Sunday, November 27, 2016

Waiting, 2016

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming,” and of course, it’s a reference to the coming of Christ at Christmas. So over the next four weeks, we await the coming of Christ. 

We’re not very good at waiting. We want everything immediately! Think about it: The fast food industry has grown exponentially in the last twenty years because people want their food quickly, and don’t have the time or patience to cook it at home. We have fast food drive-through lines because it’s way too much work to park the car, walk several feet and stand in line to order. And even with drive-through lines, if you’re like me, you become impatient if the line is not moving quickly enough! The Internet now provides us with information instantaneously, which is fantastic on one level, but dangerous on another, as it’s too easy to send off an email when we’re angry at someone before we’ve given ourselves a chance to cool down and say things we regret later or post things on a blog that are hurtful to others. We have overnight printing, overnight mailing, instant food, microwave ovens—all things that allow us to get what we want now, without waiting. If we want something and can’t afford it, no need to wait and save for it—we have credit cards! The average American household has $16,048 in credit card debt in 2016, and the average # of credit card accounts per card user is 3.7.  Financial experts agree it’s the worst kind of debt, too, because the average interest rate is 12-18%, unlike owing money on a house, where one can get loans for as low as 4% right now. 

So it’s hard for us to wait for Christmas—we hardly wait for anything else. Retailers are already in the full court press mode, pushing us to get all our Christmas shopping done. I was in a local store in October, before Halloween, and they were already playing Christmas carols over their speakers! So in Church we’re singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” but everywhere we go we’re hearing “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come. “ 

I want to suggest two simple things we can all do that may help us step back from the helter-skelter world of the instant, the “now” that we all live in—two things that might help us better focus on the event we will celebrate on December 25 and thus help us have a better Advent.

The first is this: Nothing helps us tune into the true “reason for the season” better than helping other people. If you live near an elderly home, for example, the Christmas season is a very lonely time for many elderly, as they miss their spouses who have died, or perhaps their children who don’t visit them enough. You can be there for them. Organizations who work with the poor need lots of volunteers to serve meals, deliver presents, and work soup lines. You can be there to help. You know, it’s pretty common that we, too, can get depressed or start feeling blue at this time of year, and our tendency is to say to ourselves, “I need some time for myself”, some “me time” but that’s exactly backwards. The best way to get us out of our funk is to focus on the needs of others, to make others happy. This is a great time of year to do it. 

My second suggestion to get us ready for Christmas, to help us more fully appreciate this Advent season, is to spend about 10-15 minutes/day in prayer, asking God to lead you, bringing your worries before him, seeking him for guidance on decisions you must make about college, friends, personal situations. To pray doesn’t mean we must isolate ourselves and burn incense somewhere! Maybe it just means when we’re driving to school or home from school, we turn off the radio and cell phone and have a conversation with God and bring our worries before him. We don’t lean enough on God—but unless we lean, we cannot feel him pushing back, holding us up. And so we put all this pressure on ourselves to make good grades, go to the right schools, have the right relationships, instead of sharing those worries with God and asking him to help us.

If we go outside of ourselves to help others, if we pray and lean on God during these next few weeks, I think we’ll find this Advent season, this time of waiting, will help prepare us more fully for the most important event in human history. May we use this time well.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving, Students!

This is Mr. Weber's Thanksgiving Day message to the students of St. Michael on Monday, November 21, 2016

A few years ago, my brother sent me a list of “First World Problems,”--a series of quips that mock how lazy we’ve become as part of our wealthy culture. To give you a sense:

• My hand is too fat to shove into the Pringles container, so I am forced to tilt it.
• I forgot to bring my smartphone with me when I used the bathroom, so I was bored the entire time.
• I can’t hear the TV while I’m eating crunchy snacks.
• My laptop is low on battery, but the charger is over there.

Those quips are funny, partly because there’s an element of truth to them. We live in a culture of excess, where our values become skewed in pursuit of things, at the expense of our relationships with God and with others.  There’s no better evidence of this than what will happen around the United States on Friday of this week, the day after Thanksgiving—so called “Black Friday. Merchants tell us is the #1 shopping day of the year. 

It’s also a day where we lose our minds. 

There’s actually a web site called “” which tracks all the injuries and even deaths that occur on Black Friday around the United States. The site consists of a giant ticker which tracks all these casualties—the current number is 7 deaths and 98 injuries. And it tells the stories of each casualty. 

