Windstorms and Violins
September 1, 2002
Life is difficult! This is the opening sentence of Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, and I think there would be few of us here today who would argue with the truth of that statement. Even when our lives are well grounded, even when things are going smoothly, it does not take long before something challenges us, something attacks us, something causes us pain. As Roseann-Roseannadana used to say on the old Saturday Night Live, “It’s always something; if it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Each one of us has a cross to carry, and carrying that cross makes life difficult.
The hope that comes from today’s Gospel is this: that which is difficult can also be good. When Jesus says to his disciples that they must take up their cross and follow him, he is not assigning them a punishment. He is offering the assurance that when they take up a difficult part of life and carry it as a cross after Jesus, it need not destroy them. In fact it can have the power to strengthen them and open them more to life.
A famous Italian violin maker was known to carefully select the wood for his violins from the north side of the tree trunk. When people questioned him about this, he pointed out that it was the north side of the tree that faced the brunt of the storm. It was that side of the tree that was buffeted by the wind and the rain. As a result, the wood on that side was stronger and more resilient. He found that if he shaped his violins from the wood on the north side of the tree, both the tone and the timbre of those instruments would be richer. Therefore, when the winds came and the rains struck, one could hear the trees of the forest groan under the violence of the storm. But the violin maker would only smile and say, “I love that sound, for it’s the sound of trees learning to be violins.”
When Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, that we must take up our cross and follow him, he is pointing to a similar truth. As difficult as it can be to bear the burdens of life, they have the possibility of deepening us, teaching us, and allowing us to grow. It is often in times of stress or trouble that we make progress, that we hear things that otherwise we would not have the time or the patience to hear. C. S. Lewis says that “God whispers to us in our pleasures; God speaks to us in our conscience; but God shouts to us in our pain. Pain is the megaphone that God uses to rouse a deafened world.” Pain certainly seizes our attention.
Now we need to be careful here because to say that good can come from pain is not the same as saying pain is good. Sickness, suffering and death are evils and we should do all that we can to avoid them. But when evils must be faced, when they cannot be avoided, we are called to take them up as crosses to follow after Christ. When we do that, they have the potential to deepen us and to open us more to life.
I know this to be true because I have heard it from the testimony of so many people. I’ve spoken to a woman dying of cancer, who told me that through God’s help, she is more alive today than in any other moment of her life. I’ve talked to a young college student who shared with me of how his girl friend dropped him after a three year relationship, and after he made his way through the pain , with God’s help, he realized that he was a stronger person then he ever imagined himself to be. I’ve spoken with a young mother who lost her daughter in crib death, and who witnessed to me that once she worked through the sorrow, with God’s help, it was turned into energy for ministry to other mothers who lose their children in similar circumstances. I’ve spoken to a young married couple, who after their first major argument and all the hurt and pain and healing that it involved, could say that with God’s help, their relationship today is deeper and more real than it was before. I’ve had lunch with an unemployed steel worker who shared with me that it was not until he lost his job that he began to realize how valuable his family was.
Life is difficult. Each one of us has a cross to bear. But the good news is that our cross is not a punishment but an opportunity. So when evil strikes, when pain begins, do not be afraid or despair. If we can take up our cross and carry it in Jesus’ name, it need not paralyze us or destroy us. If wind storms can change trees into violins, then certainly the crosses we carry in Jesus’ name, can transform us into genuine daughters and sons of God!
August 28, 2005
Matthew 16: 21-27
It has become a cliché in recent movies and TV programs. It usually occurs in detective stories, when the police are chasing a vicious killer. The killer strikes out against those who are trying to arrest him, and in the process one of the cops is hurt or killed. At that moment it is usually the partner of the person who has been hurt who looks at the camera and says the line. That line is this: “Now it’s personal.” That cliché testifies that catching the killer is no longer a matter of doing a job or drawing a paycheck. Because the criminal has struck out against someone that the speaker has known and loved, bringing this criminal to justice is now a mission. It has risen to a new level of intensity. Everything is different. Now it’s personal.
