Sunday, November 16, 2014

Messy Spirituality

                I cleaned my chicken coop this weekend.  When I said those words to a colleague a few years ago, she looked at me and said, “I can’t picture you messy.”  Now, of course, she was used to seeing me in a business suit playing lawyer all day, and she’d never been to my home on chicken coop cleaning day.  But that weekend and this past weekend, I was messy, very messy – covered head to toe in dust, pine shavings and, you guessed it, chicken s**t.  But believe it or not, even cleaning a chicken coop can be an exercise in spirituality, chicken s**t notwithstanding.  Let’s call it “messy spirituality.”

                Life is messy.  Kids are messy; pets are messy; adults are messy and relationships are messy.  We've all seen things that made us want to gouge our eyes out, heard things that made us stick our fingers in our ears and sing “LA LA LA LA” as loud as we can, smelled things that gave new meaning to the “bowels of the earth,” and experienced things that were never explained in life’s instruction manual.  Life is messy, but we deal with it.  And that’s where spirituality comes in.

                As I've said before, I define spirituality as “connectedness”:  connectedness with each other; connectedness with our world and all that’s in it; and, for those who believe, connectedness with God.  Spirituality gives us a sense of responsibility or stewardship for something or someone outside of ourselves.  Spirituality is what makes us get out of a warm, cozy bed at three in the morning to comfort a febrile child who just puked her Spaghetti-O dinner all over her bed and stuffed animals, meatballs and all.  Spirituality helps us remain charitable to the homeless person who’s gone longer than recommended without a bath.  Spirituality keeps us at the bedside of a dying friend when every fiber of our being wants to run away and hide.  Without spirituality, every man would be an island, John Donne notwithstanding.  But we’re not, we’re all connected.  We’re all spiritual. 

                Spirituality isn't reserved for the neat and tidy places of our lives.  It doesn't hang in the closet with our fancy clothes waiting to be trotted out on Sundays.  No, spirituality is probably at its best in the messiest parts of our lives.  That’s when connections really matter.  That’s when we need others most; that’s when we’re most needed.  It’s a matter of recognizing the spirituality of our messiness and in our messiness.  It’s a matter of bringing our messiness to the messiness of others so we can be messy together, so we can understand that we’re not alone in our messiness.  So we can help each other through it and maybe help clean each other up.  That's exactly what God asks us to do.  He asks us to help him clean up this world and all in it, so we can enjoy his creation as he intended us to. 
                I can’t say that I was looking for a spiritual exercise when I set out to clean my chicken coop.  But somewhere in the scooping, scrubbing and spraying I felt a sense of purpose and, ultimately, accomplishment.  Even chickens, who generously provide me with the best eggs I've ever eaten, deserve to be clean, comfortable and healthy.  Yes, they’re messy, like a lot of people I know, but they need my respect and care, like a lot of people I know.  I’m blessed to know a lot of messy people and grateful that they've shared their messiness with me.  They help me help understand that I’m not alone in my messiness.  We're messy together, and we help clean each other up.  I believe that God introduced me to these people for a reason, and I feel a special connection with each one of them.  Our interactions are exercises in spirituality, albeit, messy spirituality.

To learn more about "messy spirituality," I recommend the book, Messy Spirituality, by Michael Yaconelli.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hopeful People - Homily for All Souls' Day

          A few years ago, my cousin Jason discovered that our Great Great Great Grandfather died during the Civil War.  William Meyer joined the New Jersey 13th Regiment when it was mustered in Newark on August 25, 1862.  With only one month of training, the New Jersey 13th was assigned to the Army of the Potomac’s XII Corps and was sent to the battle of Antietam.  It later fought at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and Chattanooga, where William died and was buried in 1864.  William was never mentioned in our family stories.  I had never heard of him before Jason’s discovery, let alone that he was a Union soldier who died in the service of our country.  I’m very proud of that fact, but learning about William had a greater impact on me than just pride.  I felt a connection with someone I've never met:  a family connection, a patriotic connection, a spiritual connection.  And I live in great hope for the day when I can meet my Great Great Great Grandfather William face to face.  I can hope for that day because we Christians are hopeful people.  That’s what All Souls’ Day is all about, and our readings tell us why.

          On its face, All Soul’s day sounds like a consolation prize.  On November 1, we celebrate the Saints, those who've made it to heaven!  On November 2, everybody else.  It sounds a little like the participation trophy that every kid gets at the awards ceremony.   But All Souls’ Day isn't a day set aside for those who didn't make it to heaven, it’s the day we remember all who have died – those of happy memory, and those who may have slipped from our earthly memory with the passage of time, like William.  It’s a day to connect with our ancestors, but most importantly, it’s the day we come together as a hopeful people to celebrate our hope in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.  

          So what makes us so hopeful?  Let’s look at our readings.  Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom is a statement of hope.  “This pericope clearly says that death is not the end but a passage into peace in the presence of God.”[1]  The beautiful 23rd Psalm reminds us that we “shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.”  And in our Gospel, Jesus assures us that he will not reject anyone who comes to him and that it’s the Father’s will that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.  “When these texts are read in the light of All Souls, a common denominator is what the Catholic funeral Mass asserts:  ‘Life is not ended but changed.’”[2]  So we have every reason to hope, a hope, in Saint Paul’s words, that “does not disappoint.”

