“God is looking at you, and He is not ashamed of you.”

This weekend I traveled to my favorite Saturday afternoon confession spot, only to find signs posted on all the doors of the church: “No confessions or Mass this Saturday.” Undeterred, I referenced masstimes.org and found a parish a mere mile away offering confession at the same time.

Upon my arrival, I was struck by the beautiful altar, the bright stained glass, and the prominent Polish flags. It was unclear which confessional was going to be used, and as I stood in the aisle indecisively, an old priest in a Roman collar and blue sweater came out from the sacristy. I knew him from reputation–the oldest active pastor in our archdiocese. At a spry 90 years old, he kept telling the archbishop he wasn’t finished being a pastor yet, and the folks at the chancery let him stay on long past his mandatory retirement date.

He welcomed me back to his confessional, where I saw two chairs nearly touching each other, an open Bible, and a card with a Scripture verse printed on it. We sat down, knee to knee, and he started by asking me a little about myself. I shared my age, my marital status, my number of children, and he nodded his head and said, “Okay, that’s enough to go on. Let’s begin.” I confessed and he counseled me at length–about my duties as a husband and father, about my prayer life. He asked me how much time I spent in silence each day, and whether or not I set aside time for “God to speak and tell you He loves you.”

Right before he absolved me, the priest asked if I would look him in the eye. I did, raising my head to match his gaze as he slowly stood, joints creaking. The priest placed his hands on my head, and he intoned the words of absolution. His was a merciful and loving gaze, as though there were no place he would rather be than in this confessional, absolving me of my sins. And when he finished, he simply said, “God is looking at you, John, and He is not ashamed of you.”

His words didn’t hit me like a bolt of lightning; instead, they slowly wound their way to my heart like sunlight working through February snow. I experienced the slow spread of warmth through my body, and I couldn’t do anything but nod and say, “Okay. Okay.” The priest gave me a hug and said, “That’s it. You’re done. Go forth! Go forth!”

***

I’m a traditional man. I prefer to have my confession heard with the screen between me and the priest. But I had forgotten how powerful the laying on of hands can be. This priest definitely knew the power of human touch. His request that I look him in the eye during absolution was an act in personae christi. He not only called on the power Christ meted out to his Apostles to forgive sins, he dared me to look into his face and see Jesus’ love for me. It was a courageous and tender act on the priest’s part, and I will always be thankful to him for it. I hope, in my most difficult moments, I recall his face, and the love of God beaming forth from it like sunshine.

Making our own Cisterns

A few weeks ago, an image from the prophet Jeremiah piqued my interest:

‘Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,’ declares the Lord. ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water…Why go to Egypt to drink water from the Nile? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the Euphrates?’

-Jer 2:12-13, 18

This is part of a much larger passage, in which the Lord indicts Israel for forsaking Him and instead running after foreign gods. But this image was particularly striking since I came across is on a 100 F day here in Minnesota. God describes Himself as “the spring of living water,” and foreign idols as “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” For those living in the Holy Land in ancient times, the cistern was necessary to sustain life. These large basins, carved out of solid rock, would catch rainwater and keep it cool and pure until it was needed in the summer months. But a cistern, like a drinking glass or cooking pot, is useless if it is cracked. (You can read more about cisterns in the Bible here.) In fact, a cracked cistern is worse than useless, since rainwater that trickles into it is wasted.

If we dig into this imagery a bit more, the first sin God mentions, that of “forsak[ing] the spring of living water” is a foolish action. Imagine walking away from a spring of cool water at an oasis and wandering willingly into the desert instead. It’s certain death if you lose your way. But the second sin is somehow even more foolish. Not only does Israel wander into the desert, but Israel takes the time and effort to carve out a cistern. Since Israel is in the desert, it’s unlikely that rain will ever fill the cistern, but even if it does, there is a crack in the bottom and that water is going to drain away. Again, it is a death sentence.

A 1700 year-old cistern in Jerusalem (not cracked!)

A 1700 year-old cistern in Jerusalem (not cracked!)

These Biblical images perfectly capture the folly of idolatry, which was an ever-present threat to Israel. The nation was surrounded on all sides by cultures offering the false promises and false gods. These days, the threat of false religions might be muted a bit, but idolatry of another kind is common. Whether it’s the love of money, food, or recognition, we are tempted to set something up in place of God. We still turn away from the spring of living water to wander in the desert, and we are still sweat to build our own cisterns.

