Saturday, February 27, 2016

Lost and Found

Today's reading is from the Gospel of Luke. Of all the stories in the Bible, it is the one closest to my heart--the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a story of love and mercy--the love of a father for his son(s), but even more so, the love of God for us--and a moving reflection of the character of God. It goes like this:

“A man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Give me my share of the property.’ So the father divided the property between his two sons. 13 Then the younger son gathered up all that was his and traveled far away to another country. There he wasted his money in foolish living. 14 After he had spent everything, a time came when there was no food anywhere in the country, and the son was poor and hungry. 15 So he got a job with one of the citizens there who sent the son into the fields to feed pigs. 16 The son was so hungry that he wanted to eat the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he realized what he was doing, he thought, ‘All of my father’s servants have plenty of food. But I am here, almost dying with hunger. 18 I will leave and return to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but let me be like one of your servants.”’ 20 So the son left and went to his father.

“While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt sorry for his son. So the father ran to him and hugged and kissed him. 21 The son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[b] 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Hurry! Bring the best clothes and put them on him. Also, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get our fat calf and kill it so we can have a feast and celebrate. 24 My son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “The older son was in the field, and as he came closer to the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. 26 So he called to one of the servants and asked what all this meant. 27 The servant said, ‘Your brother has come back, and your father killed the fat calf, because your brother came home safely.’ 28 The older son was angry and would not go in to the feast. So his father went out and begged him to come in. 29 But the older son said to his father, ‘I have served you like a slave for many years and have always obeyed your commands. But you never gave me even a young goat to have at a feast with my friends. 30 But your other son, who wasted all your money on prostitutes, comes home, and you kill the fat calf for him!’ 31 The father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate and be happy because your brother was dead, but now he is alive. He was lost, but now he is found.’”
(Lk 15:11-31)

Now, when we read this story, we usually read it through the eyes of one of the two sons--the wayward son and the obedient son.

To preface this story, Jesus has the first son asking for an advance on his inheritance. This is akin to saying to one's parent: "I wish you were dead. Give me my money now so I don't have to wait for you to die." Not only incredibly insulting, but hurtful. The father, however, obliges.

That's bad enough, but taking things a step further, the son proceeds to squander his inheritance. He's not saying, "Dad, give me the money so I can make a downpayment on a house, or invest it." He doesn't mete out his money or do anything worthwhile with it--he blows it in baller fashion. And not on food or clothes even, but dissipation, ie, booze and prostitutes. Furthermore, he doesn't just go to the next town over to do this, but to a distant country in an effort to get as far away from his family as he can.

Eventually, he runs out of money and finds himself in the midst of a famine. He attempts to get a job. He hires himself out to "a citizen of that country," who had pigs. Now, pigs were considered unclean animals in Jewish culture, so you know this guy is not a Jew who would take care of one of their own. He's in a foreign land with nothing, and tending swine. He's so hungry, he'd be happy to eat the pig's slop, like someone who forages through dumpsters for food, but even that is denied him. Now, keep in mind this is a young man from a royal, well off family family. Who is now sleeping with pigs in mud and longing for their food. You could call it a low point.

At some point, he "comes to his senses" and recalls all that he left in light of where he currently finds himself. Or maybe he was just really hungry and will do anything for food. You have to wonder if he never hit this point if he would have realized everything he left. He sets back towards home and rehearses his speech. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you..."

When the father sees him approaching in the distance, he ran to meet him. Two important things to note here: being a speck in the distance, the father must have been looking towards the horizon every day since the moment he left hoping for his return. When he does finally see him "a long way off," he runs, throws his arms around him, and kisses him. This is a completely undignified action on the part of the father given the disrespect shown to him. It is counter to the customary behavior of an elder at the time, esp. one in his position.

When the son finally gets close enough he starts his act of contrition that he's been rehearsing. But the father almost cuts him off and orders a celebration feast to be prepared. No scolding, no discussion, no earning back anything. Just overwhelming, undignified joy.

The elder son, who "never disobeyed" and had been "slaving for the father" all these years, is indignant. And maybe rightfully so. He did everything right. The father pleads with him to come in to the celebration when he refuses to. The elder brother has his own sins, resentments, and struggles to deal with, but what is not in doubt is the father's love for him. I always identified with the younger son and read the story from his perspective, so I never gave much thought as to what the elder brother was going through, but I imagine if you're used to doing everything right and being faithful it would seem like a slap in the face.

