What are the first three things you will do in heaven?

Mark 9: 2-10 (2nd Sunday of Lent, year B)

My 95 year old grandma (if you're reading this, hi Oma!) likes reading mystery novels, specifically ones about a cat that solves murders. Whenever she starts a new book, she does something interesting. After reading the first chapter, she flips to the end of the book and reads the last chapter. Sound strange? She has her reasons. First, she doesn't know if she will live long enough to read the end. Second, she doesn't want to waste her time reading books with a bad ending. Third, if the ending is promising it gives her incentive to go back and read the whole novel. Contrary to what I would think, knowing the book’s finale helps her persevere in reading it all. When she feels like giving up because the reading is burdensome, she reminds herself of the great ending, and how good it will be to arrive at the last chapter and relive it. This gives her the strength to continue reading.

In His Transfiguration, Jesus does something similar for Peter, James and John. Jesus shows His disciples how the story will end so that they will have courage for what lies ahead. After the Transfiguration, Jesus will begin making His way towards Jerusalem where the authorities will turn on Him, arrest Him, beat Him and have Him crucified. In order to strengthen His disciples, Jesus gives them a sneak peek at His final victory. In the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts His own resurrection and His appearance is changed. His clothes becomes dazzling white. It is as though Jesus gives us a glimpse of His resurrected, glorified body. Alongside Jesus appears Moses, the one through whom God gave the law, and Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets. This shows that Jesus is the true Saviour, the fulfillment of the law and all that the prophets had spoken of in the past. When Jesus’ disciples hear the voice from heaven, they receive confirmation of His identity. This carpenter from Nazareth is indeed the Son of God! In the end, He will be victorious - He will rise again! Jesus allows His followers to see the end of the story to give them hope, strength and courage in the face of the struggles that lie ahead.

In order to better bear the hardships in our own life, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the end of our own story: heaven. Remembering that we will one day be with God and those we love in perfect, eternal happiness is a source of hope and strength in times of trial. It gives meaning and purpose to all that we do until then. This principle was powerfully described by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. While suffering in a concentration camp, Frankl’s trained mind observed the behaviour of the other prisoners. He saw that although all prisoners were subjected to the same torment, some gave up and soon died, whereas other struggled on and lived longer. Frankl determined that those who continued trying to survive were the ones who had found meaning in the midst of their suffering. Particularly, the hope that they would one day be reunified with those they loved spurred them on. Frankl experienced this personally. Remembering his beloved wife and the fact that they might someday be together again gave him the hope and courage to continue. We all suffer and can feel like giving up at times. Reminding ourselves that one day we will be perfectly happy in heaven enlivens us the the midst of our own struggles.

In order for the hope of heaven to empower us, however, we need to become much more concrete about what we expect to find in heaven. We are too vague about what the end of our story is. We see heaven as some spiritual, bodiless, reality in which we are praying all the time. We are not excited about heaven because our idea of heaven is not very exciting! Our belief in the resurrection of the body means that heaven is a physical reality. We will live in a physical world much like this one, only purified of all evil. Recently I heard a talk by the author John Eldredge that really got me thinking. In order to make heaven a more tangible reality, he challenged everyone to answer this question: “what are the first three things you will do in heaven?” I tried to come up with an answer. Here are the first three things I will do when I get to heaven.
  1. Have a beer with Jesus. This isn’t just because I imagine that the beer in heaven will be awesome. I look forward to the conversation we will have. I imagine it will be like one I have with my best friends. These are conversations that alternate effortlessly between moments of laughter and being serious. I want to rejoice with Jesus about  the victory of good over evil. I want to hear Jesus tell me that I have done well and that inspite of my mistakes He is proud of me.
  2. Meet all the cool people in heaven. I want to see members of my family and friends who have gone before me. I want to meet the incredible Saints: Peter, Nicholas, Francis, Ignatius and Mother Theresa. That will be awesome!
  3. Go water skiing. As a child, I loved going water skiing. Skipping across the glassy water and taking in the beautiful scenery was a pure joy. Unfortunately, I had to stop water skiing when I got too heavy for the boat to pull me! Since I assume that under-powered engines will not be an issue in heaven, I very much look forward to doing this again.
In trying to answer these questions, heaven became much more real and concrete for me. It is therefore easier to hope to be in heaven. Thinking about the end of my story becomes something that more readily fills me with strength and courage in difficult times.