This image of choosing–between the spring or the cistern–brings into sharp focus the obstacles in my own life. These are the things that might seem useful or pleasurable in the moment, but after I spend time at them, I am still restless or unfulfilled. In the past few years, there are times where I have been stressed, tired, or lonely and turned to some kind of true time-waster: binge-watching Netflix, eating for pleasure’s sake, etc. It’s not that films or food are bad in and of themselves, but using them as tools to assuage loneliness or stress is a futile exercise. I walk away from those excessive activities feeling restless. Contrast that with prayer or free time spent with my kids. At first glance, it’s simply more work than turning on Netflix, but it also brings with it a sense of deep peace and fulfillment.These are the things in life that constitute springs of living water. They are inexhaustible sources of contentment, peace, and well-being.

In just one short month, I will be going on a silent retreat to spend some serious time alone with God. I am so excited to sit next to Him, my spring of living water, and simply be at rest. That spring will never dry up. I will always be sustained by it, provided I resist the temptation to wander in the desert and build my own cistern.

St. Jacques Hamel, pray for us!

There can be no doubt: Father Jacques Hamel, the priest murdered by so-called “soldiers of ISIS,” is a martyr. He was killed in a gruesome fashion immediately after celebrating Mass, and he perished where he had spent much of his life: standing in the sanctuary of a church, close to the altar. By all accounts, he was beloved by all. A priest who knew him well stated, that he died after “…giving this act of love,” by which he meant the Eucharist. It is clear he was targeted for murder because he was a priest and a believer in Jesus Christ.

The UK’s Guardian states that his killing “…opens a new frontier” for the Catholic Church, but considering the de-Christianization of France during the Revolution, it’s not like France is a stranger to violence against priests.

Regardless of what comes next, remember: St. Jacques is praying for us in heaven, and he is rejoicing in the highest reaches of paradise at this moment.

St. Jacques Hamel of France, pray for us!

Family as School, Nutrition

Taryn, Ryan and I have quoted many times paragraph 1653 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The fruitfulness of conjugal love extends to the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education. Parents are the principal and first educators of their children. In this sense the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life.

This passage also relates to the image of the family as the first church, the “domestic church” of our childhood. As Saint Pope John Paul II said in his December 30, 2001 Angelus address:

For every believer, and especially for Christian families, the humble dwelling place in Nazareth is an authentic school of the Gospel. Here we admire, put into practice, the divine plan to make the family an intimate community of life and love; here we learn that every Christian family is called to be a small “domestic church” that must shine with the Gospel virtues. Recollection and prayer, mutual understanding and respect, personal discipline and community asceticism and a spirit of sacrifice, work and solidarity are typical features that make the family of Nazareth a model for every home.

Right now I’m completing a 30-day meditation called The School of Nazareth: a Spiritual Journey with Saint Joseph. My wife got it for me for Father’s Day, and it’s excellent. In short daily reflections, the author guides men through what it means to be a husband and father by focusing in on the three members of the Holy Family. He calls their home the “school of Nazareth,” the place where for thirty years Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived a hidden life. So critical was this silent period in our Lord’s life that the Byzantines and later the armies of the Crusades built two churches over where they believed the Holy Family lived. They named this place of veneration The Church of the Nutrition, because it is where Jesus was nourished in his childhood.

Not being the strong, silent type, I’ve always had a difficult time getting close to St. Joseph. But now that I’m mid-way through this retreat, I’m beginning to understand more about him and why I need to ask for his prayers. Whether he truly taught the Lord of the Universe anything is up for debate, but I am starting to contemplate how he understood better than almost anyone how precious the child he was safeguarding was. Over the past few weeks, I am asking myself, “Do I treat my children as that precious? Do they know how much they are loved by both me and the God who made them?” And this thought is helping me see my children with new eyes. Saint Joseph, pray for us!

Not as the World Gives

John’s beautiful reflection and prayer from several days ago, in the wake of recent tragedies, was a necessary reminder for me of the role that we play as Christians in this fallen world. Isn’t it easy to get caught up in anger over the injustices we see every day? Especially when they are this close to our doorstep, it can feel like the world is caving in around us. People feel the need to take sides in an “us-versus-them” battle instead of standing side by side to look at the problem and move forward together. There are horrible things said, horrible acts committed against our own neighbors. It looks pretty dire.

