From Trauma to Forgiveness

About a week ago I commented on the Treyvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and tried to look at it from both sides. I also brought up the fact that I lived in a neighborhood where I was often afraid to walk down the street alone. I was “jumped” in front of my own house once for a lousy $2 as three teens tailed me from the grocery store.

The truth is that I still have nightmares about it.

What’s more is that I remember when I walked to middle school and back each day, I had to travel through a particularly bad neighborhood. There were a few “crews” as we called “gangs” back then in the 80s. Drugs, violence, you name it were all hallmarks of the walk home. As I left my Catholic middle school I often thought “Maybe today is the day I get jumped?” Or worse. I got used to walking fast and it was all uphill.

Some of the gang members knew me from when I went to public school from Kindergarten through 6th grade. I loved that school. When Middle School arrived it seemed as if everything had changed. The middle school in the neighborhood had a bad reputation.

And that scared the hell out of my parents. So they sent me to the parish grammar school instead for 7th and 8th grade. And that pretty much made me a target walking home in a shirt and a tie each day. Might as well have had a sign that said “Come and beat the heck out of me for whatever loose change I might be carrying.” What was worse was that I was at best a “tolerated guest” at the Catholic School and didn’t even have allies to walk home with most of the time.

The anxiety would build until I arrived home and got behind that door–and even then I worried at night about someone breaking into the house.

I was taught that fear, taught to be afraid of my neighborhood. And there is good and bad in that. Because let’s face it there are good and bad people of all races. Even in good neighborhoods it is good to notice your surroundings and be aware.

But we can also overdo it.

I remember the “two dollar” incident as if it were yesterday. One guy grabbed me and threw me against a car. The laughing started then. Then someone grabbed my hand and another went through my pockets. I got pushed around and then they ran when they got the money away from my clenched fist. It sounds simple–but the truth is that it was all rather frightening.

I have been wondering why I still have the nightmare and why I had one when this story that has captivated the country hit center stage. What are all of these memories now stirring in me about? Why have they rushed to the surface now some 30 years later? I began to feel silly about holding on to this, but I also knew that there must have been something significant about this for me to keep having these subconscious thoughts. I even went to facebook and tried to see if I could find one of the people who was part of the incident. And when I did I became even more worried.

So I went to Christ the King Chapel, our campus church at Canisius and simply asked God what all this was about. And when I did I re-lived that fearful moment in Examen. I saw my own fear. I heard the laughing again. I looked into the eyes of the one who was known to me, who set me up for the others. And then I imagined that it was much like that night in the garden when Jesus was betrayed by one he knew well. And I saw Jesus standing there with me shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.

And as they scattered, I too, was left alone. I found myself pushing Jesus away and embracing my own hatred. While I wasn’t hurt much physically, the emotional scars were deep and I was just so, so afraid it would happen again.

Something inside me in the darkness of that chapel finally saw Jesus on that cross and I said the words:

“Father, forgive them.”

And I realized that I was safe now, perhaps safer than I have ever felt. Forgiveness is truly freeing and I don’t think I ever truly forgave those three from that moment.

The tears came and then I heard the chapel door open. It was one of our public safety officers who was checking on the building and locking the doors for the night. She was a woman and for some reason she made me feel somewhat safer because she was. Some students were meeting me in the undercroft, the church basement soon and I let her know that. We introduced ourselves and as she left I found my students entering for our prayer service.

I never really finished that prayer, much like I never really finished freeing myself from that memory. This week I served some folks who looked very much like those three who took advantage of my weakness those 30 years age. I was able to look them in the eyes and see their pain, their dignity, their poverty and yes, their fear disguised as bravado.

I was not afraid of them. I’m sure that many of them were not exactly stellar citizens. I’m sure it was easier for them to band together with others than to stand apart and face the fear of walking their dangerous neighborhood alone, where the fear of being killed is actually a real one. And so I gave them each something to eat and talked with them and hoped that just maybe for a moment I could be someone that they need not fear and that had no need to fear them.

And I realized then how strong God made me back then, how brave I was to simply walk home alone each day. And how God continues to make me strong today for those who are too weak to walk alone. For those who have no voice. For those who don’t have enough to eat. For those who live fearful lives.

Eventually I resumed my prayer days later and realized that I had been sitting by the foot of the cross in that chapel.

Staying by our cross and facing it, even the ones from old neighborhoods, or playgrounds, or bedrooms, or schoolhouses is indeed very hard for each one of us. But Christ calls us to stay with Him at His cross, to face our fear and to go the extra yard of sitting with Him in His pain just as God always stays with us in ours.

That’s how we overcome those wounded moments.

And each time we do, God raises us to new life.

How Would I Be Different If I Were Born a Woman?

Dustin Hoffman asked this question when he was making the movie Tootsie…and it made him cry.

Thinking about this has given me great pause. I once said to my college friend that no man ever walks up to a woman without an ulterior motive. It was around the time that the great movie When Harry Met Sally came out. And the big discussion of “Can men and women be friends?” was on everyone’s mind.

