Laying the Foundation

For the past few months, my wife and I have been eyeing the housing market, on the hunt for our next family home.

We currently live in a townhouse and while it meets all needs for us and our three little children, we’ve been conducting lately a constant search to find our “dream home.”

No matter the house, it seems there’s invariably a concern related to at least one of the three tenets of location, layout and affordability, causing us to wrestle with whether any of the houses seen have been the right fit.

To help with our decision making, we always ask ourselves the same questions: Do we need this? and Is this worth it for our family?

It’s important we examine these points because we wish for the planning of our family home to be as prudent as possible for both the short- and long-term future.

That might sound a tad crazy, given that today’s society doesn’t always promote such careful vision.

Just the same, much like the building structure itself, Catherine and I want our house plans to be based on a secure foundation.

House on Rock 1Such an insistence calls to mind Jesus’ parable of the house built on rock and that which was built on sand. (Matthew 7:24-27)

An analogy so short and simple, Jesus’ teachings of roughly two thousand years ago still ring true today.

Considering His reference of a house as a metaphor for our lives, how many of us are building a firm foundation?

In a world that preaches instant gratification, how many people invest their lives in items so temporary in nature, such as electronics or social media status?

Do we place our greatest value on matters that truly are legitimate and long-lasting, such as quality relationships with our spouses, children and friends?

House on Rock 4Does our increasingly disposable society influence us so much so that we concern ourselves more with superficial things like our name-brand clothing or hairstyle, the car we drive or the party we attend?

Do we involve ourselves with our neighborhood, both offering and seeking support and encouragement at our local churches, schools and outreach centers?

Certainly, as our North American culture has grown more secular, traditional yet reliable faith, family and social values can easily lose some luster.

Ideals like community, sharing and accountability can get bumped to the curb for individualization, self-service and entitlement.

Appreciation for simplicity and essentials has given way to a popular culture of fancy gimmicks and unnecessary extras.

One can argue needs in life are being replaced increasingly by wants.

House on Rock 3For instance, cable TV companies include hundreds of channels in their packages, smartphones store thousands of songs and pictures, and social media outlets allow for millions of followers – and we as true consumers are suckers for all them.

Looking at today’s society, one can wonder where we place our priorities – on a foundation made of rock or of sand.

Among the clothes in our dresser drawers or closets, how many outfits do we wear regularly? How many of those songs on our iPhone include lyrics promoting Jesus’ Gospel and how many advertise inappropriate or unhealthy messages? When was the last time we sacrificed a program or movie on Netflix and replaced it with prayer or volunteer service?

As we continue navigating through today’s challenging times, may we resolve to keep God and His teachings at the foreground of all our thoughts, words and actions. (1 Samuel 2:2)

House on Rock 2May we feel encouraged to turn to God in times of difficulty but also celebrate Him through living out works of mercy and appreciating our many blessings.

Including God as our base, we can ensure we live a life built on a foundation of rock, worthy of eternal salvation.

Doing so can then help us prepare for when we move into our Heavenly house of dreams.

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An Identity Crisis

Two nights ago, I had the pleasure of having a foot bath.

No, this was not some spa experience, where you soak your feet in therapeutic salt water and then enjoy a nice massage from someone trained to relieve all of your pain.

You see, I was approached by one of our church’s priests earlier in the week, asking whether I’d be interested in participating in a reenactment of Jesus’ washing of the apostles’ feet during the Holy Thursday Mass.

Given the Mass was to be held in the evening in the midst of our kids’ bedtime routine, I was thankful my wife and I were able to juggle matters at home, allowing me to attend on my family’s behalf.

I was so grateful to have been present, as it was truly an honor to be part of the demonstration before the congregation.

As I shared with Catherine at home afterwards, I had taken part in such a reenactment once before, but this time was far more meaningful – and far more emotional.

Jesus Washing Apostles FeetAs the priest moved with his basin of water from one volunteer to another, I felt myself thinking of Jesus.

I imagined Him in a room, kneeling or sitting while pouring water over His trusted friends’ feet, drying them with care and ensuring each one of the apostles knew how cherished he was.

By the time the priest had reached me, I was thinking of Peter and how he asked Jesus to wash not only his feet but also his hands and head. (John 13:9)

I became so overcome with emotion that I was trembling somewhat and had tears beginning to drip from my eyes.

You see, when I look at my life and consider my sins, I know I’m not worthy of God’s unconditional love, despite whatever goodness I’ve contributed in His name.

For this reason, like Peter, I’d rather have an entire ocean of God’s holy grace showered over me, instead of a small amount of water poured on just my feet.