But God sees it all… and yet he still commands us to have joy and peace. Do you hear that? God sees every injustice ever committed, every act of abuse, every tear shed, every heart broken, ever.  And yet he tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14:21) Peace is not a suggestion, but a command. How is that even possible? How can our hearts not be troubled by terrible events right in our own backyard? He tells us the answer himself, “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” He does not give peace “as the world gives”, but supernaturally. Look at two saints of our church, Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, who lived and died during the holocaust; there is no earthly way that they could have remained in a state of interior peace unless it came from somewhere outside of themselves, from a source of power greater than we can imagine.

In our finite understanding, we see chaos ensuing around us and think that God can’t be bigger than this. Maybe we decide it’s easier to hide from the world in order to avoid having to confront life’s difficulties, or maybe we start to believe that it is up to us to fix things. Both responses come from a place of doubt, the subconscious idea that God doesn’t have it under control, that the maker of the universe doesn’t see or care what’s going on.

So what should we do? That is a question for each individual. I know that God does ask us to be a part of the solution, but on His terms, not ours. I believe that if we are in inner turmoil, our first step must be to seek His peace. St. Maximilian could never have managed, of his own strength, to trade his life for the life of another… and then continue to offer Mass for his fellow prisoners as he slowly starved to death. This is not the work of man, but the work of Christ.   Whatever work we are called to do, we must do it with the peace of Christ. True justice will not come about through anguish and frustration, but only through true peace, Christ’s peace.

Philando Castile: What Can We Do?

In the aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting, which occurred less than ten miles from my home, the subsequent attack on Dallas police, and the related protests over the weekend, a lot of us are wondering “What can we do?”

These events (not to mention the horrendous killing of Alton Sterling) constitute the worst week of national news that I can remember since Hurricane Katrina. Archbishop Hebda held a Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice on Friday afternoon. He reminded us that we must see people as brothers and sisters in Christ, and that our prayers must lead to action as we seek to heal the body of Christ of all divisions.

For myself, I’m not sure exactly what it is I am called to do, but I know I must do something. Over the past seven days, I’ve brought this to prayer again and again, seeking an answer. And I think I’m slowly coming to one. But I know I must root my action in prayer and love. Anything else risks complete corruption, co-opting, or politicization. A few weeks ago, I came across a reflection from Fr. Jean C. J. d’Elbée, which I re-wrote into a morning offering. It has given me particular comfort since Philando died and my city has been reeling:

Father, Brother, Friend, Spouse of my soul:

You are the center and king of my heart, my redeemer and savior. Bend down over me, your little child, and bathe my weakness and impotence in your love and mercy.  Watch over me like the apple of your eye.

This morning extend to me again your inexpressible gentleness, and help me to understand that you desire mercy, not sacrifice. Help me to choose what is good, not out of fear of Hell, but out of love for you and a desire to see my true home, Heaven. Help me to choose as your Son chose. Help me to love as you love. Bless me today and make me holy.

I ask this all in Jesus’ name, who is Lord forever and ever. Amen!

The Next One

A few weeks ago I fulfilled a goal I had set out to accomplish 4 years ago. Overweight, out of shape with little-to-no-energy and ready to welcome our third child to the family, I told myself that one day, I would run a half marathon in the place where I was born, at Grandma’s Marathon, in Duluth. On June, 18, I did it.

Barely.

In reflecting on writing what has become my traditional post-race post here, I couldn’t think of anything to write. Mainly because, objectively, the run was so bad: hotter than I was anticipating, and hotter than forecast; the waves of nausea washing over me as the smell of hot dogs, burgers, and fries from the vendors lining the road assaulted my senses; the last mile being the slowest mile I’ve probably ever run in my life; the need to stop and walk while dry heaving 200 yards from the finish line; dragging myself across the finish ten minutes slower than I anticipated.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I know, I know, don’t tell me – I’ve heard it a million times: That’s why you don’t run.

Yet I’d do it all again.

I will do it again.

