Monday, December 25, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - Christmas

So what is it that we have been waiting for? Many people go through Advent like those who stand in a line without really knowing what’s at the end of it. But since it’s a line, they think that it must be something good. However, that may not always be the case. It depends on what you think of as “good.” A friend and I saw a line of mostly young people, several blocks long, on a shopping street in Boston. When we finally asked somebody what the line was for, we found out that it was a line to get some free lipstick! People happily wait in line for tickets, for Santa, for communion; but for lipstick?

In the case of Advent, the “good” is nothing less than the celebration that God is in our midst, that the Emmanuel – which is a name that means “God is with us” – has been realized, made real and physical and practical, in Jesus Christ. This Good News that we keep hearing about is not some insight, information, or special knowledge. Instead, the Good News is a real person, an actual somebody, who was conceived, born, lived, and died. He was also raised from death, body and soul, and he sent his Spirit so that we can be him for others, channeling God’s unique love, as it were, the kind of love that dwells in patience, sacrifice, and endurance. It is the kind of love that lies behind the deep and mysterious motives of activists and saints, parents, children, good friends. It’s the kind of love that makes little sense but brings great joy. It’s the kind of love that counts, stays when all else falls away; the kind that is the essence of genuine relationships. These endure. As Cardinal Francis George once said, “What we take with us from this life into the next are simply the relationships. Everything else disappears, but they are eternal.”

Now lots of people are willing to accept that Jesus was born, lived, and died. And they’re fine about that deep, mysterious power of genuine love. But it’s hard for them to see the middle piece – the fact that Jesus, that God, has redefined reality in such a radical way by actually, physically, becoming one of us and literally embracing us with real mercy and love. So how does that middle piece make any difference in our lives, or how can it?

Well, we are invited, in the second letter of Peter, to become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) St. Athanasius wrote in the 4th century, “God became man so that man might become god.” The fact of Jesus Christ – also called the incarnation – is an invitation to live within, and out of, a new reality, a new dimension of the universe, a new way of looking at things. It is an invitation into a very real, very practical, very personal relationship with God, with Jesus, one that will shape all other relationships, and an invitation into a very real, very practical community, one that will redefine the way that we see all other communities. St. John Baptist de La Salle makes it all very personal in his meditation for Christmas. He says, “For how long has Jesus been presenting himself to you and knocking at the door of your heart, in order to make his dwelling within you and you have not wanted to receive him?” (Med. 85.1)

Everyone expects a wonderful future of some kind, a time when our deepest desires are fulfilled. Jesus is an invitation to begin that future now. Anthony Bloom described this really well. While we await the day when God will come in glory, when God shall be all in all, we should realize, he says, that “already now God is in our midst; already now we have a vision of what each of us is by vocation and can be by participation. But this is an offer; God gives His love, God gives Himself – not only in the Holy Gifts of Communion, but in all possible ways He is ready to enter into our lives, to fill our hearts, to be enthroned in our minds, to be the will of our will. But to do that, to allow Him to do that, we must give ourselves to Him, we must respond to love by love, to faith – the faith which God has in us – by faith that is trust and faithfulness in Him. And then – then, we, each of us singly and all of us in our togetherness, will become God’s Kingdom come with power, the beginning of the fullness of time.” That’s the difference Jesus makes.

So on Christmas we celebrate the Nativity of this reality in the newness and innocence of mother and child, bound in poverty and love; content, hopeful, joyful, expectant, and very much alive. The great invitation awaits.
Now isn’t that something worth standing in line for?

(Video Version HERE)

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - Fourth Sunday of Advent

The story of John the Baptist runs throughout the season of Advent, his calling of people to account for themselves, to recognize that they haven’t been their best selves, and to get off their duffs and do something about it. In traditional church language, it was people’s “sins” that he was dealing with. We should get a better sense of that.

