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Brian Harper :
42 article(s)

Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. He has lived in Peru, South Africa, and Italy, and his writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and various other print and online publications. You can find his work at www.brianharper.net.
April 4th, 2015

To the unaccustomed eye, the Christian way of describing the events of Holy Week might seem paradoxical, even backwards. The days Jesus eats his final meal and lies dead in a tomb are described as “Holy.” The day he is violently beaten, stripped and nailed to a cross is deemed “Good.” What?!
While those of us who subscribe to Christianity view Jesus’s willingness to endure these pains and hardships as the very means to our salvation and renewal, his modus operandi is so other… that we must continually wrestle with it and see what we can learn in our own lives.
For me, the personal lesson of the Passion, the takeaway that can pay dividends beyond the way I interact with theology and faith, is that difficult

April 2nd, 2015

As Lent comes to a close, we may be grappling with any number of emotions. Perhaps relief if we are looking forward to partaking in a behavior from which we tried to abstain (or, for that matter, if we undertook a challenge that has been burdensome).
Maybe we are feeling a renewed sense of joy and perspective in our spirituality. Meeting the God of surprises in our prayer lives can mean a faith sea change for Lent and beyond.
If you are like me, however, you might be experiencing a twinge of regret. This feeling is actually not an uncommon one when I reach the end of anything, whether it is a book, a school year or a vacation. An insidious sense of the imperfection surrounding my effort somehow hones in, and all I can think about…

March 31st, 2015

As the official kickoff to Holy Week, Palm Sunday is one of the more important days in the liturgical year. The imagery is striking – Jesus triumphantly enters town on the back of a beast of burden, hailed as a king only days before he suffers a brutal and, frankly, humiliating death.
Scrooge that I am, I was not really looking forward to mass Sunday morning. Of course I appreciate Palm Sunday’s significance. The passion narrative documents an emotional and spiritual roller coaster that, beyond its resonance for the Catholic faith, is a dramatic masterpiece. Having heard it all before, though, the Gospel readings displaying Jesus’s passion and death can seem so…loooooooooong.
I embarrassed to admit…

March 28th, 2015

Christians, or at least the ones I know, do not much like to think or talk about Hell. How could a loving God send anyone, no matter how egregious their sins? It is a theological question probably as old as theology itself.
The list of people whose residency in Hell we are most inclined to consider is brief. Hitler. Stalin. And, of course, Judas.
If anyone is worthy of eternal damnation, surely it is the person who enabled Jesus’s crucifixion, particularly given the fact that person was one of his followers, a trusted member of his inner circle.
As uncomfortable as the subject matter may be, I am reading a fascinating book that addresses it head on: Fr. James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadway.
The book documents Martin’s…

March 26th, 2015

I have long been fascinated by the idea of conversion and have written about it before. What moves me is not so much an observable shift, whereby someone changes their religion or worldview. Rather, it is the idea that people are capable of radical transformation that gets at the core of our being.
Many of us  often feel trapped by the darker corners of our human nature. Like Paul says in Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In light of this, believing we have the capacity to grow and be made new is inspiring.
This week marks the 35th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom in El Salvador. Romero was shot to death while celebrating…

March 25th, 2015

One of my favorite Gospel passages involves Jesus’s reaction to a woman caught in adultery. Taken from John 8 and one of the readings in Monday’s mass, the story includes many aspects of what made Jesus’s ministry so compelling and singular.
He shows compassion for someone insufficiently respected in their day and age; in this case, a woman in First Century Palestine.
He points out the hypocrisy of those who seek to undermine him, telling the scribes and Pharisees who would stone the woman, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Jesus also manages to cleverly dodge a trap set before him. As a helpful Web site GotQuestions.org points out, “If…

