Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Son and His Broken Heart

I want to tell you a little story. It's the story of a little boy and his broken heart.

I met Deb and the kids at the park after work. We both had had long exhausting days, I had driven up from DC that morning, and by the time we got back to the house it was late. Everyone, including me, was tired, hungry, and a little cranky. We ate some pizza and tried to get in bed a little early, but the kids were being defiant and Deb sent David to time-out.

"I don't want to go in there," he said.

"Don't be such a scaredy-cat, David," Deb told him, exacerbated.

Now, this was an innocent enough reply, and she obviously didn't mean it to make him feel bad. But feel bad he did, and he began to act out. He ripped up a picture of me he had just drawn and stomped around. Bedtime was difficult, and we couldn't figure out what was going on. Eventually things that had been bottling up for the last hour spilled over into a cacophony of unprocessed feelings. I tried to hug him but he pushed me away and told me he hated me and to leave him alone. Crying inconsolably. I had been away for work and the night before he was crying on Facetime because he said he missed me so much. Now he wanted nothing to do with me. It was emotionally exhausting, the push-and-pull.

Eventually it started to come out in little phrases between his cries and gasps for breaths. "Nobody loves me. I'm bad. I'm a scaredy-cat. I don't love anyone. I made daddy sad. This is the baddest day. My heart is broken."

As I began to see what was going on, what was at the root of it, I started to get really upset. Before Deb and I got married and started a family, I confided in her my fears of bringing life into the world burdened with the cross of mental illness, which has a strong genetic predisposition. If you knew what it was like to suffer from it, you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy.

Now, I know what you might be thinking--that this was just a toddler having a tantrum, and isn't it a little premature to be diagnosing him like that? We've had plenty of those instances. But something about tonight was different. As my son cried and wrestled with his feelings, I could literally feel his toddler pain in the way only a father can. He is so sensitive, such a little boy with such big feelings, almost too big for him. He swings from extremes. And I knew exactly what he was feeling, because I was feeling it with him, because he is my own flesh and blood...just as my my father felt the pain I went through in my darkest hours when he could do nothing to help me but be there with me in it. When you hate yourself, when you feel that all you do is cause people you love pain, when you push people away when you really want them close, when you really do feel like you are no good. It came back tonight in a flood, feelings that I hadn't felt in a long time. And the weirdest thing was it wasn't me going through it, but my son. But the feelings were the same, as if there was  an invisible bridge connecting our hearts.

I continued to struggle with him, holding him in a bear hug but it was all I could do to keep his thrashing body from wrenching free. Exhausted after several minutes of it, I let him go, and he threw himself on the ground. "I need to be alone," he said. And so we all left the room.

I sat by the stairs outside his room with my head in my hands. And I began to hear him praying and crying. "Oh God, please. This is the worst day ever. I made daddy feel bad and ripped up his picture. And I love you God. And I don't want to be bad or scaredycat. My heart is broken, God. And I know you love me. And the Spirit, and Suzy and and God you love me. And your Son. Please God please." It was a junior psalmist's prayer--a heart rendering, offered up, honest and raw prayer of a little boy with big feelings and big hurt.

When he was finished he came out of his room and was sitting on the floor in the hallway. I came in with tears and sat down next to him. He fought it back for a little while, lips quivering, but then something broke free and he just sobbed in my arms. "David, I love you and forgive you and need you to forgive me and mommy too. Sometimes we hurt each other but there's nothing you can do to make me stop loving you. Just like God loves us, and will never stop loving us. And I know how you feel because when I was a little boy I had big feelings too that I didn't know what to do with. And it does hurt because sometimes your heart isn't big enough to hold it all. But everything you're feeling now I've felt, and granddad has felt too. But you know what? Everything we feel, God felt too, because his son felt it, because he was human like us. So it's good you talk to God like that, and that he talks to you, because that's what prayer is and only God can heal a broken heart." We talked for a bit after that. The storm had passed and left us drenched and sitting.

Like many people who struggle with mental illness, I thought early on maybe it would be better, more responsible and better, not to marry and bring life into the world and risk the chance of passing my genes and everything in them through another generation. But if I did listen to that fear and did not let love overshadow me, the world would not have David. There would be one less soul praying tonight in his room sharing his suffering with the Father who suffered as his Son suffered, who listens to little boys sharing their pain as if it were His own.

