Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Better Part

In Luke's gospel, there is a scene of Jesus visiting two sisters--Martha and Mary. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and is running around making preparations and getting anxious. Her sister Mary, meanwhile, plops down at Jesus' feet to be with him. Martha gets upset and tries to get Jesus to take her side to get her sister to help her with the preparing. But instead he sides with Mary, saying that by sitting and being present, forgoing all activity, she has chosen 'the better part.' (10:38-42)

We know people like Martha and Mary, yes?  One is a do-er; one is a be-er.  Personally, I've got a little Martha in me, and a little Mary. Since we were hosting Christmas Eve dinner for both of our families and friends, and I do 95% of the cooking in our marriage, the marathon job of getting food prepped and served fell to me, along with a hundred other little details. Every now and then I catch my wife in a Mary moment just kind of 'being' and my inner Martha rages. 

And yet, getting anxious over details, as necessary as they might seem to be, does not actually please the Lord. Being present does. Which is how I actually prefer to worship and serve, when I have the choice and am not forced into being 'busy and anxious about many things.'

In the end, the busy details of life are temporal. At the end of the night, nobody really cares whether you used red or white candles, or how many forks were put out at each place setting. Time eats those  things and digests them into the past. 

What people remember is the timeless--the feeling of belonging, or being welcomed and listened to, of knowing they are loved and not a burden or a nuisance. The eternal things--being present before Presence; prayer that doesn't seek to accomplish or check things of a list but rather simply rests in the arms of Love; letting things go that upset our spiritual equilibrium. 

As we await the birth of the child savior, let's not forget to lay aside our activities and cares and "fall on our knees" as in the Christmas hymn, and simple marvel in awe at the God of the Universe humbling himself by taking on flesh in the guise of a little baby. This was a once-in-history event that lives on in eternity, since God came to save not only those who lived in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, but extended his hand through the blanket of time and space to save US here in the present day, our children, and our children's children, from sin and death. 

It is too much for the mind to behold in the temporal; such knowledge is too wonderful for me(Ps 139:6). So, it must reside in the eternal, in timelessness. After 18 hours of being in Martha mode today, I'm ready to simply sit at the feet of the baby Lord, and rest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Observations From The Confessional Line

I don't know how he did it, but our pastor managed to pull in 24 priests and an auxiliary bishop from the Archdiocese to hear confessions for our parish penance service tonight. He had been making the announcement the past few Sundays during Advent, encouraging people to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and jokingly assuring them that the "lines will be short" since there were so many priests available to hear confessions. When Deb and I pulled up separately, the parking lot was already packed. I waited in her car with the kids while she went in, and then we switched off and she headed home.

When I entered the candlelit sanctuary, there were stations spread in all corners of the church with two chairs: one for the priest, wearing his purple stole, and one for the penitent. It was encouraging to see the church packed with so many people, young and old and people my age, waiting in line to confess their sins.

I was asked to volunteer to manage the lines inside the church, since there were so many people. My job was simple: make sure people don't get too close within earshot, and move the line along. But it was a good opportunity to stand for an hour and a half and witness God's grace at work in this very particularly Catholic practice of confessing one's sins to a priest. Here's what I observed during that time:

-It Is All Jesus

When people were lining up, a few here and there wanted to go to a particular priest, but for most it didn't matter because of the unique recognition that the priest who hears confessions is acting in persona Christi ("in the person of Christ"), so that the penitent is not confessing to Fr. So-and-so, but to God himself in the person of Christ. This is hard to understand without faith,  and is of course a particular Catholic theological understanding of the nature of "binding and loosing," but suffice it to say God alone forgives sins, but can and does do so through the priest holding the legitimate apostolic power to do so. There is not a 'cult of personality' in the Church, since it is not about the pastor or the preaching, but about the actual sacramental embodiment of Christ truly present--in the celebration of the Eucharist, in the reading of the the Word, in Holy Orders and Matrimony, and in the confessional as well.

-There Is An Air of Latent Joy

People had an air of expectation and eagerness waiting in line. They wanted to be there. They wanted to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. It wasn't awkward or morose: God was inviting his children to come to Him, to be made new again, to have their garments made white as snow. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, I have never in twenty years encountered a priest in the confessional who berated me, or was perverted, or laid heavy guilt trips or burdens down. Mostly tonight, there was such a joyful sense of relief in the air of being restored the God's friendship, and a gratefulness for having the opportunity and invitation to do so.

-Formulaic Is Not Necessarily Bad

Because of the volume of people that particular night, and also in general that priests may have been hearing confessions and assigning penances for twenty, thirsty, forty, sixty years, there is always that tendency to get formulaic. But the power of God's forgiveness does not lie in the dynamism of the priest, but the nature of the sacrament "ex opere operato" ("by the work worked"). The confessional is not a therapy session, and priests do not always have the opportunity or desire (though some do) to spend inordinate amounts of time getting to the root of things (that is a process more reserved for spiritual direction). No matter how many times one goes, no matter how many different sins one commits, in the sacrament of penance one will always here the same words, "Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

-Confession Is Both a Private and Public Affair

The evening began with a public service, and ended with individual confessions. Sin is never isolated; it effects our relationships vertically (with God) and horizontally (with our neighbors). The purpose of penance is to reconcile and make amends for those wrongs committed. We are One corporal Body, the Church, though many members, and what one member does affects the rest of the Body.

-The Authority to Bind, To Loose

I am so grateful for our priests, for Christ Himself has given them the authority to forgive sins, the power to bind and loose (Jn 20:21-23). Catholics distinguish between venial and mortal sins, for all wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin which is not deadly (1 John 5:16-18), and recognize that grave (mortal) sins require the power of the sacrament of Reconciliation to be restored to God's friendship, and that unrepentant mortal sins put one in danger of enteral damnation.

-Confess With The Tongue

Though Jesus can absolutely forgive outside the confessional, there is something deeply human about confessing our sins out loud to someone else. It is like when you write something down or make a list, it is no longer an abstraction. I always try to make my confessions more detailed than vague, for my own benefit, since there is always some shame in seeing our faults for what they are--failures to love--and naming them. And after shame comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness, healing.

-The Seal

Catholic priests have an absolute duty--under pain of excommunication--to never reveal anything anyone ever confesses, for any circumstance, to any person, ever. Priests in the past have rather died than betrayed that vow when forced to do so by authorities. It is a duty, yes, but admiral in my mind nonetheless, to live by such non-negotiable principals to safeguard something as serious as the trust between a penitent and his confessor.

-Priests Are Truly Servants

St. John Vianney (1786-1859) would hear confessions 13-17 hours a day some days. Our own priests are not in it for the power and the glory, but they are truly servants (Mt 20:26). What they offer is a free gift of themselves, of God's grace (also free)--there is no charge to go to Mass, no charge for confessions, for funerals or baptisms, no one is forced to put in the collection basket, they often go above and beyond to serve the needs of their congregations. So indispensable are priests to our Catholic faith, and so often taken for granted, that I literally could not imagine my faith without them. To witness so many priests together tonight, serving the flock, doing God's work, so many coming back home to God...Satan truly hates it.

-Young and Old

I loved seeing some of my 5th graders sitting down with the priest to confess their sins, followed by an 80 year old woman, followed by a young father in his thirties. Confession isn't just for old church ladies--we are ALL in need of God's grace and forgiveness to live our lives effectively in the Spirit.

-Start Anew during Advent

Advent is a time of expectation, of awaiting the birth of the Messiah, and preparing our hearts for His coming. Is there any better way to a lay a foundation for His birth than preparing our hearts, "clearing the stable" to make room for him?

As I left the Church that night, after making my own confession after everyone else had gone before, I was so grateful...grateful for our God, who sent His only Son into the world to save us from our sins; grateful to our priests, who serve the Lord by serving His people; grateful for having an active, faithful, orthodox parish to go to; and grateful to be alive, forgiven, and washed clean in the blood of the lamb. God is so good, and it is true that there is more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous in no need of repentance (Lk 15:7). Much to rejoice about.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Day Set Apart

As my wife can attest, I'm not a 'sit down and do nothing' type (we are very different in that respect, ha!). I like to work, and like to keep busy with projects. Sundays used to be my 'overflow' day; anything I didn't get done during the week or on Saturday would spill into Sunday and I would use it to play catch-up. Without a break in the week, though, it was like Groundhog Day--every day the same as the one before, like being on a treadmill.

Recently I've been trying to be more intentional about the 2nd Commandment, that calls us to keep the Sabbath day holy and reserved for worship and rest. That may mean doing more on Saturday and letting things that don't get done go on Sunday. It also means forcing myself to rest and 'set aside' the day for the Lord. After all, God Himself created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen 2:2). He expects us to rest as well.