I was of the opinion that men and women could be friends if they weren’t attracted to one another. Otherwise there’d always be this sexual tension in the air. She argued that what if the attraction was one sided? And I realized that she was talking about our relationship where, at the time, I was clearly smitten with her, but that was not reciprocated. The truth is that this moment changed my life and I never simply disregarded a woman because of the way she looked again. I mean sure, I’d still walk up to an attractive woman (like my wife, for instance!) and talk to her because I was attracted to her, but I always avoided women who I wasn’t attracted to, because…well…what was the point if I didn’t want to date them? Now if they came over to me and started talking I was polite and friendly and would actually become a friend. But I don’t think I had ever intentionally sought out a friendship with a woman I was not attracted to at a party or an event.

Hospitality requires us to be welcoming to everyone. My dear friend, Brett Hoover, used to always seek out the person who seemingly had no friends at young adult events and I began to do that on retreats and whenever there was a new person coming into a parish. Being included is just the tip of the iceberg. Recalling that we all have dignity and are deserving of one another’s company simply because “we are” is a lesson we all can stand to remember.

It changes us when we consider this…not merely in male and female relationships–but what other relationships do we shun out of our “brainwashing” as Hoffman said to be attracted by the attractive? Do we avoid the dirty homeless person because they are dirty and not washed? The little kid with the dirty face and old clothes? The stranger who seems a bit “off.” A family member who seems disheveled? The elderly who can’t keep thoughts together? Or even the woman who wears lousy looking shoes or the man who doesn’t dress well?

It seems to me that the Pope has been reminding us of this as well. He called the young people at World Youth Day to go home and make “a mess.” And relationships are often messy, requiring us to stretch a bit farther than maybe we’d like in some cases to maintain a relationship with someone who might be difficult for us to relate to. So we keep things safe and simply hang out with those we like and those we are attracted to for whatever reason.

Perhaps our lesson today is to go beyond attraction. And to find where God is lurking in the hearts of those who we don’t particularly find attractive. Where does God call us to find just a bit more than we usually would care to? Because it is there that we most often find God more deeply, more intimately.

And we might make a new friend as well. Friends who actually end up being attractive and who bless our lives with the gift that they are and the gifts that we become for them.

Simply because we took the time to notice.

Praying Through Baseball

images-1A recent article in the Christian Century tugged at my heartstrings because it brought up the strong connection many of us pastoral ministry types have with baseball. The author, John Buchanan, talks about the connection between having faith in both religion and the baseball team one follows:

The Pirates remain in my heart, of course, and I am in a near existential crisis when they play the Cubs. However the game turns out, I will both win and lose, rejoice and lament. The Pirates have won three World Series championships during my lifetime, most memorably in 1960 when Pittsburgh upset the heavily favored New York Yankees. The Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to break a 9-9 tie and win the series. It was a moment I have never forgotten. The Cubs, on the other hand, have not won the World Series since 1908 and have created decades of frustration and despair for their followers, with high hopes inevitably crushed, only to be renewed again in the spring.

I sometimes wonder why I care about this game so much. In his new book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, John Sexton (Blogger’s note: Sexton is NYU’s President and a three time Fordham graduate) reinforces my lifelong interest, commitment and enthusiasm. Sexton says that baseball, the only game without a clock, requires concentrated attention and teaches us to “live slow and notice.” He observes that fathers want to give their children something to love, something bigger than themselves to be part of. It is often a religion, and it is often baseball and a team. My parents, thanks be to God, gave me both.

These reflections mirror much of my own feelings about the grand, old game. Most people don’t realize that Baseball is as more about what is not happening than it is about what IS happening. (Will the runner steal? What will the pitcher throw him? Why is the shortstop so deep in the hole for this hitter? Should we bring in a reliever?) The minutia in the game is chock full of statistics and stories that have filled dozens of books and oral traditions. It’s amazing how many stories I have that surround baseball. I can remember moments during high school games, where I almost always rode the bench, but came away with amazing stories and life lessons that have stuck with me to this day. One in particular stands out:

Last inning and our pitcher Mike Rodak heads to the mound and has been masterful. If memory serves he’s throwing a two hitter and we’re up 2-0. Rodak walks the first batter bringing the tying run to the plate. He rears back and throws his best curve of the day to stun the hitter cold and there’s one out. The next batter hits a one hopper that our shortstop knocks down but can only get a force play at second on, but there’s two outs now.

We can smell victory.

Rodak looks spent. He’s all over the place and walks the next guy on four pitches. Now the tying run is on base.

“Mike,” Coach Prior bellows to me, the scorekeeper, “what did this guy do last time?”

“Lined out to straight away center.”

“OK I’m gonna go get Rodak before this guy hits another shot like that!”

“Coach, c’mon. There’s two outs. He also struck this guy out earlier. He’s come this far. Let’s see if he can finish it.”

I knew Mike would rather die than be taken out of this game and he pitched a beauty and thought he could get this guy out.

“Kid,” Coach Prior barked, “You have to win with your best. And right now, Vasquez gives us the best chance at an out.” And Coach trotted out and took the ball from Rodak and handed the ball to Tommy Vasquez, our ace pitcher.

Tommy was amazing. He indeed was our best pitcher on the squad. He even bounced around the minors a bit after he graduated. He was also a great guy, always taking time for guys like me who just didn’t have the talent, but who he saw loved the game and really wanted to just get a chance to contribute. He’d lobby to get me in the game as a pinch hitter and I’d always be grateful. He even let me pinch hit for him once.