Friday, March 25, 2016

No Good

Dark nights never seem to have an end when you are going through them. One night from my past I remember vividly was in January, 2005. I was on the floor of my apartment, balled up in a fetal position, enduring a kind of acute psychic pain only someone who has gone through the most major of depressions can know. The best way I can describe it is that your mind is on the rack being stretched to its breaking point, and your body has shut down in response unable to deal with the trauma.

There is an eerie calm that descends when the possibility of taking your own life enters into the picture at these moments. It's like a salesman has mysteriously appeared at your door of suffering before dawn, offering something you so desperately want and need--peace, rest, and an end. The price is high, but you're not really thinking about that. It's a pivotal moment in the cosmos, when you'll use your free-will to make a choice, for the last time on earth.

If we are following in the footsteps of Jesus, Gethsemane is an unavoidable stop on the journey to Calvary. Our friends are asleep, and we are alone with our destiny in the garden and the cup presented before us, that we beg to be taken away. We know what lies before us, but we see no way out aside from what the Devil salesman puts before us. Hence the urging of Jesus, "Pray that you may not undergo the test!" Not our will, but his be done.

Good Friday is only 'good' in retrospect, after the Easter story has been told. Hanging on a pre-Easter cross, the only thing to be seen is failure: failed Kingdoms-to-come, failed revolutions, failed man, failed life.

Today, we know the story doesn't end at the cross in death. But put yourself for a moment there at that first Friday, when resurrection history hasn't yet unfolded in time. Hold on. Pray and hold fast to a kernel of hope that this is not the end. Fight and sweat. Have your crew tie you to the mast. Wonder in awe that what was to befall you is held on the shoulders of another son of man who has taken the sins of the world onto himself. Resist and hold the tension in the eerie calm of night when Death offers its inviting promises of rest and peace when all you want is rest and peace. Don't give up, and don't give in.

Life is just around the bend.

"See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exhalted. Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away, and who would have thought any more of his destiny?" (Is 52:13; 53:8)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

May The Sun Not Go Down: A Reflection on Anger

Anger is one of those sins we tend to turn a blind eye to when we are the ones harboring it. It's easy to justify, but hard to see in ourselves, and we really have to look closely the way a scientist might like for a virus under a microscope.

In times of stress, I think men tend to struggle more with anger, and I am no exception. Unfortunately, those in our household become the targets of directed anger--our wives and children and sometimes our parents. St. Thomas Aquinas says that we are typically angry in the face of some injustice done to us, and that what especially provokes anger is the element of contempt or scorn in the one who does us some wrong. That was the case in our house tonight. Anger and resentment against my wife was smoldering all day for various slights, and I had been yelling at my kids all day (and even our dogs, much to the chagrin of St. Francis I'm sure), and as time for seven o'clock Mass came around, I fought the temptation to bag it and crawl into bed and took my son to church with me instead. I didn't even get the chance to reconcile (even with Daylight Savings Time), as it is written: "In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold." (Eph 4:26)

St. John Bosco wrote to his priests who held responsibility for the orphan street boys in their care: "They are our sons, and so in correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely. There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement."

It was Palm Sunday, the last Sunday during Lent leading up to Holy Week. I was drained as David and I sat in the pew, him clutching the palms that signified the entrance of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. I felt like it wasn't even right for me to be there, since "anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:20). Paul admonishes the Ephesians who were fathers "not to exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord."  It felt more like going to a hospital to be healed of a sickness then going to a temple to glorify God.

When I would attend Mass before I was a member of the Church, it would be so hard to sit in the pews as everyone would go up for Communion. But tonight I knew it would be wrong for me to approach the Lord in the Eucharist with this anger. We let everyone pass by us, since I was convicted by the words of Jesus "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the alter and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Mt 5:23-24)

As we approach Holy Week, I really do believe that they Devil intensifies his attack on us. Anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language (Col 3:8)...I'm guilty of it all. Sometimes it's like a whack-a-mole at Dave and Busters--you knock one sin back in its hole, and others pop up ten fold. That's why the Christian life is not one of simply self-improvement, but a humble submission to the one who forgives ALL our sins through grace and confession of sins, both those conscious and unconscious, who "remembers them no more." (Is 43:25)

Holy Week is a time of intense self-examination to root out and ask the Lord to bring to light all that which rots our spirit and weakens it the way termites weaken the frame and foundation of a house. The more we ignore it, the more we think "I'm basically okay" sitting in the family room, they are at work below the surface, slowly and steadily chewing away at that which holds up our house. We can ignore it for a time, but we will pay the price for it.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Majoring in Dharma Bummage

