Musing on 1 Cor 9:24-27

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. –1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Cinderella.

Every March in the United States, this word gets thrown around continually and casually.

We all know what it means — the “Cinderella” team — the underdogs who proved themselves to everyone; the team no one believed in; the ones whom no one gave a second thought to; the team that everyone glazed over while filling out their brackets. “Oh an 11-seed? They’re going down in the first round, for sure.”

This year, I’ve had the privilege to watch my hometown team, the Wichita State Shockers, become the Cinderella of the 2013 NCAA Championship Tournament. A nine-seeded team that beat four teams — including the two best in its region — on its way to the Final Four.

Yes, we all love those underdog stories, don’t we? We latch on to movies like Seabiscuit, Glory Road, We Are Marshall, Cinderella Man, Miracle, and Cool Runnings (which are all based on true stories, by the way). Why? Because we love to see those teams, those players who weren’t the best still succeed, even when all the odds were stacked against them.

They take a stand for themselves — they prove to everyone that they’re worth something, that they shouldn’t be underestimated, that they shouldn’t be counted out.

We love underdog stories, because the idea of an ‘underdog’ is based on prejudice. “Oh, this team has more money, a better coach, more talented players, a tougher schedule — so, they’re definitely going to beat this second-rate team of schmucks, no problem. Right?”

The idea of an underdog also is based on empathy — we don’t like it when other people underestimate us, and count us out. So, when we see another underdog succeed, it gives us hope. The ‘little guy’ can win, even when the world is stacked against him. David can beat Goliath, and he does.

So life is for us Christians. We are the underdogs; we have the disadvantage, seemingly, against all that we try to combat — the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Think about it.

Everyday, we wake up to our ongoing struggles against all of our erring brothers and sisters, who pressure us (sometimes with good intentions) into joining their escapades with “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” — of rejecting our religion, our relationship with God simply to do what everyone is doing. We wake up to our own bodily desires, which were created good, but have been deformed through our own sinful nature, our predisposition to sin. We continue to pervert those gifts which God created good, because we believe that they will give us pleasure. And, lastly, and most frighteningly, we wake up everyday to combat all the demons of Hell, who have retained their angelic powers and use them to tempt us away from God — to give into our societal pressures, to give in to our own bodily desires, etc.

So, not only is the world against us, but the flesh and the devil, too!

How then — you might ask — can we possibly win?

And I would reply: How can we possibly lose?

We’re the underdogs! Our life as Christians is a classic underdog story. We win as any other longshot, counted-out team does: through Faith.

For athletes, it is faith in themselves, in their coach, in their teammates. For us, it is Faith in Our God, in our Church, in the Lord’s plan for us.

Train yourself for devotion; for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. For this we toil and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. –1 Timothy 4:7-11

So, like those athletes — those dark horses, who find themselves down at halftime to the best team in the league — we draw on four components of our Christian faith to “run the race so as to win” so that we might win our “imperishable crown” :

HEART

We could also call this passion or desire. Think of those athletes when they say they give “110%” to their sport, to their team, etc. Let us think of HEART as that ability to give of yourself for your Teammates, for your Coach — in good times, in bad; in everyday practice, in a clutch championship game; always. I often see athletes use the Twitter hashtag #NoDaysOff.

Our Faith, our life of training for devotion, must be the same way. These athlete have such commitment and passion for their sport, their team, their way of life. Why can’t we do the same? We must have HEART — passion in our Faith, desire to live for Christ — to “win” in our lives of Faith.

SKILL

No basketball team is going to win in any game, let alone against the overall No. 1 seed, unless the players know the fundamentals. Many coaches describe this as “Basketball IQ.” Sure, sometimes a victory comes down to talent and talent disparity between one team and its opponent; but, as any basketball fan knows, talent doesn’t count for much if the talented players don’t have a high Basketball IQ — if they make bad passes, if they commit stupid fools, if they travel or carry the ball.

In our faith lives, we have something similar: we have four gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, and Knowledge.You can be a good Christian — you can have all the passion to be like Christ in the world — but how can you be like Him if you don’t know Him? If you’re not open to the Holy Spirit? If you have no fundamental knowledge of the Faith — of sin, of right and wrong?