So Tommy comes in and we’re feeling confident. “You got this, Tommy!” I yell. After his warm ups, Tommy looks in for the sign. He winds. He throws. Fastball, belt high…

And the batter hits one that I don’t think has landed yet.

There was no wall at this field so the ball just flew and by the time the ball had gotten back the batter has crossed home plate with a walk-off three run homer.

Rodak had been sitting next to me on the bench. He looked forlorn and said to me, “All that shit for nothing.”

It reminds me a bit of what the disciples must have felt like in the upper room. They had done everything right. Jesus, in fact, WAS the messiah and they followed Him, spending days and nights working with him and giving him every ounce of their dedication. Surely He was the one who would set them free from bondage.

And then they killed Him, hanging Him like a common criminal. It was all over in a short 24 hours.

Baseball reminds us, as does Good Friday, that even when we do everything right, sometimes things don’t go as we planned. This is not God playing torture games with us, rather it’s an opportunity for us to find God within the suffering experience.

That afternoon we boarded the bus and Tommy was dejected. Rodak just as angry, not at Tommy, just at the whole mess. We had a small rubber “Sigmund and the sea monsters” plastic hand puppet that was kind of a team mascot for the day. And so Luis Alvarez, our second baseman decided that someone had to break the silence.

“WOW!” he yelled, thrusting Sigmund’s mouth agape, “Tommy got taken REEEEEEEAL DEEP.” And on the word real, Sigmund’s mouth opened immensely.

We all looked at Tommy, who just smiled and then laughed a bit. It was over. There was nothing more to do or say. It was simply time to move on and get them next time. And the next time out Tommy stood a bit stronger for the journey. In fact, I don’t think Tommy or Mike lost again that year.

The themes of forgiveness, resurrection, mindfulness and even silence are intertwined within both baseball and our faith. Like Rev. Buchanan, I am proud that my parents gave me a rich opportunity to be familiar with my faith and to love it. And they also gave me a love for baseball. Together they both have remained with me and have taught me much about resiliency and sacrifice.

May they never leave me. Play ball.

The Jesuitness of Pope Francis

charis_logoSo my colleagues at Charis Ministries in Chicago have asked a rather provocative question:

Why Should Pope Francis attend a Charis Retreat?

And so I would like to offer the Top 10 reasons why a Ignatian Retreat and specifically a Charis Retreat would benefit the likes of Papa Francisco.

images-11) A Transition is a Great Time for a Retreat: Pope Francis is in the midst of an unexpected transition. Moving from Argentina to Italy alone has got to be jarring, never mind the move from his simple quarters to the Papal Suite in the Vatican (reportedly, the Pope said it was too large for him and said “You could fit 300 people in here). So I’d like to recommend that he attends a What’s Next Retreat–which is based specifically on the experience of making transitions. You should join him if you’ve gotten a new job, moved to a new city, graduated college or graduate school, entered the job force for the first time, just gotten married or divorced or are expecting a child. Transitions are crazy! And Ignatian spirituality focuses us on the principle of indifference—trying to have the faith that says that no matter what befalls us and no matter how scary things are, God will get us through anything.

2) The Value of Silence: Each Charis retreat really values silence and the opportunity to take time away from the noise that often constantly surrounds us. Do you remember those first moments on the Papal balcony? The Pope actually asked for silence and you could hear a pin drop in the square as people prayed for our new Pontiff. Perhaps we all need just a few moments in our lives to cultivate silence for even just a short time.

3) Simplicity: If nothing else, the new Pope loves being with people and sharing stories of his own. That’s precisely what Charis retreats are based on. The experience of finding God in everyday life is where we all are. So the retreats meet us firmly on that ground and then moves us to consider where God might be in that experience. I read today where the Pope called the newsstand where he got his morning paper and cancelled his subscription. Can we find God in the simple moments of the day like buying the morning paper or riding the bus. It seems to me that the Pope can help others understand this well.

4) For the Least of Our Brothers and Sisters: Charis Retreats always center on the experience of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Pope has seen much suffering in the slums of Buenos Aires and the experience of the global south certainly knows poverty much better than we do in the United States. Do we have the ability to see God in these experiences of poverty and how are we poor ourselves? For the least provides an opportunity to reflect on the experience of serving others who are in need instead of merely doing a good deed and then going on our way. Have we been able to name where we find Christ in these experiences?

5) Ignatius and Francis: Why would a Jesuit take Francis as his name? Well, it’s actually quite appropriate! Ignatius was a big admirer of Francis. During his period of convalescence he read all about Francis and placed himself in the stories of Francis and in his imagination he discovered that he enjoyed imitating the life of Francis much more than the gallant knights that he had tried to become like before. On Charis retreats, you’re able to use these imaginative exercises where you place yourself in the stories of Francis, Ignatius and Jesus and other imaginative scenes. By putting our creative imagination at the service of our faith we find that we meet God more clearly in these experiences and are able to more readily integrate our deepest desires about who we most want to be into action.

6) Contemplative in Action: Ignatius implores us to be people in the world but not of the world. To be contemplative in action, to not merely experience our lives by living them but also by reflecting back on our experiences. With the number of stories we’ve already heard from Pope Francis, I am certain that he shares that value and has reflected deeply on his more than 75 years.