"We pushed the bike down past the various college hangouts and cafeterias and looked into Robbie's to see if we knew anybody. Alvah was in there, working his part-time job as busboy. Japhy and I were kind of outlandish-looking on the campus in our old clothes in fact Japhy was considered an eccentric around the campus, which is the usual thing for campuses and college people to think whenever a real man appears on the scene -- college being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization. 'All these people,' said Japhy, 'they all got white-tiled toilets and take big dirty craps like bears in the mountains, but it's all washed away to convenient supervised sewers and nobody thinks of crap any more or realizes their origin is shit and civet and scum of the sea. They spend all day washing their hands with creamy soaps they secretly wanta eat in the bathroom."  

--Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

There has been a trend since the financial crisis of 2008, and possibly before, that speculates about what the purpose of higher education is and/or should be. Is it a definitive shift that flummoxes and frustrates many faculty, especially those in the liberal arts, positing that to stay competitive in a global marketplace universities should be moving away from such 'useless' majors like Philosophy, History, and English to focus on more 'practical' STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that lead to well-paying and market-driven jobs. It is a pedagogical shift that targets the very idea of the purpose higher education itself--what is its purpose, what are the desired outcomes of a college graduate, and how can they best contribute to society? In other words, "just what are you learning anyway, son, and what are you going to 'do' with it when you graduate?"

Now a critique of the state of higher ed in this country and an analysis of this pedagogical divide is beyond the scope of this post. But I wonder about these questions--as a college graduate that did in fact forgo a STEM field in favor of a quote-unquote 'useless' course of study; as someone who works in higher education presently; and as a parent looking years down the road and deciding how to guide our children into both a God-given vocation and the opportunity for meaningful work suited to their abilities.

Some of our friends have chosen the Montessori route for their young children. I honestly don't know much about it, but from what I understand it is more exploratory, creative, less strict boundaries and more freedom to naturally gravitate to what they enjoy. We have chosen to send our kids to public school, aware of the temptation for educators in some federally-funded settings to 'teach to the test' since they are under pressure to score high. I do hope they develop both a critical thinking faculty, a love of learning, and the necessary analytical and writing skills to become well rounded students. We plan to be involved in their education.

I will admit as the kids get older I have a latent temptation to play it safe and hope, like many parents, that they gravitate to something that will lead to a good, meaningful, and decent-paying career. If David said, "Dad, I want to major in engineering," I would probably breathe a sigh of relief. If Monica said, "Dad, I think I want to be a writer," I would have to take a deep breath and be mindful of my response so as to not betray what was going through my mind (like, "HOW WILL YOU LIVE??") Its a bit of risky business in the mind of parents, because higher education is a big investment, and while you want your children to be happy, you also don't want to see them struggling to put food on the table, or delay having a family themselves for lack of gainful employment.

But the question remains, from grade-school to college: what is the purpose of education? Is it to instill a love of learning, a critical-thinking faculty, the ability to write well, reason, debate, read, deduce, formulate ideas? Or is it to train workers to slot them into needed positions, the way we regulate immigration to fill quotas for say, how many workers are needed to work in x,y,z field this season? I think it's appropriate for medical, law, and engineering programs to have a different teaching philosophy and objective than, say, a counseling or philosophy program. The problem I see, is when there is pressure--whether it's from well-meaning parents, governments, or self-appointed social pundits, to reduce universities to a job-training program.

My brothers and I all went to a large state research university. While they were majoring in STEM fields and securing internships and interviewing for their pick of jobs senior year, I was reading Hesse and traveling, writing and philosophizing, volunteering, and trying to find my way. I vowed that if were to ever go to grad school, it would be for something I was passionate about (which I did). They have good paying jobs and are skilled and suited for what they do. I also now have a job I enjoy that seems to square with my more generalized talents and strengths, but my compensation commensurates with my lack of specific, in-demand skills. I write this not to compare myself to their situation or be critical, but I wonder if I had the opportunity to go back in time and do it again, would I do anything differently. We tend to want for our children what we didn't have as adults looking back. It took me a long time to come to terms that I was ok, and that I wasn't a complete screw-up as a result of my choices--or lack of them.