In G.K. Chesterton’s words, “…sin, whatever else it is, is not merely the dregs of bestial existence. It is something more subtle and spiritual, and is in some way connected with the very supremacy of the human spirit.… The reality of sin arises, in fact, from the same truth that makes the reality of human poetry and joy. It arises from the fact that the smallest thing in this world has its own infinity.” An awareness of the packed potential in each thing, in each decision, and in each action, is what sin – and salvation – is all about.

Our lives swim in an ocean of actual dynamic grace and potential future grace. In all of the things that we do and see every day, it may be the smallest ones that have the most profound, unannounced, and probably even unknown effect. This is the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory applied to human relationships. A decision that you make or an action that you take bears real immediate and future consequences, both for you, for others, and for the world around you.

One good example of this is found in the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent, which is the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her that she will be the mother of Jesus. Despite her puzzlement, in the end she said “May it be done to me according to your word.” That “Yes” changed the universe. It was a “Yes” that did not know what would follow, or what would happen, but it was the “Yes” that led to Christmas, where God’s grace was truly joined with our humanity.

Because of that “Yes,” our lives may today share in God’s presence through the cultivation of the presence of Jesus within our hearts, and flowing from there to our thoughts, actions, and dispositions. St. John Baptist de La Salle writes in his meditation for the 4th Sunday of Advent that, with God’s grace, “…you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will make you firm in goodness thanks to his dwelling in you. This Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Beg him to establish your heart firmly…. (Med 4.3) It all begins with a choice and an action.

We make choices all the time, in all sorts of situations. One estimate says that we make 35,000 choices every day. A way of thinking about their cumulative effect is to imagine a grid that is divided up-and-down between “doing” at the top and “talking” on the bottom; “giving” on the right and “taking” on the left. Where among the four quadrants do most of your decisions cluster? Just in terms of your relationships – with yourself, others, and God – where do the bulk of choices fall? And what of the consequences of all those choices? There’s a lot going on here that deserves our consideration, particularly during Advent.

Annie Dillard cautions us about what’s involved: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. … we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Here is the dynamic of God’s grace stripped to the core.

Christmas is just around the corner. We shape our capacity to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ by our choices and actions. Whether we are able to say “Yes” with the same courage as Mary did will determine how much “Christmas” comes to be part of our own future.

(Video Version HERE)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - Third Sunday of Advent

In his meditation on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent – which talks about the interaction of St. John the Baptist with those who ask him who he is and what on earth he is doing with all of his preaching and baptizing – St. John Baptist de La Salle takes up the ways that God works through others to bring us God’s light, God’s salvific presence, and God’s remarkable invitation for reconciliation and unity.

In this Gospel, the priests and temple officials ask questions that people today may ask of us as Christians or as Catholics. “Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?” The implied question is, “Why should we pay attention to anything that you say? What gives you a corner on the truth?” And it’s a legitimate question. But like most important questions, although it’s an easy question to ask, the answer has to be a bit more complicated. It is more complicated because it involves a mystery, something that lies essentially much deeper than what is accessible through simple explanation. Herbert McCabe points to a similar phenomenon in reference to appreciating one of Shakespeare's plays. In a passage of his worth quoting at length, he writes that depths of meaning are not found " a play when you watched it for the first time; you have to learn to understand it, and you cannot take short cuts to the depth. ... [A]s we enter into a mystery it enlarges our capacity for understanding. ... [W]hen it comes to reaching down to the deeper meanings, there is no substitute for watching or taking part in the play itself. The mystery reveals itself in the actual enactment of the play. It is very hard to put the meaning of Macbeth into any other words, and that is why literary critics are always harder to read than plays; it all seems so much more complicated. This is not because critics are trying to make things difficult, nor is it that the deep meaning is itself something complicated. It is something simple; the difficulty lies in bringing it up from its depth. When you try to bring deep simplicities to the surface you have to be complicated about them. If you are not, then you will simply have substituted slogans ... for the truth."

