Invisible Pain – Invisible Illness

February 2nd, 2016

Appearances really can be deceiving.  One of my favorite comedians, Billy Crystal, portrayed a character Fernando who was accurate when he would profess, “remember it’s not how you feel, but how you look!”  When my parents first moved me to Houston, TX, in the summer of 1975, I arrived in the form of a 10-year old kid on crutches with Forest Gump-like leg braces below my knees.  In the 70’s the prevailing term for someone that mirrored my appearance was “poster child”, because I looked like all the other little children who appeared in print media or on TV when there were telethons or other mass appeals to raise funds for a debilitating disease.

The move to Houston was truly divine intervention. I was able to be treated by Dr. Earl Brewer, a brilliant trailblazer in the area of pediatric rheumatology.  The medications, surgeries, and therapies that were suddenly available to me eventually removed those leg braces and discarded those crutches.  I still would walk with a noticeable limp, but as I advanced through to high school, college, and then the private sector my life and lifestyle both improved dramatically.  I went from looking the part of poster child to becoming a young man who embraced driving, dating, dancing and living life to the fullest.  I didn’t look like a guy who at that point had already undergone close to 20 surgeries.  Appearances were deceiving.

During the nearly 16 years that I worked full-time in the travel industry, I was confronted with the frustrating reality that although my physical appearance had improved substantially from when I was a boy, I still had to battle the invisible pain of flares, fevers and fatigue.  And while I may have looked to the outside world as the same easy going, carefree, compassionate soul each and every day I showed up to work, believe me I rarely felt the way I looked.  Uneducated coworkers would occasionally confront me as to why some days I was late to work and moved slower than usual.  They saw the same me as the day before, and had no comprehension of the invisible pain I was feeling.

That same scrutiny has become a lasting part of the cross that I still carry living with this rheumatoid disease.  One rheumatologist tried to explain why my particular situation, like so many others, can be so lonely and cruel.  He pointed out that when people see someone in a cast, or a splint, or using crutches it’s easier for them to be tolerant and compassionate.  We agreed that if the invisible pain that I periodically suffer were to have a color, if others with rheumatoid disease would glow a neon green or bright purple while we were flaring that we would be greeted and embraced much more by a society that could empathize.

My prayer is that as we educate the world we live in, that more and more compassion and understanding will be extended to the multitude of people like me, whose outward appearance may be deceiving, as we keep fighting the invisible illness that is this rheumatoid disease.



Prayer Process: Get Out of Your Own Way

January 13th, 2016
     A cold & overcast morning encompassed those of us alumni who were fortunate enough to be at the Jesuit Retreat Complex. Our task: to pray with nature, to set aside the distractions that normally govern our minds and souls, and to focus on God’s presence in the beauty of nature around us.
     Not wanting to subject myself to the challenge of unfamiliar terrain, nor the winters elements of January, I opted to stay indoors.  I found a comfy sofa near a large tri-panel of windows. Beyond the glass I saw trees, hills, and land stretching as far as I could see.  I gazed out upon a particular tall tree, in full winter, leaves long gone, branches and limbs reaching upward and outward and reacting to the frigid gusts that randomly swept through the area.  The tree reminded me of FAITH, standing strong from wear and tear, from elements, outside pressures and time.
     I really wanted to go deeper into that tree, and message that God wanted me to hear and learn.Then the winds picked up, distracting me.  There were strong winds sweeping through the area, and my focus was broken.  Back to the tree I said!  But then two creatures, birds, with long wings stretched out, flew into my view and once more I was distracted.  I became transfixed on their flight, their pattern, and the wonderful aerial dance that they were performing before me.  Back to the tree!!  Must concentrate on God!  But then droplets of rain began a rhythmic beat on the building I was in, and this further distracted me!  Back to the tree I implored!
     And then I paused and a laugh stirred within my soul.  For in my determination to focus on the tall tree as my choice for God in this prayer exercise, it struck me that in fact ALL of the things in my experience were manifestations of God’s message to me.  I acknowledged that tall tree as the rock of faith. The wind is the Spirit constantly coming and going and flowing through my life.  The birds were the reminder of the hopes and aspirations, I had yet to realize.  And finally, that rhythmic rain represented those in my life, given by God, who repeatedly remind me that they need my prayers, love, and attention: my wife, my daughters and my family and friends!  I had inadvertently tried making this whole process harder than it needed to be.  Lesson learned: When it comes to prayer, conversing with our Heavenly Father, sometimes just get out of our own way, and surrender.  A wise priest friend of mine has pointed out, “If praying seems painful or difficult, maybe you’re doing it wrong.”