Just as an athlete has to know his sport — know its rules, its strategies, its speed, its techniques, its competition — so, too, do we have to know our Faith. But, beyond that, we have to live it out. We cannot simply draw up the plays, but we must execute them as well. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians, No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1Cor 9:27)

FOCUS

I didn’t know what better word to sum up this idea. I see those athletes who, in a critical game, do something wrong — they do something really stupid: commit a bad foul, turn over the ball, drop the baton, miss a block, etc.

And we sports fans scream and holler at our televisions “What the heck was that? How could you be so stupid?” But, then later, and sometimes not even one minute later, that same player does something awesome — intercepts the ball, breaks a record, or makes a huge shot. And you wonder “How can he be so bad one minute, and so good the next?” Because of focus — of that ability to “shake off” the bad and focus on the good. We Christians must do the same.

Sometimes we mess up. We sin; we fall away from God; we stumble in our lives of prayer and/or ministry. We do something stupid. But, we cannot be discouraged. Because, like that player, if we only focus on the bad, we cannot move forward and do the good. We will be stuck in an endless mental loop of “What if?” We will be focused on the past, instead of on the present and the future.

Yes, we need to correct our mistakes, but we also need to forgive ourselves (and our Teammates) when we mess up, when we do something stupid. We must have that persevering mercy for ourselves and others — we must have that resolution to forgive our mistakes, to sin no more, and to continue on our journey of Faith.

To be good Christians — to be like Christ– we must correct our faults, and focus on our ongoing mission of sharing Christ’s Gospel with others through our prayer and our example.

Think of it this way: at the end of a game, do people remember that you had 29 points, or that you committed four fouls?

SPIRIT

Lastly, a true underdog has to have spirit. Again, I don’t know how else to describe this idea of a ‘spirited’ competitor in one word. But, I recognize those dark horse athletes who look their much bigger, more talented, better coached opponents in the eyes and (through their body language) tell them: “I am not afraid of you.”

That indomitable spirit, that courage, to never back down and to never give up. That spunk, that grit, that determination to keep fighting — and to keep fighting with everything you’ve got until the clock expires. To fight nobly; to compete with dignity.

Win with humility, and lose with dignity, as my bishop once told my high school’s football team.

And, so we as Christians must do the same.

We should not be afraid to go toe-to-toe with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Because, weak though we are, we have the Grace of the Father, the Strength of the Son, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit to fuel us for our daily bouts against our three challenging opponents.

But, we cannot back down. We must have courage, fortitude, to keep running the race with faith in God and in His Love and Faith in us. We Christians must recognize that Christ’s grace is sufficient enough for us — He will get us through any fight, so long as we have faith in Him.

Remember St. Paul and his struggles, as he describes them in 2 Corinthians:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. –2Cor 12:7-10

IN CONCLUSION

“…the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize… They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”

So, brothers and sisters, we must allow the Spirit of God — the Spirit of Courageous ‘Spunk,’ shall we say — to dwell within us.

These four things — Heart, Skill, Focus, and Spirit — are the four qualities, the four ‘virtues’ that any true underdog must have to succeed in his endeavors, no matter how insurmountable they may seem.

Whether in sports or our lives of Faith, we underdogs must hold fast to these four things to win — we must hold fast to these gifts that God has given us. We must strengthen our passion for Him (Heart); we must learn about Him (Skill); we must learn to forgive like Him (Focus); and we must have the courage to face our enemies head-on (Spirit).

For, while our enemies might scoff and underestimate us and our Gifts — Our Faith in God — we should not. Because we are the underdogs, and God willing, we will be victorious in our struggles. We will “run so as to win.”

After all, what better underdog story is there than the seemingly ordinary Man Who died… only to conquer Sin and Death, and rise Victorious from the grave?

Amen. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Musing on Mercy & Justice

les-miserables-posters-jackman-crowe

The Mercy of Valjean and the Justice of Javert

Author’s Note: This musing is based on my knowledge and understanding of the musical “Les Miserables” and its movie adaptation that was released in theaters last December. I fully admit I have never read the book “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo, and I realize there are differences in characters, plot, etc. between the musical and its source material. Still, I hope you enjoy it!

