Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Undercover Boss

Learning to lead by serving others not ourselves

Mark 9:30-37
Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it.  They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they remained silent. For they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.  Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to be first,  he shall be the last of all and the servant of all." Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me."

          I am not a fan of reality T.V. shows, like the Apprentice, or the Voice, or American Idol. But last week a couple of priests were talking about the reality show called “Undercover Boss.” Have you ever heard of that one? It’s been around for 7 years or so. The idea is that the CEO or upper-level management “boss” would go undercover as an entry-level employee to see what’s really going on in his or her company. The boss wears a disguise so no one recognizes him or her and uses an alias, a fake name. Through doing menial jobs and interacting with their employees, they grow to love and respect their workers, and often end up helping them out with personal problems.

          The reason my priest-friends were talking about Undercover Boss is because they had seen a Saturday Night Live skit on it. But in this case, it was the evil Kylo Ren (who you’ll remember from Star Wars is the leader of the First Order) who goes undercover as a radar technician to work on the Death Star. How many of you like watching Saturday Night Live? Well, stop watching it: it’s a terrible show! Kylo wears a wig of orange hair, a technicians suit and converses with storm troopers and commanders in the break room, and he goes by the name of “Matt.” They start making fun of Matt, kicking his wrench as they walk by, making fun of Kylo Ren’s black dress he wears, until he loses his temper and throws one of the storm troopers through the soda machine, and kills another one. At the end, Kylo says he really connected with his employees and it was a real learning experience for him. Of course, that’s a total joke because he’s still the same ruthless leader and killer he ever was. Some bosses should not go undercover but stay in their comfy CEO suites.

          In the gospel today, Jesus tries to teach his disciples what it means to be a good boss, a good leader, that is, an apostle. But the apostles had their own ideas, and they thought of leadership a lot like Kylo Ren did – someone who dominates others through fear. And you cannot really blame the apostles; after all, that’s all they saw in the scribes and Pharisees and the Roman soldiers around them. Nevertheless, Jesus holds up a different model of leadership, saying, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Jesus almost sounded like he’s suggesting they be like the “undercover boss” and learn to serve their followers instead of terrorize them. Indeed, isn’t this undercover boss concept basically the meaning of the Incarnation, where God becomes a man, to live among us (not hanging out in the CEO suite of heaven), to look like us (to have a human nature), to have a human name (Jesus, not Matt), to work shoulder to shoulder with us (as a carpenter), but even more to suffer and die for us? You could almost say that the life of Christ was the original episode of “Undercover Boss.” Jesus models for us a very new and a very different way of being a boss.

          Boys and girls, today I want you to think about your idea of what a “boss” is and what a “boss” does. In your mind how does a good boss behave: like Kylo Ren or like Jesus? Many of your parents are bosses in their line of work (Forsgren, Beshears, Albertson, Catsavis, Coleman, Johnston, Ralston, Barrett, Hunter, Goldtrap, to name a few), and you are watching them and learning from them. Furthermore, you are privileged to study in a Catholic school, and so you carry the mantle and the promise to become tomorrow’s leaders – the bosses – in various fields and endeavors. This school has put you on a leadership track.  How will you conduct business as the boss? Several years ago teenagers used the expression “like a boss” to mean they did something without caring what others thought or how it even could have hurt others. I’ve heard of some students who use curse words to sound tough on the basketball court.  That’s one way to act “like a boss.”

          On the other hand, I’ve seen some really amazing examples of leadership, the quiet kind that Jesus teaches. I’ve heard of students who stay behind and help clean up after their table makes a huge mess at lunch, instead of walking away and leaving it for others. Students who play with those who seem to be “loners.” Students who sit with those who sit alone at lunch. Students who go out of their way to help others with homework assignments (not copying homework assignments!). These students are already acting like the “undercover boss” among their classmates, and they will make the really great bosses and leaders of the future. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

          Boys and girls, there really are only two kinds of bosses: the dictator and the disciple, Kylo Ren and Jesus. Ask yourself today: what kind of boss would I want to be?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Fake News

Growing in humility and opening ourselves to wisdom
Sirach 1:1-10 All wisdom comes from the LORD and with him it remains forever, and is before all time. It is the LORD; he created [wisdom] through the Holy Spirit, has seen her and taken note of her. He has poured her forth upon all his works, upon every living thing according to his bounty; he has lavished her upon his friends.

          We live in a culture that prizes being smart over being sage; we’re enamored with intelligence rather than wisdom. Who doesn’t like watching a game show that dramatically displays human intelligence, like Jeopardy? We boast shamelessly when our children achieve high academic honors, with bumper-stickers on our cars. We notice with delight when someone answers quickly and cleverly, but we’re bored with those who are slow and thoughtful, who take time to think. We’ve built modern personal assistants, like “Google Home” or “Alexa” or “Watson” to be super-smart but how high do they score on the scale of wisdom?  These things are not bad, of course, they are just one sided.

          Recently, I’ve enjoyed reading a book by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which was really an interview between him and journalist Peter Seewald. No one will argue Pope Benedict is one of the leading intellectual lights of the Church in the 20th century: the dude is super-smart. But what jumps out in the book, called Last Testament, is the pope’s wisdom shining forth in his humility. Several times Seewald invites the pope to brag about his credentials and accomplishments (which you and I would have jumped at), but each time the pontiff demurs, and answers humbly. For example, Seewald asks, “Where did you actually learn the many languages [you speak]?” The pope answered, “No, I’m not fluent in many languages actually.” He explained: “I never properly learned Italian, so I’m never entirely sure about the grammar. We had a year of French at school. I tried hard to keep it up, but it was something of a meager foundation. English I learned from vinyl records when I was in Bonn, but it always stayed very feeble. It looks like I know as many languages as God, but this is not the case” (Last Testament, 54-55). In other words, wisdom and humility always walk hand in hand. Only the humble find wisdom.

          The first reading today is taken from the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament, the book of Sirach. Sirach wants to trace the origins of wisdom and see where it starts. He says of wisdom’s origin: “It is the Lord; he created [wisdom] through the Holy Spirit.” Then he explains how one becomes wise, saying, “He has poured her forth up on all his works, upon every living thing according to his bounty; he has lavished her upon his friends.” That is, ultimately, wisdom is a gift of God, which he gives to his friends, those who are humble. The ironic thing about wise people is they quickly and joyfully acknowledge their ignorance, like Pope Benedict who knew it was silly that some people think he knows as many languages as God. Humility and wisdom always walk hand in hand.

