Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What Happened When I Put My Phone Down, Took a Deep Breath, and Started A Conversation With A Total Stranger

I am sort of anti-social by nature. It's why I started smoking at age 16--so I could go outside and be alone, or be social but with a crutch. I've gotten much better over the years in terms of moving out from extreme lone-wolf behavior and introversion, but it takes practice. Especially when it comes to talking to strangers.

Smart phones are the new cigarettes, as far as I can see. Their use is addicting. They are anti-social by nature. Whereas I don't see a whole lot of teens smoking anymore, I see them on their phones, everywhere. They sit down next to each other and don't say a thing, don't look up.

And not just teens, but adults too. I am at an international conference this week with about a thousand or so higher ed professionals, most who don't know one another. People on their phones, on the ipads, on their laptops. They look very busy and very important, but I wouldn't be surprised if many were just facebooking or responding to non-urgent emails.

After one session this morning, I sat down at a table with a few strangers and my immediate instinct was to pull out my phone. The young woman across from me was doing the same thing. But I had had my coffee, so I was not in a grumpy mood. I didn't have anything urgent to check or write. So, I decided I would try to start a conversation.

"Hi," I said, "Where are you from?"

"Oh!" she said, surprised that someone was talking to her. "Hello!"

We put our phones down and talked for about five or ten minutes...hometowns, weather, the conference. Nothing deep or intense, just regular friendly conversation. What struck me was how out-of-normal range this has become, to make conversation with someone you are sitting next to at a table. She seemed genuinely surprised (and somewhat pleasantly so). It was, you might say, a "human moment."

Here's the thing: I have been praying a lot recently, feeling a calling to be a worker in the Lord's harvest field (Lk 10:2), giving more credence to the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations as part of my (and everyone's) baptismal calling (Mt 28:19), and also to declare with my mouth that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). In other words, the call to evangelization.

But here's the other thing--despite the mis-quote of St. Francis ("Preach the Gospel always...use words if necessary"--he never said that) we sometimes need to intentionally TALK to people USING WORDS in conversation ABOUT JESUS. If it doesn't come naturally, it might take some practice. And the best way to practice talking to people--about Jesus or about the weather--is to just do it. Just open your mouth, put yourself out there, and start a conversation. Sometimes it can fall flat. Sometimes it can go in a delightful and unexpected direction.

At the heart of not talking to people about Jesus, for me, is a kind of cowardice and laziness. It's easier to just be anti-social and safe in my space, like when I used to leave a party to go outside and smoke. When something is new and unfamiliar, it can seem hard, because we are not used to it. What if we practiced, so it was no longer new and foreign, but more like second nature? That is, what if we practiced talking about Jesus with people--friends, family, strangers--not in a heavy, confrontational way, but opening the door to listening, respecting where people are at, and sharing the Good News as you have received it in a palatable way? Would it catch people off guard? Would they get uncomfortable? Would they be pleasantly surprised?

Maybe all of the above. But how would we know if we pull out our phones at the first sign of discomfort, never open our mouths, retreat to our safe spaces?

I think sometimes I have a tendency to overly spiritualize and make overly complicated things that should be simple. I can't talk about Jesus or evangelize until x, y, and z are in place. It is not complicated to talk to someone, to say hi, or smile. You don't have to be a professional  apologist to share your faith or story. You just have to make the effort, in a very human way, and pray for the Holy Spirit to move.

If you are a Christian and Jesus has touched your life, have some courage and take a chance. Talk to someone, a stranger even, at a conference or at a bus stop. You'd be surprised what might happen!

"Always be prepared to give an answer to every man who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear." (1 Peter 3:15)

Monday, May 29, 2017

We're Not Adapted For Security and Utopia

In college, I studied abroad for a semester in New Zealand. New Zealand is almost like a paradise--great weather, amazing geography, friendly laid back people, low crime, low cost of living, egalitarian. I had a great experience.

After five months of living there, though, a very odd thing happened--I began to miss America. Not just for the hamburgers and baseball and driving on the right side of the road, but the dysfunctions as well--the crime, the poverty, the politics, the backwardness. Why would anyone miss those kinds of things? I don't know why, but I did, against my better judgment. It was as if the social utopia of perfect New Zealand eventually became--boring.

A friend sent me a lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson he thought I might enjoy recently on Genesis and consciousness. When Dr. Peterson basically named what I had experienced (quoting Dostoevsky) in New Zealand..something I hadn't thought about for years...it made sense that such a strange thought would come to my mind there and made me feel less crazy (@ 47min) :


"Dostoevsky said that in Notes from the Underground...and I love this..he was an early critic of the notion of a political utopia. He said, if you gave people everything they wanted..they had nothing to eat but cake, and nothing to do but sit in warm pools and busy themselves with the continuation of the species...the first thing they would do after a week or so would go half insane and smash everything up just so that something they didn't expect would happen so they would have something interesting to do. We're not adapted for security and utopia!"

