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Friday, April 10, 2015

A Day in the Life; Walking the Dog, a Welt and Superhero Dreams...

When you got to go...
"Carlos, the dog," my wife said as our new Australian Terrier mix, that we rescued from the pound several weeks ago, stood on his hind legs, scratching at the bed with his front paws to wake her up, as he had done the previous two times that morning.

"It's the third time this morning!" I complained (Annoyed that I was going to have to get up AGAIN!).

"That was part of the deal.  We got a dog because you said you would walk him," she shot back. 

Great, she used the "you said" card again!  I did promise to walk the dog if we got one, only after years of hearing our kids beg us to get one (Our two previous dogs died about six months apart four years ago), but, are you kidding?  Three times in one morning?  I had no idea it would be so often!

I threw the blankets off in a huff, climbed out of bed, slipped into my shorts and sandals and headed for the door, as the terrier, who we named Winston, broke into his happy dance when I pulled out the leash (Yes, it's a lot of fun for me too, I thought!). 

St. Paul did say, "Love is patient.  Love is kind," but, let's be real, do you think he really meant before the first cup of morning coffee?  I couldn't believe it.  He woke up at 5:30am, then at 7:30am and again at 8:30am!  I swore I had to check the fiber content in his food.  This was ridiculous!

It had been a rough morning.  Aside from the lack of sleep, during my first two walks (the first one in the dark), as I slumbered along following the determined half-pint, I ran into a spider web that I thought I ate the first time around and it was back when I walked the same route the second time! 

Walking the dog battle scars...
However, I think the second time the spider got ticked that I had ruined her all-night creation again and so she rode me like an avatar on one of those green dragon flying things because, for about two or three blocks, I could feel spider webs down my arms, head and legs, as I broke into spontaneous air Kung Fu moves every few steps and slapped myself silly trying to get rid of the annoying pest.  It's a good thing most people were still asleep on a Saturday morning.     

Obviously, by the third walk I avoided that area like the plague but when I got home and went to the bathroom, I noticed a bright red welt over my left eye that was sore and apparently left over from our second walk.  That female dog!  I must have gotten bitten by the vengeful spider!

For the rest of the week, I kept waiting for the welt to go away.  It was swollen and tender.  I put a couple of different antibacterial and antibiotic creams on it but nothing.  It must have gotten infected. 

By Friday night, my wife asked if I was going to turn into Jimmy Smits, from the movie The Believers, and I begin screaming, "Culebra!" at the top of my lungs, before spiders started to come out of the welt on my forehead.  As for me, I think I started feeling my spider senses tingling and was ready to use my Kung Fu moves on real bad guys, only I couldn't climb up walls or get the spider webs to shoot out of my wrists!  Hey, a guy can dream can't he?

Oh, well; lesson learned.  To avoid embarrassing myself and the kids in the future (with my air Kung Fu moves), I'll have to look for one of those fly-whisks that people in the Middle East use to swing and scatter the flies as they walk, so I can walk my dog in the mornings and evenings after dark.  In the meantime, I think I'll walk him by the edge of the street to avoid the trees, where spiders spin their webs.

Fortunately for me, Winston's bowel movements have gotten acclimated to his new environment.  He still wakes up early every morning and goes to my wife, like my kids do (I wonder why?), so that she wakes me up to walk him but, at least, it's just once!...

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Cross; from Torture to Salvation...

The blood of the martyrs...
When the hooded ISIS terrorists (Real manly to cover their faces isn't it?) brutally beheaded twenty one Coptic Christians in cold blood on a beach in Libya, they said it was a message "in blood to the nation of the Cross," meant to taunt Christians around the world, as they threatened to conquer Rome next (meaning the Vatican; the most recognized center of Christianity).

Yet, the Cross, which is venerated by Christians on Good Friday, is actually a taunt to ISIS and all the powers in the world that be, who maim, torture, terrorize and murder as a show of force and intimidation.

The true power of the Cross was displayed by many of the victims of the massacre, who were seen mouthing, "Jesus Christ" or "Jesus is Lord," as the executioners plunged their blades into their necks to sever their heads.

