Monday, August 29, 2016

The Many. The One.

"If you quit smoking now, you would save $100,000 over the course of your lifetime!"
"Every year, x number of Americans die from lung cancer."
"For every puff of smoke you inhale, you are ingesting 3,147 difference carcinogenic chemicals."

Most smokers know it is killing them. They know the stats and the negative health consequences. They know how much money they throw away on cigarettes. They've seen the black lungs and the warning labels and experienced the logic and endured the pleading from their family to quit. Yet they continue to smoke. Arguing by logic or by statistics does not help people to quit. Enticing them with how much money they will save by quitting does not make them quit.  Scaring them into quitting does not work. It's not that these things are not true--it's just that they are not effective.

So, what is keeping people smoking, and why do these tactics fail to work in the end?

I think it is a matter of perception.

Here it is: Smokers perceive that they need nicotine to function normally; they cannot live without it., and that it is an enjoyable pastime. There is a large amount of fear tied up there that keeps them dependent on nicotine, a fear perpetuated by an industry (Big Tobacco) that makes a good amount of money off keeping them dependent. Nicotine Replacement Therapies like the gum, the patch, lozenges, etc, is merely an extension of this mindset that says, "We know your health is important to you. That's why we want you to stop smoking. But nicotine is so powerful, so essential to your life, that we don't want you to have to live without it. So take it in this form. But be sure to keep taking it or you will die (or at least feel like you will).

The reality, though, is that nicotine's efficacy is extremely short-lived. It is in your system for a maximum of 3 days, which means that if you go three days without smoking, there is no nicotine left in your system, at which point it becomes a head game and not a physiological dependency. Smoking itself had ceased to be enjoyable years ago, and is no longer about gaining pleasure, but avoiding discomfort (the discomfort of habitual withdrawal). Your mind (and the industry which helps feed the habit) convinces you you are powerless over it, that you will surely die without it, or that at best your life will be insufferable.

But in fact, when you quit, you realize (with the right mindset/perception) that life is pretty good without it, and that everything keeping you smoking--the "pleasure", the fact that you will die without nicotine, or that its absence will leave a hollow hole in your heat--were all a lie. Far from dying, you've escaped a kind of slavery that is liberating. You can breath easily, and you do indeed seem to have more money in your pocket. You don't have to go out in ten degree weather to feed your habit. You don't smell, you aren't a social leper. Your family is happy. Your doctor is happy. You are happy.

My point is that perception is important, and what seems like obvious reasons for change are not always so obvious to those caught up in the lie.

Which leads me the topic of abortion.

Planned Parenthood is kind of like the Big Tobacco of the abortion industry. Their tactics are similar: they are based in fear and lies, they make money off something that is harmful, and their product kills people. You don't make money giving out free condoms or providing mammograms--abortion is the bread and butter that keeps the doors open and people employed. Given the fact that there is so much access to contraceptives thanks to PP you would think abortion would be a tragic consequence of failing to "be smart" and use them. But the fact is that 54% of women receiving abortions had used a contraceptive method during the month they got pregnant.

Contraceptives in this sense are akin to the patch or gum. You cannot live without unrestricted sex; you simply are not capable of being abstinent. When the contraceptives we provided fail, come see us. We have a backup.

The PP narrative is that we are better off as a country, as a world, with abortion than without it. You cannot live without abortion. This country cannot support 59 million more Americans being born. An unwanted pregnancy should strike fear into one's heart and short-circuit any chance of ever living a successful, fulfilling life of one's choosing. As we saw at the DNC, abortion as "safe, legal, and rare" is no longer the case--it is, instead, a right to be celebrated.

* * *

For many years the pro-life movement has mobilized people to make a stand and fight for the rights of the unborn. They tirelessly organize marches and work to influence legislature; gather for vigils outside clinics; and hold signs and placards in public displays that to raise conscious awareness of what is going on. There is an 'abortion clock' (1.4 billion worldwide; 59 million in U.S. since 1973 as of this morning) that offers the cold hard death count. As a whole, however, the movement has not yet won the fight in what would be the pinnacle of perceived success: the overturning of Roe vs Wade, and the ending of legalized abortion

When David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress came on the scene with their undercover video operation exposing Planned Parenthood's harvesting and sale of fetal body parts, I thought it was going to be a game changer. I admired this young man's courage in putting himself on the line for what he believed in and attempting to bring to public consciousness what this industry engages in. It would only be a matter of time before people were face to face with the undeniable truth of what was going on, would be unable to logically and consciously support this kind of industry, and it would just be a matter of time before legislative action was taken to overturn R v W.

That didn't happen.

Some people were surprised and upset for a while at what was going on, but like many things in the social media age (Rachel Dolezal, Police Protest, the Orlando massacre), people soon forgot. Meanwhile the clock keeps ticking.

I'm afraid we are coming to a place of fulfillment in which the prophet Jeremiah's words ring out as a mortal indictment:

"When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer. Therefore say to them, "This is the nation that has not obeyed the Lord its God or responded to correction. Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips. Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath." (Jer 7:27-29)

But what to do? Are we beyond hope? Is the pro-life "message" an ineffective one, like the anti-smoking crusader working to get people to quit and rid the world of nicotine once and for all by carrying around placards of black lungs and a death count clock, or handing out $100 bills in exchange for their last pack?

Now, let me say first off that I have not been on the front lines of the pro-life movement. I have been to one vigil outside an abortion clinic which hardly warrants me any clout to speak about such a charged issue. The 'troops on the ground' who have been fighting the good fight year in and year out are tired. It's been almost 50 years since Roe v Wade. Like the war on poverty, abortion is not going anywhere, and if anything it seems to be on the rise. I don't think that's cause to give up or give in. But maybe it is time (if I may be granted the liberty) to re-evaluate just what the end game is.