He goes on to say that the right way to be in the world is half in what you know (the secure) and have what you don't (the unknown), and that human flourishing occurs in the mediation between the two--reality manifesting itself, where we should be; the balance of the cosmos. We don't grow in security. We weren't made for it.

And yet we were also not made to exist strictly in chaos and meaninglessness. God formed the world ex nihilio, ordered it, and declared it good. Light, life, order...all good. Animals were named, and naming was important because in effect naming brings something into existence. God speaks us into existence, and so speech, language, word (logos) takes on a divine dimension.

We see the temptation to "set up camp" in the secure known in Peter's words at the Transfiguration "Lord it is good that we are here, let us set up three tents..." And we also see the inability to exist entirely in the unknown for any sustained period of time, as in Exodus 20:19 when the people plead with Moses to speak to them instead of God directly, "lest we die," or in Ex 19:12, that the people not go up to Mt Sinai, lest they die.

We are not born saints--saints are made, for those who strive to inhabit the space between. They are not content to rest safely in the security of familiarity and seeing through the sham promises of social utopias promised by governments or political leaders, but to step out in to the deep, going after the Lord who says to them "Follow me," dropping their nets for the unknown. If Jesus were someone not to be trusted this would be lunacy, and this is an act of free will, this faith. Because he calls us out of our safe and known spaces in order to grow, stretching us beyond comfort and familiarity, while walking with us with the assurance of his presence, we can make manifest that space between the known and the unknown where human flourishing takes place. 

I thought I was crazy for being bored in paradise, but it makes sense if we were made to strive. Faith is a walk; it is not an escalator or wheelchair ride. It demands assent and action; it is not passive, and it is not handed down generation to generation by passive means either. It must be exercised. It is dynamic. Religion gets a bad rap, but it is the spiritual skeleton for the body, that which allows us the known structure, order, and doctrinal protection to set up "home base." Yes it is secure. Yes it predictable and established. That is not a bad thing! Outside of it is chaos and disorder, darkness and post-modern subjectivity, that unless one is schooled and prepared spiritually, no one can flourish in it for long. 

We don't send our kids out in to the world without schooling and formation at home--how to look both ways before crossing a street, not to talk to strangers, what is right and what is wrong. Why do we think we can survive and flourish in the same way in a post-modern world at odds with the Word without first preparing to inhabit it? 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

There Is No Fear In Love

In 1968, a Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-seller titled "The Population Bomb." The premise? We have surpassed the ability of the earth to sustain life at its current population trajectory. Ehrlich predicted that by 1990 half of Americans would die of starvation because there would be too many mouths to feed and not enough food; India and China would simply die out, as would England by the year 2,000.  To stave off the population explosion--our only chance of survival--forced sterilization was seen as justifiable and necessary to prevent future lives and mouths to feed ("Coercion?" he wrote, "Perhaps. But coercion in a good cause.") Compulsory abortion, too, as a "solution to the problem."

"Indeed, it has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society."

I grew up as a very fearful and anxious kid. I worried about everything--breaking down in a car away from home on family vacation; global warming; scarcity of resources; overpopulation, you name it. I was elected our high school's Environmental Club president my senior year, and spent much of that time raising awareness about the extinction of bison or something in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So, I was aware of the kinds of issues Ehrlich wrote about in his book, and a sense of urgency and panic unless something drastic was DONE RIGHT NOW to save our planet was the vibe du jour in the mid 90's. If you would have asked me if the "solutions" proposed by Ehrlich in The Population Bomb--abortion, forced sterilizations, population control--were justifiable, well...look at the alternative. We don't really have a choice. As Ehrlich admitted in later years, "I expressed more certainty because I was trying to bring people to get something done." The book sold 2 million copies, and there are still people alive today to read it, (should they choose to waste their time in that way.)

Fear is a strong motivator. It wasn't even a year ago that the news was streaming with alarm bells about the Zika virus and pregnancy. In the U.S., according to a Harvard poll, 59% of Americans believed abortion should be permitted after 24 weeks if there is a "serious possibility of microcephaly due to Zika. Demand for abortion more than doubled in Brazil and Equador. But the alarmism outpaced the reality, with tragic consequences: Of the 628 abortion requests in Brazil attributed to Zika concerns, only six to 83 children would have actually been affected. In other words, for every possible child affected with microcephaly, 7 to 113 unaffected pregnancies would have been terminated due to fear of the virus.

I'm told that in the U.S., 87% of children with downs syndrome are never born, but aborted. Whenever Deb and I go to the doctor after a pregnancy, we are asked if we want genetic testing, I suppose to determine these kinds of things ahead of time. We always decline, but it's still a jarring proposition, because the implication is that termination of the pregnancy is always an option should anything come up.