On the flip side of working and 'doing' all the time seven days a week is continuous rest. I tried my hand at a trial 'early retirement' a few years ago when I quit my job and took a month or so before looking for another one. I got up whenever I felt like it, worked on my novel a little bit, walked to the bakery on Germantown Avenue for coffee and donuts, read, napped, volunteered a little. But it was too much rest and not enough work. The balance was off. I didn't appreciate rest because I wasn't working enough to do so.

And so, once again, God's plan for balance in our lives is right, his ways is perfect, and the word of the Lord proves true. (2 Sam 22:31) Work six days. Rest and worship on the Sabbath. Repeat.

I have to force myself to 'do nothing' on Sundays a lot of times, and resist the temptation to do projects and overwork, using the holy day simply as an add on extension of the week. We go to Mass to worship communally, spend time together, as a family, read a little, and just have white space. And the funny thing is, when Monday comes around, I'm ready to go again. I feel recharged and rejuvenated.

This is the way God intended us to live, by his design. Worship is what we were created for, it is the right orientation of our souls. Leisure is a gift from God, and so is work, but each belong in their respective spheres and ratios.

If you haven't set Sundays apart as a day of rest, try it. It takes a little getting used to at first, the reorientation of your week...but it may just change your life!

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Golden Triangle of Freedom

There is a house down the street from us with a homemade plywood sign mounted in the front yard. It reads:


Whenever I drive down that windy road and pass the ramshackle house, the sign has given me pause. Is this a local Concord Township tea-party PSA? Just what does 'Freedom' mean anyway? And why is the idea of liberty so important to a person that would motivate them to erect a semi-permanent fixture in their front yard reminding people like me about it every time they drive by?

I don't know anything about the owner of the house. I am also relatively ignorant about our country's founding, our system of government, and our roots as a nation. I mostly write about faith and theology because it's where I live, what I know. Concepts like 'freedom,' 'responsibility,' and 'liberty' are lofty terms with a transcendent quality; they can jump the fence and play with the theological, but they also posses a unique conjuring that is rooted and lives in American political theory.

Poli-sci is not my schtick. I vote, but that's about about as involved as I get in exercising my citizenship. That being said, I am in a ripe position to learn more about things I have for the most part just taken for granted as Joe American--an American in name only.  Which is why I am finding Eric Metaxas' If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty such an enlightening read.

As a catechist, I see first hand the consequences of failing to hand on the faith--a faith that has been passed down and transmitted from generation to generation since the time of Jesus. Catholics who identify as such, but can't name any of the Apostles, don't believe in the True Presence in the Eucharist, and are ignorant of the moral precepts of the Church, not to mention the actual daily practice of prayer and immersion in scripture. What you don't preserve, you risk losing. And so there is a real threat there with eternal consequences (eternal damnation) when we fail to take seriously our responsibility to pass the faith down to our children.

What I like about the way Metaxas approaches the topic is that he does not divorce the "experiment in liberty" of the Founding Fathers from its roots in the lofty ideal of religious virtue; what strikes me in fact is that the very existence of the Republic, a nation like no other, so precariously depends on it. "Our Constitution," as John Adams wrote, "was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, traveled to America in 1831 on behalf of the French government to examine the penal system and report back on what he learned. Tocqueville marveled at the flourishing American democracy at that time, recognizing that the uniqueness of such a system depended on a liberty "which cannot be established without morality, nor without faith."

Metaxas cites Benjamin Franklin who said, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom" and describes a concept referred to as the "Golden Triangle of Freedom" which is a basic but profound kind of 'closed-loop' on which freedom depends. It goes like this:

Freedom requires virtue;
Virtue requires faith;
Faith requires freedom.

These are lofty concepts, but then again our country was founded on lofty ideals, an "experiment in liberty" that was completely unique--of all men created equal, the unalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the concept of self-governance. 

* * *

I think what struck me throughout this election cycle was just how far we have drifted from being a nation rooted in virtue. And if the Republic depends on virtue to maintain its very existence, what does that mean for the future of our country? 

My vague but driving motivation during this cycle was the issue of religious freedom. While it was important to me on a personal level, I felt it went deeper than just my own personal self-interest, though I couldn't put my finger on why it was important. It wasn't til reading Metaxas' analysis of the importance of religious liberty in maintaining the unique identity and existence of the Republic that I realized that it wasn't some ancillary topic isolated and pursued for its own sake, at odds with the so-called "separation of church-and-state"  so often argued today, nor was it simply the mis-quoted "freedom of worship"  by political leaders wishing to relegate religious expression to an hour a week within the confines of a church, safely out of the public square. 

No, religious expression is tatamount to our very identity as a nation. Virtue depends on it, and on virtue depends our freedom.  "As nations become more corrupt and vicious," Benjamin Franklin noted, "they have more need of masters."  I think I understand a little better the push-back from ordinary, everyday Americans that felt that something "just ain't right," even if it is just a vague sense that our freedom as citizens were under siege, the Federal Government was overstepping its bounds, and that the idea of self-governance was being undermined as a result. 

What is often forgotten, though, is that responsibility is an integral part of the plywood liberty-formula. Self-governance doesn't just happen; we don't just 'do our duty' as citizens at the voting booth and leave the rest to our elected officials. No, the cultivation of virtue is central to our identity as American citizens, and we have an civic obligation to engage in such practice. Not only that, but it must be passed down through generations, and the conduit for such a transmission is none other than the family itself. Healthy societies depend on healthy families, healthy families are formed in the cultivation of virtue, and virtue finds its roots in religious expression. Threats to the family are threats to the potential for self-governance itself, and so liberty is in fact not restricted only to the political, but extends to the realm of faith and religious practice, which help to form strong healthy families. 

Or, as Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) said in I Heart Huckabees, "It's all connected."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

I Will Go To You

We have two happy and healthy kids, David and Monica. People have occasionally asked us if we are "done" to which we would often reply "I would lose my mind if we had another," or, "yeah, we're not trying." After all, Deb will be 42 next month, and it feels like we have our hands full.

The implications of having or not having children is personal and feels high-stakes, and it's only natural to want to take the wheel. It is hard to trust God with one's fertility. We shared this sentiment early in our marriage; our kids for the most part were planned, we didn't have any problems getting pregnant, and they were born healthy. 

We became convicted of the Church's teaching on the Theology of the Body later in our married life together, and began to move away from artificial contraception to the practice of Natural Family Planning as a way of delaying pregnancy. Though we were conservative in practice, it was a complete paradigm shift of (the illusion of) control, a new way of looking at life not as burden or inconvenience, but as gift and blessing. Though not looking to expand our family, loosening the white-knuckle grip on our fertility came with its own graces--our consciences were at rest, our relations were more intimate, and not closing the door completely on the possibility of conception breathed a new kind of dynamic and life into our relationship that seemed fruitful and healthy.

We had found a miraculous medal (read about the story here) shortly before Deb's mom died in September, and started wearing it around our necks, not really thinking about the graces promised to those who wear it. We began to grow closer to God in trust. Deb loved her mom so much. We began to pray the rosary together every night and read scripture. 

Some unexplainable things started happening too. The evening after we returned home from the funeral, Deb and I were sitting in the living room talking to friends who had come over to visit. At the top of the stairs Deb saw a flash of white and a child running across the upstairs hallway, which she took to be Monica (so much so that she called out 'Monica!'). But when she went to the top of the stairs, Monica was in her room playing. A few weeks later, as Deb was leaving the chapel at St. Ann's where she was praying, she heard a voice in her head say, "you will name her Catherine."

Not long after that, we found out we were pregnant. 

We couldn't believe it. We always knew it was a possibility, but looking at the test we kept saying to each other "I. Can't. Even." Not expected, not planned. As the weeks went on and we adjusted to the idea of our family expanding, though, we started to get more excited, looking forward to welcoming a new life into our home. God was working on our hearts. I went out and bought some cloth diapers and a Bjorn (which we had used before but sold when we got rid of all our baby stuff), just figuring this pregnancy would be like the other two.

It wasn't though. Our baby made it to about twelve weeks in the womb and then went home to be with the Lord. 

There are a hundred little deaths that come with this event, including the death of the life you imagined for yourself (which is, ironically, the life that we never imagined prior to getting pregnant). You build a future world for yourself and make plans, go minivan shopping, etc. maybe foolishly so early on, but it is hard to contain. Then all of a sudden, it is no more. 

We do not understand, but trust in God's ways which are so much higher above our ways (Is 55:9). If I can glean anything from this experience, though, it is that opening yourself up to God's plan for your life, rather than your own, opens up a world of possibility--which does not preclude suffering and pain. But there is no doubt in my mind that it is a thousand times better than the alternative of nudging Him out and living for ourselves alone, trusting in our own limited designs and ideas for our lives. He does not waste opportunities. His way is perfect (Ps 18:30). 

