Sunday, November 30, 2008

Proverbs 31 for men

The Sunday just before Christ the King Sunday, the Old Testament reading was Proverbs 31 - the account of the diligent wife. Though (sadly) few Catholics could peg this passage from the opening verses, most evangelicals can. It recounts the attributes of a faithful wife, and is often read at times like Mother's Day. I get a kick out of catching Ellen's eye when it's being read, for though she doesn't plant vineyards or spin her own yarn, she's diligent in tending to our house.

I've spoken to men who loved Proverbs 31 as kind of an ideal standard for women, but lamented that there was no equivalent for men. But actually, there is - though it's found in an unlikely place. The passage is Job 29, specifically verses 7-17. It reads thus:

When I went to the gate of the city
and took my seat in the public square,
the young men saw me and stepped aside
and the old men rose to their feet;
the chief men refrained from speaking
and covered their mouths with their hands;
the voices of the nobles were hushed,
and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.
Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
and those who saw me commended me,
because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
and the fatherless who had none to assist him.
The man who was dying blessed me;
I made the widow's heart sing.
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
and snatched the victims from their jaws.
(New International Version)

Lest anyone think Job was simply blowing his own horn here, remember that God Himself referred to Job as "blameless and upright", which presumably involved a fair amount of humility. We can safely assume that Job exaggerated nothing, but was simply telling things as they were.

We guys tend to like the part where everybody stands and falls silent when we show up, but the thing to notice is why they do that: because Job aided the helpless, and took up the cause of the outcast and the victimized. He doesn't boast of his substantial wealth or community influence, but rather that he took the part of those who had nobody to help them.

Scripturally, this is the mark of a manly man: the willingness to put his strength at the disposal of the weak. This obviously requires sacrifice, and sometimes confrontation, as that last verse indicates. The confrontation part doesn't go down well in our culture, and to many pragmatic men may seem a dangerous step. After all, why alienate that guy? I may have to do business with him in the future, and maybe there's another side to the business about the rental units...(or whatever).

But Job didn't see it from the perspective of what he might gain from a situation - he only saw the victims and their plight. That was enough to move him to action. I can't count how many times this passage has given me comfort in the years I've been fighting the pro-life fight, because if there is any group that is in "the fangs of the wicked", it is unborn children.

It's interesting to note the difference in tenor between the two passages. In Proverbs 31, it is to a woman's credit to tend to her own home, while in Job 29, the noblest work for the man is to see that righteousness is established in the public arena.

I remember being at a men's retreat, and hearing an evangelical pastor for whom I had great respect interrupt his talk to state plainly, "Y'know, I've had it up to here with 'nice'. God doesn't need 'nice' men, he needs strong, courageous, and forthright men. Our culture puts such a high value on 'nice' that it turns us into wimps." Job would agree. Taking up the case of the stranger and breaking the fangs of the wicked are not the actions of a 'nice' man, but of a strong one. That's the kind of man I want to be.

So there you are, guys - that's our Scriptural equivalent. If we want our wives to be "Proverbs 31" women, we should strive to be "Job 29" men. Be warned: it isn't necessarily nice, but it is right. It will be costly, and may involve confronting people (particularly "the wicked", who can be quite intimidating). But that's the standard, and one that was exemplified by Our Lord Himself.

Being a Job 29 man can come naturally, if we let it. I had a glimpse of it this past weekend when we had our grandchildren stay the night - the first night away from their parents for both of them. It was a planned, deliberate step to get them accustomed to the idea, and it had the expected tears and calls for parents, particularly at bedtime. The morning went all right until my granddaughter bumped her head and Momma was not around to comfort her. Upon hearing her tears, her cousin brought her his teddy bear and consoled her, telling her not to cry and that her Momma would be here soon. He missed his mother every bit as much as my granddaughter did, and probably would have loved to commiserate with her. But her distress caused him to forget his, and he devoted his efforts to easing her burden. This is a two-year-old version of Job 29 in action - a very good start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Truly Scandalous Post

Before proceeding, I advise you that you may find what I'm about to say offensive.