This is also the case with St. John the Baptist’s message, and is indeed the case with all of Scripture. De La Salle writes that scripture “is like a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.” (Med 3.2) A lamp reveals the things that were previously in the dark. But the light doesn’t tell you what to do with all of those things. That’s up to you. If may happen, however, that by encountering what lies revealed by the lamp – in other words, what we come to know – something new and precious may rise up in our hearts. And this is also true with the things of faith. De La Salle writes that “… knowledge is not enough; it is necessary for God himself, through Jesus Christ Our Lord, to show us the path we must follow, and to inspire us to walk in the footsteps of his Son.” (Med 3.3)

The mystery of faith is only genuinely known by being encountered, by being engaged, by being put to the test of actual life and practice. As teachers, we, like St. John the Baptist, “… are only the voice of the One who really disposes hearts to accept Jesus Christ… Do not be content, therefore, to read and to learn from others what you must teach your pupils. Pray God to impress all these truths so firmly on yourselves that you will not have any occasion to be, or to consider yourselves to be, anything but the ministers of God and the dispensers of his mysteries.” (Med 3.1-2) And it is the mystery of the Incarnation that awaits our celebration and deeper engagement when Christmas finally arrives.
(Video Version HERE)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - Second Sunday of Advent

The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent is the story of John the Baptist, who came out of the desert wearing a camel’s hair outfit held together with a leather belt and proclaiming that people’s sins – anybody’s sins – were forgiven simply by a baptism with water, a cleansing of the inner soul by a symbolic cleansing of the outer body.

But wait, there’s more. He said that somebody would come after him who would do even greater things, who would cleanse them on a whole new level. I’m sure that people of the time didn’t quite know what to make of it all, but they did go to have their sins forgiven, and if that meant having to be plunged into a cold, flowing river, so be it. All they had to do – and this was probably the hardest part – was to acknowledge their sins; to name them, to recognize and come to own all the ways that relationships and trusts had been broken or hurt.

It may be that it was through his own desert experience – in the stark, empty simplicity of desert life – that John the Baptist came face to face with his own sins, his own limitations, his own false inner stories. Having experienced God’s mercy by moving through his own emptiness into an appreciation of God’s presence and fullness, when he emerged from the desert, he was compelled to share the benefits of his experience with all those whose burdens were so similar to his own.

The poet Robert Frost wrote the line: “The best way out is always through.” It’s a similar good way to think about and deal with personal sins, challenges, difficulties, or just the minor inconveniences of life. Don’t try to go around them. Simply move through them, acknowledge what’s true, step forward, and step beyond their potential to skew the way that you see and encounter the world around you.

Goodness and mercy best come to the fore surrounded by a cloud of difficulties. Indeed it is this that helps them emerge in stark relief. The Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: “The dark takes form in the heart of the white and reveals it.” Mother Teresa, for example, stood out as a small light in an ocean of dark poverty. Because of her example, she revealed to the world both poverty and the power of God’s goodness and mercy. She also was a voice crying in the desert.

John the Baptist invites us to follow his example and come to know what the advent of Jesus Christ might mean for us and for others. In his meditation for the Second Sunday of Advent, St. John Baptist de La Salle applies his example to the ministry of teaching. He writes that by living in the desert, John the Baptist was able “…to dispose his own heart to receive the fullness of the Spirit of God in order to make himself fit to carry out his ministry properly.” Then he says, “Because you have to prepare the hearts of others for the coming of Jesus Christ, you must first of all dispose your own hearts to be entirely filled with zeal, in order to render your words effective in those whom you instruct.” (Meditation 2.2)

This is why De La Salle so often recommended prayer and meditation to the teachers. We cannot give what we have not received ourselves, especially when it comes to the depth of our conviction, or care, or commitment to our students and school community.