* * *

When the Syrian refugee crisis started in 2011, the extent of displacement (over 11 million, half the country's population) was so large it was just a number to us here in the U.S. This is often referred in the psychology of charity as "scope insensitivity." I prefer Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the front-line foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, observation: "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." When we are presented with the opportunity to help just one--one man, one woman, one child, whose face we see and who moves us to compassion and action--it becomes possible.

And so maybe, rather than tackling the mass, we limit our scope, and focus on the one.

When I am faced with praying to end abortion, maybe instead I can work to encounter one person--one woman in crisis, one doctor, one clinic worker, one child in the womb--and focus. Talk to her. Share with him. Pray for them, daily, and intensely. Do not let them go. Offer assistance, financial and otherwise, to the one. Do penance. Plead with the Father, do not relent, do not stop knocking.

I think of Abby Johnson, a former clinic worker who experienced a conversion at the hands of those who were relentlessly praying for her, and who is now doing amazing things in the Pro-Life movement. When I read her testimony, my eyes welled with tears at God's goodness and mercy, and at the power of one:

Six years ago today, despite not having a job or knowing what I would do outside of working at Planned Parenthood, I quit. I decided to trust God...something I had never really done before.
I called my parents who were on vacation and told them the news. They had to pull the car over, they were overwhelmed and crying tears of joy.
At 4:25pm, I faxed my resignation to the HR department, put my security badges and keys in my supervisors box and walked out that heavy door for the last time.
There was a young man from the prolife group that I had gone to the day before out on the sidewalk when I left. He wanted to make sure I was able to leave without incident. I waved to him, told him I would come to their office the next day, got in my car and pulled out of the driveway for the last time.
He didn't know that I could see him, but I remember looking in my rear view mirror and seeing this man raise his hands to heaven and fall to his knees.
You see, there had to be days when they thought to themselves, "She's never going to leave." But then I did. Never doubt God's love for the sinner. Oh, how He loves us all. 



* * *

Let me end by saying this: Years ago, before I got serious about my faith, I was reading a book on human sexuality based on the teachings of St. Pope John Paul II and Humanae Vitae by Christopher West at a Christian bookstore in Phoenix when I was visiting some friends. I got about half way through gritting my teeth, but eventually physically threw it across the room. Save sex for marriage. Don't use the pill. Be chaste. Entrust your sexuality to God. Complete unrealistic nonsense. It has taken me almost ten years to digest what I read. It has been a hard pill to swallow. But, like quitting smoking, there is a freedom that comes with submitting to God's design that is not immediately understood or comprehended, a freedom that once tasted has you never wanting to go back to what you came from. It takes a lot of trust and a good deal of reasoning, and it can be hard to digest. Your perspective starts to change, and then other things, and before you know it, your life is transforming. When you see God's design for human flourishing not, in the words of Chesterton, as the walls of a prison but those of a playground, keeping us from falling off a cliff, it changes your perspective. 

Do I know what it is like being forced with the choice of getting an abortion or not? No. Do I have any right to speak on the topic? I'm not sure. But one thing I do know: Fear is a powerful force. But it is not more powerful than Love, the perfect love that casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18).

If we are busy loving, there is little time left for judging. Women faced with this choice do not need stones thrown at them, do not need to be yelled at or scared into compliance. They need love and support and prayer. For a moment, lay aside the masses, and pray for just one. And maybe things, then, will start to change.

"Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you." -Mother Teresa

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Feminization of Christianity

I was always a Seinfeld and The Simpsons fan. I thought both shows had a knack for observational humor that people could relate to. They are really the only two shows I can think of that I can find a reference to for almost any situation in life ("This is like the time when George/Kramer/Moe/Barney/etc...").

One episode of The Simpsons I remember from childhood was "Homer the Heretic" when Homer one day decides not to accompany his family to church. He dances in his underwear, makes his famous waffle recipe, wins a radio trivia contest, watches an action-packed football game, and finds a penny. Basically it is the best day ever "and I owe it all," he says, "to skipping church." Meanwhile Marge and the kids venture out in a snowstorm, endure a rambling sermon by Rev. Lovejoy while shivering (heater in church broke), and come back to a car that won't start (Worst day ever). When they get back, Homer declares he is never going to church again.

I think a lot about why people don't go to church, and more specifically, why men don't go to church. Turns out I'm not the only one. I am not a regular reader of 'The Art of Manliness' blog (I appreciate what they are trying to do, but I always thought it was weird that men should learn how to be men by reading a blog on the internet, let alone reading a blog about what kind of scotch is the most manly, or what the correct way to sharpen a hunting knife is, or whatever other cliche things 'make a man'), but I did appreciate one of their articles recently unapologetically titled "The Feminization of Christianity." 

Now keep in mind this was written by a tag-team husband and wife, not a husband alone. It isn't a vent-off but rather a studied commentary traces this phenomenon through history (back to the 13th century) on the reasons how men perceive Christianity or religion as "something for women" and as a result, aren't completely on board with the idea. 

I don't know how, but I recently got roped into teaching 5th grade Faith Formation (CCD) at our church. I attended the introductory meeting for catechists last week and, wouldn't you know it, I was the only male teacher there. To be honest, aside from the big commitment (every week for seven months), this was my big hesitation in not wanting to teach in the first place--I just seemed out of place. Objectively, I can do it--I have the theological training, and have taught middle school aged kids before when I lived in Philly. But personally, faith formation just seems like it's not set up as my territory as a man teaching it. On the other hand, maybe it is a good opportunity; two thirds of the kids on my class roster are boys, so maybe I can have a formative influence for them that they might not get otherwise.