I'm serious. I intend to be almost brutal here. If you're easily scandalized, I recommend you skip this post.

Very well. If you're still reading, remember that you've been warned. Here goes:

I just turned 51 years old. My income this year has been just shy of $27,000. And oh, yes - I weigh about 240 pounds.

There. If you're a member of modern Western society, you are probably at least really surprised, maybe shocked, and perhaps truly scandalized (but I warned you!) But this response raises a question:


These are all simple facts, some well known and some easy to guess. They have no moral component, and revealing them harms nobody. This being the case, why is it that it is considered at least very unconventional, if not outright rude, to talk about personal details such as this?

There are many facets to that question, but I have a guess as to one reason: we humans are reticent to speak casually about that which we deeply honor. What we worship or revere, that which we perceive as bringing meaning and value to our lives, is not typically the topic of casual conversation. We may talk about these things under certain circumstances, but these are protected matters - hallowed ground, as it were.

Given that our culture reveres - if not worships - wealth, youth, and physical attractiveness, it stands to reason that income, age, and appearance would be protected topics. It has not always been this way. For instance, in literature from just a few decades back you can find quite casual descriptions of people as "pudgy" or "fat" - something that would be considered gravely insulting now, but at the time was merely a description of physique. Back then, different things were revered - two examples being personal religious belief and sexual behaviour. The personal details of those were not topics for casual banter.

Let me be clear about what I mean by this. I am not saying that in prior generations people did not know about someone's religion, or were unclear as to where babies came from. But the deeply personal aspects of these things, the most intimate details, were private. Everyone might know that a man was Catholic, and he might even be quite public about it - but what he discussed with his spiritual advisor, or pondered during his personal times with God, were not for public consumption. It might be public knowledge that a couple went away for a getaway weekend, but what they talked about (and where) would not be a water-cooler conversation topic - and it would have been considered gauche to ask.

This is one place where the purveyors of sexual license got things badly wrong - and were allowed to get away with it. I remember one of the catchphrases of the 1960s being that we needed to talk openly and frankly about sex, because it was nothing to be ashamed of. But shame wasn't the issue. Though some schoolmarms may have misunderstood this, the reason sex wasn't discussed casually was not because it was shameful, but because it was sacred.

In most corners of our culture, that has changed. Now, it is common to find intimate sexual details discussed on television, written up in newspaper columns, and even posted on weblogs. Even people's religious experiences - usually packaged under the category of "spirituality" - are often found in similar places. But have the effrontery to ask someone's age or weight, and you'll probably be stared down as a boor. In this day and age, such things are simply not discussed.

Socially and personally, we humans seem to be hard-wired this way. These matters rarely need to be outlined explicitly - social cues are usually enough. We pick up quickly on what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to discuss, what is acceptable and what is shameful. What topics fall into which categories says a lot about what kind of people we are, and what we value.

Why is this important? Because we can't change something if we don't recognize it. We catch more values from our cultural surroundings than we know. If we're going to cultivate particular values and reject others - particularly if we're going to be passing those values to the next generation - we need to be conscious of where we're getting those values, and their long-term import.

For my part, I don't care if my grandchildren know me as the pudgy grandpa, or know that we don't have enough money to get them elaborate presents this year. But I hope they notice that I spend special time with Jesus every morning, and that part of the reason their grandparents have such a stable and loving home is that we take care to spend time alone together. They won't need to hear every detail. The beneficial results should speak for themselves, and hopefully the message of what is not casually discussed around our home will communicate what is truly important.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yo ho ho...

I know this is off my usual blogging wavelength, but I couldn't resist. Being a Coast Guard veteran and a member of the Navy League, I'm a bit more attuned to the modern problem of piracy than most people. To many moderns whose only exposure to piracy has been books like Treasure Island and movies like Captain Blood and the recent Pirates of the Caribbean series, piracy seems somehow romantic, almost chivalrous.