          We have every reason to hope.  The hope that Paul speaks of is assured.  God doesn't renege on his promises.  God’s love for us is reliable; it doesn't ebb and flow with changing circumstances because God can’t change.  “In sending the greatest gift of all, his Son who would die for us, God set no conditions.  God’s love is given freely – all we need to do is accept it.” [3] 

          But accepting it isn't always easy.  We get distracted by the many challenges of earthly life.  We lose hope as we face insult and injury, poverty and despair, sickness and death.  We lose courage and conviction as our secular society treats our hope as foolish or superstitious.  But living in hope is nothing to be ashamed of.  Christian living is often paradoxical and difficult, but it’s also a life of great joy, of selfless charity and of infinite love.  This is the faith that’s been handed onto us by our ancestors.  The ancestors we honor today.  It’s something to be proud of.  So when we feel like we’re losing hope, let’s turn to the faith of our fathers and hope together as hopeful people.

          Every time we remember those who've gone before us, we invite God into our lives.  Our memory is prayer; our memory is communion, expressed so beautifully in our Eucharistic Prayer when we pray “Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection, and all who have died in your mercy:  welcome them into the light of your face.”[4]  In prayer, we enter into communion with God, with each other and with all he has joined to himself.  In prayer, we come together as hopeful people.

          When my wife Jessica was pregnant with both of our daughters, we had a really tough time picking out a boy’s name.  Well guess what:  the only boy’s name we ever agreed upon was William.  To our knowledge at that time, neither one of us had a William in the family (Jason hadn't found William Meyer yet).  We just liked the name.  It spoke to us.  So when we learned of William Meyer’s honored place in our family tree, we mused that if we had had a son, he would have been named after William, whether we knew it or not.  I don’t believe in coincidences, but I do believe in connections – especially spiritual connections.  And I do believe that William and all our dearly departed speak to us, and pray with us as we wait, together, in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior.  We can believe this, and we can hope for that day because we are hopeful people.

Readings:  Wisdom 3: 1-9; Psalm 23; Romans 5: 5-11; John 6: 37-40

[1] Patricia Datchuk Sánchez, “Remembering and Celebrating Our Own,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 50, no. 26 (October 10-23, 2014) at 31.
[2] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers:  On Earth as It Is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 237.
[3] Graziano Marcheschi and Nancy Seitz Marcheschi, Workbook for Lectors, Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word, 2014 (Chicago, Liturgy Training Publications, 2013) at 281.
[4] Eucharistic Prayer II.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What’s All the Hubbub, Bub?

Bugs Bunny:  [watching the Gremlin try to detonate a bomb with a mallet] “What’s all the hubbub, bub?”

Gremlin:  “Shh.  These blockbuster bombs don’t go off unless you hit them just right.”

Bugs Bunny:  “Yeah?”

Gremlin:  “Yeah.”

          I thought of this classic Looney Tunes dialogue as I read the press reports about Pope Francis’ most recent statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences about evolution and the Big Bang Theory.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s what the Pope said:
The beginning of the world is not the work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Origin that creates out of love.  The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it.  The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.[1]
          Though I hate to interfere with a good story, the Pope’s statement is no blockbuster bombshell; in fact, it’s not even news.  In 1951, Pope Pius XII gave a speech to the very same Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled The Proofs for the Existence of God in the Light of Modern Natural Science, in which he acknowledged that the Theory of the Expanding Nature of the Universe, now known as the Big Bang Theory, did not contradict Catholic beliefs on creation.  As an interesting aside, a Catholic priest, Father Georges Lemaître, SJ, first proposed what would become the Big Bang Theory in 1927.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  Likewise, in 1950, Pope Pius XII stated that Catholic doctrine does not preclude the possibility of evolution in his encyclical Humani Generis.[2]  Subsequent Popes, including Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis, have confirmed these teachings.

          It seems that the swirl surrounding the Pope’s recent speech is the result of a lack of understanding of Catholic beliefs.  Catholics believe that we need both faith and reason to understand our world and our God (to the extent we can understand God).  As Pope John Paul II so beautifully put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”[3]  Catholics are not asked to check our brains at the door when it comes to faith.  We believe that God gave us brains to use them, even in contemplating God.  Just the same, we can't turn a blind eye to faith as we contemplate the world and its Creator through the lens of the sciences.

          So while Catholics believe that the Bible conveys God’s truth, we do not believe that every story is necessarily literally true (as some Christian denominations do).  We view the Bible as a library, not as a book.  Like a library, the Bible contains different genres of literature: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, allegory, etc.  Why would God limit his inspiration to non-fiction writers alone when truth can be conveyed so beautifully in so many different styles of literature?  If our reason tells us (or science proves, if you will) that a particular story cannot be literally true, we look at it as another form of literature while searching for the truth God intends to convey through it.  For example, science has shown that dinosaurs preceded humans by tens of millions of years.  That means that the world and all living creatures could not have been created in six days, as the Book of Genesis tells us. So while the Genesis creation stories (note that there are two that contradict each other in some respects) may not be literally true, they do convey the truth that God created the heavens and the earth and all things visible and invisible.

          So the reality is, the press didn't hit it just right.  Pope Francis hasn't said anything controversial or even new. So what’s all the hubbub, bub?

[1] Pope Francis, Discourse of Pope Francis on the Occasion of the Dedication of the Bust in Honor of Pope Benedict XVI at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (October 27, 2014).
[2] Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1950).
[3] Pope John Paull II, Fides et Ratio (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998).

God loves you, and the Holy Spirit is the love of God.