I hope you will forgive me, if I use this rather violent image to interpret today’s scripture readings. The image, however, is useful, because today’s scriptural readings tell us that if our faith is to be real and effective, it has to be personal. Being a Catholic is more than admitting that we belong to worldwide organization led by the Pope. It is more than coming to church on Sunday, as good as that is. It is more than knowing the rules and living a good, moral life. It is more than reading the Bible and saying our prayers. If faith is to be real, it needs to be personal. We need our faith to hit us in the gut, to affect our heart. It is only then that our faith can change the person that we are and lead us to live in a new and deeper way.
Faith is certainly personal to Jeremiah in today’s first reading. Jeremiah believed he was called by God to be a prophet. Yet Jeremiah’s call was painful to him. As he announced the words of Yaweh, he experienced rejection and ridicule. Jeremiah deeply desired to walk away from his vocation. But his faith was so real and so personal, he could not walk away. When he tried to give up on what he knew God was asking him to do, it became, in his own words, like a fire burning within his bones. He had to obey. He had to continue to speak.
Jesus’ words, in today’s Gospel, move in a similar direction. Jesus says, “If you want to become my disciple, you must be willing to take up your cross and follow me.” Now I do not know of any verse in the scriptures that is more frequently misinterpreted than this verse. Some people think that what Jesus is saying is that in order to be a disciple, we have to go out and find pain or suffering to prove that we really believe. Even worse, some people suggest that God sends us pain or suffering to test us, and to prove our discipleship. But neither of these understandings are valid.
What Jesus is saying is that, if we want to be a disciple, we must believe on the level of our pain, on the level of the cross. Any cross, after all, is personal. A cross is not an abstract idea or a concept. Carrying a cross affects us in the deepest and most intimate part of our being. Jesus is saying that we will never know what it means to be a disciple unless we allow our faith to operate in our deepest selves. So when Jesus says that we must take up our cross and follow him, he is not saying that we must go out and look for pain so that we can be disciples. He is saying that we will only realize what it means to be a disciple when our faith is personal enough to allow us to carry our pain.
To put this in other words, faith needs to believe that God is loving us individually and unconditionally. Such faith must impact the way we live. Therefore, today’s gospel says to all the young people who have gone back to school or will be going back in the next couple weeks, that your personal faith must go with you. You need to know that all the problems you will face in school are personally known by God and something about which God is concerned. God cares about the struggle with your grades, the pain of not being accepted by your classmates. Being a disciple of Jesus is more than knowing the catechism. As a disciple you must believe that God is present to you where you live, where you suffer.
For every person in this church today who is dealing with some problem in your family, in your workplace, some fear about the future, some sickness or loss, you must bring your faith to those problems. God is aware of your struggle and has promised not to abandon you. God will not to let you carry your cross alone.
This is what it means to be a disciple. It is more than knowing the Ten Commandments or being properly registered in your local parish. It is allowing your faith to operate on the level of your living, on the level of your pain, as you carry your cross. Only this is real faith. For it to work, it must be personal.
Learning from Peter
August 31, 2008
What a difference a week makes! In last week’s gospel, Peter was at the top of his game. This week he hits rock bottom. Last week Jesus asked his disciples to declare who he was, and Peter had the answer: “You are the Messiah,” he said, “the Son of the Living God.” Peter’s words were exactly right. His answer was a grand slam. Jesus said that his response was a divine inspiration, that he would make Peter the rock upon which the church would stand, and that he would give to Peter the keys of the kingdom of God. What a successful interaction! Last week things could not have been better. This week things are different. This week Jesus teaches his disciples that he must suffer and die, and Peter objects. That plan does not make any sense to him. Still puffed up with the pride of his own success, still holding in his hands the keys he has just received, Peter asserts himself with boldness: “God forbid that, Lord, this must never happen to you.” Peter is clear and concise. He’s also dead wrong. Jesus turns on Peter with a real force, “Get behind me, you Satan,” Jesus says. The rock on which the church is to stand speaks out and crumbles. Success collapses into failure. The first of the apostles stands on the side of Satan.