I think about the decline of church attendance a lot because it has direct implications not only personally for me but also because it is indicative of the direction we are heading collectively in terms of losing our spiritual and moral bearings as a society. There was an obscure Swedish study done that was referenced in an excellent but obscure essay buried in the internet I came across a few years ago about religious practice and how it is handed down generation to generation.

It's findings? I won't bore you with the statistics, but the overwhelming conclusion based on the data was telling: It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children

If this is true, than we have been missing the forest for the trees in our attempts to bring people back to the fold. No wonder why we are withering on the vine! 

While I can sympathize with men who, like Homer, see church as irrelevant and off-putting, I don't think it's too late to reframe the narrative. I appreciated this comment from a reviewer on Amazon for Professor Leon Podle's book The Church Impotent that resonated with me:

"Jesus Christ was the epitome of this masculine template. He left his family, underwent supernatural battle in the desert, defeated the devil, and brought back a great boon of enlightenment to his people. Then, he was tortured and killed for their sake, but conquered death itself with his Resurrection, bringing salvation to humanity. Men instinctively relate to this heroic, glorious an masculine aspect of Jesus. He was, and is, everything we want to be as men. Yet, the feminine church has replaced him with Jesus meek and mild, a woman with a beard in popular iconography, a nurturing bridegroom who walks and talks with me and tells me I'm his own, a mother who kisses my boo-boos and provides a shoulder to cry on. To be sure, men need comforting too sometimes, but a religion that focuses on our weakness rather than our strength will not keep our interest long. And when the search for masculinity is divorced from the spirit, it manifests itself in the faux transcendence of modern America; sports, sex, and violence."

So, what, if anything, is to be done? 

If you are a man:

1)  Pray.  Prayer is not reserved for old church ladies fingering their rosary beads. If you are a man, pray as a man and don't feel you need to adapt your prayer life to that of a woman's. Pray as a knight going into battle.  Pray for more troops, for reinforcement in the ranks. God made you a man. Start acting like one.

2)  Go. To church. (Even if you don't like it). Do it as a matter of duty, if nothing else.  Do it for the sake of the sacraments. If two thirds of attendees at church are women, it is no wonder that pastors adapt to their audience? The more men who fill the pews--even if it's in spite of the music and hand holding--the more pressure there is not to discount their presence with feminized services.

3) Lead your family. Assume your rightful place as spiritual head of household. If you're wife has assumed the responsibility because you haven't, talk about it, repent, and step up. Far from being resentful, I your wife will appreciate that she's no longer shouldering this responsibility alone.

4) Seek out other men. This may take some work. You need to be in solidarity with your brothers in the faith. "How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!" (Ps 133:1) Be accountable, and have a partner to be accountable to. 

5)  Serve. Be a servant leader--in your work, in your family, in your community. Defend the defenseless--the poor, the outcasts, the unborn. There is strength there, and witness.

6) Mentor boys and young men, especially those who do not have fathers or male influence in their lives. Take them places, teach them things, be there for them in ways others cannot. The effect is powerful! 

7) Live with integrity. Put the porn and video games away. Steward your household. Treat your wife well. Be consistent. What you are learning and teaching is not found in textbooks. It is how you live that matters, and what other boys see.


What kind of scotch you drink, your deer-skinning skills, if you can tie a bowtie...this is the veneer of being a man. It is not old-fashioned or misogynistic for men to have their own narrative and for that narrative to sometimes be scripted, specially, by other men: to give our lives in service, to protect the vulnerable, to be dutiful in our responsibilities, to love our wives and protect and provide for our families, to do things we don't always want to do for their sake, to compete and take care of ourselves physically.  We can't afford--for the sake of our boys and our girls--to leave manhood for dead and absent from the pews. Our future as a church depends on it.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Death, Where Is Your Sting?

Deb got a call this afternoon from a family member of a friend who is receiving hospice care. When we saw her in the hospital a couple weeks ago her cancer had spread to her brain but she was still cognizant.; we were able to pray with her and read Psalm 23, encourage her to take part in the Sacrament of Confession and that we would arrange for a priest if she wanted one, and let her know she is loved. She has since gone unresponsive and the friend's daughter's text--'please come'--signaled to us that she would be gone in a matter of days.

As Deb and I were sitting in the car in the driveway trying to figure out whether to go over tonight or tomorrow (a tomorrow not promised to her), we were talking. She told me after she got the call, all the stupid stuff that happened throughout the work day didn't seem to matter. Thats because there's nothing more important in this life than preparing for our death. There's nothing more crushing to our sense of what is than the introduction of this most unwelcome guest. It is one of the most intimate places we can be. The person preparing to meet the Lord will see more in those last moments than we probably will in a lifetime of living. So there needs to be a lot of respect that those moments belong to the person experiencing them, and that you are an honored guest at that time.

How do we live our lives? How do we prepare for our death? Since it comes like a thief in the night (1 Thes 5:2), we can never be sure when we will pass from this life to the next. Are you ready?


Repent

Like an exam, it's hard to cram near the end--our dispositions can be misaligned after a lifetime of bad choices. But no one is beyond God's mercy and forgiveness. The thief (Dismus) who responds on the cross next to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!" (Lk 23:42). He took ownership of his life and choices No one can come to the Lord without repentance. John the Bapist spend his entire life devoted to preaching repentance.  Confess your sins with your tongue. Do it often, so it becomes habit, so that you will not be caught like the virgins without oil in their lamps when the bridegroom arrives in the dark of night. (Mt 25:1-13). Cheated on your wife? Repent. Had an abortion? Repent. Hated your parents? Repent. This is where it all starts, and nothing starts without it.


Be Baptized

"Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit." (Jn 3:5). Anyone can baptize in the event of death, even an atheist. Ex opera operato ("by the work worked"). A ll that is necessary is water and the recitation of the Trinitarian formula, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen."  One can also be baptized by desire (ccc 1259) and by blood (ccc 1258). But baptism is necessary for salvation. Jesus, though he was free from sin, himself was baptized by John to model for us how important it is.