          My friends, we cannot directly grow in wisdom (God gives it as a gift), but we can become more humble, and predispose ourselves for that gift. Here are three suggestions. First, avoid “fake news.” Now, I’m not talking about any fake news in the media or what President Trump complains about; rather, avoid fake news about yourself. Like Pope Benedict gently correct those who exaggerate about our abilities and accomplishments. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once warned that “a proud man counts his newspaper clippings, a humble man his blessings.” Second, develop some thick skin when others poke fun at you, and don’t take yourself so seriously. Have your parishioners do a roast of you – that’ll humble you! Although my roast last Saturday sound more like a eulogy – you were far too nice! Be able to laugh at yourself. And third, be quick to compliment others, especially if they do better than you, even if they are wiser than you. The wise man is always able to see the chinks in his own armor, while he sees everyone else as the “knight in shining armor.” A genuine compliment is a hallmark of a humble heart.

          Micah 6:8 summaries the lifestyle of a humble and wise man saying, “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  First become humble, then you may be wise.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!


Recognizing the divine in everyone especially our enemies

1 Corinthians 3:16-23 

Brothers and sisters: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

          My mom has the curious custom of making the Sign of the Cross whenever we’re in the car and we pass in front of a church. Have you ever seen people doing that? It’s very old-fashioned, but I still see people doing it quite frequently. She does this irrespective of whether it is a Catholic church or a Protestant church. That used to bother me because in the seminary (where I first learned that gesture) they taught us to do that only when passing in front of a Catholic church. Why? Well, because only inside a Catholic church will you find the Blessed Sacrament reserved, that is God’s holy Presence. However, my mom argued that any church where people gather to pray is by definition holy and contains God’s holy Presence, the people themselves. Had I been a married man, I would know that arguing with a woman is futile, but being celibate I’m both stubborn and stupid. My mom and I would argue and debate this subtle point of theology back and forth, neither of us willing to concede defeat. At root the question was: where is God’s holy Presence: in the Tabernacle under the forms of Bread and Wine, or in the Temple under the forms of “pew potato” Catholics?

          To understand my mother’s perspective better, it may help to say a word about the Indian culture. The common way to greet someone in India is not a handshake or a hug, like here in the United States. Rather, we keep a little distance, fold our hands, with fingers pointing up, palms touching, thumbs together and touching our chest, make a slight bow and say, “Namaste.”  You may have seen that in the movies.  The gesture originates in Hinduism and actually means, “I bow to the divine in you.” We all carry a spark of God in us – something holy, something divine – indeed, Genesis 1:27 says we’re created in the image and likeness of God. We are made of the stuff of the gods! In other words, we don’t bow to each other because we happen to be Hindu but rather because we happen to be human, we are children of God. And that’s why my mom makes the Sign of the Cross whenever we pass by any church. Instead of bowing and saying “Namaste,” she makes the Sign of the Cross; she sees the divine spark in others. I guess I can accept that.

          In the second reading today, St. Paul takes sides in my debate with my mom, and unfortunately, he does not land on my side. He tells the Corinthians: “Brothers and sisters: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Paul pushes his point more emphatically, adding: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” In other words, by virtue of our baptism, the Spirit of God dwells in each of us, making us a Temple, no less holy than this church we’re sitting in right now. I may be foolish enough to argue with my mom, but even a celibate priest knows better than to debate St. Paul.  Not that my mom needs reinforcements.

          In the gospel Jesus draws out the practical implications of being filled with the Spirit of God. He says: if someone requests your tunic hand him your cloak as well; if anyone asks you to walk one mile, walk two. Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. In short, Jesus means we should “be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect.” You see, being a Christian and a Temple has nothing to do with an “ego trip,” boasting of some elite status, or taking secret joy when Hindus bow before us and say “Namaste.” It has absolutely nothing to do with arrogance or ambition. Pope Francis warned ambitious priests who want to become bishops and cardinals, saying: “And in the Church there are ‘climbers,’ people driven by ambition. But if you like climbing, go to the mountains and climb them; it is a lot healthier.” Rather, being a Temple is all about the persistent pursuit of perfection, the perfection of love, and that terminates in the love of our enemies. Can you love Donald Trump or the Democrats, or CNN or FOX news, or your ex-spouse, or your neighbor who drives on your lawn, or the co-worker who undermines your efforts at work, or someone who sits in your pew at Mass?  These are the everyday enemies we must love.

          You see, what my mom and St. Paul and Jesus are really saying is that we don’t love others because of who they are; instead, we love them because of who we are. My mom doesn’t make the Sign of the Cross so much because of what kind of church she is driving by, but because of the Temple she herself is. Loving others is what she does because she is filled with the Holy Spirit. In a sense, she cannot help herself. If we are truly Temples of the Holy Spirit then we should be able to love even our enemies. Loving one’s enemy is the function of the grace that God gives us, just like Jesus came to save us not because we are so adorable and lovable, but because Jesus is so adorable and lovable. He cannot help himself when he loves us, we who often act like his enemies instead of his friends.

          On the other hand, if we cannot love our enemies, then that says more about us than it does about our enemies. It says that our own temple may be little better than a heap of ruins like so many ancient Greek and Roman temples in Europe that you visit on a family vacation. But don’t worry, if my mom happens to drive by your ruined temple, I’m sure she’ll still make the Sign of the Cross.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Eating Honor

Making faith a priority in our lives

Hebrews 11:1-7 Brothers and sisters: Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible. By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice greater than Cain's. Through this, he was attested to be righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and through this, though dead, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was found no more because God had taken him. Before he was taken up, he was attested to have pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned about what was not yet seen, with reverence built an ark for the salvation of his household. Through this, he condemned the world and inherited the righteousness that comes through faith.

          Which of the following do you think is greater: the earthly or the heavenly, the material or the spiritual, the temporal or the eternal, the natural or the supernatural, the matters of reason or the articles of faith, the body or the soul, that which is visible or that which is invisible? Now, you might answer: hey, that’s a false dichotomy! The correct answer is that both are important, we need body and soul, reason and faith to be happy and holy. And that’s certainly true. But do you always stop to pray before you eat your lunch? In that moment (when we forget to pray) we’ve ineluctably decided that eating chicken nuggets are more important than saying Grace; the needs of our stomach rank higher than the needs of our soul.

          Several years ago I saw the movie called “The First Olympics: Athens 1896” about the rebirth of modern Olympics. In one touching scene the Greek runner, Spyridon Louis, asks his mother for permission to run the marathon. He explains that it is a great honor to run for his country. She curtly answers: “Honor?? Can you eat this honor? Can you wear this honor?” By the way, that’s exactly what my mom said when I told her I was running the Fort Smith marathon. But notice her point: food and clothing have greater value than honor and glory. Food is real, honor is a fairy-tale. Again, both these things are necessary and good, but when we’re forced to choose one over the other, we often reach for the earthly before the heavenly, for food over faith.

          The whole eleventh chapter of Hebrews (today’s first reading) is a masterful exposition of the priority of faith. Put faith first and foremost, the author argues. He lists Old Testament “hall of famers” and points out how faith made them pleasing to God, for instance, Abel, Enoch and Noah. Each of them chose the invisible over the visible, the heavenly rather than the earthly, the good of the soul instead of the goods of the body: faith over food. Unlike that Greek mother, these Old Testament saints said, “I’d choose faith in the invisible God over all the baklava in the world!”  Yes, again, we do hope to have both earthly baklava and heavenly blessings, but when push comes to shove, and you must choose one of the two, the saints know which of the two matters most.