7) Forgiveness: Charis retreats always center on the experience of being a “loved sinner.” And Pope Francis has clearly talked about a God who always forgives us in the early days of his Papacy. I often lead the reconciliation service on the retreats that I coordinate with one of our team members. And it’s always a moving experience to see people come back from the sacrament of reconciliation renewed and refreshed in the forgiveness of God’s love. Imagine being able to go to confession to the Pope?! And imagine being a priest and hearing the Pope’s confession?!

8. Servant Leadership: Charis retreats are run by young adults for young adults. They are based in peer leadership where we serve the needs of one another. We now have a Pope who is doing that with his brother priests and more importantly, brother Cardinals. His spirit of collegiality would fit in well on a Charis retreat and while he’s not a young adult, I could see him leading us as spiritual director and showing other priests the importance of being with young people.

9) Magis: The great Cardinal Tagle of Manilla once reminded us that we don’t just work for the glory of God, but rather we work for the GREATER glory of God. We stretch ourselves beyond our usual modes of participating in life, to become somewhat uncomfortable, to reflect on matters we often have no time for in our busy lives. We do so in order to define what the Magis is for each one of us. We discern, rather than simply decide who we are to be. The Pope has been echoing those words in the early days of his papacy and it’s pretty clear that he’s working not only to fulfill the demands of the Papacy, but also to show each of us where greater glory resides in the experience of fulfilling our roles in life. Sitting on a weekend with Charis Retreats, we hope to find that greater glory that calls to us, that helps us become all that God calls us to be.

10) Open to Questions: Don’t you get the feeling that you could just ask Pope Francis anything and he’d answer you with love? That’s a great principle of Ignatian Spirituality, being open to the questions and exploring all facets of them. We come to God with all of who we are: our hopes, our dreams, our gifts…but also our fears, our doubts, our insecurities. Charis retreats offers a non-judgemental sacred space to explore those aspects of who we are.

Lastly, the Pope should come and join Charis Retreats in the great spirit of Ignatius, not merely because he’s a Jesuit and not merely because Charis expresses much of his own personal spirituality and not even because the Pope needs to be around young people. Rather, the Pope should be able to take some time for himself and renew his own sense of where God is calling HIM! Young people in their 20s and 30s are eager to share their journey of faith and have been moved by the Pope sharing much of how he sees God working in his life even in the simplest of ways.

Be it a bus ride, a morning paper, a visit to the slums, a phone call or even a simple kiss and hug, Papa Francisco is able to share with his actions and his words just how vibrant God is working in his life.

And that’s exactly what happens on a Charis Retreat.

So I’m conducting Charis’ What’s Next Retreat in the Buffalo area on June 7-9…that’s the one focused on transitions. Perhaps the Pope will need a mini-break from this whirlwind tour he’s been on and I would love to provide him with an opportunity to be with us….even if just in spirit. (Email me for information: mike.googlinggod@gmail.com)

ignloyAfter all, he is and always will be a son of Ignatius. That spirit has made him all that he is.

And now it inspires all of us as well. Seeing God in all things is our challenge and taking just a bit of time to examine that in our lives is something we all should do and need to do.

And if that’s good enough for the Pope, than it’s good enough for all of us.

Can You Love Someone Who Tells You to Drop Dead?

A Jewish woman who survived the concentration camps tells the story of the train ride to Auschwitz. She was with her little brother…and she looked down at him on the train and noticed that he didn’t have any shoes on.

And she screamed at him, “What is WRONG with you? Can’t you keep you things together? You’re so stupid!”

Well, it turns out that those were the last words she would ever say to him. They arrived in Auschwitz moments later and were separated and she never saw him again because he did not survive.

And she made a vow to try to never say anything nasty to anyone because she didn’t want those to be the last things she ever said to them.

And it is a similar story that we hear in the Gospel today.

We have a son…who says to his father “Give me my inheritance now!” Which essentially means “Drop dead!”

And we don’t know what the father says in return, but I imagine that he says something like “Take your money and get out! And don’t come back.”

And perhaps those are the last words that he ever said to his son, who he presumes to be dead. Could the father be regretting what was said?

But then, there his son is! The father catches sight of him and runs to embrace him and then throws the biggest party you can even imagine. Because his son, that ungrateful, ne’er do well, carousing, wasteful son –has come back home! Who could ask for anything more!?

Scripture scholars often say that the story is pretty straightforward. We are the Prodigal Son and the Father is God. And God forgives us no matter how far we stray and rejoices when we come home.

And that’s true enough.

But in this story, Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who are upset because Jesus hangs out with tax collectors–who are the lowest of the low. They’re not the IRS guys we know. They’re more like slumlords. Nobody likes a slumlord: Their tenants hate them because they don’t do repairs, the neighborhood hates them because the place is falling apart, the government hates them because they don’t pay their taxes. Nobody likes a slumlord and nobody likes a tax collector.

And so the point of the story is not so much how we are forgiven by God. But rather it’s a challenge to us to ask ourselves if we can forgive as the Father does? Can we forgive those who wish we would drop dead? Can we forgive those who waste our resources? Can we forgive that one colleague who annoys you? And what’s more after knowing how much of a louse that person is to you—and after you may have cast them off and said that you’re not going to be bothered with them—can you not only forgive them but rejoice over them coming back into your life?

Can you throw a party for the person who loves you the least?