Love doesn't always make sense or follow customs. It searches far, stoops low, runs fast, and forgives willingly. It respects freedom, spends lavishly, and shares limitlessly. It holds hands with mercy and never gives up hope. It is the nature of the Father to love. He just can't help himself.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Boot Camp

I only applied to two colleges during high school: Penn State and West Point. I didn't really want to go to college at all (I wanted to be a carpenter), but it was a concession to my parents.  I got through the application process up until the physical exam at West Point, and then decided it wasn't for me (though the physical exam wouldn't have been an issue) and ended up going to Penn State.

But I think back from time to time at having even applied in the first place. What was the attraction? Would I have even been a good fit for military life and service?

I've always been kind of anti-establishment. I don't follow orders that well, and am not especially structured. I did want to commit myself to a higher purpose, but more on my own terms. And yet so much of that--chain of command, structure, devotion to a greater good--is what characterizes the life of an officer. Maybe my lack of those things was the attraction itself.

Strangely enough this attraction re-manifested itself a few years later during college in a gnawing, persistent desire to join a monastic community. The chaplain at Penn State invited myself and a few other men to St. Vincent's Archabbey in Latrobe for a vocation-weekend to explore the priesthood and religious life. It was a great, memorable weekend. I loved the monastery, the monks, their work, schedule of prayer, and the balance and rhythm of Benedictine life. I spent the next ten years visiting different monastic communities across the country and requested to be received as a postulant at a contemplative community in New Mexico, but was told I was not a suitable candidate. I think it was probably God's hand at work, and that it may not have been a good fit or my true calling in the long run. But, again, the attraction was strong.

I ran across the schedule that Mother Teresa's nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, kept in their day-to-day life:

Daily Schedule for the Missionaries of Charity
4:30 – 5:00: Rise and get cleaned up
5:00 – 6:30: Prayers and Mass
6:30 – 8:00: Breakfast and cleanup
8:00 – 12:30: Work for the poor
12:30 – 2:30: Lunch and rest
2:30 – 3:00: Spiritual reading and meditation
3:00 – 3:15: Tea break
3:15 – 4:30: Adoration Prayer
4:30 – 7:30: Work for the poor
7:30 – 9:00: Dinner and clean up
9:00 – 9:45: Night prayers
9:45: Bedtime

Very regimented and structured, and every moment accounted for. Mother Teresa was known to be very demanding of her sisters while making clear that they draw their strength from the Lord and not their own power, which necessitated much time in prayer. They were like the Navy Seals of service to the poor. They are committed to the goal and the work. When you have big things at stake (national security, salvation of souls, greater good of the whole), it necessitates the need to run a tight ship.

Lent is a good time for us lay people to work on disciplining our body and spirit, and a schedule helps with this. In true military fashion, Lent is a "spiritual bootcamp." Admittedly, I'm not great at keeping a consistent schedule, especially when I don't have a superior or trainer keeping me in check. This isn't trying to earn salvation or work our way into Heaven. It's training, this spiritual exercise, and its biblical, as St. Paul reminds us:

"Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified." (1 Cor 9: 24-27)

Let's run the race, and not grow weary!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Paying the Piper

Have you ever heard the story of the Pied Piper? It's a horrifying legend that goes something like this.

During the Middle Ages, a small town in Germany had a rat problem. A man in a colorful outfit who played a pipe claimed he could lure them away from the town, and so the mayor agreed to pay him to do so. He plays his pipe and the rats follow him out of town and drown in the river. The town, however, reneges on their promise to pay and as retribution the Pied Piper uses his pipe to lure all the children to a cave where he seals them in. Three children manage to survive because of their handicaps--a lame child who was unable to keep up, a deaf child who couldn't hear the music, and a blind child unable to see where he was going--and inform the parents (who were leaving church) of the fate of the rest of the children.

We've got a piper to pay today, too. Goes something like this:

Looks like you've got a problem here. Here's what I can do for you.
First of all, you need to know that what's inside of you is not human. 
We call it a 'product of conception.' 
We'll take care of it for you so you can get back to your life. 
That's why you're here.

We'll set up shop in your town, or you come to ours.
You need to pay, of course--not a lot, and we work on a sliding scale. 
We'll take cash, check, or charge. 
[But what the Boss really wants is your soul. That's the real payment.]
And once we have it, don't think about reneging--you will regret it. I guarantee it.

