December 31, 2012

A New Year's Invitation

"He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’" Matthew 16:15
Jesus asks the disciples.  Simon answers -- bold, impetuous Simon -- presumably for them all, and for us:   "‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’"  And Jesus praises him and renames him Peter.

Simon tells Jesus who he is.  Jesus tells Simon who he is.

Who do you say that I am?

If we ask, we'd best be prepared to hear the answer.  Simon didn't become the Rock in that moment.  Peter is who he always was.  In claiming what he knows to be true about Jesus, he opens himself to what is true about himself.  As do we.  Like Paul reminds us in Galatians 2:  "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me."  No longer I, but Christ.  No longer Simon, the old man, but Peter (cf. especially Colossians 3:9-10).

The old man -- woman -- is familiar.  She knows who she is.  Limited.  Mistake-prone.  Proud.  A bit vain.  Kinda lazy.  I know her.  I know her past, what has led her to this moment.  I know what she does and doesn't do.  I know her name.

But who do you say that I am?

Israel was awaiting the Messiah because it meant that the exile from the promised land would finally be at an end and God would become king.  Israel's true nature would finally be made known; the whole wide world would recognize Israel as God's chosen, God's Son.  And what is true of Israel is true of humanity, of which Israel is the chosen remnant.  So -- follow me here -- what is true of the Messiah is true of Israel, and what is true of Israel is true of humankind.  And what is true of humankind is true of me.

Because of Him.  No longer I, but Christ.

Who does God say that I am?

What is it that you know, in your deepest place, is true of you.  What is the grace that you hide?  That you hesitate to name?  What are you gifted to do?  What are you blessed to give to the world?  What is your passion?  What brings you joy?  I cannot say it better than theologian Frederick Buechner, but allow me to make it a question:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”   Where is that place for you?

We are on the eve of a new year.  I love new beginnings, probably because I make a lot of mistakes and like the chance to start fresh.  Fortunately, as the author of Lamentations says (3:2-23a): 
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,   his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning..."
We stand, you and me and the whole wide world, on the cusp of a new morning, a new day, a new year.  Join me in asking the very one who gives us our names:  Who do you say that I am?  And be ready to embrace the answer.  And live it.

December 28, 2012

Feast of the Holy Innocents

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  - Matthew 2:16
They were only trying to do the right thing.   They saw the star, some astrological phenomenon, a sign.  They discerned its meaning as best they could.  They responded to the summons revealed in the sign.  They conferred with the local authority.  They spoke honestly of what they knew.  They completed their journey with the worship of the new king.  They even went so far as to heed the warning of the dream, avoiding making any further revelation to Herod as they departed.

As a consequence of their actions, Herod, in a fury, orders the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem.

How might I have felt as one of the Magi, had I heard about this massacre?  I might have believed, It was my fault.  If we had not gone to Herod...

Maybe I would blame God:  Why the second dream, the dream to flee, and not a first dream, a dream warning me not to go to Herod in the first place?  Why send me to Bethlehem if this, this, was to be the consequence?

Why is Jesus alone spared and those other children allowed to perish?

Of course, this tale, historical or not, is a loud echo of the Passover narrative of Exodus 12, a story in which God allows the deaths of the holy innocents of Egypt.

And it is a sad echo of Damascus, Syria, and rural Kenya and Newtown, Connecticut, which so recently witnessed the slaughter of more holy innocents.

The questions today are the same questions that those foreign astrologers might have asked:  Why, O God?  Is there something else we might have done?

Those two burning questions haunt this world broken by sin.  Why does God allow evil to persist?  What are we called to do, as the Body of Christ, in the wake of evil?

When I was younger, I believed that good actions necessarily would lead to positive consequences.  If I did right, I and others would be blessed, by which I meant we would receive a happy reward.  One the first lessons of my adulthood was the realization that doing God's will doesn't necessarily lead to temporal happiness.  Quite the contrary.  The Biblical view is clear:  Following God's will perfectly leads to crucifixion on a Roman cross.  

What's more, doing God's will doesn't necessarily look to the world like doing the right thing.  Could it look like revealing the fulfillment of a prophecy to an evil king?  Like being the only survivor amidst the wreckage?

Our lives go on in peace while others suffer.  I have a happy Christmas with my children while other parents bury theirs.  

All we know is this -- that the Son of God, born in a cave, is spared this tragic end only so he can suffer a different tragic end, and that, by the cross, he is present to every tragedy, there in the horror and the suffering and the grief.  And by his resurrection he does -- and we can -- bring the hope that proclaims that even in the death of innocents, evil will never have the final word.

September 14, 2012

Catholic. Democrat.

To hear it from the pulpit, we're a dying breed.  The polls tell a different story.

I grew up in a household that was essentially a political product of FDR and the New Deal.  My grandparents grew up in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  They were the working-class daughters and sons of first-generation Italian immigrants.  They were Catholic.  They were Democrats.  In those days, there wasn't much room for daylight between the two.

My mother went to Catholic grade school where she learned perfect penmanship and Latin along with her catechism.  She pinned a handkerchief on her head before going to mass.

I grew up in a parish with orange carpet and chairs in place of pews.  There were felt banners on the walls instead of stained glass windows and guitar music in place of an organ.

These were our various trappings, but they all led somehow to the same political road's end.  We voted for Democrats and understood that to mean we were standing with labor against big business, with the poor against the wealthy, with the underdog instead of his overlord.  That was what it meant to be a Catholic.

During my adulthood, something changed.  Suddenly, being a Catholic came to meaning having to vote Republican or be called out, often directly, from the pulpit.  Parishes hand out flyers detailing the ways in which we should vote and command obedience at the risk or our continued communion with the Church.

This posture is deeply at odds with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's document Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (aka Gaudium et spes).  In the document, the Council asserts the primacy of conscience for the baptized.  Gregory A. Kalscheur, S.J. of Boston College's School of Law makes the case far better than I could.  He says, in part,
I agree... that we must understand the primacy of conscience in connection with our obligation to seek the truth and adhere to it. But I think it would be a profound mistake to stop talking about the primacy of conscience. As the central Vatican II texts on conscience indicate, affirming the dignity and primacy of conscience says something of real importance about responsible personhood.  If we really expect voters and public officials to make responsible, conscientious decisions about matters of public policy, we should not suggest that proper formation of conscience is simply a matter of falling into line with church teaching. Such an approach will not contribute to the ability of Catholics in public life to make conscientious
decisions, because church teaching does not generally speak definitively to the concrete questions that voters and public officials face (p. 12).
He ends the article by saying,
So, what does a commitment to the primacy of conscience mean for Catholics striving to be faithful citizens in today's pluralistic, democratic society? A commitment to the primacy of conscience calls us to strive for moral integrity and an undivided conscience. It demands that we dedicate ourselves to a life-long process of conscience formation, rooted in a commitment to truth, and carefully attending to the teaching of the church and the insights of human reason as we strive to form for ourselves right and true judgments of conscience. It recognizes that decisions in public life call for the exercise of the balancing virtue of prudence, always asking what will best promote the common good in all its dimensions through the concrete decision that must be made in the context of the reality that exists right now. It acknowledges that prudence may suggest to different conscientious decision makers a variety of strategies available for accomplishing or guaranteeing the same fundamental value. And in the midst of often deep moral disagreement in our society, respect for the primacy of conscience calls us to engage in the respectful dialogue that is essential if we are to join together with our fellow citizens in an authentic search for truth, forming hearts and minds committed to making choices that will protect human dignity and promote the common good.
I quote this at such length because I think it is such an important case to make.  Not blind obedience but active, on-going engagement with difficult issues -- and with one another -- is the path that leads to truth.  And our dialogue must be mutual and must put love of neighbor ahead of any ideology, creed, or moral code.

