Saturday, December 06, 2014

Comfort Ye!

Student assembly address

The year is 540 B.C. 

Almost fifty years earlier, the Babylonians had destroyed what was once southern Israel, or Judah, and its capital city Jerusalem, the once-proud city of David. The Babylonians had been brutal, savaging women and children, and sending families into exile as slaves into cities far away, dividing parents from their children, siblings from siblings. All symbols of God's covenant with the Israelites were desecrated and then destroyed--the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple itself--leaving the Jewish people with little hope that the "promised land" obtained during Moses' time would ever be theirs again. The harsh judgment of earlier prophets-- Amos, Elijah, Ezekiel and others--had come true. It was clear to the Jewish people that God had punished them for their sinfulness, allowing Babylon to utterly crush them.

Imagine what it would be like to have foreign invaders destroy everything we regard as sacred and holy. Imagine being separated from our parents and siblings, never to see them again. Would our faith survive that? This was the plight of the Jewish people during the Babylonian exile. 

But at the peak of despair, when even the most faithful and holy among them had begun to lose hope, God sent his people a new prophet, Isaiah, speaking soothing words that they had not heard for nearly five decades: 

"Comfort ye, give comfort to my people. Israel's sins, her iniquities are forgiven, her warfare has ended." (Isaiah 40). 

A new age is soon coming, sayeth the Lord, when every valley will be exalted, and every mountain will be laid low. The Lord shall allow his people to return to their ancient city Jerusalem, where the Temple shall be rebuilt, families reunited, and the ancient faith of Abraham, David and their forefathers restored.

George Frideric Handel was a German composer who lived in the 18th century. Among his most famous works was the "Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio" which has become one of the most well-known choral pieces of all time--almost everyone has heard the 'Hallelujah' Chorus. But earlier in the "Messiah", Handel puts to music the prophecy of Isaiah, promising the redemption and restoration of Israel from exile. The Messiah is frequently played during Advent and the Christmas season.

Though we do not live in slavery, we do live in a world that seems to have less and less knowledge of and concern for the Lord, where people who try and live as devout Christians are often ridiculed. The theme of Advent is "Come, Lord Jesus." We are in need of hope, much like the ancient Jews, and we need to re-hear the promise of the Lord's coming, promise that God's kingdom will come again and a new order restored. 

I know this is not the type of music you'd have on your phone's play list, but one of the signs of an educated person is the willingness to consider new things, so I ask you for the next six minutes to listen with an open mind to this recording of a portion of the Messiah as performed by tenor Nicholas Sharratt in London, 2012. Try to place yourself back to the situation of the Jewish people some 550 years before Christ, in despair, listening to the words of Isaiah, telling them their suffering is finally coming to a close, and that their warfare is over.


Come, Lord Jesus. Make what is crooked straight and the rocky places plain, so that we may follow you more faithfully. Amen.

Monday, December 01, 2014

A Force for Good

Student assembly address:

Good morning! I was passing by Opry Mills  Mall on Black Friday on my way to the airport to drop off my daughter and son in law. Were any of you there? All I could tell from Briley Parkway as I drove by was that the parking lot was jammed with cars, and there was a line of cars on Briley about a half a mile long just to get off the Opry Mills exit. 

Retail businesses do about three trillion dollars in sales during the build-up to Christmas, or about 20% of their annual business. Black Friday is the biggest retail day of the year, followed closely by "Super-Saturday," which is the last Saturday before Christmas--this year, on December 20. All this also means that we're also deluged with advertisements clamoring noisily for our attention.

Some of the very best minds in business work in advertising. It's no easy task to create witty, 30 second ads that stand out from among all the other ads. People with a talent for it are well paid, and should be--good commercials influence us to buy the product that they're selling, so much so that thirty-six companies spent over one billion dollars in advertising last year. (Trivia: Which company spent the most, at 4.9 billion dollars? Procter and Gamble--think Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste, Charmin bathroom tissues, Gillette razors, Head and Shoulders, etc.)

One of the interesting questions about advertising is: what are they selling? I don't mean the products they ultimately want you to buy, but how they're trying to connect with you--what their underlying message is. Consider this recent Cadillac commercial:

This commercial is very good--it's funny, it features a goofy fella whose name is Steve Merchant, a British comedian and writer--and it's memorable. If you've seen it, you remember it. But underneath the humor, what is the appeal? If you drive this Cadillac, you'll turn heads. Pretty women will notice you. Men will be jealous of you. It's an appeal to our vanity, really. People will know you're a success if you drive this Cadillac. They'll envy you. Be a person who is envied by others.

