After forty days of lent, we’ve finally reached Easter and can triumphantly proclaim, “He is Risen! Alleluia!” I appreciate all who followed the Franciscan Media lenten series each week, and all the many words of encouragement I heard along the way. It was a great experience for me, and I hope to do more projects like it in the future.

 

For now, though, it’s time for a little break! As we’ve all worked so hard preparing for Easter, I think it’s appropriate that we all take a little time to enjoy it. For me, that means a few weeks without posting.

 

But have no fear! As we speak, I’m packing my bags to travel to Chicago to film parts 4 and 5 of a new (and hopefully ongoing) series called “A Friar Life,” a look into the many ways that friars live and work in the 21st century. Check back the first week of May for episode 1!

Peace and good to all, Happy Easter!

Failure

The following is the seventh installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the previous reflections, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to watch the video.

“Failure.” For many of us, it is a word we refuse to accept, the true “F-word” that should never be spoken in polite company. And why would we? We say that the keys to success are in our hands, that the strength we need is within us. We tell ourselves things like, “If you work hard enough you can achieve anything,” and that those who succeed are the ones “Who wanted it most.” We glorify those who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” who don’t need help from anyone else, and who, no matter the difficulties, “Never, ever give up.”

Failure? No, we will not accept failure. Since we are always in control, there is no one to blame but ourselves if we don’t succeed. Accepting failure means accepting that we were not good enough to succeed.

And so, in our eyes, we never truly fail. Sure, things don’t always go right, but we can easily defer blame and minimize the effects. That competition was rigged… I actually wasn’t even trying that hard… It was her fault… It’s no big deal… I didn’t want to win anyway. Failure, that is, not being able to achieve what we wanted even though we thought we had the capability to do so, is so shameful, belittling, and dehumanizing that we can’t bear to even acknowledge a simple fact: sometimes we do fail.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay: Jesus shows us that it’s necessary.

Rarely will you ever hear a vowed religious leader say these words, but Jesus’ mission on earth was by and large a failure. Yes, a failure. On the surface, Jesus set out to reveal the glory and divine will of the Father, namely, that if people were to follow him in humility and peace they would have eternal life in heaven. What happened? Well, Jesus was hated by the religious leaders, feared by the secular leaders, betrayed by his followers, and ultimately killed as a common criminal for blasphemy and inciting a revolt. He was weak, needed help, went through horrific physical agony and emotional shame, was abandoned by his defenders, and left alone to die.

Even the most lenient of curves is going to have trouble not giving him a big “F” on this test…

Here was someone who truly did hold the keys of success in his own hands, who, if he had worked hard enough, could have done just about anything he really wanted. More than any other human in history, he had the power to achieve worldly success. And yet, by our earthly standards, his life was a huge failure.

But of course, it wasn’t a failure. And that’s sort of the point.

On Good Friday every year, we do not celebrate the fact that Jesus came up short in his mission, we celebrate the power of God to transform even the worst of failures—unjust suffering and death—into the glorious success of our salvation. We celebrate the fact that it is not despite failure that God succeeds, but in fact through it. As is the case all throughout salvation history, God does not “help those who help themselves,” as we often say, choosing those with strength and charisma to achieve great things for God based on their own skills. No, God chooses the weak, the helpless, the lowly, the poor, and the incapable—the “failures” of society who have to rely on God— to show his true power and achieve his success.

When we enter into this mystery of our salvation, our conception of success/failure and our connection with Jesus’ mission completely changes. In following the path that Jesus has laid out for us—showing us that it is in dying that we are given life, in giving of ourselves in patient humility that we receive—we realize that being weak and asking for help is not “failure,” it is in fact a virtue we must live. We realize that our strength does not come from within, that we cannot actually achieve everything we want if we just work hard enough and want it. We realize that, sometimes, it is the very act of “giving up” and accepting our own defeat that we succeed beyond our understanding.

