The Stuff of Heroes

“When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world – ‘No, you move.'” (Captain America)

What is it about us Americans and superhero movies?  When I hear quotes like that one from Captain America something inside me stirs.  Over the past 20 years 19 of the top grossing movies have been adventure films.  Every year they seem to come out with another epic saga that sucks us in.  Through the years we’ve journeyed with the Fellowship (Lord of the Rings) and fought alongside Obi-Wan (Star Wars); we’ve endured ship wrecks with the Jack’s (Pirates and Titanic) and raced to a far off planet to save the Na’vi (Avatar).  We cried when Andy (Toy Story 3) went away to college, cringed at the charred remains of Maximus’ family (Gladiator), and cheered when Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter 7:2) turned to ash.  I don’t think anyone can deny that these movies stir up something inside us.  Maybe it’s because they aren’t that far off from reality.  Our world is not so different from Gothom, is it?  Brokenness, darkness, and corruption have become a part of the everyday experience; so much so that we’ve become accustomed to it, perhaps even desensitized from it.  Let’s face it; we like these movies because the good guys win!!  Our generation has been tricked into thinking that we do not have what it takes to “take down” the bad guys.  We have become complacent creatures unwilling to fight.  Dare I say that sometimes we are even the villains?  “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” (Harvey Dent)

Could it be that deep down, we want to be like our favorite heroes?  Somewhere underneath all the egoism we suspect we are actually capable of greatness!  In all honesty this is one thing pop-culture has gotten right.  But what good are these movies to us if we are not willing to take to heart the moral of these stories?  Are we going to let the message sink in?  In Batman Begins Rachel tells Bruce, “It’s not who we are underneath but what you do that defines you.”  So what if we spend tons of money every year supporting these great heroes in our local cinema?!  We need to be the generation that takes responsibility for the darkness in the world.  Let’s all take a lesson in Hero 101.  I think we have a lot to learn from the latest box office Blockbusters!

Lesson 1: Defining Moments
“Greatness is to become more fully yourself with each passing day.” (Matthew Kelly
)
Brave heroes rarely start out that way.  There seems to be a defining moment.  They realize there is something more to life.  My guess is that many of you have had similar moments.  My “defining moment” came when I was about 21.  I needed to start taking my life seriously or I was going to be yet another soul lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  I wasted so much time trying to make me happy and always turned up empty.  I was in real danger of losing myself entirely.  I think somewhere deep down we all know that this is one of the great paradoxes of life: in order to make yourself happy you need to give of yourself entirely.  The call to serve and to lead was as loud as ever.  It was not a glorious moment for me and the timing could not have been more inconvenient but “fate rarely calls on us at a time of our choosing.” (Optimus Prime)

In the movies the hero’s defining moment is typically cued by an awe-inspiring sunset (or sunrise whatever floats your boat) and an epic theme by John Williams, James Horner, or Hans Zimmer (as I write this I am reminded of the E.T. theme).  We recall Bruce Wayne throwing his gun into the river at dusk, Jim Kirk sitting on his motorcycle starring into the dawn, and who could forget a restless Luke Skywalker gazing into the twin moons on Tatooine.  Unfortunately, for those of us in the real world it seems like the decision to do and be something great is made one second at a time about a million times a day.  There is no music that lets the world know what our soul is thinking.  There is certainly no make-up artist to mess up our hair and take the shine off our noses.  Nope we do not have the luxury of special effects and design teams that inform the world we have just made a life altering decision.  Still, we have our defining moments.  Undoubtedly, all of us are given the opportunity to make changes in our lives.  Each and every day we make thousands of decisions.  We need to make these small decisions with the same convictions as the heroes we know and love.  It is the day to day that ends up defining who we are and what we are capable of becoming.