God wants to change your life with his Holy Spirit. Our powerful mini-retreat, "Who is the Holy Spirit?", begins this Saturday morning, November 1st at 9:30 am in the parish hall.  A breakfast buffet, refreshments and fellowship will be served.  Our presenter for this morning with the Holy Spirit will be Deacon Mike Meyer. Please accept this invitation to draw closer to the Lord with your ICC brothers and sisters.  Visit our parish website at for easy online registration.  Contact Marianne Tasy at: for more information. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Moments of Grace

Last night we had a sleepover birthday party for my youngest daughter and seven of her friends.  Now, those of you with tweens and those of you who work with them may be scratching your heads trying to figure out how a sleepover birthday party involving eight girls could ever be the subject of a blog posting about “Moments of Grace.”  I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let me explain what I mean by “moments of grace.”

Grace is the free and undeserved gift of God’s love that is constantly and eternally poured out for each and every one of us.  As Sister Kathleen Flanagan, S.C. so aptly puts it, “grace is a share in God’s divine life.”  So when I talk about “moments of grace,” I’m not suggesting that there are times when God sends forth his grace upon us and times when he doesn't.  I’m talking about the times when we recognize that a particular moment is an act of God’s grace; the times we plug into God’s ever-present grace, acknowledge it and appreciate it for the free gift that it is:
+ Seeing a beautiful sunset and knowing with every ounce of conviction that God made it just for you;

+ Choking up at the sound of your favorite hymn that God seems to send your way whenever you need it most;

+ Holding your newborn baby that you never knew you could love so much and realizing that God has entrusted you with the awesome gift of life.

These moments of grace are always out there for the taking; we just have to notice them and enjoy them.

            In fact, just today I've experienced several moments of grace.  When I took a hard fall early this morning, three parishioners rushed to my side to make sure I was OK, helped me up and carried my belongings into the rectory.  Following Mass, another parishioner gave me a huge bear hug and told me that it was great to see me.  Then, two dear friends thanked me and told me that they loved me after I had the great privilege of baptizing their newborn son.  To top it off, I spent quality time talking and laughing with my daughters as I taught them how to make spaghetti with meat sauce.  In each instance, I knew with all my heart that God’s love was in and around me, shaping these moments into precious gifts of grace.
            So why so many moments of grace in one day?  Well, as I said, grace is offered to us constantly; we just have to take the time to notice it.  So the real question is why did I notice so many moments of grace in one day?  Well, that’s because I had experienced an incredible, unexpected moment of grace the night before, which finally brings me to the sleepover birthday party. 

            Once all the guests arrived, it was time for pizza.  The girls were really hungry, so they rushed the kitchen to fill their plates, chatting and laughing their way back to the dining room table to chow down.  And then it happened, with no prompting from anyone, not even from the Deacon, the chatter stopped.  The girls said grace:  Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord.  Amen.  Eight preteens, on their own initiative, put the party on hold to thank God for the food before them and to ask for his blessing.  It was powerful.  It was beautiful.  It was a moment of grace.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Today is my day – Ironman Chattanooga

Nope, not my day - I certainly didn't complete an Ironman Race!  I'm lending the Ambo to my good friend Deacon John Broehl, who needed a little blog real estate (OK, a lot of blog real estate) to publish his post-race report.  I'm very proud of Deacon John, not only for completing the race and living to tell about it, but especially for leveraging his training to raise money for Make-A-Wish Foundation and becoming the top fundraiser at Ironman Chattanooga.  Congratulations, brother!  I'll put your funeral homily away for another day.

For those of you who are visiting the Ambo for the first time, I hope you'll take a little time to check out some of the other postings.  You may particularly like Never Entirely Satisfied - my theological explanation for why we set goals for ourselves, even crazy goals like competing in Ironman races!

Much peace,
Deacon Mike

Today is my day – Ironman Chattanooga

 by Deacon John Broehl

The Weekend that Almost Wasn't:  Normally, a report like this starts with the actual weekend.  However, this is too scary not to share.  The Wednesday we were to leave for Chattanooga, I had decided to go into the office for just a bit to wrap up some loose ends before my week’s vacation.  Needing to ask an employee some last minute questions, I had gone out into the yard.  Now, if you can imagine, our shop for a 30 minute stretch looks like ants on a piece of food.  There are over thirty men moving in all directions readying their trucks for the day.  While the need to back up a truck during this time is rare, because of the “craziness” of this time period, I have a rule:  no one is to back-up a truck or trailer without their work partner standing on the back corner of that vehicle for the safety of the employees and the safety of our equipment.

On this particular morning, I exited the garage to see immediately in front of me an idling rack truck parked in a very bad spot.  I looked for the driver and did not see him.  As I walked along the truck to the rear to see if he was done loading, he was actually walking along the other side.  The two of us could not see each other as the back of the truck is solid, twelve feet long, and about eight feet high.  At the back of the truck, I paused for a moment to scan the yard and see where he was.  In what seemed like a split second, I had gotten my answer as the truck was thrown into reverse and I was hit.
Shaken, I headed back to my office as the feeling of adrenaline from being hit, overcame the feeling of pain and tears.  On the way in, a dear friend and office manager was rushing out as she had just witnessed the accident on her computer via the security camera system.  I made my way to my office and closed the door.  As the feeling of pain in my back set in, I said a prayer knowing that this all could have been a whole lot worse.  I knew that tightness would set in over the next day or two.  However, I also know that this would not stop me from “toeing the line” in four days’ time.  Talk about cutting it close!  The only worse feeling than actually hitting your boss with a truck could be the actual feelings of seeing everything disappear in a flash the morning that I was to leave.
Overview:  The weekend could not have gone any better.  Although I was on edge, my family seemed to easily understand the circumstances and just as they had done for an entire year – they understood and they supported.  Although I had come to the feeling that our journey was already a huge success in the back of my mind I could not help but feel as if an entire year’s worth of training had come down to one single day.  I tried to concentrate on the fact that Maria’s trip was granted, the community had sent Maria and me an overflow of love and support, and by the Grace of God I had been delivered safely and healthy through a year’s worth of training and to the starting line.  Journey of Hope and Dreams was indeed a huge success, at this point an Ironman finish would be the “icing on the cake”.