Yet, as Jesus reminded the apostles, only the feet are necessary, for we are healed of our sins and made pure with Him by His blessing. (John 13:10)

In contemplating my own identity and Jesus’ love given to me freely, I can easily ask myself, Who am I to receive this extraordinary and undeserved gift?

Who Do You Say I Am 1But during Holy Thursday Mass, I thought instead of the question Jesus posed to His disciples when He asked them one day after having been approached by crowds, Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:27-30)

Having my feet washed and already with thoughts of Peter in my head, I couldn’t help but remember his answer to Jesus in that instance – You are the Messiah. (Mark 8:29)

We are challenged in our lives to decide who Jesus is to us. It is times like Easter when we can better concentrate on this question in order to be completely honest with our answer.

Shaking and tearing up the other night when having my feet washed, I came to further understand and appreciate Peter’s answer.

Jesus, You are the Christ – the Chosen One, the Son of God, our Savior.

Pope Francis recently addressed priests, challenging them to discern over Jesus’ identity in the world today and their responsibility to represent and celebrate Him.

“We either make Jesus present in the life of humanity or let Him remain on the level of ideas, letters on a page, incarnate at most in some good habit, gradually becoming routine,” he said.

Who Do You Say I Am 2As we commemorate the Lord’s Last Supper and His death on the cross on Good Friday, and look ahead to celebrating His glorious Resurrection tomorrow, may we find the courage within ourselves to also ponder more attentively who Jesus is for us in our lives.

As Jesus said He was thirsty while being crucified, may we strive to always deepen our relationship with Him, quenching His thirst for relationship with us while being invited to receive a powerful wave of God’s grace in the process.

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Doing our Part

We’ve been talking a lot about community these days in my Religion classes.

We’ve been discussing what community is exactly, along with its benefits in society and what we receive from our respective communities.

My students and I have been discussing Jean Vanier and his founding and development of L’Arche, an international community fostering inclusion and integration of people with intellectual disabilities.

Geese 3We’ve also talked about the flight pattern of Canadian geese and how their Flying V behavior represents the solidarity and effectiveness of community and the support of one another within it.

However, we’ve also been talking about our responsibility to give back to our community and not just expect things from it.

At home, our sons have taken a great liking to the kids’ cartoon Paw Patrol and it was during a recent episode that I noticed how those fun-loving and life-saving pups show a lot about God’s community.

Often, the show will start off with all of the dogs playing around together, enjoying a nice break from their rescue work. Suddenly, though, their master Ryder will summon them to their headquarters to inform them of someone in trouble and needing their help.

Paw PatrolI notice there are usually just a few dogs included in each mission, simply because only certain duties or responsibilities are helpful at that specific moment.

For instance, when there’s a seal or dolphin struggling out at sea, Zuma heads out on his hovercraft to help Ryder save the day.

If there’s a cat stuck in a tree, Chase can use his megaphone to call for its attention, and then launches his net to retrieve the animal.

Rocky is the master of using recyclable material to create new tools. Rubble loves to crack jokes and is always on hand to dig out of trouble with his bulldozer. Marshall can extinguish fires with his hose and applies his medical skills whenever in need.

Skye handles crisis matters with her helicopter and harness, able to provide air rescue at any time. Everest is the other girl rescue dog, called upon for any emergencies related to snow or ice.

True to one of the Paw Patrol’s many catchphrases, “No job is too big, no pup is too small!”

You see, each dog has gifts that he or she uses to better society around them. While Ryder recognizes each pup can’t solve every problem, he knows they’re all able to contribute in some way and holds them as valuable members of the group – ensuring that collectively, they accomplish their goals.

In other words, as I have shown on a poster in my classroom, no one can do everything but everyone can do something.

No One Can Do Everything 1I think that in so many ways, our world is like the Paw Patrol and God is calling on every one of us to live out our vocation of serving His will by helping His people.

God has given each of us talents, and it’s our duty to apply them for the greater good in order to realize His plan for us and His world.

For example, a hockey player may not be the best goal scorer, but he can focus on his backchecking or penalty killing abilities to help his team win, knowing there are others on the team more gifted offensively.

While not every student is a talented actor or actress, a high school theatre production is always in need of a good stage crew, make-up artists, program designers and souvenir vendors.

Personally, I would never challenge my wife to a cooking or baking battle. But I do know I can make up for my lack of culinary expertise in other areas, which is why I work so hard to tidy up after meals by doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, wiping the table and taking out the trash.