Dinner at a Friends House – 7/11/2010

July 6th, 2010

     In the Fall of 2008, my parents, my wife and I, chose a particular weekday and made the drive downtown to attend midday mass.  We were even more excited than usual because for Wendy and I, it was our first time to be inside of the newly completed, blessed, and dedicated Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral of the Galveston-Houston Diocese. Oh we had driven by the beautiful landmark on numerous occasions, but never had the opportunity nor the time to actually enter the doors and see for ourselves what so many of our friends had been marveling about for months on end.  We had heard stories of the lavish marble altar, the high-rise stained glass art, the imported statues of various Catholic saints, and all of the other facets that contributed to the majestic appeal of this new place of worship in our fair city.  We were, needless to say, a tad more enthused than usual when we parked the car and crossed the street to attend mass.

     My parents, who had been able to attend one of the initial celebratory masses during the Co-Cathedral’s first week of official usage, were beside themselves with delight as they awaited our reaction.  We made sure to arrive at least 30 minutes early for the midday service so that we would have time both before and after mass to take photographs and for individual prayer time at some of the many shrines housed within the walls of such a holy place.  While I could truly go on and on at attempting to describe the beauty and elegance of the structure and all of the amenities within, let me just say that everything we had heard was true.  It is a breathtaking tribute to our Lord and our faith.

     Before we knew it, it was time to be seated for the start of mass.  I looked around and saw people of all walks of life filtering in for the service.  Businessmen, health professionals, families like our own, individuals of all ages gradually made their way to a pew and awaited the announcement of the opening song.  I couldn’t help but smile as my mind drifted momentarily to other notable times in my life when I had been blessed to attend Catholic mass at a place other than my home parish.  Whether that mass took place in a neighboring state or across the Atlantic in Europe it was universally the same service that we were experiencing at that moment.  One of the truest gifts of our Catholic faith is its sameness.

     Later that same day,  my wife and I were recalling our exuberance and enthusiasm as we were preparing to visit this newest “house of the Lord”, it reminded me of a time when we had been invited a friend’s house for dinner.  I had volunteered to teach a Bible study for a small group of interested youth from our parish.  As it turned out, the only attendees for my class were three daughters from the same family.  Their parents appreciated the fact that I was willing to devote 6 weeks of my time to teach a class that was basically for their kids.  As a result of this, they had invited both Wendy and I to their home for a family dinner.  As we were making the drive to their home, we shared our anxiousness about the evening that was about to unfold.  What would they be serving for dinner?  What would we talk about?  Will we feel comfortable?  Will they?  How long should we stay?  Should we bring anything with us? Do they have a dog?

Of course, once we got there all of our nervous questions and doubts disappeared almost instantly.  We were given a comfortable place to sit.  They offered us something to drink.  The dinner was incredibly tasty.  We laughed together.  We shared stories.  We broke bread.  We prayed.  We felt at home because the family made us feel instantly welcome once they opened the door.  Believe it or not, we had such a wonderful time and before you knew it, it was time to go.  They assured us that we could come back any time, and we could tell by the look in their eyes and on their faces that they were all so very sincere with their open invitation.  On the drive home, we had only one question, “How long would it be before we would be able to come back?”

The very same feelings of excitement and anticipation that we had felt on our way to this parish family’s home was identical to our feelings about our first visit to Houston’s new Co-Cathedral.  It makes me wonder if other people look at going to mass the same way as this.  In the past 10 years or so, our Catholic church has been the victim of countless, ongoing attacks from Hollywood, the media, and society in general.  While this is hardly a new development, the Catholic church being under siege from outside and from within, it is nonetheless a factor that some people use as their justification for turning away from their house of the Lord.