Meditation on Mercy & Justice from “Les Miserables”

In 19th century France, the starving teenager Jean Valjean, in desperation, steals a loaf of bread to feed himself and his family members. For his crime, and various escape attempts, he is imprisoned for 19 years. Upon his release, he finds little welcome in the world outside prison. He is treated as an outcast, because of his brand as an ex-convict. He struggles to find food and shelter, as few are willing to help him. As he sleeps in a graveyard, a bishop finds him and offers him food and shelter for the night.

Later that night, Valjean takes advantage of the bishop’s kindness by stealing his silver. The police arrest Valjean and return him to the bishop, as Valjean claims that the bishop gave him the silver as a present. The bishop confirms Valjean’s story, and by doing so, saves him from returning to prison:

“And remember this, my brother,
See in this some high plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs,
By the passion and the blood,
God has raised you out of darkness” (Valjean Arrested / Valjean Forgiven)

Because of this act of mercy, Valjean realizes the sinfulness of his life as a criminal and commits himself to God. Valjean expected justice, but received mercy instead. He sees and experiences the bishop’s and, more importantly, God’s love for him. And thus, sees his unworthiness, and desires to change his ways by committing himself to God.

And, because of the bishop’s single act of mercy, Valjean, in turn, becomes an apostle of mercy – spreading Christ’s love and forgiveness throughout the rest of his life.

Because of Valjean’s commitment to mercy, he:

  • rescues a man who was trapped under a cart;
  • reveals himself as the ex-convict Jean Valjean, to save an innocent man (whom the police had identified as Valjean) from going to prison;
  • saves the prostitute Fantine from jail and ensures she receives medical care;
  • saves Fantine’s daughter Cosette from her unloving caretakers and adopts her as his own daughter, continuing to provide for her;
  • joins the revolutionaries, trying to help as many of them as he can, and ultimately saves Cosette’s boyfriend, Marius;
  • spares the life and career of his ruthless pursuer, the policeman Javert; and
  • continually gives money to the poor and various charities, etc. throughout the course of the story.

Conversely, the police inspector Javert, who pursues Valjean after he broke parole, has committed himself to justice. He simply cannot allow himself to do anything except what is right by the law. He tells Valjean:

“Men like me can never change
Men like you can never change…
My duty’s to the law…
Dare you talk to me of crime
And the price you had to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way” (The Confrontation)

He believes that men are set in there ways: they are either good or bad, and their choices prove their character. Because Javert has dedicated himself to following the law and punishing those who do not, he believes he is a good man. Those whom he pursues, like Valjean, because they broke the law, are bad.

And neither can change. Good men cannot become bad; and bad men cannot become good.

Yet – unlike Valjean, the apostle of mercy – Javert is an administer of justice. No long-term goodness comes from his actions; he does not directly impact anyone’s lives for the better. He arrests and imprisons those who commit crimes; he “cleans the garbage off the street” (Look Down). He has no sympathy for the poor, and only looks to please the rich.

Valjean spreads his virtue through God’s grace and love; Javert spreads his through his position and the force of the law.

The difference source of their virtues results in different lives, different impacts, and different fates.

Even so, Javert admits that “every man is born in sin,” but will not admit that he is guilty of any sin, seemingly, except for original sin. He is committed to goodness, perfection, and the law.

But, after Javert infiltrates a group of rebels and fails in his deception of them, Valjean spares his life and allows him to go free, allowing the rebels to believe he did kill Javert. Later, Javert catches Valjean as he carries the unconscious Marius home; Valjean pleads for Javert to let him take Marius to a hospital, and he will return and “all our debts are paid.”

Yet, as Valjean walks away with Marius on his back, Javert tells him to stop. Valjean continues to walk away, and Javert cannot bring himself to shoot Valjean.

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert! (Javert’s Suicide)

Javert cannot reconcile himself to accept that has received mercy, and – though unwilling – has shown mercy in return. He cannot accept that he lives because of the goodness of a criminal; and, because of this, he jumps off a bridge into the river, ultimately killing himself.