As taught in Jesus’ parable of the talents, God has given each of us gifts and expects us to use, develop and share them with those around us. (Matthew 25:14-30)

No One Can Do Everything 2Doing so makes others better while we learn and grow from them in return, enriching our community in the process.

So as we live each day seeking to find our purpose on earth, may we discover opportunities to give God glory and to give back to His community by simply doing our part the best we can.

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Adding Salt (& Light) to the World

Those who have eaten with me know how much I love ketchup.

They can attest to how I squirt oodles of it on practically every meal I eat.

Certainly, with a history of Diabetes in my family, I am very conscientious of my ketchup consumption.

Despite that, though, I just can’t seem to get enough of the condiment.

Loaded with sodium, you’d think I would be worried about my salt intake each time I put ketchup on my food.

Well, I might be taking this a little too far and I’m not saying God is telling me to add significant amounts of salt to my diet, but doesn’t the Bible at least encourage me to act like salt?

Salt of Earth & Light of World 1Recently, I was teaching about Jesus’ Beatitudes featured in His Sermon on the Mount, and as an extension, I shared with my students a subsequent passage – Jesus’ comparison of humanity to salt and light. (Matthew 5:13-16)

 

This is one of my favorite Biblical selections, as it evidences how Jesus often took something so vast and complicated – such as our purpose on earth or His Kingdom in Heaven – and related it to something so small and simple.

You might recall the passage, which shares how Jesus invites us to be salt of the earth and light of the world.

The verses – if taken literally – can be a little perplexing, however.

I’m supposed to be an ingredient found in ketchup or shaken from a tiny glass cylinder?

I’m being compared to a lamp post or a night light plugged into an electrical outlet in a bathroom?

Salt of Earth & Light of World 2As I explain with my students, it’s only when we step back from the literal sense of His teaching that we can appreciate Jesus’ message and understand our vocation and mission.

You see, salt is an additive used frequently in meal preparation to enrich a food’s flavor.

Whether it be adding a pinch of salt into a soup to remove any bland taste or sprinkling some on your eggs or French fries, the right amount of salt can enhance the savor of whatever it is you’re eating.

Additionally, salt serves as a preservative, preventing food from spoiling and guarding it against decay.

Like salt, we are called to add flavor to the world, contributing our best in order to preserve and nurture all that is right in society while combatting anything that can cause harm.

As for being a light for our world, we are charged by God with the responsibility of illuminating society around us, bringing clarity to those who may live in a state of darkness or confusion.

Through striving to display virtues and a constant search for truth, we can shed light on the world every day in so many ways.

Light of the WorldA humble demeanor, respect towards all people, complete and genuine effort in all that we do and a sincere investment in our relationships can all help us serve as torches or flashlights, blazing a path of understanding for others so desperate to know God’s shining way.

As Jesus teaches, we should be mindful to do this with no hesitation or shame, instead providing an inspirational beacon of hope, recognizing the need for God’s light in the world. (John 8:12)

But what about the expression adding salt to the wound? Wouldn’t salt intensify the pain?

Well, as Jesus tells us, in living as salt of the earth, we act as an antidote for any suffering the world may experience.

While filled with blessings, today’s world is also undeniably wounded.

Child neglect, discrimination of all sorts, violence and abuse of physical, mental and emotional natures are just some examples of what fills our daily news coverage, leading to an increased sentiment of despair, pain and hatred – the antithesis of God’s plan for His creation.

But if we live out our salt-like vocation of enriching society’s goodness, preserving our world’s beauty and highlighting its potential, we can protect one another from all that is wrong and harmful.

Doing so can light the path to God’s Kingdom, restoring our community from brokenness and brightly guiding us to eternal paradise.

Salt of Earth & Light of World 3Of course, you can accept all that you’ve read here or disregard it, as is your God-given free will.

All I ask is that you take it with a grain of salt.

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An Attitude of Gratitude

This past Christmas, my wife and I received a card from a dear friend expressing thanks for support we had offered during a difficult time.

The card featured the title Gratitude and in it, our friend described how he was grateful for the friendship we’ve had the pleasure of sharing over the last few years.

It was not long after that I heard a program on the radio detailing the significance of gratitude and the challenge of giving thanks.

It made me think of a time when I was about 14 years old and wasn’t very happy – or thankful – for a significant Christmas gift my parents gave me.

Gratitude 1Wanting a Nintendo video game system that year, I had made my desires known to my parents for quite some time.

I made sure I behaved exceptionally well in the months leading up to Christmas, so as to earn my parents’ attention and convince them during their gift purchasing process.

