Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Rivers in the Wasteland

"See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers" (Isaiah 43:19).

The last two months could adequately be described as a wasteland. The shuttering of our world, countless deaths, physical and social distancing and isolation, fear, anxiety, impatience, unemployment, confusion.

Add on the events that transpired across America last week and wasteland seems even more appropriate than before.

Everyone has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual graduations, delayed or private weddings, funeral-less deaths, on-line school, cancellation of athletic seasons, electronic church gatherings, the politicization of the responses to the outbreak, and countless eye-blurring and headache inducing Zoom meetings have rocked our entire world.

A wasteland.

Now, our country is reeling from yet another killing related to the forces of systemic racism that continue to murder, crush and destroy lives, dreams, hopes, communities and the very fabric of our society.

A centuries-long pandemic of racism heaped upon a months-long pandemic of illness.

Hope seems beyond anyone's and everyone's grasp.

Just before Easter, I came across a short reflection that pondered how the apostles, after the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, had locked themselves in a room and gathered together alone and afraid. They remained there for some time, and even after the Resurrection, their re-emergence from confinement was not immediate.

Hope must have been beyond even their grasp.

Christ broke through death, conquered it, crashed into their despair, erased it, and ushered in new life.

The disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, re-entered the world, and changed it.

When I first read that reflection, during the end of Holy Week and near the beginning of this quarantine, this idea gave me hope. We were huddled with those closest to us yet separated and distanced from the rest of the world. We were and still are afraid, confused and anxious. Our reality mirrored that of the apostles.

As I continue to reflect on coming out of isolation, especially in light of how even more broken and hurting our country is now than it was even just one week earlier, I trust that somehow, someway God is creating a river in this wasteland, a way in the wilderness. He is breaking through, crashing in, and creating something new.

That river is me. That new way is you. Together, we must be something new.

And together, we can and must change the world anew.    

Let's be rivers in this wasteland. Let's be ways in the wilderness. 

Let's be better together.  

This doesn't mean that being wellsprings of this new life will be easy. Rivers in the wasteland can easily run dry, become drained out, get polluted or even dammed (pun intended). Ways in the wilderness will necessitate tripping over roots, cleaning away overgrown brush, encountering wildlife and other dangers, and searching and wandering through darkness and without a clear way forward or end in sight. 

Simply: it will not be easy. Dismantling centuries old systems and structure of racism won't crumble without extreme efforts and a whole bunch of mess, rubble, and destruction. Tearing down our own biases and ingrained ways of perceiving and interacting with the world will won't happen without discomfort, regret, shame and reconciliation (go here and explore your own implicit associations: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html).

Then, we must rebuild... 

But, we can and must do hard things, uncomfortable things, unpleasant things. We weren't made for comfort. We weren't created for an easy life. 

We - all of us - were made for great things, for goodness.

We can and must be better. 

Together. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Together is Better

Dear ICS Class of 2020:

Congratulations on your graduation from Incarnation Catholic School! Some of you started at ICS ten years ago as students in our PreK-4 program. Your first year at ICS coincided with my first year ever as a principal and my first year at ICS.

So much has changed in the past three months, let alone the past three years since I served as your principal, or even the past ten since some of us entered ICS together for the first time.

I know that the end of your time at ICS was not how you would have written it. No one would have written this part of the narrative of the world. The stories of our lives often get written by authors other than ourselves. Some of you have probably already encountered this reality, and endured and overcome it multiple times over the course of your lives. For others, this pandemic may have been the first time that you experienced a loss of control over how your story goes. Undoubtedly and unfortunately, it will not be the last time. I do hope and pray, however, that it is by far the worst.

As sure as I am that you will face other hardship in life, I am equally sure that you responded to this situation and continue to face it with the grit, determination, grace and solidarity that are hallmarks of Incarnation.

Before I started as principal in July of 2010, I surveyed the teachers, families and some of the students about the best part of ICS. Almost unanimously, the community described ICS as a family. Throughout my time as your principal, this theme of family anchored and inspired my efforts. From establishing Households to hosting morning gatherings, First Friday Morning Assemblies, Mission:Mass sessions and grade level retreats, enhancing the ICS family fueled my leadership. Throughout my seven years, the ICS family demonstrated over and over for me that together is better.