When I linked up with the other guys who registered with me (a full 20 minutes after the last of them crossed the line) and told them my sob story, Taryn’s husband Paul (who set a personal best, but still finished quite a bit farther from his expectations) looked at me with a strange grin, “You threw up?” He asked incredulously.

Sheepishly, I nodded, “Yeah, what little there was, mainly just dry heaves.”

“That’s awesome! That means you left it all out there! I can’t say that.”

Then began the analyzing of our runs. What went well?  What didn’t go well? Of the things that didn’t go well, what did we have control over? What can we change, how can we improve?

Mentally, I felt great – typically the toughest part of the race for me. I had executed my game plan really well with a few flaws in the first two miles, but the heart of the run, miles 3-11 were great. We clearly didn’t have control over the weather, yet we mainly chose to train on relatively cool mornings or evenings or on treadmills in air-conditioning- maybe we need to reassess that. Things broke down in the last mile for me – how much of that was physical and mental? How much was biological and chemical – what was my water intake before taking off for a 13 mile run in 60s? What should it have been? We didn’t eat well at all the morning prior to the race, did nutrition have a hand? How much was weather? Even down to little things like the fact that I was running my second half marathon (including the training regimen) on my shoes – my toes went numb after mile 11, was that due to worn shoes or a bad stride?

Like anything, I look back and see dozens of little things I can improve on. That’s why there has to be a next one. Otherwise the work, the training, the evaluation is all for nothing. When I’m done running, I’m not going out on a note like this. I’m not going to let the race run me, instead of me running it.

And once again, I found that Pauline connection between running and the spiritual life. Recently I was in confession and confessed struggling with a general class of sins that I’ve been working on for years.  The priest and I began discussing the propensity to beat yourself up over the same sins, or even to throw your hands up in the air and say, “what the heck’s the point” and quit trying to beat back the same old sins we confess over and over and over.

But that’d be like walking away from running after a bad run. I know I can do better, I have done better. When things are going well, I don’t need to prove to myself I can do better, yet when its bad – man there’s no slower runner and no worse sinner than I.

Father’s point was simply, don’t buy that. Don’t throw a pity party, don’t wallow in defeat. Learn from the defeat, move on and get ready for the next time that temptation comes. There will be a next time, and next time can have a different outcome than the last time.

Last weekend I went for my first solo jog since the race. I ran a 5k route that I’m so familiar with, I know the time – practically to the second – it takes to complete the route. While I ran, I thought about what things I learned from the race and how to implement the changes. The second half of the run is all uphill. I thought about how usually the return portion of the run is slower due to the hill; I thought about how it was nearly 10 degrees hotter and I’d run 10 more miles on the day of the race; I remembered that with the heat and the distance, I’d left it all out there. I pushed myself harder and harder up the hill and was feeling nowhere near throwing up, though I felt like I was running hard. I pulled up to my driveway and stopped the watch minutes before I usually would have.  I’d just run my fastest 5 kilometers since college. As I walked and cooled down, I was no longer thinking about the last half marathon, instead I was thinking about the next one.

The will be a next one, and I need to start getting ready.

“…for the grace of a happy death”

This morning I returned to our parish men’s club after a long hiatus, due in large part to my travel schedule. We just began reading A Biblical Walk Through the Mass by Dr. Edward Sri. Since it was our first meeting with the new book, we ended our conversation early to pray a Rosary together. We did this popcorn style, with a man spontaneously leading each decade. The fourth and fifth decades were led by H.

H joined the parish a few years ago. He’s a widower in his late eighties, and despite his age, he is one of our most active parishioners. H is a greeter at Mass, a Eucharistic Minister, and one of the most dedicated men’s club members. A few months ago, we sat with him at a parish dinner, and he made friends with all four of our kids. H now calls them by name when he sees them at Mass and tells them that he is praying for them. He is the epitome of friendliness, holiness, humor, and humility.

As H led our Rosary this morning, he did so in a style that I have never encountered before. In between each individual prayer, he would offer a one-sentence reflection from Scripture. These reflections were definitely memorized from somewhere, and so the decades he led went something like this:

Our Father, who art in heaven…but deliver us from evil, amen.

Jesus was led to the place of His death and stripped of his garments. 

Hail Mary, full of grace…now and at the hour of our death, amen.

May I not be ashamed to stand before my God at my own death.