March 21st, 2015

When we think of the saints, our minds usually turn to cloistered nuns, pious priests and other individuals who seemed to walk a straight path to God, having zero fun along the way.
Too bad.
A number of contemporary writers, such as Robert Ellsberg in his fantastic book “All Saints,” have gone to considerable lengths to show the incredible diversity, difficulty and painstaking processes that went into each saint’s determining the road God was calling them to follow. In other words, Ellsberg and his contemporaries have tried to humanize them.
As an example, take a glance at the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The young Italian died when he was 24 after contracting polio, but he spent his…

March 18th, 2015

Someone recently told me a joke involving a burglar pointing a gun at a man and demanding his money. When the man turns, the robber realizes he is a priest and apologizes. The priest promptly forgives the culprit and, in a remarkable display of magnanimity, offers him a cigar.
“No thank you, Father,” the robber replies. “I gave up smoking for Lent.”
As odd as it may seem, I think there is a lesson we can take from this joke. It can be a tempting and easy but subtle trap to become too accustomed, too comfortable, in our faith lives. During mass, we remember to cross ourselves, raise our arms and kneel at the right moments. We dutifully pray before meals throughout the year, light candles during Advent and give something…

March 16th, 2015

In one of the more memorable scenes in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” Ricky (Will Ferrell), his family and best friend (John C. Reilly) discuss their favorite versions of Jesus, which include Baby Jesus, Ninja Jesus and Jesus as frontman for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
As laughable as the sequence is, most of us can name our own Favorite Jesus, looking to moments in his life that most resonate with us. For some, his response to the woman caught in adultery is particularly moving. For others, Jesus as storyteller or sharer of parables comes to mind. There are surely some who would even point to his passion and death given the way it encapsulates his identifying with our weaknesses and humanity.
I would…

March 16th, 2015

One could argue about the true purpose of prayer – communion with God, bearing others in mind, repositioning our perspectives in the midst of hectic lives.
We all probably have different goals when we set aside time to pray, but finding comfort should surely make the short list of prayer’s benefits. I am not talking about the comfort of complacency or seeking a false sense of ease. Rather, I mean the peace that comes with knowing we are loved.
It is funny, then, that I so often find prayer to be stressful. I get anxious by a nagging, plaguing doubt that somehow, I am not doing it right.
Some days, I worry that my prayer is not sufficiently directed toward the people in my life, so I run through a laundry list of family,…

March 12th, 2015

Monday was Day 20 of Lent. The halfway mark presents an opportune moment to reflect on how everything has gone so far and make changes where needed. How have we maintained our Lenten promises? How have we fallen short? What has been easy? Challenging? What has surprised us at mass or in prayer? Where have we recalled God’s presence? When have we had a hard time seeing the Spirit’s hand in our lives?
If I am being honest with myself, my commitment to my Lenten practice – to pray the Ignatian Examen each day – has been lukewarm at best. Yes, I have done some variation of a review most days, and yes, I have experienced unanticipated fruits in prayer and life in general.
For some reason, something still…

March 9th, 2015

How do you make an old, immediately familiar story fresh and illuminating? The priest at the Sunday vigil I attended this weekend managed to do so with the Ten Commandments.
After acknowledging the way most of us think of the Ten Commandments — either as a list of rules we had to learn when preparing for our first reconciliation or as cinematic splendor in a Charlton Heston movie — he commented that the Greek word for the commandments, decalogue, was really meant to convey short, pithy information about God’s will.
Keeping with that brevity, he proceeded to name the one word at the heart of each of the ten. “I am the Lord your God…” is about priority. Honoring one’s mother…

March 7th, 2015

Tom Hanks once said about his craft, “Everybody here who creates comes across moments where it is just so naturally easy. You don’t even think about it. It just rolls out of your fingers or rolls out of your mouth…and it’s so clean and so pure and so free of artifice that you can almost recreate it any time you want to. But then come those moments where a clunk is on the page or a moment is, a motivation is…you can’t conceive it in your own head, and it confounds you ‘til the day you die.”
This vacillation between effortlessness and struggle is common to everyone from athletes to construction workers. There are days when it ticks and days when it doesn’t.
Anyone engaged in a life of prayer surely…