Lesson 2: Suffer Well
Part 1: Expect loss

Many of our heroes make those life altering decisions after a tragic event in their lives.  What is it with heroes and tragic loss?!  Loss always leaves us with only two options: Allow your grief and anger to consume you (“give in to my dark side”) or allow the event to shape your character and make you a “better version of yourself.”  Just look at our heroes: Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, Will Turner, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Captain Kirk, Spok, Luke Skywalker and many others are all missing at least one parent, most are missing both and possibly an aunt or uncle.  Maximus is even missing his wife and children.  Loss helps one see what is important!  After the loss of a loved one, suffering becomes a normal part of the everyday experience.  We love heroes because they are not afraid to be pissed off about these events and yet the loss does not consume them.

When I was in college I had the opportunity to seek counseling after the death of my father.  I wanted to know when I was going to “be over it.”  She said to me her job was not to ease my suffering, rather her job was to teach me how to suffer.  She said, “I am here to teach you how to wake up every day and decide where this event will be placed in your life.”  I no longer fear the day to day sting of this loss; in fact I welcome its ability to remind me of what is truly important in my life.  A few years later my favorite philosophy professor said “if you want to find someone wise look for someone who has suffered.”  We should not fear suffering or even push it away.  Like our heroes we should take it in stride. Suffering is mysterious but I challenge you to find one real hero that has “danced” through life.  If greatness is the goal then we should expect and accept suffering.

Part 2: “When life gives you lemons make lemonade.” – Elbert Hubbard (Unsure of his “hero” status…but man it’s a great line)
Okay so maybe this one is the most difficult to see.  But when we look at the lives of our heroes we recognize that suffering always gives us an opportunity.  Had our heroes not suffered Sauron would have control of middle earth, Luke would not have become a Jedi, Panem would not know freedom, and the Navi’ would have been annihilated.

Suffering never brings these triumphs in and of itself.  Only when our heroes surrender their will to the situation at hand and plow forward courageously is victory theirs for the taking. Suffering gives opportunity for success, it does not guarantee it.  In a sense suffering is the fertile soil in which the victorious grow.

“Ye Be Warned” (Pirates of the Caribbean)**
Isolation vs. Loneliness

Suffering can tempt the sufferer toward isolation.  Bruce does this after Rachel’s death.  There seems to be a moment in every movie where the hero has pushed someone important out of their lives because “its just too dangerous.”  This is not good.  Evil wants us to be isolated.  Why is that? Luna Lovegood explains it perfectly to Harry Potter when she says, “because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.”  It is not possible for us to stand on our own.  We need to be careful not to isolate ourselves.  None of our brave hero’s could have achieved anything great all by themselves.  Isolation is a trick of the enemy.  Do not fall prey to it.

On the other hand have you ever seen a superhero with an entourage?  It seems to be a lonely life.  The call to greatness is rarely received.  Look at the world around you; status and relationships have become our gods.  Society would have us believe that only losers are branded in loneliness.  The fact is when you are going against the very framework of a culture you are going to be left feeling lonely.  You are not going to be popular; it is not going to be easy.  Better to have one or two truly good companions in your life than an entourage of fare weather friends.  Kirk has Bones, Luke has Leia, Bruce has Alfred, etc.  These characters have very few intimate friendships.  We like our lonely heroes because they don’t care how they are viewed.  Each draws his confidence from an interior strength and knowledge of a greater good.  True greatness is uncommon!  So learn the lesson: Suffer well.  It will be lonely, but it will be worth it.

Final Lesson: Self sacrifice
We are living in a world that is totally narcissistic (self admiring), egotistic (self-centered), and hedonistic (self-pleasuring).  No matter which way you turn the opportunity to do something for you is everywhere.  Comfort and convenience have corrupted our will.  “I’m not that brave…I could never…First there are things that I….” Blah blah blah, I, I, I…..  There will always be excuses not to be great!