He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right...
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved? (Javert’s Suicide)

Here is the difference between the two, and the focal point:

As Javert could not accept, justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive. One can accept both, as justice is what we deserve from God, but mercy is what we receive. A man can change, but only through God’s mercy.

Through our sin, we fall; through God’s grace, we rise.

Justice and mercy are both virtues; neither is a weakness. And, because we have received mercy from God, we must show mercy to others (as Javert could not understand or accept). Justice, or giving someone his/her due, is also a righteous thing. In our society, we recognize that those who commit dangerous crimes should be kept apart from the public for safety.

But, as Javert did not understand, there must be a balance between the virtues. In some cases, we can and should show mercy; in others, we might not have that ability (such as a judge during a court case).

The hard part is knowing when to show justice, and when to show mercy.

But, when we pray, we cross our fingers right over left – mercy over justice. We pray for mercy; we appreciate when others are merciful to us; and we hope that our mercy toward others is not abused.

Yet, that is the risk with mercy. Like love, it is a virtue that many can take advantage of. Just so, we have taken advantage of God’s mercy toward us by continuing to sin; still, he continues to show us mercy, despite repeatedly injuring Him.

So, we must – to the best of our ability – show mercy to our brothers and sisters. And when they abuse our ‘pity’ and ‘leniency,’ we must show them mercy once again, in the hopes that they will realize our love for them and change their ways.

The rippling effects of mercy, seemingly, flow out much farther than those of justice. In Valjean’s case, through the bishop’s mercy toward him, many lives were saved and changed for the better. In Javert’s case, many criminals were imprisoned, and he advanced further in his career.

Thus, we should continue to cross our fingers right over left – mercy over justice. For “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7)

For further reading about Les Miserables and Catholicism, check out this FOCUS blog post. Kudos to its author! Very well written, and much shorter than my stuff. 🙂

Essay on the Crucifix

Essay on the Significance of the Crucifix

Author’s Note: This column/essay was written in 2007.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of any Catholic church usually hangs over the tabernacle – a crucifix, adorned with an image of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike other Christians, Catholics put a big emphasis on the crucifix, rather than simply on a cross. It seems awkward that, as Christians with such a devout respect for human life, we should put so much spiritual stress on an instrument of torture and suffering. However, the crucifix has a deeper message that is important for all men to realize.

The most important aspect of the crucifix is that it serves as a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice won our salvation. By dying for us on Calvary, Jesus built a bridge to Heaven with two boards and three nails. The Son of God became humanity’s bronze serpent (c.f. Num 21:4-9) and “died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live with him” (1 Thes 5: 9-10).

As the means of our salvation, the Cross of Christ is a source of joy and hope. St. Paul even goes so far as to say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). Also, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice redeemed Adam’s original sin – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). In addition, the crucifix is not a symbol of death but resurrection. The Letter to the Romans assures us, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6:5). Thus, the crucifix is not a simply a form of execution, but rather is a symbol of new life in Christ.

Similarly, the crucifix is a daily reminder of God’s infinite love for humanity (c.f. John 3:16). The Second Person of the Trinity took on our human nature to personify the Suffering Servant that Isaiah said would be pierced for our offenses and crushed for our iniquities (c.f. Isaiah 53:5). God loved us so much that He willingly accepted death, and through it, He “purchased for God men of every race and tongue” (Rev 5:9). Ultimately, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross calls us to love one another as God has loved us by laying down our life for our friends (c.f. John 15:12-13).

For us as Catholics, the crucifix is also important because it parallels the Eucharist. Just as the body of Christ is presented on the cross, so the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is re-presented in an un-bloody way at the Mass. The symbol of the crucifix, like the Eucharist, echoes what Jesus told His disciples at the Last Supper: “This is my body” (Mark 14:22). Additionally, the presence of Jesus’ body on the cross, especially at the Mass, reminds us of St. Paul’s words, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27).

Ultimately, the crucifix is more than just an instrument of torture – it was the means of salvation for all of humanity. As such, we as human beings should give it due respect. It was not simply the cross that saved us, but Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice that made our redemption possible. In the end, the crucifix echoes the words of Christ for all eternity:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).