I am not saying that every Catholic ought to vote as a Democrat.  I am simply tired of being told that my sincere, prayerful effort to exercise my conscience on behalf of the common good is inherently wrong, because I have not come to the same conclusions as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  It seems to me that this is the very same root of the stand-off between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Are we, as Catholic disciples of Jesus Christ, called to unquestioning obedience to Church authority or to unquestioning obedience to God?  Is there no place for prophetic questioning of the leadership structure that has, over history, enabled the waging of war, the acquisition of vast wealth at the expense of the poor, and, more recently, the sexual abuse of children?  This is neither to condemn the bishops nor to disregard their teaching office, but those who call themselves disciples of Jesus ought to be among the first to recognize the need for prophetic conscience alongside priestly authority.

August 29, 2012

Working without a net

I have a friend who has been explaining to me how, very sensibly, she and her husband have taught their children to make money.  They have been careful since the kids were young to give them opportunities which have encourage their entrepreneurial ambitions.  They have nurtured them to be focused and disciplined and to pursue courses of study in science, technology, and business as their primary vocations.  When they have become established, then they can follow other dreams, if they have them.

I have another friend whose family similarly expects the kids to have fall-back careers.  They see business, computer science, and other practical pursuits as must-haves to insure their children have stable sources of income as adults.  If one of them is passionate about something else, she is encouraged to pursue it, but on the side.

Someday, if I have an adult child lying on my couch lamenting his bygone rock star ambitions or her subsistence-level librarian salary, I will sigh, knowing that my friends, their children ensconced in stable careers and well-appointed homes, can shake their heads and say, I told you so.

Still, I can't say it.  I can't look either of my sons or my daughter in the eye and tell them that their passions are secondary.  I do not have the heart.

Walking the heart-led road, I know all too well, is to risk its many potholes and dead-ends.  Ironically, although I am typically the over-protective parent, wanting to spare my children every sort of heartache, when it come to risks they might want to take in order to pursue their vocational dreams, I find I don't count the cost.

I want my children to discover their loves, to dream big, and, if necessary, to fail big.  I want them to live lives that say, in no uncertain terms, there are things more important than making a living.  There is art to make, for starters.  There is music to compose and perform, drawings of fairies to render, stories to write, Lego structures to build, and fantasies to be acted out.  Somewhere in the midst of their passion, they will find ways to make ends meet.

My friends say, reasonably, that if my daughter or daughters-in-law want to stay at home with their kids, they're going to need money.  I think, but don't say, that I stayed home on a shoestring.  We don't have a big mortgage.  Or an iPhone.  Or cable.  Or new cars.  Or fancy vacations.  Or lots of other things, including, I am quite sure, enough money in our retirement accounts.  (In the interest of fairness I must note that my financially practical friends are equally conservative in their spending but likely prepared for much more leisurely and secure retirements.)  I know I ought to care.  But I don't.

Life is wild and unpredictable.  Maybe we will have a rock star in the family.  Some people do.  Maybe librarians or Lego builders will finally get the financial rewards they deserve.  Maybe my kids will resent not being able to afford their own big suburban homes or iPhone contracts.  I don't know.

What I do know is that they will never be able to say that we didn't encourage them in their dreams, that we didn't value their passions, that we didn't offer them wind beneath their wings when they wanted to try flying instead of living with their heads out of the clouds and their feet on the ground.

July 3, 2012

We all die

It's more than obvious. I'm going to die.  So are you.  I don't know when.  You don't either.  Day after day we live with the specter of death hanging over us.  Most of the time it lies just beyond our, my, field of vision.  Only lately, it's been front-and-centered for me.  I know that sounds ominous, like I have some terrible diagnosis.  I don't.  Only the same one that we all get, that is, that I am mortal.

I've been more aware of the passage of time, of myself on a linear path that I began to walk 45 years ago.  Maybe it's that number, 45.  Maybe it's watching my children grow up, which they seem to be doing at an alarming rate of speed.  Maybe it's watching my father get older.  Whatever the reason, there is an unavoidable end somewhere off in the distance at a point I cannot see.

I feel as if I can't bear the suspense of it all.

I read an article recently about how thinking about death effects our behavior.  I need to quote it here at some length:
When people consciously think about death, they either act proactively to forestall it -- eat healthy water, exercise -- or rationalize why it won't be a problem for a long time - "I take Lipitor," "I'll quit smoking soon" -- or just try to distract themselves by turning on the TV, calling a friend or having a drink. The goal is just to get those thoughts out of consciousness.
When thoughts of death are activated outside of consciousness, it's not that people become more existential in their thinking since they're not thinking about death at all. Rather, they bolster the psychological resources that they have learned to use to cope with the existential problem of death, their worldview and sense of significance. And so when death is close to mind -- after watching an action flick, hearing about a celebrity death, reading about an act of terrorism online, noting a weird spot or new wrinkle, driving past a cemetery -- people become more adamant in their beliefs and get extra-motivated to distance themselves from their physicality and to assert their symbolic value -- their intellect, achievements, and so forth. They increase prejudice and aggression against others who are different. They reject the physical aspects of sex, avoid bodily activities, and use euphemisms for them. They show off their skills, smarts, fitness, and generosity. And indeed research has shown all of these things. 
They name these strategies for avoiding awareness of our mortality the proactive and the evasive.  I seem to be failing at both.  Even if I lose weight or eat a raw food diet or become tremendously fit, I am going to die. Even if I focus on the non-physical reality of Me, I'm going to die.  Nothing I do is distracting enough to lift the sense of dread I've been feeling.

I have a new awareness, and I can't unknow what I know.  Somehow, death is no longer something that I see only out of the corner of one eye.  It has inexplicably ceased to be something my consciousness can evade or ignore.  I can whistle in the dark all I want, but I still feel it breathing down my neck.

I want to believe that there is another path, one that depends neither on trying to dodge the bullet nor on pretending that there's not a bullet coming.

I'd love to be able to say that my tremendous faith in the life-to-come is relieving me of the burden of dread.  The fact is, I lie awake in the night and feel it weighing on me, massive and immovable.

I have, incidentally, been reading Thomas Merton.  He was a Trappist monk and teacher of contemplation and an important 20th century voice for social justice and a rapprochement between the spiritualities of the West and the East.  Merton died in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, as the result of a freak accident.  He was 53 (coincidentally, the same age as my mother when she died).  It was the first time he had left the monastery in 27 years.

In one of the first of his posthumous publications, Contemplative Prayer, Merton says this:
[W]e should let ourselves be brought naked and defenseless into the center of that dread where we stand alone before God in our nothingness...
I find that I can't stop reading that sentence.   "Naked and defenseless" in "the center of...dread."  "Alone before God in [my] nothingness."  That's me.  There's no "should" about it though.  It hasn't felt like a choice, some duty to which I have given my obedience and assent.  Instead, it is where I have found myself, stuck, with no going back.