Believe

Entrust yourself to God's mercy and loving kindness. Believe, "for if you confess with your voice that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom 10:9). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6)


Pray

Pray. Prayer is your lifeline to God. How can the Lord know you and you know the Lord unless you talk? Lift up your heart to the Lord, however it looks like is less important than the doing. If your prayer is "God help me!" that is a good prayer! Anyone can pray. Don't be like the Pharsisee rattling off how good you were in this life, and how you deserve to be saved.  "No one is righteous, not even one." (Rom 3:10) Jesus himself prayed in his dying hour, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46) and "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  (Lk 23:34). Ask the saints to intercede and pray for you...they are God's friends in Heaven and our friends too (the communion of saints). They are models of those who have died good deaths and been welcomed into the Kingdom. Follow them.



Our culture does not prepare well for death. "Sending kind thoughts" does not help anyone crossing the abyss, and we distract ourselves throughout life and try to pretend like it is not our end. We live forgetful. This is not a test. Listen to the words of the Lord who does not pull any punches: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to."

What we suffer in this life is nothing compared to the pains of Hell. But no one--NO ONE--is beyond God's saving graces. Prepare, and be assured of your salvation in Christ, and sing victorious with Paul in 1 Cor 15:55: "O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting!"





Tuesday, August 23, 2016

You Are Brothers. You Are Men.

Driving to work after my bible study this morning, I was thinking about the passage in John's gospel when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. Usually when I read this passage it is Jesus' encounter with the woman in the context of her thirst for 'living water,' the water that Jesus offers her, in the first part (v. 7-17) that is focused on. But it is actually the second part of this encounter--when she brings up the fact that Jews and her people, the Samaritans, worship at different places, that spoke to me today.

"Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (Jn 4:20-24)

The men whom I consider brothers in faith--whom I pray with, study the bible with, and fellowship with each week--I do not worship with on Sundays. My faith tradition takes me to "a different mountain." Do we worship the same God? Yes. Serve the same Lord? Yes. Glorify the same Spirit? Yes. But in different places.

I don't want to minimize this fact; I pray for unity, but I am no syncretist. It is a kind of "spiritual dissonance" I hold in tension. But I also don't want it to be the focus of my relationship with my brothers in faith. I want to focus on what we share in common and  meet there, not create 'otherness' based on theological differences, as important as those differences might be to me personally and as unwilling as I am to compromise on them or abandon my religious tradition. Even if that's where it ends, I think it's a good start.

"Master," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us."
"Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."(Lk 9:49-50)

Are we all human? Yes? Great! We know what's its like to seek the one true thing; we know what it feels hurt, loneliness, betrayal, joy, fear. We all want our lives to mean something. We all want a purpose.

Are we all men? Yes? Awesome! We can relate to one another with our desire to be leaders in our family, to provide, to love our wives, with our shared struggles to step up and be the men God has called us to be?

Are we all Christians? Yes? Terrific. Let's give praise to the One True God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul together and leave liturgical differences for another day. Let's unite in a common front against the Culture of Death. Let's pray for one another and serve one another in the spirit of Christ.

Do we come from different socio-economic backgrounds, different churches, different upbringings? Yes? Than we are stronger for it if we draw from our strengths.

True ecumenism, in the words of the singer John Michael Talbot, is "dialogue rather than arguing, sharing rather than proselytizing, and inviting rather than pushing."

What I am grateful for is the spiritual maturity and respect shown in our men's group that recognizes such differences and works to meet on common ground; to worship in spirit and truth, and to be those the Father seeks to be his worshipers.

Every Tuesday morning at 6am in that upper room at The Well I get to share in the words of the Psalmist: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like previous oil poured on the head." (Ps 133:1-2)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pity the Fool

Scripture says there are two kinds of fools in the world:

"The fool [who] says in his heart, 'There is no God.' (Ps 14:1)

And the ones who say:
"We are fools for Christ..." (1 Cor 4:10)

Lets be real: the fool who says in his heart there is no God has it pretty good in this life. The culture supports him; he makes his own way. When you see his life, then look in the mirror, you wonder who the fool really is. 

This is my observation, and for whatever reason I was really feeling it today. But I was at least comforted in reading scripture tonight to know I was not the first:

"Surely God is good to Israel
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped.
For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
Their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills...
This is what the wicked are like--
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence...
When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny."
 (Ps 73:3:17)

"In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:
a righteous man perishing in his righteousness
and a wicked man living long in his wickedness." 
(Ecc 7:15)

"In his pride the wicked does not seek Him;
in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous." 
(Ps 10:4-5)


What does the "fool for Christ" look like? Well, like a fool. Yeah, this:

"We go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." (1 Cor 4:11-13)


So, who's the real fool? Depends on your vantage point, I suppose. Sitting in the box office watching the Pauls of the world play out on the world stage in their divine comedy--serving wretches, eschewing security, putting their jobs and lives at risk by taking about imaginary men--it's pretty clear who the fool is. 

If you are a fool for Christ, on the other hand, you absolutely must recognize that what you are living for IS NOT HERE. It is not in this world. You can be reasonable and your faith informed by reason an talk coherently in complete sentences but there must also be that part of you that is like a man ON FIRE POSSESSED, for "the kingdom of God suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." (Mt 11:12). 