I also acknowledged the tendency that occurs when there has been some distance between relationships.  Have you ever had a friend that you sort of lost contact simply because you’re both preoccupied?  You keep thinking of them, and meaning to pick up the phone and call, but for some reason you don’t.  This happens to me quite a bit.  At 45 years old, I have met so many wonderful people in my life, but its physically not possible to stay close to each and every one of them.  So time passes.  These people remain in my thoughts but sometimes it feels like the longer I wait to re-establish contact with them, the harder it is to do it.  Perhaps this is also how it is with our brothers and sisters who have fallen away from their faith?  Maybe they keep thinking about coming back to church, but things keep coming up or thoughts keep arising that blocks them from making that much needed return. 

My prayer is that for all those people who somehow find themselves cut off or forgotten or betrayed by the church, that they stop and remember that our God, our Father loves us unconditionally.  We are ALWAYS welcome in his house.  There is always a seat at his table.  Much like my wife and I’s visit to the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral or to the parish family for dinner, a return to the table of the Lord should be just as exhilerating and just as fulfilling.  My prayer is for all of those out there who have allowed time to pass and obstacles to keep them from returning to church, that they remember how it feels to be in a loving, inviting, welcoming house.  Such is the house of God. 

I also believe that more of us should take a moment while at mass to look around and realize that we are home.  We are loved.  We are there as part of the body of Christ.  As we sit there, and look and listen to what God has provided for us, our fears, worries, and shortcomings will be lost.  It is at moments like this, where our doubts are replaced with peace, our fears are replaced with faith, and the question of “Will I feel comfortable??” will be replaced with “How long until I can come back?”

Life Nite – May 9 – “Senior Roast”

July 2nd, 2010

     Youth Director, Bobby Streight initiated a very popular tradition from his home parish in Corpus Christi, TX with the dawning of “The Senior Roast”.  This special Life Teen event is an evening which focuses on the graduating senior class from the program.  The entire night is run as an “open mic” opportunity.  This year 6 graduating seniors were seated at the front of the room at a long table and served dinner and a beverage by members of the Core Team.  After everyone got their food, Bobby invited any representative from the Life Teen attendees to step up to the podium and offer some “roast/toast” remarks about any or all of the seniors being highlighted.  After that, the Life Teen Core was allowed to throw in their two cents.  The night ended with each and every honored senior coming forward to have their “final say” of the night.   Karina, Alyssa, Pamela, Ryan, Lewis, and Elise thanks be to God for you and all that you contributed to the Life Teen experience while you were here.  There is no doubt that you will all go off to achieve a host of accomplishments.  There is also no doubt that your journey will be filled with pitfalls and valleys.  This is the nature of being alive.  However, take with you the fact that after one year of Life Teen you should be better equipped to handle those inevitable bumps in the road.  And you are always welcome back at STA.

     The night was a tremedous success because it came at the end of a school year, a  Life Teen year, and a high school era.  The event was a valuable exercise in public speaking and I have no doubt that each year from now on will be smoother, and even more powerful.  After all, juniors, sophomores and freshman in the Life Teen program now know what they have to look forward to when it is inevitably going to be their turn to sit at the front of the room as graduating seniors.

Consider This:     Being a graduating senior is a significant milestone for every teen because it symbolically represents your passage from dependent child to young adult.  For many it means leaving “the nest” and going out of the comforts of the cave and out into the “real world”.  Are you ready?  What tools have you gained so far in your life to better prepare you for the journey?  Devote some prayer time to ask God to help you see all of the gifts and tools that he has provided in your life.  A gratitude prayer is an ideal way of not getting too caught up on selfish wants and needs, and re-focusing on all the ways God is getting you prepared for the day you depart high school and embark into the world that awaits you.