Well, we know two things: one is the older brother cannot. And two is that God always does. The older brother tells the father that he shouldn’t throw the prodigal a party but rather he wants a party for himself. But he goes even further and says “You’ve never thrown a party for me and I work all day long and do everything I’m supposed to! You throw a party for this, this SON of yours. I’m your son, not this guy! Now I want what’s coming to me! Why don’t you just drop dead!”

Who does that sound like? These brothers are not all that different, the theme of their life is “drop dead.”

And the Father…this is a man who has experienced the renewal of his life. He was hopeless and somehow God made a way out of no way. His son came home forgetting that his father has cast him off. And in this new life of seeing his son return home has caused him to rejoice and he can’t understand why this older brother doesn’t see that.

“I’ll be dead soon enough and all I have is yours. But tonight! We eat and drink!”

Can we celebrate or even attend a party for someone who we don’t think deserves a celebration?

It would be like throwing a party for the guy who gets promoted instead of you? The younger sister who gets married before you do? The boss who denigrates your decisions but leads the company into profit? The professor who failed you who becomes a Dean? The person who breaks your heart!

It’s not that bad things happen to good people that test our faith, it’s often that good things happen to bad people …and then we become the older brother.

And the truth of the gospel here is not that we passively see God’s forgiveness of both brothers but that we ask ourselves if we too can forgive those who have trespassed against us. So that we may not be led into temptation but delivered from all that is evil.

Because evil wants us not to rejoice. Evil wants to keep us angry, bitter and resentful.

And folks, that is no way to live. And Lent is all about casting things off–and maybe tonight God is calling us to cast off resentments.

And so we come here tonight with our resentments, with the people on our minds who annoy us, who we often find to be unforgivable. And we try to move beyond where we most often find ourselves, in a sea of resentment and try see if our hearts can stretch much farther than we think. To find a place where we can cast off resentments and rejoice in reconciliation. Like the father, whose words rejoice over two sons who once said they wish he would hurry up and die.

In our lives we may have often been the prodigal son and we may often have been the older brother. But tonight, Jesus calls us to be the father.

And if we can be the father may our last words to everyone we know, even those we don’t think much of, be words of love and joy and peace.

So that we might die without resentments but rejoice in a reconciliation that leads us all into eternal life.

Want to Be a Holy Family?

When speaking of saints Thomas Merton reminds us that all you have to do to become a saint is to want to be one. Being a saint is simply to become the best version of who you already are. And I can think of no better image for a Holy Family.

But are we always that best version? No and we’ll fail miserably at that from time to time. We’ll be grumpy and short tempered sometimes. We’ll be impatient with spouses and children and pets. We’ll fall short of both obligations and expectations. We’ll even hurt those closest to us.

I tend to have a lot of patience for many people. I work with college students and am a spiritual director for many people. Patience is part of the gig. But why then, do I have so little patience at home? I get quick tempered with my wife some days, feeling irritated at every little thing she asks. I can’t stand the randomness of the dog barking. Some days I wonder what I’d do with a crying baby , if I had one…and for those of you with children, I can understand how sleep deprived and cranky you can become.

Ok, but while we can understand these frustrations, they are not just peachy keen either! They are far from the best version of ourselves. They make us a less “Wholly” Family and cause divisions and harm. So we have to do something about this.

The first thing I find that recently has been helpful to me is the opportunity to find some time for quiet. Even just 15 minutes. I drive my wife to work in the morning and then have some time to come back home and eat and cultivate that habit of silent prayer time. The house is silent and the dog is usually curled up and asleep. I can do my examen over a bowl of oatmeal and fruit, actually chewing an appropriate amount instead of gobbling something down in a rush. I might even have more time to just sit and be. I end up relaxed and able to give those frustrations to God and make it easier for me to be patient throughout the day.

When I don’t have formal time to do this, I need to do the mini-version. In the car, in my office, walking on campus, wherever I can steal a few seconds for an aspirant prayer for God to give me strength and patience.

The upside of all of this is that it’s contagious. I find that calm and patient people often attract the same. Parents especially will notice that the calmer they appear, the calmer their children are, even in an emergency. Both my mom and dad were great at this in my younger years. I came home after having the point end of a football punted into my eye one afternoon in a schoolyard touch football game and even though it looked horrendous and I needed to be hospitalized, my parents stayed calm. My mom said things like “Oh it doesn’t look that bad, come sit over here and dad will come and take you to the doctor.” I never got that scared about it and I very nearly could have lost my sight in that eye.

And Jesus himself serves as the model for this for us in the Gospel. Mary and Joseph are like us, frantically searching for Jesus in the caravan. (Ever lose a kid in a mall?). When they find Jesus, he calmly says to them, “Didn’t you know that I would be in my father’s house?” But then Jesus also becomes obedient to Mary and Joseph. There’s the realization of human weakness by God. And in that we see calmness pervade this Holy Family, so much so that the gospel writers don’t even write anything of note about them throughout Jesus’ childhood.

Perhaps Jesus can have that same calming effect on us? And maybe that’s why we come here. Like Hannah in our first reading, can we be overwhelmed with gratitude for our families that we come to this place to give that thanks to God? And for those of us who may have experienced family life that hasn’t always been good, can we come here in search of healing, forgiveness, a calmness in our storm?

