On Deflated Hope

On Deflated Hope

Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

– Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding

I must admit, to my great shame, that I lost hope. It was for a fleeting second, and I’m not even sure it was an intentional thought. It snuck up on me. The New England Patriots had just scored making it a 28-18 game with 5:56 on the game clock in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI. They were attempting a 2-point conversion and I had this thought: “Please miss this.” I know, I’m so embarrassed. I immediately dismissed the thought but I’m still ashamed that it was even hiding in my head somewhere. But I understand it’s origin.

At that point in the game I had already begun the difficult work of accepting a disappointing outcome. I had let myself grow detached from any desire for victory and simply wanted to see my team erase some of its huge deficit to make the loss respectable. I’m not a football expert but I have gleaned some things from listening to my fair share of angry sports radio. Being so far behind, with so little time left, they couldn’t just be good. They had to be perfect. And they would need some absolute miracles along the way.

And they were perfect. And they got a few miracles (Edelman’s catch, are you kidding me?!) And I was wrong to despair. Haven’t I seen Brady and Belichick do this before? I had every reason to hope, but the difficult road ahead let despair creep in.

 I think we lose hope because of how dangerous it is. Disappointment is easier when we can brace for impact. So we settle for being “good enough” and resist anything that draws us up and out of being merely good to being perfect. Internal voices and those people around us ask the question, “What right do you have to desire and to expect perfection? You’re just so far from perfect!”

Over the last few Sundays we’ve been hearing Matthew 5. Jesus has been laying out the structure of His Kingdom and describing the attributes of its citizens. After all, winning citizenship in the Kingdom of God is our greatest hope—far greater than the hope of winning a Super Bowl. But His demands so are hard. We are blessed when we’re poor and mourning? We should pray for those who hate us and go the extra mile when our service is demanded? We should give until it hurts? Maybe what he means is that we should generally try our best to be a good person and show kindness most of the time. But no. He clarified it for us with these words: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s enough to cause that same voice in my head that said, “please miss this,” during the game to say something similar in response to Jesus. Because if hoping for the Kingdom of God relies on my being as perfect as our heavenly Father, then part of me would rather not try. Part of me would rather accept being “good enough” and losing in a respectable way. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks directly to that part of me:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus speaks of worrying about food, drink, and clothing and tells us not to worry about where we will get them. In some sense He is talking about literal food and drink and clothing, but He means more than that. He means that God will provide exactly what we need to be citizens who have a right to desire and expect our own perfection in His Kingdom. Brady and Belichick are a fantastic team, but they have nothing on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The road to victory is difficult, demands perfection and seems impossible. But nothing is impossible for God. He gives us the church, where we pray for and build each other up. He gives us the Holy Spirit who makes us holy and begins the process of perfecting us. He sends miracles along the way, the greatest of which is the Eucharist—Jesus, truly present and alive in our midst. The sacraments are all miracles, Edelman-like catches that provide a spark and ignite us onward and upward.

If being perfect, as the Father is perfect, completely depends on my efforts, then there is no hope. I’m more likely to lead a fourth quarter down-by-25–come-from-behind Super Bowl comeback win. But thanks be to God that perfection and eternal citizenship in His Kingdom are not up to our efforts alone. Because we have Jesus, we can hope.

God of the Living

God of the Living

This past summer I took Caleb on his first major hike. We had done a bunch of other hikes in the Blue Hills, but none of them were more than a few hundred feet in altitude. This hike was decent. We went up Loon Mountain in Lincoln, NH.  Loon is just over three thousand feet (3064’ to be precise) so I’m proud to say Caleb has summited a three thousand footer. He did a fantastic job too.

I did have some initial reservations about whether he could make the climb. I didn’t know what the weather was like up there or if some parts of the trail would prove to be too steep or treacherous. So to put my mind at ease as to its “doability” I decided to first hike it without him. It was a rainy day and everyone was watching Netflix at our rental home, so I stepped out into the mist alone and climbed up Loon Mountain as a trial run. The view was terrible img_2665

The next day I decided it would be possible for Caleb to make it to the summit. Having been up that trail and on the mountain top I was confident he could go there too. Of course, I also carried him on my back the whole way. For the most part he enjoyed the hike. His favorite part seemed to be pulling my hair, but to be honest I think he was trying to steer me like a horse.