          Did you know that right this moment 10 parishioners from Immaculate Conception are in Honduras for a mission trip? They went with 22 parishioners from St. Joseph in Fayetteville and will work in a small town called “Ilanga” for one week, returning next Tuesday. They are providing medical care, doing construction projects, and sharing their Catholic faith with the people. Our missionaries are anxious to share with the poor the many gifts God has given them – their medical knowledge, modern medications, construction know-how and material resources. But their richest and most precious gift is their Catholic faith. The Hondurans cannot eat that faith, the Hondurans cannot wear that faith, but our missionaries know, like Abel, Enoch and Noah, that faith is worth more than all the pupusas and ponchos in the whole world.  Faith is more important than food.
          As you go about your day today, take notice of how you prioritize these two realms. Does your faith come before your reason? Does heaven rank higher than earth? Do you take care of your soul before tending to your body? Do you take stock of eternity before dealing with time? Do you pray before you eat your chicken nuggets?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Successful Failures

Learning to see our failures as spiritual success
Genesis 11:1-9 The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words. While the people were migrating in the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, "Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire." They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth." The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that they had built. Then the LORD said: "If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says." Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.

          Several years ago I read something by Scott Hahn that has gnawed on me ever since, kind of like a holy chigger or tick that stubbornly refuses to let go even though it was a very unpleasant insight. I wish I could remember where he said it, but he was describing his amazing ability to shed light on dark and dense passages of Scripture and theology and make them understandable. He said (I’m paraphrasing), “When I do something well, that is for your benefit. But when I do something poorly, or fail at something, that is for my benefit.” In other words, we grow by his success (we enjoy his books and audios), while he grows by his failures (he learns humility and his deeper need for God). That may sound like the exact opposite of “common sense,” but that makes perfect “Christian sense.” In the Christian sense, failure is frequently fruitful, spiritually speaking.

          Scott Hahn was a Presbyterian minister, and a highly successful one at that, enjoying the esteem of his peers and clearly a rising star in the Protestant universe. But his growing attraction to Catholicism, and eventually his conversion, cost him all that success. To many of his friends and family, Hahn looked like an utter failure. But was he? His wife, Kimberly, in a book she coauthored with Scott, wrote: “Scott suffered tremendous loneliness. He was misunderstood and rejected by many Protestant friends who didn’t want to talk to him” (Rome Sweet Home, 109). Scott and Kimberly learned that sometimes “failure” in the worldly sense means “success” in the spiritual sense. And they knew which one mattered more. They wanted to enjoy more and more “successful failures,” because that helped them to grow closer to Christ and to become more like Christ.

          Today’s readings also touch this painful paradox: to seem to fail is really to succeed. The book of Genesis describes the people’s desire to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower that could touch heaven. The implication is that they wanted to storm heaven, take it by force, over-throw it and God; they wanted to conquer heaven and plant the flag of humanity on its golden streets like Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon. All that was suggested by “making a name for themselves.” But God confuses their speech and they fail. That failure was actually a huge spiritual success, however, because they learned to be humble and rely on God’s help. And humanity would achieve infinitely more with the help of God’s grace than they could dream. In the gospel Jesus says cryptically: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” In other words, use a different set of scales to measure “success” and “failure.” Sometimes your greatest failures will turn out in the end to be your proudest moments of success, just ask Scott and Kimberly Hahn.

          Today prayerfully peruse your past and look at your successes and your failures. Where did you do well? Maybe you graduated at the top of your high school class. Perhaps you play the piano with proficiency and poise. Maybe you make a mean bread pudding (then you need to invite me over for dinner!). Perhaps you’ve raised humble and holy children. For all these successes, give God the glory, and realize they help others more than they help you. On the other hand, look at your flops and failures. Maybe you wrecked your car. Perhaps you’ve cut corners at work and spent too much time on Facebook and Pinterest and got fired. Maybe an illness or even a divorce makes you feel like a failure. I sure hope none of these misfortunes befall you, but when they do – and they surely will – they can be moments of blinding grace, where we desire God’s mercy and love and strength more than ever before, and no longer lean on ourselves so much. It is moments like these that also teach us to appreciate our “successful failures.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Love Right

Embracing humility in order to love rightly

Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10 
So the LORD said: "I will wipe out from the earth the men whom I have created, and not only the men, but also the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them." But Noah found favor with the LORD. Then the LORD said to Noah: "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for you alone in this age have I found to be truly just. Of every clean animal, take with you seven pairs, a male and its mate; and of the unclean animals, one pair, a male and its mate; likewise, of every clean bird of the air, seven pairs, a male and a female, and of all the unclean birds, one pair, a male and a female. Thus you will keep their issue alive over all the earth. Seven days from now I will bring rain down on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and so I will wipe out from the surface of the earth every moving creature that I have made." Noah did just as the LORD had commanded him.

          Boys and girls, today is St. Valentine’s Day so congratulations to all you love-birds out there. If any love-birds are perched a little too close, Mr. Plake, would you sit between them? People nowadays like to talk about love a lot. For instance, have you heard the popular slogan, “Love wins”? Back in the 60’s and 70’s people protested the Vietnam War by chanting, “Make love not war!” As far back at the 5th century, St. Augustine gave a sermon on love in which he boldly said, “Love, and do what you will.” In other words, if you get love right, everything else will take care of itself, but I’m afraid getting love right is not very easy at all.

          What I’m going to say today many of you (maybe most of you!) will not like to hear: I’m going to touch the subject of same-sex attraction. Whether you agree with me or disagree with me, try to listen with an open mind. I frequently find that I learn a lot more from people who disagree or contradict me because they tell me something I had not thought of before. I learn something new from my opponents. On the other hand, those who agree with me, just confirm things I already knew; I don’t learn anything new from my friends. So, please listen with an open mind and with open eyes (don’t fall asleep!).

          Yesterday morning at 7 a.m. Mass the altar server, Lauren Seiter, asked me a really tough question. It was only a few minutes before 7 and she asked: “Fr. John, why can’t girls become priests?” So, I thought quickly and replied, “Well, Lauren, for the same reason that girls cannot grow up and become husbands and fathers in a family. Girls grow up to be wives and mothers.” Then I said, “Whoa! Look at the time, we’ll talk about this later!” I mention that little anecdote because Lauren wasn’t only asking about the possibility of female priests, but she was also scratching the surface of the deeper difference between men and women. What makes a man a man, and what makes a woman a woman? Or, are we basically like that child’s toy, “Mr. Potato Head,” where our bodies have interchangeable parts? That’s the question that Lauren Seiter was really asking: she’s a pretty smart little girl!

