On Becoming What God Made You to Be As a Road to Glory

There was movie some years ago that most of you have seen called Toy Story. It had a deep impact on me for it came out a critical moment in my life.

It was my 33rd  year of life and my 6th year of priesthood. I had suffered a nervous breakdown that required a week in the hospital, and a month off recuperate. What drove me there was being asked to take an assignment I really wasn’t ready for.  I was asked to pastor a parish that was in serious financial trouble.

Invincible? But I was a young priest at the time and was still emerging from my “invincible” stage where I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s pretty common for men in their twenties to figure they can handle anything. In those years opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experience has not always taught its tough lessons yet.

So the young priest in me said yes to the assignment, even though I had reservations. It’s proper to say yes to the bishop, but he had asked me to discern not simply obey. Soon enough the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression, and days where I could barely come out of my room. All this and I hadn’t even reported to the assignment yet. A priest friend, my pastor, reached out and helped me discern I wasn’t ready and that it was OK to ask the Bishop to reconsider. I did so, but felt I was an utter failure. My personal sense of this humiliation had me further decline into depression and that’s when I sought help,  with the encouragement of others. A week in the hospital for evaluation, a month off to recuperate, and years of good spiritual direction, psychotherapy and sacraments  have been God’s way of restoring me to health.

Somewhere in the early stages of all this I saw Toy Story. And right away I know I was Buzz Lightyear.  Buzz begins the movie as a brash, would be hero, and savior of the planet. Buzz Lightyear’s theme was, To infinity….and beyond!  The only problem was that he seemed to have no idea he was just a toy. He actually thought he had come from a distant planet to save the earth. He often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes she must be just out of range.

At a critical point in the movie  it begins to dawn on Buzz that he is just a toy and may not be able to save the day. He struggles with this realization and resists it, leaping  to the rescue not knowing he can’t actually fly. He falls from the second floor and his arm breaks off. (See the second video below) Suddenly he realizes he is just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. He then sinks into a major depression since his sense of himself has been destroyed.

But God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end Buzz saves the day by simply being what he was made to be, a toy. One of the kids takes him up and attaches a rocket to him. In the end that enables Buzz to fly and save the day at a critical moment, with the help of friends.

The lesson of the movie is a critical one and certainly the lesson I learned in my own mid-life crisis.  And the lesson is that our greatness does not come from our own self-inflated notions, but from God. And God does not need us to pretend to be something we are not. What he needs is for us to be exactly what he made us to be. Buzz succeeds by realizing that he is a toy and being just that, a toy. As such he saves the day. For me  too, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Certain doors are open to me and others are not. But when I accept that, and come to depend on God to fashion and use me according to his will, then great things are possible. But if we go on living in sinful illusion and grandeur we miss our truest call and place in God’s kingdom. Ultimately we must come to discover the man or woman that God created us to be. That is our true greatness.

All from a cartoon.

Here is another very brief video from the Superbowl ads that makes a similar point. A young boy thinks he is invincible and strives to order about inanimate creatures. But then, like Buzz Lightyear (and me), he discovers his limits and doubts. In the end he actually succeeds. But what we know, and he still has to learn, is that the power is really from his “Father.”

Here is the clip from Toy Story where Buzz discovers he is just a toy:

And here is where buzz saves the day. A kid had attached a rocket to his back, meaning it for ill, (but God intended it for good!).

It’s a Wonder-filled Life. A Meditation on the Mystery of Our Life

Most of you have seen the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  More on that in a moment. But for now, the word “wonderful” is most commonly understood by most people simply to mean “really great.” But the word “wonderful” actually means “filled with wonder.”

Who  of us can understand the incredible mystery of our own life? And not merely considered in itself, but also how it interacts with the lives of others and the events of this world? Why are we here now? Why do we meet and know the people we do? How does our life affect others, not just in the obvious ways but also the hidden ways unknown to us?