We thank God for our two healthy kids (and remember our two that we hope to see in Heaven someday). But I wonder sometimes if we fashion idols in the process. "Boy or girl, either is great," we're told, "as long as they are healthy, that's all that matters." "You are blessed to have two healthy kids."

But what if we have a child that is not born healthy? What if we have a child with health issues, genetic abnormalities, or worse? What then? It would be wrong of me to act as if I don't think about these things, of have a degree of anxiety about their possibility. And I'll share something else with you, too: the only thing that keeps me from losing sleep in perpetuity on the matter...is my faith.

When Deb and I were married, in the same vein as my parents, we established that divorce was never an option for us. There is no Plan B. I think not having that option on the table has been beneficial for our marriage, but truth be told it is because of the Church's teaching on the matter, and that we have faith that that is not God's plan, for as Jesus said to those ask it is lawful to divorce one's wife, "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female...therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate" (Mt 19:4-6). We are in a valid sacramental marriage, with no valid out, save death (haha), so we are forced by necessity to work out whatever we need to because there's no other valid option; we have no choice. Marriage is hard enough, without the temptation for the option to divorce. If it was on the table, I think it would too tempting to not use it when things get bad.

Divorce is to the death of a marriage as abortion is to the death of a child--both presented as viable options in the culture should things "not work out." It takes a radical trust, and to a degree a certain kind of stubborn conviction and sometimes a simple gritty obedience, to say "I choose life" in the midst of incredible odds stacked against life. I was reminded of this in an incredibly moving story about a family that did just this when they discovered the child they were carrying had Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder their doctor emphatically stated "was incompatible with life." He advised termination of the pregnancy. "Get this behind you quickly," he told the mother "and get on with your life. You can try again." The baby, if she survived more than a few minutes after birth, would in any case most likely be so deformed as to be completely dependent and never have a "normal life." But she wouldn't live anyway, so termination was really the only logical choice.

But the doctor, like Paul Ehrlich and his predictions about half of America dying out from famine, was wrong: Krissy survived. And not just for a few minutes, but (at the time of the article's publication) fifteen years and counting. She is completely dependent, cannot feed herself, and cannot speak. But her mother describes her as "the greatest teacher I've ever had" for her, her husband, and Krissy's four brothers.


I don't know any other institution--human or divine--that so firmly and uncompromisingly stands for the dignity of LIFE in all its stages, "from conception to natural death" than the Catholic Church. The Church and those who adhere to her teachings have taught me a lot about fear and trust.  When you operate under the illusion of control--control of your life, control of the future, etc--everything is a cause for anxiety. But for someone with a childlike faith--the kind of faith worthy of emulation--they simply trust that they are in good hands. This is why I love St. Therese of Liseux's spirituality, her "Little Way." She recognizes, with absolute conviction, that she is nothing without God, can do nothing apart from Him. Her "way" is complete and total dependance on God as Father, as well as offering her suffering to the Lord as a means of sanctification.

One night when I was struggling with this call to be open to life (a struggle that lasted years), however and whenever it may come, I googled "Catholic babies fear" and came across a blog written by a woman named Leila about trusting the Lord...even with your fertility. I wrote her an email and she graciously wrote back a few days later. It was encouraging because she recognized the role fear plays in the kinds of decisions we make, even and especially when those fears keep us from following the will of God for our lives. But she was kind of a fearless woman, and that lack of fear came from a confidence in trust that the Lord means what he says, that He truly loves us and wants only what is best for us (if we would only listen to him), and that the Catholic Church is the church established by Christ to impart His teachings authentically and through the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit--God Himself. She encouraged me to trust and not fear, to not pay heed to the cultural narrative that is so strong that sees babies as burdens to pay for, rather than gifts from God to be celebrated and thankful for, and not to play into the fear. It softened my heart just enough for God to start working. I don't know what's coming, but I pray for God's grace to be able handle it, and it helps me to rest easy. "I lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone Lord make me dwell in safety." (Ps 4:8)

Why is it so hard to trust? Why do we give into fear? I suppose it carried over from the Fall, when Adam and Even listened to the lies from something other than the source of Truth itself. The consequences of listening to the wrong voice were catastrophic. Even today, the lies, the whispers from the culture persist, and millions of lives lost as a result. The only antidote to the lies is to get to know the Good Shepherd's voice so we are not led astray. As we grow in love through trust, fear is edged out, for "there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:18)

Those who make it through, those born--even with the most severe of physical and mental deformities, whose parents trusted when nothing made sense--are precious teachers, who teach us--sometimes through suffering--a suffering we probably would not have chosen for ourselves--and sometimes through joy, the kind that comes with utter and complete dependance with no room for ego. They are marked by complete reliance on those who love them, those who care for them. I have to believe--for other families, and maybe even our own, should God choose it--that they come to teach us a Little Way, to take us by the hand and help us home, in a way completely confounding to the world. For the Kingdom belongs to such as these.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I've Been Twelve Years In My Right Mind. Here's What I've Learned.