          In the first reading today, God commands Noah to fill the Ark with all living creatures. God says: “Of every clean animal, take with you seven pairs, a male and its mate; and of the unclean animals, one pair, a male and its mate…Thus you will keep their issue alive over all the earth.” God told Noah to take pairs of each animal – a male and a female – aboard the Ark. But what if Noah had thought: hey, I don’t think that’s fair. I’m going to take two male giraffes instead of a male and female giraffe; these two male giraffes are best friends. What would happen to the giraffes after they got off the Ark? They would become extinct because they would not be able to reproduce. Obviously, human beings are not the same as animals, but in this respect – the complimentarity of the sexes – we human beings, too, need a mate of the opposite sex. That’s why girls cannot grow up to be priests: that would violate that male-female complimentarity.

          Boys and girls, I have a sneaking suspicion that some of you do not agree with what I’m saying, maybe most of you disagree with me. Nevertheless, I want you to think about it, and pray about it. But let me also invite you to be humble when you approach difficult or disagreeable Catholic teachings, especially the subject of same-sex attraction. Sooner or later we all find something we don’t like about our faith.  In the face of that difficult teaching, be humble and you will find the truth. Last year Pope Benedict did an interview with Peter Seewald which resulted in a book called Last Testament: In His Own Words. Pope Benedict said that when he reads a Bible verse that is especially puzzling or confusing, he doesn’t jump to conclusions and think that the Bible is wrong. Rather, he believes there is something he must have missed and asks the Holy Spirit to help him understand. That’s humility. On the other hand, have you heard of the “Jefferson Bible”? President Thomas Jefferson, near the end of his life, took a razor and cut out parts of the Bible he didn’t understand or agree with (like Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection). He pieced together the rest of the Bible – the parts he liked and agreed with – and read that Bible instead. That’s not very humble. You won’t learn much if you only hang out with people who agree with you.

          Boys and girls, be humble when it comes to discussing difficulty and disagreeable issues like homosexuality and same-sex attraction or any other tough topic. Only when you are humble, you will eventually find the truth. Only those who are humble will get love right, like Noah did. By the way, I really like that line in Genesis where it reads: “And Noah found favor with the Lord” - makes me think of my nephew Noah.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Good Grief

Seeing the quality of our faith in the light of suffering

Genesis 4:1-15, 25 
The man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have produced a man with the help of the LORD." Next she bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of flocks, and Cain a tiller of the soil. In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen. Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out in the field." When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD asked Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He answered, "I do not know.  Am I my brother's keeper?" The LORD then said: "What have you done! Listen: your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil! Adam again had relations with his wife, and she gave birth to a son whom she called Seth. "God has granted me more offspring in place of Abel," she said, "because Cain slew him."

          Good grief! In the wake of my nephew’s untimely death, today’s Scripture recounts the first fratricide in human history: the murder of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain. Do I really need to hear about another sad and heart-breaking death? Why not a nice story about the triumphant Temple construction in Jerusalem (that would be okay), or a love poem from the Song of Songs (I wouldn’t mind that), or even waxing philosophic with a few verses from Ecclesiastes or Wisdom? But no, the Scriptures will not give me an easy-out, or allow me to avoid my grief. Rather, I’m invited to plunge deeper into the pain by contemplating the very first death recorded in Sacred Scripture.

          Over the years as a priest I’ve often recommended to people suffering the loss of a loved one that they read C. S. Lewis’ book called A Grief Observed. In it Lewis is brutally and bravely honest in describing his exact feelings. Anyone who reads it will grieve with Lewis over the death of his wife, Joy. Now, please know that I look up to Lewis as a towering figure of faith, but clearly Lewis’ faith crumbled under the weight of his loss. But then he offers this ray of hope to those who feel the same way he did. He wrote: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t…He always knew that my Temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down” (A Grief Observed, 49). But let me quickly add this critical clarification. God does not deliberately make us miserable so he can increase our faith, especially when someone we love dies. That’s not how he works.  The Scriptures categorically confirm God himself saying, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18:32). But when death does rear its ugly head, we have an opportunity to reexamine our faith. Indeed, God shines a light on our faith so we can’t miss it. It is only in that very limited and very cautious sense that we can say that grief is good, or “good grief” like Charlie Brown so often said.

          I realize that you may not be going through the grieving process like me, and I’m sorry for pushing this on you every time I preach lately. Maybe that helps me to grieve, so you’ll just have to put up with it! Nevertheless, ask yourself today (like I’m being forced to ask myself): what is the caliber and quality of your faith? We might honestly answer: “I think my faith is pretty strong. I go to church every Sunday, I love my wife and kids, I give to the poor, I say my daily prayers, I try to be honest, kind and good.” All that is good: keep doing it!

          But have you ever noticed how many people who profess no Christian faith do those exact same things? Romano Guardini, in his book simply entitled The Lord, stresses this point, saying, “No one has the right to judge whether or not another lives according to the Sermon on the Mount. There is no specific outward behavior that expresses it” (like those I just mentioned). Guardini continues: “Indeed, not even the chosen one himself can be certain how things stand with him…The chance is taken in faith” (The Lord, 107). In other words, your good behavior alone does not prove that you have deep faith.

          Often we only see the true depth (or shallowness) of our faith when it is sifted, like the wheat from the chaff, in the crucible of suffering. And when we see our faith naked and exposed to God’s light (like a prematurely born baby under a hospital heat lamp), we cry out like the father who wanted Jesus to heal his son in the gospel, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). That is the sense – and perhaps the only possible sense – in which grief is good.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

To Please God

Noah Konuparampil Antony, Funeral Homily, February 11, 2017
          Scott Hahn begins his book called A Father Who Keeps His Promises with this arresting anecdote that almost seems impossible, except that it actually happened. On December 7, 1989, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck northwest Armenia that flattened buildings and killed some 30,000 people. In the muddled chaos a distressed father bolted through the winding streets leading to the school where his son had gone earlier that morning. The man could not stop thinking about the promise he had given his son so many times, “No matter what happens, Armand, I will always be there.”

          He reached the site where the school had stood, but he saw only a hill of rubble. He just stood there at first, fighting back the tears…and then took off stumbling over debris running toward the east corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been. With nothing but bare hands, he started digging pulling bricks and pieces of plaster. One of the bystanders said in a surly voice, “Forget it, mister, they’re all dead.” He looked up and replied, “You can stand there and grumble; or you can help me lift these bricks,” but only a few pitched in, and most of them gave up when their arms began to ache. But the man couldn’t stop thinking about his son, and so he kept digging and digging for hours: 12 hours went by…18 hours…24 hours…36 hours… Finally in the 38th hour he heard a muffled groan from under a piece of wallboard, pulled it back and cried, “Armand!” From the darkness came a slight shaking voice, “Papa?” Other weak voices began calling out as the young survivors stirred beneath the still un-cleared rubble. Gasps and shouts of bewildered relief came from the few onlookers and parents who remained. They found 14 of the 33 students still alive. When Armand finally emerged he also tried to help dig until all his surviving classmates were out. Everybody standing there heard him as he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn’t forget us.”

