leads with his heart,” while the Pharisees we might say, “lead with their head.” And that was precisely their problem.  Why?  Because the heart often sees what the mind misses.

          Most of us are not college basketball coaches – for which we should be very grateful! – but we still look at other people, we judge their characters as good or bad, we size them up as friend or foe, we choose to draw near to them or recoil from them. So, let me ask you: what “organ” do you use to see other people: your heart or your head? Or, take it a step further, how do you see God himself: with your mind or with your heart? Pope Benedict XVI (who’s still the pope, by the way, even if emeritus!) wrote in his insightful book Jesus of Nazareth these surprising lines: “The organ for seeing God is the heart. The intellect alone is not enough.”  We see God better with the heart than with the head.

          Well, let me suggest to you that if we need the heart to see God, that’s also the best organ to see one another, because, after all, you and I are “created in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27). Like Coach K and Jesus, if you look at others with your heart you will see their heart. You will see beyond the clothes and the car and the credit cards, and see what matters, what your mind might miss. Heck, some people don’t like Coach K because he coaches a team called the “Blue Devils” - especially if you’re a North Carolina Tar Heels fan - but if you looked with your heart, you’d see that he’s also a devout Catholic.  When you look at other people, you may not see great coaches or three-point shooters, but you will see them as children of God; you will see what matters. And what “you see, you remember.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, January 13, 2017


Learning to find leisure in the Lord
Letter to the Hebrews 4:1-5, 11 
Let us be on our guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains, that none of you seem to have failed. For in fact we have received the Good News just as our ancestors did. But the word that they heard did not profit them, for they were not united in faith with those who listened. For we who believed enter into that rest, just as he has said: As I swore in my wrath,  "They shall not enter into my rest," and yet his works were accomplished at the foundation of the world. For he has spoken somewhere about the seventh day in this manner, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works; and again, in the previously mentioned place, They shall not enter into my rest.

          May I share something that’s a little embarrassing but honest? I don’t really enjoy going on vacation; I find it hard to get some good “r and r” (rest and relaxation), or as people like to say today, to “chillax” (a conflation of the words “chill” and “relax”). This is partly because I’m a workaholic; after all, who gets up at 4 a.m. to prepare daily Mass homilies? But it’s also partly because I’m not sure how to relax well, especially during the holidays.

          We just finished the Christmas holiday, and how did many people “chillax”? I recently read an article in Crisis Magazine that may get close to how many Americans spent Christmas. It said: “Is Christmas now just a day to tear open gifts, play with the kids a while, and end the day stuffed and half-drunk in the soft embrace of the La-Z-Boy?” (“The Proper Way to Celebrate the Holidays,” Crisis Magazine, December 22, 2015). Maybe my discomfort with vacations stems from only resting the body, but not also the soul. I’m saddened by the fact that we’ve forgotten that our “holidays” originally started out as “holy days,” their roots were Christian feast days. I guess I just want a little more “holy” in my “holly,” and then maybe I could chillax a little.

          In the first reading today, the Letter to the Hebrews also asks how best to chillax, and gives the answer, “rest in the Lord” is the best rest. It teaches: “Let us be on guard while the promise of entering into his rest remains, that none of your seem to have failed.” In other words, real rest entails an awareness of God’s presence, his work of grace transforming us from within, his mercy re-making us like him, his peace flooding into our souls filling every empty space. “Resting in the Lord” means putting a little more “holy” into your “holly.” Sometimes when I visit parish families for supper, I stay late and the children have to go to bed. I always bid them goodbye by telling them: “Sleep with the angels.” And then I moment later I add with a smirk: “Don’t let them push you out of bed!” The kids laugh. But I hope they hear that real rest – which is the purpose of slumber, a “good night’s rest” – only comes “in the Lord,” held in the arms of his angels.  I pray those children will “not seemed to have failed” to “rest in the Lord”; while I, on the other hand, fall asleep “stuffed and half-drunk in the soft embrace of the La-Z-Boy.”