I will say, I remember when I was on a training ride with the Central Bucks Bike Club when I was 17 or so. I was chatting with a doctor who said she went straight from high school to college to med school to residency to work. I was lamenting about how I had no direction, had so many interests and didn't know what I wanted to do besides riding boxcars and biking. "You know, there is a part of me that regrets not taking more time to live more, I was on the fast track to becoming a doctor and now that I'm in it I can't really go back. I wish I would have taken more time to do what I really wanted." So I guess regret can go both ways.  

I loved grad school. I was working full-time in the city at a social service/public health agency and went to school at night. It was my intellectual outlet where I got to read, write, and collaboratively discuss theological concepts with my peers and professors. It made me think critically about social, bioethical, and moral issues in an interdisciplinary way, get acquainted with metaphysics, delve into history, consider different points of view and traditions. I don't regret it, though whether it was 'worth it' from an economic standpoint I can't say.

I think the gist of what I'm getting at, for my own sake as well as the sake of my kids, is that we are called to what we are called to--some people are analytical in mind, some people are theoretical. Some are big picture, some love detail. Some are people-people, some want to be in a room with data all day. Hopefully, we fall into what we are most naturally suited for, good at, and maybe even love. I'd hate to live in a world of nothing but engineers obsessed with maximal optimization of time and resources but who never concern themselves with the simple question 'what is truth?' as much as I would hate to live in a world of nothing but life-coach yoga instructor health gurus. Thanks be to God, we are a human body made up of many parts with many talents, suited for different and essential purposes. If they are committed to true education universities can be a place where one both starts to explore what their natural aptitudes are and how it can translate into a career, as well as develop simply a love of learning--that is, learning for its own sake.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Red Pill Blue Pill

My wife is fond of reading celebrity news. I think because she uses her brain so much throughout the day that she needs something mindless to indulge in at the end of the day. Some celebrity drivel made her remark the other day, "these celebrities live in another universe. It's like they are out of touch with reality."

I know what she meant. But when I thought about it, so are we. We are them. When I think about Christians being slaughtered, tortured, beheaded, and terrorized for their faith in the Middle East; of immigrants risking everything on harrowing journeys to distant lands in search of a better life; of poverty-level families right here in America trying to make ends meet--it makes our lives seem like a celebrity gossip column that other people read and think, "are they so out of touch with what is going on outside the world they've built for themselves?"

How do you care about something when it's not your reality? As a relatively self-centered person, it's hard for me to step out of what doesn't pertain to me or affect my consciousness. I'm caught up in my own world. Every now and then, though, God takes a few bricks out the walls you've built up around your life to let you know there is something there on the outside, makes a hole to peek out of.

During my drive home I was having a real one-way shouting match with God for taking too many bricks out of my wall in a certain comfortable area of my life, for making things shaky when they had until today been pretty solid. The prayer was raw and slightly schizophrenic: Take it, Lord, whatever you want. No no don't. I trust my lack of trust. What do you want?? I don't have it in me! Etc. 

Back home and wrapped up in the horrors of our abominable bedtime routine, my wife and I were going through the usual routine of wrestling, cajoling, scolding, and pleading for the kids to go to bed. When they finally relented a little, and we put on the quiet lullaby music, things got still in the nightlight-lit room.  My wife was in Monica's bed with her, and I was laying with David as he read himself a story. He eventually got tired and I held him in my arms. I softly sung him a lullaby I made up that is his favorite. "I love my David, my little David. He makes me happy, when skies are blue. You'll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my David away."

I had had a hard day coming to terms with some things, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, really ran the gamut. I sang the made-up lullaby over and over and then I teared up a little at first, the words, that someone might take my David away. And I began to cry in the dark room, and cried and cried, for a long time. After twenty minutes or so, a kind of peace settled in.

My son does not belong to me. My life does not belong to me. Even more, and even more painful, my IDEA of how my life should look, the celebrity structure of my day to day, is an idol when we don't hand it over to God to do with it whatever pleases Him. It is SUCH a painful and mortifying lesson and such a privilege to be taught it, to see the things we hold tight to that God is slowly, gently, asking us to loosen our grip, to take his hand and trust him when we don't know where he is leading us. Our realities become different realities. If only we would trust Him, who know what awaits us!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Letter To A 13 Year Old Boy On His Birthday

Dear D,

My name is Rob, I know your father. He is a good man and though I don't know you I know he loves you and is a strong man of God. You should be proud to have him as a dad.