The time that we take for prayer, for reflection, for quiet presence; these are the desert that is available to us for our personal renewal, insight, and the inner alignment of our priorities. And it is also these that will, like St. John the Baptist, best prepare our receptivity to the Good News of the incarnation when Christmas arrives.
(Video Version HERE)

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - First Sunday of Advent

In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus tells his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert!” because you don’t know when the end will come. For us, we could be watchful in anticipation for something joyful, or we could be watching for something challenging. Anything that begins anticipates an end. There will usually be an end. Endings are part of reality, so don’t pretend that they don’t exist. But ending can also be catalysts to new beginnings. The prospect of death, for example, has a wonderful way of focusing one’s attention. The daredevils of this world illustrate this all the time, declaring that they’ve never felt so alive as they do when they hover near the edge of catastrophe. It’s as if there is only a true beginning when you are faced with some sort of end, either through choice or by necessity. New life emerges. Jesus said “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)

The Advent season, this annual beginning of the Church’s liturgical year, begins with the end in mind. And it’s been doing this for centuries, even before Stephen Covey’s book about the 7 habits of highly effective people, where the same principle shows up as the 2nd habit. In its application to our spiritual lives, keeping the end in mind brings a healthy respect for what God is likely to expect of us, both now and in the future. St. John Baptist de La Salle makes this eminently clear in his meditation for the First Sunday of Advent. He says “Those whose lifespan is so uncertain should not delay to take the steps needed to insure their salvation.” (Med 1.1.) This is like the story of someone who asked “If I am to be saved, when should I repent.” The answer came: “You should be sure to repent on the day before you die.” “Well,” they said, “how can I do that when I don’t know when I’m going to die.” “That’s easy,” was the response. “Repent now!”

What does all this have to do with Advent, the waiting period that looks towards Christmas and its celebration of the birth of Christ? One way to look at Advent is to see it as a time of fostering and building up a greater awareness of God’s mysterious presence in our lives – in our friendships & relationships, in our personal habits, in our priorities, in what we read and say, in what we do and feel. This is Advent as an intentional pursuit of everything that most allows the seeds of faith to become more deeply planted within our lives, so that when we do come to celebrate Christmas, we can truly know and embrace its genuine impact on our lives. Repentance naturally follows.

Within our Lasallian context, Advent is a time to get in touch with the divine proposition that we reach God through the poor, the needy, the lowly, and the simple. Christ and the Gospel brought about what the sociologist Peter Berger called, “a cosmic redefinition of reality.” (First Things, Remembering Peter Berger – October 2017) God’s presence dwells among the poor and the powerless more than among the rich and the powerful. Christ is found in the stables of our students’ lives much more than in their mansions. The Lasallian advent happens every time we step into school, have a conversation with a student, prepare a lesson, or meet with parents. The classroom is our manger, and the students we approach with a humility and reverence like God.

The potential of Advent for us mirrors the potential we find every day as part of our Lasallian vocation. Isn’t that worth our best attention?
(Video Version HERE)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Great Eclipse Journey of 2017

The trip to Oregon to see the great eclipse of 2017 went surprisingly smoothly; a straight shot to the Eugene area from Napa in 8.5 hours, where family connections were providing hospitality for a couple of nights before the big event for the three of us 50+ male relatives. Then - just to be sure, you know - off on Sunday evening to a previously reserved 10x15 overnight spot at the Philomath, OR, Frolic and Rodeo Grounds, where 1,000 spots had been prepared for the onslaught of out-of-state ‘clipsers. (Turns out that only about 100 spots were needed.)

We arrived in downtown Philomath without the anticipated last-minute traffic congestion from Eugene and picked out a nice centrally located spot in the large stubbly field, where we set up the tent, the 6-inch Celestron telescope, and our various camping accoutrements. The astrobuffs of the group (not me) aligned the heavens on the telescope, and soon, while darkness descended, we were hosting nearby campers to look at Saturn and its moon, Titan. Somebody fifty feet away was singing songs with his acoustic guitar, a nice wine was near at hand, and conversation flowed freely among camping neighbors. Gradually people entered their eerily-lit nylon-covered dwellings for the night, with dancing lights making their way to the distant port-a-potties.