          Scott Hahn draws this moral and spiritual conclusion, saying, “That’s the kind of faith we need because that’s the kind of Father we have.” With that moving vignette Hahn sets the stage not only for his book, but also for salvation history, and indeed all human history. Our story – yours and mine – is of a Father whose love is relentless, and who will stop at nothing to save us; no matter how many hours he has to dig to reach us. I hope that story sufficiently sets the stage for this funeral homily for Noah Antony, too. For all of you who feel trapped under the rubble of sadness and pain and loss, remember Armand’s faith in his father’s relentless love. “That’s the kind of faith we need, because that’s the kind of Father we have.”

          In the second reading today, St. Paul is determined to describe to the Romans the same tenacious and tireless love of God. He writes: “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” And then Paul lists possible candidates who might stand between us and God’s love in Christ, such as “anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword.” But he goes even further and adds spiritual obstacles like “death, life, angels, principalities, present things, future things, powers, height, depth and all other creatures.” Can’t you almost picture Paul, like the father in Scott Hahn’s story pulling back each of these enemies of God’s love like those bricks and plaster; a relentless saint desperate to show that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord”? Paul wants the Romans to understand what kind of faith we need because of what kind of Father we have. Paul’s particular point is that Jesus embodies the Father’s love; he is the Father’s love in action; he is the Father’s love on two legs. And this is the precise reason in the gospel the Father looks down from heaven upon Jesus and says: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” You’ve heard the old adage: “like father, like son.” That ancient adage is never more true than when applied to God the Father and God the Son.

          A few days ago I got to visit with Paul and Susan, and Noah’s family even via internet, and a few of Noah’s friends from track and youth group. We sat around the Antony’s kitchen table and we laughed, we cried, and we prayed as we remembered Noah’s short but remarkable life. As I listened to the stories, it became more and more apparent that Noah had a huge heart that beat with the same relentless love found in the heart of that Armenian father, and in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, and which is always pleasing to the heavenly Father. I don’t mean that Noah was perfect – Noah’s siblings, Isaac, Sophia and Isabella will quickly agree with that! – and you’ll forgive me for any avuncular exaggerations from his doting Achen. In his own way, I believe Noah tried to remove the “rubble” for others, those obstacles and encumbrances that eventually emerge between us and God’s love. Let me explain what I mean.

          Noah Konuparampil Antony was born on October 1, 1996 here in Springdale, AR to Paul and Susan (Abraham) Antony. I had the holy honor to be able to baptize him here at St. Raphael Church. It is no exaggeration to say that God the Father looked down from heaven at baby Noah that day, and said again, “This, too, is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Indeed, at the moment of baptism we are all saints, even if we don’t stay very saintly for very long.

          From an early age, Noah wanted to share God’s love with others, and remove obstacles to that love. His maternal grandmother, Tessie Auntie, recalled that Noah loved to pretend playing priest at Mass at home. He would hand little potpourri to each family member seated on sofas, his domestic church congregation. He invited Isaac to participate, as the deacon, naturally. Isaac could be Dc. Chuck while Noah would be Msgr. Scott Friend. When you’re the director of the play, you can make yourself the leading role. He didn’t always pick on Isaac, though. My brother Paul recalled when Isaac was born he was in the NICU for several days. As the family was waiting to leave, a nurse came and said the doctor had ordered one last test. As she was about to wheel the cart carrying Isaac out of the room, Noah stood in front of the cart, put both his hands on the cart to stop it defiantly, and said in a voice with all the force of Gandalf confronting the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum, “You shall not pass!” That’s exactly how he said it. Noah’s heart could not handle seeing his little sibling suffering any more, just like Armand’s father couldn’t stand the thought of his son under that rubble.

          After Noah received first Holy Communion he immediately served at Mass, his mom Susan recalled. When Isaac was old enough, Noah trained him with Nazi-like precision in all the details of serving. Noah’s child-like faith understood that at Mass the Father’s love is poured out in bread and wine, and he didn’t want sloppy serving to stand in the way or distract people at Mass. Noah’s child-like faith was anything but child-ish. Why? Well, “that’s the kind of faith we need because that’s the kind of Father we have.”

          The obituary mentioned many of Noah’s accomplishments in junior high and high school, where he was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, National Honor Society, Har-Ber Debate, and how he graduated with Highest Honors. But his friend, “Pollo” (which means “chicken legs” in Spanish) said how much Noah prized “honesty” and “loyalty” to his family and friends. Because of their camaraderie, their track team won basically everything (no exaggeration) and broke the 30-year record in the “four-X’s” and that record still stands today. Now, I really hate to add this detail, but it is true that Noah went through a “Justin Bieber stage” in styling his hair. That was something his uncle Michael called, “Bieber Fever.” Michael is a doctor, so he knows a fever when he sees one.  And Noah was not above a little friendly rivalry either. When he was first getting to know Pollo he said, “Hey, you should come over to my house more often because my dad likes you more than Chris.” Noah was always pushing his friends forward. Chris remembered Noah gave him the courage to speak in front of the youth group, something he was terrified of. One of Susan’s memories was seeing the team hold hands and pray before meets. Noah was a normal guy in many ways, but deep in his heart also beat the relentless love of the Father: encouraging, pushing, uplifting, and never resting.

          Noah and Izzie – not his sister Izzie! – were “an item,” as everyone knows. Izzie remembered their long talks at Sonic where Noah shared his hopes, dreams and fears of the future. He would always push Izzie to try to eat new things, even though Noah just ordered steak. You probably saw on Facebook the letter Noah sent to Izzie at the start of this semester, telling her to finish the semester strong. He wrote: “1. Always sit in the third row. It's close to the front, but not all the way there. It's the sweet spot. 2. Text your boyfriend every day, he'll always have something nice to say about you. 3. Smile as much as you can. It makes you approachable to anyone who sees you, and your smile is gorgeous.”  (I told him to write that, by the way.) Noah was removing future obstacles for Izzie: rubble that hadn’t even fallen yet around her.

          Noah did well academically at Baylor, too. One professor, Dr. Richard Edward, wrote a recommendation letter in which he praised Noah’s leadership, saying, “I would place him among the top five percent of students I have taught over the past thirty years in terms of his ability to communicate effectively in public speaking, interviewing, and interpersonal situations.” Noah was part of the BIC (Baylor Interdisciplinary Core of the Honors College). Now, that’s what Noah’s head was doing, but what about his heart doing? His heart was in a group called the “King’s Club,” a community service group, where Noah played with Hispanic kids after school like a big brother.  He saw these Hispanic kids had bigger boulders to remove in their lives than he did, and he wanted to help. He was always removing the rubble.