A few years back, on BlackFriday in a Los Angeles Walmart, a woman was arrested for pepper spraying 20 fellow customers so she could clear the path to be the first one to get to the Xbox consoles that were on sale. There was a story of a woman who was trampled by the crowd when the doors to the store opened at 12 midnight on Black Friday morning. And there was also a story of a man who had just come out from shopping at Walmart in California at 1:45 a.m. , and was accosted at gunpoint by another man in the parking lot, who demanded that he hand over everything he had just purchased. The man, protective of his new stuff that he had been up all night to purchase, refused. He was shot. He was in the hospital, in critical but stable condition. The story didn’t report whether he was able to keep his things.

We are beginning the holiday season this week with Thanksgiving this Thursday, and when we come back together on Monday of next week, we will have begun Advent, a time of preparation for Christmastime.  Let these two celebrations remind us of two things: 

First, we really do owe God our gratitude. If you compare what we have here in this school, in this area, in our families and friends—compare that to peoples living anywhere else in the world—we are so incredibly blessed. But do we thank God for that? You all know the story in the gospels of Jesus curing the ten lepers of leprosy, but only one comes back to thank Jesus, and he asks, where are the other nine? Are we part of the 90% that forgets to thank him? Do we take all that we have for granted? When you sit down with your family for dinner on Thanksgiving, look around that table and truly thank God for all he’s given us!

And let the excesses of Black Friday remind us this Advent, that the world is still in need of a savior. We are still sick. Yes, Jesus came and died for us almost 2000 years ago, and he is ever ready to forgive us and heal us. But we forget that we need him. Perhaps that’s the most serious danger about being in a first world country—it’s not even the excess or the laziness, but that we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as independent, as NOT NEEDING a savior. People who have nothing rarely forget God. They pray to him for their next meal. They ask him to cure their daughter’s illness. They worry and pray about where they’re going to sleep when the winter comes. But too often, we believe our success is all about our talents, our brains, our good decisions, and we forget that all of the good things we enjoy are blessings from God, and that we still need him to be Lord of our families, Lord of our relationships, Lord of our school work and our business dealings and Lord of our decisions.

Recently, my computer at home had become very sluggish—irritatingly so. It’s been a while, so I spent some time this weekend defragmenting my hard drive, deleting old files, getting rid of some preferences that are clogging things up. It’s working much faster now.

As we prepare for Advent, let this be a time in our lives to do the same thing: to delete some of the things that are taking us away from God, to pray more, to study harder, to become more grateful for God’s gifts and more serious about our relationship with him. The psalmist prays for all of us when he says:

 “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then may we be saved.” (Psalm 80:3).

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

How Did We Elect Trump?

Flannery O’Connor, in her 1961 short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” tells the story of Julian, a recent college graduate, now living with his mother until he can find a job. Julian is miserable living with her, embarrassed by her racist and paternalistic attitude about blacks, typical of the institutional racism of the deep south. But in his mind, he had transcended his upbringing:

The irony was that in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.

What becomes apparent is that Julian’s judgment of his mother is far harsher than the bigotry borne of his mother’s ignorance—that his “rising” as an educated man has made him the bigger bigot, unable to appreciate the sacrifices his mother made for him, incapable of forgiving her for the way she was raised. In the end, his vicious judgment kills her, as she dies from an apparent heart attack, prompted by his repudiation. Thus O’Connor’s title: That which rises must (again) converge--distancing oneself and judging from “on high” destroys the very people that we might otherwise help rise, too.

The day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I read a number of articles revolving around these themes: “How could we have allowed this to happen? How could we have elected such a bigot? What does this say about us as Americans? A Facebook friend summarized this sentiment succinctly:

"The DNC didn’t underestimate Trump.They underestimated how uneducated, xenophobic, racist and misogynist rural America is. Idiocy has landed.”

How did we elect Trump? Like Julian, like my Facebook friend, we have been harshly judgmental of working class, rural Americans— “deplorables,” Clinton called them--and the deplorables decided to give the intellectual elites of our country, those of us with advanced degrees and sophisticated tastes, a giant middle finger.

Take North Carolina, an important swing state in this election, as but a simple example: Obama won North Carolina in 2008, lost by 2 points in 2012, and in this election, Trump doubled that margin, winning by almost 4 points. Why has North Carolina turned increasingly "red" ? It didn't help Hilary's cause that last spring, the U.S. Justice Department decided Carolinians needed mentoring about proper bathroom policies for transgenders, suing them for discrimination. Rock stars canceled concerts in North Carolina and NBA executives rescinded a contract to play an all-star game there. But the people North Carolina held fast, resentful of being treated like the village idiots.

This wasn’t an endorsement of Trump. I’m not sure it was even a rejection of Hillary on a personal level. It was, however, a complete rejection of the intellectual snobbery of the ruling class, of which Hillary and “establishment” Republicans were the power-brokers.

Everything that rises must converge. Future presidential candidates, take heed.