That's a pretty consistent advertising technique, especially for luxury items: to appeal to our vanity. But there's another kind of commercial, much rarer, that appeals to the opposite side of our character, to our better instincts. Consider this recent Navy recruiting commercial:

What is the appeal of this commercial? Aside from its high production value, it appeals to a noble desire within each of us to make a difference with our lives, to do something of value, to serve others. All of us, I think, want to be challenged and want to be proud of ourselves. It's why we respect coaches who push us, or teachers who are hard on us. 

Instead we live in a coddled culture, with low expectations, where everyone gets a trophy. When my son was ten years old, he had about 20 trophies from football, basketball and baseball on top of his dresser. One day, I noticed he had arranged them, with half sitting prominently on his dresser and the other half on some back shelves. I asked him why he had arranged them like that. "The trophies in the back are participation trophies,"  he said. "They don't mean anything. The trophies in the front are for making all-stars, or for winning something."  If it's easy, it doesn't mean as much.

The armed services commercials appeal to our deep desire to challenge ourselves and to do something noble with our lives: "The Few. The Proud. The Marines." or "Army Strong" or "Aim High. The U.S. Air Force." They are extraordinarily successful, too--all four branches of the armed services met or exceeded their recruiting goals this last year.

I think we can learn from their success. If we commit to serving others, if we act not out of vanity but out of altruism and concern for others, our lives will resonate with other people, and we will not only feel better about ourselves, but others will want to be around us.  Want to impress a girl or a guy? Don't appeal to his or her vanity; instead, appeal to what's good, deep down inside him or her, deep inside all of us. Suggest you do Christian Internship hours together, or visit an elderly home at Christmas, or do something for someone else. The measure of a good relationship is: Are we better people because of our association with that person? Do we draw out someone else's best instincts to serve others? 

We began the Advent season yesterday. In preparation for Christ's coming, let's recognize the best way to welcome Christ is to be--perhaps not a global force--but a local force for good in the lives of all those we meet.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Made for Greatness

Inside St. Peter's Basilica
Student assembly address:

My father was “old-school” when it came to discipline. We never had to sit in a corner, skip a dessert, or go to bed early. We got spanked. And he had developed the whole process into a kind of ritual, as I look back on it now. First, there was the verdict and the sentencing: “You were disrespectful of your mother and so you’re going to get a spanking.” Then there was the banishment to our bedroom. Then there was the waiting, which often took 15 to 20 minutes--that was the worst part. Then my father would walk slowly up the stairs, and by then, as a young boy, I’d be crying. Then there’d be 3 hard swats on the rear end. We’d be told to stay in our beds until he came back. We’d cry our eyes out. Ten minutes later he’d come back, hug us, tell us that he loved us, tell us to apologize to our mother, and that it was all over now.

I don’t remember all the times I was spanked, but I remember the last time. I was about 7, and it was Christmas morning. My aunt from New York always spent Christmas with us, and she was very generous, but let’s just say she didn’t give the kind of presents that 7 year old boys got too excited over—usually clothes. I remember opening up her present that Christmas, and it was a cardigan sweater. I can’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t very gracious, and I chunked it across the room with scorn.

That’s all it took. “Faustin Neff,” my father said, “go immediately to your room. You’re getting a spanking for being ungrateful and hurting your aunt’s feelings.” I don’t remember much else, except what my father told me in my bedroom just before I got my three swats: “This was your aunt’s gift to you. When you are ungrateful for someone’s gift, it’s like you’re spitting in his face.”

When we are ungrateful for someone’s gift to us, it’s like we’re spitting in his face. I was reminded of my father’s words this weekend at Church, when in the second reading, St. Paul tells us very simply:

Brothers and sisters: You are God’s building…Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (I Corinthians 3: 9, 16)

One of God’s greatest gifts to us is our bodies—not because our bodies are perfect, not because we look like models, but because he dwells in us--because we are temples of the Holy Spirit. When we honor our bodies, when we keep them from being debased, when we act modestly and insist that people respect us, we honor the Holy Spirit living within us.

Too often, we forget that. We live in a culture where people use their bodies as a means to an end, where sex is commoditized to sell something, where people tell us that our bodies are to be used for pleasure, and nothing more. But that’s not how God made us, and it turns out, that when we disrespect ourselves, when we act loosely or crassly, we are filled with extraordinary guilt, because we know, deep down, instinctively, that we were not created for that purpose.

One of the problems we have as Christians is that Scripture becomes so familiar to us that it loses its impact. We are TEMPLES of the Holy Spirit. We are GOD’S BUILDING. Just as we wouldn’t walk into a Church or Temple and start vandalizing it, so too may we be given the strength and grace not to vandalize ourselves, remembering that the best way to respect the gift-giver is to be grateful for the gift. 