It has been a hard year, but God is so so good. Thank you for those who have prayed for us. We know that an immortal soul was formed, and that God can bring good out of all things, for "though He slay me, I will trust in Him still" (Job 13:15). As tomorrow is St. Catherine Laboure's feast day, we pray our little Catherine Rose is with the saints in Heaven as we share in King David's words, "I will go to the child one day, but the child will not return to me" (2 Sam 12:23). 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Stranger

A man came in our office seeking help with logging into his email. He was elderly, rolling a suitcase behind him, and smelled homeless. The was overpowering and noxious, it seeped into your clothes. His presence was an awkward inconvenience at an inopportune time. I wanted to ignore him, but he insisted on waiting for someone, as his ride wasn't coming to pick him up for a couple hours. I remembered the words of Jesus to offer water to the thirsty, so I offered him a bottle of water, but it was more out of guilt and concession. He didn't want water.

I think he really just wanted to be seen and heard. And I refused to see or hear him. When we think we are some righteous people in our personal theoretical universe, we really need to check ourselves in the nitty gritty smelly business of everyday life. Because if you can't prove it there, the rest doesn't really matter.

I've proved myself in my heart as a Pharisee of Pharisees. If you're anything like me, you want to go home justified at the end of the day, be assured that you did your Christian duty, whatever that was. Maybe it's dropping off a can of green beans in the food collection box, or a dollar to a homeless person. But sometimes Jesus visits in ways that cut us to the heart and expose us for who we really are--impatient, judgemental, proud, self-congratulatory, disgusted. And you don't go justified. You go home uneasy and convicted.

Jesus comes in the distressing guise of the poor, in the words of Mother Teresa. How often do we turn him away in our hearts and in person? It's easy to share an inspirational meme on social media. It is uncomfortable and challenging to sit with the actual, flesh and blood poor. We are called as Christians not to tolerate or endure the poor, but to wash their feet, strip off their rags and cloth them in the finest raiment, for they are Jesus, our Lord. Not in a theoretical, theologically lofty way. In a very stinky, very inconvenient, very embarrassing, very REAL way.

Make no mistake. Jesus visited me today. I turned my back on him, no time for you, not unlike the rich man who ignored Lazarus. I didn't want to soil my hands giving him the time of day. It was a heart issue. It may not have taken much for me to see and hear him, but the sin is damnable, to read about beatitudes than to live them, to study works of mercy than to practice them. We have both Pharisee and Publican within us. And we know which one went home justified...the one who beat his breast, lowered his eyes, all he could say being, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Quantum Leap

In the good old school days of physics, waves were waves, and particles were particles. Classical physics was deterministic in nature--given the exact positions and velocities of all particles at a given time, one could calculate the future (and past) positions and velocities of all particles at any other times. It operated based on certain assumptions about reality...assumptions that would prove to be off base when classical physics began to be applied to the atomic level in the late 1800's. Models of atomic vibrations were supposed to look a certain way based on classical theory, but weren't, and no one knew why. When Max Planck discovered that a multiplier of a base frequency (h) could be applied to atomic vibrations in whole number multiples (but not fractional, as was previously thought), it opened the door to what would later be known as quantum theory.

Unlike classical physics, quantum physics is not deterministic, but probabilistic.  It accepts a certain amount of uncertainty. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal pointed out the shortcomings of classical determinism at the sub-atomic level. You can measure an electron's position, but in doing so you destroy the possibility of measuring its momentum, and vice-versa. You have to accept that the combination of position and momentum is uncertain and cannot be measured simultaneously. This 'quantum indeterminacy' (QI) is the necessary incompleteness in the description of a physical system.

The quantum understanding of light, then, accepts a contradictory proposition--that light is both a particle (which has mass) and a wave (which has none).  How can light be both a wave and a particle? The American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman called it "the only real mystery" in science.

What does this mumbo-jumbo have to do with anything, you might ask? The funny thing is, it has to do with EVERYTHING. The implications bleed out into disciplines outside the realm of physics--epistemology, philosophy, theology--challenging the brash and simplistic assumptions we hold about the nature of objective reality and material existence. As Feynman stated with regards to the proposition of light as both a particle and a wave, "While we can tell how it works, we cannot make the mystery go away by 'explaining' how it works."

I think this kind of scientific humility of making room for mystery, of codifying a principal of uncertainty and, to a degree, paradox, finds itself at home in biblical theology. 2,000 years ago believers were interpreting the natural world in light of Revelation. They had no means to study the sub-atomic, but viewing the natural world through the eyes of faith was like wearing a kind of 'quantum glasses.' That which existed beyond the material realm of existence, could be both simultaneously known (in the light of Revelation) and had to be accepted as mystery. It was quantum by nature. Jesus affirmed the place of paradox--a kind of spiritual 'quantum indeterminancy' in Christian belief--weaving it through stories and parables, and manifesting itself most clearly in the mystery of the Incarnation.

The metaphysical reality of an eternal God taking on flesh, crashing through time and space to live among us as a man at a finite point in history, makes room for that which cannot be rationally reconciled. Classical Judaic determinism of adherence to the law as the predictable trajectory of salvation was disrupted by Christ crucified, a "stumbling block to the Jews" (1 Cor 1:23), as the means of salvation for those who believed.

God's own trinitarian nature in a communion of persons, as well, challenges even classical notions of monotheism at the time.  The hashing out of the nature of the Godhead in ecumenical councils (and among heresies) in the early Church was not unlike the the crisis in the world of 18th century physics.  Just how do you explain a mystery? How do you affirm it, codify it? There must be a place for it, a kind of epistemological constant in the life of faith. And yet, in doing so by creed, in attempting to nail down mystery, does one encounter the quantum problem of measuring position and momentum simultaneously?

Nature, Reality, Existence, cannot be simply explained away by scientific method, or reason alone, or atheistic humanism. We are in an age in which such a haughty and overly-confident secular determinism that makes no room for faith is presumed, but leaves in its wake holes and questions yet to be answered. Those who seek truth, those to whom happiness, joy, and fulfillment in this life proves to be frustratingly elusive under the classical secular paradigm, those who see holes in the fabric of reality and encounter paradox in their day to day, who wonder why they are here and what they have to live for, who hear the sound of the wind and know not where it comes from or where it goes (Jn 3:8) and is to these that recognize that the world's theory of existence is incomplete, lacking; that expectations of fulfillment do not manifest according to the prescribed deterministic formula. It is only in the quantum leap to faith that one enters into a new reality beyond the material, beyond the immediate, beyond the sub-atomic, beyond time and space...a new creation, born again.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Family Dinner

I have a pretty diverse Facebook feed. I may be reading a complaint about people taking Communion in the hand at one point, followed by someone sharing an Occupy Democrats meme, followed by an event invite for a Consciousness Awakening party in Taos next week, followed by a video of cats being scared by cucumbers.

Not living in a bubble and being immersed in such diversity, however, has its downsides. It often makes it feel like I have no real ground to stand on. It feels good to belong to something, to be around people of like-mind, to have an identity. I've never been good at that, though. I often wonder, should I throw myself behind a party-line? Should I unfriend people who are a scandal to my beliefs? Should I be a quiet observer? An outspoken polemicist? A rational devil's advocate? Such diversity. Such tension.

I think it's interesting, then, that this kind of contentious religious-political environment we find ourselves in is not historically unique. There was no truly rosy 'early Church' in which people were all of one mind in all things, getting along all the time, despite Luke's account in Acts. Jewish society in days of the early church was not unified, anymore than we are unified. Four distinct religious-political factions (as described by the historian Josephus) for example, were the Zealots, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.

-Zealots believed in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. They would not tolerate pagan idols and practices in their land. God would bring about the Kingdom with their help.

-Essenes believed in withdrawing from the corrupt Temple system and the Empire. They would live holy lives in an alternative world until God brought about the Kingdom without their help.

-Pharisees believed in radical personal holiness. They believed in internalizing their religious law, and that God would give punishment and reward in the afterlife.

-Sadducees believed in the establishment. They made peace with Rome and focused on religious ritual. They believed divine punishment and reward happen in this life.

I think to my own religious tradition of Catholicism today, we have, respectively:

 -Liberation theology and by extension the (pejorative) 'SJW' Catholics; 
-Monastic and lay "Benedict-option" Catholics circling the wagons;
-Rad-trad Latin Mass Catholics committed to liturgical and doctrinal purity;
 -Cultural Catholics, content with the status quo and minimizing disruption.

And everything in between. Yet we are all Catholics. I'm sure Protestants have their own respective factions, as do Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc.  This is not kumbaya hand-holding. This is family, warts, fists, and all.

In Jn 4:22, Jesus reminds the Samaritan woman at the well that "salvation is from the Jews," while at the same time foretelling that a time was coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, apart from geographic or ethnic locale; "for such people the Father seeks to be his worshippers." Likewise when Jesus is before Pilate, he reaffirms his kingship, that he has come into the world to testify to the truth, for "everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." (Jn 18:37).