Like lambs led to slaughter, in the example of Jesus, the Coptic Christians gave up their lives, believing that their fate was not in their killers' hands but in God's.

In a recent video commentary (see below), Catholic theologian and author Fr. Robert Barron explains that it is through the Cross of death, which Jesus boldly embraced, that the "nation of the Cross," became the nation of life in the Resurrection.

There was nothing more horrific and terrifying for people in the ancient world than that of the cross.

During the Spartacus rebellion about 100 years before Christ, Roman authorities crucified thousands of his men along the road leading to Rome, as a message, like the terrorists of ISIS, of what can happen to those that "cross" the Empire.

In Jesus' day, Barron says, the cross was the Roman Empire's version of state sponsored terrorism.  It was used as a deterrent to anyone who considered stepping out of line; a brutal instrument of torture meant to leave victims in excruciating pain until they died and then their bodies were left hung on the cross, for all bystanders to see, until scavenging animals devoured their remains.

The wood of salvation...
Consider that when Jesus was arrested, his disciples ran for cover.  Possibly with the exception of John the beloved, they all fled from the cross and went into hiding, in fear and trembling.  The cross was too horrid, too terrible, too grotesque a reality.  Barron says it was the most disgusting, terrifying and humiliating death that anyone could imagine at the time, which is the irony of what Christianity started proclaiming.

On the heels of the Crucifixion of Jesus, it was a disturbing claim for first century Palestinians and Greeks to hear that God became Man and was brutally and sacrificially slaughtered like a criminal upon a cross.  And, if that weren't shocking enough, St. Paul, St. Peter and the rest of the Apostles were telling believers that they too should emulate and follow Christ on the Cross!

It was absurd.  It was preposterous and it was hard to imagine.  Yet, their conviction and fervor converted thousands and spread throughout the Roman Empire like wildfire until the Empire was converted within 300 years.  Why?  How? That is a mystery that only God knows but, to me, it can only be explained by this; they saw and experienced the Risen Lord, which gave them the strength and courage to boldly and effectively proclaim such a radical proposition, knowing very well their fate was on that same cross, if they ever got caught (and most of them did!).

In fact, the Cross became a symbol of taunt to the Roman authorities, as if saying, "I know this is what your power is based on but we're not afraid."  Barron says that Christians held up the Cross as a symbol of God's love, which conquered sin and death once and for all.

The priest also points out that, unlike Islam, whose followers get offended by cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad in compromising positions, Christians hold up the mocked, humiliated and tortured Jesus, because we know that God's love is greater than any pain, suffering or disgrace in this world.

Thus, the Cross is a taunt, but not to Christians, as ISIS meant it to be, to those who abase it.

Second and third century Christian author, Tertullian once said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."  Without a doubt, those Coptic Christians were martyrs. And, that same Church that Tertullian spoke about, which started amidst the scandal of the Cross in the first century, and has outlived kingdoms, governments, systems, persecutions, wars, scandals and constant attempts to destroy her for the past two thousand years, continues to carry the Cross on high, enduring, like its founder, its full weight because of its promise.      

As our parish priest sang at the Veneration of the Cross service on Good Friday afternoon, "Behold the wood of the Cross on which is hung our salvation."...

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Love and Marriage on the Slide...

In baseball, players slide into a base to avoid a tag and possibly in hopes of getting there faster. 

In life, some people slide into marriage for the same reasons

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.

Several weeks ago, my wife and I served at a marriage retreat for couples trying to either invigorate their relationships or save it before it dissolves. 

It's a weekend of bonding within the couple, as well as with other couples trying to work on their own marriages, by focusing on why they fell in love and got married in the first place.  For my wife and I, it's a great opportunity to get away from the kids and all the distractions and stress that starts to weigh our relationship down and begin anew (once a year!), which, I must say, is desperately needed even in the healthiest of matrimonies.   

On the first night of the retreat, we met a young couple that was very much in trouble.  They were in their early 30's, had been raised Catholic but, like many young people, had drifted from the faith, and, after years of living together, they got married in a civil ceremony, had a daughter and were now on the brink of calling it quits.

