Dark and heavy clouds began to swirl and swell, so I went outside to take in the impending storm above my head. As I stood outside, barefoot and eating sections of a tangerine, I was oblivious to the pair of young men dressed in suits that were canvassing the neighborhood. Catching a glimpse of movement in the corner of my eye, I turned around only to see the two of them approaching me with casual smiles on their faces. I smiled back, thinking to myself that they were either Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.
And I was excited! While most people do everything they can to avoid these missionaries, I had for quite some time longed for a pair to show up at my doorstep. I love nothing more than to have conversations with people about what makes them come alive, about where they find their place in the world, and about the faith they live and breathe. Now, the opportunity had presented itself and I was eager to seize it.
I suspect they were shocked by their encounter with a not-so-typical person like me. I confessed that I did not know much about Mormons, but was very interested in learning more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While I was clear to them that I was happy with the church community that I am a part of, I also noted that I was deeply disappointed by the frequent mischaracterizations of Mormons that are perpetuated by many Christians. In fact, the prior evening I had heard someone say that Mormons were not Christian. I knew in my gut that that was wrong, but I did not know enough about Mormons to justify my challenge of the person’s misguided statement. I was ashamed by my lack of knowledge.
So, after asking them why they were passionate about their church, why they have chosen to face the elements by going door-to-door to boldly give witness to their faith, I asked them how to respond to such blanket mischaracterizations in the future. I could tell they were relieved and impressed by my desire to correct the common misconceptions that abound among so many Americans. What followed was a very cursory overview of how the Mormons came to be coupled with a short presentation of The Book of Mormon. I was given my very own copy of the important text and promised them that I would add it to my library. After listening intently to their explanations, I asked them how they were received by the folks they encountered in the community. I was not at all surprised to hear that most people do not open their doors to hear the words and witness these courageous young men have to offer. I was saddened that even some opened their doors only to slam them in their faces.
But then the conversation took an unusual, graced turn. Perhaps it was the foundation of mutual trust that we had carefully laid together, but I began to tell them about my own church, how it came to be, how our common worship unites us, and how a great diversity of opinion is able to exist in the midst of a unity of believers. They listened as carefully to me as I had listened to them, taking in each word with respect and rapt attention. In a way, I suppose I was witnessing to them as much as they were witnessing to me.
I then took it upon myself to inquire about how persons who are gay are received by their church. It was a trick question. I knew what the answer was going to be, but I wanted to hear how they responded. As expected, they did not deviate from their church’s position. But when I revealed to them that I disagreed and had done my due diligence to study the scriptures and early church writings, had gone to graduate school to earn my master’s degree and had studied in depth the intersection of religion and sexuality, they continued to listen to my dissenting perspective with the same respect and rapt attention as before.
I doubt they left the conversation with a change of heart or mind, just as I did not leave with the desire to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But I do know that our shared experience of being marginalized within American religious and political discourse and our common commitment to the person of Jesus Christ was enough to guide us through any disagreements we had. In fact, it did more than that. I suspect that together we moved ever more closely from a place of mere toleration to a place of acceptance. As we gazed into each other’s eyes, we could each see the humanity in each other, first and foremost. Not a superficial, nominal recognition of each other’s humanity, but the real, deep, transformative kind that is enough to give a person hope.
So, when they asked to pray with me, I happily welcomed their sacred words to a God for whom we both share such a deep and lasting affection. The prayer was one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, encouraging, prayers I have ever heard.
When an opportunity comes to your door for personal transformation, you have the choice to embrace or reject it. And the relationship, if it is truly good, will be a mutual witness to a love that drives out all hate, all fear, and all the sin of the world.
Our desires play such an important role in forming who we are as persons. Who and what we value and who and what we want to become all shape what we do to realize those desires.
Many of us desire a certain level of success in life. Certainly, a successful life can mean a great many things for a great many people. The ancients thought success was attained by living the “good life,” a life spent thinking with others about what it means to be human in a socially complex world. And Plato’s Republic begins with a very simple question: “What is justice?” An important question many are still rightfully pondering to this day. Centuries later, the great medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas took this quest to an even deeper level by insisting that success was beatitude, a sort of eternal happiness given only by the grace of God after living a virtuous life.
Setting aside these important contributions from philosophy and theology alike, success today has taken on a variety of different meanings. For many, success is measured by a promotion, a six-figure salary, or fame, glory, prestige, and honor. Still yet, for many, it can also mean raising children to be fully and freely themselves, a healthy marriage, and the personal fulfillment one feels in one’s gut when living out one’s own vocation, whatever that may be. It can also be a combination of some of the above, or perhaps none of the above.