Try to answer this question for yourself. What are the first three things that you will do in heaven?

How do you know when you've found "the one"?

“How do I know that she (or he) is the one?”

This is a common question. People want to know if they are meant to marry a particular person. Is he or she the right person, the one? It seems that underneath this question lies an unspoken assumption that is not particularly helpful or Catholic. Many think that from the beginning of time God has predestined one person for them to marry. This person is the one because God has decided that this is the case. It then becomes our job to search for, and hopefully marry, the one.

This way of thinking makes life stressful and can be quite destructive. People become very anxious, seeking signs from God confirming that the person they are with is the one. “God, help me to know for sure that this is the one for me!” What happens if you never find the one? Maybe you were supposed to meet the one at a particular event but missed the event (and your chance for a happy marriage) because you had a cold. What happens if you meet someone who you are sure is the one but it doesn't work out? Does this mean that you missed your chance and are now doomed to be alone forever? This way of thinking can cause more serious problems when a couple gets married and begins having difficulties in their relationship. Someone can think, “we are arguing too much… this doesn't seem right … maybe this person wasn't the one after all.” Another can divorce, explaining that the person they married was not the one and begin the search all over again for the one.

What makes someone the one?
When does someone become the one?
Who makes someone the one?

The theology of the sacrament of marriage helps us answer these questions. Every sacrament is a personal encounter with Jesus in which we receive His grace which heals, forgives, nourishes and strengthens us. Though what happens to us in a sacrament is invisible (undetectable by the senses), it is affected by some visible sign (which is detectable). Each sacrament, then, has: 1) an invisible grace and 2) a visible sign. In baptism, for example, the visible sign is being washed with water while the baptismal formula is pronounced. This visible sign affects an invisible grace within the person: he/she is cleansed of original sin, becomes a son or daughter of God and a member of the Church.

In the sacrament of marriage, the invisible grace the couple receives is that they are bonded together by God for life (“no longer two but one” Mt. 19:6). During the sacrament of marriage the spouses become the one to each other. This is very important. There is no such thing as the one for you before marriage. Before marriage, any number of people could have potentially been the one for you. It is only during the sacrament of marriage your spouse becomes the one.

What is the visible sign that makes someone the one? Is it the ring? The blessing of the priest or deacon? In marriage, the visible sign is the consent of the bride and bridegroom. When the spouses says “I do” to one another, promising to enter into a life-long, exclusive union that is open to children, the pair is joined together by God.  It is a someone’s choice that makes a person the one. God respects this decision, binding the spouses together. When you choose and declare publicly that you will be faithful to someone for your life and raise a family with them, loving them through all the ups and downs, never giving up on that relationship, that person becomes the one the for you.

How do I know that she (or he) is the one? You know when you are ready to commit your entire life to that person. When you look at it this way, preparing for marriage is not just about finding the right person. It is equally - perhaps more - about becoming the kind of person who can make the lifelong, sacrificial commitment that marriage requires.

We need to change the question. We should not be asking “is this person the one”? The question we should ask is, “am I prepared to make this person the one by committing and striving to love him or her for my life just as Christ loves the Church (cf. Eph 5:25)”?

Why going to Mass is good for your health

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46, Mark 1:40-45 (6th Sunday of OT, year b)

Vancouverites love being healthy. We emphasize the importance of exercising, staying active and getting outside. Healthy, organic foods are popular. We pretend to like quinoa and kale. Increasingly, we are seeing the importance of promoting the health of the whole person: body, mind and spirit. Many try practices like meditation and yoga in a search for “holistic health”. The desire to be truly and fully healthy is good. Christ wants the same for all of us.

When Jesus encounters the leper in the Gospel, He heals him on three different levels. Each of these three healings could become the the basis for a homily or reflection. We could, for example, speak about the leper’s physical healing. At the time of Jesus, leprosy was a terrifying, contagious and incurable disease. Beginning with spots on the skin, the disease attacks the internal organs and later causes extremities to literally rot away. In healing the leper, Jesus freed him from a life of physical suffering. In this reflection we could speak about how Christians are called to continue Jesus’ work of ministering to the sick and suffering, a reason why the Church has always tried to open hospitals and provide medical care for all, especially the poor.