I've spent my fair share of time with monks, those professed male religious who wear habits, pray in community, and work in the fields. They aren't a mysterious, other-worldly alien tribe to me--just men singularly focused and devoted to one one thing--submitting themselves to God and working out their salvation with fear and trembling.

I love hearing people's stories, where they came from, but a curious thing with the monks I've met--many of them were reluctant to indulge trips down memory lane of their lives before their profession. This was intentional, I think--they had left a past life behind, some painfully so, to follow Christ. Hand to the plow; leaving the dead to bury their own dead. Whether I realized it or not, I was flippantly asking them to re-open a chapter in the book of their lives that for many had been long forgotten and, often, intentionally kept closed. They had taken new names, new identities, new lives, and were not interested in holding on to their past lives or revisiting them. They were new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

I have been journaling and writing for 20 years. I have every scrap of writing--poems, essays, articles, short stories, novels, book reviews, manuscripts, journals--saved on my google drive. I used to revisit my past in words, to learn from where I came from, what I have been through. But like the monks, some chapters can be painful to reopen, best not exhumed.

My journals from the years 2005 to 2006--when the black tornado of a newly minted manic-depression caught me off guard and ripped a hole through my life in its virgin visit--were one such chapter. I wrote volumes then; so many words. I have gone back to read them and try to make sense of them--the zinging tangents of thoughts, strung together with loose logic and wrapped together with a thin thread of frenzied keroucian inspiration--and I can't. It is like reading the thoughts of someone with dementia; a kind of quiet horror when you realize you turned your entire portfolio to an insane sheister with a ponzi scheme.

But in the thick of it, I had no idea I was not in my right mind. My good friends, the ones I didn't alienate and lose, knew. My fiance at the time did her best to keep it together and support me. My parents came down to get me to a hospital. I wasn't drinking or doing drugs or being promiscuous; in fact, I at least had the right sense to sequester myself in my apartment when I realized I was in the eye of the storm, so that I didn't do any lasting damage to myself or my reputation in public. I chain smoked from a tin of Top tobacco and wrote and invented things and didn't sleep for days at a time, but I was for the most part safe. Life was one big natural exhilarating orgasmic mental high that just wouldn't end.

It was a long road to recovery in the ensuing years, after the black crash. Mental illness is kind of like cancer of the mind--you learn to manage it, live with it, but a cure is out of the question, and you're never quite sure when your time in the clear of remission is up. 

And yet, I have been completely symptom free, aside from some gentle mental ups and downs, for ten years. This was through a wedding, two moves, two kids, two job changes, and three deaths--your big life stresses, which are typically major triggers. When Deb and I first started going to NAMI bipolar support groups for families, many people told her, "wow, he is really high functioning." I didn't know what they meant by that, but many of those suffering were not working or on disability, with addictions and family issues.

I've learned a few things during that time. It's helped me stay healthy, and been good reminders when the going gets tough. I offer them to anyone who may be struggling themselves.


1) Don't look back

This is a surprising temptation for those with this particular illness--to go off meds and in an attempt to feel "alive" again. Normal life seems boring and devoid of drama when buttressed up against the dizzying peak of mania. But I've come to appreciate boredom and stability. Nobody says, "I really miss the flu, the food in the hospital was so good, I wish I was sick again." I consider myself lucky to have escaped a worse fate.  Don't be like Lot's wife, turned to a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:26). Hand to the plow. Going back is not worth it. (Lk 9:62)

2) Taking off the identity 

I have learned what I need to do, at least those things that are in my control, to stay healthy. Doctor. Support plan. Medication. Exercise. Therapy. Staying away from substances. Cognitive techniques. Prayer. I have no use for a diagnostic label for identity purposes or to seek some kind of special club status. I just want to live my life. (Gal 3:26)

3) Thoughts and moods are not reality.

They are what they are, but I'm more wary of putting too much stock in my feelings and emotions these days. They are not a solid foundation to build on. (Mt 7:24)

4) Everything needs to be checked against divine law. 

It can be easy to justify sin when you consider yourself above conventional morality or on the road to some kind of perceived personal or prophetic sainthood. If an action or decision stands in contrast to the teachings of the Church and divine law, be very careful. "Fear him, do not sin. Ponder on your bed and be still. Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord." (Ps. 4:4).  A mind in a weakened state is prone to being led astray by the Father of Lies, who leverages our weaknesses. Hold fast to Christ, as a mast in a storm, for not one letter of the law will pass away. (Mt 5:18)

5) Malaise isn't forever, but death is.

Suicide is a constant threat. But it's not like a tiger prowling around its prey, existing on its own to destroy. It is an act of the will, even in the most weakened state. Fear him who is able to destroy body and soul in hell. (Mt 10:28). Do whatever it takes to hold on to life. 


