Rock and Sand

When I was young listening to or reading the story of the Nativity, I imagined it taking place in a dusty small town surrounded by sandy desert with mountainous terrain created by jutting rock. Now with Google Earth and other internet sources, I don’t have to imagine, because we can see for ourselves without traveling there how Bethlehem and its surroundings may have looked in the days leading up to the birth of Christ.

We know that Jesus masterfully used imagery that the people could understand in explaining his Good News to them. On December 7, during the first week of Advent, we heard Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus telling his disciples that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven. He uses the example of the person who built his house on rock and it withstood the wind and floods, but the person who built his house on sand saw it collapse and ruined when the strong winds and floods came. The reading from Isaiah on that same day includes the passage, “Open up the gates to let in a nation that is just, one that keeps faith. A nation of firm purpose you keep in peace; in peace, for its trust in you.” (Is 26:2,3)

How do we build a house on rock instead of sand? Some call it grit, others, perseverance, and still others, determination. Whatever term used, the elements that describe it are similar: the ability to learn from failure, to be resilient, to be optimistic in the face of challenge, to continue to practice, to try, and to learn something from each attempt rather than keep falling into the same traps time and time again. At Archmere, we believe that this is an important ingredient to students’ success in anything that they do.

Advent is a time for us to pause and take stock of ourselves and our actions, to be sure that we are building houses on rock that will sustain us when we have to manage through truly difficult times. Isaiah calls us to be people “that keeps faith,” with firm purpose to discern God’s will in our lives, and in so doing, to know peace. Isaiah is prophesying about the Promised Land to a Jewish nation that has been exiled from Egypt, chosen by God, and journeying in faith through the desert to an unknown destination. Isaiah’s words for us today are just as relevant as we are journeying through this life, often not knowing what choices or decisions we will have to make, and where they might lead us. All that we can do is “keep the faith.”

My wish is that our Christmas celebrations fortify our faith foundation in such a way that allows us to manage well the wind storms and floods in our lives. May you, your family, and friends know God’s peace.

Wishing you a Blessed and Merry Christmas!

Happy Thanksgiving

My wife and I just celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary, and we are in the process of planning the wedding for our daughter and her fiancé next November. How did we get here? It was just a few years ago that we were married and a few years after that we raised our children. Where has the time gone?

We recently received an anniversary card from a dear friend that included the following reflection by Penny Schwab, entitled, “What Makes Love Last”:

For our golden wedding anniversary, my husband, Don, gave me a card with a picture of a cat hugging a dog. The caption read, “Weird, but it works.” That phrase summarized our day.

First, the vacuum cleaner broke. Then the pressure switch on the water system got stuck. My phone died and took all my contact information with it. We spent the day solving problems. Finally, we ate our anniversary dinner in the car – hamburgers and French fries at our favorite fast-food place – and enjoyed it!

As I thought about the “celebration,” I realized Don’s card also summed up the years of our marriage. We like different thing, and we disagree about money and politics. I love mysteries, and he only reads nonfiction. My idea of a great vacation is Disney World and he prefers fishing. He roots of Oklahoma State’s basketball team while I’m a true Kansas Jayhawker. Our personalities are different, too, but we make a good team. I appreciate Don’s calmness and the way it balances my tendency to panic. He’s even-tempered and always has a positive attitude – attributes I’m still working to develop.

We’re happy together because we love each other and God. We’ve learned to rely on God’s amazing grace to handle not only our differences but the many times when everything goes wrong. It’s weird, but it works.

I don’t know that my wife and I are so different as Penny describes – I don’t fish and like Disney World as does my wife – but it is true that we have our differences, and in many ways, they complement each other. We have learned over the years to be more open-minded and to talk through those “tense moments.” And I believe that we have become stronger in our marriage and in our individual selves to be able to be present for our children, family members, and friends.

In a world and country that seems so divided around issues and about fundamental beliefs, my Thanksgiving prayer is that we can find ways to come together in peace to give thanks to our God for all of creation – that with which we can identify, and those parts that require empathy and compassion to understand and accept.

May you and your family enjoy a Thanksgiving that is filled with wonderful reunions, particularly with those who, perhaps, may share different ideas and thoughts that could set us apart, but instead cause us to dialog and learn a perspective we may or may not respectfully embrace.