          Two years ago in 2015, Noah went with the church group to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia. Noah hoisted Isaac on his shoulders and carried him for 20 minutes so Isaac could get a picture of the pope. He carried Izzie piggy-back style so she could see the Holy Father. Noah’s own view of the pope was completely blocked, so he simply told Izzie: “Just tell me what he looks like and what he’s doing.” That was enough for Noah; he was happy that he had removed the obstacles for others to see the Vicar of Christ pass by. If Noah had been in Armenia during that earthquake, how long do you think he would have stayed and helped that father remove the rubble? 38 hours doesn’t sound too long for Noah.

          In perhaps his most celebrated essay, called “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis wrote these comforting but also somewhat confounding words, he said: “To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved, and not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.” And that’s our prayer at this funeral Mass: that God would be pleased with Noah, and Noah would be “a real ingredient in the divine happiness,” even more than he was a real ingredient in our own happiness. May Noah hear the Father’s voice today, like he heard it 20 years ago at his baptism, “This, too, is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

          Praised be Jesus


Can Do No Wrong

Choosing the good as the good

Genesis 3:1-8 Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made. The serpent asked the woman, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" The woman answered the serpent: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said to the woman: "You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil." The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

          What I’m about to say will sound crazy, nonsensical and even self-contradictory, but there’s still a lot of truth to it, and I want you to think about it. There is a sense in which no one does anything wrong. You can do no wrong. That may seem patently false to you because every evening on the news we hear about people doing clearly wrong things: a homicide, a bank robbery, someone commits arson, a terrorist attack. But I would suggest to you that the only reason someone does these “evil” things is because they think – maybe mistakenly – it is a “good” thing. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that man always chooses the good under some aspect of the good; it “appears” good to me and therefore I choose it, even if I know it is bad for me.

          I love cheesecake, and if no one is watching, I will eat half of an entire cheesecake because it is soooo good. Now, people tell me that eating half a cheesecake is bad for me, and I’m sure it is bad for them, but it is good for me. In other words, I don’t eat cheesecake because it’s bad for me, but because I think it tastes great! People don’t smoke because it is bad for them, but because they love the high they get from the nicotine. People don’t drink to excess because it’s bad for their liver, but because they enjoy the numbing effects of alcohol. We always choose the good under some aspect of the good, because we think it is good for us, not because we think it is bad or wrong. This, by the way, is the core reason why people do not want to change their behavior (even self-destructive behavior): because to them what they are doing looks good, that’s why they are doing it; otherwise, they would stop. You cannot do anything wrong.

          In the first reading from Genesis, we see the first and fundamental example of this dilemma: we never do anything wrong. God has told Adam and Eve they should not eat of the tree of good and evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. There is no doubt that they know such an act would be wrong. But what does the evil serpent do – he who in Revelation 21:9 is called “the Deceiver” – to make Eve choose to eat the forbidden fruit? He remembers his studies of Thomistic moral philosophy and that man will always choose the good under some aspect of the good. So he tells Eve: “The moment you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” And Eve even saw that “the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she ate it.” Let me ask you: why did she eat it? Did she eat it because she thought it was “bad” (breaking God’s command) or because she thought it was “good” (beautiful, delicious and giving wisdom, just like cheesecake!)? Obviously, she ate the forbidden fruit because she thought – mistakenly so – that it was good; good for her. You cannot do anything wrong.

          This is why marriage counseling is such a challenge. I listen to one spouse complain about their spouse’s behavior. But the real difficulty for that complaining spouse is seeing that their spouse chooses to act that way not because he think it’s wrong but because he thinks he’s doing something good and right. Even the complaining spouse does irritating things but she cannot see it because she thinks what she is doing is perfectly right and good. You can do no wrong. The same is true in addictions. Addicts don’t continuously choose stealing or sex or smoking because it is wrong, but because they believe it looks or feels or tastes good. You can do no wrong. Even the worst case scenario of suicide is the same: someone chooses that action not because it looks bad, but because it looks good to them (mistakenly so). I am not saying any of this immoral behavior is acceptable or should be ignored; I just want you to understand why people choose to do what they do: only because they think it is good.

          The fourth step of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.” In other words, open your eyes truly – not like the Deceiver said, which was really closing your eyes – so you can see how you make choices; why you choose what you choose. What looks “good” may not always be good. You will always choose “the good” so choose what is truly and eternally good, not “some aspect of the good.” Remember: you can do no wrong.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Dating Naked

Dreaming about the Day of Heaven
Genesis 2:18-25 The LORD God said: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him." So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called 'woman,' for out of 'her man' this one has been taken." That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.

          Not many television shows are worth the time and attention to watch, and so-called “reality television shows” are the least worth-while, in my opinion. But one caught my attention recently called “Dating Naked.” I hope you have NOT watched it, and I do NOT recommend that you do. It is set in scenic spots like the Bahamas and actually shows people without any clothes going on dates together. Of course it’s the latest gimmick to grab the attention of a culture so over-stimulated that we are bored with anything less exotic and erotic than people running around naked.

          But the show’s concept of “dating naked” did have one redeeming quality: it reminded me of a book I read many years ago by Peter Kreeft called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven. Kreeft asks the question, “Will we wear clothes in heaven?” that is, will we be naked and will we be dating? He gives a careful (even if also confusing) answer, but it’s worth considering. He suggests that clothes in heaven will “reveal rather than conceal” the beauty of the body. Clothes will enhance the glorified body’s beauty rather than hide its appearance as clothes do on earth for the sake of modesty. The only value of that reality T.V. show “Dating Naked” is that quite by accident it is an approximation and aping of heavenly glory, just like small children pretend to play doctor like their dad by using his stethoscope to hear the heart beat. All things in this life are approximations of the afterlife; we are all aping the Almighty.

          The first reading from Genesis teaches that “dating naked” is not only a glimpse of where we’re going, but also an echo of where we came from, namely, the Garden of Eden, our original paradise. Describing how God made the first two people on earth, Adam and Eve, Genesis makes this astounding assertion: “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.” Thousands of years before the reality television show called “Dating Naked” hit the screen, there actually was a couple that was “dating naked.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 states: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.” It continues, “Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us.” The critical difference between paradise and the present, however, is the sadness of shame. We didn’t need clothes in Eden but we do need clothes on Earth because of original sin and our tendency to sin, in short, because of shame.

          These days, my mind tends to turn easily to thoughts of heaven as I wonder about the future and fate of my nephew, Noah. Those of you who’ve lost loved ones have also no doubt dreamed about the Day of Heaven: what will it be like? will we wear clothes? etc. Of course, our Catholic faith teaches that we should pray for our beloved dead who are probably in Purgatory. That’s why we have Masses offered for them; and I thank you for the Masses offered for Noah. In a spiritual sense, they are being purified of that earthly shame caused by sin so they can enjoy heavenly glory, where clothes will “reveal rather than conceal.” So, they, too, like Adam and Eve before the Fall, can be “naked and yet feel no shame.” That’s something our faith invites us to look forward to.