There's a man that comes around here whispering all kinds of lies. 
Telling them it's a baby, your baby, HIS baby. 
Makes all kinds of promises, that he'll provide, that "things will work out" as long as you trust him. That he loves you, loves the "baby", loves everyone.
We have security but sometimes he slips through.
Sometimes we lose clients before their procedures, change their mind. We lose them. He's a real menace.

After everything's done and we cash the check, you're good to go.
[But remember our promise]
Best thing to do is not think about it. Busy busy.

He's the only one who can ransom your soul--the real payment--which belongs to us [but which he thinks is his]
He'll give everything for it. Like I said, he's a menace.
But if this happens, rest assured
You'll realize you lost a child. We'll make sure of it. 
We make it hurt. But he makes you feel it.

To make up for lost cases we've been working a different angle, with couples, these days.
Downs is big. Deaf, blind, lame, that works too.
Boss says scare tactics work best. Worst-case-scenarios.
Lifetime of burden we tell them. 
The choice, of course, is up to you. It's ok. You're not really equipped. 
People will understand. Defective products are meant to be returned.

He works really hard for them, though, the man. Says they're a special gift.
Special because they don't see, hear, think the same that other "people" do. 
They don't fall for the same traps. Perpetual children. So dependent.
He stays close to them. Like I said, a real menace that one.

He holds the key to the tomb where we keep the medical waste.
I don't know how he got it, but he has it, and hard as we try we can't wrestle it from him.
He's coming back for them, he says.
He's coming for you too.
We've got cameras and all, but, you know. Well.

But like I said, stay busy busy. Stay away from quiet places and you should be alright.
When he breaks in, gets in your head, in your heart, when you're lying in bed, you can call, leave a message.
We're short-staffed though, so, you know. 

He's persistent. A real menace. 
We've got our lawyers on him, but hard to make a case.
He's hungry for souls. We are too. 
But man, he'll leave it all.
Just for you. 


Monday, February 22, 2016

Fred the Fireman, and the SAHD Dilemma

Can I admit something? I love my kids, but I hate being home with them all day, even for one day.

Now, I am not a stay-at-home dad, but I have had my tastes of it from time to time, get to 'try it on' for a day or two. We even talked about it early when the kids were really young--"you know, we're paying so much for daycare, maybe I should just stay home." After all, my wife brings home twice what I do, it (kind of) would make sense. It was tempting, but we never made the plunge.

Now, let me say straight off that I have no qualms about carrying my weight around the house. My wife works hard in a fairly stressful position, and I try to take as much off her shoulders as I can. That includes cooking every night, grocery shopping, laundry, etc. Typical Martha Stewart type stuff, but somebody still has to do it so whatever.

When the kids can't go to daycare on days like today, however, and I'm home with them all day, it's a different story. I find myself short-tempered, depressed, feeling emasculated (against my better judgment), and watching the minutes tick on the clock until my wife comes home. Then I check out, big time, as soon as she walks in the door. Sometimes I don't even have it in me to greet her.

I tried to do the usual "stay at home parent" stuff today, like taking them to Trader Joe's while I did some food shopping, and going to the playground. There was another mom there with her baby and toddler. It was kind of awkward.

I don't know why, (since I am not a full-time or even close to it stay-at-home dad and don't have to deal with this on a regular basis), but I googled "being a stay-at-home dad sucks" to make sense of the angry way I tend to feel on days when I am home all day with the kids.I came across some kind of Dear-Abbey type of blog where a woman wrote in with struggles in her marriage. She and her husband decided he would stay home (similar situation to ours), and he has been struggling with it. Most of the (women) responding in comments were (obviously) seeing the situation through a woman's eyes, and writing things like "he needs to see a doctor" "he's depressed" "he needs medication" "he may hurt you or your child" etc. Finally I ran across a comment from a guy, a firefighter named Fred, and he basically said it better than I could have:

"I disagree with pretty much all the advice given in this article and with the armchair psychologists replying. I am a full-time firefighter as well as the primary caregiver for my two little girls. I can tell you that I found this article by googling “being a stay at home dad sucks.” Due to my work shifts, I am able to be home, on average, four days during the week with the kids while my wife works her 9-5. I work with several men who do the same thing I do while their wives work (although a vast majority chose to work a second job instead of being home). 