Most of all, we realize that failure is not the absence of God in our lives, moments of shame and humiliation that we should avoid, but in reality, the moments in which God is most present to us, lifting us up and transforming us in our most vulnerable state. It is why God, when asked by St. Paul to remove the thorn in his side, said no: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10). St. Paul realized—only in a moment of failure, I might add—that true success does not come from our strength but Christ’s strength filling in our weakness.

And so I wonder. As we continue in this great liturgy of awaiting the Paschal Mystery and realize once again that our salvation does not come despite our failures but through it, how might our conception of failure, the dreaded “F-word,” change in our lives? It is my hope that we may strip ourselves of the inherently inspirational yet tragically flawed clichés of our time—these notions that we can achieve all that we want, that weakness is a flaw we can rid ourselves of, failure a concept we should repress, perfection the goal we seek, and that there is nothing more inexcusable than “giving up”—and put our strength and notions of success completely in God. It is my hope that, as a Christian people, a people that celebrate the power of God to transform failure into life, we may no longer run from or deny the failures we experience in our lives as moments of shame or worthlessness but see them for what they truly are: wide open moments to experience the power of God alive in our lives.

The following is the sixth installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the previous reflections, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to watch the video.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” If you were ever a child on a playground, chances are you’ve heard this little jingle. Taught to kids as a way to fend off bullies and maintain their self esteem, it reminds children that words only have power over us if we let them. No one, no matter how powerful, can control how we feel or what we think of ourselves.

And yet even the weakest words from the weakest people often do just that, even to as adults.

Likely, it is not “sticks and stones” that cause us the most grief on any given day—things that will objectively hurt us—but rather those little, insignificant, and powerless words that come from our neighbor. How easily we are thrown into fits of anger, frustration, and misery when called something offensive. How quickly our sense of self comes crashing to the ground when told something hurtful. For many of us, what people say and think about us is often the greatest source of strife we face, defining us and bringing us down.

We know the opposite to be true as well. How surprisingly happy, uplifted, and hopeful we feel when given an unexpected compliment. How bolstered our sense of self becomes when we are affirmed by someone we respect. For many of us, what people say and think about us is often the greatest source of assurance we receive, defining us and lifting us up.

Quite contrary to what we tell our children, words in fact do have power over us. And I wonder: should they?

To find the answer, we once again look to Sacred Scripture and call ourselves to imitate the One we follow. In the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Passion read each year on Palm Sunday, we find a man bombarded with “words.” Ranging from glorious hymns of praise and thanksgiving for His life and ministry to ruthless shouts of disgust and vitriol for His religious dissent, Jesus is surrounded by others’ opinions of Him. Any one of us, I can only assume, would have been moved to ecstatic joy to crushing despair in mere hours. And yet Jesus is unwavering: hearing His name called like a celebrity does not inflate His ego or fill Him with pride, and being falsely accused and treated like a common criminal doesn’t cause Him to lose hope.

How? He has confidence in who He is, and no one, good or bad, can take that way from Him.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’ confidence does not come from within. He is not simply some super guru or courageously-willed survivor who believes He’s able to accomplish anything He sets His mind to. It is not Himself that Jesus believes in. No, his confidence comes from God the Father. The reason that Jesus is completely unfazed by what people are saying around Him is because He knows who He is and where He comes from: He is the Son of the Father. Who could ever take that away? What could ever challenge that status? What “words” could cause Him to think more of less of Himself than He already does? Jesus lives with unbridled confidence in this fact.

And so should we.

In our being created in the image of God and recreated in our baptism, we find ourselves as adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly God. More than anything else, this status found in our relationship to the Father defines everything about us. I’ll say it again: we are adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly God. If this is the case and we truly believe it, what could ever matter more in life than pleasing God? What could ever define our sense of self more than what God thinks of us?

In this Lenten season, as we approach the joy of Easter, we are reminded time and time again how much God loves us and wants to be with us. That which we seek most is right before us. Emboldened by this ultimate truth, may we live with the same confidence that led Jesus to accept the world around him without wavering, saying with true conviction that “words will never hurt me.”

Death

The following is the fifth installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the previous reflections, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to watch the video.