 We were made for greatness. We belong to him. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Looking Out for Each Other

Student assembly address:

Our friends often see things more clearly about us than we can see for ourselves. We all know situations where a girl dates a guy who is "no good for her”, but she cannot see this herself, because she's too blinded in her affection for him. I once knew a fella who drank too much, and his friends knew it, but he was too proud to admit it and claimed he could stop whenever he felt like it—but he didn't feel like it. Or maybe we have a friend who is in an abusive relationship and we see quite clearly that it’s abusive, but he or she cannot see it, because he or she is too wrapped up in it.

We see these things and we care about our friends, but we often don’t know what to do about it. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to interfere, that wants to respect the privacy of others, that recognizes at some level that we have to live our own lives, and that if our friends make mistakes, they will eventually have to pay for these mistakes on their own. 

The instinct to respect someone's privacy is a good one, but too often, it can become a cop-out, a rationalization to avoid doing what is hard. We don’t want to challenge our 
friends. We know that they’ll get defensive, maybe even angry, and tell us to mind our own business. We worry that if we tell our friends the truth, it will hurt our friendship, maybe even end it, and we don’t want that.

Two quick stories:

A former colleague of mine was the best friend to a woman who was engaged to the man of her dreams: He was witty, successful, very polished and handsome. What she did not know was that he was unfaithful to her, even during the engagement. My colleague knew this, but couldn’t bring herself to tell her friend the truth, because she knew it would devastate her. So she kept what she knew to herself. What eventually happened was entirely predictable, though tragic: they got married, had a daughter, he committed adultery many times, they got divorced, he remarried, he cut off ties with his child, the wife was hurt very badly, and her child grew up a psychological mess, having felt abandoned by her father. My colleague tells me it was one of the biggest mistakes of her life not to tell her friend what she knew well before the marriage—she saved her from hurt during the engagement and instead guaranteed her far worse hurt for many years, not to mention the scars the daughter now carries.

The second story: Two girls I know grew up together as best friends, from kindergarten on up. They spent the night together often, went on family vacations together, and had pictures of each other all over their bed rooms. Since they were both smart, they took many of the same classes together, and helped each other excel in school. They were very close. However, in their junior year, one of them began to smoke marijuana. At first, it was just every now and then. But as she became a more regular user, her friendships began to change, and she began to change too, caring less about school. Though she had been a very moral person, when she was high, she was promiscuous, and had been in several compromising situations with guys, which made her feel terrible about herself the next day. 

Her friend didn’t know what to do. She talked to her, and was instantly rebuffed. She wrote a letter, telling her that she loved her and was worried about her, that she would go with her to tell her parents and to get her help, but was told to back off and quit acting so “high and mighty”. Her friend’s life unraveled further. She began to use other drugs. Grades were awful-attitude was worse. As a last resort, not knowing what else to do, the friend met with the girls’ parents privately. She told them that their daughter was her best friend, but that she was destroying her life and she needed help. She told them everything she knew. Her parents suspected as much and had been reluctant to admit it , but could not avoid doing so once told by their daughter's best friend. They family did an intervention. The girl went into treatment. 

Of course, the girl who used drugs was very resentful toward her friend for what she had done. For a year, she cut off contact entirely. But as she became well again, she slowly became her old self and started doing better in school. She graduated on time with her classmates. Eventually, slowly, the two friends reconciled. “I hated you for over a year”, she told her friend. “But it wasn’t really you. I knew you were right all along. I hated myself. Thank you for doing what you did. You loved me even more than you loved our friendship. Please forgive me.“ 

Let’s look out for each other. It’s easy to be a friend when it’s all good times and laughter. The real measure of our friendships is how courageous we are to tell each other the truth, even when the truth is hard. Let’s not wait for things to escalate or to get out of hand. We often know things about our friends long before people in authority do, and when it finally reaches that level, it’s often too far down the road to resolve well. 

May you be blessed to have these kinds of friends. May you have the courage to be these kind of friends to each other.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The JPII I'm Proud Of

Student assembly address:

I went to the Fr. Ryan soccer game last Saturday night—the quarterfinals of the state playoffs. We had about 50 students there to cheer on the girls, and they did so with great enthusiasm. Boosted by their support, our girls played very competitively and were briefly ahead, always within one goal, until mid-way through the second half when Fr. Ryan pulled away. Even when it became apparent that we were going to lose, our students stayed and continued to cheer. When the game was over, our students shouted out “We are proud of you” and stayed to high five the girls as they came off the field.

On my ride home that night, I thought about those students, loyal to the end, who cheered with great gusto for their school’s soccer team, not because we were winning but because they were their friends and classmates, and that’s what we do here at JPII.  That’s the JPII I’m proud of.

And then I began to think of other things. I thought of a young man who graduated from last year’s class, for whom school was difficult. He came to countless tutorials and was met with generous, patient teachers who helped him get through a college preparatory school. And as he walked across the stage last May at the Grand Ole’ Opry to receive his diploma from the bishop and pose for a picture with me, I whispered to him “We are SO proud of you,” and he whispered back, saying, “Thank for all that JPII has done for me.” That’s the JPII I’m proud of.