The reality is both more prosaic and more brutal. Pirates have been the scourge of the seas as long as men have shipped goods by water, and if the term "scourge of the seas" conjures up images of Johnny Depp, you need to think again. Because a ship is a self-contained society, separated from the law and enforcement mechanisms of land, anyone who seizes control of a ship has absolute mastery of those aboard. When pirates take a vessel, they're usually interested in the cargo - the crew and any passengers are an inconvenience because they are an incentive to a rescue attempt. In a captured ship, anyone aboard is effectively under a death sentence. The best they can hope for is being held for ransom, and a more likely fate is savage execution. The fate of any women doesn't bear considering.

It doesn't take much for piracy to prosper - usually just a lawless country, what the modern media would call a rogue state. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the nations of the Barbary Coast of North Africa were such states. The famous line about "the shore of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps Hymn is a reference to the Marine Corps role in the taming of the Barbary Pirates which operated out of those states. There was nothing swashbuckling or romantic about them. The major world wars of the 20th century and the powerful navies that arose around them put piracy in abeyance, but with the dawn of the 21st century and the rise of various lawless areas around the world, piracy has returned. Particularly dangerous are the Straits of Malacca, along the remote western shores of Myanmar and Malaysia, and the waters around the Horn of Africa, hard by the lawless "nation" of Somalia.

The piracy near Somalia has been getting more attention of late. The most recent incident was a major score - the capturing of a supertanker carrying about $100,000,000 worth of crude oil - but piracy had been on the upswing in that area for some years. I find it interesting that following the seizure of the supertanker, the "government" of Somalia (such as it is) stepped forward to announce that it would rescue the vessel "by force if necessary.". Here's a hint, minister - these are pirates. Force will be necessary.

The impact it has on all of us is indirect but inevitable. The more piracy on the seas, the higher insurance rates are for shipping. Higher rates get passed on in the form of higher transport costs, which find their way into the prices we pay. Since one of the world's piracy hot spots is right by where much of the world's oil floats on its way to market, part of the higher oil prices will be a "piracy tax".

My bet? Another piracy incident or two like the taking of this supertanker, and you'll see a multinational coalition steaming toward Somalia to deal with the problem at its root. Navies came into existence to deal with pirates, and they've never forgotten that mission. Even ships from countries at war have been known to set aside their difference long enough to deal with pirates. So if you hear of such a thing, don't be surprised, and don't feel sympathetic toward the pirates. They deserve what they get.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bishops Beware!

Those Catholic bishops had better watch out. They're skating on thin ice, and could be letting themselves in for real trouble.

At least Chris Korzen thinks so.

Who is Chris Korzen? A lay political activist whose credentials include being a union organizer, software designer, and executive director of "Catholics United". This is a group who is far more in love with their '60s style activism than they are with Church teaching on matters like murdering people, so they set about to create their own magisterium to assuage their consciences. To nobody's surprise, they succeeded! They made a big push this past election to assure Catholics that they need not worry about voting for the vocally pro-abortion Barack Obama, because there were other issues that somehow counterbalanced his idea that slaughtering innocent children was acceptable public policy. One might guess that they were somewhat successful, given that about 54% of Catholics voted for Obama.

Then the bishops made their dangerous mistake. Following the election, the bishops voted "to forcefully confront the Obama administration over its support for abortion", and decried public figures like pro-abortion Kansas Governor Sebelius and Senator Joe Biden (they could have included our Governor Granholm) for continuing to come forward for Communion while publicly defying Church teaching.

All this inflammatory rhetoric alarmed Mr. Korzen. In his eyes, it was clear that the bishops don't know what side their bread is buttered on. Don't they watch CNN? Don't they realize who won the election? In the wake of the bishop's statement, Mr. Kozen laments, "What are the bishops going to do now? They have burned a lot of bridges with the Democrats and the new administration."

I'm sure the bishops are quaking in their loafers.

What are the bishops going to do now? It sounds to me like they've already started doing it. It's called "shepherding their flocks." Also "fulfilling their mission" and "being mindful of Him to whom they must answer." This is something that the Pax Christi types have forgotten in their push to align themselves with the political structures that they prefer: the ultimate answer isn't going to be given to a Senate subcommittee or in the Oval Office, but before the Throne of Christ.