We could speak about the leper’s social healing. As the book of Leviticus demonstrates, lepers were social outcasts. They had to live apart, separated from their friends and family. They were forced to wear rags, keep their hair disheveled and shout “unclean, unclean!” whenever they moved about so that people could avoid them. When Jesus healed the leper, He reunified this isolated, ostracized man with the community. In this reflection we could talk about the people in our lives we view as “lepers”. Who do we not create space in our hearts for? We can make into lepers people of different religious, political or moral viewpoints. Even people who cheer for the wrong sports team! We can ostracize the difficult, grating person at our workplace or in our family. This reflection could talk about how progress in following Jesus involves learning to love - dare I say like - those we have labelled as outcasts.

Today what we will focus on is the leper’s religious healing. Not only were lepers excluded from the community, they were also excluded from worshiping God. Lepers were forbidden to enter the temple and therefore excluded from worship. The leper who encounters Jesus certainly suffered physically and socially. At the same time, he suffered greatly as a human being because he could not worship. Notice the first thing Jesus tells the leper to do after healing him: “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed”. Jesus sends the man to worship.

Like the leper before his healing, many Catholics today do not worship. The overwhelming majority of baptized Catholics do not go to Mass on Sunday, which is the primary way we worship. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to say that there are over twice as many baptized Catholics who do not go to Mass on Sunday compared to those that do attend. This trend is getting worse. A 2011 study found that only one in three Canadian young adults (18-34) who attended church weekly as a child still do so today.

You might be thinking “so what?” Is it really that important that people aren't going to Mass to worship? Perhaps we have doubts about the value of worship in our own lives. In all the commitments of life, going to Mass can seem like an added burden. Is it really necessary? After healing the leper, why does Jesus send him off to worship?

Fear of God’s punishment is not the reason why we worship. Nor is it guilt. Nor is the fact that our pastor will get upset if he doesn't see our envelope in the collection basket the reason why we worship (he will be sad, but this is besides the point). We worship God because it is good for us. Over time we become similar to what we worship. As we go through life we are transformed to become more and more like our “ultimate concern”, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich. Our ultimate concern is the thing that we worship. If our ultimate concern is our work, then work will define who we are. If our ultimate concern is family, we will become more like the members of our family. If our ultimate concern is the Vancouver Canuck’s, our core identity will be that of a sports fan. The question is not if we worship, but what we worship. We want to become like God.

Coming to worship at Mass each Sunday gives our life order. There are many things competing to be our ultimate concern: family, work, hobbies, or studies. When we come to Mass on Sunday, we reorder our life, making God again and again our ultimate concern. When we choose to go to Mass instead of all the other things we could do (sports, shopping, resting), we send ourselves the message that God is more important than all these other things. We need to hear ourselves at Mass asking God for mercy, thanking Him for for all the good gifts He gives us and begging Him for help. We need to hear ourselves saying who our ultimate concern is.

Worship gives our souls shape and order, just as exercise gives our bodies shape and order. Like exercise, worship can be difficult and a bit of a chore. Sometimes people complain that Mass is boring or that is doesn’t speak to them. You don’t always enjoy Mass? So what?! Don’t get me wrong, we should do what we can to make Mass engaging, but we need to remember that we don’t go to Mass to be entertained. We worship because it is good for us. In life we do many things that are difficult and hard not because they are enjoyable but because they are good for us. We worship so that we can become more like God.

Staying healthy takes work. The results, however, are worth the effort. Want to be truly healthy? Eat a healthy diet. Exercise. Get plenty of rest. Most importantly, worship God.

Why the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on assisted suicide changes everything and nothing

Job 7:1-7, Mark 1: 29 - 39 (5th Sunday in OT, year b)

This Ruling Changes Everything. Among the many recent newspaper headlines, this one stands out. The headline refers to the decision taken by the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the law prohibiting assisted suicide. If this action does not concern you, it should. This ruling changes everything.