You are working for eternal reward, and even then the door is narrow. You are that man that finds the kingdom treasure hidden in a field and you sell every scrap you own, the shirt off your back, to BUY THAT FIELD SON. That's a little foolish. You see GOD HIMSELF in every wretch you meet, you see him EVERYWHERE. That's a little crazy. You believe death is not the end, but mile marker 0, when the trailer ends and things really get rolling. That's a little morbid. You look for people to join you, a righteous army, and end up with a rag-tag group of misfits, if you end up with anyone at all. That's a little depressing. You can't help but feel like a fool some days. And yet...

Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.
For this is what he promised us--even eternal life.


Pleading the 4th

When I was in college we asked our campus priest (who was a Benedictine monk), "What's the hardest vow to keep?" (Figuring chastity, obvi). 

"Obedience," he replied without hesitation. This was around the time he was being transferred to a new assignment where he was needed by his abbot after years of serving at our university.

I think we go through seasons where we struggle with one thing more than another in our spiritual lives. Like most men during my twenties, chastity was a huge struggle (6th Commandment). At other times, keeping God first was the challenge itself (1st Commandment).

At this season in my life, the 4th Commandment in the Decalogue--to honor your father and mother (Dt 5:16; Ex 20:12)--seems to be one that comes up again and again.

When we are young, this commandment is usually invoked by our parents or adult authorities in our life so that we submit and obey. If we talk back to our parents, we are breaking the commandment. If we don't listen and sneak out of our rooms when grounded, we are breaking the commandment. As an adult now, however, it takes on a different form.

I owe my parents a lot, and when I really look back at all they have done for me growing up, I can never really repay them. They are getting to a place in their life when they need help with things--help that I am able to provide in many cases. They just moved to a new area and my dad is calling on me for a number of things. 

My first reaction is one of resistance, reverting to an adolescent mindset. "I have my own stuff to do," I think. But then I remember the Commandment, and it becomes clear that helping my parents--whether it's moving furniture, picking up mail while they are away, or hosting them and cooking them dinner while their kitchen is being renovated--is in fact, serving the Lord and being faithful. 

It can be a real challenge to my self-centeredness sometimes, and it's only bound to get more demanding as they get older. But it is clear that in not doing so I am not honoring them and, by extension, not honoring God. My parents are respectful. They recognize I have my own life, have left them to cling to my wife (Gen 2:24). They don't demand obedience or lay guilt trips. Honoring parents is, interestingly, the only passage in scripture that promises long life as a reward. 

My parents are pretty easy. I'm just super selfish, which makes it seem hard to honor them when these kinds of demands come up. But it's a good learning process of submitting to authority in an adult (rather than adolescent) capacity. No one knows you better, so it can be hard to find your footing sometimes. As the saying goes, "if you think you are enlightened, spend a weekend with your parents."

Friday, August 19, 2016

10 Things I Hate About You

We just finished up hosting another successful graduate student Orientation the other night for our incoming class. Through a combination of factors we managed to buck the regional trend and bring in our largest class to date for this Fall. I am part of a great admissions and recruitment team, and we do a lot of things well.

After seven years working in higher ed, recruiting both undergrads and grads to attend our university and ensuring their success from admission to graduation, it's struck me that the life cycle of a prospective student is not unlike someone looking to join a church, someone coming to faith. And it pains me to say, but the Catholic Church is HORRIBLE at recruiting and retaining new members.

I'll give an example. A few months ago I called the number on the bulletin at our church to inquire about volunteering to teach CCD. The Director of Religious Education (to whom the number belonged, I assumed) was not available, so I left a message. I never got a call back. And that was that...figured I was not needed, so I moved on. 

A few years before that I called to volunteer with RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) at another parish. The women did call me back, but was less than friendly on the phone and went into a stream of complicated scenarios and dates that all but encouraged me to get involved. Again, I moved on to something else.

If you are a new Catholic, or someone not Catholic attending a Mass out of curiosity for the first time, it can be an intimidating thing. No one really greets you at the door. Everyone seems to know what they are doing--when to sit, when to kneel, what to say, when to bless yourself--and there's no 'instruction book' provided. After Mass, people peel out having fulfilled their Sunday obligation, so there's really no opportunity to connect with other worshippers. 

People who become Catholic are remaining in the Church not because of the experience they are having, but often in spite of it. Now, I recognize we cannot bend over every which way to accommodate everyone's individual needs. Some people are there for the Truth, some for community and fellowship, some to get involved with ministry, some because of the beauty of the liturgy, some just come for reasons unknown and simply because they like it.

I don't see this as a 'product problem.' The Church has been around for over 2,000 years. They have something no one else can offer, and address life's fundamental problems in a way that is both reasonable and supernatural. They are not going anywhere. But as the old expression goes, "If you're not growing, your dying" applies on both a personal and corporal level, and as I see it there is a lot of room for (relatively simple) improvement. 

As someone who recruits for a living, I have a few thoughts as it pertains to the Church and carrying out the Holy Father's call to bring the culture to Christ. 


1) "Customer Service" can go a long way (and is not just for businesses)

We have prospective students come in our office all day long. Some know exactly what they are looking for, some are there to explore the idea of graduate school and want to talk it out. My coworker and I greet each one with a friendly smile and stop what we are doing to assist them. The worst thing we can do is make them feel like a nuisance. After all, they are the reason we have jobs in the first place. We are not disingenuous, do not make assumptions based on appearance, accent, or dress, and are consistent in treating everyone who walks through the doors with dignity and respect. You would be surprised how far that goes.

What is the customer service like at your church? Is the secretary friendly, welcoming? Does she return calls, greet people when they walk in the door? How about the community itself? Can it answer someone's question, "Why should I come here, and why should I stay?"


2) You only get one First Impression

It always amazes me how sometimes the littlest actions have the biggest return. At Orientation I encountered many students who came up to me and said, "You gave me a tour (and it was great). Now I'm here!" or "Thank you for not being a jerk and actually listening to me. I didn't get that when I visited X,Y,Z school" or "You bought me coffee when I drove out from Ohio to visit. I really appreciated that." 