After 4 years of this I can tell you that very few men are cut out for the stay-at-home-dad role. This has been my own experience as well as the experience of every other guy I work with that does the same thing I do. The same issues that stay-at-home-moms face (isolation, lack of stimulating activity) are even worse for men because there are just fewer dad’s out there than moms and really no other adults around to hang out with. Dad’s don’t go on “play dates” with their kids during the day because, lets face it, the other husbands in the neighborhood aren’t going to want some other guy hanging out with their wife while the kids play together. I wouldn’t want that either. The husband in this letter is probably depressed but he doesn’t need medication, a professional, or anything else suggested. HE NEEDS TO GET THE H**L OUT OF THE HOUSE AND GO BACK TO WORK. End of story. The guy feels completely trapped in his situation with no end in sight. Put the kids in daycare before this poor man loses his marbles or decides to take a nap in the garage with the doors closed and the car running. 

He is not a failure, he doesn’t have a mental condition, he’s a man who needs to get out and provide for his family for his own sanity. The days I am able to get out and work during the week are the only thing that keep me sane. I get to interact with other adults and solve real problems. I could not imagine having to be home 5 days a week with no way to stimulate my brain for years to come. I don’t care what anyone says, (most) men are not cut out to stay home with the kids and I’m not at all ashamed to say that I can’t wait until my kids start school so I can work more and do the other things I used to enjoy during the day. Every guy I work with in the same situation says the same exact thing.

Man, that made me feel better to read.

I realize some men are pushed into this role for a variety of circumstances. I don't think many men set their sights on being a SAHD--they usually settle for it because it's the best option. I'm generally in the "do what's best for your family" camp. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say for *most* men, they are probably going to really struggle with it because it's not natural for us. Even if my pay came out exactly equal to the cost of daycare, and working technically made no financial sense, I would probably choose to work for all the reasons Fred mentions above.

In fact, everything about being a stay-at-home parent is defined and constructed through a female paradigm. There are mom-blogs, Pinterest, mom-groups, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, etc. Men do not want to form stay-at-home dad groups the way women do. Men are MEN! Men are not women! I think that's the biggest shame and depression-inducing thing about being a SAHD--there's really no place for you: not in the mom's groups, and not in the men's groups. You're essentially alone and isolated, and that's enough to make anyone--man or woman--a little depressed, a little short-tempered.

Zoom out a little and this goes beyond just SAHD issues, but to a genuine crisis in masculinity among men today. Rite of passages are rare. Decent paying blue-collar jobs are hard to come by. Traditional forms of masculinity are frowned upon and discouraged, and no model has taken it's place. Self-sacrifice, marriage, and raising a family are pushed farther down the road, if at all. Women complain that there are slim pickings for eligible men, that they are all boys who play video games and live in their mother's basement and are addicted to porn.

This didn't happen overnight--it was a cultural response to being told "we're fine without you, you're not needed here." The erosion of the male psyche and the beating down of men has been a cultural force for a number of decades, and men are going to have to get it back if we have any hopes of our civilization surviving. I know this sounds old-fashion, but I think men really need to be able to work and provide. They need to be appreciated and needed and respected, and shown that they are respected and earn that respect. They need to be spiritual leaders in their household, and they need to stand up when they are called upon. And when they do, they need to give the only response appropriate: "That's just what men do."

Friday, February 19, 2016

Keeping Things To Code

As I'm wont to do in my downtime, I indulge the crazy ideas that go through my mind from time to time. The google du jour was "rocket" stoves--super efficient woodstoves popular in the Netherlands that burn small branches and sticks at high temps with little to no smoke and store the thermal mass in a radiator-type fashion.

As I was reading through the threads on various permaculture and off-grid prepper message boards of people who have attempted to build one, the topic of building codes came up--what if you built one of these things and then decided to sell your house? What if it was a project done without a permit? Were safety concerns taken into consideration, (ie, taking precautions to not burn your house down)? Would such an addition void your home insurance? Etc.

Most of the people on these boards are DIY-tinkerer types that dismiss these kinds of practical concerns ("you probably don't need a permit") or write them off as too establishment ("fat-cat municipalities looking to get their piece of the pie"). You see this a lot in the so-called "tiny-house movement"--people who see code enforcers as the enemy and try to skirt laws and tax assessments by putting their house on a flatbed trailer, for instance, or classifying it as a shed and living in it under the radar.