Experiencing God’s Mercy

UnknownWe are more than halfway through the season of Lent. The word “Lent”, derived from Old English, means “spring”. This particular week in March we seem to be experiencing an early spring with 70-degree days and sunshine. The Church calendar sets aside these forty days of the Lenten season to have us prepare for the celebration of Easter. In this particular year, Pope Francis has called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy – “an invitation to love, kindness, and unbounded generosity. Pope Francis is offering [us] the opportunity to encounter the incredible mercy of God. Encountering mercy means encountering God. It can transform [our lives], [our] relationships, [our] work, and [our] ability to embrace and experience all of life.” (dynamiccatholic.com)

How do we experience God’s mercy? Merriam-Webster defines mercy to be “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.” In my elementary school religion classes, mercy was further defined by the Church’s outline of the corporate and spiritual acts of mercy. The corporal acts, responding to the physical needs of others, include: feeding the hungry, shelter the homeless, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, ransoming the captive, and burying the dead. The spiritual acts include: instructing the ignorant, bearing wrongs patiently, counseling the doubtful, forgiving offenses willingly, admonishing the sinner, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead. These concrete acts help to shape merciful decisions and actions in our lives.

As I reflect, some of the corporal and spiritual acts can be very much a part of my everyday experience, while some others might be further removed. I might consider feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as works of mercy that I support indirectly through monetary donations to organizations and causes, yet forgiveness, counsel, and bearing wrongs can be conscious daily efforts with family members, coworkers, and students. Moreover, our individual work calls us to integrate other values that sometimes may seem to be in conflict with being merciful. For example, in upholding rules and procedures to be equitable and fair, a person might be perceived as “merciless.” Conversely, sometimes those in positions of power are perceived to be “weak” or “unfair” if they are thought to be administering “kind or forgiving treatment to someone who could be treated harshly,” as Merriam-Webster defines “mercy.” So does mercy have boundaries?

When we talk about God’s mercy, we describe it as “boundless.” The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent was the parable of the Prodigal Son, the very popular story of two brothers who led very different lives, one obedient to his father and the other squandering his inheritance only to come home to his father, who accepted him back with great joy. It is a most interesting story, when we consider the perspectives and interactions of the father and each of his sons. The father showed mercy on his prodigal son to the upset of his obedient son who was angered and felt slighted. He said to his father, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ (Luke 15:11-32). To me, his father’s response gives critical insight into being merciful. He told his obedient son, “You are here with me always and everything I have is yours.” But that statement was not to the exclusion of what the father was feeling: “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” If we think about it, the father gave each son what he needed and deserved: the obedient son would have everything the father has promised him, and the other son received the love and acceptance he had come to appreciate. It is interesting that the father did not say that the son who returned would have his monetary inheritance reinstated; he did say that to his obedient son: “everything I have is yours.” This might suggest that God’s mercy is not about the equability of things in this life; there are consequences to actions. Rather, God’s mercy is about acceptance, love, caring, and concern. A merciful person helps another “get through” the rough times, like the wayward son who will have to rebuild his life.

As I think about the idea of “mercy,” I think about my parents. Many of us may have experienced parents who sacrificed much for the sake of the rest of the family. My father’s family story is particularly difficult, beginning with his father’s untimely death at age 50, leaving his 40-year-old widow with eight children, ages 13 to 2 years old. Both of my grandparents were Italian immigrants, who spoke broken English. At the death of my grandfather, the social service agency wanted to place my father and his siblings in foster care, since my grandmother had no means of support. Instead, my father, the oldest, and his older sisters down to the third grade, left school to work in the mills on the Brandywine River. My grandmother began taking in laundry, and eventually was able to open a corner grocery store in the late 1920s. As a result of the challenges of the family early in life, my father and siblings remained close, with my father serving as the patriarch. My mother had to “share” my father with the extended family when they married in 1938. There were many stressful moments when my father’s attentions were given to the extended family at the expense of my mother and brothers. But through all of the difficult moments, I believe it was mercy that provided the glue that kept the family together and happy. It was a mercy that did not expect perfection or always the right decisions, but rolled with the mistakes and misunderstandings. Like the father in the parable, mercy, love, and forgiveness could always be found in our parents’ home, but, as children, we were always told to accept the consequences of our actions.

Our students have access to so many virtual communities through social media outlets today. They can find on-line communities that can validate a variety of values and perspectives, to the point that relativism becomes a way to rationalize behavior that is counter to Catholic Christian perspective – a perspective that celebrates the suffering servant, the merciful father, and the dignity of the marginalized and the outcast. I am so impressed and encouraged by our students, many whom I believe perform the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy each day – the way they interact with one another and their teachers; their concern for the marginalized and disadvantaged through the many outreach and community service efforts, and the intellectual sophistication that they posses to be sensitive to and internalize empathetic feelings for another.

Easter patterns the rites of spring – new birth – the fulfillment of God’s promise to humanity of eternal life through His Son. It is this ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son, that is an expression of God’s mercy and love for us. I pray that all of the members of our Archmere Academy community may know that liberation of God’s mercy, and that, whatever religions or pathways to the Creator individuals’ may choose, they may know that they always have a place in the “household,” just as in the story of the Prodigal Son, just as in the story of my family, just as in the community that is Archmere.

God’s Blessings on You and Your Family this Lent and Easter,

Michael A. Marinelli, ’76 Ed.D.

Headmaster