It was not just me; my entire family was overflowing with a mixture of exhaustion from the entire year, excitement and nervousness for the big race, and fear of the unknown.  However, I believe that out of this crazy mix of emotions surfaced a celebratory feeling.  It had been a long year of work-outs, with the last nine months consuming about eighteen hours per week for the eight required work-outs.  Over the last year I had covered 4548 miles in 316 workouts consuming over 500 hours of my precious time.  Now, in the blink of an eye all that was behind us and we were in Chattanooga readying ourselves for the hardest multi-sport event around.  It truly was time to celebrate and this celebration would stretch over the entire weekend, including the race and beyond.

Pre-Race:  The usual Ironman race weekend consists of walking through Ironman Village, checking in, picking up one’s race bib and timing chip, purchasing long awaited race merchandise, checking in your bike, setting up transitions, the welcome banquet, along with a quick practice swim and bike ride to loosen up and burn off some jitters.
However, for my family, Friday and Saturday were about so much more than the normal check in and set up.  I had been excited for a pair of other race related gifts.  As the top fundraiser, I had been invited to sit with the professionals on the question and answer panel where I would have a chance to share a little about our Make-a-Wish story.  I would be a sort of representative of the average Ironman athlete who would train while balancing a family, job, and other responsibilities.  In addition, I was blessed to have my path cross with a Catholic priest who would also be competing.  He would be celebrating Mass on Saturday evening in a tiny church at the top of Look Out Mountain with a special intention and blessing for those who would racing.  The Pastor of the Church was funny, as he continued to escalate in nervousness as more and more people showed up for Mass.  This small congregation’s Mass probably consisted of about a dozen families – all of whom dressed in their “Sunday best”.  The race families more than doubled the size of the crowd, which put the attendance to half of a normal Saturday evening where I am assigned.  Father Vic delivered a fantastic homily that started out with him poking fun at the athletes’ fears from training to tapering to the worries of getting sick.  Even better, he tied the Ironman race back to Gospel reading using the race as a metaphor for us not stopping, that we need to continue to push forward in bringing about the kingdom of God no matter how we may feel.  After Mass, Father delivered a special and very meaningful blessing to all those who were to be participating in the race.  Going to Mass always helps to put me in a special frame of mind.  Thanks to Father Vic, this weekend was no different, but maybe a little more meaningful considering the circumstances.  These two special events were obvious reminders to me that this weekend was about so much more than the race and we were all enjoying it.

The banquet dinner was exciting as thousands of athletes and their supporters gathered in celebration.  The speakers and videos were exciting and inspiring.  For the first time I became comfortable with Little Debbie sponsoring the race as the CEO had delivered a great speech acknowledging how strange the partnership was from the products they produced versus the typical athlete’s diet and the tough Ironman image versus the cute Little Debbie girl image.  As he explained, it all comes down to a healthy life style and consuming “even Little Debbie products in moderation”.

The Bike of all Bikes; QR PR SIX:  Earlier in the day I had been mesmerized by a triathlon bike that was on display:  a 2015 Quintana Roo.  As it turned out, they were raffling off this high quality bike.  Every time I walked by the table I thought about buying tickets, but decided each time "not to waste my money".  However, at the athlete’s banquet, Mike Reilly had plugged the bike raffle one last time as the funds were to help support the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.  So, during the break, Jacqueline and I made our way out back to buy some tickets.  I spoke to the gentleman a little bit more about the bike to find that the raffle was actually for the bike frame valued at $4,500.  It was an awful hot looking bike frame and Jacqueline had convinced me to purchase a few extra tickets; “it’s a better deal when you buy the extra tickets” she explained. 

When the drawing came I handed a few tickets to Nora, a few to Jacqueline, and I kept a few for myself.  I leaned over to tell Nora that I actually felt like I had a good chance of winning (why not, after all this was “my weekend”).  My words were still hanging in the air like some type of balloon when Jacqueline started hyper-ventilating. DADDY! DADDY! YOU WON! YOU WON!  I grabbed the tick, jumped from my seat yelling and throwing my hands in to the air.  As people cheered and congratulated me, Mike Reilly, reminded me that I had to come up to verify the ticket.  Oops!  All of a sudden it occurred to me that I had never actually checked the ticket myself and I became scared that Jacqueline may have made a mistake.  As it turned out, Jacqueline knew exactly what she was talking about and once the ticket was verified I once again threw both hands in the air absorbing the cheers and fun of my new QR PR Six frame.