When it came time to distribute the presents, my family huddled around the Christmas tree for my Dad to do his customary routine of passing out gifts to each of us.

NintendoI had noticed a large box under the tree, wrapped and containing my name on a tag, and so I had a strong suspicion I’d be getting the Nintendo I had been wanting.

 

Waiting until the last of the gifts, my Dad decided to finally call my name for that big box.

After ripping off the wrapping paper, my facial expression quickly turned from a look of awe and excitement to one of confusion and anger.

The gift? New hockey pants.

Sure, I loved hockey and had played in organized leagues much of my life. And yes, I likely could have used new pants, although the used pair I had been given a few years before were working fine, thank you very much.

Unhappy GiftBut I really wanted that Nintendo and was both mad and terribly disappointed I didn’t get it.

What a perfect example of how in society, we so often receive gifts and instead of being grateful, we complain about them and ask for something different.

How often do we act in this way when God gives us gifts?

Perhaps we want some nice weather during the summer in order to enjoy the beach, but then we grumble about how it’s too humid.

Maybe we pray long and hard to meet a person and fall in love, and then devote so much attention to that person’s faults.

How about a teenager blessed with beautiful freckles sprinkled on her face regretting her appearance because the person featured on the magazine covers has “perfect” skin?

What of the kid who won’t accept the clothes or cell phone his parents buy him as a birthday or school graduation gift since they aren’t the latest brand name standard?

If we are to always look past God’s blessings and offerings to us, we will surely never be able to fully appreciate them.

While it may seem farfetched due to social temptations and messages from popular culture, goodness can be lived when we focus on what we have from God instead of yearning for something bigger or brighter.

Gratitude 2So rather than griping about what God doesn’t give us, perhaps we can stand to concentrate more on what He does provide. (Psalm 107:8-9)

In demonstrating a little more thanks to the One who loves us, we might just be able to better apply – and reap the benefits of – all of those many gifts God bestows upon us. (Jeremiah 30:19)

Once we’ve learned how to live with such an attitude of gratitude, the game of life can be played that much more easily.

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Will you be my Valentine?

With the month of February now upon us, we can look forward to different events and celebrations marking the road to spring.

We began yesterday with Groundhog Day, which often seems to brighten or dampen the spirits of many, depending on what side of the fence you sit when it comes to the winter season.

Certainly, February marks Black History Month and commemorates the many invaluable accomplishments of African-Americans throughout history, while also providing an important reminder of the work still needed to be done in order to achieve equality for all in society.

This year, February includes the Winter Olympics, showcasing the various talents of athletes from around the world.

And, in a little less than two weeks, we’ll begin the Lenten season and our spiritual journey to Easter by marking our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Oddly enough, Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 14, a date known by so many for a completely different reason.

Valentines Day Card 1Yes, Valentine’s Day – a day to celebrate your love with that special someone.

It’s a day for chocolate and roses, kisses and fancy dinner dates.

Back when I was in elementary school, I used to get so excited around Valentine’s Day.

On that day, students would bring a box of little cards to school and pass them to their classmates, inviting them to be their special valentine or thanking them for being such good friends.

The cards were of a particular theme – usually a popular cartoon character or superhero – and seemed to always have some catchy slogan or message like a train chugging on a track, saying “I choo-choo choose you!”

Valentines Day Card 3Indeed, Valentine’s Day would show us how loved and appreciated we were, and all the kids in the class would beam with joy at the number of cards they received that day.

But as enthusiastic as I was about Valentine’s Day, I remember also feeling very sad or disappointed, as I would often come home at the end of the school day without that special card from that girl for whom I had a crush, despite my sending her a thoughtful valentine.

I wonder if God can relate to these experiences and emotions when it comes to the spirit of Valentine’s Day.

Valentines Day Card 2Whether it be a sunshine or singing birds, acts of generosity from friends or community members, the gift of laughter or talents bestowed upon us, these and so many other examples illustrate how God gives us Valentine’s Day cards aplenty and seeks to speak with us daily, revealing His unconditional love for all of His creation.

In return, though, do we prepare a Valentine’s Day card for Him?

Do we tell God how much He is loved and appreciated?

Or, instead, do we avoid and ignore the Lord, leaving Him empty-handed when it comes time for Valentine’s Day cards to be distributed?

How many of us focus on other people or experiences, rather than devoting time and attention to God, who simply longs to lavish His love upon us and call us His children? (1 John 3:1)

But despite our sins, dismissal or even rejection of God, let us remember the Lord remains steadfast and faithful with His unconditional love.

Unlike those girls of my elementary school years on Valentine’s Day, God never breaks our heart.