Pilate can only ask, like the post-modern world, "what is truth?" I don't believe in syncretism, the amalgamation of beliefs into a unified system, that all beliefs are equal. I believe Christ is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," as he himself attests, and that no one comes to the Father but though Him. (Jn 14:6). Why would I believe in something I did not believe was true? Likewise I believe in the authority of the apostles and their successors, and that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church in all Truth. But apart from that, there is great diversity within our church. There is no one 'right way' to go about worship, the application of faith, service, structural change, the realization of the Kingdom, prayer, stewardship, etc. There is one body but many parts.

In trying to imitate Jesus in my own life, I also realize that part in parcel of that is that "foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Jesus was, in many ways, an outsider. He belonged to no political party, no faction that tried to claim him as their own. He was at the same time a reformer (Mk 2:23) and an adherent to tradition (Mt 5:18). He could trace his lineage in the human family as a man, yet he was also present before history began outside of time and space. He affirmed the need for bread (Mt 14:13-21) while recognizing that one does not live on bread alone (Mt 4:4). He was a king, but not of this world.  I am a far cry from being like Jesus, but in many ways throughout the course of that imitation I have felt an affinity for his lack of belonging, his loneliness, his moving among many different people but having even his friends fall asleep during his hour of need in Gethsemane.

I will say there is one place where I think a true sense of unity can be accomplished, albeit briefly, and that is sitting down to share a meal together. Breaking bread and eating with people of different races, cultures, religions, and backgrounds, is a way to affirm our shared humanity while not undermining what makes us different. We all have to eat, we all have to live on the same earth...why not take an opportunity to do it together every now and then? There is a place for the sacramental sharing of the Eucharistic bread reserved for believers within their own community. But there is also a place for sitting down with those outside our community--Republicans with Democrats, Muslims with Christians, blacks with whites--and sharing a meal and conversation.  We have a big dining room table in our house. It is big enough for many people. In fact, just last week I wanted to have friends over for dinner. I asked friend after friend, but everyone already had plans.  I was tempted to put it out on Facebook to see if any 'friends', random or otherwise, would want to come over to share a meal and some fellowship, a la Mt 22:9. I opted not to in the end this time, but hope maybe sometime in the future to have the opportunity again.

As we get ready to elect our new President and government officials on Tuesday, it is a good reminder that we are One Nation, UNDER God; that we are ultimately pilgrims in this land; and to recognize the eschatological tension of a kingdom "already, but not yet" here. Yet I hope that after the contentions and political ideology--whether on lawn signs, social media, or in person--takes a break from it's full tilt ad nasueum, we will be able to at some point in the future sit down and share a meal together as a (human) family.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Super Star Car Wash

The other week I cleaned out my car. It was starting to look like a garbage dump on the inside. I blame my kids: toys, daycare papers, clothes, socks, shoes, lollipops, books, jackets, apple cores, you name it. It gets to the point sometimes when you are just so far gone that to clean up just seems futile--why bother when its just going to get dirty again? It's too much.

Nevertheless, I did devote a morning to tackle the mess and attempt to "make all things new." I brought a big garbage bag out with me, and started to move the trash and junk out of the car, one by one. Eventually I could see the floor and the seats. Then, I moved on to detailing. I got the vacuum out and sucked up the crumbs in the crevices, the cupholder, on the floor. I took the mats out and scrubbed them. I put all my spare change in the change holder, and cleaned out the console.

Suddenly, I had a new car. It was amazing. It smelled good and looked good and even seems to drive better (though that was probably just my imagination). It made me want to keep it that way forever, so I became more vigilant about cleaning up a little bit at a time and not letting things accumulate. We'll see how long that practice lasts, but I feel better when I'm not sitting on a trash heap.

God is inclined towards order. He created the world out of disorder and chaos (Gen 1:2), setting everything in its place. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but because of the Fall, our propensity is towards disorder, like a leaf that naturally flows downstream when dropped in a creek.

Sin is the trash we fill our souls with. It clouds things up, darkening our spiritual intellect. It robs us of the joy of innocence. It is real, and it is serious, but it is not always apparent the extent to which we are living in it.

After Deb's mom died, we both went to Confession. She told me, "I feel closer to mom after the stain of sin is wiped, I'm more pure and able to hear God better and be open to Him."  Sometimes our burdens are heavy due to one or more grave sins, the ones that lead to death (1 Jn 5:17), and sometimes the weight comes from the accumulation of "little sins" that settle like soot on our souls. It's harder to hear God's voice, it gets tuned out. To confess one's sins and to be forgiven--is truly freeing.  It brings everything back into focus, into order.

I try to do an examination conscience and go to Confession once a month or so.  I know I am due when I start to feel like one of those PCs that gets bogged down and takes a long time to boot up; when I become negligent in prayer and slothful; when I am quick to anger and hungry for material comfort. When unchecked little sins lead to bigger ones, and the voice of the Lord becomes faint, replaced with the calling of the world.

The longer I go without confessing my sins with my lips, the more it starts to feel like my trash-heap of a car...why bother cleaning when I'm in it so thick? But when I do confess...I can't explain it. I just feel lighter, my spirit buoyed. I feel like my relationship with God is put back in order, things are in their rightful place, a friendship restored. There is suddenly room for grace, a grace that overflows. I can see the floor of my soul again. I've been given a new lease on life. Should I meet the Lord that instant, I would be ready.

God is so good, so merciful. He waits with open arms, so quick to forgive. He does not hold anything over our heads, does not remember our sins (Is 43:25). Nothing is too heavy for him (Mt 11:30), nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). He leaves the pack for the one lost (Mt 18:12). He runs towards us, forgetting his dignity (Lk 15:20), throws a feast to celebrate.

Confessing our sins costs us nothing. It is available to all, anytime. It restores order in the universe, in our souls, bringing things into right alignment. It renews our friendship with God, washes us clean, restores us to grace. It gives us eyes to see the world anew. If you haven't turned to God by confessing your sins, if there is something heavy on your heart, I would encourage you to take a moment to open yourself to the working of grace and bring it before the Lord. Lay it at his feet. If you crack the door an inch, the Lord will throw it open the rest of the way, and invite you in to the banquet feast, washed and clothed in white.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Welcome to Paradise

Today I was driving through Lancaster County for work. Lancaster has some great town names, the butt of many a joke growing up--Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Virginville. On Rt 30 I passed through Paradise, and couldn't help but think, "what was it about this place, that people would name it Paradise?" Was it some kind of Amish utopia, the kind of place where 'things are the way they are supposed to be?' I wondered.

Laying all that aside for the sake of speculative argument, though, what would a true society founded on Christian values, by look like? How would a true Paradise earn its namesake? Here's my list:

  • People would share what they had with those in need, so no-one had more than they needed or was in want. (Acts 2:44; Prov 30:9). They would be under no compulsion to do so by government coercion or taxation, but motivated by the recognition that we are our brother's keeper, and any weakness in the corporate body affects everyone.
  • People would not live in isolation, but be supported in fellowship. Children could play outside and parents would not worry about them being abducted or abused. Women would share child-rearing responsibilities, and have each other for support. (Ecc 4:10)
  • All men would have meaningful opportunity to work according to their gifts and abilities. Boys would apprentice and learn applicable skills from men in the community. (2 Thes 3:10)
  • Babies would be the natural fruit of marital love, the future of the next generation, and they would be welcomed into the world and seen as blessings rather than burdens. (Ps 127:3)
  • The elderly would likewise be seen as sources of wisdom and life experience, supported by their children and revered (Eph 6:2-3; Ex 20:12)
  • The land would be respected, the wells not poisoned, not to be abused and spoiled but preserved for future generations. (Ps 24:1)
  • God would be the center of existence. Worship and due thanks would take its rightful place in society.  (Debt 10:20; Lk 4:8)
  • Love, joy, peace are not exceptions that make an appearance every once in a while, but are the genuine manifestations of living the life of community in the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
These are just a few that come to mind. The funny thing is, I think the Amish hit many of the things on this wish list, (at least from my own limited, outside perspective)  albeit in a 'culture within a culture.'  They seem weird and outlandish, but only in contrast to our own materialist culture that eschews community in favor of electronic distractions and suburban isolation, and places idols on the altar rather than giving God His rightful place in our lives.

I don't trust anyone who pushes a utopic vision of the future, whether that be a political Promised Land or a eco-village where everyone equitably grows and shares all their own food and powers the village with biogas produced from composted manure. We are products of the Fall, which introduced disfunction as a fact of life,--a propensity towards selfishness, sin, and disorder. We have been banished from the garden, our Paradise Lost, always hoping to return but never able during our time on earth, due to the force of concupiscence. 