This sinful world never ceases to contradict itself.  The product of selfishness is loss of self.  None of us have chosen to live in the times that we live in.  Katniss did not choose the Hunger Games, Harry did not choose to be the “chosen one,” Bruce Wayne did not choose to be a victim, and Clark Kent did not choose Earth.  Each one of them had a choice.  They chose to risk everything.  Sacrifice is not a maybe in the life of a hero it is a guarantee.  One must “lose their life in order to find it.” (Jesus; undeniable hero status)

The Invitation
Each of us is given the opportunity to do and be something amazing.  It is only when we stop making excuses and feeling sorry for ourselves that we can really have an adventure.  I invite you as person to rise!  Stare this culture in the face and say “YOU SHALL NOT PASS.” (Gandalf)  Not to this generation or the generations to come.  My hope is that you will “hold your ground…” take to heart the words of the Christ-figure, Arragon…  A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.  An hour of woes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down!  But it is not this day!  This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand…”

“Look inside yourself.  You are more than what you have become. You must take your place…Remember who you are.” (Mufasa)  You are the children of God!!  It is time for you to walk as such.  The fact is when you are a child of God, “you’re not just anyone.  One day, you’re gonna have to make a choice.  You’ll have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be.  Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s gonna change the world.” (Jonathan Kent)  It is up to you to decide if that change will be for better or worse.  Do you have what it takes?  I think so.

Go! Be a hero.

Please feel free to leave questions or comments below.

What Is Joy?

As God’s people we are called to Joy!  Pope Benedict’s World Youth Day message of 2012 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). Joy is at the heart of Christian experience.

 

A couple weeks ago this question was posed to me:  Is perfect joy possible? The answer seemed so obvious to me…NO way!  At least not on earth, right?  I could not pin point a single moment where my life was filled with perfect joy.  I was surprised to find that others could.  They could point to a moment in their lives where their desires were completely satisfied.  They spoke of marriage, the births of children, and other smaller experiences such as sunsets and wildlife. I began to think that perhaps something was wrong with me.  Maybe I’m just pessimistic? I decided to take a step back and really seek a true understanding of joy.  I would like to take you on my journey of discovering the call to joy.

Sometimes what seems like “Common Sense” is far less common than we realize.  We need to refer to a standard to get on the same page.  In our case we will turn to the dictionary.

Question 1: What does it mean to be perfect and are humans capable of perfection?

Dictionary.com gives us a few different definitions of the word perfect!

1. “Conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type.”

Can we be perfect by “conforming to an ideal?”  In the case of Christianity I would say, no!  The idealistic perfection would be, Matthew 5:48 “You, therefore, must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”  Our fallen nature causes us to lack what we need to achieve this.

2. “Excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.”

Can we be “excellent or complete beyond improvement?”  Again I would say no, not in the Christian sense of the word.  Our life here is lived in exile. We are living to achieve the perfect, which is Heaven.  The Buddhists live for a type of Nirvana or Utopia (perfect world)!  This is not what we believe as Christians and if we are not careful, striving for this kind of perfection can lead us into heresy!

3. “Entirely without any flaw, accurate, exact, or correct in every detail.”

Can we be entirely without flaw, accurate, exact or correct in every detail?  I think we all know that this is not possible.  We’ve probably all heard the saying, “to err is to be human.”

4. “Exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose.”

Can we “exactly fit the need in a certain situation or purpose?”  YES!!  If we mean what one is capable of doing, then yes we can have moments of perfection.  For example:  One uses a hammer to put nails into wood and a saw to cut wood.  Each has its own perfection. It would not make sense to say, “this hammer lacks the capability of cutting wood therefore it is imperfect.”  This is nonsensical!!  So if by perfection we are referring to what one is capable of because of what ones purpose is, then yes perfection may be possible on earth.  (but more on that later)

Conclusion:  Humans are perfectly capable of fulfilling a certain purpose.

Question 2: What is Joy?

The emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation.  Hmm!!  I think we know that this definition fails us a Christians.  After losing his family, farm, and livelihood; not to mention after being covered from head to toe in boils, Job says (8:19) “Behold this is the joy of his (God’s) way.”  Does that sound like happiness, pleasure, or elation to you?  Clearly the kind of joy we are referring to is not one of emotion.  I would say that when one is happy they are experiencing joy.  However the same is not true in reverse.  When one is joyful I argue that happiness may even be rare.  Like Job, sorrow and joy are not easily separated. The Church even honors seven Joys & Sorrows of Mary and Joseph.  There is happiness and sadness in each one.