The decision to attend a certain school is not always a logical, numbers-based decision. A lot has to do with how students "feel" when they step on your campus. Is it welcoming? Can I see myself here? Am I excited about the prospect of being a part of this community? Do I want to learn more? Or, was I treated disrespectfully or rudely? Was it a stressful endeavor? My dad once blew off the prospect of moving to an entire town recently because of ungodly (to him) traffic he encountered by taking the local route instead of the bypass and admitted, "That was my first impression, and i just couldn't get past it. I didn't like it." 

Imagine if someone was interested in the Faith and meeting a Catholic for the first time in their life. What would they see? Would they see someone full of joy, filled with the Holy Spirit, active in their community, generous, kind, sincere? Or would they see someone going through rote motions, dour faced, stingy, cold, or abusive? 

You only get one first impression, and they can be hard to overcome. Make sure it is a good one.


3) You have 30 seconds

When I have a table set up at a grad fair or other recruiting event, I have a small window in which to "pitch." I don't do this aggressively or in an obnoxious manner, but I do smile and invite someone to come over and get some more information. I ask them questions to find some common ground, dig a little for what they might be looking for, and in most cases assure them that we offer exactly that if what we offer in terms of programming seems to fit what they are looking for. I then highlight some of our assets--affordable tuition, stellar reputation, accessible metropolitan area, accomplished faculty--all in a non-threatening, non-conconfrontational way. I invite them to contact me if they have any questions, take their information if they are willing to give it, and hand them my card. This isn't a sleazy sales pitch. It's trying to connect students with what they are looking for to what we offer.

When it comes to faith, people are looking for different things--fellowship, belonging, spiritual fulfillment, forgiveness, Truth, even God Himself. It helps to talk with people and get an idea of where they are coming from and what they are looking for. Then invite them to "come and see' with you if what they are looking for matches with what is being offered. In most cases, it does. The Catholic Church is a big, diverse institution. Not everyone will be attracted to it, but for those who are we need to make the process and prospect as inviting and attractive as possible without being disingenuous. 1 Peter 3:15 says, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have," adding "But do this with gentleness and respect." Good advice!


4) Smile

Just freaking smile. You would be surprised how far the simple action of turning up the corners of your mouth and exhibiting a modicum of joy can have on someone's day. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, "Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love." How true. Every now and then a student will come up to me frazzled about getting into a class, or upset about a problem with their application. So I try to smile a lot, and it tends to put them a little more at ease. People are not stupid. They pick up on how you treat them. If they feel like a nuisance, or that you are miserable excuse for a human being that is a bear to deal with, that's their impression of you and, subsequently by extension, the university. So, my co worker and I do our best to put on our best face, because that is often the first encounter a prospective student will have, and we want it to be a good one.

When encounter you, who may be the only Christian they know, do they see joy? Peace? Love? (fruits of the Spirit). For "Joy is a net of love by which you catch souls." (Mother Teresa)


5) The Funnel

Everyone in Admissions knows "The Funnel". It's the lifecycle of a student that generally starts at the top with a Prospect. Prospects eventually become Inquiries (interested), who will then become Applicants (taking the step to apply), who hopefully becomes Admitted (accepted to program), and finally an Enrolled student (taking classes, paid and registered). We send out different information for prospects then we do for admitted or enrolled students, and one is not always appropriate for the other.

Spiritual Seekers have their own funnel. It may start with a general dis-ease with the material world or their experience of dissatisfaction with temporal pleasures. They may have heard about "Jesus" or "God" but know nothing about Him. Maybe they have a personal encounter with a Christian or God Himself. As they explore, read, encounter, become interested, they are hungry to learn more, they get closer. Perhaps they start RCIA as a Inquirer. If they continue to heed God's calls, receive the sacraments, and enter the community as a believer, they are "admitted' and "enrolled." So, the process can be similar. It's good to recognize that people are in different stages in their journey and needing different things at different times to "spiritually matriculate". As Paul says in 1 Cor 3:2, "I gave you milk, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it.


6) Get Out There

In addition to the day to day operations of enrollment management (running reports, withdrawals, defers, etc), we hit the road to get our name out there. Some fairs we go to seem like a waste due to poor attendance. But, as the saying goes, if you're not out there nobody knows about you. So, if nothing else for branding purposes, so people see our name wherever there is interest in graduate education. You never know, too. I was chatting with one student during a virtual international fair who was in Venezuela about our Geosci program. Don't you know a few months later he shows up at our door, "Do you remember me? I want to apply." He eventually was accepted, matriculated, and received an assistantship. Never would have heard about us if it wasn't for that one encounter. So, who knows.

So too with the faith. That famous saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi "Preach the Gospel always....use words if necessary?" Yeah, little known fact--he didn't actually say that.  Of course we need to witness with our actions, but that also includes our tongue! Paul states emphatically in Romans 10:10 that "it is with the heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." Don't be shy about telling people--with your mouth--about Jesus if you truly want them to know about him. St. John Paul II said in Redemptoris Missio, "I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church's energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad genres. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples." 

Get out there.


7) Invest

We have a proactive Provost who believes in graduate education and wants us to grow. She's backs that up with the investment in what we need to make that happen. You can sometimes only do so much with less. If your priorities are to grow a business, you need to invest in that business. You cat just throw money at something. You need to do it smart and you need to do it strategically. But you need to do it. 

Many parishes operate of a shoestring budget. But Catholics are also one of the least generous among Christian groups when it comes to tithing, offering less than 1% typically of their earnings to the Church. Imagine what parishes could do if even that was doubled to expand efforts to grow and be intentional about bringing more people into the fold? It's not all about money. But you need money to operate. Put your money where your mouth is.