          Folks, may I suggest a few ways you can inject a little more “holy” into your “holly”? Unlike me, you may love to go on vacation, and like the rock-band, Loverboy, you’re just “working for the weekend!” Nevertheless, let me invite you not only to rest your body, but also your soul, only that way will you really rest, because you will find rest in the Lord. Some parishioners send me pictures of churches where they attend Mass while on vacation, with the caption: “See, we made it to Mass!” in New York or Las Vegas or Rome. One friend always goes to confession while on vacation, explaining, “That way, I don’t have to go to you, Fr. John!” Observe the 6 holy days of obligation (besides the 52 Sundays), and go to Mass as eagerly and anxiously as you await secular holidays and 3-day weekends.

          Have you ever heard people say after a long vacation: “Man, I need a vacation after this vacation!”? I believe that’s because as Hebrews predicted: “They seemed to have failed to enter into God’s rest.” They rested the body, but the soul is still restive (meaning restless). St. Augustine taught this timeless truth about real rest in his classic work, Confessions. The doctor of grace wrote: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” That’s how you chillax.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Listen Now

Hearing with the heart and listening with love

Mark 1:40-45 
A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean." The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, "See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them." The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.

          You don’t have to hear too many speeches by the same speaker, or read too many books by the same author, to pick up on their idiosyncrasies, their tell-tale traits, their favorite phrases. I’ve heard enough homilies by Bishop Robert Barron that I smile when I hear one of his characteristic catch phrases. For example, at some point in his homily, he will invariably use the term, “Listen now.” Another “Barronism” is the phrase, “Up and down the centuries.” Have you heard him use those? I especially like the phrase “Listen now,” and have used it myself. It’s a powerful rhetorical device because it’s direct and demanding; it makes you sit up. Bishop Barron know he has to grab the attention of his audience. Why? Well, because we all tend to day-dream and lose focus. How many have already zoned out of this homily?? Listen now. (See how that works?)

          Do you know which passage of the Old Testament the Jews quote more than any other? In fact, devout Jews say it twice a day as they begin their morning and evening prayers. It’s Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Listen now, it reads: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The deuteronomic author knows well, like Bishop Barron, that sometimes you have to grab people by the collar, so before he gives them the great commandment, he says, “Shema Israel,” or “Hear, O Israel,” or “Listen now, Israel.” In other words, he’s telling the people, don’t just hear with your ear, but hear with your heart; listen now with loving attention to what I’m about to tell you.

          In the gospel today, we meet a man who is not listening with love to Jesus. A man with leprosy is healed, but Jesus warns him sternly, “See that you tell no one [about me healing you], but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed, that will be proof for them.” But what did the former leper do? None of the above: there is no evidence that he went to the priest; rather, he excitedly told everyone about Jesus’ miraculous healing, exactly what Jesus said NOT to do. And because he did not listen, he did not obey. Too bad Bishop Barron wasn’t there to tell the leper, “Listen now!” In fact, the Latin word “to obey” is “obedire,” which literally means “to listen,” “ob” and “audire.” The leper only heard with his ear, not with his heart; he did not listen with love, therefore he did not obey.

          My friends, I am convinced that the single greatest skill we can acquire as a human person is learning to listen; not just to hear with the ear, but to listen with love. And this is true “up and down the centuries”! When I counsel married couples the first thing I notice is how much they talk and how little they listen. Even when one of them is quiet and looks like they’re listening, they’re really preparing in their mind their next response, rebuttal and refutation. That’s not listening with love. When I was a little boy my parents taught me many things that went in one ear and out the other. Now, 40 years later, I’m starting to listen to them with love. Even as a priest it can be tempting to tune out the bishop, and only hear him with one ear, and no heart. Why do priests do that? Simple: because if we listen with love, we might have to obey. Rather, we “listen” like the leper, and we do not obey. As you mature in the spiritual life, in your journey with Jesus, you’ll feel less and less the need to talk, and more and more the urge to listen with loving attention. That’s actually the best sign of spiritual progress. You begin to realize that maybe what Jesus has to say to you is a little more interesting than what you have to say to him.