Success is also very much a mindset. There are two things I think we should all be particularly mindful of: (1) a “zero-sum game” type of success (e.g., Person 1 is successful only because Person 2 is not) and (2) a “compare and despair” mentality of success. For starters, I am not at all interested in playing the “zero-sum game” and I will not stoop to such a low level as to enjoy seeing another person fail. Think about how much better we would all be if we worked together as a team, helping to empower every person in every context to succeed. Imagine the possibilities of this enriched world! Moreover, the “compare and despair” mentality is pervasive … amplified, unfortunately, by social media. It should always be a privilege to share in the joy of another’s success. But when we become jealous of another person’s success that ought to tell us something about ourselves, which should stop us in our tracks. Negativity is always a self-fulfilling prophecy and no one enjoys being around a negative person. Instead of comparing and focusing on what you don’t currently have, focus on what you do have in the present.
I believe an enduring challenge for all of us is to live in the moment, to focus on the present. All too often, we desire something that only inhabits the future and we lose proper perspective about what is most real in our lives, which is the very thing we most often miss: the thing that is before our eyes, in our midst, so close we can taste, touch, and feel it. Like sharing a smile with someone whose name you do not know and taking the time to celebrate the little things that make life so special. And the list goes on and on.
When we have those moments of awe and splendor that are only attainable by surrendering to the fast and forward pace of a single second in time, that is desire becoming real in our lives. And when desire (good and right desire, of course) becomes real, it is then that we have found meaningful success. Valentine’s Day is a time when we can become attuned to our different desires. It’s a time when we can step back from the business of life and assess who and what we desire. It’s a day that invites us to reflect on how our desires are shaping the person we are becoming. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a day that every person can participate in and celebrate, not just those who are in a relationship. And this special day of the year means so much more than a dozen red roses or even a box of chocolates could ever possibly convey.
Our world is pregnant with possibility, despite being suffused with suffering.
One of the hardest things for me to do is to wait. And waiting in the midst of hardship can be so painfully cruel. All the time, it seems that we find ourselves waiting. Waiting for an answer. Waiting for a better opportunity to emerge on the horizon. Waiting for new life. Waiting for new love. Waiting for a cure.
One of the worst – and easiest – things to do when we are waiting is to grow weary and impatient. We can grow so weary and impatient that we begin to take matters into our own hands when some things are just simply out of our control. As someone who loves to take control and make everything right, resigning to the fact that I cannot make everything good and better and perfect is very frustrating. And so, I sit and wait in frustration.
And frustration begins to put in a wedge in all of my relationships, including my relationship with God. It is so easy in the midst of our impatience to forget the promise of God’s providence. God cares for us and loves us in such an incredibly intimate way. We hear this all the time, but do we lavishly bask in the reassurance that God is with us?
Advent is a season of return as much as it is a season of waiting. The journey to Bethlehem is a metaphor for our return to God, our acknowledgement that we need God and the gift of salvation that God freely gives us and that we cannot be in control of everything. Advent also invites us to contemplate God as a screaming, crying, vulnerable infant – desperately in need of the love, care, and support of human beings, God’s own flesh and blood. God is not above and beyond us – but with us every single step of the way.
God waits with us. When we return to God, we find freedom in the waiting. The waiting period becomes a gestating period. And, together, we can give birth to new possibilities that we would have never before imagined.
Our world is pregnant with possibility, despite being suffused with suffering.
Because God is with us, the beginning is near!
When I first arrived at Loyola University Chicago in August 2007, I had not anticipated that I was about to become a member of an academic community that was so profoundly committed to environmental justice. Just a few months after I began my undergraduate course of study, the Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons opened its doors to the university community as the first digital library on the Lake Shore Campus. Towering just a few feet from Lake Michigan, it offers an unobstructed view of one of the most expansive and beautiful lakes in the country. And even though it’s the ideal place to catch a breathtaking sunrise after pulling an all-nighter during finals week, the Information Commons offers something more. Every inch of the building was constructed with the environment in mind, leading to its silver-level certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings.
Since the opening of the Information Commons in 2008, many inefficient, aging, dysfunctional buildings have been razed and a series of beautiful, state-of-the-art buildings have been designed and constructed in their place. Cuneo Hall is one such example, among many others. Because it was designed to match its tried and true neighbors, Cudahy Science Hall and Dumbach Hall, the building looks as if it has always been there. But constructing LEED certified buildings is only one part of a pressing solution that demands global participation. While Loyola has remained committed to building green for over a decade, its commitment to the environment goes far deeper than what its campus indicates.