As you celebrate your graduation, albeit in an unexpected way, I hope that this message resonates with you and serves as your anchor as you look ahead to an uncertain future.

Together is better.

Always.

We were created in the image and likeness of a Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - and therefore we were built for relationships.

Together is better because there is strength in numbers. I'm sure the distance caused by the pandemic merely served as a way to bring you closer together as a class, as a school, and as an Incarnation community. Linking arms with others, even if just in virtual ways, can allow you to walk toward any obstacle with the bold confidence that you can and will conquer it. A lion will devour a lone individual walking toward it. Link arms with two others and that same beast will run away.

Together is better.

Together is better because when two or more are gathered in Christ's name, even on a computer screen, He is there in our midst (Matthew 18:20). When you join together with others in the name of Christ, you awaken and stoke into flame the Holy Spirit that always courses through your veins. The synergistic effect of a group of people committed to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ can echo throughout the centuries. It can and indeed is the only thing that has ever changed the world.

Together is better.

In closing, I leave you with a paraphrased form of the charge issued to members of the class of 2020 by the President of the University of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, at Notre Dame's virtual graduation this past weekend:
My charge to you is simply this: Make this story, the story you may not have intended to write, a tale of resilience and hope, of friendship and solidarity, and of the kind of courage and persistence that conquers despair and disappointment. Make it, too, a story of generosity and goodness. Whatever your hardships, someone else is suffering much more. Be a sister or brother to them. In your family life, your professional life, and your spiritual life, every day of your life, never forget that your charge as (an Incarnation Catholic School) graduate is to be a force for good.
ICS Class of 2020, congratulations on your graduation!

Now, together, and in the face of whatever else life hurls at you, go be a force for good.

Go and change the world.

Goodbye, good luck, God bless and GO IRISH!



Monday, March 2, 2020

Greatness

As a Catholic school principal, I would often remind our students and teachers that they were created for greatness, built for holiness, and destined for sainthood.

Another version of this reminder took this form and tied in a root belief: you were created by God on purpose for excellence. 

I also leaned heavily upon a quote that I thought, until about a month ago, that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had said: “The world offers you comfort. But, you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

In preparation for a recent presentation, I searched for the exact language and styling. What I unearthed surprised me. 


He did, however, proclaim similar messages. From his 2005 address to the German pilgrims who came to Rome for his papal inauguration, Benedict XVI stated:
The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.
Christ did not promise an easy life. 
Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, He shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.
In a 2007 encyclical letter to the entire Church, Benedict XVI expounded upon this theme, explaining more about the greatness for which we were created:
Humans were created for greatness - for God himself; we were created to be filled by God. But our hearts are too small for the greatness to which they are destined. They must be stretched (Spe Salvi, #33).
To me, these authentic statements made by Benedict XVI pose two nuances to the non-quote that I had previously repeated. 

First, Jesus Christ is the greatness we must receive, become, and offer to others. We were created so that we would become and act more and more like Christ. Greatness in this sense is explicitly and unequivocally synonymous with Christ. 

Second, this transformation, this becoming, this stretching requires more than just an absence or lack of comfort. It demands effort, struggle, pain, and even suffering and death.

So, even though he didn’t actually say those words, Benedict XVI probably agrees with the statement incorrectly attributed to him. We were made for Christ and this does not promise a life of comfort and ease. In fact, the Gospel and its message should affect and upset us so that we, in turn, can use the power of the Gospel, the greatness in us that is Christ Himself, to affect and upset the world (St. Pope Paul VI). 

Our purpose, our students’ purpose, our teachers’ purpose, the purpose of all the members of our school communities and of all people everywhere is to come to the fullness - or greatness - of life in Jesus Christ, and in doing so help others come to this greatness as well. 

This greatness dictates that we, like our God in whose image we were created, operate at the highest level of cognitive demand and pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, while developing every capability within us. 

This life in Christ insists that we recognize our “duty to exist for one another” (Consecrated Persons and Their Mission in Schools, #35). Our Triune God exists within the context of relationships; we, too, exist in the context of community. 