But you want to hear about the actual eclipse experience, and not the long night in the field (one person in the tent, one in the car, and one on the ground with an improvised tarp-tent above). The sky the next morning was clear as a bell, and the sun was hot, impossibly bright, and confidently overwhelming. The action in Philomath began at 9:04:47 and ended at 11:37:13. With the help of an eclipse timer app, a calm voice told us exactly what to notice at certain times, when to take off our special glasses during the total eclipse time ($21.35 on Ebay three days earlier… free at the fairgrounds.. Oops) and when to put them back on.

By this time we had made lots of friends, and a steady group of campers came over to look through our telescope, which by now had been set up with its solar filter and synchronized to the sun’s movement across the heavens. Solar flares and mini-astronomy lessons occupied our time until the app suddenly called out “First contact in 1 minute!”
This was the point when the moon first began to cover the sun. Nothing much was noticeable until about 30 minutes later, when 25-30% of the sun was covered, and someone mentioned that the world around her looked like somebody had lowered the brightness control on her computer screen. Things around us were darker and less defined. The closer we came to 10:16:49, there was less light and noise (no bird sounds at all) as we moved towards the time of totality.

The last minute was the most dramatic. Like a door closing on the sun, in the space of 60 seconds - with the app helpfully counting down for us - the world around us became dusk-dark, then evening-dark, then in the last five seconds after a brief flash of light (the “diamond ring effect”) completely dark
. The silent fairgrounds burst with short acclamations from the campers. Where just a moment ago there was a sun impossible to look at, there now was a black disk ringed with a fiery-bright corona, alive with bold, white-light power streaming out in all directions. Some of the brighter stars - planets actually - were clearly visible in the darkened sky. Cameras of all kinds - on tripods, car roofs, and in hand-held phones - were recording the event, as we were finally able to take off our solar glasses and appreciate the full impact of the eclipse totality.

The strangeness of the phenomena was what was most impactful to me. Something wasn’t right with the world in a big way, but we knew that it would only last a very short time (a minute and 34 seconds in our case), and therefore we enjoyed every moment. Kids young and old were agog with the overwhelming 3D immersive quality of the experience. You pretty much forget everything else while something like this is happening, as if a primal chord is struck for just a moment, the echoes of which you know will last a lifetime. One young man was seated lotus-style on the ground, calmly gazing upward with absolute equanimity and not a care in the world. An
elderly couple held hands while seated in their camping chairs, entranced by the sky-show above. And the dogs among the campers were absolutely quiet, along with the rest of nature, as if this were one of life’s hiccups to be quizzically endured.

Then in much too little time, the solar diamond flashed once again on the opposite side - “Put your glasses on!” - and the world rapidly returned to its daily normality. As quickly as the darkness had descended, it disappeared, the sun door was reopened, and animated conversations started: “Wow, did you see ….?” “How come ….?” “Can I look through the telescope?” Groups came to see the second half of the eclipse through the telescope against the bright ferocity of the sun and the clear tiny sun-spots, each of which in reality was at least as large as the earth. Within a few minutes, those around us went back to their camping areas to relax or in many cases to pack up. By the time the moon had covered 3/4 of its journey across the sun, half of the campers had finished their journey, packed up and left for home, eager to beat the traffic, which would prove to be as impossible as beating one of those celestial bodies in the sky.

We waited and watched until the real end of the eclipse at 11:37:13 am, enjoying unimpeded access to the telescope and the moon’s 2,288 mph (relative to the earth) routine trip around the earth and, for a very short while, across the sun. Then we packed up, made a beeline for Eugene on two-lane highway 99, and had plenty of time to enjoy the Oregon countryside as the predicted gridlock appeared in about one minute and 34 seconds. But no matter, we saw the eclipse, and it was worth it!