Not my problem. Do you ever have a situation thrown on you, find a mess somewhere, and just say those words? “Not my problem.” Clearly I did not cause it, this has nothing to do with me, I’m not getting involved. A few months ago I walked into a bathroom at our friary only to find baby powder all over the floor. True story. I took one look at the mess and just said, “Nope. Not my problem,” and decided to use the other bathroom. Another day, I opened up the drawer in the kitchen to find that someone had just dumped all the silverware instead of separating the forks, knives and spoons. I grabbed a spoon, shut the drawer, and said, “Not my problem.” #friarlife

Whether it’s a mess in the house or a frustrating situation at work, the not-my-problem approach is definitely a way to stay sane. As busy as we are, as many problems we have to deal with, it’s relieving to look at a situation and realize that we didn’t cause the it, it has nothing to do with us, and it’s not our battle to fight. Sometimes we just have to let people fix their own problems.

But to what extent?

Say your best friend comes to you for help, even though she didn’t take your advice, and is now in big trouble. Not my problem? Say your child comes to you at 8:00 at night with a science fair project due the next day and he hasn’t even started. Not my problem? Say a close relative calls at 2:00am, having just gotten into an accident because he was drinking and driving, and needs your help. Not my problem?

No matter how inconvenient and unrelated to our own actions, these situations, like it or not, are our problems. It is the responsibility we take on when we enter a relationship, live in society, and call ourselves Church.

It’s situations like these, those times when people bring us their problems and we just want to run from them, that remind me of St. Joseph. Often overlooked, Joseph’s contribution to the Christmas story in our Gospel reading yesterday is not only important to the life of Jesus, it is inspiration to our own situations. The way I see it, Joseph had three options:

1. He could have responded by divorcing Mary publicly, calling attention to her situation. This was probably the most common reaction, the one most people in his society would have expected him to do. He would have been justified by the law, and his reputation would have been held intact. “I did nothing wrong, God does not act in that way—Mary is a liar. Why should I help her? Not my problem.” No one would have faulted him for this option.

2. The second option, which he originally chose, was to divorce her privately so that she wouldn’t have to die. In this option, he runs the risk of losing his good reputation, even being subject to the law, but he lets her live. Maybe he believed what she said, but had some doubts. “It sounds peculiar what Mary told me, but if she is telling the truth, I don’t want to be against God so I’ll let her live and wait and see if she was telling the truth.” Joseph is a “nice guy” to let her live…but he also doesn’t put himself completely out there to stand up for her either.

3. After his dream, he comes to believe that what she says is true, and realizes that her problem is his problem too: This child will take away the sins of the world. He not only lets her live, he welcomes the child into his heart and life, raising him and caring for him, even though it is not his own. In doing so, he accepts not only the public shame from his neighbors but also a major burden on his life, having now to sacrifice time and money for something that he didn’t cause and has almost nothing to do with him.

In our lives as Christians, as we approach the great feast of Christmas, the day the Church celebrates God becoming a human being, we are also given three choices like Joseph:

1. We could choose to be cynical and reject what is hard to believe or inconvenient to us. “It is impossible for a virgin to give birth.” “God cannot become a human.” “Why should I have to help others? It was their mistakes, not mine.” This is the easiest and most acceptable response in our society. If we were to take this road, the road of “not my problem,” not only would we not be shamed, we might even be praised.

2. Our second option, like Joseph, is to profess our faith—with hesitancy. We come to mass, we believe that God could have done something like this, but we’re not really confident enough to let it change our public lives. Religion is what we do in this building on Sundays, and we like it, we’re good people. But like Joseph divorcing Mary privately, we’re not really willing to let other people know what we believe or let our beliefs “inconvenience” our lives.

3. But there is a final option, a perfect option God is calling us to in this season of Advent: to follow St. Joseph in accepting Jesus with our whole heart and let him transform every part of our lives. It’s one thing to let a child live; it’s another thing to raise him as if he were one of our children. To have faith like Joseph means not only believing, but being proud of what God has given us, our faith, and letting it change our private lives, our social lives, even our financial lives to let it grow.

When we look at our lives and out into the world, we see so many things that are “not my problem.” The human family is not exactly known for its great decision making, and we find so many people putting themselves in harm’s way, bringing heartache upon themselves and others. Unwanted pregnancies, drug addictions, major credit card debt. There are also those who maybe because of the fault of someone else are in a bad situation. Immigrants and refugees, mental illness, human trafficking. For each of these situations, it is easy to say that we did not cause these situations, it has nothing to do with us, and so we shouldn’t get involved. Especially this time of year: “C’mon, it’s Christmas, it’s a stressful time for all of us, and I just want to enjoy it with my family and not have to worry about anyone else’s problems.” 