          Shema, Israel. Listen now.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Marrying a Robot

Choosing the supernatural and saving our souls

Hebrews 2:5-12 
It was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. Instead, someone has testified somewhere: What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor, subjecting all things under his feet. In "subjecting" all things to him, he left nothing not "subject to him." Yet at present we do not see "all things subject to him," but we do see Jesus "crowned with glory and honor" because he suffered death, he who "for a little while" was made "lower than the angels," that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

          We live in a culture that makes it very hard to believe in the supernatural, in God, in angels, in miracles, even in heaven. We are dazzled by our scientific and technological progress, and we become blind to the Bible. We boldly build skyscrapers in Dubai that pierce the clouds and cast shadows over the ancient Tower of Babel. We feel religion is only for superstitious little old ladies who go to daily Mass, fingering their magical rosary beads. Or church is to make unruly children behave better by idle threats of an imaginary hell or the rich reward of a mythical heaven. On rare and almost embarrassing moments we feel maybe there is a God, like when Clemson beats Alabama in the National Championship Football game. Clemson’s coach, Dabo Swinney excited exclaimed after their upset victory last night: “It’s indescribable. You can’t make this stuff up, only God can do this.” But this morning, we have returned to our technological, materialistic, scientific senses, and have put all that God-talk safely behind us, excusing it as emotional exuberance.

          Over and against this view stands the sense and sagacity of Sacred Scripture. Today’s readings invite us to see how angels are involved and interact with us, especially with Jesus, the Son of God. He is the model of Christian behavior. Hebrews teaches that God has catapulted man above the ranks of angels, and thereby given us audacious authority over them. We can command angels, if you can believe it. And Jesus - our model - gives proof of this by expelling a fallen angel, an evil spirit, who was tormenting a poor man. How is this possible for us?  Well, because we are Jesus’ little brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God, we can do the same thing. A friend asked me recently, “Is all that exorcism business really true?” I answered, “It’s absolutely true, if you can believe it.” But believing is not so easy for us, and the Bible seems little more than fairy tales to enchant children and to comfort little old ladies.

          But let me tell you the real risk of rejecting religion, and expelling everything eternal. By getting rid of religion, we don’t kill God, we kill ourselves. There’s a popular meme that quotes the German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche, who famously said, “God is dead” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). And underneath is a quotation from God, saying, “Nietzsche is dead.” That’s meant to be clever and catchy, but it’s a lot more than that. When we get rid of God, the angels, and heaven (everything supernatural), all that makes us aspire to be greater than ourselves, then we sort of fall back down to earth, and become like the animals and other material things. I read an article last week that by 2050 human beings will be able to marry robots, especially with the rise of AI (artificial intelligence). Does that surprise you? I bet it doesn’t. The article said: “Experts predict human beings will do more than shake hands with robots” (Quartz, December 24, 2016). That’s a euphemism. When God does not define who man is (like he does in the Bible), then we will define ourselves, and we will do it with the material, technological, scientific world around us. When you marry a robot, you did not make the robot like you, you made yourself like the robot.

          Today, instead of being like a robot (and marrying one), try to be more like the angels, and even command them. Every day at noon, church bells ring to announce a time of prayer called “The Angelus,” where we remember what the angel Gabriel announced to Mary. But the angel did not tell Mary what to do; he was at her beck and call.  Be like the little old ladies fingering their magical rosaries, asking for the intercession of Mary, the Queen of Angels. Say the “Guardian Angel Prayer” before you go to bed, and dare to command the angels to watch over you at night. They will obey you. You basically have a choice to make: you can believe in the supernatural, or you can believe only in the natural. But beware: whatever you believe in, that is what you will become. If God is dead, Nietzsche is dead. Don’t kill yourself.  I bet those little old ladies would never marry a robot.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Diaper Dandies

Embracing the philosophy of family individualism
Matthew 3:13-17 
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying,  "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?" Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying,  "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