As we have learned over several years of serving on the Marriage Covenant Team at our parish, reading books and articles, counseling and intermingling with dozens of couples who have struggled and succeeded, they made three potentially critical mistakes; living together before tying the knot,  excluding God from their wedlock and separating marriage from their relationship with their daughter.

Let's start with living together.  It's a common misconception that living together before marriage helps couples stay together, by helping them decide if making a lifetime commitment to love "forever after" is the right call, when statistically speaking, it is actually the opposite. 

While nearly half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, which includes an increasing rate of divorce for second and third marriages, couples who live together first have a much higher chance of getting divorced than those that don't.

There are various reasons from commitment issues to maturity, but one is sometimes called the "slide effect."  It starts with one partner spending more time at the other's apartment and soon a drawer is cleared for personal belongings.  A few months later they decide that bouncing around between two apartments is too inconvenient and could cut expenses by moving in together, so they do.  Then they get a dog (Since the natural desire in the human heart and product of a loving relationship is to have children, but they're not ready for that yet, so they get the next best thing; Fido!).  Later, they buy a couch, a dinning room table, his and her bikes and so on. 

The next thing you know, they have lived together for several years and have a bunch of stuff.  By this point, they figure the best thing to do is to get married, which, after years of getting slack from grandma and Uncle Phil, they imagine they can appease their families, get the tax benefits and throw a great party in the process.  It's a win win for everyone.  Wrong!

Sadly, they may have just gotten comfortable in the relationship and are marrying a person they would have never have gotten married to otherwise.

Then, there's the civil marriage part of it.

When my wife and I originally celebrated our nuptials, we did so in a civil ceremony; a sunset wedding at the Miami Rowing Club in 1998.  In all honesty, we were indifferent and ignorant to what the Church teaches on marriage (Not to mention, to what marriage really means!), and, quite frankly, at the time, we didn't much care (At least, I didn't!).   

Let's face it, like most Catholics, who marry outside the Church, it's mostly out of lack of understanding and indifference, possibly influenced, to some extent, by the culture and all those wedding TV shows and magazines, where the wedding becomes more about the venue,  personal vows, center pieces and party, and less about God and what the sacred vows mean.     

But, think about what that says.  We're telling God, "Hey God, this is about us.  Butt out!"  And, in reality, we should be saying the opposite.

Marriage success is tough enough in today's world but, marriage without God, is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute and hoping for the best!  Not good!

As people with the faintest religious background might agree, marriage is a Sacrament.  Through it, God imparts special graces on a man and woman that binds them in a covenant, which is beyond any written contract.  It's a giving of self to one another.  They promise to give themselves entirely, and without restrictions or reservations, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer till death do them part.

In fact, it is a covenant that doesn't end at the altar.  It begins there.  It is renewed every time the couple shares in the self-giving and sacramental bond of conjugal intimacy!

The "me" becomes "we" since, and this is where the children part of my argument comes in, marriage is also about family.  As St. John Paul II often said, it is in the family that we enter into the innermost life of the Holy Trinity and become true reflections of God, who is Three, when our two flesh become one and then become three, nine months later!  Just think about the profundity of this.  We become active participants of God's creation!

Earlier this month, my wife and I celebrated our 17th Wedding Anniversary, although there's a caveat.  I like to say we've been married twice.  We got married in the Catholic Church in 2007, after my "reversion" into the faith and having God in our marriage and family became really important to us.

We spent our anniversary night, having dinner at a trendy sushi restaurant with our two youngest children, who where a bit unruly, while our older daughter hung out with some friends in the same shopping center and later met up with us for desert and espressos at a French Bistro.  Still, despite the slight aggravation over dinner, to me, there is no better way to celebrate an anniversary because there is greater expression of marital love than that of family.

If you remove children from marriage, it becomes an adult-centric relationship, which is geared towards personal fulfillment and "happiness," with no concern for the life-giving aspect of the sacrament.  Unfortunately, it's what many people who have kids and call it quits often do because they are thinking of themselves and not the children. 