Race Sleep?:  I had this illusion that the night before I would be in bed nice and early, at least resting.  As it turned out the weekend was way too full with activities and the busyness of it all would land me in bed a little after 10 pm.  “Not horrible,” I thought, as I piled up my pillows.  I could push my alarm back to 4 am, and actually score a solid six hours of sleep.  Wrong again.  Tired as I was, just four hours later I was lying wide awake.  I did not think that I was feeling overly nervous, but I guess that I was nervous enough that my sleep for the night was done – I would go on less than four hours.  I knew that I could do the distance; I had exceeded my training plan, I was ready physically and I thought that I was relatively relaxed mentally.   However, there was still the unknown.  I have learned that finishing an Ironman is about more than doing the distance; it is about overcoming whatever the day would throw at you along the way.  Equipment failure, flat tire, broken chain, cramping, vomiting from nutrition or lack thereof, taking a shot during the swim,  bike crash, ...these are some of the unknown that many athletes would have to overcome.

Race Day:  I was out of bed at 4 am and on a shuttle on my way to the transition sites by 4:45 am.  After double checking everything that I had previously set up, I got some air in my tires and set up my nutrition.  Now my nerves were really working.  The race was getting “real” at this point.  I stopped to take a deep breath when I heard; “Deacon John! HEY, Deacon John!”  A special volunteer who had helped check me in had recognized me.  She invited me over to her group of friends that were volunteering.  As we all spoke, I started to feel at ease again. 

This is where I must tell you that four thousand five hundred volunteers are needed to pull off a full size Ironman event.  Every single one of them was enthusiastic, helpful, and polite.  They were there for the athlete’s every need, and expressed their thanks to the athletes continuously throughout the day for coming to their hometown to compete.  While it was the volunteers that the athletes needed to thank, southern hospitality was in full force throughout the entire day.

With my nerves eased, I found my “brother” Glen and headed off to board the bus to the starting line.  On the bus, I thought about everyone who had supported our work for Maria and my training for this event.  I knew so many people would be tracking me throughout the day.  I closed my eyes and started to absorb their thoughts and prayers. 

Once at the start we had over two hours of sitting in line on the cold sidewalk waiting for the race to begin.  We were soon joined by my wife, two of my children, and some dear friends who came in to support me.  It was strange that with all this sitting around, that I had not wasted much energy being overly nervous until the final thirty minutes or so.  Finally, it was time.  As we started to make our way to the water I stopped and readied myself mentally.  I had one last chance to wrap my mind around what I was actually about to attempt.  As I focused, I turned my nervousness into determination.  Jogging in a mass group down the path to the water entry I spotted Nora and the girls along the fence.  I slowed for a second, looked at Nora and proclaimed:  "TODAY'S MY DAY BABY, TODAY'S MY DAY!"

Swim 2.4 Miles:  I never really got comfortable in the swim.  There was an awful lot of bumping and hitting and the crowd never really seemed to thin out.  It was not until late in the swim that I had become comfortable with my stroke and before I knew it I was under the third bridge and on my way to the exit.  Coming out of the water, I continued to scan the crowds for my family as I ran down the river’s edge toward the transition area. No luck, as it turned out the race directors suggestion of the families walking back along the river walk instead of taking the bus was a bad idea.  The paths were winding back and forth and the swimmers actually arrived to the swim exit faster than their families could walk there.

I grabbed my transition bag and headed into the changing tent where it seemed almost impossible for a barefooted swimmer to run in while cyclists were heading out and not have your feet stepped on by someone with cycling cleats.  I took my time, did a complete change as I wanted to be comfortable on the one-hundred-sixteen mile ride that lie ahead.  I got up to leave and realized that I was heading out holding my wet suit and was leaving my riding helmet and gloves behind on the chairs.  At this point I decided that I was still a little woozy from the swim and decided to sit back down for a few more minutes.  Once clear, I packed my bags properly, gathered my belongings and headed for the bike.  Checking the time on my way out did not seem real.  With a goal swim time of 80 minutes, I must have smashed it!  I did indeed, 56:27 to be exact.  As I headed out onto the bike I felt even more at ease knowing that with the excellent swim time in the books that I would have additional time for the bike.

Cycle 116 Miles:  Yes, normally and Ironman has a one hundred twelve mile bike.  However it was announced that this would be four miles longer due to permitting issues.  While the roads would not be closed, the cyclist would be given the right-a-way at every intersection by the different town’s police departments. 

Right from the start I cycled differently, I needed a different mind set.  The mileage all of a sudden seemed burdensome in my mind, so I broke it up.  Right from the start I keep telling myself to concentrate on just getting to mile ten.  Once I hit mile ten, I just concentrated on getting to mile twenty, and so on and so on.  I was feeling good and anticipating passing my family around mile fifty.  As I approached and could hear them, I thrust my fist into the air and yelled back to them once again; “TODAY IS MY DAY, TODAY IS MY DAY!” 

On the following miles I needed to concentrate even more.  I had a fantastic pace of around seventeen miles per hour for the first half but I was fading fast and needed to work harder and harder to maintain my pace.  I had to really focus.  Anytime anything other than pushing down, pulling up, or of getting to the next mile marker entered my head I quickly dismissed it.  There was no room to think about anything else.  Later in the ride I would break my goals up to even smaller amounts.  Just get to mile sixty-six and then mile seventy, mile seventy-six, then eighty, then eighty-six…. while I was suffering, it seemed much easier to handle setting much smaller goals.