Being the DIY type and having always fantasized about building my own house (eventually settling for trying my hand at living the tiny life by converting a schoolbus to live in), I know where they are coming from. But as I get older (and arguably less-idealistic) I've come to appreciate the need for safety and inspection codes, permits, and work done by licensed, bonded, and insured contractors, and have accepted that, barring a few exceptions, they are in place for good reason.

Would you want someone building your house who watched some videos on carpentry and electrical work on Youtube and learns by trial and error? Would you take medical advise from someone who read on the internet that lemon juice and ginger can cure a malignant tumor?

And yet when it comes to our spiritual lives, we often take a DIY approach or put our souls in the care of self-appointed gurus. And how much more valuable are our souls than a house or a physical body?

Now, I think there is a place for personal discernment, but that for the majority of people it is most fruitful within an established framework or "moral code." The mind is simply too self-serving, too deceptive, to be left to its own devices.

In the first chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism, lays the foundation for the spiritual life of those following in the Way through strong admonition and warning. He describes four types of monks.

"The first kind are the Cenobites:
those who live in monasteries
and serve under a rule and an Abbot."

Notice the importance of serving under two things: a rule (a prescribed set of established spiritual and practical ordinances) and an Abbot (an abba, a spiritual father entrusted with the welfare of those in his care).

In the next passage, he describes those who have been called by God (and not all are) to the desert to enter into spiritual battle alone. Note that these are men and women who have been tried and matured in their vocation, and are permitted only after a "long probation" in a monastery, to do so. They have been strengthened by the rule and their years of training to undertake what is ahead, and only then never apart from God's grace.

"The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits:
those who,
no longer in the first fervor of their reformation,
but after long probation in a monastery,
having learned by the help of many brethren
how to fight against the devil,
go out well armed from the ranks of the community
to the solitary combat of the desert.
They are able now,
with no help save from God,
to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh
and their own evil thoughts."

The third and fourth types of monks are wayward, lax, and moved by their own wills and notions. They detest being subject to a rule, but prefer their own way of doing things. Benedict uses strong language to describe them, and for good reason--they are not to be emulated. 

"The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites.
These, not having been tested,
as gold in the furnace (Wis. 3:6),
by any rule or by the lessons of experience,
are as soft as lead.
In their works they still keep faith with the world,
so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God.
They live in twos or threes, or even singly,
without a shepherd,
in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord's.
Their law is the desire for self-gratification:
whatever enters their mind or appeals to them,
that they call holy;
what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.

The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues.
These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province,
staying as guests in different monasteries
for three or four days at a time.
Always on the move, with no stability,
they indulge their own wills
and succumb to the allurements of gluttony,
and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.
Of the miserable conduct of all such
it is better to be silent than to speak." 

Now, 99% of us are not monks, but Benedict's admonitions still have a lot to teach us as laypeople.

We need the support of a sacramental community bound by common purpose beyond that of self-gratification. The early Christians(as recounted in the Book of Acts) lived in this kind of spiritual brotherhood, selling their property and sharing all in common, breaking bread and praying together.

We need bonafide, trustworthy teachers and spiritual fathers. Jesus made his teaching and salvation accessible to all, but entrusted the teaching authority to the Twelve. We need only to look at the early heresies that emerged (and continue to emerge today) to see why this safeguarding of Diving Revelation was important. Those who spurn teaching and shun authority should be held suspect.

We benefit from a time-tested and established rule or code of conduct, as Chesterton called "the walls of a playground," the way marriage vows hedge in a couple during those difficult periods of a marriage, the way Odysseus commanded his crew to tie him to the ship mast to keep him from certain death at the hands of the sweet-singing sirens.

Without these, the tendency to follow our own ways and tastes is too strong, and we are left vulnerable to the temptations of the Devil. We are like golfers trying to go head to head with Tiger Woods in a PGA championship by practicing our strokes based on what we think is right. Tiger Woods was not self-taught. he learned from a master golfer, as most good golfers too. Bishop Robert Barron said it better than I can, "If you swing the golf club the wrong way enough times, you become a bad golfer, that is to say, someone habitually incapable of hitting the ball straight and far. And if you swing the club correctly enough times, you become a good golfer, someone habitually given to hitting the ball straight and far."

