Sunday, August 21, 2016

It’s a Miracle!

For the past three weeks or so, I’ve been nursing a backache brought on by stupidly tugging on a stubborn weed while hunched over lower than Quasimodo snatching a centime off the streets of Paris.  Though I’ve dutifully performed the exercises given to me by a great physical therapist, the backache just didn’t seem to want to go away.  In fact, as time went on, it slowly began to spread across my lower back.  By Friday of this past week, I was hobbling around like Mr. Dawes in Mary Poppins.  But by Saturday morning, I had had enough.  I said to myself, “I’m done with this backache,” as I hopped out of bed bracing myself against the nagging pain that undoubtedly would follow.  And then it happened, or it didn’t happen, as the case may be.  I had almost no pain at all.   I was standing up straight as an arrow, walking tall once again as homo erectus instead of homo curvatus.  All I could think was, “It’s a miracle!”

I’ve always believed in miracles in the fullest sense of the word.  As Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  I choose the latter.  Miracles are any signs or wonders that can only be attributed to divine power.  So sure, I believe that the parting of the Red Sea and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes are miracles, but I also believe that miracles happen all around us all the time.  I see miracles in the rising sun and the dew-touched grass.  I see miracles in a brilliant thunderstorm and in the rainbow that follows it.  I see miracles in the changing seasons and in the circle of life.  I see miracles . . . all the time.  They’re everywhere.

The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is active in our lives.  God’s presence fills all of creation; God speaks to us through signs and wonders, in the depths of our consciences and in the words of the prophets; and God himself “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  (John 1: 14)  So it just makes sense that God would give us miracles to let us know that he graces us with his presence all the time.  Just last week, I received a phone call from a dear friend at a time when I really needed a friendly voice.  I hadn’t spoken to her in months, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Something told me that I needed to call.”  That’s God.  That’s a miracle. 

Miracles are like Pokémon:  you’ll find them in the most unexpected places, as long as you look for them.  If you believe in miracles, they’re everywhere; if you don’t you’ll never see one.  The trick with miracles, though, is never to expect them.  We set ourselves up for disappointment if we relentlessly expect a particular miracle to happen.  God doesn’t work that way.  God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want.  So the miracles we get may not always be the miracles we want, but the miracles we get are always the miracles we need. 

          So do I really believe that my back was miraculously cured?  In a way, yes.  Now, I don’t believe that the hand of God reached from the heavens, touched my back and cured me.  I still have a little back pain, and I’m still doing my exercises.  But I do believe that on Saturday morning, God gave me the insight to realize that my growing back pain wasn’t coming from my original injury, but rather from increased stress in my life.  Once God inspired me to get up and get the stress under control, the additional pain all but disappeared.  That insight was a gift from God, and I truly believe that God actively intervened in my well-being.  And in that regard, at least, it’s a miracle!

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Gift of Peace

           I don’t believe in coincidences. The other night, after a day of hospital visits, chasing down doctors and busily getting ready to go out of town to pack up her mother’s house, my wife Jessica received a very special gift. As she described it, “I had the sweetest little dove visit last night at dusk. It was exhausted and possibly overheated. I brought it inside, gave it some water and let it cool off.” Jessica surely gave that dove a much-needed break, but that dove also brought Jessica a very special gift when she needed it the most – the gift of peace.

          Those who know Jessica know all too well that she loves animals. To call her an animal nut wouldn’t do her justice. Jessica’s a dyed-in-the-wool, Doctor Doolittle, Horse Whisperer, stop-the-car-in-the-middle-of-a-highway-to-save-a-turtle kind of animal nut. She loves pretty much every animal (except the chickens who dig up her bulbs). On the animal front, our house puts the Twelve Days of Christmas to shame. Jessica has an unmistakable spiritual connection with animals: she thrives when they thrive, and she suffers when they suffer. Most of all, Jessica finds God’s peace in animals.

          The Jews have a wonderful word for God’s peace – shalom. While often translated simply as “peace,” shalom has a much deeper meaning. It connotes wholeness, well-being and safety. Shalom is a transcendent, eternal peace that can only be found in God. That’s why rabbinic teachings say that “the name of God is Shalom.” To live in shalom is to live united with God: happy, complete, at peace. When we live in shalom, God’s peace flows through us, and we bring peace to all around us.

