I Can’t Imagine

Prayers for Matt & Melissa Graves & family

As I read the devastatingly sad news from Orlando of Lane Graves, the 2-year-old boy who was pulled into the lagoon by an alligator and drowned, I’m overcome by intense fatherly sadness, but struck by a single line of the story:

“Demings said he and a Catholic priest relayed the news of the discovery to the boy’s parents, Matt and Melissa Graves, who were on vacation with their son and 4-year-old daughter from Elkhorn, Nebraska.”

This is the second time since entering diaconate formation that my heart was drawn to the fact that a member of the clergy was there to deliver the news and be with the family in that moment. The last time this came up in a story, Suzanne and I talked about it at great length. She was drawn to the sadness of the story itself, and I was drawn to the presence of the sacred minister.

I can’t imagine the pain and sadness that Matt and Melissa Graves are feeling right now, but I join with countless others in prayer for them and for their family. I also can’t yet imagine what it might be like to be there with them and for them, but I’m curious what I will learn as my formation journey continues to prepare me to be of service to God’s people in different ways, that may include moments like this in my lifetime.

Without a doubt, in times like this, I can see the wisdom of the Church in balancing formation between its four core elements: spiritual, human, pastoral, and academic. Surely, all four dimensions are called upon deeply and put to their test in a moment like this.

Prayers for the Graves family.

Diaconate Retreat 2016 (Photos)

Chiara Center, Riverton, IL

From June 9-13, 2016, our class of diaconate aspirants had our annual retreat. These photos are from our time at the Chiara Center (Franciscan Life Center) in Riverton, Illinois, just outside of Springfield.

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I made it through a really rough last weekend as music director & organist at my home parish. My eyes didn’t water too much (but I’ll admit they did a little) and my handkerchief didn’t get too wet.

There’s a weird feeling of emptiness that I kept feeling. So many thoughts that kept running through my heart and mind… stuff like:

Don’t cry… You’ll be okay… You’re really going to miss this… I’m feeling so empty… Jesus, fill me up… Jesus, please fill me… I need your grace… Help me… Don’t look at them… Now they’re crying… Fill me up… 

It kept coming down to me praying, “Fill me up”, as my chest felt empty, and then a feeling of peace that would wash over me. A few times, I knew I heard a voice speaking to me, “Something greater is in store.”

Then I’d have thoughts like:

Why are you having such a hard time with this? This was never YOURS anyway. This isn’t for you. This is for Him. Thank you. Fill me up… Something greater is in store.

It was a blessing to be joined by so many friends and singers who had been with me through the years… (Art would have been there too, but they had already booked a family vacation through the weekend). This is my music family:

And Suzanne brought the boys up to the loft for both Masses… we got one last picture of me with the boys at the organ:

As it was written, though – as it relates to my music ministry, “It is finished.”

I look forward to my first diaconate retreat this coming weekend.

I trust that something greater is in store.

The Problem of Evil, Augustine to Today

Essay: Introduction to Philosophy

For centuries, “the problem of evil” has vexed those who believe in God and given those who do not believe a strong argument against God’s existence. Put simply, the problem of evil begs an explanation for the existence of pain and evil within the creation of a God who is supposedly all powerful, all knowing, and all good. As Brian Davies explains, it “is commonly seen as the problem of how the existence of God can be reconciled with the pain, suffering, and moral evil which we know to be facts of life.”1 It is reasonable that if there is evil, God knows about it, could stop it, and would want to stop it. However, evil exists in our world. This problem was one of many Saint Augustine needed to reason his way through on his own path to Christianity, eventually settling upon an explanation that still serves us well today.

See You in the Eucharist #ThankfulThursday

A farewell open letter to Holy Family

Appropriate for a #ThankfulThursday, because of how thankful I am for this chapter of my life…

Dear Holy Family parish – Father Jeff, Father Stone, musicians, singers, staff, parishioners, friends…

Music ministry at Holy Family has been at the heart of my life, my faith life, and my family for as long as I can remember. I remember taking my first 16-key Casio keyboard to St. Margaret Mary School in 2nd grade to try to pluck out John Foley’s One Bread, One Body by ear for show and tell. In middle school, Mr. Vizer successfully talked me into playing a duet with him at the school Christmas program.