Following Jesus in this life also leads to a mountain top. And being His disciple is scary, because that mountain top is Calvary. To follow Jesus necessarily means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and dying to sin and selfishness. Not all of us will be called to the bloody martyrdom that was the fate of so many of our saints, and is still the fate of so many Christians in the world today. But all are called to loving sacrifice. Saint Maximilian Kolbe taught that there is no love without sacrifice. And following Jesus up this trail of sacrificial love isn’t always easy. It can mean rejecting pride and embracing humility,  or going beyond what is comfortable, or letting worldly measures of success fall by the wayside, or charitably expressing difficult truths to friends and family. And we know that the Cross is what waits at the end of the trail. But we can take heart. Our Lord knows the trials of this trail but He has confidence in our ability to walk the narrow and difficult road. After all, He did it first. And Jesus reminds us in the Sacraments, in Sacred Scripture, in the friendship of fellow disciples and in the refuge of prayer that He is willing to carry us.

One last thought: This Sunday’s readings are a reminder that while the journey of discipleship leads inevitably to the cross, it doesn’t end at the cross. We know that God who called us along this trail will again call us forth to eternal life.  And on that day when His Glory appears, our joy will be complete.

 

Good Good Father

Good Good Father

Last month, for Mother’s Day, I offered a reflection on the idea that a domestic Church (the family) can be analogized to a ship at sea. We are the pilgrim Church on earth, bound for our Heavenly homeland and the family is a microcosm of the Church. In the analogy I said that Mom was represented by the sails of the ship. If Mom is the sail then Dad is the rudder. The rudder, submerged in the water, gives the ship direction. This direction is the spiritual headship of the father and it is rooted in Scripture and Church teaching (notice I said “spiritual” headship, not “tv remote” headship or “I don’t have to do any housework” headship). Dads have the duty to bring family to God through a style of leadership that is modeled by Jesus and his adoptive father, Saint Joseph.

Saint Joseph has no lines in all of scripture. Like a rudder he remains mostly obscured. What speaks most loudly are Joseph’s actions, specifically his obedience to God. Even when he was told that God’s will for him was to risk public shame in marrying Mary, or to display humility in accepting less than ideal conditions for his wife to deliver Jesus, or to risk life and limb by escaping King Herod or to risk it again by returning to Nazareth, in all these instances Joseph obeyed. As head of his family Joseph gave Mary and Jesus the best thing he could give—subordination to God’s will without complaint or compromise. The same is required of all good fathers.

Christ shows what it means to be husband and father by dying for his Bride, the Church. Nothing Jesus said or did was to glorify himself or assert his own authority. Jesus only ever did the will of the Father. He was obedient to God even unto death, due to love for his Father and love for us. It is only through the lens of this kind of servant leadership shown by Christ and Saint Joseph that Ephesians 5:28-33 makes sense (the infamous “wives be subordinate to your husbands” passage). I encourage you to look it up and reflect on it in light of Christ and his Church, or Joseph and the Holy Family.  There’s a tendency, especially in our more progressive and egalitarian society, to dismiss this passage as an embarrassing vestige from a lesser time. And while it is true that many men have been guilty of abusing their headship and “lording it over others” in the past and some still do today, I think it would be a mistake to throw a truth away because of a corruption of that truth. In this week’s gospel Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Despite the way headship can be misconstrued, a father is still called to lead his family to Christ by denying himself and taking up his cross first.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe the family dynamics of raising children to be faithful disciples of Jesus. In my experience the faith of a child can have a coldness and rigidity when mom’s input is muted or absent. When dad doesn’t take up his role as spiritual head there is almost no faith to be found at all.  My father and mother worked together in a complementary way to raise us as Catholic disciples of Jesus Christ. We participated in Holy Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. We prayed the Rosary as a family. We talked about Jesus openly and often. My father and I would go camping and have some really great talks about what about our faith in God meant. It is because he took his duty as spiritual head seriously that I have a relationship with Jesus. I never got that football scholarship to Notre Dame. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class. I have yet to earn my first million. But I know who I am and I know am loved. I know Who made me and why He made me. And thanks to my dad, I know what kind of father I must be.

“‘Remember that one day your child will follow your example instead of your advice.’

-Unknown”

-Frank Connell