With approximately sixty to ninety minutes to go in the ride, I realized that there was an outside chance that I could get under seven hours.  I do not know why I cared, this was never a goal, but all of a sudden it mattered to me.  Although my MPH splits were dropping, I only cared about getting in less than seven hours.  I convinced myself that I would not care what happened on the run, I just needed to get in less than seven hours.  I pushed with all my heart along the way back constantly ignoring my heart rate and nutrition.  I kept pushing the pace to each small block of five or six mile increments until I once again threw my hands in the air yelling; “NAILED IT!” to a time of 6:53:52.
Dropping off my bike and heading back to transition and into the changing tents again, it easily occurred to me I had the swim of my life and I just followed it up with the bike of my life.  Could I follow it up with a similar run?  In my mind I quickly calculated that all in told I would need about a 5:30 marathon to blow the doors off of this and come in under fourteen hours.  This seemed awfully tough knowing that the course was extremely hilly and I was having trouble walking.  However, now I had a new goal.

The Run:  Heading into the tent, I spotted Kristen and Jacqueline on the far fence.  As they jumped up and down cheering I stopped and called out to them:  “TODAY IS MY DAY, I’M TELLING YOU, I AM MAKING TODAY MY DAY!”  I would see them again on the way out where I could give them a hug and a kiss, but now it was done.  I had my new goal, I was onto a new mind set, and I suddenly realized that I had a new mantra as well:  Today is my day.

In the changing tent, I would once again give up time on the clock for comfort as I did a complete change.  In the midst of the change, while completely naked, I heard someone calling “Deacon John, Hey Deacon John!”  Sweaty, smelly, and completely naked was not the ideal time for someone to recognize me.  Embarrassed as I could be, I looked up to see Father Vic heading out of the tent.  He yelled back some good luck sentiments and was on his way.

As I headed out onto the course, the mileage once again seemed daunting.  I decided to use my new found thought process and just kept telling myself to get to the first aid station.  These stations would be just about every mile, so I could use them as small individual goals.  I just kept telling myself, “just get to the aid station, don’t stop, keep moving forward…just get to the next station.”  I refused to think of it as “miles”; I would only look at it as getting to an aid station.  Over and over I used the same thought process.  When my aching mind refused to let me concentrate on my running, I tried praying.  I prayed decades of the rosary counting off the Hail Marys on my fingers.  I prayed for Father Vic, I prayed for Glen, I prayed in thanksgiving for the community over the year, and I prayed in thanksgiving for the love and support of my beautiful family.  

When things got extremely tough, I was selfish.  Often in other smaller races I would use others as motivation.  For example, not wanting my daughters to see me quit (quitting is not always dropping from the race, often it is not putting forth the effort to avoid discomfort or pain) or wanting to set an example for them, etc.  However, not today.  I kept telling myself that today was about only me.  That I, and I alone, had the choice to try to crush this Ironman or let this Ironman crush me.  Everyone, including myself would be happy with just getting to the finish line.  However, now that I had a new goal, I myself would live with the results and the effort level for the rest of my life.  Right now finishing was not good enough.  I needed to knock this race out of the park or explode trying.  It was up to me and me alone. 

I continued with my goal from aid station to aid station.  At each I stopped and made myself consume something “solid”.  The bike leg was all liquid nutrition – this meant that I was almost twenty-four hours with eating just a pair of bananas pre-race and putting my body through hell in the process.  Although I was not hungry in the least, at every station I grabbed a hand full of pretzels, a few oranges, or banana chunks.  I forced them down trying to suppress the feeling that I would vomit them up.  In addition, to a handful of food on the go, I also left each station with ice water in one hand and chicken broth in the other.  It was a strange feeling; my body was chilly for what I was putting it through but I was also easily dehydrated.  I drank the cup of soup and carried with me the ice folding over the top of the paper cup so that I could continually suck on ice along the way. 

My thought process of “I am going to blow the doors off this race” came to a crashing halt.  Heavy rain moved in and out, I was shivering, my shoes were heavy, I was spent and I knew that I was slowly losing another toenail.  I did not get running again out of an aid station and decided to walk up a small but very steep hill.  I was not disappointed that I had exploded.  I knew that I just wanted to give absolutely everything I had – and I did, I had given it my all.  As I got to the top of the hill and looked around the corner there was a sign.  Now the course is jammed with signs of encouragement everywhere, but this one was meant just for me.  It read very simply: “Today is Your Day!”  I had a feeling of calm and warm come over me.  I literally fought back the tears as I felt a resurgence of energy.  This sign was nothing less than a gift, a gift meant for me alone.  I had fallen apart some over the last few miles and I would have some making up to do, but I was ready again.  I would need to concentrate, be faster, and get tougher…I am ready - here I come!

Miles eight to thirteen were extremely hilly, and we would repeat these hills again later in the race, but I was unfazed.  Most people were walking these monsters but I was on a mission and would take joy and energy from passing so many people on the hills.  I used this as encouragement; it gave me strength, as I looked forward to seeing my sign again on the second loop – today was indeed to be my day.  Marathon 5:23:19.  Along the way I learned something about myself.  I had learned another side of me.  I had not just spoken about mind set and determination – I had lived it, I had lived it to the max.    

The Finish:  There came a time around mile twenty-three that it hit me, the end was insight.  Not that the finish line was ever in doubt, but now the finish was in reach.  I began to cry in relief.  I ran on while crying thinking about seeing my family at the finish, I ran on crying about the feeling of relief and the accomplishments over the last year.  At mile twenty-four or so I could begin to hear the crowds and could hear Mike Reilly calling off people’s names.  Around mile twenty-five something even more extraordinary happened I was in the midst of the cheering crowds that I could hear crossing the bridge.

