How We Judge Others

People tend to have a single metric by which they think everyone should be measured. That metric tends to include things like going to a good school, getting good grades, getting jobs in the categories we deem to be “important” ones, excelling in activities on our list of “the right” activities.

The problem with that is that it leads to comparative judgements of other people that can be very harmful. When we have a single metric, the conclusion that A is not as strong as B on the metric (e.g. A was not a good student or didn’t go to college) too easily leads to A is not as valuable as B. B is somehow “better” than A. Sadly, we give no thought to the effect of those evaluations on the the people who come up short on the metric – particularly when those judgments are made about young people.

Single metric evaluation fails to recognize that we each have different gifts and each of our tasks is to identify our gifts and use them to the best our ability. My gift is not “better” or “worse” than someone else’s gift; we are all parts of one Body and everyone’s gifts have a part to play in furthering God’s plan.

If we are tempted to focus on others, we could use that temptation in positive ways. Often we can be of enormous aid in helping other people to recognize their gifts, and, when we have the opportunity, helping them to develop those gifts. That would be a whole lot more productive and loving than focusing on people’s failure to satisfy our metric.


Faith Inspired Service

Over the course of an academic year, the University of St. Thomas School of law has several Mission Round-Table lunches for students, faculty and staff. Yesterday was one of those, and our invited speaker was the President of the University of St. Thomas, Julie Sullivan, who is nearing the end of her first year of service here.

President Sullivan began by talking about what it means to speak of faith inspired service, suggesting that our faith gives insight into our service potentials, provides the foundation for our service and gives us the enduring strength and perseverance we need to serve. She then spent some sharing her own responses to the three questions she posed for our consideration and discussion at our individual tables: What are you God Given talents? How are you using them in service to others? How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

In speaking about the first, she shared her own difficulty overcoming a hurdle many people face: an upbringing that warns against boasting and against tooting one’s own horn. She came to realize something we often talk about in the vocation retreats we do with our law students – that there is an enormous difference between boasting and reflection. We have a responsibility to use the gifts we have been given in service of God and others, and we cannot meet that responsibility unless we recognize our talents.

Part of our service to our students is providing ways to help them to recognize their gifts and to discern how they are being called to use those gifts in the world.

The third question she posed recognizes the role of faith in our service and our need to be nurtured by God to be able to effectively use our gifts. President Sullivan observed that different people have various ways they most keenly feel the presence of God. She then shared one of her own practices, which I found very moving. Before giving a big talk or engaging in some major undertaking, she makes sure that she takes some time alone. During that time she holds her arm out, palm facing upward and prays in that position until she feels pressure against her palm.

I love the childlike trust conveyed by that image – holding out one’s hand waiting for God to take it.

How does your faith sustain and nurture your service?

Epiphany Gifts

Today is the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.

The word “epiphany” comes from a Greek term meaning manifestation or appearance and in Christian terms refers to the revelation of God becoming human in the person of Jesus. St. Gregory the Great spoke of creation responding to the Incarnation: “When the king of heaven was born, the heavens knew that he was God because they immediately sent forth a star; the sea knew him because it allowed him to walk upon it; the earth knew him because it trembled when he died; the sun knew him because it hid the rays of its light.”

The Gospel reading for today is the visit to the Christ child by the Magi “from the east,” who made a long and hard journey to pay homage to the newborn king, having seen “his star at its rising.”

When I think of the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child, I am reminded of one of my favorite stories, Henry Van Dyke’s, “The Story of the Other Wise Man.” It is the story of a man named Artaban. Along with his friends – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, Artaban searched the ancient tablets that told of the coming of a star that would lead them to the Anointed One.

Although Artaban was to meet his friends and travel with them to the child, something happened that prevented him from doing so. Van Dyke’s narration of Artaban’s experiences tells us something about the gift Christ really wants from us.

I have used this story a couple of times to end our Advent Retreats in Daily Living at the law school. This is a recording of a talk I gave a couple of years ago telling the story.

Only Sing The Notes You Have

After Mass yesterday, Elena and I were recalling a not very pleasant musical experience we had one Christmas. The singer at the Mass we had attended that year made a valiant effort at singing “O Holy Night,” but listening to her try (and fail) to hit some of the notes was painful. Cringing at the memory, Elena observed, “you shouldn’t sing a high note unless you have one.” Prompting me to add, “Only sing the notes you have.” Elena nodded and we both laughed at the realization of the obviousness of the point – and the frequency with which it is ignored.