May 10, 2012

His distressing disguise

I'm reading this lovely book about spiritual direction.  The author is a wise, experienced woman, Episcopal priest/teacher/midwife, and she uses language that would be quaint were it not so accurate.  My favorite of her expressions is the way that she talks about shabbiness.

"Shabby" is my grandmother's word, but it is so well-suited to what it intends to denote that I cannot think of another word in the vastness of English that quite matches it.  It's not just about something's being worn or old or decrepit.  There's a sense in which, when I'm shabby, I don't see it or can't help it.  That's often me.

It's me in my pettiness.  It's me in my laziness.  It's me in the thousand little things that I leave unsaid and undone, because I have to check my e-mail one more time.  But it's worse than that too.

I'm like the caricature of the aging starlet.  Too much rouge.  Too-false eyelashes.  Faded gown.  Drooping, drawling, dreaming.  Looking in the mirror and seeing youth and fame and beauty while projecting to the world something that looks cheap and tawdry.  Shabby.

I feel safe in some ivory tower of rightness, and I look down.  If I'm strong up there, you're weak down below.  If I'm right, you must be wrong.  If I'm put together, you're falling apart.

To keep me on my perch, I find ways to identify with other people on perches.  Sometimes I lift them up and steady them on my own pedestals -- where they'd better perform according to my expectations -- if they don't want to get knocked off.  They can stay as long as they help me preserve the illusion that I am somebody.

When I'm intent on preserving my Somebodyness I am wary of the "nobodies."  They don't get it.  Where's the make-up?  The glamour?  The show?  They are exposed, with all their brokenness hanging out.  Dirty.  Toothless.  Poor.  Or...  Divorced.  Atheist.  Republican.  Fat.  Whatever.  So long as I can feel superior.


Not them.  Me.

Mother Teresa said with perfect clarity, "Everyone is Jesus in a distressing disguise."  I think about that.  When I feel that feeling well up, the feeling that says he or she or you are somehow not good enough for me, I think, "There's Jesus in his distressing disguise."  It does distress me, and I have to pause and recognize what's hiding underneath.  And not only underneath your distressing disguise.  Underneath my shabbiness.

What's true is that the faded gown and the fake jewels and the cheap dreams I'm still holding onto hide the real beauty that is underneath.  When I scrub off the rouge, what's underneath is ravaged and broken.  And beautiful.  And free.

I want to believe that even underneath my shabbiness, Jesus sees himself, in disguise.

May 9, 2012

Not a bug but a feature

I recently made the acquaintance of someone whose childhood appears to have been, at least in the rear view mirror, idyllic.  Now, admittedly, I don't know the whole story, but what I heard was like a report from my dream world.

As a little girl, I had this idea that there was this way my life was supposed to be.  I don't quite know where I got the narrative, but I did watch a lot of T.V., so maybe that explains it.

From as far back as I can remember, I knew the kind of life I wanted, a life that was tidy, where everything and everyone had their place.  Mommy would stay home while Daddy would go to work.  I would dust the furniture and set the table.  (I also wanted to gather eggs in my apron from the chickens we'd have on our farm, but that's a story for another day.)  There would be pretty party dresses and fresh flowers.  We'd go to church every Sunday.  Father would preside over meals.  Everything would be neat as a pin.  We would all live happily ever after.

For a while we did.  Or, I did.  Apart from the chickens, I had just what I thought I wanted and two little sisters besides.

Then one day my parents told us my dad was moving out.  No more Mommy staying at home; she went to work.  No more Daddy shaving in the morning or cutting the grass on Saturday or sitting at the dinner table.  Just us girls at home with my mom and Daddy's house every other weekend. 

But still, somewhere in my mind, I was still living in that other world.  If only I could make it be true!

I remember in college, someone from the counseling department, upon hearing my story, introduced me to the words "dysfunctional family." I was horrified and defensive. Not my family.  We loved each other.  It would be years before I understood what that man was trying to tell me -- the truth.

As self-aware as I imagine myself to be, it's rather embarrassing to confess that I was into my thirties before I connected the dots from my adult dysfunctions back to my parents' divorce.  Every single neurosis I could think of seemed to have its genesis when I was about ten years old, when my dad moved out.  For a long time I felt sorry for myself.  Now I don't.

Labels like "dysfunctional family" or "co-dependency" have their place, but they don't really say what needs to be said for my story to feel true.  It's true that I was emotionally wounded by my parents.  It's true that their divorce was emotionally devastating to me.  It's true that I pretended, mostly unknowingly, for years and years to be fine when I really was sad and angry and lonely.

I'd like to say that I'm just this amazingly magnanimous person and I've forgiven everyone because it's the right thing to do.  In fact -- and maybe this is the truly amazing thing -- I'm grateful.

While I thought my family was healthy, the only explanation for my personal crazy was that I was wrong.  I felt the wrong things, wanted the wrong things.  But that's not true.  I feel what I feel and want what I want.  How I act on my feelings or my wants can breed love or destruction, but the feelings and the wants just are what they are.  I don't have to judge them all the time.  I don't have to judge me all the time.

I don't know that I could ever have understood all that unless I'd suffered a little.  I've never been hungry or sick or, thank God, abused or victimized, but I have suffered loss at the hands of the people that I thought were supposed to make my life perfectly safe and lovely.  Thing is, they were human, just like I am, so they made mistakes.  They suffered.  I suffered.

But that suffering has opened my eyes to the possibility that life holds more than I imagined.  My dreams, my little Leave It to Beaver/Brady Bunch fantasy life, was so much less rich than the life I have.  It's not that there were no chickens.  It's that it was too perfect, and life's just not that way.

Life is messy.  Everybody's life is messy.  If I don't understand and embrace the messiness of my own life, I cannot possibly be trusted with the messiness of yours.  I wanted my life to be perfect.  I thought if it was I wouldn't be sad or angry or lonely, but that isn't true.  It's because I'm sad and angry sometimes that I don't have to be lonely.  We're in this together.

May 5, 2012

I preach Christ crucified

I recently met a lovely and wise couple.  They offered me generous hospitality, shared their story, and gave me encouragement on my path.  This couple has carefully studied the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and those of the Buddha.  They have found life-altering sustenance from their recognition that the underlying wisdom messages of both men are fundamentally the same.  I would put it like this:  Truth is Truth wherever you find it.  I honor that this is where they have sought and found.

Many deeply spiritual, honest seekers find fulfillment in the recognition that God's creation is infused with ultimate Truth:
 The heavens declare the glory of God! - Psalm 19 
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. - Romans 1:20
Where there is truth or beauty or goodness or love, there is God, for "God is love" (1 John 4:8).  In the natural world, in a loving heart, in church and synagogue and temple and mosque, where truth and love abide, God abides.  A lot of people are content with that and breathe a relieved sigh affirming that it is enough.

God, however, said it is not enough.

