Monday, March 13, 2017

Calling us home!

This is my talk to students on the second Monday of Lent, St. Michael Catholic High School, March 13, 2017

“The measure by which you measure will be measured out for you.” (Luke 6:38)

This is from the gospel reading today.

I wonder if we realize what we’re praying for each time we recite the “Our Father” : “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. “ What are we asking God to do? To forgive us to the extent that we forgive others! To treat us exactly the same. Ouch. I wonder if we really want God to do that.

There’s a story of an older man who dies and meets St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter has the man’s resume in front of him, and he’s looking it over. “To get in”, Peter tells the man, you have to have accumulated 1000 points over the course of your life. State your case” “OK,”  the man thinks, “I’ve been pretty good, I think I can reach that standard,” so he says to Peter, “Well, I’ve been a faithful husband to my wife for over 50 years.”  “Excellent, “ says St. Peter. “That’s one point.” The man gulps--one point? “Uh, I’ve been a good father to my children, provided for them well, raised them in the faith.”  “Yes you have,” Peter says, “I can see that here in your resume. Another point. “ Panicked now, the man says “I’ve been a faithful Catholic all my life. I’ve kept the Sunday obligation, tithed to my church, supported the Church in its various ministries.”  Peter says, “Yes, you’ve been quite admirable in this regard. Another point. “ “Three points?” the man says in utter despair. “A good husband, good father, faithful Catholic, and all I have is 3 lousy points? Who can get into heaven, then, unless God has mercy?”  As soon as he says this, the pearly gates swing open wide. “997 points,” St. Peter says. “Welcome, good and faithful servant.”

God is merciful. God forgives. Fortunately, the dominant image of God the Father from the New Testament  is not one of a judge who metes out justice, giving us what we deserve, but the Father who stands on his porch, waiting for his prodigal son to return home, and upon seeing him, runs to greet him and ends up throwing a big party for him!

But most of us, I believe, have a different view of things. It’s like our lives are a cosmic see-saw, with good on one side and bad on the other. If we die, the see-saw better be weighted down on the good side, in which case we’re going to heaven. If it’s weighted on the bad side, we’re going to hell. It’s as if God is a giant Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

But this is actually a heresy--it’s called Pelagianism--because it suggests that we ourselves are responsible for our salvation--that we can “earn” it by being good. We can’t. Only God’s grace can save us. Only God’s mercy can save us.

But that is very good news, because God is merciful. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, God forgives us. Whatever sins weigh us down, if we ask God for forgiveness, he forgives us completely. Completely! He doesn’t just drag it to the trash can of our computer drive, where it can be retrieved if we open up our trash. It’s erased, and gone for-ever. FOR--EV--ER (for those of you who have seen Sandlot).

So that’s the good news of Lent. It's very good news! God stands on the porch, scanning the horizons like a hopeful Father,  hoping that we will return to him, that we will come home. May God give us the grace this Lent to make that journey back to him.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Secret to Academic Success

Because I am a high school principal, I am often asked by parents of younger children what kids need to "know" in order to be successful in high school. "What can we work with our kids on now," they ask, "which will make the biggest difference later?"

I often respond "Read to your child, and instill a love of reading in them." There's little doubt that kids who develop good reading skills early in life end up more successful later on. But lately, I've also been talking to parents about an exceptionally important character trait we must help our children develop, too.

In a famous study at Stanford University in 1972, Dr. Walter Michel created a simple test of the ability of four year old children to control impulses and delay gratification. Children were taken one at a time into a room with a one-way mirror. They were shown a marshmallow. The experimenter told them he had to leave and that they could have the marshmallow right then, but if they waited for the experimenter to return from an errand, they could have two marshmallows. One marshmallow was left on a table in front of them. Two out of every three children couldn't wait, and grabbed the available marshmallow before the experimenter returned, some within seconds of person leaving. Approximately one-third waited up to fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return. Here's a simulation of the experiment done more recently, as each kid tries to resist temptation, with some amusing footage:

Funny stuff! But the real bombshell came in the follow up study years later, when interviewers measured how the kids in the original study were doing as students. Those who delayed gratification for the full fifteen minutes scored on average 210 points higher on the SAT tests than those who gave in quickly--an astonishing difference given the length of time between testings. And these same children were judged better able to handle stress and cope with frustration during adolescence. In short, they were happier young adults, with more opportunity in front of them. 
As someone who has worked with teenagers the last 32 years, I don't find the conclusions of this study startling. There are marked positives in academic outcomes from students who are able to defer what is more pleasurable and complete the work in front of them. These are the students who begin writing papers earlier than the night before, who do their homework before they watch TV, who fight through boredom in school, who are willing to keep trying new approaches to solve problems and who come to tutorials when they don't understand a concept.

At the same time, the very strong correlation of delaying gratification with academic success as shown by the study--the sheer magnitude in importance of that one variable--is disturbing when one realizes how poorly we live by that principle as a society. The explosive growth of the fast food industry in the last twenty five years, the fact that the average American carries a debt of $8,562 on their credit cards (including undergraduates, without a full time job, who have an average balance of $2,200, not counting their college loans--yikes!), the emphasis on the "instant" (instant food, microwave ovens, video-on-demand, etc.) all suggest we don't delay gratification as adults, much less mentor our children in that skill!

Still, parents can make a big difference. Help them save their money. If you can still find one, the old piggy banks which require breaking the bank to access the money are useful. Force them to do their chores before lounging around the house or leaving the house to play with friends. Make sure homework is done before TV. Talk to them honestly about not being able to afford a new car, or an expensive vacation, so they see that you, too, are not able to do some of what you'd like to do. Help them understand in life, there are no "easy" buttons.

The evidence is in: teaching our children to delay gratification is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.