I am writing you on your birthday to let you know that this is an important time in your life as a boy who is becoming a man. There are many boys your age who, for one reason or another, do not have a father in their life. You may even know some. It is hard not having a father. It leaves a hole, whether a young boy realizes it or not.

My dad was an important part of my life growing up. He helped me get my first job delivering newspapers when I was 13. He taught me about how to be wise with my money that I was earning, how to save, and how to invest. He taught me how to tie a tie, ride a bike, and set up a tent. He was always there for me when I needed him. He showed me the closest thing to how God loves us by loving me unconditionally, even when I made mistakes.

There are a few things I'd like to say and a few pieces of advice I'd like to share that I hope you will remember:

Firstly, take care of your body, and treat it with respect, since it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Being active is good--things like hiking, running, playing sports. It is good training for learning how to endure discomfort, which you will need, along with God's grace, to resist sinful temptations. A man does not grow strong physically unless his pushes and works his body, and a man does not grow spiritually unless he prays and reads his bible daily.

Secondly, always remember that Jesus walks with you. Tell him what you are going through--when things are good and when they are not so good. Cast your cares on Him, for he cares for you.

Thirdly, choose your friends wisely, and don't follow the crowd. If you know something is not right, being a man means standing up and not going along with it. You know what is right, because your dad has taught you. Many people know what is right but don't do it. A man knows what is right and also does what is right in God's eyes, even when it costs him.

Finally, you will make mistakes in life; it is part of learning. A man learns from his mistakes and does his best not to repeat them. He listens to advice and takes guidance, especially from his dad, because your dad probably went through a lot of the same things you are going through.

I hope you have a great birthday, and know that I will be praying for you. You will be a great man of God!


Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Manger Is Full, and Manure Is Everywhere!

When I was in college, I remember taking a walk with one of my Geography professors one afternoon off campus.

Maybe it was because I had always struggled with the rollercoaster of living with a mood disorder, or that I was still holding on to a misguided Buddhist ideal of non-attachment post-conversion to Christianity, but in any case I made mention, of my frustration with the highs and lows of life.

"I wish they would just cancel each other out," I said in sophomoric fashion, "so everything could be kind of net-zero. Like taking the tops off a mountain to fill in the valley." No love, but no loss. No pleasure, but no pain. A life of dispassion seemed like a noble, responsible pursuit.

"Hm," he said wryly. "Doesn't sound like much of a life to me."

I've thought back to that conversation from time to time now that life is in full-force. My kids drive me to both the deepest wells of anger with their antics and a primal urge to protect and nurture them. My wife forces me to dig deep to forgive and trust in our future, while recognizing she could be taken from me at any time. My walk with God has taken me through deserts and dark nights as well as mountaintop witness to transfiguration and glory.

We risk a lot when we love, when we bring life into the world, and when we put our trust in Someone. But I can say without hesitation that the joys pay for the pain, that the frustration and burdens are outnumbered by the growth, and the eternal mess is a small price to pay for a house full of life. For faith is a pearl of great price (Mt 13:46), a good wife more precious than jewels (Prov 31:10), and children a blessing from the Lord (Ps 127:3).

(Post-script: I'm writing this as my wife is given me searing looks for abdicating my parenting responsibility to write, the kids are melting down because they can't watch Doc McStuffins, and I just slammed my Bible shut on the table out of sheer frustration at being unable to concentrate. Oh the irony is thick tonight!) 

"Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest." (Proverbs 14:4) 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


It's the eve of my birthday, an unusually warm spring evening, and for whatever reason I was feeling the need to get out of the house. I was feeling heavy, and down.

I got in my car and set out into the dark night. I made my way to Lowes a few miles away to return something, but really I just wanted to drive around the backroads. When I was young and my dad was struggling with the weight of family and job and mind, he would leave the house and just walk. Maybe it is something men need (or have the luxury of doing).
 Tonight as I drove, feeling the weight of my failures and sin now halfway through the season of Lent with little to show for it, I thought about a passage from the Book of Judges I had read not too long ago.

The Israelites were at war with the Midianites, who at the time numbered in excess of 120,000 men. Gideon, one of the Judges of Israel, had with him 32,000 men camped just south of the Midianite camp in the valley. Though outnumbered four to one, the Lord nevertheless instructed Gideon to send home 22,000 of the most timid (Judges 7:3) and left him with 10,000. Of those 10,000 remaining, the Lord instructed Gideon to take them to the water to drink, for "there are still too many men...I will sift them for you there" (v 4).