No one forays into the wilderness without a map and compass and a guide. If we are honest, we are simply too inexperienced, novices in the spiritual life, to be free climbing crags alone without belay, or venturing into the territory of wolves without the skills necessary for survival. As the modern-day anchorite Fr. Lazarus Al-Anthony said in a rare interview in his desert hermitage in Egypt: "If I take my eyes off Jesus for one moment out here, I am alone, and am utterly lost."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Breakfast Is Served

I had to pick up one of my sick kids early from daycare this afternoon. Back at the house and bored from watching too much Paw Patrol, I asked the kids if they wanted to make some cookies to have something to do. Of course they did.

The plan was to make oatmeal cookies. But instead of using uncooked oats for whatever reason, I made oatmeal instead and added it to the batter. Not firm enough to make cookies, I just poured it in a casserole pan and baked it for twenty minutes. Turned out fine and tasted pretty good, no harm no foul.

Anyway, when I broke it down and realized what went into this little oatmeal cake thing, I realized what was in it:

Brown Sugar
An Egg

In other words, this cake looking thing that came out of the oven:

Was basically my classic diner breakfast fare (sans the sausage):

in another form.

I see this reflected in a couple ways in my own life.

One is that if I ate the same exact thing every morning for breakfast for the past thirty years, I would hate breakfast. We're not robots, we're human beings. We don't eat gruel without taste or soylentgreen every day--even though it would serve the same function as cooked food--for a reason. Variety is the spice of life, as they say. We prefer drinking coffee to popping a couple caffeine pills because there's something intangibly enjoyable about the ritual of preparing, making (or buying), and consuming. Something a little less mechanical and a little more human.

On the flip side, a lot of marketing and branding is simply repacking the same old crap in a different form to keep the profit machine moving along. Eggs, oatmeal, and toast may not consistently sell, but "NEW!! OATMEAL BREAKFAST CAKE!! EAT ON THE GO!!" does. Until people get tired of that, then it's repackaged as "Simple. Hearty. Classic: Eggs Oatmeal n' Toast" and resold as something new. Same ingredients going down the same gullet, but "new" nonetheless.

I've been getting down on myself a little bit during Lent for not praying every morning at the same time in the same form, consistently, like the military man or monk I always wanted to be. But I realized that I have in fact been praying, and pretty consistently, albeit in a variety of ways rather than just one. Some days I do wake up early and sit at the kitchen table and read. Some days I end up listening to the Word on audio in the car. Some days I'm kneeling by my bed in prayer, and other days I'm taking a walk through the woods on my lunch break and just spending time with the Lord. So, prayer, yes, always...but not always the same.

As long as the ingredients are there, I think the way you serve it up is a matter of personal taste. Some people like their eggs scrambled, some fried, some hard boiled. Likewise, some are drawn to contemplative prayer, some charismatic, some praise-and-worship, some oral. And some people (like me) seem to benefit from mixing it up from now and then.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"Radical" Christianity

I ran across an essay recently that attempted to bring to light the implicit biases we have when using the terms "radical" as it relates to Christians and Muslims. In other words, what people think of when the term "radical Christian" is used and likewise what comes to mind when hearing the term "radical Muslim."

 It gave some good food for thought. I'm not qualified to speak about Islam, but it did make me think: what is a 'radical Christian,' anyway? In my mind this kind of qualifying nomenclature comes into play only when juxtaposed with that of 'nominal or cultural Christianity' (a term one does not hear all that often, perhaps pejorative). It's a bit of a non sequitur, since a 'radical Christian' is nothing short of a "Christian", or to use the term one of my theology professors in grad school preferred, a "Christ-follower." Or, more directly, a "disciple."

 In secular culture, 'Radical' implies, "so-and-so actually believes this stuff and lives it." The non-qualified term "Christian" often refers to the systematic form of belief. One can "be a Christian" by believing in Jesus as the Son of God. Sometimes this comes with privileges as well as costs (depending on your culture, I suppose). But it is not always accurately indicative of a lived faith, as is written in the book of James, "Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like." (1:23-24)

 An intentional disciple, on the other hand, not only believes but follows, without conditions. They don't "take it a step farther" by putting that belief and call into action, as if earning extra credit. That is the starting point! A few points of scripture (of which there are many) which relate to this:

 "Jesus said, 'Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.' And they dropped their nets and followed him." (Mt 4:21-22)

 "Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Lk 9:23)

 "Will [the master] thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?" (Lk 17:9)

 "Why do you call me 'Lord' and not do as I say?" (Lk 6:46)

 We're often told, (either explicitly or inferred) that you can be a Christian without getting 'carried away' by doing the kinds of things Jesus calls us to--loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, caring for the poor, loving God with our whole hearts, minds, and souls. That seems to be like having a car with no gas in the tank. You can sleep in it, I guess, maybe store some stuff in the trunk, or show it off to your friends in your driveway, wax it, etc. But it won't take you anywhere. More of a liability and baggage than anything of any real value if you ask me, or something that belongs in a car museum or something.