Hail Mary, full of grace…now and at the hour of our death, amen.

The nails sought out his flesh and His blood fell to the ground.

Hail Mary, full of grace…now and at the hour of our death, amen.

His blood was poured out for us; may we pour out our blood for others.

These meditations were vivid and powerful, and during them, I found myself thinking, “Ihave to figure out where he got these meditations from. These are incredible.”

And then, just before the last Hail Mary of the last decade, H prayed “…for the grace of a happy death” and he started to cry. Emotion thickened his reedy voice, and he didn’t try to stop it. H just let the tears come. It was stunning, seeing a man receive the gift of tears. Quite a few of us teared up as well. H was not sobbing or losing control, but overcome in the moment. And somehow, we all knew what to do in response. Instead of having him lead the “call and response” on the last Glory Be, we picked it up and said the last few prayers all together. Afterward, no one was ashamed of embarrassed, least of all our friend H. Some of us thanked him or put a hand on his shoulder because we were truly were thankful. His meditations were uplifting, but his personal witness was truly awe-inspiring.

After our meeting was over, all I could think was, “Today I saw a man completely in love with God.” I am so grateful to have been a part of that Rosary this morning, and I know the experience will stay with me a long, long time.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 

At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.  Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mt 24: 6-14)

The Pulse shooting in Orlando. The Supreme Court ruling, once again, in favor of abortion. The British exiting the EU. Extremist left-wing and right-wing groups clashing in Sacramento. These are just a few of the big stories that have happened in the last 14 days. And after every one, Ryan texts me or vice versa with a link to a news story, and the other replies with some variation on, “What the heck is going on in the world?” It’s enough to make your heart beat a little faster as we are all left wondering, “Is society just…breaking down?”

To be sure, these crises constitute “wars and rumors of wars”. It’s easy to get very anxious about the state of the world right now. I feel that anxiety mounting in my own heart. But then I stop and think: Haven’t there always been wars and rumors of wars? And doesn’t Christ tell his Apostles, “See to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen”? When our Lord told his followers about these signs, He was not telling them to be complacent or anxious. He was telling them to do as they had done before: remain at peace in your own heart and stand firm to the end. I think the former opens up the possibility of the latter in each Christian’s life. If we can remain at peace, rooted in Christ, that will allow us to stand firm.

I am not one to say whether or not the world is “much worse off than ever before” or if things are “just as bad as they always have been”. I truly don’t know. But I do know this; whether we live in a time of stability or upheaval, whether we are rich or poor, whether our nation is at war or peace, we are called to do the same thing…be at peace, trust in our Lord, and stand firm.

They Know

Back in March, as I travelled to Asheville, NC for work, I would get a knowing look. A smile. A nod. A few bold folks actually strode over and whispered or said just loudly for us to hear, “go Sioux!” You see, I had a University of North Dakota Hockey cap on. The logo on the cap is the best logo in sports now-retired Sioux Indian head. Deemed “hostile and offensive,” the nickname was changed this last fall in a public, yet deeply unpopular, online vote to the cowardly very safely inoffensive Fighting Hawks (don’t worry, I wont tell you how I really feel).

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From the Airport to the hotel grounds and back, people would look at the hat. Those who knew what the logo was, would mention it with pride. Even as far away as Atlanta and Raleigh, I got the nod. It got me thinking though – I was sporting a logo of a collegiate hockey team. Granted, one that was very distinctive and one that will become harder and harder to find. But it still got a rise out of people.

But what about things that really matter? Like my faith. When I’m about in public do people see me and think – he must be a Christian, or even, a Catholic? It’s one thing to wear your team logo on your sleeve, but it’s another to wear your faith on your sleeve and I don’t want to be superficial about it. What if there’s a way for people to know, to recognize that (Sioux fan though I may be) I claim Christ as my Lord and King. A cross? A medal? A scapular? A tattoo?

What about my actions? Do my actions lead others to conclude that I’m on Jesus’s “team?” How do I treat those random strangers in the restaurant, the hotel lobby, the airport terminal, or in the next seat in the plane?  How do I treat those in my office, but even more importantly – those at home? Do I treat them as individuals with value and to be loved?

If something were to happen to me and I died suddenly in the presence of all those people, would the best they could say about me was, “he sure was a Fighting Sioux hockey fan?”