The men drank--some of them "lapped the water with their tongues like dogs" and the rest drank on their knees. The Lord again instructed Gideon to send home those 9,700 who drank on their knees. Leaving the army of Israel numbered at 300 men who lapped the water like dogs. Against an army of 120,000. And He promised he would deliver the enemy into their hands (v. 9). The Israelites did indeed rout the Midianites, despite being outnumbered 400 to 1.  With such impossible odds, there was no doubt that it was only God's Hand at work "so that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her" (v. 2).

Now, I don't know what the proper interpretation of the men who "drank like dogs" might be, or what God was getting at with choosing these kind of men to overthrow a formidable army. But having a dog, from what I can observe, I don't think it's a real compliment. Dogs follow their least our dog does. She gets up on the table and snatches food off of plates and out of our hands; she just can't help herself if something she wants is in front of her. She has no sense of obeying our commands, no remorse, and no loyalty; she simply goes to whoever will give her what she wants. If we don't let her out in time, she messes the floor, soiling everything. She rummages through the trash, strewing it everywhere. And yes, she laps her water, drinking even from dirty puddles if she is thirsty enough. As a domesticated animal, she would simply die if put out in the wild to fend for herself.

Am I much different? Like in Pavlov's experiment, a bell rings and my base impulses take over. It is acutely felt during the dog-days of Lent, when we are called to persist in subduing our passions, not indulging them. To fight temptation, not succumb to it. To be strong in the fight. And yet...

And yet the confounding paradox emerges. When we fall in sin, we betray our true nature. We know this. And yet we being unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin, "do that which we do not really want to do," for as Paul says:

"I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members." (Romans 7:21-23)

And so in the dark car, in the dark night, in what I might regard as a few moments of freedom, I am still nothing more than a slave on a joyride. For no matter where I drive, no matter where I go, my sin follows me like a hunger. "Oh wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" We fast and pray, give alms and train. It's not about small victories, or even big ones. When we forget our yoke, think we are doing well, God makes it known how heavy it really is.

Pulling into the driveway, convicted of the acuteness of my sinful nature, another passage comes to mind, this time in Paul's address to the Corinthians:

"To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me,

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Were the Israelites to defeat the Midianites 4:1 rather than 400:1;
Were Paul to overcome pluck out his thorn of his own accord;
Were I to get out from under my weight and compulsions through self-improvement and discipline...

God's redemption would be a merely human feat, and pride cast us into Hell to the fate we deserve and drive headlong in the night towards. But thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, his power is made perfect in weakness!

Therefore, I say with Paul,  I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Making Your Way

The early followers of the Way (as Christians were known in the book of Acts) were considered an esoteric sect among Jews and Romans alike. Persecution was commonplace until the 4th century when Constantine I took the seat of Emperor. He later experienced a conversion which was the precursor to the Edict of Milan (313 AD), a treatise of tolerance towards Christians which essentially put an end to the persecutions. Christianity had become the lay of the land. It also ushered in the beginnings of the monastic movement led by St. Benedict of Nursia, as those who were seeking a more ascetic life apart from what had become a kind of societal spiritual complacency, made their way to the desert.

This "retreat from the world" by the early monastics is revisited in Rod Dreher's recent book The Benedict Option. It builds on the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who believed we have reached a point in Western society in which we are on the verge of collapse in the manner of the fall of the Roman Empire. Dreher expounds on this in an interview in which he states that "the country (the U.S.) is not ours anymore. This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution."

With more Americans googling "how to move to Canada" if Donald Trump is elected president than ever before, I think even the secular world feels like we are the verge of some kind of collapse as a country or, if you will, an empire. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen, but the nervous tension of where we are headed as a country is palpable. While some people are feeling 'this is not my America' anymore, others are leading the charge to reclaim it, through political process.

Now, I haven't read The Benedict Option, but the question of how to live as a Christian in America today is one I find personally relevant. The erosion of religious liberty and the giving way of the relative position of comfortable privilege Christians have found themselves living in for the past century forces one, if they are serious about their faith, to consider options and ask the question, "How am I to live?"