Only sing the notes you have. Advice that is not only applicable to singers, but to everyone. Develop the gifts you have and appreciate those. Trying to sing notes we don’t have is a prescription for personal dissatisfaction and deprives the world of what we can best contribute.

I’m not saying we don’t sometimes have to develop our gifts; we don’t always immediately realize what we have, and over time we discover gifts we didn’t know we had. (I remember Elena telling me during her summer voice program at Salzburg that she discovered she has another note at the high end of her range.)

But at some point we need to admit that there are some gifts we don’t have and never will. And that’s OK. And that our task is to sing the notes we have – joyfully and fully.

Taking Risks

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples the familiar parable about a man tho entrusts his possessions to his servants before going on a journey. “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one – each according to his ability.” When the man returns from his journey, he discovers that the servant to whom he gave five talents, has used them in such a manner that he has ten to return to his master. Similarly, the servant to whom he gave two, earned two more. But the third servant, fearful of taking any risks, merely buried the one talent he was given, and had only that to return to his master. The first two are rewarded by their master, while the third is severely chastised.

There are, I think, several lessons in this parable for us. First, we are all given gifts by God. Those gifts differ. And doubtless, by our human standards, some of those gifts seem better than others, and some people seem to be more gifted than others. We need to learn that any such comparisons are beside the point. The point is not that one servant got 5, another 2 and another 1. (“How unfair,” we might mutter.) The gifts I have are the gifts God has given me. I may wish I could sing like my daughter, or write poetry like my friend Frank, or compose music like my friend Gene, but none of those are my gifts. My task is simply to use the gifts I have been given to the best of my ability, and to rejoice when others do the same with the gifts they have been given.

Second, sometimes using our gifts means taking risks, moving out of our comfort zones. Each of the first two servants took a risk in investing the talents they were given. The third was afraid to take any risks and so hid the money to return to his master. We cannot grow, we cannot participate fully in God’s plan without taking some risks, without, as one commentator on this passage suggested, “stepping out in faith and watching to see God move as we trust in him.”

What are your gifts?

And what risks will you take to use them?

Building From our Weaknesses

In his book Rediscover Catholicism, Matthew Kelly begins his chapter on Confession with an anecdote about Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. According to Kelly, when Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team, he asked the coach why. When told it was because his free throw was weak, Jordan undertook to make (not shoot, but actually make) five hundred free throws a day for ten years. That helped him to make it to college basketball, where he realized the weakness of his fade-away jump shot. He then focused on that until he mastered it. Woods, at a time when many already recognized him as a great, took time off from his pro tour to work on a weakness he had discovered in his swing, the correction of which led him to completely dominate the sport.

What Jordan and Woods had, Kelly suggests, was “an incredible ability to look at their game and identify both their strengths and their weaknesses. Once they have done this, they work tirelessly to make their strengths impenetrable and transform their weaknesses into strengths.”

While identifying our strengths and weaknesses are both part of our spiritual growth, Kelly suggests that the latter are more important than the former.

Your weaknesses are the key to the unimaginable bigger future that God has envisioned for you. Your strengths are probably already bearing all the fruit they can. They will continue to bear those good fruits in your life, but at some point they will begin to plateau. Your richer, more abundant future is intimately linked to your weaknesses.

Kelly uses the analogy of planting a field, where 500 acres are already producing wonderful fruit and an abundant harvest and 500 are completely neglected. Working to improve the first 500 acres may produce some increase in yield, but real growth requires transforming the neglected 500 acres.

I’m not sure I’d use precisely the analogy Kelly does, mostly because I think there are far too few people fully utilizing their strengths, and quite a number who haven’t even fully identified what those strengths are. So I think it is just wrong to say that “your strengths are probably already bearing all the fruit they can.”

But I have no disagreement with his point that we need to focus greater attention on our weaknesses, on those things that hinder us from being all that we can be. I think Kelly is absolutely right that our “abundant future is intimately linked” to recognizing and working to redress our weaknesses.

Stir Into Flame The Gift of God

Today is the Memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, collaborators, confidants and companions of St. Paul. One of the options for today’s first Mass reading is the opening of St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

In the opening paragraphs of the letter, Paul reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”

I love that line. I love the imagery and I think the reminder is a very important one.