Suicide has always been viewed as a tragedy to be prevented.  Most still think this way. On January 28th, many Canadians participated in Bell Let’s Talk Day. The purpose of this event was to get people talking about mental illness. Great awareness was raised for those who suffer - often silently - from mental illness. In their suffering some are inclined to end their own life. During this day, numerous people remembered the comedian Robin Williams who took his own life in August. We desire to do whatever we can to prevent this tragedy from happening to anyone else. Getting people talking about mental illness and the help available is a good start.  The law struck down by the Supreme Court did more. It was meant to protect those inclined to end their own life. The law made it a criminal offense to assist someone to commit suicide or counsel them to do so. In short, the law made it illegal to contribute to a tragedy.

This Ruling Changes Everything. No longer is suicide viewed as a tragedy to be prevented. Rather, the Supreme Court ruled that people have a right to have help ending their lives. Society now has a duty to assist people to commit suicide. No longer is suicide a tragedy to be prevented, but a public service. Language surrounding the issue has changed in a subtle, intentional way. People do not speak about “assisted suicide” but rather  “doctor assisted death”. The vocation of doctors has always been to alleviate suffering. Now they will be obliged to eliminate those who suffer.

Normally when people talk about assisted suicide, the type of situation they have in mind is of someone whose death is imminent and unavoidable. Assisted suicide, people argue, simply brings about the inevitable in a compassionate manner. It would surprise many people to learn that the Supreme Court has very different cases in mind. The court ruled that any competent adult has a right to assisted suicide provided their medical condition causes them enduring and intolerable suffering. What is surprising is the scope of the ruling. Significantly, the suffering can be either physical or psychological. More shocking, the condition causing the suffering does not have to be terminal (meaning that the person is dying from it), simply incurable.

The ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling are troubling. Judging from other nations which have legalized assisted suicide, this is just the beginning. In Belgium for example, children are permitted to be euthanized, providing they get the permission of their parents. Sadly, many weak, dying and elderly members of our society feel that they are a burden to those around them. How long before the “right to die” is perceived by such vulnerable people as an “duty to die”? This ruling changes everything. Suicide is no longer seen as a tragedy to be prevented.

How do we respond? In this, nothing has changed: we respond as Christ would.

Jesus broke through social barriers to care for the suffering. At the heart of the debate on assisted suicide are real people who really suffer. We need to act like Jesus and do all we can to be close to them. So great was Jesus’ desire to comfort Peter’s suffering mother-in-law that he was willing to break a number of social and religious taboos to be close to her. Jesus took her by the hand - an unacceptable gesture for those not in the woman’s immediate family. Jesus healed on the Sabbath - a violation (according to many Jews) of the law and an offense which separated one from the community. Jesus willingly risked their scorn. In the gospel, Christ cares for the ill and those possessed by demons. In other words, He was attentive to the suffering of the entire person. In the first reading, we heard about Job. His story shows that physical anguish is so often accompanied by mental and spiritual suffering. Those who suffer can feel isolated and without hope. Jesus shows true compassion for the suffering, being close to them and doing what he can to alleviate their pain while always respecting their human dignity.

As followers of Jesus, our best response to the Supreme Court decision is to care for those who suffer, protecting them from the tragedy of suicide. Like Christ, we may have to break through social barriers to do so. People will increasingly argue that assisted suicide is a compassionate thing to do. After the court’s decision, Archbishop Miller released a statement outlining how we can show true compassion to those who suffer. Two points stand out. First, we need to call upon the federal government to enact legislation which will provide all possible legal safeguards for those who are vulnerable to suicide. Second, we must advocate that adequate palliative care be available for all. In palliative care, “we have the technology to control pain, and we have the ability to overcome loneliness and despair.”  The Archbishop explains that “at the root of the desire for assisted suicide is the fact that adequate palliative care is often unavailable, which can lead to thoughts of suicide.” In addition, I think we can all promote and make better use of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. In this Sacrament, Jesus continues His ministry of healing, giving the sick the grace to suffer with hope, knowing Christ is with them. Whenever Catholics are admitted to the hospital they should inform the staff that they would like to visited by a priest. If you are a loved one are not in the hospital and would like to receive this Sacrament, simply contact your parish.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court is a terrible mistake which will greatly harm our country. In many negative ways this ruling changes everything. In the way we think and act, however, it changes nothing. We will continue to follow Jesus and His way. We will continue to care for those who suffer. We will continue to view suicide as a tragedy to be prevented.