Today’s gospel is about failure, a huge failure that comes after a great success. The response and the rebuke of Peter were a disaster. But for us they are good news, because the story of Peter tells us what failure is and what failure is not.
Failure is a reminder of our human weakness. None of us are perfect. Each one of us has our own particular flaws. We all have an array of self-inflicted wounds we can display: a disastrous decision from which we are still trying to recover, words spoken in anger which we would give anything to take back, a variety of flaws which have led to broken relationships, lost opportunities and fractured dreams. Yes, we have our moments of success but we also have a weakness that leads to failure. Like Peter, we are a mixture of both success and failure. There are times that we speak confidently that Jesus is the Messiah and other times where our words come from the devil’s mouth.
Our failures are a sign of our human weakness. But they are not the end of the line. Our God is a God of compassion, a God of forgiveness. God is always willing to give us a second chance. This is what happens to Peter. Despite his major failure, Jesus does not give up on him. Jesus does not take the keys of the kingdom back. Jesus maintains his relationship to Peter and still calls him to follow him. Peter does. He gets up and tries again. He fails again, most notably in the garden of the high priest when he denies Jesus three times. But Peter gets up again. In time he receives an appearance of the risen Lord and goes out to proclaim the good news.
Our failures show us our human weakness but they need not be the end of our story. We can move beyond our sins because of God’s unfailing compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew this truth. As a good Jew, he understood how God time and again forgave the infidelities of Israel. Jesus forgave Peter and continued to lead him forward. God will do the same for us. Pick any failure you wish, even though you still bear its marks in your life, it need not destroy you. Name your greatest sin. That sin need not be the end of the line. As profound as our failure may be, God’s compassion is deeper. Therefore, we, like Peter, must get up and try again, believing that the same God who forgave us, will be with us. Our God is always willing to give us another chance and if that is true, then there is always a future. There is always a time when, despite our weaknesses, we like Peter can profess that Jesus is the Messiah and continue to rejoice in the continuing blessings that come from the God who loves us.
Flawed but Still Called
August 28, 2011
A middle-aged married couple was walking through an arcade by a seaside resort. They came across a machine that promised not only to tell your weight but also to evaluate your character. “What the heck,” said the man, “I’m going to give it a try.” So he stepped on the scale and he placed a coin in the slot. A few seconds later a little brown ticket came out and on it, it said, “You are admired by many because of your intelligence and creativity. Your keen competitive edge places you in a position where the rest of the world is left behind.” The man beamed at such a positive evaluation and gave the ticket to his wife. She read it, smiled, and said, “Well, you do realize, Dear, that they also got your weight wrong.”
We have all had an experience where the wind was knocked out of our pride, where a comment by someone or an experience reminds us that we are not as smart, not as popular, not as successful as we thought we were. It happens to Peter in today’s Gospel. You might remember that last week Jesus assigned Peter the role of the rock, the foundation of the Church. This week, buoyed up by that honor, Peter decides that he is going to instruct Jesus to avoid the cross. It is a profound mistake, a serious misreading of God’s plan. Jesus sets Peter straight. He says that he is an obstacle to the Kingdom of God. He calls Peter “Satan.”
Last week Peter was the rock foundation on which the church was built. This week Peter is an obstacle to God’s plan. Last week Peter was called blessed. This week Peter is called Satan. The truth is, Peter is both—both foundation and obstacle, both blessed and seriously flawed.
Peter is both. So are we. We are all a mixture of gifts and deficiencies, talents and liabilities, blessings and flaws. And the sooner we accept this truth about ourselves, the sooner we can get on with living. The truth is that we often delude ourselves into imagining that God is looking for perfect disciples. God is not looking for perfect people. God is looking for real people. Real people often make mistakes and frequently fall short. This is what happened to Peter, and yet the good news is that despite his shortcomings and failures, Peter remained a disciple and ultimately served the Church. Peter continued to serve, and so should we.
