Ascension of Our Lord (at Middle School YouthRally : Charlottesville & Newport News)
Who of you know what you want to be when you grow up? Who of you think it’s exciting that one day you will be mature and responsible grown-ups doing important things? Who of you think that’s a scary thought?
Many years ago, when I was your age, I was in such a big hurry to grow up. Many times I just really wanted to be somewhere else doing something else. I wanted to go interesting places, see remarkable things, meet amazing people, do important things. I didn’t want to just sit around all day listening to other people talk and tell me what it’s really like in the world. I wanted to get out in the world myself and get my hands dirty. And they kept telling me I wasn’t ready. Just sit still and learn for when it’s your turn. I mean, that was all we were ever expected to do at home, in school, in church. (I was asking questions and getting answers. So that wasn’t happening here.) Basically, when I was a kid, we were expected to just sit around and listen to other people talk. And boy, some of them just loved to hear themselves talk. Some of them talked like they knew everything and we knew nothing, and they acted like they always had something important to say, and like everything that came out of their mouths was really important. I mean, if the things they said were really important, how come I don’t remember any of it? Well, that could have been my problem too, since I wasn’t always paying attention. But that’s not the point. Whenever things got boring, I just tuned them out. I went inside my head and explored that interior universe, where I went interesting places, saw remarkable things, met amazing people, did important things, and all those voices buzzing about me just sounded like “wonk-wonk-wonk wonk-wonk.”
Then I graduated high school, went to college, and went to graduate school. But I can tell you, I wasn’t always confident that I knew what I was doing, that I would do well. I was always afraid of messing up, that I would forget the things I was supposed to know, that I would say the wrong thing (so wonderful I can use my iPad), that my voice would crack, that something I did would make me look funny, that I wouldn’t make sense, that other people would fail to appreciate what I was trying to do. Then I would just lose my focus, fall by the wayside, retreat into insignificance, and never want to try anything again.
Soon enough, I learned that the process of getting from there to where I am now would definitely be a long and winding road. Sometimes I imagined it was going to be easy. You know how your parents and teachers and coaches and scout leaders and youth ministers would tell you to just do your best, and not give up, and keep trying, and that one day, you’ll reach your goal? It might not make much sense until you’re on the other side telling other young people the same exact thing, except that then you’re the old geezer giving the pep talk. Hey, we weren’t always old geezers, you know? We were bright shiny eager young minds at some point, strong and brave, full of life and energy, full of promise and potential. “So what happened?,” you ask. Lots of things happened. We woke up and smelled the coffee. We hit some speed bumps and learned to drive smarter. We wised up. We grew a pair. It’s not always going to be a smooth ride. But we keep going. So when we look back on the journey, we are always amazed.
The good thing about growing up is that you have time to do it slowly. It’s like baking a cake or playing a game. You make a plan. You figure out what you want to accomplish. You make sure you have the things you need. You make the right choices to get the best results. When an emergency happens, you keep your cool and figure out your mistake. You try again until it works. And when you’re done, it’s good to know you did the best you could. While you’re young, you have the opportunity to learn from people in your life who can teach you responsibility and maturity, and what it means to be an adult. You can ask questions now. You can watch how others speak and act so you can imitate their example and avoid the mistakes they make. So it won’t be such a scary thing to grow up. Instead, it can be something to look forward with hope because you can accomplish great things and make a difference in the world.
The apostles, the closest friends of Jesus, weren’t always as strong, courageous, confident and outspoken as we thought they were. They weren’t always ready and eager to witness to their faith in Jesus Christ, to embrace the cross and face persecution. They are always pictured standing tall, heads up high, with a certain glow of holiness about them. But when Jesus was arrested and put to death, they were fearful of their enemies. They imagined what was done to Jesus would be done to them. After Jesus returned to the Father, the apostles once again gathered behind locked doors fearful of their enemies. Gradually, through the power of the Holy Spirit and their own openness to the Spirit’s guidance, they became stronger, more courageous, more confident and more outspoken. They had to do some growing up themselves, so that they would have what it takes to face the world and deal with the problems they encountered with the knowledge of Jesus’ teaching and example. They no longer had to be told or shown what to do. They no longer had to be afraid.
On the feast of Pentecost next Sunday, we remember how two thousand years ago, the men and women who formed the church were given the power and courage that enabled them to grow, to take responsibility and to mature. The church is still growing as we who are its members grow, as we put into practice in our lives the teaching and example of our Lord. But if we want to grow into mature and responsible Christians and Catholics, we need to find people we can imitate, who can show us how to be mature and responsible Christians and Catholics. If we hang out with goofballs instead, there’s a good chance that’s what we will become.
Back home, little Jared is nine years old. He received his First Holy Communion last year, and recently he decided he wanted to be an altar server. He was assigned to carry the processional cross ahead of everybody at the beginning and end of mass, and during the offertory procession. On his first day, the two other servers with greater responsibilities were late. And I had to tell Jared there was a possibility he would have to step into their jobs. Jared’s eyes grew large, but he didn’t say a word. I knew he would need a lot of help. He would be nervous, and I would have to be patient. Eventually the two other servers showed up. But when Jared saw his parents after mass, he told them I had given him a promotion. We were talking about it again the other day, and I told Jared he would one day be teaching new servers what to do, but not yet. His dad looked at me and smiled. “He’s nine,” he said. “And we’re half-way there.” Yikes!