8) Follow through

At work, I have a policy to return all calls and emails within 24 hrs. This is a personal matter of respect for the person writing, that they are being heard and attended to, but it's also just good customer service. People generally appreciate it, because if we don't get back to them, they will just move on to another school that will a lot of times. If I say I am going to look into something for someone, I do it. 

I still think back to that lack of a return phone call when I inquired about volunteering to teach CCD. It said to me that I wasn't needed, wasn't really that important, whether that was intended or not. I moved on. I don't think this is an uncommon occurrence either. Now, I'm sure church secretary ladies are overwhelmed and overworked, but come on. It doesn't take much to return a call, and goes a long way. You can literally lose a future Christian member over such a thing. Just return the call.


9) Make It Easy

We focus on "pain points" in our admission process at work--what are those areas that make it frustrating/unenjoyable/discouraging for applicants or prospects. If someone gets hung up consistently on a part of the application, can we eliminate that part? Is it essential, or is it because it's just "always been there?" You need to be forward thinking and put yourself in the student's shoes for a minute when dealing with processes and procedures. We want students to have a pain-free process and not get bogged down in stupid crap that doesn't matter.

One thing I recognize as a necessary evil (if you want to call it that) in the 'becoming Catholic' process. You meet someone searching for Truth. You instruct them the Gospel, like Philip in the book of Acts to the Enuch. "I want to give my life to Christ," they say. "Awesome! Let's get you to talk to someone at the nearest church." 

"So, you want to join the Church?" she says, "Well, you've missed the cutoff for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), so you'll have to wait til next September."

"But I want to be baptized! I want to be saved!"

"I understand. You have to take baptism classes in order to be baptized. They run on Tuesday nights from blah blah blah til blah blah blah with Deacon blah blah blah..."

"I see." 

This is where our Protestant and Non-denominational brothers and sisters are stepping in. Someone wants to give their life to Christ? Come on up. What an honor. Let's get you discipled and baptized right away. They take them under their wing and support them. Get them involved in fellowship and mentoring. They call them. Check in on them. 

As Catholics, we are FAILING at this. The Gospel is an IMPETUS. There should be nothing more important that bringing people to Christ. Now I recognize the place of sacramental instruction and classes, etc. But we are losing opportunities by introducing these many "pain points." Is there a better way? I'm sure there is. But we haven't figured it out yet.


10) Word-of-mouth

I went to a conference for Graduate Admissions Professionals in San Diego a couple years ago. The first session I went to I still remember. A guy from the University of Texas was talking about how Word of Mouth marketing is their best recruiting tool. It costs virtually nothing and nothing can match the kind of ROI it offers. He told a story of hearing about a group of people who broke down on a greyhound bus near campus. He had Domino's deliver 10 pizzas with a note "Hope these will make the time pass quicker. From, your friends at the Graduate Office at UT". The passengers loved it. They tweeted it out and it spread quickly. Local paper picked up story or something. Great PR, and word of mouth spread big time.

Ever shop on Amazon? Of course you do. And of course you read the reviews. They carry a lot of weight! Everyone reads them! If something got 4,376 5 star reviews, are you more or less inclined to buy the product? People relying on other, real-life people who had a good experience with such and such product is a great marketing tool. Angie's List, Home Advisor, etc are others where trusted referrals carry a lot of weight. Real people, real testimonies. I contacted a dozen top students last year during our website revamp to see if they would be willing to offer a testimony to their programs with pictures of themselves. All had a good experience in their grad program and were willing to talk about it. Stories like this go a long way.

You can bring the light of Christ to others through this kind of word-of-mouth. It's how the early Church spread, and continues to spread in areas of the world in which written communication is sometimes outlawed or not commonplace. People hear about a Christian community, "See how these Christians love one another!" and want to know more. 



These ten observations are just a few I've been thinking about. What I see as a danger is the complacency. Churches that sit back on their haunches and expect people to come to them because "that's how we've always done it" or "why should we go out there? They should come to us" are aging and withering on the vine. You can't just expect to grow without doing anything. The question is, do you even want to grow? Or would you rather people seeking Truth and joy, peace, and grace, go somewhere else? The culture will take them if you don't want them.

The thing is, God DOES want them. He THIRSTS on the cross for souls. Wants us to find joy and peace, invites us to "come and see," lays down his life so that we might have life; dies so that we might not taste death; teaches and feeds the multitudes, does not send them away hungry; draws from the well and offers Living Water; promises justice for the oppressed, eternal life for those who believe in him. 

I love my job. I love working with students and helping them find the right fit for graduate school. I love thinking strategically about processes and data management and how to do things better. I am part of a great team, work collaboratively with great faculty and administrators, and I wouldn't hesitate to send my kids to the university where I work. 

But none of it holds a candle to how I feel about living a life walking in fellowship with Jesus Christ. I don't preach or proclaim because I'm trying trick anyone or sell a lemon or join a cult. I want people to come and see for themselves that maybe, just maybe, this may be what you have been looking for all your life. If it's not, I may not be your man. But if it is...please call me. I promise I'll return the call.




Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Porn and the New Spiritual Health Crisis

Almost 30,000 internet users are viewing pornography and collectively spending $3,075.64 on pornography. 

Every second.

That amounts to $13.3 billion dollars annually.
And that's just in America (worldwide, porn revenue tops $96 billion)
And that's just what is being spent! (i.e., not counting free searches)
(And those stats are from ten years ago.)


The stats are staggering. But nobody is ever really moved by stats. I'm not a stats guy; I'm more of a story guy. So let me share a story that kind of relates to what I want to talk about.


