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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pope Francis & Contemporary Church Issues

Deacon Mike Meyer will be speaking on the topic of "Pope Francis & Contemporary Church Issues" on Wednesday October 1 from 6:00-7:00 pm in the Parish Hall of Immaculate Conception Church, 316 Old Allerton Road, Annandale, NJ.  The same presentation will be repeated on Wednesday October 8, same time, same place.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Run Together - A Wedding Homily for Julie & Chris

I’m not a runner.  In fact, the closest I ever come to running is, well, walking in snappy new running shoes given to me by real runners.  But fortunately, I have a lot of friends who run, so I exercise vicariously through them.  Now, when I think of my friends who are serious runners, I see three characteristics that they all have in common:  discipline; passion; and insanity.  Our readings talk about these three qualities, and I see all of them in Julie and Chris, which gives me great confidence that they will have a long, happy marriage together.  Allow me to explain.

All runners, and all of us who watch runners, know that serious running takes discipline.  In our second reading, Saint Paul uses an analogy to running to encourage the Corinthians to be disciplined, to train themselves in the pursuit of true love in God.  Love requires discipline.  “Love as distinct from ‘being in love’ is not merely a feeling.  It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced (in Christian marriages) by the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God.”[1] We have to work at love, especially in marriage.  “[L]ots of couples forget that when they got married, they committed to run together.  It is easy to get so involved in all of the individual activities that we run our own course.  Marriage is about sharing, helping, and running together.”[2]  Marriage is about disciplined love.  
We also have to remember that without God, we couldn't have love, because God is love.  In our Gospel passage, Jesus practically begs us to remain in the joy of God’s love by keeping the Father’s commandments.  He doesn't make us remain in God’s love; love can’t be forced.  That’s why we’re given free will - so we can freely choose love.  And that brings us to passion.  Passion is that burning feeling that gives us the will and the drive to achieve our goals, to win the race, to obtain the imperishable crown by choosing love.  “Relationships and running both start the same way, with that magic potion called passion.  Both spark a thrill that inevitably wanes and takes ongoing effort to rekindle.  The rekindling happens by deliberately trying new things, new routes, new challenges."[3]  Julie and Chris, whether you love each other through the most challenging times of your marriage will be your choice.  As my high school gym teacher, Mr. Rotella, used to say, “You gotta wanna.”  Marriage is about passionate love.

Insanity.  You know, there’s a back-story to our first reading from the Book of Tobit that we don’t hear in today’s passage.  Tobiah is Sarah’s eighth husband.  Each of her previous seven husband’s died on their wedding night, and Tobiah knows this going into the marriage.  Is he crazy?  Yeah, crazy in love.  Love means taking risks, stepping out of our comfort zone, becoming vulnerable.  Just think about it, “[o]nce you say, ‘I love you,’ you stand foolish and exposed until the other says, ‘I love you too.’”[4]  I've already made clear that I think runners are crazy – you choose to push your bodies to extreme limits; you choose to run in traffic with people like me driving.  Well, I assure you that married people are a little crazy, too – we choose to cede some of our independence to another person; we choose to wake up every morning with someone else’s bad breath blowing in our faces.  Marriage can be crazy.  So what should we do when the crazy gets a little too crazy?  We should do what Tobiah and Sarah did - we should pray.  Through prayer, we tap into God’s love for strength, for wisdom and for healing in the crazy times.  And as crazy as it sounds, it worked for Tobiah (he lived).  Marriage is about insane love.

          I’m not a runner, but even I know that running is a great analogy for marriage.  I've seen tons of articles comparing marriage to running a marathon and even one that compared marriage to a Tough Mudder.  Both running and marriage take discipline, passion and a little insanity.  Julie, you've run in the Olympics!  That takes discipline, passion and insanity.  Chris, you've taken a hobby, turned it into a job, and turned that into an empire!  That takes discipline, passion and insanity.  If you’d just get a haircut, you’d be perfect.  But you are perfect for each other.  I’ve been so blessed to be able witness your love for each other first-hand in our time together preparing for this day.  So I have every confidence that 50 years from now, (OK, maybe 45, Chris is kind of old) as you run together in your matching track suits, sharing a bottle of Ben-gay, admiring the performance of your shiny new knees and hips, you’ll be able to look back at your marriage and know that you ran the race to win it, that you ran it together, and that you've won the imperishable crown of God’s love – together.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1980) at 109.
[2] Josh Ketchum, “Running Together:  A Marriage Analogy,” Life in the Kingdom Blog (July 26, 2013),
[3] Sarah Lavender Smith “Marriage:  The Ulitmate Long Run,” The Runner’s Trip Blog (June 30, 2011),
[4] Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Strange Reality - Homily for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