Imagine that one day you stayed late at work one day rather than take the commuter bus. Your open seat caused two people to meet who later married, had three children, one of whom will discover the cure for cancer. This is something you will never know, but God does. Maybe another day you drove a little slower than the driver in back of you wished, but your slower pace meant that your irritated tailgater was not in an intersection at just the moment he would have been killed in a horrible accident had he kept his pace. I know you may think these to be trivial examples but consider the mystery of each moment and all the “alternate universes” that would result if even a small change took place in our actions!

Our lives are mysteriously intertwined. We have almost no idea how even the little things we do cause enormous ripples and chain reactions that affect dozens, hundreds or thousands of people from moment to moment. What if I never wrote this post and you never read it but instead were reading something else right now, (good, or bad). The possibilities are almost endless as to what might happen had I not written and you not read.

God has us here in this place at this time for a reason. We have some very particular purposes in his plan and he alone knows them all. Try for a moment to appreciate your dignity in this regard. You have a critical role in a cascade of events that ripple from your life and your place in God’s plan. No one can take that place and your role is critical to millions of subsequent transactions in God’s wonderful vision.  Psalm 139 has this to say:

O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise;  you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue  you know it completely, O LORD.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,  too lofty for me to attain. For you created my inmost being;  you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;  your works are wonderful. All my days  were written in your book  before one of them came to be. (Selected verses).

 The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an extended meditation on this topic and if,  for some strange reason,  you have not seen it then you know what you must do! The protagonist of the movie “George” seeks to end his life and wishes he had never been born but an angel from heaven takes him through the strange and sad “alternate universe” that would result had he never been here. It is a world of terrifying loss for many and George comes to discover the dignity and necessity of his life in God’s plan.

In God’s vision no one can be said to be unnecessary or of limited importance. We have absolutely no way of knowing that and given the intricacies of human interaction and the ripple effects thereof we are pretty foolish for thinking we have little importance. Rather, it seems we are quite essential.

Enjoy this summary of the Movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and remember that “wonderful” means “filled with wonder (and awe).”

All Creatures of Our God and King – On the Dignity of God’s Creation and the Special Dignity of the Human Person

I was recently challenged by a reader to saysomething about cruelty to animals. At first I thought this sort of topic was secondary but as I prayed I thought I’d like to offer a thought or two here on animals and humans.

Avoiding Extremes – As Human beings we seem to have exhibited some extremes in how we have regarded animals. At one extreme was the concept that they were mere brutes with no real sense or “feelings” at all. My own experience with the pets I have had over the years is that animals are more than mere instinct or devoid of feelings. The cats and dogs I have had seem to experience some degree of real feelings: happiness when I return home or hint at food, sadness or fear, even anger when I had to scold them, stress and anxiety when it was necessary to confine them. They also seemed to be able to interact with me at some level, knowing some of the words I used and exhibiting reaction to them. I could ask my dog to sit and he did, tell him to bark and he did. I could announce that we were going for a walk and he’d leap for joy and head for the door. The cat I currently have is less responsive to verbal interaction but he does meow and scamper about upon my return and reacts when I announce food, his tail swishes and he heads for the bowl. He is also able to express desire for a back rub or food. So it seems that animals, at least the higher mammals are not brutes. They seem to have something of an “inner life.”

But the other extreme is to regard animals as no different than us. This extreme does not really exult the animals, rather,  it diminishes us. We are clearly in a wholly different category than animals, even the higher mammals that exhibit a certain intelligence. Animals do not write poetry, build cities, fight for justice, build shrines and churches to worship God. They do not seem to form lasting governments or have a culture that builds upon the wisdom of previous gernations. They have not acquired medical or scientific advancement, gone to the moon, and do not seem to ponder higher things such as the meaning of life, truth, and the looming fact of death. Indeed, we human beings are clearly unique and have a highly developed inner life. We manifest a longing for things outside ourselves. We have what the philosophers call capax Dei (a capcity for God).

So, it is not wrong to insist that animals be treated with some respect and that we refrain from cruelty due to the fact that they experience pain and stress etc. But it is wrong to say there is no difference between them and us.