Despite his education at a college "in the Jesuit tradition", Kozen clearly does not understand that there are times when it is wise to burn bridges. Specifically, when your land is in danger from invasion, and you have to deny the enemy access to your vital territories. For too long the Church has given moral ground to the likes of Pax Christi and politicians who want the benefit of being known as Catholic without having to burden themselves with obeying Catholic teaching. These spineless compromisers have grabbed control of seminaries, chanceries, and publications in dioceses across the land, watering down clear Church teaching and encouraging accommodation with the Spirit of the Age in order to get closer to the political power of the land. The Church has too long been plundered and ravaged by these worldlings, to the point where it's not surprising that a majority of Catholics bought their lies.

"Catholics United" and their ilk are clearly suffering from severe anthropocentrism . Focused on the words and the works of man, they think the political structures of this world are what really matter, and forget that there will be a moral judgment. I am thankful that the bishops are remembering that there will be, and are starting to take a stand on the topic. A lot of us Catholics have been waiting for them to speak out, and are praying that they have the courage to continue to do so. It could cost them on the cocktail circuit, and probably with some major donors, and certainly with compromisers like Kozen and Pax Christi - but it will be obedience to He who really matters.

Come to think of it, "Catholics United" is a suitable name. It leaves open the question of "united to what?" From their words and actions, it is clear that they wish to be united to the forces of this world, to the Spirit of the Age, and to political power that will give them temporal gains. In contrast, the bishops are choosing to be united to their Divine Head in obedience to Him and to their oaths and office. I am glad of that, and happily unite myself to the bishops rather than some transient worldly order that will perish quickly. If it means burning bridges with compromisers and worldlings, so be it.

God willing, this is only the beginning of what they will burn.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Watch out, America!

Here's a picture from Barack Obama's first press conference:

That woman to the left of Obama is our own governor, Jennifer Granholm. I don't know what she's doing there, or what she's done to earn such prominence with the popular incoming president, but she has been tapped to be one of Obama's advisors and is strongly rumored to be one of his picks for cabinet or other prominent public office. (This possibility is causing a lot of excitement here in Michigan, for varied reasons.)

Here's a warning to the rest of the nation: you'd better watch out if this happens. Granholm plays well to the media, but she's run Michigan's economy into the ground over the past six years. She blames the auto industry, and the prior governor, and the other party, but the essence is that Michigan has been in a one-state recession during her entire term. It's true that the auto industry has been struggling, and that has caused a ripple effect through the auto parts suppliers, and Michigan's economy is joined at the hip to all of that. But where other governors might have recognized the severity of the situation and worked with the Legislature to take radical steps to deal with the crisis, Granholm clung to her pet ideologies and took orders from the political supporters who put her in office. Any steps she considered had to be signed off by the unions, and the green lobby, and the radical feminists, and any one of a number of liberal groups. Needless to say, nothing was ever done while our state has slid into a deeper economic slough - the surest measure of which has been our severe population loss

I have a good friend who is a state legislator and has had to work closely with the Granholm administration on several issues, particularly the explosive and high-profile issue of tax policy. I trust his judgment (after all, he's friends with me, isn't he? :D ), and his take on Granholm's character is that she's no leader. She knows how to put on a press conference, issue press releases, and give speeches that others write, but when it comes to envisioning or suggesting new direction, she leaves it to her subordinates. This is probably why the special interests put her in office - they knew she'd be safely malleable, a tool to implement their policies rather than a leader who would make actual decisions.

So America - be careful if this woman is chosen. She'll be a figurehead, a mouthpiece - but no true leader. Like Jules in Lewis' That Hideous Strength, she'll be there for public consumption while others run the show behind the scenes.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Burden of Freedom (part 2)

Does anyone think that a frightened American public, faced with national poverty from decades of reckless public and private borrowing, and a declining standard of living, would not sacrifice all these institutions and checks and balances, to be assured comfort and security? Especially when the tool of the media lies so readily available to convince them that this is what's best? Realize that I'm not postulating scheming partisans rubbing their hands in back rooms and cackling about how they will soon Rule the World. This would happen in well-lit conference rooms, possibly under cameras and lights, as gravely concerned people discussed the steps necessary to deal with the crisis. Quietly, stealthily, and gradually the steps will be taken - and all for the common good, because people are in grave need.