It was the summer of 2002, and it was hot as hell in Allison Hill. The section of Harrisburg I lived in (14th and Market) was rife with drugs. I was surrounded by people dealing drugs, using drugs, prostituting themselves for drugs, killing over drugs, and dying from drug overdoses on a daily basis. I helped run a House of Hospitality for homeless men looking to get off drugs. We gave them a place to stay, a community to be a part of, helped them find employment and drove them to appointments and meetings. Two rules to live with us: you had to be clean, and you had to go to meetings.

One day a guy knocked on our door. His name was Thomas. He came from a family of drug dealers in Puerto Rico and had been using heroin since he was 15. He was 32. Not a day had gone by in 17 years that he had not had a fix. Nice guy. He wanted to get clean. Was an internationally trained chef at one point, had a wife, house, job...all lost to the dust. "No more drugs," he said. 

We were able to secure a spot in-patient at Holy Spirit and drove him there, stayed with him in the white room, nothing in there, nothing on the ceilings (so patients couldn't hang themselves), waiting for nurses. As the hours went by and withdraw began, it was like witnessing an exorcism, a demon leaving. Fever and chills, bloodshot eyes, so so tired, the writhing. I held Thomas' head, gave him water when he was thirsty. Heroin's true colors coming out. It was around that time I began to see drugs for what they were: a pandemic, a scourge, an empty promise, and an instrument of Satan.

I'm come to see porn in a very similar way: a pandemic spreading in the world just below the surface, an innocuous spiritual health crisis that threatens to quietly and unassumingly tear apart individuals, marriages, and families in mass proportions. It's free, its accessible, it's private, it's easy, and it's tempting as hell. 


The Devil tempts us with half-truths, not outright lies. He also takes good things and turns them rotten. The lie is that it's not that bad, or everyone's doing it so it can't be that bad, or no one in their right mind can resist the temptation of porn, or God doesn't expect us to be so puritanical. Sex is a good thing made rotten by porn.   
Do you know your sexuality is a gift, a gift from God? There is a saying of Jesus in the bible that is a little strange, but it's apt here: "Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?" (Lk 14:34) Think about it a minute. Salt is an elemental flavor. Salt that's not salty is worthless, good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot. Our sexuality is, in many ways, our base--elemental. It undergirds many of our actions and energies, the way we relate, and of course, is what biologically keeps us from going extinct. It is pleasurable and gives rise to life. It is like a fire that warms houses, cooks foods, and lights darkness when it is controlled and contained. When it is not respected and parameters not heeded--it can engulf and destroy entire cities. 



Here's my observations on porn, as a man who has both experienced it and stepped out of it:


Personally:

It is super accessible 
It is addicting
It is isolating
It is kind of boring


Maritally:

It brings a stranger into your bedroom and defiles the marriage bed
It short-circuits your pleasure sensors and reduces libido
It lodges in your brain
It ups your sexual threshold 
It it adultery of the heart


Societally:

It contributes to assault and violence against women
It makes men think they have a "right" to sex
It perpetuates a billion dollar industry that degrades women
It fuels the sex trade and sexual slavery
It is a public health problem


Spiritually:

It is a sin
It rots the spirit
It distorts the meaning and nature of sex
It allows the Devil a foothold in your life



Freedom from pornography is possible. God gives us in baptism the graces needed to resist the lure of the Enemy. I'm come to regard porn kind of like smoking--it's best not to even have one drag, lest it lead to another, to another, and back to pack a day. 

You are not powerless, but you do have to be aware. One technique that helps me is 'starving' or 'bouncing' the eyes.  I take to heart the scripture in Mt 6:22 that says "the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy your whole body is filled with light." I know it's been said, but I don't think women fully realize how visual men are, how our sex drive is sparked by what is seen or imagined. So, if things impure or that lead to impurity are seen, it needs to be cut off right away. So, 'bouncing' the eyes is a good technique. Jesus made mention of this as well when he spoke hyperbolically to 'gouge out your eye if it causes you to sin." (Mt 18:9). 

Starving the eyes and saving yourself for your wife is good or your spiritual health and good for your marriage and good for your sex life. Marriage precludes all others. I try to keep in mind that it is not a matter of 'want.' I have no right to other women, in the mind or in person. You see some porn star on screen and suddenly she is living in your head. Then you're with your wife in bed and that porn star shows up in your imagination. That's not good--it's not only inauthentic, it's delusional and you're with your wife in body only. Any body can do the mechanics of sex (boring). Thankfully sex in the confines of marriage is more than just mechanics. It involves the body, mind, emotions, and, yes, even the soul; and it needs to be safeguarded.   

It's been said that what goes on outside the bedroom determines what goes on inside the bedroom. This is true. You can't neglect your spouse all day and then expect them to want to jump you in bed. You can't treat them badly and expect them to want to have sex with you. Temptation to porn is especially strong when things are tough in marriage--you don't want to invest the time or energy into providing what your spouse needs, you just want to get off; when you're fighting and storm off and need stress relief or want to get back at your spouse or don't care about them in the moment, porn looks like a good way to do it. You have to stay vigilant.  Take it off the table--not an option (remember, you have no right!). Stay rooted in prayer. Be intentional about techniques. It doesn't happen overnight. Fall? Get up. Fall again? Get up again. Trust in the mercy of God. And get up.

Why do I write any of this? Because porn is a scourge. It quietly rips apart marriages and families. Communities are made up of marriages and families, and societies are made up of communities. So it goes beyond just you. But don't not look at porn for some 'it's good for society' reason. Do it for yourself. Do it for your marriage. Sex is better when it's not empty and not by yourself. Shame isn't present when it's intimate and self-giving and open to life, when you can engage your emotions rather than cut them off, when you are fully present. It really is good. It really is worth it. It really is hard. 

In the words of Pope Paul VI:

"....the discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace; and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility."

Don't settle for sexual counterfeit. God made us for so much more.