The Unique Dignity of the Human Person – Scripture confirms that God gave man dominion over all living creatures  and instructed us to fill and subdue the earth (Gen 1:28-29). God  also supplied man with a special dignity by breathing his own Spirit into man making man “a living soul” (Gen 2:7). He did not do this for any other living being. Hence our soul has a special capacity, a spiritual nature (capax Dei) that opens us to God and the things of God. Further, no other living creature is said in Scripture to have been created in the image of God (cf Gen 1:27).

Reverencing the Gift and the Giver is Key – Therefore we are to make use of the plants, animals and resources of creation with reverence for God who gave them and with respect for nature and limits of the animals and resources involved.  Cruelty to animals is dehumanizing for us. If we are sensitive we note that animals are NOT mere brutes. They experience physical pain as well as mental stress and that they do seem manifest at least rudimentary feelings. It is wrong for us to merely disregard this. Even if we must employ them as “beasts of burden” we ought to care well for their needs, feed them well, tend to their injuries and allow them proper rest. That we use animals for food is allowed by scripture (cf Gen 9:1-5). However we ought to kill them as quickly and painlessly as possible. Recent reports have sometimes indicated that slaughter houses are deficient in this manner and we ought to improve our methods, making them swifter and more merciful.

So, in the end a balance is necessary. Humans have a unique dignity that must be recognized. Yet it is also true that animals are a gift from God and they ought to be treated with respect by that very fact. It would be wrong for me to take a gift from you and misuse it, that would not only be wrong for me, it would be offensive to you. However, if you give me a gift you also expect me to make use of it. You might well be offended if I just cast it on the shelf or under a bed and made no use of it. Hence we do well to make use of the animals in ways God intends. As for cruelty, there is absolutely no place for it. Rather, we should imitate God who richly provides and cares for all his creatures.

By the way the Cat at the top of this post is my rectory cat “Daniel.” He’s a great mouser and a good friend and was curled up on my desk next to the computer as I typed this post!

This video show the capacity even for certain birds to interact with us. It is of a Parakeet with an incredible vocabulary. God really does remarkable work. Enjoy this video.

The Mystery of God’s Children in a Thousand Points of Light

In the video below you will see a visual representation of Worldwide Airline Traffic in a 24 hour period. Each plane is represented by a small dot of yellow light.

As you view the video consider some of the following:

  1. Every dot is a plane that carries hundreds of people.
  2. Each individual has a story.
  3. Some are joyful and flying out to attend a wedding or family event.
  4. Some are sad and flying to funerals.
  5. Each dot is a plane filled with people who have both gifts and struggles.
  6. Their lives intersect with hundreds of other people.
  7. Some are influential and well known.
  8. Others live more hidden lives but are very precious to others.
  9. There are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children, spouses, young and old.
  10. Some of the people on those planes represented by those dots will die soon.
  11. Others are just beginning their lives.
  12. All of the people on these planes have lives that are swept up into the great mystery of God’s unfolding plan.
  13. None of them are accidents, or surprises to God.
  14. Each have the dignity of being an intentional creation of God.
  15. Each is known to God more then they know themselves.
  16. God knows everything about every person on every plane represented by every tiny dot.
  17. He knows their past, their present and their future.
  18. He sustains every fiber of their being.
  19. Before they were ever formed in their mother’s womb God knew them, loved them, intended them.
  20. Every one of their days was written in God’s book before any of those days came to pass.

Each dot a plane. On each dot a gathering of people. Each person with a history and a destiny unfolding, known to God, loved by God, sustained by God.

Behold the mystery:

O God, Who did cause the children of Israel to traverse the Red Sea dryshod; Thou Who did point out by a star to the Magi the road that led them to Thee; grant us we beseech Thee, a prosperous journey and propitious weather; so that, under the guidance of Thy holy angels we may safely reach that journey’s end, and later the haven of eternal salvation.

Hear, O Lord, the prayers of Thy servants. Bless their travels. Thou Who art everywhere present, shower everywhere upon them the effects of Thy mercy; so that, insured by Thy protection against all dangers, they may return to offer Thee their thanksgiving. Through Christ our Lord.