          How do we live in God’s peace when the world is anything but peaceful? The short answer is, “we choose to.” God is everywhere, and so is his peace. God never stops sharing his peace with us. God’s peace is in a dew-kissed morning. God’s peace is in a baby’s smile. God’s peace is in the consolation of a loved one. God’s peace is in a job well-done. God’s peace is in lofty mountain majesties. God’s peace is in the sweetest little dove. No matter how chaotic or even violent life can be, God’s peace is there for the taking. It’s up to us to seek it, find it, enjoy it and share it.

          Over the past few months, Jessica’s world has been a roller coaster ride for reasons known all too well by the “Sandwich Generation.” At the height of her lows, Jessica found that little dove, a seemingly helpless animal in distress that took her mind off of her woes, if just for a moment. Jessica described it as a gift that helped her sad heart. When she needed it the most, that little dove brought Jessica a gift from God – the gift of peace. When she returned it outside, she held it in her open hand for about a minute before it flew away, no doubt to bring God’s gift of peace to someone else who needed it. I don’t believe in coincidences.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

It’s Time to Be Neighbors

The Good Samaritan, by Eugène Delacroix, 1849
On Friday morning, I decided to scrap the homily I’d been preparing for you today.  I felt like I had to address this past week’s seemingly endless news of violence upon violence.  Homilies are supposed to help make Scripture relevant to us today, so if I were to avoid what’s going on in the real world for a feel good homily, I wouldn’t be doing my job.  Fortunately for me, the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit nudged our Church Fathers some 45 years ago to select a Gospel for today that’s perfect for times like these.  In times like these, it’s time to be neighbors.

In our Gospel passage, Jesus is talking with a lawyer who wants precise answers.  So when Jesus confirms that the key to eternal life is loving God and loving neighbor, the lawyer wants Jesus to be more specific; he wants Jesus to tell him exactly which neighbors he has to love.  You see, “the general meaning of ‘neighbor’ at least for Hebrew speakers, is a person in intimate or legal relationship.”[1]  Not everyone falls into that category, so Jews of Jesus’ time generally understood “neighbor” to mean those within the Jewish community.  And therein lies the rub of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Samaritans and Jews hated each other.  They were mortal enemies.  By having a Samaritan come to the aid of a Jew, Jesus is telling us that the command to love our neighbor extends to all.  Everyone deserves our love:  Jew or Samaritan; Catholic or Muslim; gay or straight; saint or sinner; Trump supporter or Clinton supporter; every race, creed or color.  The simple message of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that everyone deserves our love!

Unfortunately, I think we’ve forgotten that simple message.  We have way too many enemies, and not enough neighbors.  “The Gospel would totally denounce the modern world as a world without the neighbor, the dehumanized world of abstract, anonymous and distant relationships.”[2]  We spend our time staring into hand-held devices and computer screens to avoid looking each other in the eye.  We categorize people by what they are to avoid having to learn who they are.  We judge people by their differences to avoid the uncanny notion that we are, in fact, created equal.  And every time we do these things, we grow further and further apart from our neighbors; we begin to demonize those who disagree with us; we disregard more and more the God-given dignity of every human being and the sanctity of human life; and we slowly, but surely, lose touch with God. 

It’s time for us to be neighbors again.  It’s time for us to remember that our neighbor isn’t just the person next door who’s comfortably separated from us by a neatly trimmed privet hedge or white picket fence.  Neighbors cross lines and boundaries: 

-         Neighbors bring each other casseroles; 

-         Neighbors help old ladies cross the street; 

-         Neighbors open doors for each other; 

-         Neighbors ask each other how they’re doing and listen to the answer;

-         Neighbors honor their commonalities and respect their differences; 

-         Neighbors pray for each other; and

-         Neighbors do all of these things for each other no matter what or who the other may be. 

If we want to be a neighbor, we have to “go beyond friend and family and extend welcome and mercy to the outcast and even to one’s enemies.”[3] 

We’re created to be neighbors.  As our reading from Deuteronomy tells us, God’s commandment to love God and neighbor is written in our hearts; we just have to carry it out.  (Deuteronomy 30: 14)  It’s in carrying out God’s love for every person that we prove that we love and serve the one who made peace for us through the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1: 20)  Now I’m no dreamy-eyed idealist.  I know that there’s no quick-fix to the problems we face today.  But I am confident that if we just start acting the way we were made to act, if we just start being neighbors, things will be a whole lot better.  