Conclusion: The secular definition of the word joy is not the same as the Christian understanding.   Joy is not just great delight, happiness, or satisfaction.

Question 3: What is the Christian understanding of joy?

What we know of Joy from the wisdom of the Church: (CCC- Catechism of the Catholic Church)

-It is a virtue “a habitual and firm disposition to do good (CCC 1803)!”

-It is one of the fruits of charity (CCC 1829).

-It can produce feelings of happiness AND sadness, pleasure AND pain (remember Job)

-Jesus desires that we be joyful (John 16:24 & John 17:13)

Conclusion: If joy is a fruit of charity, and charity is love, and God is Love, then couldn’t we say that Joy is a fruit of God?

Joy is what we experience when we encounter the Divine, no matter what emotion the encounter produces.  It is difficult to define because how can someone put an encounter with God into words? You cannot, so we call it JOY! This understanding should cause a complete shift in our perspective.  We must disassociate our feelings from the definition of joy.

So we return to our original question: Is perfect joy possible?

St. Thomas Aquinas says this of perfect joy.  ”Joy is full, when there remains nothing to be desired. But as long as we are in this world, the movement of desire does not cease in us, because it still remains possible for us to approach nearer to God by grace.”

This is where the acceptable definition of perfection begins to fail us. Recall that one definition allowed us to be perfect when we were fulfilling our purpose. However, as Christians our purpose as Sons or Daughters of God is to get Heaven.  The first paragraph of the Catechism says, “(God) calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.”  This is our purpose!  The problem is this purpose cannot be exhausted.

St. Thomas points out that once we begin to approach this purpose (to know, love, and serve God) by grace our capacity for God grows.  Meaning, we are never really satisfied.  Earthly joy is fleeting and was designed to be that way. It was designed to keep us wanting more.  The happiness and pleasure come from a moment of satisfaction, immediately following is pain and suffering because it does not last. If we were fully satisfied here on earth why would we strive for Heaven?  The Lord in His infinite mercy allows us to long for Him so that we will detach ourselves from the world and strive for something greater.

Conclusion:  Perfect joy can only be defined as an everlasting encounter with God.

Last Question: How is the Lord calling us to Joy?

We have to remember that joy is not an emotion it is an encounter with God!   We can encounter God in the sacraments, works of mercy, and in every mundane activity in our lives.  We need to spend time getting to know the Lord!  We achieve this by the three “S’s”:  Silence, Solitude, and Simplicity.

Silence: We must learn to hear the voice of God. This is a daily practice that takes time and discipline. Yup, get comfortable doing nothing with the Lord.

Solitude: We must learn to be alone with the Lord.  I do not care if you have 11 children and an entourage.  Even Christ withdrew to spend alone time with God.  (Note: do not be hard on yourself.  I once heard the mother of 6 children (5 boys) say, “I learned a long time ago that the only time I could spend on my knees was scrubbing milk and cheerios off the floor.  Eventually, I began to look forward spilled milk.”)  Make time for God.

Simplicity:  We must remove those things from our lives that cause distraction and sinfulness; like technology, unhealthy relationships, and bad habits.  Simplifying your life allows you to create an interior space for the Lord to come and dwell.

One last time I pose the question:  Is perfect joy possible?  In his 2012 world youth day message the Holy Father wrote, “Dear young people, do not be afraid to risk your lives by making space for Jesus Christ and his Gospel…joy is the fruit of faith. It is being aware of his presence and friendship every day: “the Lord is near!”

I admit, sometimes this encounter with the Lord is annoying because it means I cannot live as I want but have to live as I ought.  Sometimes it is painful because there seems to be no end in sight.  Sometimes it is frustrating because the Lord and I do not always have the same ideas.  Still sometimes it is the only thing that keeps me from absolutely falling apart and giving up.  At the end of the day, despite how it makes me feel, I am called to encounter God in every way possible.  I am called to Joy!