          As a Japanese major in college, I was often asked what studying Japanese was like. The best description I could come up with was that it was like someone grabbed hold of my brain and turned it around backwards inside of my head. Everything was different: verbs were at the end of a sentence instead of in the middle; “yes” can often mean “no”; and a simple grunt can mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe” and a dozen other things. Japanese was very strange, and studying Japanese required that I accept a whole new way of thinking. But once I did, I was introduced to a new and wonderful world. Today’s readings are very strange as well. They also convey a message that requires us to accept a whole new way of thinking – a message that leads us to a new and wonderful world. 

          Today’s readings present a series of contradictions. In our first reading, God heals the Israelites from poisonous snake bites through an image of a snake mounted on a pole. The instrument of their suffering, becomes the symbol of their healing. In our second reading, Saint Paul tells how God highly exalted Christ because he humbled himself to the point of accepting death on a cross. Humility leads to exaltation. And in our Gospel passage, Jesus explains that he will be “lifted up” to give us the gift of eternal life. Crucifixion and death bring salvation and life. These readings present a strange reality that is so different from what we expect in this world.

          But the Christian message is filled with seeming contradictions. It’s very strange. That’s because our God is mysterious and incomprehensible. As Blessed John Henry Newman said, “Unless thou wert incomprehensible, Thou wouldst not be God. For how can the Infinite be other than incomprehensible to me?”[1] God is beyond our understanding. And so, with an incomprehensible God, we’re faced with a strange reality: a strange reality where God repeatedly offers salvation from the yoke of slavery, notwithstanding our repeated disobedience to his commandments; a strange reality where God humbles himself to take human form, turns water into wine, heals the sick, raises the dead and transforms bread and wine into his most precious body and blood to prove that he is with us always; a strange reality where “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) And that brings us to the strangest reality of all: the Cross.

What would you think of a religion that turned to a hangman’s noose or an electric chair as its symbol of faith? What would you think if the followers of that religion wore miniature nooses or electric chairs around their necks, hung them on their walls, or traced them on their bodies? You’d probably think that it was very strange. Well, that’s what we do. The cross is an instrument of humiliation, torture and execution. Crucifixion was the most horrible and the most feared form of execution of Jesus’ time. And yet, we wear a cross around our necks, we hang it on our walls, we trace it on our bodies and we even dedicate a day, today, to exalt it and declare it holy. We must be very strange.

          The mystery of the cross presents a difficult challenge to the believer. How can we imagine an all-powerful God by looking at the Cross of Christ? We want a God who “vanquishes our adversaries, who changes the course of events, and who takes away our pain. . . .  Faced with evil and suffering, it is difficult for many of us to believe in God the Father and to believe that He is all-powerful.”[2] But faith in our God requires that we accept a whole new way of thinking. Our God’s omnipotence 

isn't expressed in violence or destruction but rather through love, mercy and forgiveness; through his tireless call to a change of heart, through an attitude that is only weak in appearance, and which is made of patience, clemency and love. Only the truly powerful can endure evil and show compassion. Only the truly powerful can fully exercise the power of love.[3] 
 Divine power responds to evil not with evil but with love. Suffering and death are conquered because they are lovingly transformed into the gift of eternal life through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. This is the strange reality of the cross: through humble, obedient love, Jesus Christ transformed an instrument of torture, humiliation and death into the symbol of his exaltation and our salvation. 

          So what does this mean for us? Well, it means that we have to accept a whole new way of thinking. We have to accept that “the path to exaltation runs through the Cross because God’s Kingdom is a place of reversals where emptying leads to filling and humility to glorification.”[4] Bulging résumés, high-powered jobs, big houses and gadgets galore will not lead us to our life purpose, to true happiness, to success or to salvation. We “cannot know the meaning of human life without grounding it in the reality of Jesus’ life,”[5] which includes the Cross. We have to conform ourselves to Christ so that “every time we cross ourselves . . . we profess our willingness to take Jesus seriously, to live the radical Gospel fully, and to die for . . . our commitment to God, to Jesus and to one another.”[6] I’ll bet you’ll think twice now before dipping your finger in the holy water font. It’s a strange reality, but one that brings with it the promise of a wonderful new way of living now and for all eternity. 