In Mark 5, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, casting the demon out of him and into a heard of swine. The people came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the 'legion'; and they became frightened. 

Healings are more than just physical sometimes. There is a spiritual taproot to that which causes chaos and destruction in our lives; introducing sin and defiance to the created order makes everything harder, including remaining in our right minds for those who struggle with these particular mental irregularities. I like to remember to "Lean not on your own understanding, but trust in the Lord with all your heart" (Prov 3:5). 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Irreplaceable

My son has a raggedy old stuffed rabbit, Blue Bunny. His teachers gave it to him right around the time his sister was born. He doesn't carry it with him everywhere he goes like Linus with his blanket, but it is his longest standing ("and most valuable") little friend.

There have been times when we almost left him at this or that event. It would have been a cause for distress for sure, unthinkable to leave without him. The funny thing is this worn stuffed animal had virtually no perceived value outside of its relation to my son. If he left it on the steps somewhere and some other little boy came across him, it wouldn't be like finding a diamond earring or an ipad. You couldn't resell it on ebay or trade it for anything at school, because its value is that assigned by the little boy to whom it is priceless. But if I was a janitor cleaning up the auditorium after a dance recital and he was on the steps, he would have most likely been picked up and thrown in the garbage, regarded as trash.

Blue Bunny is valuable to my boy. How much more valuable is my boy to me? Not monetarily (he costs me way more than he brings in). Not by virtue of his labor (he doesn't even pick up after himself!). Not by anything he has done (though he is cute). He is valuable, irreplaceable, priceless, to me because his is my son. I love him not because of what he does or doesn't do, but who he is to me. And if anyone ever tried to hurt him, abuse him, violate him....well, like most parents, I can't imagine anything more painful. As a father, it is my job, my duty, to protect him and my daughter from predators who would do them harm. Child abusers, perverts, and traffickers who use people to satisfy their own selfish desires and prey on the vulnerable bring on themselves a harsh judgment, a millstone for the neck. It is a dark underworld in which they move, a world which hides from light because of the evil of their ways.

Before I think myself somehow above those who do such things, I am reminded of a parable:

"The Lord sent Nathan to David, and when he came to him, he said, 'Tell me how you judge this case: In a certain town there were two men one rich, the other poor.' The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought.  He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. Of what little he had she ate; from his own cup she drank; in his bosom she slept; she was like a daughter to him. Now a visitor came to the rich man, but he spared his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him: he took the poor man's ewe lamb and prepared it for the one who had come to him." David grew very angry with that man and said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves death! He shall make fourfold restitution for the lamb because he has done this and was unsparing." Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!" (2 Sam 12:1-6)

David, a noble king, one "after God's own heart" had sunk to a new low. He had lusted in his heart after another man's wife, took her, got her pregnant, got the husband killed, then tried to cover up the whole affair. He had no regard for her value outside of what she afforded him, which was a moment of pleasure, of ownership. What he had done was evil in God's sight (2 Sam 12:9). And yet when Nathan the prophet relays the story of the ewe lamb stolen and slaughtered, David calls for the death of the man, not realizing the man he condemns to death...is him!

When we disregard the God-given dignity and worth of human beings--God's children--using them for our own selfish purposes and throwing them in the proverbial trash after we are through, we commit serious sin, offense against the Creator, the Father of those children. We put millstones around our very own necks. Lest we think this is reserved for those who run human trafficking rings or for child abusers, hold the mirror up:


  • Ever hooked up (using other people for sexual pleasure with no commitment and no regards for their well being) with someone?


  • Ever told someone what they wanted to hear to get them into bed with you?


  • Ever indulged in online pornography?


  • Ever looked at a woman--another man's wife, a father's daughter--with lust in your heart?


No? Let me answer for myself then:

Aye.
Aye.
Aye.
Aye.

I deserve death for my past transgression, that should themselves not be minimized. And yet there is one who ransomed me from death. "O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom 7:24-25)

Whenever I see Blue Bunny sitting all raggedy in the corner of my son's bed, I am reminded that the stuffed animal may not be much to look at, may be unwashed and might even blend in with the trash in an alleyway...yet, he is beloved by my son.

When I look at my son, I see my own flesh and blood, though someone who is not his father may not see him this way, may not treat him the way I treat him, though he is beloved by me.

When the Father sees me, he sees his very own. "Come now, let us set things right," says the Lord: though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool." (Is 1:18). He washes me clean in the blood of his very own, his only begotten son, his one and only, his beloved!

A debt never able to be repaid.

A value never to be understated.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Highway Miles

"Every one of us needs a half an hour of prayer every day, except when we are busy. Then we need an hour." 
--St. Francis de Sales

Anybody who has shopped for a used car knows the kind of miles it has been driven is important. A car with 100,000 highway miles may be in better shape than a car with 60,000 miles that has only been driven around town on short trips. The reason for this is that short trips are harder on the engine; the car never really gets a chance to warm up to ideal operating temperature, so there is more sludge and sediment in the engine.