          There is something deep in us that craves independence: to blaze our own trail, to be the master of our own ship, to fly under the power of our own wings. To proclaim proudly and publicly like Leonardo DiCaprio did in the movie, “Titanic,” “I am the king of the world!” The American aspiration of independence is aptly captured in the phrase “rugged individualism” popularized by President Herbert Hoover. He was U.S. President from 1929 to 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression. He penned those words in this context, saying, “We were challenged with a peace-time choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines – doctrines of paternalism and state socialism.” Naturally, there is a lot of good in rugged individualism; it helps us achieve our full human potential. But it is only half the picture.

          Before you become so ruggedly individual, someone had to change your diapers, someone had to nurse you at the breast, someone taught you to read and write, someone taught you to play baseball. And after you’re finished being so ruggedly individual, someone else will change your diapers, someone else will feed you, someone else will read and write for you, and you will watch someone else play baseball all day! My father taught me an old Indian maxim recently, “Inthe yan, nthale nthee,” literally meaning, “today me, tomorrow you.” In other words, today you take care of me, and tomorrow someone else will take care of you. Rugged individualism must be balanced with “family individualism.”

          In the gospel today, Jesus teaches John the Baptist this same lesson of family individualism. The gospel reads: “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed him.” Jesus was teaching John what my father taught me, “inthe yan, nthale nthee.” John was learning to balance his rugged individualism – he lived fiercely alone in the dessert, eating locust and wild honey – with family individualism. Today, you will take care of me, and tomorrow, someone else will take care of you.

          My friends, today take a moment to take stock of where you stand on this continuum of “family individualism.” In other words, ask yourself: who’s wearing the diapers right now?? There is a time in our life when others must take care of us in our family, as babies or as elderly, and in a sense, they must “baptize us” with their love and compassion. Like St. John the Baptist, we must “allow it.” Or, are you in that stage when you must take care of others – a small child or a parent – and sort of “baptize them” with love and compassion? Do not begrudge that service, but offer it cheerfully. Remember what my father said: “Inthe yan, nthale nthee.” Try to balance your rugged individualism with a little family individualism, which is really Catholic individualism.

          By the way, do you know who ran against Herbert Hoover for president in 1928? It was the first Catholic nominee for president, named Alfred E. Smith, a Democrat. Maybe he was trying to inject a healthy dose of “family individualism” into the American psyche. Family individualism means we often ask ourselves the question: “Who’s wearing the diapers, and needs to be baptized?”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Gifts from the East

Carrying gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh
Matthew 2:1-12 
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod,  behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage." And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,  until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

          I’ll never forget the homily that Bishop Andrew McDonald preached on the day of my ordination. May 25, 1996 was a warm, summer day in Little Rock, Arkansas, where a few hundred people gathered for the ordination Mass at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. I think I might have been a little nervous, but I don’t really remember, because I was scared to death! Most of the ceremony was a blur and I felt like I was walking through a dream; I wasn’t sure it was really happening. At one point the candidate for Holy Orders completely prostrates himself on the cold, marble Cathedral floor, with his face flat on the floor, his arms spread eagle, and his whole bodying forming a huge human cross. It is a moment of complete oblation: a man offers himself entirely to the service of God and of his people. You should try to attend an ordination Mass at least once in your life: God’s grace is so palpable and present in the newly ordained priest, you can almost touch it when you shake his hand. Indeed, it is through that man’s priestly ministry that God will reach out and touch you.

          In his homily that morning, Bishop McDonald compared my parents to the three wise men who came from the East to honor the Baby Jesus. My parents had likewise come from the East, from the far-away land of India. Furthermore, the wise men bore gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and so too did my parents bring the three gifts of their three children. After Mass, my brother, sister and I had a lively debate about which one was which gift, but I was clearly the gold (and my brother was the myrrh). Bishop McDonald went on to elaborate how in the years to come my priestly ministry would bless the people of Arkansas through baptisms and weddings and Masses and confessions and funerals. I hope and pray God has blessed others throughout my twenty years as a priest.