To put this in another way: none of our failings or shortcomings can be an excuse for us not to follow Christ. Imperfect as we are, we are still called to be disciples. We are not perfect spouses. We argue; we hurt; sometimes we do not listen. But none of these shortcomings is an excuse to stop honoring the vows we exchanged on our wedding day. We are not perfect parents. We are impatient, demanding, and sometimes selfish. But none of these flaws is an excuse by which we can avoid guiding and caring for the lives of our children which have been entrusted to us. We are not perfect friends. We can be judgmental, jealous, and inflexible. But none of these flaws is an excuse to stop us from trying to keep the relationships that God has given us alive.
God has no illusions. God knows who we are and all of our failings. Yet, God still calls us to love, to forgive, and to grow. If Peter, whom Jesus called Satan, could go on to be the foundation of the Church, then, even with all of our failings, we can still be the disciples Christ calls us to be.
How to Talk to God
August 31, 2014
Jeremiah 20:7-9; Matthew 16:21-27
What is today’s first reading doing in the Bible? Isn’t the Bible the place where God is to be praised, where God’s glory is to be extolled, where hope abounds? But today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah is without hope. Rather than God being praised, God is attacked. Jeremiah says that he has been deceived by God, that he has been duped. Rather than giving Jeremiah support, God has made Jeremiah’s life a misery. Jeremiah’s negative and violent words might shock us, but they can also instruct us. Jeremiah is telling us that when we pray, when we speak to God, we must speak honestly. We must come before the Lord ready to say what we really think and what we really feel.
Jeremiah became a prophet early in his life. We have every reason to believe that he thought being chosen was an honor and that he expected that people would respect him for being God’s messenger. But the words that God gave Jeremiah to speak were hard words, words of destruction and judgment. People rejected Jeremiah and his message. They attacked him, beat him, and threw him into prison. Jeremiah began to see that his life was not turning out as he expected. Rather than being respected, he was being derided. This is why he complains to the Lord. This is why he says that he has been tricked. Misery and suffering were not what he signed up for. God had duped him.
Jeremiah is a model for us when we find ourselves in painful places in which we never thought we would be: when our marriage falls apart, when our health deteriorates, when the people we trusted hurt us, when advancing age takes away one ability after another. When we find ourselves in circumstances that we never bargained for, Jeremiah tells us that we have the right to complain. We have the right to tell God, “I’m not happy. This stinks! You have not treated me fairly.” To say this in another way, when we are in pain, being honest is more important than being polite. Telling God that we are disappointed, that we are angry, is not a sign of disrespect. Rather it shows that we are taking our relationship with God seriously, seriously enough to come before God as we really are, seriously enough to challenge God to save us.
Praying with this kind of honesty creates new possibilities. When we put our pain and loss on the table, when we get our anger off our chest, it opens the way for us to listen to what God may say in response. God’s words may be words of comfort and of peace. But to reach that peace, we must begin with honesty. We must tell the Lord what we really think and feel.
In today’s gospel Jesus says that a disciple must take up the cross and follow him. His words are true enough. All of us at one time or another will find ourselves in painful situations that we did not bargain for. But when we find ourselves in those places, Jeremiah tells us that we have the right to complain. We can confront God with our anger and disappointment. We can challenge God to save us and to take our cross away. To pray this way is to pray as a disciple. Jesus tells us that we must carry our cross. But Jeremiah shows us that we do not have to like it.
Do Something Good
September 3, 2017
There is a difficult line in today’s gospel. Jesus says, “If you wish to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.” Now what are we to make of this saying? Are we not supposed to try to save our lives, and how can we find something by losing it? There are many ways than one might try to understand this passage, but here is the one that makes most sense to me. If we try to save our life by turning inward, it will lead us nowhere. But if we lose our life in service to others, we can find happiness.