And we could respond in this way. We could focus on how we feel, how we don’t want to be inconvenienced, and how we are free from responsibility. “Not my problem Mary. I’m busy enough as it is.” But I tell you, like it or not, if we love the person, it is our problem. We would never ignore our best friend, we would never let our child fail, and we would never let our close relative deal with a great struggle alone, even if it is not our fault. Like Joseph, we do not get to choose what God asks of us; all we get to decide is how we are going to respond. God is asking of us, in this final week before Christmas, to prepare to receive his son in this world. When we see him, when we see the body of Christ broken and battered, when we see the suffering of our brothers and sister in Christ, will we welcome him into our lives with open hearts like Joseph, or will we turn from the inconvenience and say to our Lord, “not my problem”?

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New Video Series?

After the modest success of the road trip videos (by which I mean that I was able to string together a few clips with no prior editing skill and people actually watched it), I started thinking about new ways to use the technology. I may have come up with the answer. Below you will find my first reflection video, the “pilot” we’ll say, in the Breaking In The Habit video series. I’m still working out the idea, and despite the fact that this is already finished and loaded, I’m still working on a trailer for the series (talk about putting the cart before the horse!) but I hope it will serve at a good experiment worthy of your feedback.

So check it out here or below, and comment either on the blog or YouTube to let me know a) if it’s something you would watch, and b) what sort of content would be interesting to you. I’m open to a wide variety of things (scripture reflections, Church issues, Franciscan life, social questions, vocations, and maybe even some “Franciscan movie reviews”) as well as a number of different deliveries (interview, documentary, and short reflection). Hope you enjoy it, and hopefully there will be more of these soon!

Trust in the Slow Work of God

Waiting can be an unbearable process. But there is a reason Jesus gives us this image for the Kingdom of God.

Waiting can be an unbearable process. But there is a reason Jesus gives us this image for the Kingdom of God.

When I was in 3rd grade we did a science experiment. We took a big seed and we put it in a plastic bag with a little bit of water. We put our names on the bags and hung them in the windows. We wanted to see what would happen if a seed wasn’t put in the ground. Would it grow? If it did, how would it know to grow up if there wasn’t in the ground? These questions confounded us and we couldn’t wait to see the answer. But by the end of the day, the seed looked the exact same as it did in the morning. The next day, no change. A whole week went by and only the slightest change had occurred. We waited… and waited… and waited. At ten years old, we were impatient and wanted to give up.

At 26 years old, I now see that impatience is part of the human condition. We always want things to happen right now. The idea of waiting is just unbearable.

  • Children and teenagers always want to be older than they actually are, wanting to grow up before they’re ready
  • Young adults, after working so hard in college, are waiting for their lives to take off. “When am I going to be able to move out my parents house?”
  • Parents… are wondering the same thing. “When are my children going to grow up to be the people we raised them to be: loving, successful, and faithful?”
  • For all of us, we’re waiting for things to become clearer, for our path to be known, for our problems to go away so we can “go back to normal.”

Sometimes, it can feel like we’re 3rd graders watching a tiny seed grow: nothing seems to happen.

But that’s not the end of the story. In our 3rd grade class, our seeds eventually grew. Even without soil, even elevated six feet above the ground, its roots grew down and its stem grew up. And it continued to grow. Soon enough, it grew so large that the plastic bag could no longer contain it. And here’s the tough thing to accept in this story:

  • It didn’t grow when we wanted it to grow
  • It didn’t grow how we expected it to grow
  • and it didn’t grow because of anything we did.

As hard-working Americans, people that believe we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, we don’t like to hear that we are not in control, that we can’t fix something if just work harder. We want to hear stories about how the smartest kid in the class was able to make her seed grow faster than expected, defeating all odds. But that’s not what happened. Everyone’s seed grew, and they all grew equally fast. From the smartest kid to the kid who picked his nose the whole time, they all grew equally. And really, how could we expect anything different? Can anyone here say that they know how a seed grows and that they are able to make it grow faster or slower? In fact, if anyone has ever planted a garden you know that the opposite is true: too much attention, believing that we can will the seed forward, can actually smother our dear plants and they won’t grow at all. Seeds need time to grow; they cannot be rushed. Like the man in the Gospel, all we can do is plant it in the ground, give it water, make sure the ground has enough nutrients, and wait for another day.

What it comes down to is accepting the fact that it is not us that makes a seed grow, it is God. I think that it is the same for us and all of our desires. We cannot force them any faster than God is willing to give them to us.