In 7th grade, I remember John Huff asking me, after seeing me at a piano recital, if I’d come play with the guitar group at the church. Shortly thereafter, he asked if he could put a microphone in front of me. I said, “I only sing in the shower,” and he replied, “I could rig a shower up over you too.”

For six years I played with the guitar groups, and then in my college years I fell away from the faith a bit. Years later, after I had returned to the Church, I heard that a priest that I had connected with was heading to my home parish of Holy Family. I remember calling Jeanne Schnefke and asking if the guitar group was still around and could use a keyboardist again. I remember her immediate and enthusiastic “Yes!”

Within the next year, we had formed an offshoot “ensemble” which started taking on more responsibilities around the parish. I remember when we were starting and Carol Reagan called and said, “We’ll all be there to sing with you. You just tell us when and where.” I remember Frances & Mario Rossi & Rich Koerper’s, “You want to try a youth-oriented group? Let’s try it!” The next 15 years or so, until today, have been a whirlwind of joy, happiness, friendship, and accomplishment in ministry. I remember magnificent Advent concerts joining our adult choir & ensemble. I remember re-meeting Suzanne here after a Wednesday night practice and Mass, leading to our marriage and family. I remember Christmas Eves and Triduums.

You don’t really keep count when starting on a journey like this, but some rough math tells me that in the last 15 years, I’ve had the honor of helping lead our community in song at some 1,500 liturgies – Sunday Masses, weddings, funerals, graduations, Confirmations, Anointing Masses, and more.

Now, I must say “farewell” to this chapter of my life in order to move on to the next to which I believe I am called. As I progress into years two through four of the diaconate formation program, I am excited to go where our diocese chooses to send me to help me grow in my parish experiences and pastoral ministry. This change carries the bitterness of a “goodbye” to my music ministry at Holy Family, but the happiness and excitement of the future that could come.

I will miss climbing the stairs to the choir loft a few times each week. I will miss the friends in the choir loft – and now my own sons playing instruments and singing with the ensemble and choir. I will miss our parish community, and our liturgies, and hearing the sound of you singing along loudly from the pews. (Yes, we can often hear it in the loft!)

THANK YOU to all of those who came and went through the years: Carol, John, Judy, Mario & Frances, Carolyn, Art, Kristin, Katie, Tracy, Jacqui, Suzanne, Leta, Kathy, Steve, Charlie, Jeff & Gay, Jeff, Doug, Maggi, Mary Jo, Richard, Misty, Justin, Joe, Chris, Thomas & Matthew. THANK YOU to Pat, my partner in music and ministry, and the adult choir. THANK YOU to the pastors I’ve had the pleasure of serving. THANK YOU to everyone who has supported us, especially Suzanne and our boys and our whole family.

Holy Family is my home – it will remain our family’s home. I’ll just be away learning more about how to help serve our Church in new ways. I won’t be gone entirely, though, and still look forward to being around from time to time at Masses, events, dinners, school events, and the like.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to be a servant – a servant in music ministry – to you for so many wonderful years. Know that you remain in my daily prayers, and I beg you to please keep me in yours.

I recall the words of a long-time friend of mine, Father Steve Arisman, who said something like, “I don’t believe in saying ‘goodbye’ – I say, ‘I will see you in the Eucharist.” Because when we are gathered at Mass, no matter where we are or when it is, we are all joined together in the mystical Body of Christ formed through the ages. I will see you in the Eucharist!

With love and prayers,

Open My Eyes

Discernment & a song as a sign

Signpost in the Mountain - iStock.com/Mimadeo

Signpost in the Mountain – iStock.com/Mimadeo

Fifteen or so years ago, when I had returned to church and was starting to seriously discern God’s will for my life and vocation, a certain song hit a chord with me and became deeply intertwined with my prayer life and discernment. The song was Jesse Manibusan’s Open My Eyes:

There were nights that I drove around, praying the words. One night in particular, after leaving an evening of coffee and Scrabble with Suzanne, “praying” that song opened my heart to God and helped me clearly “hear” and understand that marriage with Suzanne was my first vocation.