Marriage is the only institution that unites, not only the married couple, but children to their parents.  And, with the escalating divorce rate and continuous attempts to redefine marriage to make it strictly adult-centric, the institution is slowly being chipped away and children are the ones that suffer.

In any case, as St. John Paul II said, it is through matrimony and subsequent family that we are completed in the image and likeness of God.  So, Jerry Maguire was right, when he said to Dorothy Boyd, "You complete me!" 

Yet, despite the romantic notion created in movies, love is not a feeling.  It's a choice; an act of the will.  Feelings come and go and at times they'll be fantastic and other times not so much, but the will to love can last a lifetime.  And, let's face it, marriage is not always "happily ever after" like it is in fairy tales and movies.  There are many ups and down. 

But, as St. Paul poignantly points out in his first letter to the Corinthians, love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

If we base our happiness and fulfilment on another person, it isn't love.  It's self love and a sure recipe for failure.  True love and happiness can never be found in another person.  It can only be found in God.  Because, that's how we were made; with a natural desire to know, love and live happily ever after with our maker (which is why God should never be excluded from the wedding!).

That's not to say, however, that every couple that gets married in the Church is a success story, far from it, especially when they do it out of obligation or tradition instead of faith and understanding, but it's a good place to start.

My wife and I were able to convalidate our marriage in the Catholic Church ten years after our civil wedding.  You can say we tied a double knot to make sure neither of us could break lose!  We were joined by our closest family, friends, our children and the entire Communion of Saints, as we celebrated the Sacraments of Marriage, the Eucharist and our son's Baptism during the same ceremony.  Now that's what you call a party! 

At the end of the weekend, the young couple committed to trying to save their marriage and small family.  It won't be easy, especially when society is telling them to seek that personal "happiness," and since the word "divorce" may have already crept into their vocabulary, which is a sure sign of doom (The more the word is used, the more the couple gets used to the idea and the easier it is to take the next step).

But, hopefully, despite having already committed to the slide, like any good base runner, they can hook their leg around the bag and avoid getting tagged out.  Either that, or just mow the defender over in hopes of knocking the ball lose!  Hey, whatever gets you there.  When it comes to saving marriage, everything is fair game!...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Father's Disappointment...

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Murillo...
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." (Lk 15:20)

It's hard to live up to the image of the loving father in the story of the prodigal son.  It's even harder when pride, ego and self-righteousness get in the way, which in my case, is often! 

One recent night after dinner, I was kicking back on the couch, minding my own business, enjoying a glass of wine, when my wife and 14-year-old daughter came up to me and sat on either side of me.  My wife said my daughter had something to tell me.

Right away, I thought,"Oh boy," and started bracing for something unpleasant, sort of like the feeling you get when you walk into a dentist's office; no matter the reason why you are there! (No offense to my dentist friends!)  Although, in all honesty, I thought it would be more along the line of some teenage drama about getting something she really needed, like the time my wife approached me for her to get a cell phone, or that she wanted my blessing to attend or partake in something.

Well, let's just say, I wished it had been a cell phone!  My daughter started stammering and stalling, "You know like when you do something and you think it's no big deal at the time..." 

My wife looked at her sternly and said, "Don't.  Just get to the point!"

My daughter blurted out, "I got in trouble at school."

I was like, "What?" But, before I could gather my thoughts and say anything, she went on to say, "I got suspended."

Suspended?  Now, I really started reeling. 

You got to understand, my daughter is an honor roll student; what is more, a member of the National Junior Honor's Society.  She's among the top students in her class.  She was a member of the Student Council and has always been a teacher favorite because she is quite, smart and stays out of trouble.  The only time she ever had a problem in school was in the 5th Grade, when she had to serve detention for missing a homework assignment that she had completed but forgot at home!

In other words, she's a good girl, or as Tom Petty might add, "loves her mama, loves Jesus and America too."

I won't get into the details on why she got in trouble because I think she is embarrassed enough as it is and sincerely repentant and this story is not so much about her, as it is about me.