This fullness demands sacrifice, emptying, suffering, and dying. As disciples of Christ, our greatness lies in our willingness to lay down our lives, pick up our cross(es), and follow Him. We find ourselves and our greatness only in making ourselves, like our Savior did, a sincere gift to others.    

When we approach our work as Catholic school leaders with this frame, we come to see that our pursuit of greatness necessitates a pursuit of Christ. We come to understand that this pursuit requires struggle. We come to recognize how vital other people are in both our formation as well as the success of the mission of this ministry. 

As such, we purposefully embrace the both-and nature of this work. Struggle and greatness. Trials and joy. Exhaustion and energy. Confusion and learning. Reason and faith. Death and resurrection. Me and Christ. You and Christ. 

Everyone and Christ.

All of us are created for greatness, built for holiness, and destined for sainthood, and Christ doesn’t call us to this - to Himself - and then expect us to do it all by ourselves. He gave us Himself and each other. 

It won’t be easy and that’s okay; we can do hard things, great things, Christ-like things. 

Let’s get to work.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Push Back the Dark

We just endured the shortest day of the year.

Fittingly, Christmas is on the horizon.

Positioned in the midst of the winter solstice, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ at a specific moment in the history of the world, a recognition of His Incarnation in our hearts and lives today, and a recognition that He will come again.

We celebrate the Light of the World during a season where we fight against the darkness. We push back at it with Advent wreaths, shining in full glory with all four candles ablaze. We push back at the darkness with lights on our trees. We push back at the long nights with lights on our houses and across our neighborhoods and cities.

From now until the summer solstice, our world will push back at the dark with much success. Each tomorrow will enjoy a few more minutes of light, building upon the gains made by every today.

Let us follow suit: keep pushing back the dark.

Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, made this connection between light and his Nephew, "In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace."

The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to push back the dark. 

In the midst of all the presents and dinners and cookies, let us remember the real reason for Christmas, to push back the dark. 

And, when December 26 dawns, let us realize that the real work of Christmas begins, and that Christmas is a season, not just a day. It is a lifetime, a daily invitation to let our lights shine - His Light within us - for the whole world to see.

After opening all of the packages, and Christmas songs no longer fill our televisions, radios and devices, let us push back the dark. 

In the words of Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
Keep pushing back the dark. Go light up the world.

Merry Christmas!




Sunday, December 8, 2019

His, Now and Forever

"For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever."

In a post last week for the Alliance for Catholic Education, my colleauge Betsy Okello focused our Advent journeys by challenging us to wait in joyful hope, to enact the words prayed by the priest during the celebration of the Eucharist after the Our Father.

In our materialistic world, waiting in joyful hope during the season of Advent for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is difficult. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, elves, reindeer, and presents fill stores, yards, screens, and hearts. Our to-do lists mount: Christmas concerts, parties, pictures, cards, gifts, cleaning, cookies, outfits, travel.

In the midst of the noise, the traffic, the lines, the distractions...Do you hear what I hear?

Listen. It takes focus, discipline, and effort.

It is faint, far away.

A voice, crying out in the desert, shouts, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

Hear it again, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

Attune your senses to an echo from an ancient time, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!"

See the figure in the distance. As the details become clear, notice clothing made from camel hair, a leather belt, a disheveled beard, a meal of locusts and wild honey.

As he draws closer, observe the crowd behind him, following him, listening to him, imitating him, sensing that he is the return of Elijah, the one to signal the Messiah is coming soon.

Behold how easily he dismisses a group possessing apparent power, authority, and connections as he explodes, “You brood of vipers! Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance." Watch this privileged group turn away, grumbling amongst themselves about how he just blew his only shot at their endorsement.

Absorb his message for all of us, "It's not about me or you. It never has been."

Heed his words as he points us toward Christ, "I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will fill your life with purpose and meaning beyond measure and make you into who you were created to be. All of this is about and because of Him. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are His, now and forever."

This Advent, may we, like St. John the Baptist have the courage to be different from the world.

This Advent, may we listen to and internalize his words:

Repent. In all of the busyness of this season, make room for Jesus. In prayer, give
Him the first part of your day, your week, your Advent, your Christmas. Return to Him in the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Allow His grace to overwhelm you with new life.