          I have to confess that when I started studying theology in diaconate formation, it was a lot like studying Japanese. It felt like God grabbed hold of my brain and turned it around backwards inside of my head. I was catechized as a child, but I had never heard God presented to me in this way. I learned of a strange reality that was hard to grasp, and even harder to accept. Studying theology required that I accept a whole new way of thinking. But with the help of great professors who introduced me to the writings of brilliant theologians, and with a lot of prayer, I finally accepted a fundamental principle that opened my mind and my heart to the strange reality of the Christian message: “The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, who lifts us up beyond ourselves and moves us to salvation, the God of ecstatic self-offering, the God whose outreach of love is greater than we can think or imagine – is very strange.”[7]

[1] John Henry Newman, “Meditations for Eight Days,” The Works of Cardinal Newman, vol. 37 (New York, Longmans, Green and Company, 1900) at 218.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Weekly Catechesis, January 29, 2013.
[3] Id.
[4] Graziano Marcheschi and Nancy Seitz Marcheschi, Workbook for Lectors. Gospel Readers, and Proclaimers of the Word, 2014 (Chicago, Liturgy Training Publications, 2014) at 253.
[5] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX (Nashville, Abingdon Press 1995) at 555.
[6] Patricia Datchuck Sánchez, “Sign of Our Salvation,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 50, no. 23 (August 29 - September 11, 2014) at 23.
[7] Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas:  Spiritual Master (New York, Crossroad Publishing, 2008) at 61.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Defense of God - Holy Hour Homily, September 11, 2014

          “I have a feeling that God wants me to defend him.”   That’s what Josh Wheaton said when asked why he accepted his atheist philosophy professor’s challenge to prove the existence of God, in the movie God Is Not Dead.  I didn't really like the movie all that much, but that one line stuck with me, playing over and over in my head.  It stuck with me because I have that feeling, too.

          Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that God needs me to defend him.  God needs nothing.  He’s perfect and perfectly happy in all respects.  God is also omnipotent, meaning that there’s no power in heaven or on earth that can overcome him, so he doesn't need defending, and he certainly doesn't need defending from me.  But I do think that God wants me to defend him.  Why is that?

          Well, Scripture is filled with passages that call us to be a witness to God’s saving grace.  Our passage from the First Letter of Peter is a great example when it says, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.”   So, if we’re all called to be witnesses, what’s a witness?  Well, it’s someone who has seen or heard for him or herself, and tells the truth about it; someone who defends what he or she knows is right.  Under that definition, all of us who have seen God’s wondrous deeds, who have heard the Word of God inviting us to new life or who have felt the warmth of God’s loving embrace, are qualified witnesses.  We just need to be willing to testify to what we have seen, and heard, and felt.

          Giving testimony isn't always easy, especially in a highly secularized society where religion is often looked upon as a silly superstition or the “opiate of the masses,” in a world where horrible crimes against God and man are committed in the name of religion.  But this is exactly the courtroom where our witness is most needed; where I feel like God wants me to defend him.  It may be awkward or uncomfortable; we may be hated or ridiculed.  Some are even tortured or killed for their defense of God.   But the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word meaning “witness.”   And that’s our call.

          + We’re called defend God by declining an invitation to a social or sporting event when it would interfere with Church;
          + We’re called to defend God by praying in public when we go out to dinner;
          + We’re called to defend God by defending the poor and persecuted;
          + We’re called to defend God by speaking out against injustice;
          + We’re called to defend God by defending life.

          The Christian mission isn't an easy one, and it seems to be less and less popular these days.  But fortunately for us, our loving God is always with us to strengthen our resolve to be his compassionate and humble witnesses to the world.  He’s with us in Scripture.  He’s with us in Spirit.  And he’s with us in this most Blessed Sacrament of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God has given us all the resources we need to be good and faithful witnesses to his truth.  So it’s up to us.  Will we sit back and remain silent, or will we defend God before the world?  I feel like God wants me to defend him.  How about you?

Reading:  1Peter 3: 8-9, 13-17