Yesterday, we laid to rest a parishioner, named Viola, Vi for short. Vi sang in our choir and she always had this serenity about her, even in the midst of chaos. She worked with many people in harm’s way as a social worker, prisoners, troubled teens, mentally ill folks and became the calm in the storm for them. But she really loved being that calming influence on her family and they appreciated that about her. In that calmness was a vitality of life that was given to others and helped them all become the best person they can be.

Can we all learn from her example? Maybe we can’t be the one who is ultra-calm all the time, but can we look to others for that serenity and can it help us become better people? Can we look to Jesus and take those moments of peace when we need it each day? And in a world where we often see chaos and distress, can we believe that God can offer us everlasting peace no matter how chaotic things might become?

If we can do that, we might just be a Holy Family. And that might be enough to unite all of us to one another….and to God.

We Need to Be John the Baptist Today

Many people say that words fail us during these times of great challenge, when parents can’t even send their kids to kindergarten.

I respectfully disagree. I can say that many of us don’t know what to say during times when horrendous situations befall us, and to protect ourselves from saying something stupid, we say nothing. And that suffices, most of the time. Our presence is more than enough and often that is only what people remember anyway. I remember little of what has been said to me at funerals, but I always remember those that went out of their way to be there.

But that doesn’t mean that preachers and pastoral workers can take the easy way out. Words may not be able to express all that we feel, but they can certainly express something. A friend told me that a mass she attended started with a priest refusing to light the third Gaudete (rejoice) candle for the third Sunday of Advent because we cannot rejoice today.

Yeesh, what an awful message of hopelessness. If I were there I probably would’ve walked out, but not before yelling “BLASPHEMY!”

The truth of the matter is when we don’t have the words to express our feelings the church gives us words. The words of scripture and the gospel and the words that struck me most today are from the gospel from.John the Baptist. Heard in today’s context, they struck me quite differently than usual:

“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

You see we all need to be that herald’s voice today. We all need to shout for joy because The Lord is alive. My grammar school friend Keith Pitts, summed it up greatly today by saying “I’m too blessed to stay stressed!” Note that it says “stay” not “be” because we all become stressed for a variety of reasons but with God we have no reason to stay stressed because God always has the last word.

And we need to share that message of how we can rejoice in the face of such darkness today.

Because God always makes a way out of no way.

Our cloak today is that love that God has offered to us in the darkest moments of our lives that we now share with those who are stuck in darkness. When we see injustice, or worse, when we see people like the Westboro Baptist Church take up their vile words of hatred towards those who are hurt, we need to stand up and say “No, we rejoice in God’s redemption, forgiveness and God’s strength in righting all that hatred tried to upend for us this week.”

Gaudete Sunday is all about words. God’s words that remind us to rejoice because God is with us even in our pain. God is beyond us, somehow holding those who died tightly where no harm will ever come to them again. And God is within us, beckoning us to cloak all those unable to feel God’s love, that Gaudete we speak of, with our own words of healing and touch of understanding their pain.

This was not OK. And today begins our journey to tell the world that God doesn’t think so either.

For tonight…we have only one word. Gaudete …the words of the baptist’s call that God is near and that we need to repent and rejoice…
….and those words of rejoicing are always more than enough.

When It Seems Like the Stars are Falling Out of the Sky

Here is a reflection from last night’s apocalyptic Sunday readings:

Hey! What’s new?

That can be a catch up line…But “what’s new” can also be scary. After all, who knows what day it will be when our world ends? The Mayans tell us that the world will end of December 21, 2012 at 11:11 …I’m not sure if that’s Eastern Standard Time or not–so don’t hold me to that!

And while I’m not buying that prediction and hope you’re not either, it has given me reason to reflect on the question of:

Where will you be when your world ends?

And we can take that any way we wish…because the truth is that your world ends pretty often.

Let’s face it….Your world ends when something unexpected or tragic happens…someone dies, you lose a job, you break up, there’s a hurricane.

What’s new…sometimes is not at all good!

And the truth of today’s readings is not merely to be careful, or even fearful because life can change in a moment’s notice–it’s precisely the opposite.

The message of the Gospel is to live more boldly—not just because our time on earth is fleeting but also because Jesus reminds us that even when our world ends: God is always near, caring for us anyway—making all things new.

For people of faith, even the end of the world is a new beginning.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel:

“In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.”

What a great image because a gate often represents a time of transition. And whenever a gate closes we stand on the opposite side of it at a new beginning. And we have the freedom to go any way we wish and God will be with us on that journey.

And we need to trust that when all kinds of horrible things surround us each day: War, hurricanes, break-ups, deaths…that God continues to be faithful to us.

And that is not an easy thing to remember.

Because in our most challenging moments don’t we often let fear and even hopelessness take the lead? Don’t we often question if God is even there at all? Don’t we fear, just a bit, that when the world ends there just might not be a Jesus on the other side of it all?

Do you know what I fear more than anything else?

That I simply just don’t become forgotten!

And I have some logical reasons to fear that. Because how many of us can remember our great-great-grandparents? Probably very few of us. What about people even older than that in our heritage? Oh sure, we can look up the geneology records but honestly the truth is that most of us will eventually become just like them. Forgotten.

And think that is why we come here. Because God reminds us that becoming forgotten on this earth doesn’t matter.