I was hurt.  I was humiliated.  I was angry.  I questioned what we did wrong; and more precisely, what I did wrong (and thus, was disappointed in myself).  I felt betrayed; not just by the situation but by the fact that it had been kept from me for a few weeks (as my wife was tried to figure out how to tell me without me blowing my top, which, of course, I did!).   

For the next few days, I didn't know what I should do to convey the disappointment I felt or what repercussions should come of it.  Should I ground her for the rest of the year, including her graduation dance and the parties that were sure to come during her final year before high school?  Should I take away her cell phone until she gets to college!  Should I force her to watch endless hours of old black and white TV re-runs?

This was a serious.  Even in my wildest days, I had never been suspended.  Then again, my first day of class during my senior year in high school would have prompted a suspension, if I had been caught!

Now, I didn't talk to my wife about the way I was feeling because I was upset at her as well!

Not knowing what to do and not being able to hide my dejection, I kind of just stayed away from my daughter and any contact I did have with her was at arms-length at best.  She noticed because she told her mother that I was shunning her and got an earful of "You're not being fair" and "Remember when you were young" from my wife.

I can be real hard on my daughter.  I guess it's because she's the oldest, has so much potential and (not to mention) looks like me and has my temperament.  Therefore, I expect more from her.  I want her to set the example for her siblings.  I want her to lead and not follow; to swim against the tide and not be led down it like a log, as GK Chesterton would say.  I want her to achieve her full potential, whatever it may be, and not settle for easy, which being a lot like me, she has a tendency to do.  So, I often ride her; too often, according to my wife.

Several days went by, then one day, as I was praying for God's guidance on my way to work, I heard a conversation in the background on a podcast I had on my car radio.  The speaker mentioned the story of the Prodigal Son; and, more importantly, the Loving Father.

He too had been humiliated by his son, who asked for his inheritance while he was still alive, as if to say, "I wish you were dead already."  He too was hurt when his son decided to leave his home and move to a foreign land, as if to say, "I want nothing more to do with you."  He too must have felt betrayed, angry and disappointed.  But, he never showed it. 

He patiently waited for his son's return.  He probably prayed and, I'm sure, shed some tears along the way.

And, when the day finally came, instead of pridefully telling his son, "I told you so" (which might be something I would do!), he went out to meet him while the son was still a distance away and showed him nothing but love, mercy and forgiveness.

I was ashamed at the way I had treated my daughter.  I realized my reaction was not as much about her and what she had done as it was about me; my injured pride, my ego and my reputation.

This had nothing to do with me; any more than my own transgressions were a reflection or had anything to do with my parents and the way they raised me!  It was just part of life; the mistakes kids make on the way to adulthood.

That night, when we had a brief moment alone in the kitchen after dinner, I went up to her and embraced her tightly.  I kissed her and told her I loved her.  I didn't want to say much more.  In fact, I was afraid of saying anything more and breaking into tears, so I left it at that.  As we let go, I noticed her eyes had watered as well. 

It's not easy to be a parent these days.  Not that in past generations it was any easier, especially for the early Christians, who had to worry about their kids becoming lunch for lions in the coliseum, but the temptations, pressures and culturally accepted norms that kids face today in this highly technological world, where embarrassing pictures and videos can go viral, cyber-bullying and threats have replaced physical bullying, since, for kids, it's just as bad to have their reputation tainted on social media then to actually get beat up, and the temptations and anonymity they have at their finger tips or a click away, make it easier to stray off the path.

That's no excuse.  Right is right and wrong is wrong, no matter how much pressure or culturally accepted a wrong may be.  But, we all have our share of embarrassing or less-than-proud moments in life, and, for me, whether it was my first day of class my senior year, my Grad Night, or the time my dad had to bail me out of jail, just to name a few, I'm no one to throw stones, especially at my own daughter.

Maybe, it's one of the many reasons God gives us children; to experience the lowest of lows of His Fatherly disappointment whenever we fail and the highest of highs when we come to our senses, repent, ask for forgiveness and thus succeed.  Life is full of failures and, many times, the only way to succeed is learning from them.