Complacency Is The New Leprosy

Last winter I had the privilege of speaking at St. Theodore’s to drum up more interest for Crossroads.  I thoroughly enjoy speaking however this was my first experience at the pulpit.  It was quite nerve racking but I liked finally being taller than everyone else!

While praying about what to say my attention was drawn to the Mass readings.  For those who missed out please click here and get up to speed.  The readings were about Leprosy.  I find their content to be hugely significant for those of us in our 20′s and 30′s.  The message was so well received we decided to blog about it.

Leprosy is a disease that is caused by bacteria whose name I can neither spell nor pronounce.  It causes lesions or soars on the skin, nerve damage, and in some cases disfigurement.  In the time of Christ this disease was considered to be highly contagious. Therefore, Mosaic Law demanded the infected to live outside the city and yell out “unclean” when others passed by.  We now know that leprosy in not easily contracted and it can be cured with a pill (big ones, but still).  In other words, this disease is rarely a danger to us in the modern world.  Needless to say, I think it can be hard for today’s society to relate.

I propose that there is a modern Leprosy that has swept across our generation.  It neither causes sores nor lesions and it cannot be cured with an antibiotic.  This disease does not really affect the body at all.  However, given time it can corrupt the mind, the heart, and the soul.  I go even further to say it has undermined the entire framework of our society.  If we allow it to continue I believe it will dictate our future.  The disease is complacency.

Complacency is defined by dictionary.com as “a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like; self-satisfaction or smug satisfaction with an existing situation, condition, etc.”  Sound familiar?  Have you wondered lately how our country has gotten to the point where a problem such as the HHS mandate is even an issue?  Are you surprised when I tell you that according to statistics more people get divorced than stay married?  How about the statistics the media throws around claiming 98% of women use birth control? What about the crazy thinking behind the Wall Street protestors?  These alarming stats and situations are symptoms of a terrible disease that has swept across our generation:  Complacency.

I have the privilege of working very closely with many people.  These people sometimes tell me extraordinary things about their lives. This has been a beautiful blessing in my life; I love to listen and offer what advice I can.  There is one phrase I hear people use (I too am guilty of using it) far too often.  I think it proves my point just in case you have any doubts.  The phrase is, “it’s whatever.”  Yup, it’s true, we live in the “it’s whatever” generation.  When someone hurts our feelings instead of doing as Christ taught us in Matt 18:15 and telling the man the truth we say, “It’s whatever.”  When we do not get the job or the recognition, “It’s whatever.”  I have even heard women AND men use this phrase when they have been sexually assaulted!  WHAT?!!!  How did we get here? What happened to righteous indignation?  In the words of a good friend, “when trying to be Christ-like please remember that turning over tables is a viable option.”

I do not know enough about history to offer a real explanation for how we got here.  Who cares how we got here, the fact is we are here!! I can however offer a solution.  An “antibiotic” if you will for our times.  The first thing all of us need to be doing, and its deceptively simple, is pray.  Think of it like this, if the doctor gives you some horse pill antibiotic, naturally you would use something (like water) to wash it down.  Prayer is the water that we need to help us swallow our pride and resist complacency.  However in and of itself it is not enough.  James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”  People we need to act.  Prayer will move you to action.  STOP WAITING FOR OTHERS TO DO!  How often do we complain about some law?  How many of us have actually contacted the government?  How many of us think abortion is wrong?  How few of us step up to make changes?  (Remember 98% of women are reported to be contracepting, which can be a form of abortion).  How many of us go to Mass on Sundays but refuse to talk about Christ at work?  The examples go on and on.