Make straight the paths. What is most essential right now? What could you courageously leave out of Advent, or intentionally bring into it so that it’s more about Him and less about anything else? What could you do differently to stand out from the world so that you can point to the Cause of our joyful hope when people question just what you’re doing? Turn your cards into messages of evangelization. Take time while shopping to pray for those for whom you’re buying gifts. Recognize traces of the Light of the world in the decorations fighting against December’s darkness. Notice echos of the choirs of angels in the silver bells, jingle bells, sleigh bells and other sounds of the season.

Produce good fruit. The wonder of the season is wrapped up in the wonder of God’s love, wrapped up in a blanket, wrapped up in our humanity, wrapped up in God’s plan to save the world. Follow this example and give Him your finest gift: you. Honor God by giving yourself to others through acts of service, charity, and mercy.  

It’s not about you or me or gifts or cookies or concerts. It never has been.


The kingdom, the power, and the glory are His now and forever.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Hunger


“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” 
-St. Augustine, Confessions

One of my favorite characters in The Chronicles of Naria is the valiant mouse Reepicheep. Ironically, one of the tiniest characters in the series has the largest spirit, the most courage, and unparalleled purpose. 

He hungers to serve Aslan in any way possible and to ultimately make it to Aslan’s country. One of the greatest lines in the whole series centers on Reepicheep’s intense hunger to join Aslan: 

My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me,
I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise...(Lewis, 1952, p. 213)
Reepicheep illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 

In C.S. Lewis’s books, Aslan symbolizes Christ. 

Reepicheep represents the best in all of us, the us that God created us to be. He hungers for Aslan, or Christ, with such ferocity that nothing else will satisfy him. 

Because we believe we are made in the image and likeness of God, we bear the imprint of our Creator. As such, we desire something more than what can be found here on earth. 

If we are honest with ourselves, nothing will satisfy the deepest longing of our hearts to reunite with our Heavenly Father. Things of this world point toward Him. We believe that God is in all things and that the world is charged with visible signs of His invisible presence. 

But, no matter how great the best things of this world are, they cannot completely fill us. 

Only God can. He is the only thing that can satisfy our hunger. 

Our hunger for the best thing, God, propels us to greatness and is what draws us to this ministry. The more we grow in holiness, the more we desire to grow in holiness. 

Because of our hunger for God, we yearn for greater accomplishments and strive for more heroic actions to make Him known, loved, and served as Catholic school leaders.  

One problem with our plans to imitate Reepicheep and hunger for only God is something that also helps us in this effort: dopamine. 

Famously known as the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine helps motivate us to seek things that bring us pleasure, and produce more dopamine.

Dopamine is triggered in anticipation of your favorite Thanksgiving dish. You’re welcome. 

It is released after we bite into (insert your favorite Thanksgiving item here). Our bodies flood with this feel-good chemical. We help ourselves to seconds, thirds...fifths? 

Dopamine is also triggered in pursuit of a goal. We set out to accomplish something. Arriving at small check-points along the way, we receive small hits of dopamine, propelling us toward our target. As we get closer, anticipation mounts and dopamine floods our brains when we arrive at our final destination. 

The stronger the hunger for the reward, the more the reward satisfies us if/when we receive it thanks to dopamine. Having received the reward and dopamine, we hunger for more of both. This is both dopamine’s blessing and its curse.

We get dopamine from so many sources today, especially our devices, that we become desensitized to it. Social media provides a series of dopamine hits, making it hard for you in a moment of dopamine free-living - waiting, reading this reflection - not to pick up your phone and start scrolling or switch tabs to a dopamine-inducing stimulation. 

The hunger we have for dopamine distracts us from pointing our noses to the sunrise. 

Thanks to Silicon Valley executives, dopamine fasting is a thing. Dopamine fasters think that denying our brains the production of dopamine for short periods of time helps us achieve greater concentration and focus. Once the fast is over, we can return to the sources of our dopamine hits with greater awareness, enjoying them more than we did before the fast. 

