Friday, December 31, 2010
These days, if you really want to insult someone, call him a Pharisee. That term seems to be a universal negative, carrying all manner of unpleasant connotations: narrow-mindedness, judgementalism, rigidity of thought, hypocrisy. Nearly every vice most condemned by modern culture is encapsulated in that single term. Someone might be willing to recognize many personal failings and shortcomings, but it would be a person of rare honesty and courage who would acknowledge himself a Pharisee. That would be beyond the pale.
And yet... there was one attribute of the Pharisees that is more common than many would recognize: they didn't like to hear that they were sinners. Of course, nobody likes to hear that he is a sinner, but some people have the self-awareness to recognize that truth about themselves.You see this in the 7th Chapter of Luke's Gospel, where Jesus is speaking about John the Baptist. John's ministry was a simple as it was disturbing: to the people of Israel he announced that their long-awaited Messiah was near, even at the door - but first they needed to purify themselves. The baptism of John drew its roots from the ritual washings of the Mosaic law, which was the final step in resolving ritual uncleanness. John offered his baptism to people who recognized their uncleanness, their unworthiness to receive a Messiah, and to those who accepted it and made the life changes that repentance implied (see Luke 3:8), the promise of cleanliness.
The most surprising people took John up on this offer. As we see in Luke 7:29, folk such as the hated Quisling collaborator tax collectors welcomed John's message and received his baptism. But it's interesting to note who didn't: the Pharisees and experts in the law (7:30). They didn't want to acknowledge that they were sinners who needed cleansing. They thought their behaviour above reproach, in fact, even commendable by God (Luke 18:10-14). Though any one of them might be willing to acknowledge his sins in the generic ("Well, of course, nobody's perfect"), when push came to shove, they didn't want to hear that they were sinners.
Does this remind you of anyone else? Like, perhaps, our entire society? Nobody wants to hear of their own sins. Most people would describe themselves with the phrase, "I'm a good person." Even the lightest hint of accusation of a specific sin typically unleashes a torrent of denial and self-justification. Even the suggestion of things like penitential seasons, or self-accusation, causes all kinds of concern about "being negative" and driving people away with a "Gospel of Gloom".
In this regard we're very Pharisaical. They didn't want to hear they were sinners; neither do we. They broke their arms patting themselves on the back about how assiduously they followed Torah; we spend a lot of time telling each other that we're basically Good People who have nothing to worry about. The Pharisees not only didn't want to hear that they had sins they needed to repent of, they were gravely offended by anyone who suggested any such thing. From what I can see, we suffer from the same problem.
So, perhaps, we're a lot closer to being Pharisees than we wish to believe. After all, if we can harbor one such significant attribute of Phariseeism, what else might mark our lives?
Monday, December 06, 2010
Celebrating Advent makes no sense to the modern Western mind. With Christmas approaching, with all the arrangements to be made and things to be done, it seems the last thing that one should do is take time to be quiet, to retire, to be still and wait. How unproductive is that? It makes no sense to our mechanistic mentality, with its focus on the bottom line and the return on investment. What's the tangible benefit of this squandering of resources, of this apparent idleness, when there's so much that could be done? Is this the most productive use of our time?
In a few days the film production of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will hit the theaters. This is a film of one of my favorite stories from the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' classic set of tales for children of all ages. In Dawn Treader, the young King Caspian sets forth from Narnia on a voyage through the Eastern sea. His stated goal is to learn what happened to seven Narnian lords, partisans of his father's, who had been sent on a voyage by his usurping uncle Miraz to get them out of the way. But one of his crew, the valiant talking mouse Reepicheep, hopes for even more. It is his dream to travel as far east as possible, even coming to Aslan's Country beyond the edge of the world (one can do this sort of thing in Narnia.)
The voyage of the Dawn Treader is a classic pilgrimage - a journey of struggle and difficulty toward an altruistic or spiritual goal. Pilgrimages have fallen greatly out of favor these days, primarily due to their low return on investment. Pilgrims carry no cargo, nor do they do business along the way. The usefulness of pilgrimages is opaque to the economic thinker because the reason for pilgrimage is that the pilgrim be changed by the journey. To the economic thinker, the participant is always the subject, the economic agent; that upon which he acts is the object of production. The pilgrim understands himself as the object, to be changed by what he encounters along the way. While the economic agent seeks to do profitable work, the pilgrim seeks to be worked upon.
And so it proves for the voyagers aboard the Dawn Treader: they encounter many things, some of them beautiful and some quite difficult. They learn things about themselves and each other, and grow in the process. The further they travel, the more they see the hidden hand of Aslan behind their travels, and have to submit to His sometimes painful ministrations as they go. It is not a journey of conquest, or exploration for economic advantage, but of discovery for discovery's sake - which in turn implies trusting Someone greater than themselves. Terrible and tragic things could (and almost do) happen to them, yet they continue onward, trusting that they will be rewarded. And their trust proves firm, for the One in whom they trust is faithful. They end their voyage as different people than they were.
Advent can be a pilgrimage, for even if we don't travel anywhere, we can surrender our time to Him, and "travel" in prayer and solitude toward Bethlehem. We can be downright profligate with our precious time, and squander our attention and our effort, to bring ourselves to the side of the Manger. We can be still, and give the Infant permission to change us to be like Him in humility and trust. We have to be ready to accept that change, to permit ourselves to be made into different people.