Is America ready to stand up to the doorpost and have our collective ear pierced? If so, we'd best remember why that institution was ordered the way it was, and what that pierced ear meant.

The Burden of Freedom (part 1)

Jewish law strictly forbid self-mutilation (Lev 19:28), but there was one exception. Exodus 21 outlines the steps to be taken if a Hebrew slave serves out his six year period of indenture but decides that he wants to stay with his master for good. The master must stand him by the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl, which marks him as a permanent slave of the household.

If this seems harsh, it's because it was. Since God wants all His people to be free, if any of them opted for voluntary slavery, they would be allowed to do it, but they would have to pay a price. The rabbis interpreted the piercing of the ear symbolically. God's people were supposed to have heard His call to be a free people directly at Sinai, and later through Torah, but if they chose slavery instead, then their ears were clearly closed and needed opening - or "piercing", to use the Biblical term.

Why would somebody choose slavery? Because being free is harder than it might seem. True freedom is not unfettered license to do whatever we like, but the freedom to take responsibility for our own lives in the context of a moral social order. It is sounds great in principle but proves difficult in practice. It involves sacrifice, and personal responsibility, and taking risks - risks that might pay off, or might not. Freedom comes with no guarantees. The free have the potential to advance their lives - but also to wreck them. Because of this, the safety of slavery is preferable for some, for it means that someone else takes responsibility for your welfare. All you have to do is please your master and you're taken care of.

I think it especially important to remember this in the wake of America's recent presidential election. With all the rhetorical buildup, from the incessant mantra of "change" to the hymns sung by the Obama Youth, the assumption was that Obama should "do something" about people's lives, particularly their economic situation. It doesn't matter that the largest cause of the current economic problems was people making unwise personal decisions. They borrowed more than they could reasonably pay back, or purchased more house than they could afford in hopes that it would appreciate rapidly and they could sell it for a profit. These are the kind of decisions free people have the liberty to make, but with them comes the possibility of failure. Embed this same folly into the business decisions of corporations large and small (did anyone expect people who were foolish about their personal finances to suddenly become wise when they went to work?), and you have a recipe for economic calamity.

What people want now is someone to stand between them and the consequences of their actions. Most people, and especially my generation, the Baby Boomers, have expectations about what life should be like, and it does not include a lower standard of living. Humans in general and my generation in particular wants to take risks, and should they succeed, we want the benefits, but if they fail, we don't want to take the consequences.

What we forget is that freedom and consequences are inextricably bound. You can't have one without the other. The minute you ask someone to stand between you and the consequences of your actions, you put yourself in the place of the slave who doesn't want to leave his master to live the life of freedom intended for him. It may not be direct and it may not be immediate, but the effect will happen.

This is one reason why I'm so concerned for my country, and the rhetoric flying around, and the expectations being laid on the president-elect, to the point of adulation (e.g. the Obama Youth). These are frighteningly close to the actions of a people who is wanting a saviour - essentially, a master - to shelter them. They want it so badly that they will sacrifice anything - even their freedom - to get it.

Am I being alarmist? I hope so. I hope I am dead wrong about this. I hope everyone is right when they say our system of government, our venerable institutions, and our checks and balances have seen presidents come and go, and endured worse circumstances than this, and still they stand. Yet at the same time I realize that our founding fathers such as John Adams recognized that throughout history, the next step from democracy was despotism - as happened in France from the Revolution to the time of Napoleon. The impetus was always the same: what the dictator offered was order and security in the face of impending or real social catastrophe, and the people jumped at it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


"All get what they want; they do not always like it."

Aslan, The Magician's Nephew

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day Post

“To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism.”

“All efforts to destroy the foundations of our holy religion, ultimately tend to the subversion also of political freedom and happiness.”

“Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.”