 

My grandmother lived a very long, full life. In the 91 years before she died, she raised a lively family of ten children—her crown jewel—who then produced her twenty-eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; never once did she go to a party and fail to make an impression on the other guests; and all throughout her life, she found pleasure praying the rosary and going to mass, even being fortunate enough to pilgrimage to both Rome and Medjugorje on multiple occasions. If there was a bucket list for my grandmother, I can hardly think of something that she left unchecked. She lived a very long, full life.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.

Statistically speaking, roughly 160,000 people die every day around the world. Of those, 29,000 are children under the age of five dying from mostly preventable causes. And while overall age expectancy is up to 69 years old—the greatest it has ever been in human history—an estimated one in five people will still die between the ages of 15 and 60.

Why do three-year-olds die? Why are so many lives cut short leaving behind family and loved ones? Why, oh why, does God allow innocent people to die?

While some may see these questions as an attack on God, a show of one’s lack of faith or antagonism against religion, I believe that our asking them is not only justified, they are at the very core of our faith. More than anything else, our Christian faith finds its merit in our ability to answer the difficult questions of life and death. In fact, I believe that Jesus wanted us to ask the question so that He could answer it.

Cue chapter 11 of John’s Gospel.

Traveling around to preach with his disciples, Jesus hears word that his close friend, Lazarus, is gravely ill. Knowing of course that Jesus has already performed six extraordinary signs thus far in the Gospel, the reader no doubt expects Him to return to his friend to perform one more. But he doesn’t. Instead, and against his disciples urging, he remains where he is and lets Lazarus die. This detail is not lost upon Lazarus’ sister. Upon arriving to Lazarus’ house, now four days after his death, Martha shares with Jesus how she truly feels: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Even though she concludes by showing that she trusts Jesus, Martha, once again, represents how we so often feel. Why, God, when you have such power would you let this happen? Don’t you love us? She, like so many of us in tragedy, is unable to reconcile how God can be all loving and all powerful, and yet allow things like this to happen.

So why did Jesus delay? Was it because He didn’t truly care for Lazarus? Surely not, as he wept when He saw his tomb.

Was it because He didn’t have the power to heal him? Surely not, as He had already shown the power to perform incredible signs of the Father’s glory.

No, the reason he delays, as He tells His disciples on the road that they are delaying, “is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus wanted Lazarus to die so that He could show how pointless a fear of death is. Jesus wanted to show that death—the inevitable event that we dread and so tell ourselves will never happen to us, the thing that grips our souls and leaves us in fear more than anything else— has no power over Him. “I am the resurrection and the life,” He says. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Death is not a punishment from God or something to fear because death is not the end of the story. It is a beginning. It is a sign of the great power and wonder of God to give even greater life to those who lose their earthly one, a sign that He demonstrates in his own dying, offering us a path to follow. We have to die if we want to be like Jesus. We have to die if we want to rise and live with him for eternity. In allowing Lazarus to die and demystifying the experience of death—even tragic ones—Jesus calls us to follow after Him, even in death, without fear.

And so He asks Martha, and I believe asks all of us when we find ourselves struck by tragedy, “Do you believe this?” Do we truly believe that Jesus has the power to conquer death? Do we believe that Jesus truly rose from the grave and that we who are baptized into his death will do the same? Do we believe that death is not the end but in fact simply a new beginning, a gateway into eternal communion with the creator of the universe?

And what would our lives look like if we truly did?

My guess is that it would still be sad. Jesus wept when he heard of Lazarus’ death because it’s always sad to lose someone we love. Whether its my 91-year-old grandmother or a three-year-old child, death is always tragic. It is still okay to mourn.

And yet, if we truly believed what Jesus showed us in his raising of Lazarus, we could never despair or give up hope. Our lives would not be dictated by fear of death, getting old, or losing loved ones, but constantly filled with the reassuring joy that nothing—not even death—can keep us from the communion we share with each other in Jesus. Jesus did not simply “raise from the dead,” Jesus is alive. Jesus is, in the present tense. And so are we. And so is everyone we love now or ever loved in the past. We may never know for sure why some people die tragically earlier than others, and yet we find in Jesus that the question doesn’t have the sting that it used to. Death is not a punishment or the end, but our entrance into eternal life with God and others.