As I scrambled to put together my new homily for today, I stumbled across a Facebook post by an African American woman named Natasha that she labeled, “Feeling Hopeful.”  Natasha’s post reads as follows:

So this morning I went into a convenience store to get a protein bar.  As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers . . . talking to the clerk . . . behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days.  They all looked at me and fell silent.  I went about my business to get what I was looking for.  As I turned back up the aisle to go pay, the oldest officer was standing at the top of the aisle watching me.  As I got closer, he asked me how I was doing.  I replied, “Okay, and you?”  He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, “How are you really doing?”  I looked at him and said, “I’m tired!”  His reply was, “Me too.”  Then he said, “I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now, is it?”  I said, “No, it’s not.”  Then he hugged me, and I cried.  I had never seen that man before in my life.  I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me.  What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning that was absolutely beautiful.  No judgments, no justifications, just two people sharing a moment.[4]

I’m feeling hopeful, too, because among all of the violence out there, there are still people like Natasha and that police officer who know that in times like these, it’s time to be neighbors. 




[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:  The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York, Harper Collins, 2014) at 85.
[2] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2012) at 150.
[3] Michael F. Patella. “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Collegeville Bible Commentary, Daniel Durken, ed. (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2009) at 258.
[4] Natasha Howell, Facebook, July 9, 2016.

Monday, July 4, 2016

True Freedom


          The other night, the Meyers gathered in the family room to watch The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the 2008 film that looks at the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of two 8-year old boys: Bruno, the son of a Nazi concentration camp commander; and Shmuel, a Jewish prisoner. The movie, poignant and disturbing in all of the right ways, prompted a family discussion about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, and how they could do such horrible things to their fellow man. Though historians, psychologists and others can do greater justice to the subject than I could ever hope to, I tried to explain that the Nazis were themselves prisoners – prisoners of their own lies, fears, willful ignorance and sin. Trapped in these disorders, they denied the self-evident truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1] Because they denied the Truth, the Nazis defied true freedom.

          Freedom is, of course, an act of reason and will to act on one’s own accord. But, true freedom isn’t what we often think or hope it might be: true freedom isn’t the right to do whatever we want. If it were, there’d be no such thing as right and wrong; there’d be no such thing as truth. If each person were free to do whatever he or she wanted to do, truth would be subjected to individual will. What you want to do is right for you, and what I want to do is right for me. While that may sound delightfully libertarian, it’s really a recipe for unhappiness and utter chaos.

          Just think about it, if we were each free to do whatever we wanted, we’d have no right to establish community standards, create laws or judge the acts of another, even when they infringe upon our own rights or the rights of others. To use a simple example, imagine that you decided that green meant go and red meant stop, but I decided that green meant stop and red meant go. In a free-for-all world, neither of us would be right or wrong, and neither would responsible for any harm that might arise from the inevitable accident that awaits us. Now let’s get more serious: if we were each free to do whatever we wanted, we’d have no right to denounce, stop or punish theft, rape, child abuse, murder or even genocide. How free would we be in a world that permitted such atrocities in the name of freedom? How free would we be if the value of human life is determined by individual will? How free would we be in a world where lies, fear, ignorance and sin reign? Just ask the Holocaust victims.

          That brings us to true freedom. True freedom “is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness.”[2] As the words suggest, true freedom is always decisively bound to objective Truth, that is, to God. God has written his law in our hearts and minds; he has spoken to us through the prophets; he abides in our consciences; and he has most intimately revealed his Truth to us in Jesus Christ. When we live as God teaches us, we live in true freedom, a freedom that respects the God-given dignity of all people, honors individual rights and promotes the common good. When we live as God teaches us, we grow to understand that we’re truly free whenever we set aside our personal desires for the benefit of others; we’re truly free when we work for justice and peace in our world; and we’re truly free whenever we lay down our lives for a friend. As Jesus said, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8: 31-32)

          Elie Wiesel – may his memory always be a blessing – understood true freedom. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the Holocaust survivor turned author and political activist said:

As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.[3]
We’re truly free when we understand that our freedom rests not in self-interest, but in self-sacrifice. That’s the freedom that our soldiers fight to protect and defend. That’s the freedom we celebrate on Independence Day. That’s true freedom.