 Cultural Christianity has some historical value, I suppose. But it is more like a relic of the past, some entombed mummy or a trilobite in amber that future generations will study as an anthropological case study, the way we study cavemen or the Aztecs. Museums tend to put me to sleep, quite frankly. Not really interested.

 So called "radical Christianity" (intentional discipleship) is where things start to come alive. You're following in the footsteps of a REAL MAN, a REAL GOD, having a REAL RELATIONSHIP; who makes promises for things yet unseen but who is not untrustworthy, who is always with us (even when we forget or are not mindful of his presence) even when everyone may abandon us; who cares less about our customs and habits and more about having our whole hearts, minds, and souls. A terrifying prospect in its demands, one that requires a great amount of trust.

 I don't call myself a "radical husband," but simply a husband. My wife is not a "radical wife," but a wife (and an awesome one at that). We have made the commitment to love and serve in a real way, for the long haul, placing full trust in one another, legally and sacramentally bound, for life. We made vows...and we believed them! I could care less about having the label of 'husband' and could do without the privileges a marriage affords or being part of some married-persons club. But I could not do without my wife.

 There's something radical about that kind of relationship, I guess. But only in comparison to sham love, sham commitment, the kind our culture promotes. Which, when you think about it, is not worth having really anyway.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Showing the Dawn It's Place

There are so many agricultural parables in the Bible and for good reason--the people of the Ancient Near East were primarily an agrarian people. Their lives depended on rain, sowing, harvests, etc.When Jesus taught about the Kingdom, he did in a way that spoke the language of the people in a way they could relate to. Most importantly, they recognized their dependence on the Creator and his work in due season. As the Lord spoke to Job:

"Where were you when I founded the earth? Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shows the dawn its place? Has the rain a father or who has begotten the drops of dew? (38:4, 12, 28)

With the advent of synthetic fertilizers, modern agriculture has attempted to grow more food faster, resistant to harmful insects and pests, and many times to achieve a specific outcome (firmer skins more suitable for shipping; more tolerant to drought, etc). It is hard to avoid, however, the unintended consequences of this. An example would be that harmful insects have become resistant to pesticides to the extent that stronger and more toxic ones are needed to achieve the same outcome. Because they are so strong, they tend to kill off beneficial insects as well as harmful ones. Enter the age of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in which scientists are literally changing the DNA of plants and embedding this kinds of herbicides and insecticides in the literal DNA of plant material.

The other day I was thinking about growing food and the need for fertilization. Growing food is a real test in patience. Seedings grow from seed, and mature plants from seedlings, and they do so in their own time. They need nutrients and minerals in the soil to grow, and for their fruit to have an ample supply of nutrients, not to mention taste. Nature typically supplies what plants need from organic matter (fallen leaves, grasses, nitrogen-fixing groundcovers, earthworms, sometimes animal manures). This also supplies nutrients beyond the typical macro groups such as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) and provides trace elements and minerals not found in synthetic fertilizers, which are far from hollistic for plant health. I am not going to draw a parallel of scientists "playing God" when it comes to these kinds of practices. But I think we have overstepped our bounds when it comes to agricultural practices that work with nature, rather than against it, as it relates to modern farming.

Something else I was thinking about as it relates to our own fertility as human beings. Pornography is touted as a kind of sexual fertilizer used to jump start one's libido. It excites quickly, acting on the pleasure senses in the brain in a way similar to that of drugs. The unintended consequence being of course, that, like modern synthetic fertilizers, you eventually need more and more of it to achieve the same ends til eventually it takes a toxic kind of form. It also attempts to make one 'self-fertile'--that is, sexual gratification becomes inward, not outward or expressive, less about love and more about personal satisfaction, trapped in itself and synthetic. Studies have proven that those exposed and engaged in long-term porn use have more problems relating, more problems with intimacy. Sex becomes something with macronutrients, but deficient in those trace elements and minerals for a healthy sex life (communication, tenderness, sensitivity to another's needs). Hormonal contraceptives likewise work to 'trick' the body by suppressing ovulation to render the womb inhospitable to implantation, the desired outcome being, of course, the ability to have sex without fear of pregnancy. For some, especially those overburdened by an already large number of children or those not desiring children at all, this is a welcome respite. But it does seem to disrupt a natural rhythm by chemical means (often carcinogenic).