There is ever and always the problem of suffering.  The heavens declare the glory of God -- and the heavens wreck havoc with wind and storm, hurricane, tornado, lightening.  The earth brings forth its shoots (Isaiah 61:11) and every living creature (Genesis 1) -- and the earth brings forth fire and earthquake, tsunami and flood.  The harvest yields food and healing herbs -- and poison.  Animals walk beside us as companions -- and they kill and are killed.  The human heart loves -- and the human heart hates.  We die.  We decay.  "[A]ll are from the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

There is no wisdom teaching, however wise, to answer the psalmist's cry, "How long, O Lord?" (Psalm 13).  Philosophy, a gift to the rational mind, is no balm for a broken heart.

Here is the genius of Paul's grasp of the Gospel.  In 1 Corinthians, he rhetorically asks, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Jesus and the Buddha appear to concur in their wisdom teaching.  To wit:
Jesus: Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
Buddha: With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism, the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging.
Dying to live, they agree, is the path to fulfillment.  The difference comes down to the cross.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)   
Do we hear what Paul is saying?  "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."  

As we've discussed here before, crucifixion was the ultimate failure.  It was horrible, crushing death by torture at the hands of the all-powerful state.  Of what consolation are words of wisdom, however true, in the shadow of crucifixion?

Let us be honest.  When our hearts are broken, when my heart is broken, words, however well-meant, however true, do little to heal.  I need your compassion, your "suffering with" me.  There are no words or teachings or arguments or rituals or practices that speak to the deep suffering of the world and the heart of woman and man.  There is only the cross.

To the world, it is a stumbling block and foolishness.  To Paul, it is the only thing

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In contrast to the teachings of Buddhism, which suppose that "suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering [and a]ttaining and perfecting dispassion," Christianity affirms that human suffering, and indeed the brokenness in all of creation, is the result not of attachment, but of dis-attachmentThe Christian story, as a continuation of the Jewish story, assures us that it is in becoming rightly rejoined in love with the Creator God that all creation -- including suffering woman and man -- is restored and made new.

This is why the crucified Messiah matters above all else.  In him, that which has been dis-attached -- sinful humanity -- is perfectly united with that from which it, we, have become separated, that is, God.  And it is that, Him, the God-Man who, in his body hung upon a tree, is attached to all the suffering that sin has wrought on earth, and, through that attachment, reclaims creation for its purpose:  God's kingdom come on earth as in heaven, humanity bearing God's image --  suffering love, crucified and risen.

May 3, 2012

To an unknown god

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. - Acts 17:22-23
As Christians we think we know God.  And we do.  And we don't.

In Acts, when Paul preaches at the Areopagus to the Athenians, he proclaims God as the creator, the father of Abraham and the Israelites -- indeed, the father of us all.  He proclaims God as judge of all God has created and as the One who raised Jesus from the dead.

In the great hymn that he quotes in Philippians 2, Paul testifies to his Christian sisters and brothers that, when we seek to discern the image of God, we need look no further than Jesus, emptied, broken, obedient, on the cross.

We know these things.  We know so much more than the Athenians worshipping an unknown god.  We know so much about God that we start to think we know everything.

I used to think I knew God.  I went to church.  I said my prayers.  I learned my catechism.  I learned my Bible.  I learned a lot of theology.

None of this is God.

I knew that I could see God's handiwork in nature.  I can see the face of God in Christ in my neighbor.

This is still not God.

It came to crisis for me.  My life wasn't working very well.  It caused me to question why my god wasn't helping me.

I believe now it was that the god I thought ought to be in my court wasn't God at all.

All the things I knew or thought I knew about God weren't enough.  All they did, ultimately, was to encourage me to rely on a god of my own making, in my image.

And that's not God.

Here's where it turned for me:  I came to understand that no matter how much I knew about God, it would never be enough to allow me to know God.  A god I can know all about isn't big enough to have created the universe.  The god that I can figure out isn't big enough to deal with the injustice of this world.  That god isn't even big enough to take care of me.

God is bigger than what I've made him.

That means that no matter how much I read or study or pray, I can never, ever understand God.  That is a God I can rely on -- a God that I cannot grasp.  I cannot hold that God or control that God or -- and here's where I'm grateful -- overwhelm that God.  Sometimes I worry that I'm too much.  But God is bigger than all that.

I used to pray to a god that I thought I could manage.  Now I pray to a God who is unmanageable.  I used to pray to a God I could imagine.  Now I pray to a God who is beyond imagining.  I used to pray with lots of words, always looking for just the right words.  Now I mostly pray without words, because I'm praying to a God who doesn't need my words.

This God, big and mysterious though he is, is not inaccessible, because he still reveals himself in the broken body of the crucified Messiah.  I can still conjure in my mind's eye that Jesus who is the perfect God-image-bearer.  But I no longer kid myself into thinking that what I can imagine or understand is all God is.  Thank God, He is so much more.

May 1, 2012

Am I or am I not?

I've been reading a variety of articles on the Vatican's rebuke of U.S. nuns.  Naturally, I've been drawn to articles like this one that tend to reinforce what I already believe.  But then I went and did something risky:  I read some articles by people who think the Vatican is entirely justified and that the sisters are committing acts of apostasy.

This makes me uncomfortable.

I have long struggled with whether I am a "real" Catholic or not (as I discuss in small measure here and here).  My struggle is theological and cultural and personal and painful.  I have studied and read and prayed and prayed some more, and I find myself, still, wondering how I can remain a Catholic and how I can be anything else.

I'm not sure I believe a lot of things that are supposed to make me a Catholic.  I don't believe in the absolute authority of the all-male hierarchy.  I don't believe that Jesus thought he was making Peter the first Pope.  I don't know whether the elements of bread and wine are changed in their substance when the priest says the consecration, and I don't know that it really matters.

These are big problems for a lot of people, many of them bishops. 

It's not that I don't want to believe.  I have tried, repeatedly, to be a "good," orthodox Catholic.  And I have repeatedly failed to reconcile my heart and my life experience with the rules of that game.

So, for a while, I tried being a Protestant.  I felt like I couldn't, with integrity, call myself a Catholic any longer.  Here's why:  When I first started studying the Bible and Christian theology seriously fourteen or so years ago, I discovered some things that I had never learned in catechism class or at my Catholic college.  The one that struck me most deeply was the notion that I didn't have to earn my way into heaven.  Now, I don't mean to say that that is what the Catholic church officially teaches.  Let's be clear about that.  But there are many teachings of the church that can -- and do -- lead people to that sort of conclusion.

I already knew that I did not believe that missing mass (a mortal sin) would exclude a person from eternal salvation.  But I didn't know the first thing about the theology of "salvation by grace through faith."  At last, I felt like I was hearing the gospel, real "good news."

Still, I had plenty of trouble swallowing some of the Protestant theology with which I began to be acquainted.  I don't believe that God excludes people from his love for failing to believe or say the right things any more than I believe he excludes people for not being Catholics.

The problem is, I've gotten to know this Jesus that Catholics claim created the hierarchical Roman church, and that some Protestants claim said all there is to say between the pages of a book.

I keep worshipping as a Catholic (after spending seven years worshipping as a Lutheran) in part because it's what I know, where I come from and where my family has come from.  I keep worshipping as a Catholic because I can't seem to do otherwise.  I keep worshipping as a Catholic because catholic means universal, and there are signs, signs that I have seen since I was a kid, that the Catholic church can be a big tent, incorporating any and all comers who want to say YES to Jesus' call to receive and give sacrificial love for the glory of God the Father.