We live in an uncomfortable tension, never completely at home here in this world, while called to love and work, work and love, bringing God's love to earth in the way we live our lives as a witness to his creative work.  Maybe then, we will have a little taste of Paradise after all.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tiny Life

When I was younger, I wanted to be an 'efficiency expert'. I didn't have an engineer's brain, but I was an environmentalist and an inventor at heart and loved to create things, coming up with better ways to solve problems. I sewed a sleeping bag with strategic zippers so that you didn't have to get out of your cozy cocoon when nature called; I taught solar cooking workshops in Haiti; in my more manic days, I drafted blue prints for a solar powered electric vehicle that would fit into two suitcases you could take on a plane with you so you didn't have to rent a car at the airport.

The ideological efficiency issue became paramount, in my mind, when it came to driving and residing. I saw wasted space as sloppy design. I thought Smart cars were, well, smart, since most trips were made by solo passengers and there was no need to cart around thousands of extra pounds of steel for no reason. I was also fascinated by a trend in eco-living that was starting to emerge of living in small, stand alone spaces. "Tiny houses" appealed to a sense of unconventionality and conscious living--many were built on flatbed trailers to skirt building restrictions and encourage a kind of gypsy mobility ("don't like your neighbors? Pick up and move!" and offered just enough space for one or two people, no more than one would need. Socially responsible. Ecologically sustainable. Wave of the future.

I visit from time to time people who are enamored of efficient living. Some influential figures, like financial guru Mr. Money Mustache who advocates for smart efficient and environmentally responsible living by biking over driving (and if one needs to drive, to do so in a small compact car). and limiting the number of children you have. He also sold a bigger house because of all the 'wasted space' and built a small passive solar house in a suburb of Colorado with just enough space for him, his wife, and his son.  Everything is planned for. Everything has a purpose. Wasted anything is symbolic of the uninformed life. He has been described as a 'benevolent dictator' by reporters. And his blog is incredibly popular, with a loyal following of like-minded engineer, life-optimization type people.

But something shifted when kids came. I don't fit in anymore. My world is no longer efficient. There are extra rooms in our house. Toys are everywhere. I drive to the store, rather than bike like I used to. We have failed in limiting our progeny to the single child, and we buy happy meals in moments of weakness. I have a shed full of crap, and I can't keep up with tracking every financial purchase in a spreadsheet. I have even shopped at Walmart a few times in the past few years.

But you know what? I don't mourn my efficient, planned-out life. It is the best thing that ever happened to me. The wasted rooms in our house we have available for anyone, stranger or friend, who needs a place to stay, and the extra seats at our gigantic dining room table are for guests to join us for dinner. The mess in the family room is a constant reminder of the proverb, "where there are no oxen, the stable is clean, but an abundant harvest is produced by strong oxen." (14:4). Nothing with kids is predictable, though the thought of limiting their existence because of the disruption seems impoverishing.  I try to use some common-sense when it comes to energy usage and sustainability--we still compost, keep the thermostat low, and hang dry our laundry. We will not be financially independent or early-retired anytime soon, but that's ok; the tradeoff is, in my mind, worth it. Our house is full of life and chaos. And there is always room for more.


There are over 57,000 state-sponsored churches in China. These churches belong to the Communist Party controlled "Three Self Patriotic Movement" (TSPM). The three ‘Self’s are Self-governance, Self-support, Self-propagation, and respectively reject foreigners' influence on the church leadership, foreign financing and foreign missionaries, while “Patriotic” indicates the church's loyalty to China.

These churches are subject to rules governing their existence. They include:

•  The Communist Party is the head of the church in China (Three Self churches report to the Three
    Self Patriotic Movement, which reports to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which is
    controlled by the Chinese Communist Party).
•  The Communist Party decides how many people can be baptized per year.
•  The Communist Party has the final decision on who can preach and what can be preached.
•  Preaching should focus on the social rules and the social benefits of Christianity.
•  Preaching about resurrection and the second coming of Jesus is forbidden.
•  Preaching against religions that deny the deity of Jesus is forbidden.
•  Preaching that atheist communist heroes went to hell is forbidden; good communists go to heaven
•  Preaching against abortion is forbidden.
•  Gathering to worship outside Three Self churches and official "meeting points" is forbidden.
•  Preachers cannot preach at a Three Self church other than the one to which they were assigned.
•  Evangelizing or giving out tracts is forbidden.
•  Importing Bibles is forbidden, even if they are given away for free.
•  Printing Bibles is forbidden, even if they are given away for free.
•  Government officials cannot be Christian.
•  Teachers cannot be Christian.
•  Soldiers cannot be Christian.
•  Police officers cannot be Christian.
•  Children and teenagers cannot be Christian.

In short, they are puppet churches set up by the state to co-opt Christianity and use it as a means of promotion of the party, for what they can't stamp out (religion), they seek to control. As one pastor at a state-sponsored church in Beijing reminded his congregation: "We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country," he says. "And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second."

While they may have the veneer of authentic worship to the unassuming eye, anyone who is filled with the Holy Spirit in China and looking to worship the one true Lord recognizes that such churches are a sham. Those who wish to worship "in spirit and truth" must do so in underground house churches that operate in secret, risking fines and imprisonment to do so. Such unsanctioned forms of worship are seen as subversive, and such accusations are not entirely inaccurate. Whereas Communism subjects the individual through coercive measures to submit to the state, Christ breaks the chains that bind us in slavery (Is 9:4). It is not a co-opted freedom, for those who continue in the Word "are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn 8:31-32). It is hard to control free men. Because they are free.

For those sensitive to issues of religious freedom and its slow erosion in our current culture here in America, China looks like an extreme example. But it paints a picture of what blatant, unchecked state-control of religion looks like. To the true believer, the sham-nature of such churches is obvious upon closer investigation and appears almost laughable, for true religion loses its authenticity the moment Christ is taken off his throne and replaced with liberal ideology. But how many undiscerning have accepted it sight unseen, apostatizing unknowingly? How many accept that the "Kingdom of God comes second?"

For those who have no love of Truth, keep your sham churches and your sanitized worship. For those who submit to the One True God, the Holy Spirit gives them eyes to see, for "the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people" (Jn 4:23). But pray they might persevere to the end, because the road to life is narrow. And the State does not tolerate subversion so kindly.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

All My Friends Will Soon Be Strangers

As I'm writing I am watching the trees sway in the violent wind through the kitchen window, sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea. I like piping hot tea, especially on chilly days like today. I also like iced tea, especially a tall cold glass on a hot summer afternoon. They both serve their purposes--the hot tea, to warm the bones; the iced tea, to refresh and cool.

Ever had a cup of tepid tea? Bleh. It's good for nothing, similar to salt that has lost its saltiness (Mt 5:13). Too cool to be hot tea, and too warm to be iced tea. It has no identity. It is a no-thing. It would be an insult to serve it to your guests.

If there was ever an indictment to be found in New Testament, an admonishment from the Lord of how we are to be, it can be found in the Book of Revelation:

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Rev 3: 15-16)

Spit you out of my mouth. It evokes an image of divine disgust, offensive to God. It helps me to imagine this from the perspective of a father, sick to his stomach in the face of such apathy: My son DIED for you. He was tortured for you. He shed his blood to give you LIFE. It was a free gift. I sent Him to take your place, as a ransom. And you shrug.

Like many converts who came into the Church, I had trouble understanding the complacency I experienced from other Catholics. I had a personal encounter with the Lord on my own road to Damascus. I recognized, with quite a bit of pain and gratefulness, what I had been ransomed from. The disciplines of the faith only made sense and had purpose in the context of an ardent faith--otherwise, it just seemed miserable to be religious; being a Catholic was embarrassing enough in the eyes of the world, but to be a Catholic with no real faith, devotion, or praxis, a Catholic in name only...well, it seemed the worst of all worlds.  Thomas A Kempis, in his classic The Imitation of Christ, notes this as well, when he writes to lukewarm monks:

"A religious person who is negligent and slothful has trouble upon trouble and suffers great anguish and pain on every side, for he lacks true inward comfort, and is prohibited to seek outward comfort."(71)

For most of my life of faith, though, I have tried to live in two worlds. I think a lot of convert struggle with this--reconciling their prior lives to their new lives in Christ. Christian friends are not a given, though hopefully they are acquired. You don't really want to leave your former friends, because you have an authentic history with them.

I was at a bachelor party over the summer which wasn't completely off the chain, no arrests or anything, but was just dark in its hedonism. I have done my share of partying, and like to have a good time with good people, so it was not a foreign scene for me. But something was different this time. It wasn't a matter of being better than anyone else, or holier than thou. I just realized I didn't belong here anymore.