The streets were lined with people, I mean absolutely packed with cheering fans.  They stepped out into the street just to touch you.  They yelled words of encouragement and screamed desperately for a simple high-five.  With about a half mile to go, I thrust my hands into the air and the crowd exploded.  I ran with my hand in the air as the crowds became louder and louder.  They became so loud that I could no longer run with my feet on the ground - I was leaping into the air over and over again.  As I entered the chutes with about a quarter mile to go, I leapt over and over again in joy throwing my hands into the air, high-fiving the fans and absorbing every shout of encouragement and every cheer.

I made my way down the entire shoot in this fashion.  There was no pain, there was no discomfort, there was just pure exhilarating joy.  As I approached the finish line I heard Mike Reilly clear as day; “Deacon John Broehl, alright Deacon John Broehl…from New Jersey…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.” 

Post Race:  In the finisher shoot I received my medal and saw Jacqueline and Kristen screaming from the side.  In their embrace I had broken down into tears.  I was not hungry, I was not thirsty; I only wanted to get to Nora.  Nora had been saving seats for our family at the finish line since the early morning.  My total time 13:36:15 was about two and half hours faster than I had ever imagined.  Suddenly, my time didn’t matter at this point, I was with Nora again and all seemed right.

Extra Finish:  My family and I spent the next two and half hours hanging over the barriers, banging on the wooden signs to the beat of the music.  It was a giant party like one you could only experience if you or a loved one had just accomplished such a feat.  We yelled and screamed and cheered for each additional finisher as they earned the elusive title of “Ironman”.  We knew exactly what they had gone through, we knew exactly what it took, we knew that each time someone crossed that line that a piece of us was crossing along with them. 

In the End:  In the end, the weekend was so much more than I could have ever imagined.  It was a non-stop celebration of our many blessings.  I was recently asked if I was really sore trying to move around over the past week.  My response was simple:  “In order for me to feel the pain and soreness, I would have to actually stop walking on air.” 

Thank you for your love and support over the last year.  Together we have one more stop; a check presentation to the Make-A-Wish foundation!  The best may still be yet to come.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Does Jesus Matter?

Deacon Mike Meyer will be speaking on the topic of "Why Does Jesus Matter?" as part of the Discovering Christ program:  Friday October 3 at 7:15 pm in the Parish Hall of  Immaculate Conception Church, 316 Old Allerton Road, Annandale, NJ.

My remarks from this evening's talk on "Why Does Jesus Matter?" follow:

            Several years ago, a good friend explained something about God that really resonated with me.  She told me that our triune God has something for everyone.    Some of us relate more closely with God the Father – our provider and protector; others are drawn to Jesus our brother – our companion on the journey through life; some are attracted to the Holy Spirit – the still soft voice that speaks to us in the silence of our hearts.  Our attraction to different images of God can change as we face different challenges and experiences in our lives.  This explanation resonated with me because I was suffering from a self-imposed Trinitarian guilt-trip.  You see, I’ve always been very focused, very attracted to the image of God the Father, the Almighty One, to the point that I felt that somehow I was neglecting the other two persons of the Holy Trinity.  Now, of course, God is one so devotion to one person of the Trinity is devotion to all, but I am Catholic so I quickly seize any opportunity to feel guilty about something. 

            So imagine how I felt when I was asked to speak about why Jesus matters.  Sure, I’ve studied the theology, and I do believe that I have a personal relationship with Christ, but my relationship with Christ rests securely in the perspective that theologians call “High Christology” or Christology from Above” -  I relate with the divinity of Christ more than with the humanity of Christ.  Just listen to me, I use the title Christ much more than I his name – Jesus.  So my initial reaction to being asked to speak about why Jesus matters was a feeling of inadequacy.  I felt like I couldn’t do the subject justice.  I felt a little out of my element.  And the guilt came flooding back in.  But after I reviewed the Discovering Christ materials, I realized that the answer to the question, “Why does Jesus Matter?” lies right in my sweet spot.  Jesus matters because Jesus is God.

            The people at Discovering Christ did some “man on the street” interviews to find out how people responded to the question:  Who is Jesus?  As you can imagine, the answers varied greatly.  One man said that Jesus is God’s Son who “saved man,” air quotes and all.  Another man referred to Jesus as his higher power; the one I believe in; the beginning and the end.  A college-aged student said that Jesus was an influential person who may have been fiction.  One woman identified Jesus as the person we can all look forward to meeting when we die, and another woman said, “I’d rather not talk about it.  A Jewish man understood Jesus as a Jew who set up a new Jewish sect, and a young woman called Jesus a figment of the imagination.  As you can see, to some, Jesus matters; to others, he doesn’t.  Well, if you believe that Jesus was just a good man, a great teacher or a great moral example, as many do, then Jesus doesn’t matter.  He’s no different from any other good man – like Martin Luther King, Jr.; or any other great teacher – like Socrates; or any other great moral example – like Mother Teresa.  Not to downplay the significant contributions of each of these people, but the fact is that we have lots of them.  If that’s all that Jesus is, he’s not unique; he doesn’t matter.  But if Jesus is God, then he not only matters, but he matters a lot; he’s all that matters.