  • There’s nothing we can do to make ourselves grow up faster
  • Nothing we can do to guarantee our success
  • Nothing we can do to make our children be someone they don’t want to be
  • Nothing we can do to make our problems go away, to know exactly what is the best thing to do, or to make life easier

What we can do, sometimes all we can do, is to trust that God is in control, and have patience for the seeds to grow when they’re ready. It’s in times like these that I find the words of the great Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to be so helpful. His prayer goes like this:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

When I hear these words, I’m reminded that we are all seeds planted in the ground by God. One day, God hopes that we will all be tall trees, producing an abundance of fruit, and offering many dwelling places for the birds. He gives us all that we need, protects us from what is harmful; sometimes God needs to trim us of our dead branches, cutting back what is not good even if it hurts; sometimes he needs to rip us right out of the ground and plant us somewhere else where we will do better; and sometimes, he just needs to let us grow, patiently waiting for us to be who he has planted us to be: God’s creations.

And so, I think our message today is that we need to be patient, not just with others, but patient with ourselves. We all want to be big trees, fulfilling our great plans for ourselves. But trees don’t grow overnight, and it’s foolish to expect this of others, or ourselves. Why grow impatient with all the things in our lives that we don’t even have the power to change? Instead, trust in the process; trust that, even if you don’t see the seed growing, it is; trust that being incomplete, imperfect, and on the way still pleases God; and most of all, trust that God is going to lead us where God wants us to be.

Like my 3rd grade science project, we may not grow when we want or how we expect; we may not have the power to make all things right ourselves; but we will always grow. Sometimes it may feel like all we’re doing is waiting for God and God is never around; I tell you, it is quite the opposite: God has been there all along, planting, nurturing, and patiently waiting for us to turn to him and trust. Trust in the slow work of God.

Sometimes We Fail

Easter is realizing that Christ is carrying us

Easter is realizing that Christ is carrying us

Last year, I wrote The Joy of Our Salvation as a candid recount of the Easter Vigil calling it, “hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had.” I was amazed by the transcendence in the liturgy, the energy in the congregation, the faith in the catechumens. Last year, everything went exactly as planned. It was an incredible success.

This year went a little differently.

Now a theology student with a little experience preaching, I was asked by the pastor of St. Camillus Church to give the English “reflection” for Good Friday, the celebration of the Lord’s passion (since it’s not a mass someone other than a priest often gives it.) I was honored. I was excited. Those who know me know that I love big liturgies and I love to preach. Come Friday morning, I felt really great about what I wrote and couldn’t wait to share it with a packed church on such an important day.

But things did not go according to plan. Starting around 4:00 that afternoon, I developed a headache which turned out to be a migraine. I was in pain and confused for a few hours. I felt dizzy and disoriented for much of the afternoon. I could see, but part of my vision was blurry. I took a long nap, got some medicine and right before the service started I felt a little better. Rather than have the pastor stand up and have to make something up, I decided to give it my best. I would be in a little pain, I thought, but that I could still do a decent job.

I didn’t.

In front of my fellow student friars, four priests, and an almost packed church that included friends, strangers, and even one of my professors, I failed miserably. Within twenty seconds I lost my place. After a few sentences, I became downright confused. Looking directly at my written reflection, I could see the words but they meant absolutely nothing to me. I said one sentence a few times because it seemed completely incoherent. Three times I stopped, caught my breath and tried again. I looked at my paper again, but they were only nonsense words. I couldn’t do it. After three tries and about two minutes of embarrassment, I looked at the pastor, said “I’m sorry,” and began to cry as I walked away. I made it to the sacristy, fell to the floor, and cried as hard as I ever had.

I had failed.

I hope that this doesn’t come off too dramatic or even privileged, but it was easily one of the top three most painful experiences of my life. Not only was I in a good bit of pain, I embarrassed the heck out of myself, messed up the liturgy, and back in the sacristy, my classmates, two priests, and some strangers saw me crying, something I have not let people see in many years. How could this night have went any worse?

But then a friar sent me a text and my perspective began to change ever so slightly:

In no way should you feel embarrassed. It was incredibly brave for you to try to do it. I’m very proud of you for trying to tough it out, but also knowing when to ask for help. While I’m sorry you had to go through it, I think for most folks it was a rather poignant demonstration of what carrying the cross looks like in real life. Several people said to tell you what a beautiful homily it was. And it truly was.