Life Nite – May 16 – “Season Finale”

May 29th, 2010

     To everything there is a season.  As the school year wound to an end, our Life Teen program celebrated its final scheduled Nite in an attempt to achieve a measure of closure.  After an icebreaker game was played, teens were dispersed into their small groups for the purpose of evaluating/reviewing the end of the Life Teen year.  Rather than simply hand out review sheets, small group leaders led discussions and encouraged individual participation and comment on what worked, what didn’t, and how things could be improved.  Bobby then brought everyone back together and solicited large group feedback.  The overwhelming criticism raised by the group was a call for better discipline during the Life Nites. Teens expressed the fact that all too many times a small handful of their peers was selfishly diverting attention away from the scheduled presenters and activities and towards whatever trivial, off-topic distraction they wanted to interject.  Realizing that not every teen wants to be with us on Sunday nights, does not mean that we can allow inappropriate comments or disrespectful behavior.  It was agreed that Bobby would speak with Fr. KK and work with the Life Teen Core Team to come up with a more effective set of policies for the following 2010-2011 Life Teen year.

It was then time for me to bring the entire Core Team to the front of the room for some closing remarks.  Being the very last Life Teen of the very first year since Life Teen was brought back to our parish, my goal was to put the night and the moment into perspective for both the teens and the Core.  I love TV.  I am most thankful for DVR.  One of the most surprising successful shows of the season was GLEE.   In recent years, shows like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Fringe, NCIS, 24, and Lost had taken the ratings by storm.  While praying about the remarks I wanted to share on this night, I took the time to look back over the year and while I admit I am biased since I am part of the Core Team, I honestly feel like we had an outstanding year!!  It was at this moment that I saw the parallel between our first year of Life Teen and what its like being part of a brand, new successful show on TV. 

So, with the dedicated young men and women who make up our Life Teen Core standing behind me I closed the year and the Nite by expanding on this parallel.  What makes a great TV show?  It has characters you believe in and even root for.  It offers a good story line, a plot, and typically a resolution.  The TV shows that survive the test of time offer a strong cast, compelling dialogue, and consistently present things in a manner that keeps you tuning in week after week.  Such was our goal and our result from the first year of Life Teen.  I took the time to actually let the Youth see all of the members of our Core Team that tirelessly and faithfully show up week after week to make sure that they have a safe, welcoming, and spiritually positive environment to enjoy. I also wanted to make it clear that the people standing behind me were deserving of their collective appreciation and gratitude because it is never easy to commit to something and put your whole heart into it.  I reminded the teens of a handful of members from our Core Team that had been with us at the start of the year but that for one reason or another had to move on, or drop out. I wanted them to realize that life happens and that every single person on the Core Team, every single part of our “cast”  had made it to the end of the year, in spite of  also having their lives filled with work, school, illness, fatigue, and relationships.  I made sure to give special acknowledgment to Norson who had been such a vital and vibrant member of our Core, but would be leaving Life Teen to pursue a different “call” from our Lord.

I concluded the night by placing the emphasis and the spotlight back on the teens – they are, after all, the very reason why God brought all of us together for the past year and beyond.  I wanted to make the clear point that Life Teen is only successful when they show up.  You can have a top-notch TV program, but if nobody tunes in to watch you get cancelled.  I wanted the teens to see how special they are.  Their heavenly Father loves them so much that he delivered to them a young and vibrant youth coordinator that they can depend on and trust.  I continued my TV parallel by pointing out to them that each and every member of our “cast”, our Core, was at one time sitting out in the audience as teens as well.  I reached out to the youth and asked them to be open to the possibility that one day, if they felt called, perhaps they too would be part of a Core Team for future teens who may not even be born yet.  Never say never. 

Consider This:  Whether you happen to observe life as a good television show or a good book or just a series of random events it is easy to see that life unfolds in parts and segments.  You have your infancy stage.  You grow to toddler.  There is elementary school, followed by middle and high school.  There is the career portion. There is a segment for relationships and family.  As the Life Teen year came to a close, the challenge is to look over your past year and take note of the “highs” and “lows” of your own life story.  So many times we get so caught up with living and being busy that we forget those magical moments that remind us we are alive and whywe love it so much.  So many times we trudge through life without ever pausing to thank our Lord for allowing us to feel, laugh, cry, love and be loved.  Take a moment to catch the moments that mean the most to you.