I was probably ordained about two years and serving at St. Clare parish in Lyndhurst, when a woman of the parish made an appointment to see me. She was in her late fifties, with two grown children who were living out of town. She came into my office, and the first thing that she said was, “Father, tell me why I should go on living.” Now that was a dramatic opening, and she caught my attention. “Why, what’s wrong?” I said. “My life is empty,” she replied, “It has no meaning.” As we talked, it became clear that she had no crisis in her life. There was nothing wrong with her health or her marriage or her finances—just emptiness. As she continued to talk on and on about her search for meaning, I thought, “This woman is bored!” But I was not sure I should say that to her. Yet I was becoming more and more frustrated trying to figure out what I should say. As my impatience with myself grew, I heard her say, “Father what should I do?” Without thinking I blurted out, “Do something!” Shocked by my blunt remark she said, “But do what?” Again, without much reflection, I said, “Do something good!”
Now you can tell by this brief description that I am not a very good counselor. But we had stumbled into a direction, and I followed it through. I suggested maybe she find some volunteer work, and see if that helped. It made some sense to her, and she left. But I had no idea whether I had helped her in any way. A couple months later after Mass she told me that she had begun to bring food to people who were homebound through Meals on Wheels. She said that she felt much better. If we try to save our life by turning inward we may only find emptiness. But if we lose our life in generosity to others, we can be happy. Jesus’s words in today’s gospel are a reminder that the true meaning of life is found in giving ourselves to something beyond us. Losing our life in doing good is the surest way to happiness.
Now at many periods of our life the good thing before us is clear. When we are raising children, when we are in the midst of a demanding and satisfying career, when we are dealing with family problems, there is no doubt that we have a direction and a purpose. But as the children grow up and move out, as our career comes to an end, as health issues begin to limit our possibilities, we can find ourselves falling into an empty routine and begin to ask, “What am I living for?” Jesus’ words in today’s gospel tell us that when we face this kind of emptiness, it is not time to turn inward, to watch more television and drink more beer. It is the time for us to lose ourselves in some kind of new service, to find something good and do it. This is the way to happiness. This is how we find our life again.
Taking Up the Cross
August 30, 2020
Brian Doyle was a Catholic writer who died from brain cancer at the age of 60. He left behind him a series of writings that chronicled his spiritual journey in facing that terrible disease. He gained some notoriety for his insistence that it is no help to imagine that a person can defeat cancer. People should not imagine that they can battle cancer and win. He says this because as soon as they take up the attitude of “beating cancer,” they focus their lives on some future date when they will achieve victory and the cancer will be gone. As they spend months and years and all of their energy longing for that day to come, the life that they could be living is slipping away. So, Doyle says that people should not battle cancer, they should endure it. They should face it with all of the energy, creativity, and patience that they can muster. The goal should be not to fight cancer but to face it with ferocious and relentless humor.
Now I think Jesus is saying something rather similar in today’s gospel when he tells us that if we are going to be his disciples, we must take up our cross and follow him. Jesus knows that every life has a cross. It could be the cross of suffering, of failure, or any threat to our happiness. He wants us to know that when a cross enters our life, our purpose is not to defeat it but to take it up. We are not called to fight the cross but rather embrace it.
Our cross could be a family problem that causes us continual pain. Jesus says that rather than denying that cross we should take it up and face it with as much generosity and patience that we can find. Our cross could be a physical limitation or a weakness in our personality. Rather than waiting to live until that limitation is erased, Jesus asks us to take it up and live our life as deeply as we can with courage and humor. All of us face the cross of fear that is connected with the coronavirus. We are afraid to act as we normally would, to live our lives and to exercise our freedom. Jesus says that instead of postponing life until the time when a vaccine is developed, we should take up our fear and make responsible and balanced decisions, so that we can live life as deeply as possible during this pandemic.
Brian Doyle insists that people cannot wait to live until cancer is defeated. When a cross enters our life, the gospel insists that we should not fight it but face it. We cannot postpone living until the cross is gone. That is why we are asked to take up the cross on our shoulders and follow Jesus.