Nehemiah Biblical QuoteQuite the contrary, He mends it by forgiving with mercy and understanding with compassion. He is slow to anger and graciously showers His blessings on His people. (Nehemiah 9:17)

So may this Valentine’s Day offer us an opportunity to fully embrace the love of God, while also gifting Him with our valentines, in order that we may show our gratitude to Him for everything in our lives.

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Taking a Spiritual Journey

Last week, I took a quick trip down to the Baltimore area to spend time with some of my cousins.

We are very close and always have a blast together, but due to geography, we rarely get to see each other.

So, with a pretty open weekend and my wife’s blessing, I hopped on a plane Saturday morning and flew home Sunday in time to get a decent night’s sleep before school resumed the next morning.

Passport 1Crossing the border both ways, I knew I had to bring my passport. A tiny souvenir of my trip, my passport received stamps from the American and Canadian border agents, signifying yet another journey in my life.

When I think back, my passport has now been marked with stamps from several other countries besides Canada and the United States, namely Aruba, Chile, England, France, Greece, Italy and Mexico.

As my passport stampings symbolize travels over the course of my life, it is interesting to note how in many religions, there are similar markers representing one’s spiritual voyage.

As a teacher of a high school World Religions course, we study in my classes such milestones as the naming and welcoming of a child (aqiqah) in Islam, a bar- and bat- mitzvah in Judaism, the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana) in Hinduism and the becoming of a monk in Buddhism.

It’s no different in Christianity, as various denominations have their own rituals signaling rites of passage for their members from birth to death.

For instance, just like the seven countries I have visited outside of North America, the Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments to present the distinct steps of one’s faithfulness to God and practice of belief.

Sacraments 1In addition to Baptism, Reconciliation (confession), Holy Eucharist and Confirmation, Roman Catholics may also celebrate the sacraments of Marriage, Holy Orders (priesthood) and Anointing of the Sick.

Similar to the collection of countries in a continent, these seven sacraments can be grouped as rites of initiation (Baptism, Holy Eucharist and Confirmation), healing (Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick) and service (Marriage and Holy Orders).

Sacraments 2And just as a passport can afford someone great opportunity for travel, the sacraments can offer a person a fuller experience of God’s blessings and presence.

But, just as a passport is only good if it is kept updated, the sacraments can only bring us to holiness if they are practiced regularly.

Much like a passport, we are called to live a faith of renewal and to be active in living out our beliefs, and that includes traditions and rituals.

For example, while we are baptized once (typically as a baby), we renew our baptismal identity each time we attend Mass, receiving a blessing when we dip our finger or hand into holy water upon entry into the church. Furthermore, how we carry ourselves each day of the week following a Sunday service should also reflect our baptismal identity.

Making our first confession of sins at a young age of approximately seven years old, we will surely commit sins well past that stage in our lives. Thus, reconciling with God and receiving His forgiveness through the sacrament of penance at least a few times each year can ensure absolution of our faults and a regular reminder of God’s grace and unconditional love for us.

As I remind my students when we discuss the sacraments, Holy Eucharist received as kids is intended to be our “First Communion” and not our last. Therefore, by honoring the Sabbath and attending church service regularly (ideally weekly), we are offered a chance to be fully and frequently united with our Lord Jesus Christ.

When it comes to Confirmation, I can remember being confirmed at the age of 13, while in Grade 7. I believe I was old enough to appreciate with relative maturity the significance of the sacrament. Today, I am challenged and called to display that appreciation by continuing my practice of faith in attending Mass weekly, reciting the Apostles’ Creed and living out my beliefs in God through actions each and every day.

While my wife Catherine and I married nearly five years ago, I know I am tasked with carrying out our sacramental and matrimonial vows daily for the rest of our life. This can come in many forms, including regular reminders of how much I love her – both through words and deeds. My remaining loyal to her, supporting her wishes and dreams, providing for her needs and those of our children, and honoring her by my living each day – these are all ways I can embody the meaning of the sacrament of marriage.

Sacraments 3Certainly, the remaining two sacraments will not necessarily apply to everyone in the Roman Catholic faith, much like each milestone may not take place for everyone in any given denomination or religion.

Just the same, a sincere display within the sacraments can help express one’s true devotion in his or her relationship with God.

Regardless, much like a passport must be renewed in order to always be effective, it is important to stay current in our faith through the sacraments, allowing us to enjoy the fullest experience possible with God in our lives.

Passport 2Doing this, then, we can not only enjoy great spiritual travels here on earth, but also stamp ourselves a trip to eternal salvation in Heaven.

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