I'm not a Catholic by a strict definition of orthodox belief and submission to the authority of the Magisterium.  I'm not.  Neither am I a Lutheran, if being a Lutheran means, even in part, that I have to accept the idea that humans can do no good in their natural state.  That just doesn't jibe with my life experience.

What I am is a deeply flawed, desperately clinging, hopeful disciple of a first century laborer-rabbi-prophet-messiah who died an ignominious death on a Roman cross.  I might be wrong about a lot of things, but I'm not wrong to follow him.

I was wrong

I said yesterday,
There are too few American men entering the priesthood, so many have to come from other countries around the world. Otherwise, one might expect to find an older, guitar-mass-and-felt-banner Vatican II Catholic priest or a young, right-wing, traditionalist American priest. That seems to encompass the range.
I was reminded this morning that there are important exceptions, and that one of them serves at the parish where I grew up.

I met Father Jon Pedigo in 1984 when he came to our parish as a seminarian.  I was only a few years younger, and we found we had some intellectual and spiritual connection.  A dozen years later, he officiated at my wedding.

Over a decade ago he became the pastor of that same parish where we first met.  In the intervening years, the tech boom had caused radical changes in the demographic composition of the old neighborhood.  So had shifts in the culture -- both that of the secular society and of the church.  Jon was ready to lead in this changing world, because he is deeply grounded in the thing that never changes, that is, the gospel of the Christ.
Fr. Jon is an activist.  He is a community leader in matters relating to immigration and equality.  In his most recent homily he speaks profoundly -- and prophetically -- about our call as the body of Christ to include rather than to exclude
It is to walk on a razor's edge these days to "name out loud our diversity" in a Catholic parish.  But it is to proclaim the savior, Jesus, who scandalously offered open table fellowship to exactly those people the law, God's law, said must be shunned.
In Falling Upward author Father Richard Rohr (another notable exception, although not a parish priest), says, profoundly:
Every time God forgives us, God is saying that God's own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us. (italics original)
What I see in communities like the one at St. Julie's is people dedicated to this vision of what it means to be the body of Christ, to embody the coming of the kingdom of God.  How do we participate in this mission, the mission of receiving forgiveness and relationship and reaching out in forgiveness and relationship?  That is how God's kingdom comes.  That is how we proclaim the gospel.

April 30, 2012

What of the sisters?

I have found myself wondering since I heard about the Vatican's crackdown on U.S. nuns whether this will be a watershed moment.  It feels a bit silly to think of, acknowledging that the sexual abuse scandal seems to have done not one thing to deter the hierarchy from their self-destructive path of escalating authoritarianism.  Why should this be different?

But I'm not alone in imagining it might be.  I have heard several women in my life with ties to the church as Catholics or as former or non-practicing Catholics say, "If there is going to be change, it's going to come from the women." 

When I was a girl, I was introduced to the inequality in church roles for men and women when I was not allowed to be an altar server.  I could be an acolyte, carrying the candles, but then I would have to sit and watch while my male peers did the real work of serving at the altar.  I was told that girls were not allowed because then they might want to become priests. 

I already wanted to become one, although I knew I wanted to be a mother more; even if I had been allowed, I would have eschewed the celibacy in favor of a family.  Still, I wanted what I thought the priesthood meant -- not I might add, the power of consecration or other sacramental functions, but the opportunity to dedicate my life to the service of God.  It would be many years before I understood that I have that opportunity, even without the collar.

Now girls do serve at the altar, maybe because nobody, at least in the U.S. seems to want to be a priest anymore.  Anyone who has belonged to a parish in the past couple of dozen years has experienced a pastor or associate whose accent was difficult to understand, because his first language is not English.  There are too few American men entering the priesthood, so many have to come from other countries around the world.  Otherwise, one might expect to find an older, guitar-mass-and-felt-banner Vatican II Catholic priest or a young, right-wing, traditionalist American priest.  That seems to encompass the range.

As for nuns, I came of age when they were wearing polyester skirts and pant-suits rather than habits.  They got to keep their baptismal -- feminine -- names.  I didn't know very many of them, having gone to public school.  Even at my Jesuit university there were only a couple of Sisters I remember, both from the office of campus ministry.  What I remember about them is that they were not in charge of anything important or interesting, even then, in the mid-to-late 80's.

All I knew of nuns was that they taught my mother her perfect penmanship and that they tended to do the dirty work of caring for the young or infirm.  I never thought of them as rebels until college, when they became the face staring down Central American guerrillas or the officials at nuclear weapons facilities.  They were, are, heroes, following the narrow path of peaceful resistance in the face of institutional violence.  Just like Jesus.

They continue, these American nuns, to do the same thing today.  It is tragic that the face of institutional violence is, in this instance, the face of a priest, a bishop, a pope.

Will it be the women to bring the change, to restore the church universal to the call of her Lord, the call to serve with selfless love?  When I look to the gospels, I see that God calls the church his bride.  I see that the first witnesses to the resurrection were the women, faithful at the foot of the cross, fulfilled in encountering the risen Christ.  I have hope.

April 23, 2012

On time

I've been wanting to write about Andrew Sullivan's Newsweek cover story about Jesus.  Then, I read Fr. Robert Baron's  response about why Catholics stop going to church and the America magazine article that prompted it, and I wanted to write about that.  Then there is the business about the Vatican's crackdown on nuns in the U.S.

But I don't have enough time.

Sometimes I get caught up with the notion that I am going to have a Voice and take part in the Big Conversation.  I'm skittish about getting political as you might notice here and also here, and yet I have a lot of opinions.  Writing about them in this forum, in public (however small the readership may be) gives me a sense of personal agency.  I feel less oppressed by the other voices outside of me and in my own head.

But it takes time.

There is input -- reading, praying.  And then there is output.

What I know is that whatever God really wants me to do to fulfill my mission in the world, I'll have time to do.  Sometimes it doesn't feel that way.  But it's true.

That means if I feel too busy, if I feel like I don't have time for something, one of two things must be true:  Either that something is not really for me to do, or I'm doing something else that is taking up the time that ought to go to that something.

I want to have time, first, to listen.  When you call or e-mail, when my kids come home from school, when my husband drags in from work, I want to have time to listen. 

Right this minute my eight year old is waiting impatiently for us to finish a game of Monopoly over a bowl of popcorn.

So for today, and maybe tomorrow, the Big Conversation will have to continue without me.

April 22, 2012

Two Truths and a Lie

Let's just start with the lie and get it over with.  I have spent a fair amount of time lately, as I approached my 45th birthday, thinking about linear time.  Time keeps passing, and I just keep losing things.  That's how I've been thinking about it.  That's the lie.

I learned recently from something I read -- although it would have been obvious, had I only thought about it -- that a primary difference between the Hebrews and other ancient tribes is that the Hebrews thought about time as linear.  While other ancient peoples saw their gods acting cyclically, as the sun rose and set and the moon waxed and waned, the Hebrews saw God acting historically, linearly, in time.  God's action can be told as a story with a beginning, the past, and a middle, the present, and, somewhere in the future, an end.  Our story is part of God's story.

But the ancient Hebrews' neighbors didn't have it all wrong either.  There are cycles in nature, and I find that they mirror the cycles of my life.  Still, they're the smaller pattern inside the bigger pattern.  The big pattern is clearly about birth, life, and death, one straight line.  It's death that has been tripping me up.

In Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett says, "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."*  There's something that is essentially true about this.  We know that this mortal life will end.  In cosmic time, it is barely an instant.  We lose.

The first truth is that even as I lose as I walk this linear road from birth to death, beginning to end, I don't leave behind what I love.  I realize that that's one thing that has left me feeling sad and afraid, the idea that I leave what I love behind.  The truth is, I get to take it with me.  It is me in a more real sense than the aging body I live in is me.  It is eternal, starting now.

The second truth has to do with the seasons of my life.  Certain periods of our lives have built-in time limits -- our childhoods or our children's childhoods; as women, our childbearing years.  We know about how long these last and roughly when they will end.  Other seasons of my life seem equally limited, although I don't know how long they'll last until they are over.  Lately, two of those -- our homeschooling season and the season in which my husband has owned his business -- have been winding down.   I recognize that their time is up.  Whatever we had the chance to learn during those seasons we have learned or not learned.  Either way, we need to move on.  From the past and into the future.

The largest view of my life is the same.  I get a limited time, and I don't know when it will be up.  I have the chance to learn and do a lot of things.  Some I will do and learn.  Some I won't.  Either way, eventually the time will be up. 

Then there is the judgment.  People think about that in a lot of different ways, I know.  But if I extrapolate from what I experience when a season within my life ends, here's what I notice:  I notice that I feel not judged, but loved.  I have been tempted to look back with judgments of my own.  I've been tempted to regret the things I've done and the things I've failed to do.  And I have done wrong and I have failed, make no mistake.  But when I hold the time in prayer, I don't experience judgment.  I experience acceptance.  I have lost what I have lost, but I also have gained what I have gained, measured in love.  That love I gather up and take with me into the next season.

In the end, I will gather up all the love -- it will survive the refining fire (1 Corinthians 3:13) -- and I will carry it along into the age where there is no longer sun to rise and set or moon to wax and wane: "There will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light" (Revelation 22:5).

* Thanks to Jon Stewart (of all people) for quoting this a couple of nights ago to great comic effect.

April 19, 2012

You are with me like a handprint on my heart

It's my birthday today.  Ever since I first heard this song I knew I could never express as well as the the composer the debt of gratitude I owe to the many amazing people who have so graciously touched my life.  I have come a long way in 45 years.  What God has given me -- and my blessings are countless -- have come almost entirely through you, my family, my friends, acquaintances.  I have not always noted or acknowledged what others have done to rewrite my life.  It hasn't all been happy or easy.  We have hurt each other sometimes.  I do ask forgiveness for the the things I've done you, no doubt rightly, blame me for.  And if there's blame to share, know that I can regret nothing, because we have made it to today.  I am grateful for it all.

I know I'm who I am today because of you.  I have been changed.  For good.

April 18, 2012

A right and necessary kind of loss

My sister-in-law just had a baby, a tiny, perfect little girl.  When I'm with her, my body remembers exactly how it is to have a new baby -- how to hold her, pat her, what her cries mean -- and she's not even mine.

Mine is sixteen today.

When I hold that tiny infant, when her mommy's in the shower and I'm alone with my thoughts, I always end up thinking the same thing:  Remember when there was nothing but possibility?

I was going to be the perfect mother.  When my babies were new, especially the first two, I was obsessive about everything involving their care.  Cloth diapers.  No bottles, ever.  Sling-carrying.  Co-sleeping.  I know people who engage in all of these practices in healthy, balanced ways, but I, honestly, was obsessed.  I was going to do every single thing "right."

That is a part of why I home schooled.  Home schooling was a natural extension of the rest.  There are a lot of wonderful things about home schooling, but, for me, it was also about control.  It was about me

It's a fine line between them and me.  My intentions have always, I believed, really believed, been in their best interests.  Breast milk was better than formula for their growing brains.  Family was better than institutional school for their growing characters.  But in ways that I couldn't see or chose to ignore, I was as interested, sometimes more interested, in my status as a "good mother" than I was in helping them develop into the people God has created them to be.

Now they go to school.  They go because, one by one, it is what they have evolved into needing.  Now that I'm willing to be more honest, I can admit that I need it to, so that I can develop into the person God has created me to be. 

But all of this honesty and change comes at a price.  I have to admit that all of my best efforts have never created a perfect world or perfect children according to the mold that I envisioned.  That, of course, is the trap I fell into, thinking that my mold was the right, righteous, one. 

Now I see that I have to step back and back and back and ask very different questions.  The world is a much bigger place than I allowed it to be for a long time.  In that big world, the questions and, consequently, the answers, tend to be very different than what I thought they were.

When a baby is new, like my niece, she knows herself as an extension of her mother.  Only minutes or days or weeks before, they shared one body.  Now the child, in nature's design, still takes all of her nourishment from her mother's body.  Before long, though, that will change.  The separation grows and grows and the mother needs to recognize -- I need to recognize -- that the child is essentially other.  She was once a part of my body.  Now she is on the verge of adult independence.  That is a loss to me, however right and necessary.

My children are not created in my image.  We share things in common, but we're also different.  I thought that it was my job to mold them.  In letting them outgrow my expectations, they are molding me.

April 17, 2012

Other people's heartache

Several years ago I kept up with the forums on a home schooling web-site.  One woman there, particularly literary and articulate, already had her own blog, which I visited from time to time.  I got to thinking this morning about her, and her mothering and writing journeys, and I thought I'd check in with her blog.  I googled its name, and the helpful search suggestions included this:  "[blog name] son death."  What?  This woman is a complete stranger to me apart from her writing, but I know that she has -- had -- a son and two younger daughters.  My heart was in my throat.  I had to know what had happened.

I remember reading about her son, who was so bright and curious.  When he was yet a young teen he was studying Shakespeare deeply.  His life seemed to hold such promise.  I could not believe he could be dead.

And the mother.  Her grief.

I cried.

I want to believe I'm crying for her, but really, I'm afraid I'm crying for me.  What gripped me was this:  If it happened to her, it could happen to me.  This is the thing that, of all possible things, I least want to confront.  One of my children could die before I do.  I can avoid the thought much of the time, but here it was, before my eyes.  Her child died.  Mine could too.

I think this is why it's tempting to avoid other people's heartaches.  Someone loses a loved one.  I send a card, maybe even go to the funeral.  A week passes, then two, then four.  I'm done, and I want my friend to be done too.  Move on.  Let's get back to living.

But grief does not work that way.  Not at all.  My own experience is that it comes and goes for years, probably forever.  I was shopping for a birthday gift for my son last week. The woman behind the counter said, off-handedly, "My daughter turns 44 next week." I turn 45 this week, and my mother is nowhere that she can tell a stranger. I didn't expect it, but suddenly, there I was, with a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes, although this will be my 12th birthday since my mother's death.

In truth, it is easy for me to cry along with somebody else, easier than it is for me to cry for myself.  My kids will tell you that I can scarcely get through reading aloud without something choking me up, whether it's Wilbur's goodbye to Charlotte or Harry's noble speech to Voldemort. 
But I know that my own private sympathy is not enough.  I could cry for this mother and her son and their family this morning and move on with my day, get back to living.  They become for me an outlet for self-satisfaction, reassuring me that I have a heart.  I don't know for sure, but it looked to me like this young man died a soldier's death.  I hate to admit the relief I felt, because now I can see his death at a remove from my life.  I don't have a soldier son.