It's said that modern agriculture has given us an abundance of food on less acreage, resistant to disease and harmful insects. But our soil is depleted of nutrients and minerals, produce from the supermarket lacks taste and nutrition, and pesticides are ingested into our bodies because often times they cannot be washed off since they are embedded in the fruits and vegetables themselves. Chemical companies have a stake in making sure farmers continue to use their products to achieve the same yields, and farmers have to use them to ensure against crop failure. Consumers have some choice, but are often uninformed of alternatives. The whole cycle has become more and more removed from what is natural, and by natural I don't mean that 'all-natural' marketing nonsense on your box of whole-grain Cheerios, but out of step with the natural order of Creation.

Porn is big industry. The Pill is big money. Abortion is big business. There's money on the line from those running those shows. But our health, our sexuality, our relationships, our spiritual nature, and our very souls are on the line as well when we step out of the designs of He who created us out of love and for love, out of disorder and into order, out of nothing and into beings made in His very image and likeness.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Seeds of Lent

Last week, during a brief warm spell and in a prematurely excited desire to get things going in my garden ahead of schedule, I planted 3 rows of beet seeds. At present, they are laying under 3 inches of snow that fell a few days later. No harm done, since they are cold-weather plants and haven't sprouted yet; still, it might be a while before they rouse out of dormancy.

Jesus relays an agricultural parable to his disciples in all three of the synopic gospels (Mk 4, Lk 8; Mt 13) that illustrate the potential for us to grow in Christ during the penitential season with four scenarios of sowing:

1) seeds along the path, which the birds eat up
2) seeds on rocky ground, which spring up quickly but shortly whither for lack of roots
3) seeds among thorns, which grew up and chocked the plant
4) seeds on good soil, producing thirty, sixty, one hundred fold.

The forty day period of Lent (and beyond) has the potential to be a fertile spiritual field in which we concentrate a little more closely on cultivating the practices and virtues necessary to work out our salvation in harmony with God the Creator, over the long haul, in preparation for Resurrection Sunday. So, how can it address these four germination scenarios in Jesus' parable of the sower?

1) The seed sown along the path is vulnerable to those who would snatch it up. It is not in the right spot, not furrowed in, but hanging out there on the surface. "As soon as they hear it" Satan comes and takes away the word sown in them. We need to 'furrow in' with those who will support us and provide a hedge of protection, surrounding ourselves with good things and not detractors.

2) The seed sown on rocky ground is like the fast horse out of the blocks, or the dieter on New Years Day. Ash Wednesday and you're off to a great start. But you won't make it past Friday without some solid time spent in prayer and time devoted to going deeper in your relationship with the Lord and in the Word. Fertilizer, if you will--something to feed the roots.

3) The seed sown among thorns. The desire for comfort, inordinate pleasure, and worldly possessions has the potential to choke out the light, the air, and the moisture needed for good growing conditions. When we work on pruning and stripping these things out, those things that take up space in our lives instead of God, we allow more room to grow spiritually.

4) The seed sown on good soil. When a plant is getting good light, water, and nutrients to feed its roots and vegetative growth, it flourishes.  Prayer, time spent in Scripture, pruning out sinful tendencies, caring for the poor, and fasting all contribute to this state.

For me, Lent came at a time when I was struggling to focus spiritually. I was lax in my prayer life and various vines and brambles had worked their way into my life. I was overdue for a pruning. To take my mind off my grumbling stomach, I took a walk in the woods south of campus as a kind of mid-day retreat, just time alone with God. It was quiet and peaceful, and my tracks in the snow along the path were the only ones being made. I stopped along a small creek to read from the book of Psalms:

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
    but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
    who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
    will never be shaken.

I've found it's important for me not to bite off too much, and also to keep focused on the 'heart of things.' The externals are meant to help us on the journey--a means to an end, not the end itself. I don't want Lent to be some kind of spiritual New Year's with good intentions that last for a few days and end in failure and self-defeat. So, baby steps. After all, you have to build up the soil before you can expect to grow anything worth harvesting.