Signs in my Life

I’ve always been fortunate enough to stay keenly tuned into the little “signs” that pop up around me in everyday life, and I act a lot by gut (within reason) based upon those signs. I could list countless examples of signs that came at just the right time to help me understand that something was right, or that I was heading in the right direction, or that I should explore a new opportunity.

The Prodigal Son & the Father’s Mercy

Last weekend, the Gospel at Mass (assuming you weren’t hearing the readings for Year A for the RCIA Scrutinies in your parish) was the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Yesterday morning before work, I was enjoying a cup of coffee at the neighborhood coffee shop and knocking out a ton of email while overhearing the conversation of some other men about James’s words on faith and works. The conversation took its usual turns towards justification and then reconciliation.

I smiled and remembered the Gospel reading when one of the men started talking about how his children are of his blood – regardless how far they run, or what they do in life, it doesn’t change the fact that they are his children, and he sees being God’s child, born into the family of God through Baptism, as the same, eternal, blood relationship.

Imagine my surprise also, then, when the reading last night at evening prayer was James 2:14, 17, 18: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone may say,’You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”

Now it’s dangerous territory to mix these two stories – the Prodigal Son and the Faith/Works discussion, but something about them came together in my mind the last few days, as they came together in the discussion the men were having at the coffee shop yesterday.

The Son Who Runs…

I’ve been considering whether to share the images I’m about to share, but they’ve been stuck in my mind as I have been thinking about the Prodigal Son and the conversation I heard yesterday. Our oldest son Thomas was mad at me on the morning of Valentine’s Day for disciplining him when he was retaliating against one of his brothers for something that they had been doing. As a result, he drew us this “Valentine” and gave it to us at breakfast…

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2016-03-04 13.08.26-1

First, I have to acknowledge some readers’ shock and horror at this. But I also have to remind you that the Halbrook house is a perfectly normal house of human beings with ups and downs, goods and bads, just like every other home and family. We have our moments, just like every family.

Thankfully, the storm of emotion passed quickly through our house that morning, and by afternoon all were reconciled, Thomas wasn’t packing for a foster home, and we were having a wonderful time as a family again.

The Merciful Father

But I remember the point that the other man made over coffee yesterday morning… regardless how far his children might run, they are still his children.

We still want the best for our children, we’ll still pray for them and their return to right relationships. We still want them “under our roof” (or at least in a place of safety).

We’ll still welcome them home and back into our loving arms.

The Need for Return

Looking at this from the point of view of the son, though (and this is where the Prodigal and Faith & Works start to mingle in my mind), the father can’t welcome him home unless he returns home.

I left the coffee shop yesterday morning pondering whether God would trump our free will and pull us back into His saving grace even if we wanted to stay separated. God is the all-merciful Father of all. But would that be true mercy? Or would that be something else? There’s something in the fact that God’s grace, mixed with our free will and conscious choice to exercise that grace, impels right action.

The prodigal returns home.
The good son shows his faith through works.
All is right and well.

But mixed in that swirling set of readings and conversations the last few days, I’m still pondering… isn’t James onto something?

God moves first.
God loves, and God shares his grace.
The Father is merciful and waits at the edge of the homestead with open arms.

But don’t we have to act too?
The grace inspires works.
The son runs home before it’s too late.

Future, Forward

“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the wilderness I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.”
– Isaiah 43:18-19

Future, not past.

Forward, not backward.

Eyes in Front

I saw a quote online the other day that noted, “Our eyes are in front because it’s more important to look forward than it is to look back. Don’t dwell on things in the past. Learn from them and keep moving forward.”

So often, I have to stop myself and think: Is it productive for me to be reflecting backward like this? Should I dwell on those mistakes I made in the past, or the slip-up that a teammate had last week? Should I hold a grudge over something someone did to me a few months or a few years ago?

Usually, if I’m honest with myself, letting go of the past while still taking forward anything I can from the experience it is the most productive approach.

It’s also often the healthiest approach. How much ‘baggage’ can I lug around through life with me, after all?

Yes, I’ve made mistakes – big ones. Yes, people have hurt me. Yes, I’ve hurt others.

In all cases, I’ve done what I can to make amends, seek forgiveness, right the wrongs, give forgiveness, or otherwise put the bad in the past.