__________________________________________
[1] United States Declaration of Independence.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1731.
[3] Elie Wiesel, Noble Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1986.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Farewell to the Piano?

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a beautiful piano composition called Farewell to the Piano, originally known as Abschied vom Klavier.   Although its attribution to Ludwig von Beethoven is questioned, the story goes that Beethoven composed this tender little piece to bid adieu to his beloved instrument as his deafness grew more and more profound.  The song first came to mind while practicing for my piano recital, and it’s been echoing in the concert hall of my mind ever since.  It makes me wonder whether it’s time for me to bid farewell to the piano.

I’ve been taking piano lessons for the good part of nearly forty years now, and you’d never know it.  You see, God blessed me with a keen ear for music – I can predict the top 10 American Idol finalists in their first audition and can pick out a single sour note buried deep within a 50 piece orchestra.  I love all sorts of music, and music plays an important role in my spirituality.  But while the good Lord was busy installing the gift of music in my ears, he neglected to endow my hands with a lick of the dexterity needed to make good music.  You can imagine, then, the frustration I feel every time my good ears hear the bad music generated by my clumsy hands in their futile attempt to tickle the ivories.
     
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m extra hard on myself and that I notice my mistakes much more than anyone else does (except for my piano teacher).  I know that I’m not a bad piano player, but I also know that I’m not a good piano player either.  I’m consistently inconsistent.  In one moment, I’ll nail a piece; in the next, I’ll make mistakes that I’ve never made before.  That inconsistency fuels an insecurity that makes me very uncomfortable playing in front of other people.  That’s why recital time makes me wonder whether it’s finally time to bid farewell to the piano.

I firmly believe that God gave us every talent we have to use for the benefit of others; but I also believe that God didn’t give us every talent.  We can’t be good at everything.  I’ve never been good at sports or fixing things, but I have other talents that have brought me great joy and success.  Hopefully, they’ve benefited others as well.  That being the case, I have to ask myself whether I’m wasting my time (and money) trying to master a talent that I wasn’t given.  Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result?  Could my energies be better spent exercising a real talent that might actually do someone some good?  Perhaps, but I also have to consider whether pursuing the seemingly unachievable is doing me some good.  If nothing else, playing the piano keeps me well-fed on humble pie, reminding me (over and over again) that I’m not practically perfect in every way. 

          I was having so much trouble this year with my recital piece that I considered bailing from the recital.  Although the audience is tremendously forgiving, my practice runs through the music were consistently inconsistent, and I just didn’t feel like making a fool out of myself.  In the end, I decided that I had to go.  I had encouraged another adult student to play in the recital, so I felt obligated to put up or shut up.  I also felt that I owed it to my piano teacher, who had survived yet another year with her indisputably most challenging student, and to my daughter, whom I “harp” on regularly to practice her instrument of choice.  The recital was yesterday.  I played my piece, and it was fine; not perfect, but fine.   With that frustratingly familiar result in hand, I wonder whether it’s time to bid farewell to the piano.  Nah.  Pass the humble pie.

Click here to listen to Farewell to the Piano.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Prayer for Peace

For all touched by the senseless violence in Orlando, and for all praying for peace.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon them.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen

Prayer of Saint Francis

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Pointing Fingers - Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

          Frank was concerned that his wife Pat was having hearing problems, so he called the family doctor to discuss what to do.  The doctor gave him a simple test to help assess how bad her hearing loss was.  The doctor said, “Stand about 40 feet away from her and speak to her in a normal conversational tone.  If she doesn’t hear you, stand about 30 feet away and try again, then 20 feet away, and so on.”   That night, when Pat was in the kitchen cooking dinner, Frank stood about 40 feet away from her and asked in a normal tone, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  There was no response, so he moved closer, about 30 feet away, and repeated, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  No response.  Twenty feet, 10 feet, still no response.  So Frank stood right behind her and asked one last time, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  Finally, Pat answered: “Frank, for the fifth time, I said we’re having chicken.  Do you have a hearing problem?”  As Bob Marley said, “Before you start pointing fingers, make sure your hands are clean.”  And that’s the message of today’s readings.[1]