 

Identity

The following is the fourth installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the previous reflections, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to watch the video.

Guilty by association. While a concept that does not stand up in a court of law—one cannot be charged with a crime simply by being associated with a criminal—we know that it is a very powerful force in the court of public opinion. When someone does something bad, the moral character of everyone around them is called into question.

No clearer example of this can be seen than that of social groups in high school. Cliques. Despite the fact that each and every one of us is a unique set of thoughts, feelings, and actions, transcending simple categorization or affiliation, we cannot escape the corporate identities we take on. Nerds. Jocks. Preps. Partiers. Liberals. Conservatives. Religious. And so on. In our association with others—superficial or meaningful—our individual identity is unavoidably and irreparably shaped by the people around us: like it or not, who they are, how they act, and what people think of them will tremendously influence what people think of us.

While our lives as followers of Jesus cannot fairly be compared to a high school clique, the effect it has on our identity is spot on.

In our Gospel reading this week, we hear of a man born blind. Blind since birth, everyone has assumed that he is so because of sin, either his or his parents. Jesus does not agree: the man was born blind in order reveal the glory and power of the Father. Spitting into the ground, he forms a muddy substance—truly getting his hands dirty in the man’s life—and smears it on his eyes, an act that one would expect to further inhibit sight. Instead, in a miraculous gesture, Jesus gives the man the ability to see, symbolic of the light of faith that Jesus brings to the world.

And while that is extraordinary in itself, the most interesting part of the story is what comes next: Jesus disappears and lets the formerly blind man be the protagonist. Interrogated by everyone around him, his identity, moral standing, and allegiance are all called into question. Who are you and where did you come from? How was this miracle performed? Do you accept our authority as Jewish leaders? There the man stands, with Jesus nowhere to be found, taking on the exact ridicule and questioning that Jesus faces all throughout the Gospel of John. It’s as if the man is standing in for Jesus. It’s as if the man, in some strange way, now represents Jesus in the world, taking on the identity of the one who healed him…

The story of the man born blind is meant to typify the experience of the anyone who is given the light of faith to follow Jesus. For those who enter the faith and bear the name ‘Christian,’ not only are they able to see in ways they could never see before, they unavoidably adopt everything that goes along with Jesus’ identity. A Christian, we could say, is not just one who likes “the Christ” (from the Greek christos meaning “anointed one”), but is in fact one who embodies all that the Christ does, receives the Christ into their being, and then goes out into the world as Christ themselves.

In other words, the story of the man born blind is the story of our baptism.

When we enter the font and cleansed with water, our old way of life—our blindness—is washed away. In an act of miraculous grace, we are touched by Jesus and given grace upon grace, called from an experience of death to new life.

But that’s only the half of it.

After leaving the font a new person in Christ, we are anointed by the priest with oil on the crown of our head. Yes, in the image and likeness of the true anointed one—the Christ—we are crowned with oil and anointed into His identity and mission. Although essentially the same person we were before, with the same unique set of thoughts, feelings, and actions, our association with Jesus and the indelible mark that He puts on our soul forever changes our identity: now, not only free from sin but marked by Jesus, we enter the world in the image and likeness of the one true Christ. After our baptism, we are nothing less that “christs” in the world, called to live out His threefold ministry of being priest, prophet, and king.

That is what we celebrate during Easter and what we prepare for in Lent. While it is a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, a season to focus on our sinfulness and call upon God’s mercy, our ultimate focus in this season is to call to mind the identity we share in Jesus and to prepare ourselves to renew our baptismal promise to be who Christ has anointed us to be. Like it or not, when Jesus touched us and gave us the light to see, we became guilty by association, defined by and treated in the way that He is treated: Glory. Love. Ridicule. Confrontation. Praise. Persecution. Death… and Resurrection.