Theologian Richard Niehbur's signature work "Christ and Culture" approaches the question of how Christians are to interact with contemporary culture. He lays out five "types" or paradigms of how a Christian might view himself in relation to the culture in which he or she lives:

1) Christ Against Culture
The first type, Christ Against Culture, is the sectarian/separatist approach. The culture is lost, so you better jump ship and circle the wagons with your own people. Think society within a society.

2) Christ of Culture
At the other end of the spectrum is Christ of Culture. You might think of this in the American context as those who conflate Americanism with Christianity. Our nation is Christian, and God and country go hand in hand.

3) Christ Above Culture
All good comes from God, whether that good is explicitly Christian or not. One can recognize what is good in, say, Greek philosophy, but which reaches its ultimate fulfillment in the Christian context.

4) Christ Transforming Culture
In this type, society is to be evangelized and reformed. Everything in society is to be reclaimed for Christ.

5) Christ and Culture in Paradox
This final type, the most nuanced, recognizes that Christians live in a state of tension in the world. It recognizes that the world is fallen, yet legitimate authority (even if it is less-than-godly), for example, is to be honored. It is the kingdom not yet fully realized.

What does Niehbur's work have to do with anything? Well, it's as relevant today as it was during Jesus' time, which was pluralistic, albeit in a different cultural context. Zealots wanted to restore the Kingdom of Israel by rooting out the Romans through political revolution. Essenes sought to prepare for the coming of the Messiah by separating themselves and living in strict sectarian communities. Early Christians like Augustine adopted neoplatonist philosophy to a Christian context, while the evangelists sought to win over the world to Christ.

Things are not so different today. People are wresting with this question and it plays out in different says.
When I am in Lancaster county I see the Christ against Culture type in Amish communities. When I visit the Midwest, the Christ of Culture type was more prevalent. Strong evangelical pockets can be found everywhere with Christ Transforming Culture, while my own faith tradition seems to have adopted the Thomistic Christ Above Culture typology.

Personally, I find paradox to be a confounding central theme in my life and approaches at reconciling sometimes seemingly diametrically opposed realities and values to be constantly challenged. I'm suspicious of utopias (whether religious, political, or secular), and am relatively apolitical. I inhabit both Christian and non Christians circles. I don't know if I necessarily want to live in a "Christian country." I find myself supporting environmental causes (a liberal ideal) while opposing abortion (a generally conservative cause). Sometimes I feel like my entire life is one big freaking paradox, and that I'm not really standing anywhere while simultaneously standing everywhere at the same time.

I guess that is because I've found that, generally speaking, life doesn't always fall into neat binary categories, and holding things in tension is difficult. It really is easier, I think, to fall into a camp, whether that's a Us vs Them camp, an Us and Them camp, an Us Over Them camp, or whatever. The tension dissipates, and you devote yourself to the cause. Maybe I'll get there one of these days, but I have a feeling this tension--of being in the world and not of it, of waiting for the Kingdom and still having to cook dinner, of getting up and falling down--is how I am meant to answer the question, "How am I to live?"

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Free Indeed

I am in the midst of submitting my conversion story to a website to be considered for publication. In writing it all down, it has led me to reflect on just what it was that led me to the feet of Christ and the doors of the Church.

Conversion looks different for everyone, and all stories are unique. That being said, there seems to be some general milestones which lead unbelievers to belief, conversion, eventual entrance into a faith community, and continued growth in the spiritual life. I've identified seven significant steps along this road that I think tend to be the marks of a convert to the Faith.

1) Curiosity

Grace provides the seed of faith that comes from God alone. It is the initial spark that nudges the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts to pick up the book of Isaiah and start reading (Acts 8:28). We may wonder, "what is this religion all about?" or "why do these Christians do the things they do?" It is what quietly nudges us to listen to a street preacher or sit with the discontent we feel when we build our lives around material things in the quiet of night or thumb through a bible in a hotel room.

2) Exposure

Exposure stems from curiosity. While a seed has an initial latent storage system inside it's shell, it is the air and water that helps with the conditions to sprout. Seeds buried in the ground initially sprout in darkness. When Philip encounters the Ethiopian, he asks him if he understands what he is reading. "How can I, unless someone explains it to me?" (Acts 8:31) This is an encounter-stage. It can come when we are taken aback at the beauty and reverence of a grand cathedral, or are humbled by the awesomeness of the natural world, or see a sister washing the puss out of a sick man's wounds.