By most definitions, what I did up there was anything but a success. I stumbled. I lost my place. I didn’t even get 1/3 of the way finished before I quit. And yet, the result was anything but a failure. There before me, I witnessed my brother stepping in to finish my words for me. I felt my classmates and random members of the choir come to bring me water and console me (like ten people crowded in the sacristy within seconds!) Some even mentioned later that the abruptness of the situation broke them out of the predictable pattern and awoke them to something more before them. How could it be that I was unable to do anything right, that the plan failed miserably, and yet Christ’s message came through?

God transforms our failures into his success.

I stood up, relying on my own strength, thinking that I was going to talk about the pain Jesus went through, the humiliation He experienced, and how He even wept, but my strength was not enough. I couldn’t do it by myself. And I didn’t have to. There we were celebrating the moment in history when Christ triumphantly took our pain and weakness upon himself, subsumed our failures into his perfection, and it began unfolding once again before our eyes. I wanted to talk about this event, but God wanted to show it. My weakness was turned into strength, my failure into success. The Paschal mystery could not be contained by words.

To say that this year’s Triduum celebration went off without a hitch would be far from the truth. Before my Easter this year, I had to experience one of the most difficult crosses of my life. Nobody likes to realize that they are not strong enough. Nobody likes to admit that sometimes we fail.

But we do. And that’s okay.

It is in our weakness that Christ is our strength. It is in our failings that Christ is our success. It is in the crosses we bear that Christ is our Easter joy. May we never be ashamed of our weaknesses, despairing over our failures, or refuse to carry our crosses. Sometimes we fail. Every time Christ succeeds. Happy Easter! Alleluia!

“It is Finished”

Jesus' final words are as an artist marveling a new masterpiece: it is finished.

Jesus’ final words are as an artist marveling a new masterpiece: it is finished

It is finished. These are the climactic words of Jesus’ life. Everything he did and said leading to this final moment: It is finished. But what did he mean by these words? How might those around him have heard them; how do we hear them? For some, like the Pharisees, these words mean that the nuisance is over and we can go back to the way things were before, unchanged and unaffected. Lent is behind us and now we can go back to eating chocolate. For others, like Peter, these words mean that we’ve run out of time, we have let him down. Maybe we didn’t live up to our Lenten promises; maybe we feel like we haven’t “earned” Easter. For some, like Mary, these words mean that at least the suffering is over. As someone who lost his grandmother to cancer this year, I know exactly what this feels like: at least she’s not in pain. It is finished.

In each of these interpretations, there is some truth, but it is not the complete truth. Jesus may be gone, but what he did was so profound that we cannot help but be changed; we may have fallen short and missed our chance, but we know that he will rise again no matter what we did; we take consolation that at least he is not in pain any longer, but really, we know that he has entered into his glory.

Because of this, I think Jesus meant something very different with his final words: “I have done what was mine to do. God the Father has sent me to be the perfect manifestation of his self-sacrificial love for the world. In my life and in my death, I made visible what could not be seen, made clear what was not fully known, that God is by God’s very nature self-emptying love. I have lived with perfect obedience and have poured out everything that I had to give. I showed the way. I revealed the truth. I have given life. [deep breath] It is finished.” His words are of great relief and satisfaction as in a job well done.

What Jesus did with his life and death on the cross was pure gift: freely given, unmerited love for the world. There is nothing we did to earn it; nothing we did to cause it. Jesus did not come because we sinned, we did not place the cross upon him as a burden he must carry. It was not given to us so that we would owe him something or be forced to love him in return. No. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone that believes in him might not perish but have eternal life in him.” Jesus was completely free, and he chose to give of himself, to take up his own cross, and to hand over his life. He did this not out of guilt or obligation, but because he loves us. His life was both the example and the source of strength for us to follow him.

In this way, the grace of Jesus’ life and death is all around us. Everywhere we look we can see him if only we have the eyes to see. He is in the mother or father that gives up what they want for the sake of their children; He is in the person that chooses love, not revenge, when they are insulted; He is in those who give when they know it won’t be noticed or reciprocated; He is in those who care for people who cannot or do not give them thanks; he is in those who suffer greatly but do not despair because they have hope in God; He is in those who are forgotten, unwanted, and misunderstood. When we encounter these people; when we choose to give of ourselves in a self-sacrificial way, not counting the cost but simply giving everything we have because God has loved us, Jesus is anything but dead: he is living among us.

May we be a people that lives what we celebrate today: at the end of each day and when our days have come to an end, may we look back on what we have done and how we approach our death with the relief and satisfaction of a job well done, a life lived in perfect obedience and self-sacrificial love. On that day, we too may say and understand the climactic words of our Lord Jesus on the cross: “It is finished.”