Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Take up your cross and follow Me."

“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Eugene Orowitz was a skinny, 100-pound sophomore at Collingswood High School in New Jersey in the 1950s. One day in gym class, the coach was teaching everyone how to throw a javelin. One by one, the students threw the six-foot-long spear. The longest throw was 30 yards. Finally, the coach looked over to Eugene and said, “You want to try, Orowitz?” Eugene nodded, and the other kids laughed. Some said, “You think you can lift it?” or “Careful, you might stab yourself.” But as he stood there, a strange feeling came over Eugene. Holding the javelin, he imagined himself as a young warrior about to enter into a battle. He raised the javelin, took six quick steps and let it fly. It soared and soared and soared eventually crashing into the empty bleachers. His throw went twice as far as anyone else’s.

When Eugene retrieved the javelin, he saw that the tip had broken in the crash. The coach looked at it and said, “Well, Orowitz, you broke the thing. It’s no good to us now. You might as well take it home.” That summer Eugene began throwing the javelin in a vacant lot. Some days, he spent six hours throwing it. By the end of his senior year, Eugene threw the javelin 211 feet – farther than any other high schooler in the nation. He was given an academic scholarship to college and began to dream of the Olympics. Then one day, he didn’t warm up properly, and while throwing tore the ligaments in his shoulder. That put an end to his javelin throwing, his scholarship, and his dreams. All his hard work was down the drain. It was as if God had slapped him in the face after he had performed a minor miracle with his puny, 100-pound body. Eugene dropped out of college and took a job at a warehouse.

The story of Eugene Orowitz raises a vexing question, one that is echoed in our Scriptures today: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does He let suffering touch the lives of good people who don’t deserve it? We heard this in our first reading from Jeremiah. Why did God let a good man, a prophet, like Jeremiah be ridiculed? We heard Jeremiah’s frustration, “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” And, why did God let tragedy tear the prize from the hands of Eugene Orowitz after he had worked so hard to win it?

Jesus gives us a hint of the answer to that question in today’s Gospel when he says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” What Jesus is saying is hard to believe, even a bit crazy, to someone who doesn’t have faith. “Whoever accepts suffering and misfortune for my sake will find a whole new life.” And it will not be only in the world to come. It will be right here in this world, as well. And Jesus suggests that it will be a far richer life than the one lost by tragedy.

Another way to understand this is to realize that God doesn’t cause tragedy; He doesn’t harm us; or cause harm in the world; He doesn’t give people cancer or cause drunk driving accidents; He doesn’t cause or condone the wars we engage in. These horrible things aren’t God’s will; in fact they are the opposite of what God wills for us. But, in the midst of tragedy, God can use even those challenging situations to guide us to newer and better lives.

Take the case of Eugene Orowitz. We left him working in a warehouse his dreams seemingly crushed. But, one day, Eugene met a struggling actor who asked him for some help with his lines. Eugene got interested in acting himself and enrolled in acting class. His big break came when he was cast as Little Joe in the popular TV western “Bonanza” which ran for 14 years. Later, he got the leading role in other long-running TV shows, “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Highway to Heaven.” You see, you might know Eugene Orowitz better by his stage name, Michael Landon. And in his success, he came to realize that the most important thing that happened in his life was the day he tore those ligaments in his shoulder, even if it seemed like his world had ended that day. What seemed like the worst tragedy of his life was in fact one that led to incredible blessings and fortune; a life that far surpassed the dreams he once held.

How do we apply this to our own lives? Jesus give us the answer: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Or to make it even simpler – not my will Lord, but Your will be done. And so, if we are a young person who dreamed of making the basketball team, but got cut, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He promises He will lead us to a better life. If we are an older person who dreamed of being a success in business, or having the world’s greatest family, or greatest marriage, but ended up with none of these, we should pick up our cross and follow Jesus. He will mend our broken dreams and lead us to a renewed appreciation of life that we never dreamed possible.

All of this, however, still doesn’t explain the mystery of suffering and misfortune. In the end, all we may be able to do when it strikes is trust in Jesus who says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” We may never understand the mystery, but we can find comfort and direction in its midst. There is an old poem by an unknown author called “The Folded Page.” Let me end with it:

Up in the attic of an old house,
As raindrops pattered down on the roof,
I sat paging through my old schoolbook.

I came to a page that was folded down.
Across it was written in my old childish hand:
‘The teacher says we should leave this for now.
It’s too hard to understand.’

I unfolded the page and read it.
Then I smiled and nodded my head and said,
‘The teacher was right; now I understand.’

There are many pages in the book of life
That are hard to understand.
All we can do is fold them down and write:
‘The Master says to leave this for now.
It’s too hard to understand.’

Then, someday in heaven,
We’ll unfold the pages, reread them and say,
‘The Master was right; now I understand.’

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Let us lose ourselves in the life that Jesus has planned for us. Let us desire only what He wants for us and embrace the mystery of a life lived in and for Christ.

May God give you peace.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know that story about Michael Landon, but I know where it happened--my son runs in a Catholic-school track league and some meets are at Collingswood HS. Great story for the homily!