But I was kind of trapped, as it was. As the party was raging into the morning, I went into my room and with a feeling of despair, opened the small Gideon bible I brought with me. I opened randomly to Colossians, chapter 3, and read:

"Put to death, therefore whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourself of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips." (Col 3:5-8)

I wanted the best of both worlds--I wanted to live in the world and experience all it had to offer without having to say no to anything or let anything go; to continue my pre-conversion life but in my Christian suit. I realized that night, though, that I was fooling myself. Not choosing, not standing apart, was itself a choice, for as the Lord says, "If the love of the world is in you, the love of the Father is not." (1 Jn 2-15). There is no middle ground, and if there is, it is like tepid tea--offensive and insulting to one's character as a new creation in Christ, good for nothing. There is pain in detachment, but only because we have allowed ourselves to become inordinately attached to that which, ultimately, enslaves us.

The more the world loves, accepts, and affirms us, the more we should be cued in that we are perhaps not on the path that leads to Life,  but living a kind of spiritual inauthenticity, for "if you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." (Jn 15:18-19).  When we are slandered and accused as Christians for speaking truth, we should rejoice, for we are living the beatitudes: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Mt 5:11-12).

Thursday, October 13, 2016


My twenties were a turbulent time. In 2005, after an acute episode of psychotic mania while living in Philadelphia, I was voluntarily admitted to an in-patient psychiatric facility for treatment. The symptoms of mania--boundless energy, rapid speech, delusions of grandeur--and subsequent depression manifested themselves in a severe but diagnostically-predictable manner, which was good because it alleviated any uncertainty as to the diagnose--Bipolar I disorder. When you know exactly what you are suffering from, it makes it easier to treat.

Mania sneaks up on you, disguised as enthusiasm, excitement, a zest for life, and perceived brilliance. At some point the ball gets away from you and takes on a life of its own, which is when things get scary. You can't get off the train even if you want to. When the crash follows, and you have pushed most of your friends away, it can also be a lonely time. Thankfully, many friendships I was able to repair over time. My family's support, however, was unwavering, and I believe this is what got me through the eye of the storm.

Rebuilding my life in the aftermath after discharge was difficult. My apartment looked like it was hit by a tornado--half finished projects, books everywhere, overflowing ashtrays, and recording equipment were littered everywhere.  All my energy and will had left me, and a dark cloud had settled over everywhere I went. I had trouble moving my limbs. My dad would take me for walks and it would take an hour to go 100 feet. I would verbally abuse him, treat him badly. "You have to remember," he would say, "it doesn't seem like it now, but it will get better." He knew from experience, having gone through the same thing.

In the midst of my illness I came across an obscure film called Quitting (2001) about the life of Jia Hongsheng, an actor of some national acclaim in China who quit acting after getting hooked on heroin. It was a film rather than a documentary, but Jia played himself, and all his family played their selves as well, which was kind of unique. It is the story of how Jia's family--his mother, father, and sister--move to Bejing to nurse him back to health. This was quite different from the expectation in Asian culture that the siblings take care of the parents, not the other way around.

Quitting is one of my favorite movies, because it is so personal to me--I was Jia. His life, his story, his recovery, his family--it mirrored my own. He was a prodigal--I was a prodigal. His father and mother took care of him in the way mine did.

"Honestly, I didn't want to come to Bejing. I had only two years before my retirement. As a parent, when your child faces something like have to help them. We didn't know what he was going through. I had to see for myself. Sometimes when I saw him suffering I knew the drugs were still in him. It was unbearable. I couldn't do anything to help him."

He thought he was special, destined for greatness, but instead the acting world moved on without him, as all my allusions of greatness, of being a great writer, had done for me.

"I had that feeling again. I couldn't stop trembling. Suddenly there was no sound and my mind was blank. 1993. The music came from my headphones. I saw the bluest sky in the world. It was totally pure and crucial. I felt like I was Lennon's son. I'd seen my destiny while everyone else was running for nothing. I felt like everyone was an idiot."

He did not leave his apartment, and neither did I. The recovery after getting clean is dark, as was being in the trough of depression following mania, so I could identify with his suffering and loneliness.

"He didn't talk to us at all. He was always attacking us. He said my feet smelled, if it wasn't my feet it was my socks. It was like he was my father.
We didn't know how to help him. We decided to ask for help from a doctor.The doctor said the effects of his addiction would last a long time.We should be patient and try to keep him happy. He asked for a bike to go out. We bought a secondhand bike for him."

One of my the most moving scenes for me personally was the little snapshots of time Jia's father would spend with him, going for walks, sitting under on overpass in the grass, sharing a beer; how he cared for his son, putting his own dignity aside. The scene could have been one of my father and I:

"We went out for a walk everyday. When he wanted beer, I got it for him. I iced two beers every morning and brought them with us. I put a raincoat on the grass for him to sit on. I used branches to drive the bugs away. He was getting better everyday."
Quitting is a prodigal parable hiding in a secular story. The film itself is ok, interesting--but I think it moved me the way it did because it was my own life's script during that time in my life that I saw. The bicycle, the walks, the apartment--it could have been my story. With one caveat: I found out Hongsheng jumped to his death in 2010, nine years after the filming of Quitting. It could have been me. It could have been my story.

It's taken me about a week to get this little post down and published; I was reluctant--it seemed too much, too personal, and unnecessary. I didn't want it to be a film review, because while it was moving for me personally, the film is nothing special. I didn't want it to simply be a self-indulgent post for the sake of a personal post. And honestly, sharing about one's illness is not especially comfortable in a public setting because of the stigma and potential for discrimination. 

So what was I trying to say? What was my purpose in writing this?

I think it is this--there is power in stories, the narratives we find ourselves in. We make sense of our lives through them. Jesus himself was a master storyteller--he was always telling stories! It was how he communicated eternal truths in a practical way. I think film, secular or otherwise, can do this, as can books and the example of others. It is a popular model in AA, as well as in converts sharing their story of how they came to faith. Like the Jewish people, stories help us to remember our history, what God has done for us and saved us from. 

Stories help us remember, as I remember now those difficult days ten years ago typing much in the same way I am doing now at the kitchen table with a cup of tea at one in morning, hanging on to life by a thread, and how my family and my God were manifestations of a shard of light that refused to let me be swallowed by darkness. 

Jia Hongsheng had a story. 
I have a story.
And so do you. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Look Me In The Eye

Ever since I was little, I never had a knack for lying. I wasn't an angel by any means, but I was quick to own up to my transgressions because I both couldn't stand the tension of holding something in, and had trouble keeping false stories separate from truth in my mind. I don't know how those pathological liars do it, keeping so many stories straight to hold up their alter-reality.

So, I came to the conclusion early on that it is just easier to always tell the truth and not lie to save myself the psychological discomfort of having to keep stories straight. I think my wife secretly appreciates it, because she knows I can never get away with anything. It's hard to look someone in the eye when you're lying or hiding something, unless you are some kind of sociopath.

Of all the parts of the human body, I find the eyes the most intriguing. Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov 18:21); the springs of life flow from the heart (Prov 4:23); but the eye is the lamp of the body (Mt 6:22)--the very temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). A window to the soul.

As in literature, music, or interior design, the space between (ie, 'white space') plays as much a role as the words or notes themselves. Without it, meaningful composition would be impossible, as one could not differentiate between objects. I have heard humans are only creatures with the whites of their eyes visible. This allows for an incredible amount of creative nuance of expression.

Have you ever spoken with somone who stared a little too long? Very uncomfortable, like they are encroaching on private property. It makes you think maybe they are not cued in to social conventions or awareness.

Have you ever locked eyes with someone of the opposite sex across the room? If you are a single man or woman and looking to meet, this is your ticket. If you are married, you had better be careful to ensure that such a gaze is truncated in a timely manner lest it lead to something inapprorpriate.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who couldn't look you in the eye (shifty eyes)? You can't help but wonder to yourself, 'what are they hiding? What did they do?'

Have you ever met a confident person who looks you right in the eye when they speak? Intimidating, yes?

When one 'holds their head up high,' gaze forward, it conveys a sense of integrity. When one (rightfully) 'lowers their head in shame' at the recongition of a failure of integrity, one's gaze is averted. Adam and Eve sought to cover their nakedness after the Fall and the Lord saw right through their feeble attempts to hide themselves from His presence (Gen 3:8). His gaze cut right through them, because they themselves had something to hide.

We sometimes think doing the Lord's will is hard. In some ways this is true, given our propensity towards sin due to the Fall and our wounded nature, and our desire to thwart God's benevolent governance by eating the fruit which we desire, even though it may lead to death. It can also be hard in some sense when we face persecution from the world, those who are against God's designs and would seek to snuff out or silence those who follow Him.

But sin in its own way leads to more disorder, more disruption, and more difficulty, as Scripture attests: "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." (Ps 19:7).