Life is Worth Living: The Resilience of the Human Person

One of the privileges our modern age demands is the right to declare that certain lives are not worth living. In utero testing sometimes reveals the possibility or even the certainty of birth defects. Abortion is often recommended to mothers who carry “defective”  children and  sometimes that recommendation becomes pressure.

And yet there are so many stories of people who have overcome enormous obstacles and who live full and rich lives. Some are missing limbs, others are blind, still others struggle with disease. Some have overcome poverty and injustice, others paralyzing accidents or great tragedies. And they are living witnesses to us that we ought never be the judge of what lives are worthwhile and what lives are not worth living. It is  true that none of us would wish to be born missing limbs, or blind or in poverty, or with chronic conditions. But we must reverence those who are, learn to appreciate their gifts, and summon them to courage and greatness.

We must declare with great certitude that there is no such thing as a life not worth living. We say this not as some politically correct slogan but rather with firm conviction that every human life is willed by God. We were willed before we were made for the Scriptures say, “Before I ever  formed you in the womb I knew and I appointed you…” (Jer 1:4). None of us is an accident nor are our gifts and apparent deficits mistakes. We exist as we are, the way we are for a purpose, a purpose for us and for others. We all have an irreplaceable role in God’s kingdom and show forth aspect of His glory uniquely. Every human life is intended and is worth living because God says so by the very fact that we exist.

The following videos show forth the resilience of the human person and give powerful witness to the fact that life is worth living. You may not have time to view them all now but I hope you’ll come back and see them all. That is why I post this over a weekend. Despite trials and setbacks all these individuals show forth the power and glory of God working though our human struggles. We might not choose the struggles they have for ourselves but we need to see that their lives are full and proclaim the dignity and resilience of the human person.

Here is the story of John Bramblitt who, though blind is a fine painter indeed.

Here is the story of Abby & Brittany, Conjoined twins born in 1990. The title of the video is “Joined for Life.” Abby says at the end of the video, “The best thing in the world about being conjoined twins is that there’s always someone to talk to and you’re never alone.”

Here’s the story of Nick Vujicic a man with no arms or legs who is a motivational speaker. He likes to say that he went from having a life without limbs to a life without limits.

I have posted this video of Patrick Henry Hughes before. Blind and crippled from birth he manifestes a profound musical ability.

The Ponderings and Proclamations of a Pro-Life Pilgrim

I just returned from the March for Life which takes place right in my own neighborhood and had the opportunity to ponder once again the mystery and dignity of Human life. I spent the last 20 minutes of the march interacting with the “pro-Choice” demonstrators on the steps of the Supreme Court and I gave them the “come to Jesus” talk. 🙂 More on that at the end. But for now, just a few thoughts on the mystery of our existence.

It is a true fact that from our point of view life begins at conception. That is when we can “measure” life’s existence and when we begin to interact with human life and must respect it. But, in a way I want to be more radical with you and say that life begins “before” conception. We are rather materialistic, mechanistic, and scientific at times and thus we miss the glorious fact that our lives cannot simply be assessed or measured in a test tube or “seen” with earthly eyes, or even measured by time.

Why do I say that life begins “before” conception and why do I use quotes around “before”? Well, first of all, the Scriptures attest to fact that God knew of us before he made us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”(Jer 1:4). And psalm 139 attests; “Every one of my days was written in your book before one of them ever  came to be.” (Psalm 139:16). What this means pure and simple is that no human person is an accident or a surprise to God. No one, even those born under less than ideal circumstances, is inconvenient or unwanted by God. Every human person is sacred for they are willed by God, loved by God, created intentionally by God not as a whim but as part of a plan stretching back before the foundation of the world. Every human person (even my enemy) is God’s “yes”  to the world.

When I say life begins  “before” conception why do I put “before” in quotes? I do not mean to say that we existed in heaven or someplace else before we were conceived here. But what I mean is that there really is no “before” with God. God dwells outside time and transcends it. Past and future are equally present to God who lives in the fullness of time where everything is now, every thing, every age is present. For us, time unfolds in chronological sequence. For God everything just IS. God is not waiting for your tomorrow. your tomorrow has always been present to him. This is why God can say “Before I formed you I knew you.” This is why all our days are written in his book before they come to be for us.