Last Friday, Loyola opened the doors of the Institute for Environmental Sustainability. Once again, the university’s commitment to environmental stewardship soared to a new and unprecedented height; a height that goes unmatched in the city of Chicago and throughout the entire Midwest. The IES will surely draw talent and passion from around the world as dedicated and concerned people come together to collaborate and inspire real solutions to some of the earth’s most pressing problems. As an alum dedicated to pursuing and enacting social justice – which I learned precisely from my four years at Loyola, no doubt – I am inspired by Loyola’s commitment to serve as one of the environment’s most vocal allies, at least among colleges and universities, in the United States of America and throughout the world.
At its core, a university functions for the service of humanity, for the expansion of knowledge, and for the pursuit of justice. Loyola has committed itself to this and more by expanding its mission to preserve, protect, and promote the earth and its precious resources. No matter what major one elects to pursue, no matter what career path one chooses, no matter where one studies on campus, every Loyola student will be steeped in the fundamental, deep-seated, critical awareness that the earth’s peril matters a great deal and that every voice, every talent, every contribution – no matter how small – matters.
If I could apply to colleges all over again, I would be even more eager to attend Loyola. Yes, it’s a beautiful campus that sits right on the shore of Lake Michigan. Sure, it’s located in a booming metropolis that has much to offer a young student exploring the world on their own for the very first time. It goes without saying that I would want to study at a place where I am not just a number, but actually count as a person. But more than all of that, Loyola is a place of palpable energy, excitement, and growth that is unabashedly invested in the future. And not just its own future, but our shared future – which is to say, the inseparability of the world’s future and the earth’s future. I would choose Loyola again in a heartbeat, without thinking twice. Not because of its name or stature, but because of a distinct ethic that pervades and impacts every commitment of the university, the very same ethic that pervaded my own studies and transformed me into becoming the person I am today.
“Look up!” cried out a lady. She was walking her dog and I was running toward her. I was expecting to see something of the likes of Air Force One, or maybe perhaps some sort of military aircraft flying overhead. But, it was, in fact, just a bird. And not just any bird, but a rare bird. Rare in general. Even more rare for the city.
I ran past the lady, but she kept talking to me. Other runners whizzed past her at a great speed, not even giving her the time of day. I felt awkward and so I stopped, if but only for a minute.
“There are three of them,” she observed. Sure enough, three of these birds began gliding through the air, circling each other, flying fast and low, and then soaring up once again at a high altitude. The lady had interrupted my run and I wanted to promptly pick up from where I had left off. But she would not stop talking. And runners continued to race by, casting their “I-told-you-so” glances at me. But I couldn’t just leave her now.
She began to tell me of her love for birds. How much she appreciates the outdoors; how she loves to simply listen, look, and marvel at the life teeming around her; how she fears that runners miss the gift of nature when they run around the reservoir with their earbuds in. And as we parted ways, I recognized a change take place within me. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes and my ears were opened.
As I made my second lap around the reservoir, I noticed yellow flowers growing along the side of the path that I hadn’t noticed before; I heard the water lapping rhythmically against the rocks that I hadn’t heard before; I smelled the fresh fragrance of new spring growth that I hadn’t smelled before; I discovered geese snapping plants with their bills that I hadn’t discovered before; I saw the sunlight scintillating off the water that I hadn’t seen before. I could see. I could smell. I could feel. I could hear. I could appreciate.
And in the distance was Boston College: the pride of Alumni Stadium; the majestic tower of Gasson Hall; the gothic beauty of Bapst Art Library. All of this brilliantly set against the sky as a remarkable university on a hill – a place that has challenged me in unforeseen ways and supported my own development and formation as a person of the world, for the world.
As I approached the lady again, I thanked her. For she had reminded me how to pray. She had recalibrated the very core of my being. When we encounter another human being, they most surely make a claim on us. We are invited into relationship with them, as fleeting as that relationship may be, as lasting as its effects may be. And how sad our world will become when we stop seeing, when we stop listening, when we stop paying attention, when we stop learning from each other.
Before I knew it, what was initially supposed to be a 2 mile run became a 7 mile run. I couldn’t stop; no, I didn’t want to stop my run. The brief exchange with the woman – and my subsequent re-awakening – had given me exactly what I needed to carry on.