This is not entering in but holding myself apart.

A lot of people see God as dwelling at this same sort of remove from our griefs.  God sits in some faraway heaven, looking on, detached from our suffering.  It's the basis from which people ask how a good and omnipotent God can allow humans to suffer so.  And if it were not for the incarnation and the cross, it would be a very good question.

In Jesus, God demonstrates once, for all, that he does not nor ever has sat apart from us in our suffering.  He does not wipe away a tear and then move on.  He enters in.  Our grief becomes his grief.  He takes on our life entire. 

Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."  I often try to grapple with what that means.  What I know is that it is a direct rebuttal to the idea that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.  All is clearly not right, which is the evidence that sin is still at work.  And God did not stay in his heaven, but instead immersed himself entirely in our condition, which is to be battered on all sides by the suffering that sin produces.  The consequence of all this is that sin itself and the suffering that attends it is transformed. 

By means of the Spirit, we are called to participate in this saving work.  Am I willing to go all the way with you in your sin and your suffering?  Am I willing to stand by you not just for days but for weeks and months and years?  Am I willing to remain when it hurts me, because your suffering becomes my own?

April 16, 2012

I've lost 14 pounds

It would be both true and clichéd -- and therefore uninteresting -- to say that I have lost and gained and lost and gained this same fourteen pounds as many as a dozen times in the past thirty years.  For reasons I'm not sure I can explain, I feel certain that this will be the last time.

I know, to those of you who have walked a similar road -- or who have watched me walk mine -- this sounds ominous, like a sure sign that I intuit my impending death.  But that's not so.

I have tried many strategies to lose weight.  I have eaten hard-boiled eggs and grapefruit.  I have serially Weight Watched.  I have participated in a Twelve Step program for compulsive overeaters.  I have taken up relentless exercise.  All of these methods worked.  I lost weight every time.  That was my goal, and I always achieved it, at least in part.  I never reached my elusive goal weight (always receding into the distance, ever smaller), but I always lost until I quit whatever plan I was on.  And I always quit.

There's another cliché:  Dieting doesn't work.  I need a lifestyle change!  Honestly, I've never been big on weight-loss diets.  I didn't last a week on South Beach.  Atkins?  Too much protein for someone who goes easy on the meat.  Plus there is the risk of ketosis.  Don't know what that is?  I do.  Know why?  I know enough about nutrition, exercise, and food generally that I could write a book.  I'd like to say I learned it all so that I could feed my family well.  But it wouldn't be true.  The truth is that it's been another strategy to help me control my weight.  If I know what to do, I'll do it, I figured.

I've been all about "lifestyle change."  The way I eat now is a dramatic change from my sugar-soaked, hot-dog-a-day childhood.  From my encyclopedic knowledge of how to create a balance of essential amino acids and anti-oxidants to continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting when I am wrong, I have indeed changed my life.  But I've remained overweight.

Maybe you're ready to object.  "You're not fat," you might say.  But you would be wrong.  By all objective measures I have been fat since I was a teen.  I have gotten fatter as I have gotten older.  When I was at my top weight, I wore a size 16 (I am 5'1" tall).  You can still see the jeans; I have them in my closet.

You might well ask, "Why in the world do you think losing weight this time is going to be any different?"

My answer would be this:  "I'm no longer trying to lose weight.  I'm trying to keep from gaining it back."  Maybe that sounds silly or even evasive.  In the past, all I have cared about is losing.  I have honed my mathematical skills by playing numbers games in my head:  If I lose a pound a week, I will have lost 40 pounds by Christmas.  But wait!  If I lose 1½ pounds a week...  How much will that be by Christmas?  By the end of the year...  You get the idea.  I was fixated, obsessed even, with losing weight, fitting into a smaller size -- usually last year's clothes.

I have always found my weight to be a special source of shame and humiliation.  No matter my gifts or the service I offer the world.  No matter that I can be witty or useful or kind.  Most of my life, in secret, I have felt that the truest thing about me is my size.  If I were a size 12 or, God forbid, 14, I wouldn't want to see people or have my picture taken or participate in my life.  I would want mostly to hide.  If I were a size 8, I would want to see and be seen. 

I was never willing to talk about any of it.  I would make excuses to remain outside of my own life.  In the darkest times, I would check-out in order to be alone and eat.  What a vicious cycle of self-destruction.

Sometime in the past few months I crossed a threshold I can't see.  It's the demarcation point between self-hate and self-love.  I started to pray, not to lose weight or stay on a diet, but to finish whatever the work is that keeps me coming back and regaining the fourteen -- or forty -- pounds I already lost.  I'm praying to stay at this size or weight until I finally learn whatever it is I have to keep coming back to because I didn't learn it the last time. 

I don't know what I'll weigh at Christmas.  I'm still praying to complete my size 12 lessons.  In another five pounds, I'll be praying to learn my size 10 lessons.  I am willing, at last, to stay here as long as it takes.  Because I don't plan on passing this way again.

April 14, 2012

On Christianity's staying power

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a book called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  The book description on says in part,
 [Douthat] argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read the book -- I'm currently 7th out of 10 library holds -- but I saw that NPR did an interview with Douthat.  Among these published highlights, it is the final topic that I found jaw-dropping.  I don't know the question (although it's easy enough to imagine), but the heading is "On Christianity's staying power."  As in, "Do you think this Christian thing is going to last?"  Douthat's answer:
I'm not without hope. I mean, Christianity is a 2,000-year-old religion. And if you look back across these various crises in Christianity's past, there's again and again been an assumption: Well, the Roman Empire is falling and Christianity will fall with it. Islam is rising, and it's going to just erase Christianity from the map. Charles Darwin has just disproved Christianity, and nobody's ever going to hear from it again. And Christianity has been very resilient.
I don't know whether to break something or cry.  Douthat is a very well-known, well-respected conservative voice.  He's a Roman Catholic.  He's got a lot of value to contribute to The Conversation, because he's got a strong, open mind.  (See this complimentary article from the liberal Mother Jones on the conservative Douthat).

I wish he hadn't said something so careless about "Christianity's staying power."

It all depends on what we mean by "Christianity," I guess.  Douthat refers to it as a "2,000 year old religion," and if that's how you think of it, I suppose it makes sense to describe it in terms similar to those you'd use to describe other human empires and institutions.

Only, as far as I am concerned, Christianity is neither a religion nor another sort of human institution.

Even in a secular forum, the New York Times or NPR, I hope for better from a confessing Christian, especially one with the opportunity to speak to an enormous audience.  "I'm not without hope," strikes me as pretty anemic response for a believer.  Take a look at Paul in Romans 8:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (vv 38-39)
Or how about Matthew 16:18, usually a favorite among Catholics:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 
Paul and the evangelist of Matthew's gospel offer much more than lukewarm hope.  The difference is that they are talking not about a religion, but about a reality. It is how the world is.  We believe that, in the resurrection, the new creation has been set in motion.  God's kingdom is breaking into the old creation and redeeming and renewing it through the work of the Spirit in the Body of Christ. 