Our prayer lives can be kind of 'start-and-stop' as well. When our day-to-day is so busy that we can only spare 10 minutes of prayer in the morning, or a quick Hail Mary or Our Father in the car, this is good and better than not praying at all. Unfortunately it doesn't always allow us the time or space to enter 'into the deep' of resting in the Lord for an extended period of time--the prayer equivalent of contemplative "highway miles" that are beneficial for the spirit.

In the Catholic tradition we have a devotional practice called a "holy hour"--prayer for one hour before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The practice finds its root it scripture, when Jesus asks his disciples who are with him in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion: "Could you not keep watch for one hour?" (Mt 26:40; cf Mk 14:37)

When I set aside an hour to be with the Lord in an Adoration chapel (our parish has Adoration on Mondays and Fridays, but some have 24/7 or 'perpetual' adoration chapels), I initially find that it takes me a good fifteen to twenty minutes to really settle in. I have to fight the initial impulse to get up, or do something. "Just being" is hard; it takes practice. But this is really all the Lord expects of us in this hour--to be present and available, to rest in His love. "Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls," as the Psalmist writes (42:7). Sometimes I fall asleep if I am tired. This isn't ideal, but I think the Lord understands here as well. As St. Therese of Lisieux writes, "The fact that I often fall asleep during meditation should appall me. Well, I am not appalled; I bear in mind that little children are just as pleasing to their parents asleep as awake."

When the sediment of thoughts and ideas and appointments settle down after that first twenty minutes or so, it gives the Lord white space in which to quietly speak and write on our hearts, as when Elijah found himself in a cave waiting on the Lord:

"There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord--
but the Lord was not in the wind;
after the wind, an earthquake--
but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
after the earthquake, fire--
but the Lord was not in the fire;
after the fire,
a light silent sound." (1 Kings 19:11-12)

This is when things get interesting. I never really know what is going to happen. Sometimes the Lord stirs my heart to emotion, tears, gratitude, or sorrow for my sins. Sometimes it is a fervent desire to bring people in my life and their intentions before Him. Sometimes the silence is enough, and it is rest. Sometimes I am simply fighting temptation, restlessness, and arrows of thoughts that fly from corner to corner, and simply offer the time to God as an oblation. Whatever happens, I find much of the dross in the mind is burned away after that first half hour, and the last half hour is more fruitful than it would have been had my prayer not gotten past that initially 'warm up' period.

If an hour as one extended block is too daunting, a helpful way of approaching it may be to split up the hour into twelve 5 minute sections, focusing on a different area of prayer in each section (for instance--forgiveness, scripture reflections, intercessions, etc.) I often do this with exercising or running, telling myself, "Just make it to the stop sign." Then when I do, I say, "just make it to the fence." Then "make it to the soccer field." Then before I know it, I've ran a mile in twelve, 120 meter stretches.



It may not be realistic for us to spend a solid hour every day in silent contemplation (though the Lord would certainly use that were we able to offer it). A car that only typically sees around town trips, it's good to take it out on the highway once a week to get some extended run time. Maybe our prayer life should see some similar 'extended run time' from time to time?

We give so many hours to so many things in our lives--movies (2 hours); exercise (1 hour); sporting events (4 hours); sleep (8 hours); wasting time on the internet (3+ hours). Think about investing an hour a week with the Lord. Believe me--you won't see returns anywhere close to the dividends he pays out.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

God Don't Like Ugly

I've never been a big liturgy guy. I was more attracted to Catholicism because of it's doctrinal and historical integrity than any kind of encounter I had with the Mass inside church walls. I had a wilderness conversion experience, and worshipping with other people was more of a reluctant concession than an attraction. That, and I'm just not that into details, and had never really given much thought to the 'outer appearance' or architecture of a church. But as I get older, I have come to appreciate more the role of beauty and reverence in the liturgy and the church building itself, and see that it has the potential to "right-size" worship.

This hit home today as I decided, for the sake of our schedules today, to attend Mass at a different church than our home parish. It had a very 70's feel to it. Shag carpet, unpainted cinderblock wall behind the alter, nondescript stained glass, lack of holy imagery (except for the impressive lifesize corpus behind the alter). The music was of that era and awful (which is not unusual for many Catholic churches) and though it was just my impression, everything just had a very tired, status-quo, lackluster blahness to it. The homily was vague and forgetable. Nobody really sang (probably because the music sucked so much). I noticed a number of minor liturgical abuses(though they were probably just seen as accepted practices to the uninformed) and an overall lack of reverence with regards to the Eucharist. It was as if the exterior was influencing the interior, as if zeal and reverence would be out of place here, like it was not made to hold it.

In John's gospel, we see Jesus' friend Mary pour out a pint of nard perfume worth a years wages onto Jesus's feet, which she dries with her hair. Judas Iscariot (who would betray him) saw it and said, "why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?", but Jesus replies, "Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me" (Jn 12:5-6).