March 6th, 2015

Several weeks ago, I read an article documenting legendary football coach Vince Lombardi’s decision to begin the 1961 NFL season by covering the most fundamental skills with his Green Bay Packers.
“This pattern of focusing on the basics has been a hallmark of many successful coaches,” wrote James Clear, the article’s author. “For example, basketball legends John Wooden and Phil Jackson were known for having a similar obsession with the fundamentals. Wooden even went so far as to teach his players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.”
I like this idea of occasionally returning to what is elemental in our work or lives, making sure we are still in touch with the foundations of who we are and what…

March 4th, 2015

I am endlessly pleased Peter plays such a fundamental role in the Christian narrative. A perfect example of both deep faith and imperfect, bumbling humanity, he is someone with whom I can identify.
Sunday’s Gospel reading, which focused on Jesus’s Transfiguration, is an unmistakable turning point in Christ’s story, a chapter for which Jesus chose Peter to be present. It is, in a sense, the arc of the Gospels, where the glory of Christ’s healings and teachings give way to the fear and agony that will accompany his passion, death and resurrection. As he descends the mountain where he transformed to a bright white and conversed with Elijah and Moses, he mentions “the Son of Man [being] raised from the…

December 29th, 2014

It is a story we have heard many times before. Someone is brutally killed and paradoxically lives on as a symbol of hope. It is the story of peacekeepers, martyrs, leaders of heroic courage, and even ordinary citizens who dare to make their lives about sharing truth and seeking justice. It is the story of James Foley.
I never personally knew Foley. Like him, I attended Marquette University and studied journalism, his eventual profession. And like people the world over, I was shocked to learn he was murdered at the hands of Islamic State militants after nearly two years in captivity.
Foley, who worked with Teach For America and obtained an MFA in creative writing before studying journalism at Northwestern University,…

December 3rd, 2014
How are we called to prepare the way of the Lord in this day and age?

Catholicism is a faith that embraces both rituals and a “God of surprises” — an institution which, though intricate in structure, strives to be open to the unexpected movements of the Holy Spirit.
One could argue that our entire lives are similarly dichotomous — a dance between routine and preparation, and spontaneity and all that comes without warning. Advent is especially so.
Mark’s Gospel and the Second Sunday of Advent begin with Isaiah’s description of John the Baptist as “my messenger … who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Preparing the way of the Lord requires an understanding…

August 27th, 2014

When I recently learned from a Huffington Post headline that Mary’s Gourmet Diner, a North Carolina restaurant, offers customers a 15 percent discount for praying before meals, my reaction was a tough-to-contain internal eye roll. From my perspective, public displays of religion tend toward showy obnoxiousness, usually having more to do with glorifying one’s own sense of goodness and piety than with glorifying God.
Doubling down on my judgment, I considered that praying for financial gain sort of flies in the face of Jesus’ “you cannot serve both God and money” warning.
And what about Matthew 6:5-6?
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues…

July 30th, 2014

Anyone audacious enough to claim a Christian response to the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrant children at the United States’ southern border should, at the very least, do several things.
First, they should acknowledge they do not and cannot possibly speak for all Christians. They should also admit to what is most likely a grossly incomplete grasp of the myriad political, social and cultural contexts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central American countries from which many immigrants are coming. Finally, they should concede what is probably a very limited understanding of U.S. immigration policy.
With all that in mind, I will say that as someone who aspires to Christianity, I have…

July 21st, 2014

A few years ago, I moved to Peru to work as a teacher with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Each year, the school where I taught picked a tema trasversal, or transversal theme, toward which the entire academic community would strive.
I like the idea of naming a broad idea that encapsulates a particular season of life. When I consider my own tema trasversal for the year and a half I spent in Peru, I consistently arrive at “presence.” It arose almost every day during my time with JVC, rearing its head in everything from the books I read to the retreats I attended and the community activities in which I participated.
Why presence was so important is probably not mysterious. Service programs take all kinds, but volunteers…

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