This was the first time I was disappointment by something my child had done but with a young teenager and two other children not far behind, I'm sure it won't be the last.  I learned that the only way to get through the unavoidable letdowns in the future is to be that loving father, who always shows love, mercy and forgiveness...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lies and the Emptiness it Breeds...

Liar Liar...

“Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern truth either in himself or anyone around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to the passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying to others and to himself.”

-- Zosima, Elder Monk in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Day in the Life; Projectile from the Pew...

Not feeling so well...
Have you ever had one of those do-over days, where you wished you could get up again and start the day over?  Well, I've had my fair share of those in recent months but my last one was an interesting one, involving my seven-year-old son.

Several Fridays ago, he was feeling a bit under the weather.  The day before he had taken a nap after getting home from school, which was a telltale sign to begin with, since he never takes a nap, especially when it takes time away from his knights and Legos!  That night he hardly ate and, when he woke up saying his head hurt and threw up his breakfast (on our dining room rug!), my wife and I decided that he should stay at my parents' house (Not that it takes a brain surgeon to figure that one out!).

Only there was a minor hiccup.  Every Friday, I serve as the lector at the morning Mass at my parish and I would have to take him to church before I was able to drop him off on my way to work.

So, I took him with me and sat him at the very front pew of the church and told him that if he felt sick, he had to go to the bathroom, which was nearby.  He nodded his head, as he looked at me with  sad puppy-eyes, and I kissed him and hurried back into the sacristy to get ready for Mass.

Shortly after the Mass began, I took a glimpse his way and noticed a look of consternation on his face; sort of like the look of distress a man past his 40's gets when he goes in for his annual checkup and the doctor slips on a rubber glove. But, he was sitting there quietly and with his head resting on the side of the pew, so I was hoping he would make it through the 25-minute liturgy. 

I did my readings, sang the Alleluia and then stepped down from the ambo to give way to our pastor for the Gospel and homily.  After, he finished, I took another look at my son to see how he was doing.  He had the same distressed look but was still sitting there quietly and I prayed for him to feel better.

We were in the home stretch, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  Just a little while longer and we would be home free (I realize it's not the best approach to have during Mass but, with my son on the verge of tossing his cookies at a moment's notice, I was just counting the minutes!).

As the priest began the consecration of the Holy Host, the pinnacle of the Eucharistic celebration, I glanced over from my kneeler, and my son made a gesture, as if something was coming up from within (In fact, his cheeks filled with air) and he looked at me in total panic.  I started shaking my head and mouthing, "No!" and "Go to the bathroom," as he continued to gulp.  He mouthed back at me, "I can't!," as he placed a hand over his lips.  I kept shaking my head and mouthing, "No, no, no!"  It must have been quite a spectacle for the parishioners!

Then, as if conjuring up the spirit of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, as the priest held the Sacred Sacrament in his hands and finished the words of consecration... projectile!

I felt like Mr. Bill from the old Saturday Night Live show, thinking, "Oh, Nooooooo!" It was as if time stood still, and, in slow motion, I saw the watery substance shoot out of his mouth and douse the floor in front of him, as he stood there motionless, looking at me with his mouth open and saliva dripping from his lips.  Poor little guy!  But, I couldn't help him. 

Fortunately, an elderly lady sitting behind him saw the whole episode and handed him some Kleenexes from her purse.

I'm not sure if the priest noticed what was going on but the rest of the Mass, I kept thinking that someone was going to walk in front of him, after receiving Communion, and slip like the heavy-set girl dancing BeyoncĂ©'s Single Ladies on a coffee table on YouTube.

Thankfully, nobody fell or that might have been the end of my lectoring days!  And, I won't bore you with the details of round three in the car, as we were about to get to my parents'.  Suffice to say, thanks God for dry cleaners!...

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Women: the Heart of Men...

Norman Rockwell's Puppy Love...
“The heart is like a woman, and the head is like a man, and although man is the head of woman, woman is the heart of man, and she turns man's head because she turns his heart.”  

-- From Jesus-Shock by Peter Kreeft.