The Lord wants us to be good stewards, responsible yes, but not lauding pragmatism as a virtue to be extolled. He wants us to love intensely, serve selflessly, worship reverently, and give lavishly. For the Lord does not meet out mercy, but lavishes it upon those who come to him with contrite heart and broken spirit to overflowing. (1 John 3:1; Ps 51:17)

Earlier generations (many immigrant communities) of earnest masons, glass workers, carpenters, artists, and laborers made great sacrifices of time, money, and labor to build beautiful churches, something great for the Lord that reached high to heaven. A beautiful church, even if it is simple, reflects a matter of priorities, right things in their right place, and sets the foundation for right worship. Right worship is reflected in not only the inner orientation of heart to God, but the exterior posture (kneeling, bowing, etc) also reflects a proper interior disposition. When faith and worship is lukewarm--a mixture of hot and cold--it is not only unattractive, but offensive to the Creator, so much so that he vomits it from his mouth (Rev 3:16).

Vibrant churches and communities become that way by drilling a deep well to the source of living water--that is, Christ himself in the Eucharist, deserving of the utmost reverence because he is truly present. Churches grow, become attractive, when they are earnest and reflect an unapologetic and committed belief in the truth of the message being preached, backed by priests who do not serve up bland homilies or token gestures of halfhearted commitment to evangelization, but are committed to making disciples who are formed in spirit and truth. It has to be intentional, and I don't think it's unreasonable to say the externals have something to lend to that.

No one who truly admits and believes in the awesome power of a God who transcends time and space to be with us in every facet of our mortal lives, who sacrificed his own son to ransom us from death and damnation, who time and time again poured out graces on his people who spurned them and traded them in for idols, wants to squander such a faith in an status-quo lukewarmness. It is offensive, like salt that has lost its saltiness, good for nothing, not even the dunghill (Mt 5:13).

The time before the Lord returns is short. Make it count!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Work Comes Knocking

It has been a long day. I had gotten to campus around noon to help prepare for Commencement, our biggest graduate class yet. The evening was full of pomp & circumstance, with faculty in their noble regalia, our masters and doctoral students nervously adjusting their caps and gowns as their families poured in through the fieldhouse doors and sought out the best seats. It was a dreary and rainy Saturday, but the inside of Hollinger was a hubbub or excitement and anticipation as 440 graduates walked across the stage and were hooded.

Seven hours later, I stopped by Wegman's on the way home to pick up some groceries. The family-owned grocery store chain had just been featured in the National Catholic Register as a company committed to Catholic Social Teaching in their practice, training, hiring, and treatment of employees--a business model that respects human capital and the dignity of the person, as well as a commitment to family values. I loaded up a few heavy laden bags in the car and headed home.

As I pulled up, there was a tall African American man standing in my neighbor's driveway. The dog had gotten out and I stopped to catch him and bring him back to my neighbor. After I did, the man made his way over to me as I pulled in. I was tired, hungry, and not really sure what his business was, but we shook hands and he cordially recited his rehearsed speech.

He was selling magazine subscriptions. He was looking for a second chance in life, a way to support his five children. He was from Alabama, but staying temporarily in Wilmington. I have no idea what he was doing up this way, but it couldn't have been an easy gig--walking door to door in the rain, pitching magazine subscriptions to white upper-middle class families like myself. His name was Dave. "Big Dave," I said to him, as I pointed to his jacket that had "BIG DAVE" airbrushed on it. He was tall, maybe 6'3" and had a sheepish but determined way about him. He received a commission from each magazine sale, a door to door salesman for the publishing companies which have seen better days. I have no idea what this business model was all about, it seemed kind of shady, but I tried to feel him out as best I could. It could have been a scam, and probably was, but the man himself had a sad kind of way about him.

We talked a little in the drizzle, at the end of my driveway. "Can I ask you? What was your first job?" A paper route, I told him. "And what was the hardest thing about it?" Getting up at 4am I told him, rain or shine. "That sounds about right," he said, "the hardest thing for me is facing the stereotypes when they see someone like me come up to their door, and getting a second chance." I asked about his past. His mother had passed when he was 12, got into drugs, jail. He was about my age.

Talking to Big Dave was very humbling; not because of his story, but because of my reaction to his very presence in my neighborhood. What was he doing here? No, I don't really want to buy any magazine subscriptions? I just want to get my bags of chicken and eggs and milk and bananas in my dry four bedroom house and spend some time with my wife and children and maybe have a beer or two and then fall asleep in my queen sized bed. The privilege was stark and glaring.