          But, you know, I am also keenly aware of my faults and short-comings; that in many instances I was NOT a blessing to others but rather a scandal that made some doubt God’s goodness and mercy. A week after my ordination, I attended the ordination of a classmate in Lafayette, Louisiana. A long line of priests, young and old, stood in line stretching outside the Cathedral doors waiting for the ordination to begin. An older priest standing in front of me suddenly turned around and said to me, “One day you will realize all the mistakes you’ve made as a priest, and you will go to the Tabernacle, open the door, put your head inside, and weep for your sins.” At that time, I thought, “What have you been doing??” and I was so sure I would avoid such mistakes myself. Now, however, every time I pass in front of the tabernacle and genuflect, I recall his wise words, and I remember my haughty arrogance that morning. I haven’t put my head inside the Tabernacle yet, but I’ve come close. Gold, frankincense, myrrh: which one was I, really?

          The three gifts the Wise Men bring on the Feast of Epiphany are highly symbolic, each representing a unique aspect of Jesus’ Messianic ministry. First, the gold means that he is the King of kings, and he wields the royal authority and power of King David, who was “a king after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). Second, the frankincense signifies Jesus’ priestly identity, and points to the presence of the Holy. Only Jesus is THE Holy One of God, and by his priesthood, he makes us holy. That’s why we incense the priest at Mass, but the people also stand and are “incensed.” Jesus’ holiness makes us holy, a “priestly people.” St. Peter wrote in his first letter: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2:9). And third, the myrrh was to be saved for Jesus’ saving death and burial. The myrrh means sadness, suffering, loss, pain and grief, which would also mark the life of the Messiah. Gold, frankincense and myrrh denote the deepest identity of Jesus as a king, a priest and as the suffering servant.

          My friends, may I suggest to you that not only do these gifts mark my life, and that of Jesus, but also yours and also the life of everyone you will ever meet? Each person who is born on this earth will possess these three great qualities symbolized by gold, frankincense and myrrh. What do I mean?
          First of all, every person is “gold,” meaning they are endowed with infinite worth and glory. Genesis 1:27 states that “God created Adam and Eve in his image and likeness,” they are God-like. Sometimes we tarnish the gold in others when we only see them as “illegal aliens,” or when we learn they have “same sex attraction,” or if they suffer from mental illness, or simply by the color of their skin. A couple of weeks ago I saw the movie, “Free State of Jones,” set in the South during the Civil War. Matthew McConaughey plays a captain who deserts the Southern Army and fights to free the slaves. At one point he asks a freed slave, “Moses, what are you?” Moses replies, “I’m a free man, Captain.” But he asks further, “Why’s that?” And Moses answers, “Because you cannot own a child of God.” Being a child of God means you are more precious than all the gold in the world.

          Second of all, every person has a priestly character or soul, symbolized by incense. By that I mean anyone can preach the Word of God, not only the ordained clergy. In his first official teaching document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis insisted: “Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching that falls to each of us as a daily responsibility…Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey “(Evangelii gaudium, 127). Last week here at Immaculate Conception School, two sixth grade girls preached the gospel to each other. Hailey Hadley had forgotten her gym shoes, which carries a punishment of losing 40 Buff bucks. Her friend, Kaitlyn Seiter, said, “You can wear my shoes, I don’t mind,” and paid the 40 Buff bucks. Later Hailey paid Kaitlyn back 60 Buff bucks as a gesture of gratitude and respect. (We only teach interest-bearing loans here at our school.) No one is too young to exercise priestly prerogatives, like preaching.

          And third, the myrrh symbolizes suffering and sadness. You will never meet a person whose life is not touched in some way by sadness, and who will touch your life with that sadness. It’s especially important that married couples remember this: you know as “wonderful” as your spouse is, he or she will eventually cause you sadness and suffering.  (Have you noticed??)  People are not perfect; there’s a little myrrh in their pockets. They will hurt you; and you will hurt them. The only thing to do is forgive them, and pray they will forgive you. Sadly, some people search desperately for the perfect spouse – without any myrrh – who will never cause them suffering. But everybody’s pocket’s has a little lint and a lot of myrrh.