3) Example

If exposure is the air and water, example is the sunlight which allows a to unfurrel. When a seed germinates and breaks through the soil, it soon needs light or it withers and dies." No one hides their light under a bushel basket, but put it out for all to see" (Mt 5:15). Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to "be imitators of me" (1 Cor 11:1)and sets himself as a visible example of what it means to be a Christ-follower because they had few examples to follow. We walk in the footsteps of the Lord, who is invisible, and follow the examples of those who follow him in Truth and Light.

4) Truth

I liken the Catholic faith to a heirloom seed company. They are in the business of Truth. The seeds are original stock, which have been passed down through the centuries through trusted hands, it's genetic makeup intact. GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seed have been tampered with, changed, mutated. They resemble the original from the outside, but they are counterfit, adapted to achieve certain seemingly-desirable characteristics.  

5) Faith

Faith is a free gift (Eph 2:8). It is a available to all. But it is a gift from God Himself, nonetheless. We cannot earn it. We also cannot please God without it, for "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). It is the culmination of conversion, the fruition of its work. "I am the Vine. Apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5).

6) Sacraments

Sacraments are food for the soul that help us to grow strong in our faith. They are an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to impart grace, that help us resist sin and walk fearlessly on the narrow path to salvation.
"Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man, you have no life within you." (Jn 6:53); "Unless you are born of both water and the spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Jn 3:5); "Unless you repent, you will likewise perish." (Lk 13:3)

7) Community

Community is the micronutrients, minerals, and trace elements in the soil. One does not live in a vacuum, the myth of complete self-sufficiency. We exist in a web of interdependence. We build on the strengths and talents of others to make up for deficiencies. There is a diversity in the church, and in community--real community--that is healthy and strengthens and encourages us. Without it, our fruits are nutritionally and spiritually deficient.

Like many converts, I am--even now, almost twenty years later--acutely aware of where I came from: ransomed from death by the blood of Christ on the cross, a slave to sin, a captive set free. I literally cannot imagine a life apart from the one who saved me, and now know what the Psalmist means when he says, "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere" (Ps 84:10).

Nothing tastes like freedom when you have not been free, for "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!"

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Blooms in the Desert

Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth. It's an unforgiving environment. But every now and then, a rain comes and brings the desert to life.

You may have seen the spectacular display here in the news recently. It was interesting to read this description on from the National Park Service: 

Death Valley is famous for its spectacular, spring wildflower displays, but those are the exception, not the rule. Only under perfect conditions does the desert fill with a sea of gold, purple, pink or white flowers. Although there are years where blossoms are few, they are never totally absent.

Most of the showy desert wildflowers are annuals, also referred to as ephemerals because they are short-lived. Oddly enough, this limited lifespan ensures survival here. Rather than struggle to stay alive during the desert’s most extreme conditions, annual wildflowers lie dormant as seeds. When enough rain finally does fall, the seeds quickly sprout, grow, bloom and go back to seed again before the dryness and heat returns. By blooming enmasse during good years, wildflowers can attract large numbers of pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bees and hummingbirds that might not otherwise visit Death Valley.

A good wildflower year depends on at least three things:
  • Well-spaced rainfall throughout the winter and spring
  • Sufficient warmth from the sun
  • Lack of drying winds

Our lives and our spirits can sometimes feel like Death Valley--inhospitable, barren, dry, routine. But sometimes a rain comes, the sun comes, and the winds die down, all at the right time, and what blooms is absolutely spectacular. What was thought to be dead or dormant is radiant in it's natural glory for a short while.

When Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountaintop after six days below, he made his glory known. It is called the Transfiguration. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

Peter can be forgiven for wanting to set up tents on the mountaintop so they would never have to come down. As my son would say, "Daddy, can we stay with you forever?"  But like the wildflowers in Death Valley, such rare occasions when we are permitted to see God for who He really is are not a perpetual state. Really, who outside of Heaven could withstand it for more than a few moments?

We sometimes think that these moments are unusual, an outlier, which is true in a sense given our fallen nature. "Now we see a blurred image in a mirror. Then we will see very clearly." (1 Cor 13:12). But really, we are permitted in these moments of transfiguration a glimpse behind the curtain of worldly reality, given a taste of the transcendent. We live in an un-reality which we confuse with reality when in fact what is behind the curtain is what is real! It is a grace that comes unexpectedly and as a pure gift, to wet our appetites for what is eternal when we forget that we are merely pilgrims making our way through the world. As Jesus said, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly!"