Because even when our entire generation, all those with first hand knowledge of our very existence passes away… God still remembers us.

What’s even better is that God embraces us, each one of us, and all he asks each one of us to do is to remember that.

And if we do, well, shouldn’t we live a bit more joyfully? Filled with this good news, shouldn’t this call us to not be afraid of what will happen at the end of our world because we know and believe that God makes all things new?

And when we come hear each week, we come not merely to fulfill an obligation out of fear but also, don’t we also come to be reminded of the great hope that God gives us here at this altar where we see God provide for us his body and blood, our reminder to us, that just as God changes bread and wine into His body and His blood, He also changed death into life.

And because God makes all things new again, shouldn’t that call us to do the same?

When tragedy strikes often everyone else tells us we should lay down..but God tells us to get up. Everyone tells us it’s hopeless…God tells us to hope. There is always more to talk about than despair.

These are the last few weeks of our Church calendar. In just two weeks, we move into the season of advent. And what do we do at the end of the year? We make resolutions. We try to die to some old ways of living that aren’t healthy. Lose a few pounds. Eat healthier. Spend more time with family and friends. Get rid of some bad habits. Forgive someone… or ask forgiveness ourselves.

Why do we do that? Because in the deep recesses of our soul we know that we too are called to make all things new. And we need to be mindful of the fact that just as we live a bit more each day, we also die a bit more each day.

So, there’s one question for us to answer tonight: What do you want to make new in your life?

This week know that God is ready to help you make something new on that journey. And even better….

when it seems like the sun has been darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars seem to be falling from the sky,
and one might think that the powers in the heavens have be shaken.

That’s when God is even closer to us, embracing us, and inviting us to stretch ourselves just a bit farther to believe that God still exists at all, despite all the problems we are going to face over the course of our lives.

As we begin to move towards Advent–let us remember that God is already here.

And guess what…that’s nothing new.

To Whom Would You Give Your Right Arm?

A dental student last year asked one of his classmates a provocative question before their big gross anatomy test.

“Linda, would you cut off your “ring finger toe” in exchange for an “A” on this test?”

I quickly pointed out that if he was about to take an anatomy test and the only way he knew how to name a toe was to call it a finger–he was in big trouble.

But nonetheless, Linda pondered the question…

Linda then said “Well…maybe I would do it for an A in the COURSE…but not for one measely test.”

And all their other classmates agreed–amputation for an A.

As their chaplain I felt it my duty to tell them that they are going to freak people out when they wear flip-flops if they start cutting toes off their feet!

But…haven’t we all said things like this?

“I’d give my right arm for….that new car….the new iPad….a lower loan payment….a raise or a promotion….that cute woman or man?

What would you give your right arm for?

You don’t often hear someone say…I’d give my right eye…so children won’t go hungry tonight. Or so my roommate might not be depressed over that bad grade. Or so my neighborhood would be a safer place.

No don’t we leave those things for others to do most of the time? I know I do. I can find a hundred other things to do rather than to help out someone else. And when I see examples of others who do something so magnanimous–I sometimes say ” Oh she’s just trying to act “better than” all the rest of us.

There’s a great story about Mother Teresa, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She was washing the sores of a dying man in the slums and a young american tourist saw this and said, “Man I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!”

And Mother responded “Neither would I… But I would gladly do it for Jesus.”

You see, she wasn’t trying to be “better than” anyone…instead she was “better FOR” the encounter that she had with the Lord when she served the needs of the poor nearby because it was there that she met Jesus.

Now maybe none of us are exactly going to take on a “Mother Teresa-like project” at this point in our university careers or our professional lives, but, maybe we can start becoming a bit more sensitive to others by looking back on our lives and asking ourselves:

What are we “better for?”

What are the moments of our lives that we wouldn’t trade for anything? Maybe they’re simple one like that time you taught your little brother to shoot a basketball for the first time and saw his eyes light up and you were just so grateful to see that? Or maybe it’s the time you comforted your roommate after her boyfriend broke up with her and made her feel better about herself? Maybe you even took her out on the town. Or maybe it was when you studied together with a group of classmates and you all shored up each other’s weaknesses and you all got a better grade because of it? Aren’t we “better for” those moments?

Maybe it’s “a WHO”? Maybe there’s someone that you are just “better for” knowing? For me, Mickey Vertino is one of those people. Mickey worked in the Buffalo prisons for years. He’s had two shoulder surgeries and he has a bad knee and one would think that he would be resting easy in his retirement.

But instead Mickey is working in our neighborhood–trying to revitalize University Heights. We worked with Mickey last weekend down on W. Winspear Ave–making a flower box and clearing brush from the Linear Park pathway. Simple things perhaps, but tough work. And you’d never know Mickey had any kind of surgery because he was lifting heavier things than the rest of us who are a lot younger than he is.

Mickey would give his right arm for this neighborhood.

And because we have him to emulate…doesn’t he stand as a challenge to us and call to us to ask the question:

What would you give your right arm for? Your eye? A hand, that proverbial “ring finger toe”?

Or if that’s too severe—and it is—the question Jesus really is asking us tonight is not really about giving away eyes, or hands or feet… Instead Jesus asks only that we give our HEARTS—and nothing more.

For if we give our hearts–we give all of who we are.