I’m thinking of a family whose children are true scholars, National Merit finalists all, but carry themselves with great humility and concern for others. That’s the JPII I am proud of.

I’m thinking of a young man who graduated a few years back who lived without his father, and struggled early on as a student here. He graduated from JPII, signed a scholarship to play football, and will be graduating this spring with the intention of going to graduate school. During his senior recognition ceremony, he's asked a member of our coaching staff to escort his mother onto the field, so grateful is he to JPII and to this coach. That young man, and that coach, and the teachers who helped him, are the JPII I am proud of.

I am thinking of students who are curious, smart, playful, competitive, ambitious, committed to serving others, and committed to their faith. That’s the JPII I am proud of.

I hope you’re proud, too.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Letting Go

Student assembly address:

Most of you know my father died in April, so my siblings and I agreed to use the Labor Day weekend to converge on my mother’s home in Mobile, AL and help her begin the process of purging the house of “stuff” to get it ready to sell.

My mother has lived in that home for almost forty years. It’s the place where she and my dad raised me, my three sisters and brother, and where she and my father built a life together. Mom has an eye for decoration and over the years, through several renovations, purchases and inheriting some nice furniture, she’s been able to build a home that resembles something you might see in Southern Living magazine.

Mom loves that home, and she’d prefer to live there until she dies, but it’s simply too big for her to live in by herself, and she’s having a hard time getting up and down the stairs. It’s time. We spent this weekend clearing out the attic. It was like an archeological dig, sorting through old pictures and other memorabilia, deciding what should be kept, what should be given away and what should be thrown away.

It was a hard weekend for Mom. Losing one’s life partner is very hard, but she had no choice in the matter. Deciding to sell one's home is a voluntary decision—a “letting go” of something of great importance, a decision to “move on” to something else even though what one is moving on from is very precious.

“Letting go” isn’t something that only 73 year old widows must do, however. It marks all our lives. Fact is, we don’t like change—we have a natural aversion to it. It’s why you sit in the same seats for every class and get really annoyed if someone else sits there. It’s why it’s so comfortable to let our mothers wake us up in the morning for school as if we were still five years old, or be the one responsible for remembering deadlines for us, or appointments, or waiting for her to tell us to do things that we knew needed doing long before she told us.  It’s why mothers, by the way, are so reluctant to give up those roles as we get older—to withdraw that support they must acknowledge that they are no longer needed in the same way as when we were children.

“Letting go” is hard, because it means we’re accepting something new, something unknown, while giving up what is safe and familiar. And yet, that’s the journey that mature, healthy people take. Seniors, you’re less than a year now from moving out of the house, most of you, and beginning to forge your own life. Whether you attend Church next year, or go to bed at a reasonable hour, or wake up on time for your classes, whether you party 4-5 nights/week, the friendships you make, the activities you choose, the amount of studying you do—it will all be up to you. And as exciting as all that sounds, it will be also difficult. Most freshmen get terribly homesick and go through a period of depression—not so much because their lives are awful—in fact, they’re quite interesting and exciting. The depression comes from giving up something very precious—our childhood—and instinctively wanting that security and order that marks our childhood, where others do things for us instead of us having to do things for ourselves.

Freshmen, beginning high school is partly about letting go, too. Homework folders are no longer being sent home to your mom and dad which tells them what they should tell you to do for homework—it’s up to you know to keep all that tracked. The clubs you join, the friends you make, the kind of person you become, is much more up to you.

Sophomores, most of you will get your driver’s licenses this year, and it marks a big break in your relationship with your parents, as you are no longer tethered to them to get where you want to go, or where they want you to go,  and that sweet freedom also carries with it the burden of having to decide whether you’ll attend events or parties that you know you probably shouldn’t and being placed in that new position of saying “yes” or “no” to situations that would never have arisen if we’re being driven around by our fathers. 

Juniors, the world is opening up to you, with classes getting harder and college decisions looming, and there’s real temptation to cling to our childhood, where life was easier but you also know, instinctively, that those days are behind us now, and we must move forward.

My prayer for my mother, for you and for me, is that all of us have the courage to “let go” of our pasts and the maturity and courage to embrace the future that awaits us. All of us are tempted, I think, to want to know exactly how the next twenty years of our life will unfold, hoping that we could look inside that crystal ball to map things out. But in the words of John Dunne, a poet-theologian-priest, that would be the “deadly clear path” which would rob our lives of adventure, wonder, awe. Instead, we are like cars driving down a windy road at night, with the headlights only illuminating a patch of darkness at a time. The only way to see beyond that patch is to keep driving forward. That’s the excitement of life, the thrill, the journey of our lives. 

May we all have the courage to accept what’s in store for us!