Ah, the mystery of human life caught up in the mystery of God! We cannot grasp our dignity fully but only seem small facets of it. Too wonderful for us this knowledge, this mystery is too deep to express. As I saw thousands upon thousands at the march today I pondered that the mystery of their life is caught up in eternity and that God knows them each through and through, not a hair of their head was un-numbered. There too were the police guarding us and preserving good order. They too, known by God through and through, before they were ever formed in their mother’s womb.

I praise you Lord because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. …For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. .. your eyes saw my unformed body.  All the days ordained for me  were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Ps 139, selected verses).

And then I came to our opponents on the steps of the Supreme Court. They were small in number but with that distinctive blue and white sign: “Keep Abortion legal.” These too, I thouhgt are known and loved by God from before the foundation of the world. Sadly misled but loved.

And then it occurred to me that at  the heart of their dignity was to hear the truth, the truth that would set them free. “Why not?” I thought. “Am I not here to influence, to change hearts? At least plant seeds?”  One by one I went to each of them I could get to. I look them in the eye and appealed to their conscience. They were chanting “Ho, Ho! Hey, Hey! Roe v. Wade is Here to Stay!” I stood before each an looked in their eyes and said in a clear but low voice that they could hear: “But you know it’s wrong. Deep in your heart you know it is wrong. You know.”  It was interesting. In years past I tried to debate the issue with them and all we did was argue. But this year the Lord said, “Speak only to their conscience.”

Some of the looks I got back were powerful. Some were troubled looks, some neutral, one gave me a knowing look as if I  (no not I, the Lord) had connected. It was brief with each but powerful. I didn’t have to win. All I had to do was to respect their dignity to hear the truth and let God speak to their conscience.  He made them to know the truth and  I pray that even one of them really heard the Lord. It was a moment in time that was written in God’s book before it ever came to be. Your prayers will make it fruitful.

You Formed Me And You Know Me – The Healing in Psalm 139

One of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible is Psalm 139 which speaks of God’s absolute and sovereignty over our lives. God made us, fashioned us, sees into the depth of our very being and knows every one of our days long before he ever made us.

The Psalm is clear that none of us are an accident or a mistake. Each of us is known to God, willed by God, loved by God unconditionally. God knew every good thing we would ever do, before we were made. He also knew every bad, sorrowful and hurtful thing we’d ever do but loves us anyway and made us despite this.

There is something intrinsically good about every human person, even the most troubling, we are willed and loved by God. God does not make us as an “experiment” as though he set us in motion and then stepped back to see the results. Rather, he made us, knowing everything in advance. We tend to sort people out and value them based on accomplishments or deficits. God just loves. Even the souls in Hell, those who choose something other than God, remain in his care. He still sustains them. God never destroys or annihilates any human person he has made. The souls in hell have chosen something other than heaven and God, they would rather reign in Hell than serve and worship in the Kingdom. God respects that choice but never withdraws his love.

Psalm 139 is also essential to the Pro-life movement for it states clearly that God knits us together in our mother’s womb. We are willed by God before one of our days ever existed. He calls us into being forms, “knits us” in our mother’s womb. We are wonderfully, fearfully made. Our dignity is not in our utility to others or the state. It is not in our convenience or abilities. It is not that others want us or do not want us. Our dignity is that we are willed and loved by God.

Here are excerpts from psalm 139. And then a beautiful video I stitched together from several sources showing astonishing ultrasound images of our development in the womb along with a beautiful song: “Psalm 139” by Pro Sound. The song is available at iTunes.

O Lord, You search me and You know me; you know when I sit and when I stand, you understand my thoughts from afar….behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me….You formed my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you that I wonderfully and fearfully made….even my bones were not hidden from you as I made and fashioned in secret….Your eyes foresaw all my actions and all my days were written in your book before one of them ever came to be.  (Psalm 139)

Enjoy this beautiful video depicting the handiwork of God as he fashions us in the womb.