When we lose sight of this perfect law in Christ, we are like ships in a storm with no navigation and no rudder. The precepts of the Lord are like a lighthouse on a rocky shore which cuts through the fog and alerts us of what would capsize us. In fair weather one thinks they can do without it and navigate on their own. But it is in storms where faith is tested. Jesus rested in the comfort of God's perfect else could he fall asleep on a pillow in the middle of a squall? (Mk 4:38)

God always wants what is best for us. The Law is written in our hearts (Rom 2:15) so that it might be known to all, for "there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil...but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good." (2:9-10). So guard your eyes, the lamp of the body, in order to hold your head with a gaze focused foward. For if the light in you is darkness how great is the darkness!" (Mt 6:23)

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Bring Me My Weapon"

The thought of killing myself hadn't crossed my mind in a number of years. So I didn't recognize it when it appeared tonight in my bedroom like an unwelcome guest, a Stranger "rapping sharply, four times...on the fatal door of destiny."

I hadn't invited the Thought. It seemed a culmination of events had led to leaving the door slightly ajar, able to be pushed in from the outside. Feelings of betrayal from friends, stress at work and home, and doubt were likely suspects, but not enough to explain the barrage of negative and aggressive thoughts, the usual suspects: "It's useless. You'll never amount to anything. Better off without you. You have no one. You are alone. Just get it over with already and quit wasting our time."   Everything just seemed to be going down. I lay in bed and stared at the wall. Tears had dried up hours ago but I was weary and had trouble moving out of bed.

My mom watched the kids and Deb came upstairs. I tried to talk for a while, and told her about the Thought, but it didn't assuage anything. "I think you are under spiritual attack," she said. I continued to stare at the wall. Up until recently I had been carrying my rosary with me in my pocket everywhere and praying it every night after Deb's mom died, but had not the past few days. If I was vulnerable, it would make sense that such an attack was coming when I had left "the weapon," as St. Pio referred to it, at home.

I tried to speak, but my mouth wouldn't open. I pushed the words out but they muffled against the inside of my teeth. "What?" Deb said. I forced them through a slight opening between my lips. "Brngmemyrsry." "What?" I pushed and pushed the words out, a kind of verbal constipation and pressure. Why was this so hard. Finally I shouted, "BRING ME MY ROSARY" followed by a series of growls. It was so strange, but not completely unfamiliar. I was pretty sure at this point Deb was right, something was at work, but at least the problem was diagnosed and the will had been exercised to take action, albeit painfully so.

We started to pray the Glorious Mysteries since it was Sunday, meditating on the life of Christ and His mother with each bead fingered. As we prayed with focused deliberation, it occurred to me that each of the mysteries was serving as an antidote for the spiritual battle waging.

I had lost faith. The spiritual fruit of the First Glorious Mystery--the Resurrection--was FAITH.

I was filled with a sense of hopelessness. The fruit of the Second Mystery--the Ascension--was HOPE.

My love of God was growing cold. The Third Mystery--the Descent of the Holy Spirit--promised LOVE OF GOD.

Thoughts of taking my life filled my head. The promise of the Fourth--The Assumption of the BVM? A HAPPY DEATH.

Mary, the enemy of Satan, was not on my mind until now. The Fifth Glorious Mystery--the Coronation--assured her INTERCESSION in times of trouble.

As soon as we began to pray, and for the next twenty minutes, the darkness that had cloaked me, had settled and made a blanket over my mind, began to lift like a fog. I can't explain it, but I know it came from the outside-in in this case; the thoughts, the voices...they seemed foreign, like they came out of nowhere and did not belong. Seeing the Devil's tactics exposed was a grace in itself, for in doing so God reveals how he can be countered.

Pope Adrian VI referred to the Rosary as "the scourge...of the Devil...a flying elbow to the ribs, a metal chair to the head." And the famous exorcist Gabriel Amarth reported that, during an exorcism, his colleague reported hearing the Devil say that each Hail Mary is like a blow against his head.

Evil is scary when you come face to face with it, but how mores when we are caught defenseless? Satan is no fool....he knows our vulnerabilities. He knows such thoughts are no stranger to me, that they have made their home in my mind in the past, so why not again? Even more so, disguise them as coming from my own mind, for how can you fight against your own mind, your own self? When the suffering becomes too much in this parasitic state, one is left with no choice in hopelessness but to kill oneself.

All sounds kind of outlandish, right? Kind of ridiculous, yes? A bunch of hocus pocus. Yeah, I can see how one would say that if you didn't believe in evil. But I know better. I can say with confidence that it is only through God's grace in the past that I have escaped the fate that suicide promises, and tonight old demons in paying me a visit disguised as thoughts reminded me to be careful, to cleave to Christ...and to not leave home unarmed. The stakes are high. I consider myself now warned.

Zeal and Shame

My wife and I had an 'introvert date night' last night at the local bookstore. We got coffee and perused the shelves. We were surprised to see how expansive the 'Christian Living' section was. I have become wary of contemporary writers trying to make a name for themselves in the Christian world with a repackaging of the gospel, and prefer instead to stick to spiritual classics in my own spiritual tradition.

Writing is a shameful exercise. Those who spend their lives engaging in it do so more out of compulsion than choice--they can't not write. If you are a nominal writer/poet/songwriter, thankfully your words will, like unrequited love, drift into the ether undiscovered and fade away into obscurity,  reaching few ears and having little impact on the world.

Those who make a name for themselves on the other hand have their own struggles--not with insignificance, but in having to stand naked and exposed in the limelight behind what they have cast on the page in dried ink as the world itself stops not to remember their words. Hopefully the writer who makes it realizes the power of the words they put to page (the pen being, as they say, mightier than the sword), accepts responsibility for bringing them into the world, and defers to God's truth rather than his own agenda in what he writes.

I came across an interview with Christian author Joshua Harris recently, who wrote the best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye in 1997 when he was just 21.  Someone gave me a copy in college, which I read, and it gave me good food for thought about purity and intentionality, but I was hardly a devotee. In the interview, he apologized to those who read his book and took his advice not to date, and admitted it was 'speculative'.

Whenever I go back and read anything I wrote from the past (I have twenty years worth of archived blogs, journals, essays, articles, and manuscripts to dig into whenever I am feeling self-loathing), I can't help but be profoundly embarrassed at my self-assuredness, brashness, and spiritual immaturity. Thankfully 95% of it has never been published (as in, bought) and as such is at my discretion what I do with it rather than surrendering it to eternity on a library book shelf. Honestly, not getting a tattoo and not ever publishing a book (both of which I was on the brink of making a reality at some point or another) I consider saving graces. It is hard to stand behind a decision made at 21--whether that's an inked arm sleeve or a publishing a book on relationships.

This goes beyond writing, though. Taking a stand on anything comes with the danger of inconsistency. Thomas Merton, the ever-evolving (some might say 'unsettled') and introspective Trappist monk made famous for his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, covered his bases on this topic when he self-reflectively wrote:

"My ideas are always changing, always moving around one center, and I am always seeing that center, and I am always seeing that center for somewhere else. Hence, I will always be accused of inconsistency. But I will no longer be there to hear the accusation."  (Jan 20th, 1964)

Merton has always been a kind of spiritual kinsman, an earnest and flawed man whom I could relate to spiritually, as well as in personality and temperament. The world loved him and was fascinated by him. However, it wasn't until I came across an article that questioned whether he could be trusted for spiritual direction that I realized not everyone feels this way. In fact, his 'lack of a center'  (aside from his monastic vows) and inconsistent character was more of an indictment than anything noble. Could his writing be trusted? Was he leading people astray by his witness? Was he a model of personal integrity, or was he divided in spirit?

These were the questions being asked in the article, and the forgone conclusion about his 'brilliance' as a complex spiritual thinker among his devotees was not so undisputed. Whether or not my affinity for Merton as a spiritual brother from another era was accurate or not, I still felt shame, as if someone was holding up a mirror. He was not a saint, not being considered for canonization--just a complex and flawed man with demons, struggling to stay put, wrestling with his vows, searching for love, and for God.  Human, yes. But saints are the ones we should follow, a sure bet; the message is we should keep our distance from unstable men such as Merton, since reading his writing for the faithful Catholic is like, as was said in the article mentioned above, "sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant."

I have a photograph from my observership at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert of me with one of the monks, a novice named Br. Inugo. He took me for a hike one day through the canyon when this photo was taken. He was a very quiet, humble monk in his mid twenties on a straight path.  He just wanted to live for God and devote his life to Him in a quiet, contemplative way. I was this restless, conflicted, adventure-hungry attention-seeking convert with a checkered past. We were very different, and looking back at this photograph now (almost twenty years after it was taken), the picture of contrast is worth a thousand words. Truth be told, I hope God will have mercy on me for my waywardness, for anything I have written that has scandalized someone else, for leading anyone to anything except the One Truth Church, for even today, I feel shame at the thought of the man I am and have much to repent of.