          No one on earth is “all gold,” nor “all frankincense,” nor “all myrrh.” There is plenty of each in each of us. “One day you will realize all the mistakes you’ve made, and you will want to go to the Tabernacle, open the door, put your head inside, and weep for your sins.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Fig Tree Flashback

Developing a biblical imagination
John 1:43-51
Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth." But Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, "Here is a true child of Israel.  There is no duplicity in him." Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."

          One of the things I enjoy doing at Trinity is mowing the grass: you haven’t lived until you’ve driven a zero-turn mower. Last summer, during a long hot afternoon of mowing the grounds, I stopped to chat with one of the nuns at St. Scholastica Monastery. She had just come from their garden and she offered me a fruit from one of the trees in the garden; it was a fig. Suddenly, I had this frightening flashback: of another man in another garden who was offered the fruit of another tree by a woman.  Aghast, I replied: “No, sister! I’ll never eat that fruit!” A moment later, I came back to my senses and realized I was back in Fort Smith and talking to a Benedictine nun, not Adam in the garden being offered an apple by Eve. I’m sure I scared that poor sister half out of her wits. Now you know what priests and nuns talk about in private.

          But I believe that is a blessing of a “biblical imagination.” What is a “biblical imagination”? Well, it’s where your thinking and imagination, your feelings and fantasies are fueled by the stories, the saga, the heroes and the history of the Bible. It’s where you are far more familiar with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John than you are with Grishom, Clancy, Rowling and Dr. Seuss. The milieu of your mind is flooded by the ocean of wisdom flowing from the pens of the inspired authors. In short, you “think biblically,” and you begin to see Scripturally.

          In the gospel today we meet a man whose sensibilities were saturated by Scriptures – he only thought biblically – namely, Nathanael. In his first encounter with Christ, he has a flashback, too, just like I did with the Benedictine nun. Jesus sizes up the would-be apostle, and says: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” And suddenly, gripped by his biblical imagination, Nathanael’s mind is transported back to the Old Testament prophecy of Micah, where it reads (and you’ll recognize this): “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise their sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” That was snapshot of what the Messiah would accomplish when he came, that is, peace. But it goes on: “They shall all sit under their own vines, under their own fig trees, undisturbed; for the Lord of hosts has spoken” (emphasis mine, Micah 4:3-4). In other words, Nathanael saw his sitting under the fig tree as symbolic of the whole people of Israel sitting undisturbed under fig trees when the Messiah comes; and the Messiah had come in Jesus. That’s why Nathanael abruptly avers: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Nathanael would never have made such a claim if his mind were not wired with a “biblical imagination.” Nathanael thought biblically, and saw Scripturally.

          Last week I was talking with Dr. Clint Kindrick, a successful psychiatrist here in Fort Smith. We were discussing how people are becoming addicted to their Iphones and would rather look at it than the people sitting next to them. Clint observed about the Iphone: “It’s almost like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Heck, just look at the symbol on the back of the phone: it’s an apple with a bite taken out of it, just like Adam and Eve did!” We were both blown away by his blinding insight, because his mind was charged with a biblical imagination.  Clint thought biblically, and saw Scripturally.

          My friends, take time daily to immerse yourself in Sacred Scriptures. Read not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament. Listen to podcasts – yes, even on your Iphone – of Robert Barron, Scott Hahn, Edward Sri, Pope Francis. Meditate on the stories and parables, the symbols and the poetry of the Bible. Scott Hahn once said the gospel of John is simple enough that it’s like a wading pool for a toddler to play in, and yet it’s also deep as an ocean that no saint or scholar can ever reach its depths. And then you, too, might develop a “biblical imagination.” You will “think biblically,” and see Scripturally, but try not to scare any poor sisters at St. Scholastica.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!