So why do we believe that Jesus is God?  Well, there are easy answers, and there are more challenging answers.  We can find both easy and challenging answers in Scripture.  So let’s start with some easy answers.  The Gospels tell us of the many miracles performed by Jesus during his short life.  In Matthew Chapter 8, we hear of Jesus’ authority over nature as he calms the raging sea that threatens to sink the disciples’ boat.  (Matthew 8: 25-27)  John Chapter 11 speaks of Jesus’ authority over death in the story of the raising of Lazarus after four days in the tomb.  (John 11: 43-44) And Luke Chapter 5 tells of Jesus’ authority to forgive sins when he heals the paralytic with the words, “Your sins are forgiven.”  (Luke 5: 17-26)  If the miracles aren’t proof enough, Jesus flat out tells us that he’s God.  In John Chapter 10, Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.”  This statement would have been considered abject blasphemy to the devoutly monotheistic Jews of Jesus’ time, and we know he paid the price of his life for saying it.  His miracles and his statements about his divinity are, for some, reason enough to believe that Jesus is God.  But for me, the Incarnation itself provides the most compelling reasons to believe that Jesus is God made man; that Jesus matters.  In my opinion, three things about the incarnation matter:    

            1.     That God came to dwell among us matters;

2.     How God came to dwell among us matters; and

3.     Why God came to dwell among us matters.

I’ll start with the first.

            The fact that God came to dwell among us matters to our belief that Jesus is God.  It’s inconceivable to almost every religious tradition outside of Christianity that God would deign to become man.  It’s beneath him.  Why would God set aside some aspect of his divinity to live among his lowly creatures?  The very definition of “god” holds that God is completely perfect and happy in himself.  He doesn’t need anything let alone to live with us.  Yet, it was perfectly clear to the Apostles and disciples after the Resurrection that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1: 1), that Jesus is one with the Father, God’s eternal Word who was with God from the beginning. This is an outrageous claim that was rejected by the Jews and many since.  But it’s the outrageousness of the claim that makes it all the more compelling to me.  Just think about it, if you wanted to win over followers to your beliefs about God, would you advance a proposition that ran completely contrary to the common understanding of who and what God is?  Probably not.  But the Apostles and disciples did, and they stuck by their story – so much so that many died because of it. 

The fact that God came to dwell among also us tells us something about God that Jesus preached:  God is love.  (1 John 4: 8)  There’s no reason for God to dwell among us other than love.  He needs nothing.  He simple wants to dwell among us.  Wanting to be with us with no need for anything in return is love.   That God came to dwell among us matters.  

            How God came to dwell among us also matters.  In Jesus’ time, there was a strong belief among the Jews that the Messiah was coming soon.  We know that the Messiah is the anointed one foretold by the prophets who would come to save the Jews from their oppressors and usher in a great period of shalom, or universal peace.  While there was some disagreement on the details, the general view was that the Messiah would be a mighty warrior sent by God to conquer evil.  The Jews had many oppressors in their history, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and, in Jesus’ time, the Romans.  So the Jews were more than ready for the Messiah to come.  And he did.  But how did he come?  Not as a warrior, but as a baby, which is pretty much as weak as we get.  And if that’s not bad enough, this baby wasn’t a princeling; he wasn’t born into great wealth.  He was born to simple parents in a stable among farm animals.  Humble beginnings for a Messiah and definitely not what was expected.  Again, the ridiculousness of the story makes it all the more compelling to me.  If you were going to claim to be the Messiah, or you were going to preach that a particular person is the Messiah, wouldn’t you at least have had the good sense to make up a story that fulfilled people’s expectations?  Jesus and the Apostles and disciples were either senseless or right.

            Again, how God came to dwell among us tells us something about God that Jesus preached:  God’s love is humble.  Listen to how Saint Paul describes Jesus in Philippians Chapter 2:  “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2: 6-8)   In Jesus, God humbled himself to become man and lived humbly as a man.  How God came to dwell among us matters.

            Last but not least, why God came to dwell among us matters.  Justice requires that wrongs be made right and that each receives what he or she deserves.  So when we do something wrong or we owe a debt, we expect to pay a price to make things right.  The Judeo-Christian tradition developed a legal process called redemption that had its roots in a Jewish family practice of buying back lost goods or property or a person who was enslaved.[1]   Redemption was a way to satisfy the demands of justice while returning things back to the way they should be.   A passage from Chapter 4 of the Book of Ruth illustrates the practice of buying back one’s relative who is enslaved or indebted to others.  This passage suggests that a redeemer must have at least three qualifications:  (1) the redeemer must be a close relative of the person to be redeemed; (2) the redeemer must have the means (financial or otherwise) to redeem; and (3) the redeemer must be willing to redeem.  (See Ruth 4: 1-11).

                In a world enslaved by sin for millennia, no person or group of people was capable of redeeming all of humankind; yet, justice still demanded that the price for sins against God be paid.  Humanity could never free itself from its enslavement to sin . . . until the incarnation.  By entering this world and taking on our sins, God satisfied the qualifications of a redeemer.  By becoming fully human, Jesus became our brother, our close relative.  As fully divine, Christ had the means to bear the sins of all humanity for all time.  And by climbing Calvary to his cross, Jesus willingly paid the ultimate price for our sinfulness. 

            So what does why God came to dwell among us tell us about God that Jesus preached?  It tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  Why God came into the world matters.

            And so we’re left with a choice:  do we believe that Jesus is God, or do we believe that Jesus was just a good man, a great teacher or a good moral example?  As I said earlier, if we don’t believe that Jesus is God, Jesus doesn’t matter.  If we do believe that Jesus is God, then he not only matters, but he matters a lot; he’s all that matters.  Jesus asks all of us the same question he asked the Apostles:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If you want to find the meaning of life and your purpose in it, your answer to that question really matters.   

[1] Brennan Hill, Jesus the Christ (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications, 1996), 232.