I think sometimes people forget that God doesn’t do all all of the heavy lifting. I’ve heard people say (on more than one occasion) something like, “Oh I don’t really feel like I have to [do][prepare][work] too much here. The Holy Spirit will take care of it.” Or “I’ll just rely on the Holy Spirit.”

It is true that we do what we do with the grace of God and the assistance of the Spirit. But, that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and wait for God to do everything. We have been given the gifts of the Spirit, but it is for us to stir into flame those gifts. We need to nurture our gifts, allow them to grow and use them for the purposes for which we have been given them.

That is not always easy, and the last line of today’s first reading is Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We are encouraged to do the same.

UPDATE: See the comment below from a reader about the authorship of the Second Letter to Timothy.

God Magnifies Our Gifts

The final keynote address of the National Convention of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association featured Archbishop Chaput, who spoke on the theme of Young Adults and Secrets of the Heart. While some of his comments were controversial, I think most people felt that they conveyed a refreshing honesty.

At one point in his talk, he used three passages from the Gospel to illustrate the challenges we face, both in ministering to young people and in our discipleship in general. One of those was the feeding of the multitude, and what he said is a good reminder to all of us. (The other two were Jairus’ daughter and the rich young man.)

Thousands of people are hungry and all that is available are a few loaves of bread an a couple of fish. Phillip and Andrew, he suggested, speak for most of the apostles when they point out the inadequacy of the resources. By their reckoning, there is simply not enough food to feed all those who are hungry.

Regrettably, Phillip and Andrew also often speak for us (and by us he included bishops, priests as well as lay people): We are tempted to give up because the gifts we have to offer seem out of proportion – grossly insufficient – to meet the needs of the community.

Yet, what Jesus did that day was take the offering and transform it to meet the needs at hand. He honored and multiplied the gift of food, no matter how meager, because it was offered selflessly.

Now, as then, God can use what we can offer – even what looks quite meager to human eyes – to create greet deeds. God can use us, the Archbishop observed, exactly as he used the loaves and fishes – the same way (he offered as examples) God used Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Ignatious of Loyola, Dominic, Edith Stein in unimaginable ways.

God will magnify our gifts, no matter how meager. What we need to do is to let God do so by letting go of our assumptions, our vanities, our own plans.

What Gift Will I Lay Before the King?

Today is Christmas Eve! Our Advent is almost at an end and we begin our final preparations to celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst.

For many of us, the morning and afternoon hours of Christmas Eve includes shopping for last minute gifts, finishing our cookie baking, finalizing the menu for the Christmas feast.

The other thing we might do today, if we haven’t already done so, is reflect on what gift we will lay before the creche on Christmas morning. What gift will we give to the King?

The “wise men” gave gold, frankincense and myrrh. What will your gift be?

One of my favorite stories associated with the Incarnation is Henry Van Dyke’s The Story of the Other Wise Man. It tells the story of the fourth wise man, who sold everything he had to purchase three jewels that he intended to bring to the kind (along with his three friends). The story explains why he never met up with his friends and how he spent his whole life looking for the king – and what happened when he finally found him.

At the final session of an Advent retreat several years ago, I read/told the story to participants. It is a beautiful one, and if you have about 15 minutes to spare today, I encourage you to listen to the podcast. It is a good way to reflect on what your gift might be. You can access it here or stream it from the icon below.

Blessings to you and yours on this Christmas Eve.

Not For Your Sacrifices Do I Rebuke You

At Mass this morning at Christ the King, we used an excerpt from Psalm 50 as the psalm between the two readings. I have doubtless heard these words before, but found them particularly powerful this morning.

Hear, my people and I will speak;
Israel, I will testify against you;
God, your God, am I.

Not for your sacrifices to I rebuke you,
for your holocausts are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats from your fold.

For mine are all the animals of the forests,
beasts by the thousands are on my mountains.
I know all the birds of the air,
and whatever sits in the plains, belongs to me.

What good did it do God for the people to take what was already God’s and hand it back?

Reflecting on it afterward, the passage brought to mind the parable of the talents, which makes the same point in a different way. If all we do is re-wrap and give back to God that which God gave us, what good is that? It is how we use God’s gifts that bring glory and praise to God.