          If today’s readings teach us anything, they confirm that the problem of finger pointing is one of Biblical proportions.  King David, in our first reading, has no problem pointing a condemning finger at the hypothetical rich man who helped himself to the poor man’s prized lamb.  Yet, he fails to realize that Nathan’s parable was all about his own sin of taking another man’s wife as his own.  And the Pharisee in our Gospel is quick to point out the sinfulness of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet.  But he fails to see his own shortcomings as a rude host who has neglected to offer Jesus the customary welcoming rituals of the time.  It seems that we mortals have a tendency to point fingers at others.  Why is that?

          People point fingers at others to deflect attention from our own faults and sinfulness.  “When we can’t bear to see something painful in ourselves, we want to get rid of it.  We want to relocate the ugliness we feel about ourselves and put it into someone else.”[2]  Psychologists call this subconscious phenomenon “projective identification.”  We project our unwanted behaviors away from ourselves by identifying unwanted behaviors in others.  Once identified in another person, sinful acts become safely condemnable, or so we think.  Because in reality, when we point fingers at others, we don’t define them; we define ourselves. Think about it.  If I condemn someone’s appearance, then I’m insecure about my own.  If I condemn someone’s wealth, then I’m covetous of that wealth.  If I condemn someone’s success, then I’m envious of his success.  As illogical as this behavior sounds, we do it all the time.  That’s exactly what King David and the Pharisee are doing in today’s readings.

          Pointing fingers is a pointless exercise because judging another’s sinfulness is like comparing apples to oranges.  “You commit the sins that tempt you, and I the sins that tempt me.”[3]  While we may feel good about ourselves for not committing other people’s sins, there’s no virtue in not committing sins that don’t tempt you.  We’re also not qualified to judge others.  “We can only judge if we can fulfill two conditions:  that we know the other’s heart totally, and that we love them unconditionally.   Only God can possibly meet these two conditions, therefore, only God can judge.”[4]  And how does God judge?  By offering complete forgiveness and mercy to all who are willing to accept it. 

          All four readings this evening emphasize God’s never-ending willingness to forgive.  “Throughout salvation history, God’s love is so great that he never stops forgiving people’s sins and giving them another chance at repentance.”[5]   But before we can receive God’s forgiveness, we have to point a finger at ourselves, acknowledge our own sinfulness and accept that we need God’s forgiveness.  “Before we can be cured, we must want to be cured.”[6]  And therein lies our challenge.  I’ll be the first to admit that confession isn’t my favorite sacrament.  It’s not easy to confess our sins; it requires self-awareness, self-accusation and a whole lot of humility.  But fear not, in the words of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem:  “Your accumulated sins do not prevail against the wealth of God’s compassion; the supreme physician is too experienced to be defeated by your wounds.  Just hand yourself over in faith and tell the doctor your disease.”[7]  So it’s up to us.  “God never tires of forgiving us; we’re the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”[8]

          This Jubilee Year of Mercy isn’t just an occasion to let heat and air conditioning escape through fancy, open doors.  By declaring a Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is calling every one of us to remember that God’s mercy endures forever, and he’s challenging us to accept the gift of God’s mercy so that, together, we can be a Church whose doors are always open to offer mercy to others.  Mercy begins with acknowledging that we, ourselves, need mercy.  Mercy begins with understanding that every time we point a finger at another, three fingers are always pointing right back at us.    





[1] Bob Marley, Judge Not, Beverley’s (1962).
[2] Jennifer Kunst, “Three Fingers Pointing Back to You:  Why We See the Bad in Others Rather Than Ourselves,” Psychology Today (September 14, 2011), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/201109/three-fingers-pointing-back-you.
[3] Frank Sheed, Society and Sanity:  Understanding How to Live Well Together (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2013).
[4] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart: Discovering Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (Novato, New World Library, 2001) at 122-123.
[5] The Didache Bible, 2 Samuel 12 at note 12:13, p. 343.
[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2001) at 54.
[7] Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 2.6.
[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Nov. 24, 2013) at 3.