Because we need to see with our hearts–not just our eyes. We need to feel with our hearts, not just our hands, and we need to have our hearts command our feet to take us places that we might not want to go–but when we do, we find we are better for those experiences and it’s there that we bump into God.

Jesus is reminding us that if we just look at suffering in the world and it doesn’t move our heart….well…we might as well tear our eyes out–because they’re not doing us much good.

And we can do this in simple ways…a great example from campus this week…

In our gross anatomy lab, I give out these little stress dolls before the first exam. (He doesn’t look like me AT ALL!) And the students love them—but there’s never enough for everyone. And a student came in late and he was really nervous about the exam and I watched one of our dental students run over to him and he decapitated his doll and hand the head to his classmate and they both calmed down together.

He saw that I caught him doing this and he looked at me and smiled and said “I shared!” I laughed but I want THAT guy to be my dentist! He’s a great and compassionate person. He saw his friend with his heart.

And it’s not just that doing things like this make us feel good…it’s that when we do things like this we find that we live more deeply because we allow God into our hearts and out of that experience—even if it doesn’t make us feel good, if if it’s hard work–God invites us into a deeper way of living. And when we experience that we find our hearts yearning for more of these experiences.

And perhaps that’s why we come here. Because don’t know that yearning already but sometimes need to be reminded (about once a week) that our hearts can indeed stretch much farther than we think they can? And when they do we are better for it and we find God has been lurking in our hearts all along.

And all we have to do to remember that is to look at the altar tonight because there we see God’s heart stretching to us–loving us, forgiving us and offering not just his heart but his body and blood for us. And it is more than enough.

And when we see that it calls us to yearn to offer ourselves, our hearts, and give just a bit more of who we are to those who require just a bit more from us.

Maybe you might give your right arm for that new car? But this week ask yourself this question: “To whom will I give my heart?”

Gross Anatomy Hackey Sack

So today out first year Medical and Dental students took their first big exam in gross anatomy. For longtime readers, you’ll remember that each year I give out these little stress dolls to the students to keep them loose:

He doesn’t look like ME at all. But isn’t he cute? Scrubs, big teeth for the dental students and he’s seriously helpful.

So why do I do this? Well, I know my role as the chaplain of the gross anatomy lab is basically to keep people calm and loose. All of these students have been the smartest student in their class since they were like…well…five years old! And let’s face facts, each time I walk in there I know that this is the closest I’ll ever be to the admissions office of a Medical or Dental School.

But we all have gifts and I know that I have something to offer everyone I serve–even these super smart medical and dental students.

I disarm them with the stress guy–he’s goofy and fun. I chuck them to them as they pass by and it gets them to calm down and simply relax. Once in awhile someone takes things way too seriously and says “no thanks” or “I’m good” and they dive back into their notes. And that’s cool too. For me, the experience is a serious study in human behavior. Some folks have their iPod in ears and they don’t want anyone to get in their zone. Others are mixing it up and telling jokes. Others are drilling each other with names of muscles and arteries. It’s amazing to watch.

Today, I really felt like the chaplain when the second wave of Medical Students showed up for their test. They have to wait for the first section to finish and they get really antsy. So stress guy is a big help to a good deal of them. Last year one student set up a little game where they tried to knock one stress guy doll down with another one. But this year’s group took the cake with stress relieving creativity:

We had Jugglers
We Played Hackey Sack with Stress Guy
He even became a fashion statement in Scrubswear

All in all, it was so much fun. But at the same time, I knew my role and served the needs of the students creatively. And it gets them to open up a bit more to me as well. It even opens them up to one another. One dental student decapitated his stress guy when we were running low on them so that his colleague could use the head while he used the body. He looked at me and said:

“See! I shared! We’re really a team here!” I laughed heartily with them and it brought everyone’s stress level down even further.

A female student who I won’t name to protect her anonymity, started to worry as the time got close to the test. I stood with her for a few minutes and simply comforted her fears. I reminded her that she’s really smart and always has been and just because everyone else here is smart it doesn’t mean that she won’t be successful. The first test is very comprehensive, but it’s not incredibly difficult, according to the other students I’ve been with. I reminded her of that and made her take a deep breath and made her squeeze the heck out of the stress guy who she just loved.

At one point I entered the exam area and she was sitting at a rest stop. She gave me a knowing glance and then a small smile. At the test’s conclusion, she was one of the first people I saw and she thanked me for helping her stay calm. She had thought that she had done pretty well. And I’m proud to just play a small role in that.

Kevin, who works in the lab, was watching the Hackey Sack game break out. An athlete himself, who knows how important exercise is to relieve stress, looked at me and said: “Y’know, anything you can do to help them de-stress is awesome. That little thing was a great idea.”

The lab’s director, Dr. Dannenhoffer is a big fan of “those little cupie dolls” as he calls them and has praised me for the idea before. But today, he said to me, “OH good! You’re here, calming them down today!” That really made me feel like a necessary part of the team. Dr. DiLugos another member of the staff said, “Hope you don’t have to pick anyone up off the floor today–but I’m glad you’re here just in case you do!” Then we laughed a bit.

There’s an old spiritual maxim that I try to live by and it is simply this:

“Ministry is about doing small things with great joy and thoughtfulness. And then praying that God provides the rest.”

And today friends, God did just that.

For them… and for me.