          But that does not mean we should walk around in our “birthday suits” here on earth! We can only approximate, like a distant and dim echo, the reality of heaven, but we cannot live that completely here on earth. That would be like a small child who not only plays with his father’s stethoscope to hear the heartbeat, but also tries to do open heart surgery. We should not be “dating naked” here on earth even if we might be one day in heaven. Rather, while we walk in this “valley of tears,” we should clothe our bodies beautifully, and we should clothe our souls with the virtues.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Pain, Pain Go Away

Learning the milestones of grief and the pain of loss
Genesis 1:20—2:4A
Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground." God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed–the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing.  he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation. Such is the story of the heavens and the earth at their creation.

          As you may know, last Friday my family suffered a tragic loss: my nephew, Noah, a sophomore at Baylor University died very unexpectedly. His loss caused a deep and devastating pain, and it’s very hard to know how to deal with that pain and loss. I’d like to share with you what my family is going through for two reasons. First, because we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re a spiritual family, and we should share not only success but also sadness, not only triumph but also tragedy together. We shoulder each other’s crosses as we follow behind Christ. Secondly, there are some milestones in grief that can give us hope that we’re only the right road to healing. In 1969 Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a classic book called On Death and Dying which identified five stages of grief. I’d like to touch on each one because it may help you as well. No one is too young or too old to suffer the pain of loss – it can come in the form of the death of a nephew, the loss of a job, moving to a new school, a divorce, a broken friendship, etc. Knowing these milestones comforts us and helps us to carry the cross of pain.

          Elisabeth Kubler-Ross explained that the first stage was “denial.” We are in shock when we first hear the devastating news. We say things like “I can’t believe it!” or “That’s impossible!” or “There must be some mistake!” We feel like it’s all a bad dream and we’ll wake up tomorrow morning and everything will be back to the way it was. I still feel like I’ll get a text from Noah, or see him at my brother’s home when I visit. I’m still in shock and denial; the pain is too much to bear.
          Secondly, we feel anger. We look for someone to blame. We feel this was clearly someone’s fault and they should be held responsible. And when we can’t find anyone else guilty, we blame God. After all, isn’t it God’s job to make sure nothing bad happens to me? But notice what we’re doing: we want the pain of loss to “cease and desist,” and by blaming someone – sometimes even God – we think we’ll find healing and peace, or at least some escape from the pain.

          The third stage or milestone is “bargaining.” We negotiate or make deals with God to lessen the pain of loss. Before someone dies, we say, “God, I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life if you’ll let my child live.” Some parents leave a deceased child’s room untouched, like a holy shrine, to try to keep their memory alive. This, too, is another milestone and sign-post that we’re dealing with the piercing pain of loss. It’s a good sign.

          The fourth stage is depression. The best definition of depression I know of is that depression is “anger turned inward upon ourselves.” That is, instead of blaming others, we blame ourselves for what happened. I should have said something. What clues did I miss? I could have stopped this tragedy. It’s my fault. Children of divorced parents often blame themselves for their parents’ separation, they feel depressed. They beat themselves up, but only because they hope this self-incrimination will make the pain of loss go away.

          The fifth and final stage is acceptance. We slowly realize this pain of loss is our “new normal.” We cannot make it go away, we must live with it, and make it our friend. It’s like having a permanent limp after a broken leg heals. We learn to walk with it: no more denial, no anger, no bargaining, no despair, just acceptance of the pain of loss and a new normal. Please remember that none of these stages or milestones are “good” or “bad.” They are simply steps to healing and peace.

          My friends, in this life we will suffer the pain of loss again and again. I wish we didn’t; but it is our lot in life ever since Adam and Eve lost Paradise, the very first pain of loss in human history. And we will not find ultimate healing or peace until we are home in heaven, “where every tear will be wiped away” (Rev. 21:4). In the first reading from Genesis, we read: “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation” (Gen 2:3). Only in heaven will we, too, stop suffering from all the pain of loss we experience in this life - in some sense this is our “work” - and find “God’s rest.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

My Greatest Years

Cooperating with God’s grace to do great things
Isaiah 58:7-10b 
Thus says the LORD: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

          A few weeks ago, Trinity Junior High hosted a “Sixth Grade Day,” where we welcomed sixth graders from the three Catholic elementary schools, as well as local public schools. We wined and dined them on pizza and soft drinks, and wowed them with our cheer and dance teams. Nothing like a pretty cheerleader to help you decide what school to attend! During a question and answer segment, one particularly precocious sixth grader raised his intrepid little hand and asked our principal: “Dr. Hollenbeck, can you assure me that these three years at Trinity will be the greatest years of my life?” Can’t you just imagine that kid at some job interview someday asking a potential boss: “Can you assure me this will be the greatest job I’ll ever have?” That’ll be the last job he will ever have! Dr. Hollenbeck wisely replied: “These will definitely be some of the greatest years of your life, but that will depend mostly on you.” It’s comical but curious how we expect others to be responsible for our happiness; we want them to assure us our life will be great. Don’t we sometimes strike this spiritual attitude with God, asking, “God, if I take Christianity seriously, can you assure me these years will be the greatest of my life?” It’s very tempting to treat others as responsible for our happiness, but it also depends on us.

          In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah seems to answer a similar question (almost as if he were being asked by an invisible, intrepid Israelite), and he sounds a lot like Dr. Hollenbeck in his answer. He says: “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday” (emphasis added). In other words, your happiness, your glory, your greatest years, will not be handed to you on a silver platter by God. Rather, you must work with God’s grace to achieve anything. As Dr. Hollenbeck said to the sixth grader, “these years will be some of the greatest of your life, but that will depend mostly on you.” Let me add an important caveat: every Christian knows there is nothing good we can achieve without God’s grace undergirding it from beginning to end. Only grace makes anything good. Nevertheless, Isaiah says that God desires some effort from us, too: we must remove oppression, false accusation and malicious speech, we must feed the hungry and satisfy the afflicted. Our greatness also depends on us.

          Last week the Trinity students had a competition to produce a promotional video for the school. The video challenged their creativity, their love for the school, their proficiency with videography and flying drones, and even some acting. Jacob Biddle won with his video with featured short interviews with students and staff. Jordan Geoates said, “God is important to me, and I get to go to church on Tuesdays. And I get to have religion class every single day.” Did all you parents catch that: there are teenagers who love God and Mass and religion class! This is surely a sign of “the end times.” But notice the underlying purpose of producing a video: students learning that making these three years at Trinity great depends on them, too. What ingredients do they add to the stew of human greatness?

          Two weeks ago I announced to the Trinity student body at Mass that I was going to run in the Fort Smith marathon to raise money for the school. One 8th grader, Josue Sanchez, said he wanted to run with me. I said, “Sure, I would love to run with you, but only on one condition: you can’t beat me. You have to let the priest win.” He laughed, but he didn’t agree. Josue realizes that making his three years great at Trinity not only depends on his God-given talents, but also on him, and how he develops those talents.