But here we were, two men from very different backgrounds, both with children, trying to do right by our families and earn a living, talking in the rain. But of the two of us, I think it's safe to say I had it a little easier. We were equal in our human, God-given dignity, but not equal in our social strata. He wasn't looking for charity; he wanted to work, a second chance. He knew he was up against a lot. His brochure of children's magazines and the subscription details was wet and torn and sad as I leafed through it. I bought $64 worth of magazines and as we don't really read magazines at home, he said I could donate them to children who do. We shook hands, and he walked off in the mist. I forgot to offer him something to eat on his way, a banana, something, and the words of Jesus haunted me "When I was hungry, you did not give me to eat..."

As I hauled the groceries into the house to get dinner ready and my kids greeted me in the family room. There really is no reason at all in the world to be ungrateful, ever. Dave was like a mirror walking door to door, holding up our reflections. I was grateful for that too, whether it was an indictment to repent of, or a moment of shared humanity as men. Just earlier in the day at David's karate practice some of the women were talking about their husband's jobs as CFOs of major companies, etc, and I just felt kind of...inadequate. But meeting Dave, a grown man selling magazines door to door, made me realize no good comes from comparisons.

There is a God-given dignity in work, no matter how high up or how lowly. For men, it is so important, so tied up with our sense of self and responsibility, our ability to hold our heads up and say, 'we are trying.'

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of work, and thank you for sending Big Dave to my house to remind me what it looks like. As Dorothy Day said, "you never know when you might be entertaining an angel."

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Dear Mrs. Pye: You Are The Reason I Am Catholic

6 May 2017

Dear Mrs. Pye,

I've been meaning to write this letter for a while but never got around to it until now. It's about how I became Catholic, and the part you played in that.

Growing up in Doylestown, I didn't really know too many Catholics. I mean, they were around I'm sure, but nobody was really wearing it on their sleeve for everyone to see. I was kind of curious about Christianity, and was exposed to it through Andy and his DPC friends. But I didn't know much about Jesus because nobody really talked about it. Brian was probably my first Catholic friend. 

Brian didn't really talk about his faith much, and I didn't ask too many questions, but it was clear there was something about your family that was different. I forget how many brothers and sisters Brian had (4? 5?) but it seemed like a lot, which was kind of peculiar, but you all seemed to have a really tight family and were involved in each other's lives. I liked that. I like being around your family, especially swimming in the pool at your house. I remember the pictures of Jesus and his Sacred Heart, and it reminded me of something from another time, and again, it stuck with me as a curiosity. Your family seemed on solid ground as far as faith and religion was concerned. It was wrapped up in your identity.

I had a very rudimentary understanding of Christianity growing up. I asked my dad one time who told me, "All Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholic." I guess that was all I really knew at the time as far as religion was concerned. Prayer wasn't a thing in our house. I do remember going to St. Ann's in Warrington with my dad sometimes, but the Ukrainian Liturgy was so ethnic I was really in the dark as to what was going on. We would go to St. Paul's in town (my mom's church) for Christmas, and sometimes Sunday school there when we were younger. But really, nothing ever stuck, and it just wasn't a thing in our house.

When Brian and I set out to hike the Appalachian Trail after I graduated, and before he started his senior year, we obviously spent a lot of time together hiking, cooking, sleeping in tents and shelters, etc. He was a good companion. Megan Springer's mom gave me a small New Testament before the trip, and I kept it with me. After Brian left the Trail and I continued on, it was lonely. I would read from the Book of Psalms in shelters when I was alone, and it was comforting. I wanted to know God, but I was like the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts when Philip encounters him, reading the prophet Isaiah and not having anyone to explain it to him. 

I came home from the Trail early, and spent the summer avoiding people because I was embarrassed I didn't make it to Maine, and getting ready for my first year at Penn State. The week before classes started, my dad shared a schedule of Masses, and said I should check it out. So I did, and eventually my curiosity was encouraged and I started doing one-on-one catechesis with a Byzantine-rite priest. I was confirmed, made my first Confession, and received my first Communion right before Christmas my freshman year at Penn State. 

It's been almost twenty years since then. In that time I got my MA in Theology, discerned a vocation for ten years (ultimately not God's plan), and eventually got married and had a family. My wife Debbie and I live in Delaware County, and we have two kids presently, David (5) and Monica (4), and two souls in Heaven due to miscarriage. 



Were you praying for Brian and I during our trip? Were you praying for me? I have a feeling you were. I think there were a lot of people praying me into the Church along the way. But you and your family were my first exposure to Catholicism, and that never really left me. You had a kind of joy and assurance that I wanted, and I wanted to know how to have that. And now I do, and my wife and kids too. 

So, if you were praying for me, thank you. Thank you for living your faith; you probably never knew I was watching, but I was, with curiosity. Thank you for hanging that picture of Jesus and Mary in your home. Thank you for letting Brian spend the summer hiking with me when you had no idea where we were or if we were still alive. That took a lot of trust, and it was a formative time for me. God is good.

Say hello to Mr. Pye for me, and I hope to see you the next time I am up in Doylestown.


Rob