Penance & Forgiveness

I thought of this last Thursday when my second son Matthew James was about to head to the church with my wife and me for his first Penance. As his brothers got out of the van at his NaNa’s house so that she could watch them while we were at the church, he inquired, “Guys, have I done anything mean to you lately? Was I mean when we were getting ready for school? Did I say anything mean to you?”

Each of the boys, in their own way, kind of brushed it off, saying something like, “Yeah, maybe, but I forgive you and I’ve forgotten about it.”

Forgive & Forget

Forgive – or seek forgiveness – and then move forward. Again, I find myself learning from my own sons. In their love for each other they forgive, forget, and move forward so gracefully.

Even When It’s Hard

Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it takes years, or decades.

There was a time, years ago, when I deeply hurt a mentor of mine – an adviser that I had in scouting when I was a youth leader. I didn’t intend to, and it didn’t happen directly. Another adult who was responsible for choosing & appointing the adviser role came to me and another youth leader, explaining that he was planning on appointing a new adviser the following year, and asking for our input on candidates that he should consider.

I considered the conversation one in confidence and told no-one – not even the adviser who was going to be “replaced” the following year. When everything had come to pass, he found out that the other youth leader and I had been involved in the discussions earlier on and projected a lot of his hurt onto us.

It hurt me too, because of what he had been to me as a mentor, adviser, and father-figure.

It took nearly a decade until our paths brought us back into alignment in our missions and work in life, and our relationship was touchy again at first, but time, discussion, and grace helped us heal those wounds – both for ourselves and for each other.

I’m still thankful that we had the chance to “make good” in our relationship before he passed on to the next life a couple of years ago.

To this day, he’s one of the men who had the biggest impact on my life, and I’m thankful we said “goodbye” as friends.

Don’t Miss the Chance

Forgive, forget, move forward.

“Remember not the things of the past…” move onward and upward to “something new”…

“Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:13b-14

Mercy at the Front Door

“God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (cf. Ez 37:1-14). … Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.”

-Pope Francis, Easter Urbi et Orbi message, March 31, 2013

Knock, knock, knock.

That was the sound at our front door last night as I was in my office reading about the Corporal Works of Mercy and my wife was at our dining room table working on details for the kids’ school’s annual fundraiser dinner.

It was an unexpected visit from a surprising visitor that ended up taking the idea of “Mercy” full-circle in my own reflection.

Christ of the Breadlines, Fritz Eichenberg

Christ of the Breadlines, Fritz Eichenberg

The Church & The Poor

Sunday, while driving Joseph Michael (our 3rd son) home from a birthday party, he asked a simple question about the church…

“Dad, how much money does the church need to run?”

I answered that it depends – different parishes or different dioceses have different ministries, different projects, different numbers of people working for them, different bills for electricity and what not.

“No, but don’t we give our money to the church, and then the church gives the money to the poor?”

If only it were as simple in the real world as it is in the mind of the 6-year-old.

I explained more of the nuances of the expenses of running a church. He simply answered, “Well, I think that the church should just spend as little as it needs so that it has more to give to the poor.”

In his mind, the discussion was over and his solution was the simple one we’ve been looking for all along. A child shall lead them…

Works of Mercy

I can’t stop thinking about that conversation, and it led me to my office last night, reading a bit more about the Corporal Works of Mercy. They are:

1) Feed the hungry
2) Give drink to the thirsty
3) Clothe the naked
4) Harbor the harborless
5) Visit the sick
6) Ransom the captive
7) Bury the dead

So, there I sat, reflecting for the evening in my office on the first three in particular when the knock came at our door.

At Our Own Door

Suzanne yelled down, “Michael! There’s someone knocking on our front door!”

As I came upstairs, she answered the door. Running through my mind were all of the possibilities, from a family member stopping by to a nefarious hoodlum seeking to do evil.

A small, worried woman stood across the threshold, close to tears. She lives a few doors down, she explained (we knew this). Her 24-year-old daughter had just gotten into her first run-in with the law – a DUI – and was in the city jail.

She had pulled together all of the cash that she could at the late hour that it was, and wasn’t sure where else to go to get cash so late at night.

