Monday, September 24, 2018

"Ordinary Time"

These are my comments to students today during assembly.

So the mid-quarter report cards were last week, and the quarter ends on October 12, with 3 weeks of school between now and then. The “newness” of the year has probably rubbed off, and maybe you’re feeling the grind.  We’re in mid-season form now for football, volleyball, cheerleading and cross country—and practices, I am sure, are beginning to feel on occasion, like drudgery. We are in what our Church calendar calls “Ordinary time,” the time in between major celebrations such as Christmas and Easter. 

One of our tendencies in our culture is to focus our attention on the big events—the extraordinary moments in our lives—In a school culture, perhaps, Homecoming, Prom, Graduation. We look forward to these things, we long for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that, except if in our longing, we forget the here and now. 

When I was a junior at McGill, there was an English teacher who would call on us randomly at the beginning of class to lead the class in prayer. Because we weren’t very good at it, we’d often revert to praying for the same thing over and over, and I remember one of those prayers was “Lord, help the weekend get here quickly.” After about the 15th time in a row we prayed for the weekend, our teacher said, “You know, you’re praying your life away. What about now?” 

That was 40 years ago, but I still think about that comment. There’s truth in it. Our culture lives for the weekends. There was even a bad song that came out in the 80’s, called “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” But if our focus is only on the weekend, then what about Mondays and Tuesdays? If it’s only about the big events in our future and not about the now, we can miss the extraordinary things within the ordinary—the chance to reach out to a friend and be a good listener, the chance to make someone’s life better, the chance to improve ourselves precisely because we’re willing to do our homework well or practice hard. 

My mother used to have a plaque above the kitchen sink with a saying from St. Therese: “God moves among the pots and pans.” I think St. Therese was making this exact point—we may look for God in the big things, the miraculous, but miss him in the ordinary day to day, like doing the dishes, interacting with our family, in preparing for our classes, in being kind to someone during lunch. It's in these ordinary occurrences that God is present. 

So let’s keep that in mind this week. Happy Monday! May you work hard today, and may you sense God’s presence in all that you do, all the people that you meet, and all the chances you have to become better students, better teammates, better persons today.  

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Skin in the Game

This is my talk with the student body on September 17, 2018

If you were listening to the gospel carefully on Sunday, Jesus does something very strange.  We talked about this last year in sophomore theology. 

Mark’s gospel tells the story of Jesus asking the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” The apostles report what others have been saying, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” “But who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus inquires. The apostles go silent, and only Peter speaks up—“You re the Messiah.” Only Peter, of all the apostles, truly understands who Jesus is. In Matthew’s version of the same event, Jesus responds back to Peter, “Blessed are you, Peter, for no man has revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” 

That’s a pretty high compliment.  Peter must have been feeling pretty good about himself. 

Then Jesus begins to preach that he must suffer, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and be killed. Peter pulls him aside and says “No, Lord, you cannot let that happen.” And Jesus gets very angry at Peter, and rebukes Peter before all the apostles, saying “Get behind me Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.”  

Did you notice? In just four verses in the gospel, Jesus goes from saying  “Blessed are you, Peter…” to “Get from behind me Satan!” 

What’s going on? The clue is in what Jesus says next:  “He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it.” 

Do you see? Peter knows the truth. He knows who Jesus is. He has faith in him. But he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer any hardships. He doesn’t understand that suffering is part of the deal.  And furthermore, when Peter later denies Jesus, he shows he doesn’t really want faith in Jesus to call HIM to suffer, either. 

We’re tempted to think like this, too, right? We live in such wealth that we get used to things being easy, and even worse, we start to believe that things SHOULD to be easy, and that when anyone calls us to do something hard, or challenges us, well, much like Peter, we’re tempted to believe that person isn’t thinking correctly, or that such a person is doing something wrong to us. 

In my school up in Montgomery a mother of a junior girl once came to see me about our Algebra II teacher. Her daughter wasn’t doing well in the class, and this caused her some tears and stress, which made the mother angry. So the Mom came into my office like a bear protecting her cubs, demanding what I intended to do to this teacher. “For what?” I asked. “For making my daughter miserable every night. She cries all the time. ” “I’m sorry about that,” I said, “Has she gone after school to get extra help from this teacher? “No,” the mother said. “She says it won’t do any good—she can’t understand him.” “Has she asked other teachers in the Math department for some extra help? I’m sure they’d be happy to help.” “No,” said the mother, getting angrier. “My daughter should not have to seek extra help from other teachers—it's her Algebra II teacher’s responsibility. It's flat-out unchristian what he's doing to her. Now what are you going to do about him?” 

I found myself getting angry, but I had to step back emotionally and look at it analytically. What were this mother’s set of assumptions that caused her to leap to the conclusion that this teacher was acting in an unchristian manner because she was having a hard time in his class? And I realized she was thinking like Peter in this gospel—that life is supposed to be easy—that school is supposed to be easy—and that anyone makes it hard is doing something wrong, or even sinful! 

I think the message of Jesus—the call of discipleship—is that we have to have some “skin in the game.” Do we know what that means? It means we can’t just sit on the sidelines of life and live virtual lives. It means we have to put ourselves in it, take some risks, endure some hardships, in order to experience love, and joy, and grace.  A student who never takes classes that challenges him or her may get mostly A’s, but will also never really experience the pride of achievement.  A person that doesn’t join a team for fear of failure or hard work will also never experience the utter joy of victory, or the “band of brotherhood or sisterhood” that develops among team mates. A person that never asks a girl out will never be rejected, but will also never experience the joy of being close to someone. 

Over the last few days, I’ve had the opportunity to go to the football game on Thursday, and the cross country meet on Saturday. What I took away from both events is how much you guys and girls are truly “putting yourselves out there” for your school. You’re putting your “skin in the game.” Even if we lose, even if we get beat, even if we’re not contenders for top 10 times in a race, it’s all about beating our personal best times, about representing our school, about being proud to be a Cardinal. 

I hope all of you will follow their lead. Join some things that challenge you a little this year. Risk failing some. Dive into the deep end and learn to swim—it’ll make your life much more interesting, much more fun, and yes, sometimes, a little harder. But doing hard things is good for our  souls—and the victories will be so much sweeter.