When you realize that you of taking people for a ride on your spiritual journey, sometimes narrowly avoiding heresy and misguided example in the process, it is like being a drunk driver driving a school bus full of 1st graders. It would be better for you not to have been born (Mk14:21; Mt 26:24). Better to be silent than to teach, but if called better to stick with the tried and true teachings of Christ and his Church and simply transmit them as "an unprofitable servant" (Lk 17:10). Better to align zeal for the Gospel with true teaching rooted in tradition than to be an unwitting heretic following one's own agenda. Better to be tireless rather than fickle, committed to duty rather than charisma. Better to repent and keep one's head on to the ground than lift it up to Heaven.

True prophets are unfashionable in their consistency. For those who preach year after year, sticking to God's commands and eschewing embellishment or spin (Msgr Charles Pope comes to mind). They are not exotic, preach no esoteric teaching, but simply lay out Scripture and the teachings of the Church on moral issues, sometimes in blunt fashion, tirelessly, and in ways that often make people uncomfortable. There is a hardened zeal there does not care if they are liked or not, because they are simply reflecting and transmitting God's Truth as it has been revealed to them; they are simply messengers doing a job. Many do not listen, many reject them as curmudgeons, yet they continue to preach, hoping that a few might be saved in the process. They are under Pauline compulsion, like the prophet Jeremiah who writes:

"But if I say, 'I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,' Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it." (Jer 20:9)

We do not read the Gospel for the sake of the human story (though that is implicit); we read the Gospel to experience God's story of Salvation for all. He is the author. We are all actors playing our part in this odyssey, with lines written by the Playwright Himself. It is not about us. Let's not go off script, lest we find ourselves in an unsolicited one-man act. We learn our lines in prayer, and without significant time in prayer we risk forgetting them. Play your part with zeal and gusto, but make sure the lines you read are credited to He who writes them.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sexual Common Sense

As parents of young children, my wife and I are constantly picking our battles--what needs to be addressed now, and what can wait; what is worth holding a hard line on, and what is not worth it. It is hard and tiring to be vigilant all the time, and sometimes things slide. Do we make the kids sit and eat kale salads, or do we let them eat what they want in the family room (usually cereal, usually in front of the TV)? Do we cut off all screen time entirely, do we let them watch one of two Peppa Pigs, or do we abandon them to the digital crack?

I will confess: many times we take the easiest road--path of least resistance.

This isn't because we don't love our kids or don't want what is best for them. But we are tired, emotionally spent, and some nights don't have the fight in us; we are simply trying to survive. We buy happy meals if it staves off a tantrum or because it's more convenient than making dinner, we are not above bribing with treats in desperation, and we don't always follow up on discipline as we should.

I will also confess: I feel guilty about it, and fear the accumulation of unforeseen consequences.

It feels good in the moment, like we get some respite from the discomfort and exercise of hard parenting. But it also becomes difficult to draw lines later. If we let them skip dinner at the table tonight, why not tomorrow night? If one episode of Toy Hello Kitty Cash Register on YouTube, why not ten? It makes me worry that we are making things harder for ourselves down the line by not being the kind of strict parents that hold the line whom I secretly admire.

People often forgive us or give us a pass because parenting can be hard. "It's ok, you're only human," "You're doing the best you can," "It gets the best of us sometimes." All true, and well meaning and even helpful sometimes. If we 'slip up' and let our guard down by allowing too much screen time, it's not the end of the world.

Of course, all of this would be moot for Deb and I if it weren't for two sperm and two egg that found their way to one another on two separate occasions, resulting in two new humans, two eternal souls, two gifts to their parents. We have often marveled with each other that our kids are the result of sex--one instance of sex (well, two)--that changed the course of our life forever. powerful.

Gas stoves, water heaters, etc have pilot lights--a small flame that is kept burning that lights the larger flame when you want to cook, heat, etc. Sex drive is kind of like a pilot light...always on (to a greater or lesser degree), and when it is time to cook/heat, etc, it catalyzes the flames that lead to attraction, arousal, climax, and, sometimes, life itself. Fire can light a dark room when held by a candle's wick...or it can burn down an entire city. It can both aid life (keeping us from freezing to death, able to cook food, light paths and shorelines, etc) and can rob us of it (rape and assault, molestation, etc). 

People accuse the Church of being obsessed with sex, controlling other people's bodies, heavy in laying on the guilt, having no authority to speak on the matter, living in the dark ages, completely unrealistic and unreasonable. I used to be one of those people. But I have recently come to a point, now in my late thirties, where I am beginning to appreciate the wisdom of the Church's teaching on the gift of sex and sexuality (it only took about twenty years).

When I became Catholic in 1998, I had no problem with assenting to essential dogma like papal infallibility, teachings on Mary, Apostolic succession and authority, confessing sins to a priest, etc. But I simply could not accept this seemingly completely unreasonable moral prohibition against the use of artificial contraception. I kind of understood where they were coming from (though the Natural Law arguments were kind of lost on me as an 18 year old college freshman), but I just could not get past the impracticality of such a teaching. It was an affront, an unwelcome challenge to my presuppositions about sex and sexuality, which, not being formed in such matters growing up or in any kind of religious context, I gleaned from the culture I lived in. Not to mention I was in the height of my sexual peak and keeping a lid on things at Penn State--even as a new Catholic with a less-than-virginal background--was no easy task.

A catalyst in this growing appreciation of the deep truths about human life and sexuality was stumbling across Dr. Janet E. Smith's talk "Contraception: Why not?" a few years ago. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and listening to the audio and thinking, "Wow, this kind of makes sense." She seemed funny, well-reasoned, intelligent, articulate, and a proponent of what she refers to as "sexual common sense." A world of hurt has been born of the sexual revolution of the 60's, and it's becoming apparent in the fruits of its tree, what Pope Paul VI prophetically anticipated and set forth in Humanae Vitae in 1968 (a little long, but definitely worth a read):

"Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.
Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions, in the light of the principles We stated earlier, and in accordance with a correct understanding of the "principle of totality" enunciated by Our predecessor Pope Pius XII. (21)

St. Pope John Paul II's129 addresses in Theology of the Body (described by George Weigel as a "theological time bomb set to go off in the third millenium of the Church") gives witness to the Church's vision of authentic sexual expression. I had heard the term before in my twenties but was never really exposed to its teaching. Here I am, twenty years after my conversion, 7 years into my marriage, 2 kids later...and discovering it for the first time.

I've often wondered what would happen if abortion was made illegal or (hypothetically) impossible to obtain. Would would happen? Would we be overrun by 'unwanted' babies? Would Main St. USA suddenly look like the streets of Calcutta? Would people resort to their own forms of infanticide?

When I drill down in the scenario a little further, there are a lot of layers. Babies don't just appear out of thin air...they are the result of sex! When people don't want babies to come from sex, they often use contraceptive measures. When you don't want a baby with someone (because you might not know them that well, are not legally married to them, whatever) and contraception fails or isn't used, abortion is considered as an 'option' to 'deal with the issue.' It makes complete sense, from a secular perspective. It's part of being 'smart.'

So, it all comes back to sex. It used to be common knowledge that sex can and does result in babies, but with the advent of contraception, that link sometimes gets forgotten about until a 'surprise' pregnancy brings us back to reality. As a society we are so far removed that to even suggest that perhaps the best place for sex to find expression is within monogamous marriage, or that the best approach to sex is to wait until you are married to have it, or that if you are single abstinence is a viable option for protecting and guarding oneself from STDs, pregnancy, and emotional damage, and that to pretend otherwise is to invite widespread dis-order--both personally and socially--is anathema to secular sensibilities.

I was really encouraged when a group of faithful Catholic theologians, doctors, nurses, academics, and mothers and fathers, led by Dr. Smith, responded en force to the 'Wijngaards Statement' issued a few weeks ago by a group of Catholic academic dissidents to the United Nations. Dr. Smith and Catholic University of America were like a light in a culture that has gone dark, putting forth and disseminating sound and reasonable teaching with 2,000 years of application to back it up.

I can't turn back the clock and erase past mistakes, but thankfully it has not been an issue of 'too little too late' in my life. The fruits of bringing our sexual expression in marriage in line with the Church's vision for human sexuality has born subtle, but good fruit, in our marriage. It is sometimes hard to have self-control and practice periodic abstinence, especially when you want to be together in that way. But it also teaches something valuable--patience, understanding, self-discipline, focus. Shifting from the adopted mindset of babies as burdens to babies as gifts has likewise been taking place, and that in turn leads to a healthy shift in perspective in other areas. Sex itself, when not sterilized, becomes more than what it appears to be on the surface, and a kind of exhilarating self-abandonment keeps things exciting and open. It is not easy to fight against concupiscence--after all, it comes naturally as a result of the Fall. But now, twenty years later for me, it makes sense...common sense.