Jedediah Morse, scholar and encyclopedist, 1799

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bad Catholics

This election year brought the usual assortment of public figures who wanted to gain a measure of support by playing off their Catholic identities. Of course there's Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi making her harebrained remarks about the Church's teachings on when human life begins. Here in Michigan, where the bishops have come out strong and united to defeat the ballot proposal to legalize human embryonic experimentation, we've got our pro-abortion Catholic governor stating that "as a Catholic, I can say to be pro-cure is to be pro-life." This irresponsible statement earned a firm response by the steadfast Bishop of Lansing, Earl Boyea, as well as a swift backpedal by the governor ("She was just speaking for herself", said her spokeswoman. Oh, really? Then why toss in that "as a Catholic" preface?)

Most responsible Catholics are aware of these public hypocrites and how they emerge every election cycle to try to trade on their Catholicism while escaping the moral and public obligations of their faith. One comment I commonly hear about these people is "they're not real Catholics."

I'm afraid that is false - they are real Catholics. Being a Christian isn't like joining a club or party or other human organization. Becoming a Christian is a one-way thing: once baptized, always baptized. You can reject the faith, you can apostatize, you can go completely the other direction, but you can't become "non-Christian" in the way you can become "non-Republican" or even "non-American". Baptism and confirmation are covenant ceremonies, and covenants cannot be undone.

To be fair, most people who would say "those aren't real Catholics" are doing it with the best of intentions: they want to dissociate the hypocritical behaviour of those Catholics from the true teaching of the Church, and make clear that their practice does not match true doctrine (as Bishop Boyea was swift to do in his response to Governor Granholm.) But it would be more accurate to state that these are bad Catholics who either do not understand Church teaching or choose not to follow it.

The thing to remember - and pray about - is that their Catholic identity does indeed "count", but not in the way they think. The common pattern of salvation history is that God visits judgment on His people first. He holds them to a higher standard, and if they fail, they pay a steeper price. It was that way with the Jewish people, and it is that way with His Church.

In other words, being a Catholic on the day of accounting isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, it may be a very bad thing indeed. One will hardly wish to shout out how Catholic one is when the Judge will simply look down and say, "Then you should have known better." For those who disregard Church teaching and disobey her moral injunctions, Catholic is the last thing they'll want to be when they stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ - but they won't have any option there, either.

I'm not trying to say, "be patient everyone - they'll get theirs come the day." Anyone who is offhand or complacent about that grim possibility is either deficient in charity or not really apprehending the severity of what is at stake (in my case, guilty on both counts). That any of our brothers or sisters should stand at risk of what they might be facing if they don't turn is something that should move us to the depths of our souls. That is why we should be most diligent in prayer for all those who neglect the Church's teachings, thereby risking their souls - and most especially for those in public office, who risk leading others astray by poor example. We should get no satisfaction from the thought that this or that politician or actress or whoever will certainly get their comeuppance in the end. We should renew our prayer that God will shower the grace of repentance upon them, that they might turn from their disobedience before it is too late.

It is no act of charity to tolerate public disobedience of Church teaching while still claiming a Catholic identity. To do so is callous indifference to not only the public scandal presented by the disobedience, but also the state of the soul of the offender. This is why Bishop Boyea's response to Governor Granholm's statement was the act of a good pastor, both of his flock and Governor Granholm. It's worth calling attention to a critical part of his statement: " be in favor of Proposal 2 is not to be pro-life. A well-formed Catholic conscience would never lead a person to support Proposal 2 'as a Catholic'." The hue and cry in the media treats this like a political criticism. In fact it is a serious and well-crafted pastoral statement, and it indicates the deep concern Bishop Boyea has for Governor Granholm's soul.

If we want to see better Catholic practice in our society, we need to start it by being better Catholics ourselves. An important step in that is to cease responding to the public disobedience of high-profile Catholics in manners appropriate to the political realm. Sure, we can decry that such things happen, but every time we should pray for them. They are our brothers and sisters, and we should be praying that they turn from their disobedience and seek the grace of forgiveness.

Isn't that what we'd want someone doing for us?