Christianity is not in competition with Rome or Islam or Darwin.  They are part of a world order created by a good and loving God, and everything that is good and true about them will last into eternity; what is neither good nor true will ultimately pass away (see 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Christianity is not an alternative to some other empire or religion or philosophy.  It the way that God is fulfilling the eternal plan for a creation made good and broken by sin -- sin which was defeated once and for all on the cross.

Christians, remember 1 Peter 3:15:  "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you."  And that hope need not be half-hearted, because "hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." (Romans 5:5)

April 13, 2012

A community of like-minded individuals

A pastor friend who I respect very much posted this.  It's a compelling question -- "Why can't I have a conversation with the religious right?" -- and one I have asked myself.

When I was first in college, I signed up for a program called the Saint Ignatius Institute.  Here's its description from the University of San Francisco web-site; it is much the same as it was when I was applying to the University over 25 years ago:

The St. Ignatius Institute (SII) is a Great Books program offering a curriculum founded in the Western intellectual tradition, focusing on texts in Philosophy, Literature, Classics, and Theology …. Students who complete the SII curriculum are awarded certificates with their diplomas. The SII curriculum largely replaces the University's Core Curriculum requirements with smaller, often seminar-style, courses on a variety of subjects in the Liberal Arts.… All SII courses incorporate primary sources as much as possible. The SII is an academically challenging course of study geared towards students who want a rigorous academic college experience while having the opportunity to live and study in a community of like-minded individuals.  (emphasis added)

What's not to like?  It seemed to me to be the ideal sort of curriculum and environment for a liberal arts major in search of a challenge.  In my 18 year old naivete, I missed the coded language:  a community of like-minded individuals.  It would be a gross understatement to say that I was not "like-minded."

I grew up in a post-Vatican II Catholic parish.  I call it the guitar-mass-and-felt-banner era.  It was all I knew of Catholicism.  SII was run by and filled with pre-Vatican II Catholics.  These were kids who went to daily mass and thought that singing was distracting from our purpose there.  Women were not generally welcomed either to read from the scriptures at mass or to minister communion; ideally, communion was only distributed by the priest.  Were they ever conservative -- politically, theologically, soup to nuts.

My first reaction was not to rebel, but to try to understand and fit in.  I may have been the only college freshman in history who went home for Christmas break more conservative than when I left home in the fall.

Spring came, and, one day, I was sitting in a required ethics class.  The professor took time out from his lecture to tell a couple of "jokes."  They are so offensive, I will not repeat them here.  Suffice it to say that they were vicious slurs against homosexuals.  In San Francisco.  In ethics class.  On a Catholic Christian campus.  I was horrified.  I feel the same feeling now, even as I write this.  I was trembling with anger and disbelief.  I was speechless.  And then, my ethics teacher had the gall to say, "I couldn't say that in some other class."  Meaning, that we were like-minded individuals.  I picked up my books and left the room.  I only returned for the final, and the next year I was done with SII.

Years later I encountered the thirty-something homeschool mom version of the Saint Ignatius Institute.  I tried again, for a time, to fit in, and again I experienced a now-familiar smug self-righteousness and narrow-minded, exclusionary ideology.  I'd finally learned my lesson.  This was not a group with whom I could ever engage in conversation.

We humans are prone to dividing the world into groups.  Liberal and conservative.  Capitalist and communist.  Black and white.  Christian and Muslim.  Greek and Jew.  Them and us. 

Then I build my ego-self by identifying with my particular groups.  Christian.  American. White.  Woman.  Stay-at-home mom.  Liberal.  It makes me feel good.  I belong.  And I get to be right, along with all my friends.  And I can feel smug and self-righteous in my narrow-minded exclusionary ideology.  I can.

Maybe "they" feel like they can't have a conversation with me.  Maybe "they" feel judged and labelled and dismissed, left out from among me and my like-minded friends.

We are not connecting.

My personal mission in Christ is to co-create a world of deep connection where we, together, can discover and live the truth in love, so I think a great deal about how that comes about.

I'm not sure that engagement with any group I can label will ever result in genuine communication. Deep and meaningful connection is soul to soul. When I have a real encounter, a Spirit encounter, with someone who believes even very differently than I do, I discover that our differences are less relevant than I'd thought. I discover that underneath politics or ideology is another human for whom Christ died who hurts and rejoices and loves. That is our common ground.
I have friends whose politics makes me cringe.  But our friendship isn't based on our politics.  We don't even have to avoid talking about it, because we can do so with mutual respect, built on a foundation of genuine love.  Without love, at the root, any argument, any philosophy or theology, is nothing but a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.

April 12, 2012

I'm going grey

I'm getting older.  I turn 45 next week.  That's middle age, folks, half-way between born and 90.  There's no getting around it.  From here, I start living the second half of my life, if I'm very lucky.  At my age, my mother only had eight years to go before she died.  It's sobering.

I'm at an age where I can't keep up with every new trend.  I know Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but only from watching Glee.  I'm on Facebook, and I have a Twitter account, but I've never tweeted.  I know the language, but I'm not really a part of the culture.

Take texting.  I recently spent several days with a group of teens, and I was fascinated to see how texting functions as part of their pattern of communicating.  It wasn't what I would have assumed.  Many of them did text almost obsessively.  But what surprised me was that it wasn't really distracting.  Until I thought more about it.  What I mean is that, a girl (it was mostly girls on the trip and girls with phones in their hands) would be chatting with me or someone else, glance down at her phone and receive and send a text without missing a beat in the present conversation.  It didn't feel invasive at all.  Until I thought about it.

So, this young woman was here, communicating with me, but she was also somewhere else, communicating with someone else.  I didn't know who.  I didn't know what they were talking about.  I presume that person's ignorance was similar.  He or she didn't really know where my companion was or what was going on around us.  My texting friend was strangely divided, but it didn't show in obvious ways on the outside.  She had created an illusion of presence.  I guess we all do that in ways.  I attend to a conversation, but I'm also in my head, composing a shopping list.  Is this so different?

It feels different to me.  It feels like a further step on a path that allows and even encourages a blurring of the distinction between what is immediate and real and what is mediated and imagined.  It's like Google Goggles.  Why have plain old reality when you can have internet-enhanced reality?  This brave new world sometimes tempts me with it's bells and whistles -- I confess to having coveted my neighbor's iPad -- but it gives me pause as well.

That's one of the reasons I'm going grey.  To be honest, I first made the decision, when I still had few enough grey hairs that I could pluck them out, because I know me -- I'm cheap and I'm lazy.  I would never be willing to spend the money to get my roots done every three weeks, and it's a bother to do a home dye job (I've done it, for fun, in my younger days).  I'd get tired of keeping it up, and then, when I decided to quit, I'd be really grey all at once.  I wouldn't like that.

As I have seen myself aging in the mirror, I could have balked.  I had a friend who said that she was all about going grey until she turned 45 and saw that old lady in the mirror.  I have another friend who was grey when I met her.  She looked fabulous.  Now she has dyed her hair, and she still looks fabulous -- and she looks younger.

But she's not really younger, and neither am I.  I don't mean to say that it's wrong to maintain the illusion of youth, but I cannot bring myself to do it.  I need the reinforcement in the mirror,  reminding me that I am getting older.  I want to be present with the person I am becoming.  Dyeing my hair would be a capitulation to my own augmented reality.  I'm sticking with the real thing.