          Many of our students get involved in extracurricular activities, besides having very high grades. For instance, Kate Goldtrap does band, twirling, dance team, Pure Heart Girls, swimming. Matthew Hollenbeck does football, cross country, band, student ambassador, basketball, and track. Lauren Redding does basketball, student ambassador, cheerleader, Pure Heart Girls. And Jayson Toney does cheerleader, drama, Pure Heart Girls, and beauty pageants. When do these students sleep?? (Probably Sunday morning at Mass.) But notice what they are learning besides their books and these activities: the greatness of these years depends on them, not just on the principal and not just on God.

          Recently, I was leafing through the pages of a book on religious addiction that Fr. Greg Luyet, our former pastor, left behind. Maybe he thought I could use it. It’s called When God Becomes a Drug by an Episcopal priest named Fr. Leo Booth. It’s fascinating reading how people see God as a “drug,” the one to make them high and happy. Listen to how Fr. Booth describes “spirituality.” He writes: “[Spirituality] is related to the word spirit – not a child’s concept of a white-sheeted Holy Ghost flying in an out of our lives, but an inner attitude that emphasizes energy, creative choice, and a powerful force for living” (emphasis in original). He continues: “It is a partnership with a Power greater than ourselves, a co-creatorship with God that allows us to be guided by God and yet to take responsibility for our lives” (When God Becomes a Drug, 55). Healthy spirituality is always a partnership with Jesus. He does the heavy lifting, to be sure, but you must lift a little as well.

          This weekend I want to encourage parents to send their children to Trinity and to encourage all of you to help in the second collection. But please remember this: lots of graduating sixth graders walk into Trinity Junior High, and some want us to make these the greatest years of their life. But by the time they graduate as 9th graders: they will all walk out of Trinity having learned a very important lesson: greatness also depends on them.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Heart Hurts

Seeking spiritual healing from the Divine Physician
Mark 16:15-20
Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

          A couple of weeks ago one of our students got sick in church. Do you remember that? He didn’t quite make it to the bathroom. I believe that a number of students were sick with a “stomach bug” recently. Maybe some students are sick right now and missing school today. Raise your hand if you have been sick before. Raise your hand if you liked being sick. That was a trick question – to see if you’re paying attention!

          Boys and girls, there are two kinds of sicknesses. The first kind is the sickness of the body, like a stomach bug. We lay in bed and moan and groan. Where do you go when your body is sick? Most of us run to momma! But if it’s a really serious sickness – like cancer – where do most people go? They go visit a doctor. How many of you have parents who are doctors? They have a very important job in healing the body.

          The second kind of sickness is of the soul or spirit. Spiritual sickness is when you feel sad because your dog has died. How many of you have felt sad? Your body is fine – maybe even fit as a fiddle! – but your spirit hurts, or your heart hurts. Now, where do you go when you have a spiritual sickness, and who can heal you? Well, moms are good doctors of the soul, too. But some of like to talk to a friend, and our hearts feel better. But the best person to heal a spiritual sickness is Jesus! Only Jesus can heal the deepest hurts; only Jesus can heal us when our heart hurts. That’s why he’s sometimes called the “Divine Physician,” the “Divine Doctor.”

          In the gospel today, Jesus gives his apostles the power to heal, too. He tells them they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages (like Spanish and English!), and they will lay their hands on the sick and heal them. Now, sometimes they did miraculous healings – maybe even cured stomach bugs! – but most of the time they left healing the body to the doctors. The apostles’ main job, therefore, would be to heal the hurts of the soul, to heal people when their hearts hurt, to heal the deepest kind of sadness with the love of Jesus.

          Boys and girls, today is the Feast of St. Blaise and we celebrate the tradition of blessing throats. We will pray that anyone who has any throat problems will be healed. But remember that there is another kind of sickness, the spiritual kind, when your heart hurts. So, as you come forward try to think of anything that makes you sad and hurts your heart. When we touch your throat with those blessed candles, we will pray that Jesus will heal that hurt, too.

          This is one of the great blessings of a Catholic school: we help to heal all your hurts. The physical hurts are taken care of by our super nurse, Mrs. Jennifer Shelby, and the spiritual hurts are taken care of by our super doctor, Jesus. But remember, boys and girls, the deepest hurts are always the spiritual ones – the heart hurts – and only Jesus can heal those.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Child Prodigies

Pushing our children to become prodigious in love
Luke 2:22-32 
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: "Now, Master, you may let your servant go  in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."

          Everyone loves to see a child prodigy: a child who excels far beyond his or her peers in some area of human achievement. Bear in mind that all parents think their children are prodigies. But that’s not what I mean. Perhaps the most famous child prodigy was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in 1756, who was proficient in piano and violin by the age of 4, composed music at age 5, and would become one of the most prolific composers (over 600 pieces) of the Classical Era (1730-1820). Blaise Pascal (born 1623) was a French mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher, who “wrote a treatise on vibrating bodies at age 9, and wrote his first proof, on a wall with a piece of coal, at the age of 11 years” (Wikipedia). Here’s a more recent prodigy. Tristan Pang “started reading independently and doing high school math at age two, sat in on the Cambridge International Examinations and earned the top grade of A, scoring a 97% at nine” (Wikipedia). Gabriel Carroll, born 1982, “earned the highest SAT score in the state of California, including a perfect 800 in the math, in seventh grade” (Wikipedia). Can your child prodigy do that?

          In the gospel today, the prophet Simeon takes into his arms the ultimate child prodigy, namely, Jesus. As he holds the 8 day-old Baby (that’s when boys were circumcised), he praises God, saying, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” The first flash we see of Jesus’ divine genius is at the age of 12, when he stays behind in the Temple and questions the scribes and elders (Luke 2:46). But Jesus was not a prodigy in music or math or molecular biology (even though he could have been), but rather in love. He excelled in love beyond all his peers, indeed, beyond anyone who has ever lived, or anyone who will ever live.

          Perhaps the best definition of love is John Henry Newman’s definition of a gentlemen. Cardinal Newman wrote: “It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” He continues more colorfully: “His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue” (Idea of a University). In other words, Jesus excelled in being a gentleman – never inflicting pain – by the time he was 8 days old because he loved perfectly.

          You know, I am always edified by watching how parents push and prod and propel their children to become prodigies. They put them into challenging schools, they provide private tutoring, they pay for club teams in volleyball and basketball, they take them to gymnastics meets all over the country. All that is well and good, and I’m personally grateful how hard my parents pushed me to study in school. But in the end, there is only one skill and one school your children have to be proficient in, and that is love. And if I may borrow Newman’s definition of a gentleman, your children must love in the sense of “never inflicting pain.” How much time and trouble and tenacity do you expend to teach your children to love, especially following the lead of Jesus, who was a child prodigy in love by the time he was 8 days old? In the end, being prodigious in love will be all that matters.  Why?  Because the only prodigies in heaven will be those who have excelled in love. So, you better get started.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!