I cannot tell you exactly where you are being called to “step it up.”  Maybe for some it’s as simple as being present to those around you.  Dads start actually listening to your wives and children.  Moms perhaps you need to complain less about your husbands and children.  Maybe it is even as simple as excusing yourself from a conversation that is degrading to the opposite sex (and I am not just talking about men, women you know WE do it, too).  Dare I suggest that we actually take Christ into our homes and places of work?  I know it is uncomfortable.  Doing what is right is never easy.

No, we are not perfect but neither was Peter, he denied Christ.  Paul killed Christ’s believers.  Mary Magdalene “got around”.  St. Thomas doubted.   Martha was too busy… the list goes on.  If these people can do it, SO CAN WE!  Perhaps once we begin fighting for the dignity and integrity of those around us there would not be a need for the bigger fights.  Imagine a world where people actually respected one another.  Things would look different.  Dare to get uncomfortable, it’s a good thing.  Christ said “Follow me.”  Where did you think you were going?  Candy Land?  We are going to the Cross.  If we cannot take the discomfort of speaking up about our Faith and our beliefs how are we going to handle the Cross?

One thing is for sure, if we continue to turn our backs on the craziness happening around us, that is, if we continue acting as if everything is fine then we like the lepers will decay.  It will be a slow nasty death with an eternal effect.  I am speaking about damnation.  We will be held accountable for the things we failed to do (it’s in the Confetior we say at the beginning of Mass).

Let’s take just a moment to be specific.  I know some of you may not understand how treating others with respect can heal the infection of complacency.  Let us use the example of marriage.  Earlier I used the example of the growing divorce rate to make the point that we are overrun by complacency in our world.  Let’s analyze that:  I argue that the divorce rate is so high because men and women do not know how to deal with each other.  If men and women learned how to properly treat one another, if they learned how to respect one another’s differences and uphold one another’s dignity and integrity, there would be less divorce.  But herein lies the problem:  It is really hard.  It requires vulnerability, allowing the other to see us at our worst. Ladies, I am not talking about ugliness, I am talking about brokenness.  It requires communication.  Gentlemen, I know you hate that word.  That word is synonymous, in my opinion, with “work.”  It requires patience, sensitivity to the others needs, a boat load of trust, and a commitment to weather the storms.   Yet we do not see most couples doing this.  Our culture has been so saturated in “doing what is right for you” that we have produced an entire generation that cannot see the other.  Let’s face it, fathers have stopped leading, mothers do not stop moving, and children expect everything to be done for them.  We are all too stressed out and strung out to weather the storms.  This is where prayer comes in.  If fathers learned to allow God to teach them the art of leading, if mothers took time to stop and be still (Remember Martha, Mary has chosen the better part. Luke 10:38-42), and if children were instructed to think of others first, the family would look different.  These actions are not complacent, they are active.  Next, we need to be willing to make waves.  Dad’s, you were created to be leaders and fighters, be willing to tell your children “no,” do not make your wife be the bad guy, she does enough.  Mom’s, when your husband is failing to lead do not step on his toes, encourage him to lead, expect it from him.  My point being, if complacency stopped in the home first it would filter down through society.  The divorce rate would definitely go down.  We would be people willing to fight for something instead of people waiting to be fought for.

This may all sound so simple but the best things usually are.  One last thing:  The antonym of the word complacency is humility.  If we are going to get up and start doing as we should, we must do so with humility.  Rising to action does not mean that we “get all up” in people’s faces.  It means we start living our lives as we should and others will follow.   ”Do Not Be Afraid!” Depending on the translation, this phrase is used 365 times in the bible.  God knew we were going to need to hear it every day.  So what are you waiting for?  Start being the person you were created to be.  In case you think you do not have what it takes… watch this video and listen to the words, take them to prayer.

Maybe this is not the reality of your physical life but this IS the reality of our spiritual lives.

I do not want to hand my future children a world that reeks with the smell of leprosy.  I want them to be able to enjoy all the world has to offer without all of its insanity.  We need to get on our knees and ask the Lord, “if you will you can make me clean?”  Rise with me when the Lord reaches out and says, “I do will, GO and be made clean.”