The science behind this trend is sound. Fasting can lead to greater concentration, focus, and awareness. As Catholics, we would be wise to take this centuries-old practice back. 

Within our Catholic tradition, fasting does not just lead to greater concentration, focus, and awareness, it points us toward God, the source of our deepest longing, and helps us to recognize that nothing can fill the innate hunger we have for Him except Him. Fasting reorients our vision, gives us clarity about how to get there, and supplies energy for our journey.  

Our fasting fuels us to hunger for the thing that really matters: God. 

This awakens us to the mission that God has for our lives and focuses our efforts to accomplish it. It strengthens us to make Him known, loved, and served with even greater conviction, and more profound effect.

While dopamine fasters are returning to the source of their emptiness, let us fast so as to return to the source of our life.  

In doing so may we, like Reepicheep, make plans to point our noses to the sunrise and hunger for only God.


-Lewis, C.S. (1952). The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Scholastic. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

It's Not Just a Symbol

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith. Yet, only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/).

Only 50% of Catholics know Church teaching on the Eucharist. Batting .500 would be amazing in baseball and many other sports and endeavors. But, roughly the same percentage of atheists (47%) know that the Church teaches that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Almost 70% of Catholics think that the Eucharist is just a symbol, 20% of whom know the Church's teaching on it.

It is not just a symbol.

It is not a symbol of Jesus, or of the Last Supper, or of bread, or life, or the Passover, or anything.

Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor famously defended the Eucharist as more than just a symbol at a dinner party with friends. She writes:
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the "most portable" person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to h*** with it." That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable. (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/20417/summary)
The Eucharist, instituted at the Last Supper, is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. In the sixth chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus teachers His Real Presence in the Eucharist as more than symbolic. Known as the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus's language continues to press toward the fact that He is the Bread of Life.

Notice how His language intensifies with each iteration of this teaching:

  • Verse 35: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
  • Verses 47 and 48: "Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life."
  • Verse 51: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
  • Verses 53 - 56: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him."

As this teaching progresses, people in the crowd murmur, quarrel and leave. In response, Jesus does not back down or soften His language to the realm of symbolism.

He leans in and declares that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink. At two different times He leads off with the phrase, "Amen, amen". Not one, but two. Not once, but twice.

Truly.

Verily.

It is so.

He is the Bread of Life.

The Eucharist is not a symbol.

Amen.

Amen!

This is really hard to believe, which is why it's a mystery of our Catholic faith.

I've recently been praying for Jesus to help my unbelief. Ever since my daughter, Elizabeth, made her first Communion earlier this year, I have been receiving Jesus under both species. My church growing up never offered the Precious Blood, so in churches where both were offered, I typically only received Jesus's Body.

And, candidly, a cup shared by an entire congregation scared me. Especially during cold and flu season.

But it's not just a symbol. It's not just a cup of wine shared by hundreds of people.

It is Jesus's Precious and holy Blood, poured out for me and my sins. Eating His Body and drinking His Blood puts His life inside of us, "Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1323).

This teaching is hard.

In a sense, though, it is even harder if it's just a symbol.

Why go to Mass every weekend, especially with young kids in tow, if it's only a symbol? I can read the Bible, look at a crucifix, and show up for the important days if that's the case. This is probably why there is a correlation between belief in the Real Presence of Jesus and weekly Mass attendance.
https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/ 

Why receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, unless maybe I've done something really bad, if it's just a symbol? Jesus already died for my sins, and going into the dark confessional is scary.

What's the point of Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Anointing of the sick if they, and the Eucharist, are just symbols, if the life and grace of Jesus does not fill us and change us in these moments?

If it's just a symbol, what other teachings are symbolic? Loving your enemies? Being peacemakers? Offering forgiveness? Going out to encounter those on the margins?

What about the Resurrection...?

It's not just a symbol, and if you believe that it is, start living as if you believe that it really is Jesus's Body and Blood.

And pray that Jesus might help your unbelief.

And mine.

Until then, and especially after, act and pray like a believer.

It's not just a symbol.

Amen.

Amen.


*for another take on this same idea, check out this Word on Fire blog: https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/jesus-may-not-need-our-adoration-but-he-asked-for-it/25556/