She only needed 54 more dollars to be able to help bail her daughter out of jail for the night.

Suzanne closed the door and turned to me – what should we do?

My gut told me we needed to try to help. I pulled out my wallet and found just $8 cash. Suzanne opened her wallet and had $46. Together, we had exactly the $54 that our neighbor needed.

It’s Right

After we had given the woman the money and talked for a minute and she had left to work through the situation, we both momentarily questioned whether we had done the right thing.

I’m a person who lives by “the signs” – and the fact that, together, we both had the precise amount of money, and that this whole incident happened while I was reflecting upon the Corporal Works of Mercy, was enough for me.

However, on another level, it’s always right to help another person in need, to put Mercy into action in our world.

Earlier, I was reading a post on First Things titled The Need for Epiphanic Evangelicalism. You should read it, but part that resonated with me was a call for “the epiphany Jesus promises in work that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and visits the sick and imprisoned. Part and parcel with Jesus’ epiphany in these ministries, their very costliness to Christians in time and treasure is a means that credibly signals the Church’s profession of Christ’s Kingdom in a day in which mere Church talk is dismissed by the culture.”

Show Mercy

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, I’m going to try to work harder on stepping up my own “Epiphanies” of the Works of Mercy, and help my family to do the same. Will you join us?

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

-Matthew 25:34-40

A House, A Home


My grandparents’ house – where they made a home, raised my dad, my aunt, and my uncle, and helped to raise our generation.

They took a humble space, worked hard, made a home, and raised a family.

Last week, my dad, aunt, and uncle closed on selling the house to a new person for whom it will become a whole new home. It was a bittersweet day in many ways, for them directly, and indirectly for our whole family…

In this home, my dad and his siblings were raised. In this home, I spent many nights with grandma and grandpa. In this home, I got to drink grape soda, eat caramels and jawbreakers, and have hamburgers & french fries for dinner and pancakes & orange juice for breakfast.

In this home, I played pool in the basement with my uncles, admired my grandpa’s beer can collection and the bar my grandma built with her bare hands, and enjoyed playing their pinball game. In this home, the American flag and Japanese flag both flew proudly.

To this home, I rode my bike the few blocks to relax and “escape” my own house for a bit, every once in a while. In this home, I slept on the couch while grandpa slept in his reading chair, watching me. In this home, I also acted asleep on the hide-a-bed in the back room while my mom and dad talked about the ups and downs of marriage with grandma and grandpa.

In this home, I read the newspaper every day after preschool and kindergarten with my aunt – my earliest memories of reading. In this home, I played with electronics with my uncle. In this home, I picked roses and gave them to grandma. In this home, we gathered as family and enjoyed times together.

Inordinate Attachments

In The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that the purpose of our existence is “to know, to love, and to serve God and so to attain our salvation – eternal happiness.” In the same Exercises, he teaches of our nearly irresistible attraction toward things that continues to pull us away from our creator and toward created things. He encourages us to remember that created things are created for us to be neutral toward, but to remind us of and continue to point us toward God our Creator. We’re to rid our soul of “inordinate attachments” toward created things.

In the first paragraph of the book of The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius writes, “By the term Spiritual Exercises is meant every method of examination of conscience, of meditation… and every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the Will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.” (Emphasis mine).

Letting Go, and Letting God

This is hard at times, especially moments like this when we’re letting go of something that was so central to our childhood and family life. But, at the end of the day, it is a house, a place, a created thing. We don’t love the place for the place, but for how it turns us toward God. And in that sense, this home was a very special place that was a center for our family life and our growing toward God.

In the last few weeks, I was able to help my dad and my uncles (who had invested much time and energy getting the house ready to sell) move the last “things” out of the house. A refrigerator went to my aunt & uncle’s house. My grandpa’s grandfather clock has a new home in my dining room (this is very special to me). My parents have moved the dining room table into their own home. These last things are our last, very special, ties to the moments in and memories from that old home.

We now have new homes, new branches in our family tree. And their old house will serve a new family.

Farewell, 3272 Edgewood Avenue. May you be a good home for a new family, serving them well and helping them grow toward God and each other, as you did for our family.

(Photos from my sister Sara’s phone, from her last visits to the house)