For in the end, Advent is about trust. We humans with our economic outlook geared toward optimizing the use of scarce resources have to entrust ourselves to Someone whose resources are infinite. We have to give our time to Him, to sacrifice our urgings to Do Something while we wait for Him to do what He will in us. We probably won't see the resources He brings to bear. We aren't comfortable the idea that He's as likely to do something to us as through us, for while we may acknowledge at the intellectual level our need to change, we don't like those great Hands descending to reshape us. It hurts our pride at least, and probably much more. We resist being changed. If there is reinventing to be done, we want to be the ones do to it to ourselves - with all angles examined and all ramifications considered. But with the most critical changes we need, we have no more power to change ourselves than we have to lift ourselves by our own hair - or the boy Eustace had to remove his own dragon skin in Dawn Treader.
For those familiar with the story, that is an excellent image for Advent. We need to be un-dragoned, to have our sinful dragonish nature ripped off us by Aslan's claws. We may try a few times on our own, but the result will always be futility. We may be able to scrape off a few externals, but we'll still be dragons beneath. We can't rip ourselves as deeply as we need for the surgery to succeed. We need to stop trying, lie down, and let Him do what He wishes.
The question is: will we have the courage to do that? Or will we find something else to distract us? After all, Christmas is coming...
Thursday, December 02, 2010
We moderns routinely hear Biblical metaphors like “Light of the World” and “True Light of every man”. While we might appreciate their poetic value, I think much of their meaning is lost to us because in our day, light is cheap. The introduction of widespread artificial lighting through the 20th century marked a significant change in human civilization. Certainly there have always been some forms of artificial light, but they were cumbersome, relatively expensive, and nowhere near as efficient as electrical light. Thanks to electricity, we weren't bound by darkness any more – with the flick of a switch, we could have all the light we needed. This in turn “freed” us from the natural timetable of the days and seasons, and even nature herself. No longer were our working hours set by light from the sun. Even our architecture has come to reflect this independence from natural – and hence dependence upon artificial – lighting.
Because we take light for granted, admonitions like St. Peter's in 2 Peter 1:19 (“and you will be right to pay attention to [the message] as to a lamp for lighting a way through the dark, until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”) lose some of their impact. A people who have never walked in great darkness cannot appreciate the importance of a great light. We might apprehend it intellectually, and perhaps appreciate it poetically. But the instinctive import, the gut-level impact, will not reach a people who have all the light they wish literally at their fingertips.
But even artificial light has value in this framework. As the natural light is a metaphor for the truth of God's Revelation shedding light into the darkness of our sin and rebellion, artificial light could be understood as man trying to self-illuminate our condition by our own wisdom and efforts. For what have the last several centuries of Western civilization been but our attempts to determine our own destinies by theories and principles that we invented according to our own wisdom? We would turn from the natural moral “light” of Revelation so we can have “light” of our own making.
Why do this? Well, one reason might be something that man-made morality shares with man-made light: it functions at our discretion. Artificial light burns when, where, and to the degree we wish. If there's something we don't wish to look upon, we don't illuminate it; if there's something we wish to accentuate, we illuminate it more. In like manner, the morality of man can be very selective. We might decry treatment of a preferred minority, such as the residents of Darfur or AIDS victims, but inconvenient minorities such as the unborn or severely handicapped are tucked away in a dark corner.
Sunlight is indiscriminate – it illuminates everything, the pleasant and unpleasant alike. “Nothing is hidden from its burning heat” (Ps 19:6) There's no ignoring things illuminated by sunlight. I got a little lesson in this just today. I'm currently alone in the house, and since tidying up after the Thanksgiving weekend, the place seems fairly clean – or so it appeared just this morning by light of all the lamps. But when the morning sunlight shone through the east window, it starkly illuminated the dust and dirt on what had seemed to be a clean floor. What by artificial light had seemed acceptable, even laudable, was shown by natural light to be woefully inadequate.
Darkness is one of the themes of Advent. We need to be reminded of our selfishness and pride. While the world would have us raising toasts and celebrating bonhomie and good will, the Church urges us to confront the darkness of sin in the world and in our hearts. Let's dwell here a while. Let's resist the urge to turn on the “artificial light” of self-reassurance and self-consolation. Let's acknowledge what is wrong with us, that we too often allow darkness in our lives by only illuminating that which we wish to see. Let's face this darkness squarely, that we might will to accept the Light when He comes.
“In the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on High shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78,79)
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The best part about this arrangement is that it costs her nothing. Her lodging, transport, and even board is free. She is able to put away most of her meagre salary against grad school expenses, because her hosts will accept no payment for having her.
By now, you're probably beginning to wonder how on earth she rates such a plush arrangement. What has she done to earn such rich benefits, when so many others are scraping to even get by, especially as young college graduates?
Well, she's done nothing to earn it. It's all gift. She's living with a family who are dear friends with my eldest daughter. The husband works for a D.C. law firm and the wife was once legal counsel to a prominent U.S. senator until she resigned for the nobler and more demanding calling of motherhood. They have a toddler who is a handful, as toddlers tend to be. When they heard my daughter had gotten a summer internship in D.C., they insisted she live with them, and when she got a job at the end of the internship, they insisted she stay on.
I call these kind of arrangements “mutual high-leverage” – i.e. one where a relatively small contribution by one party provides tremendous benefit for the other. The family already has the home with plenty of room, so one more occupant is little strain. He's already driving in to work and her office is just a few blocks away. The family is actually saving money on food because my daughter's help with cooking, or tending the toddler so mom can cook, means they don't eat out as much.
In return for what is for them a very small sacrifice, they get experienced and enthusiastic help around the house – something every couple with a young child can use. My daughter is also delightful company for the couple. But probably most important is her loving presence for their little son. This is no strain – for her, loving children just “comes natural” – but it's an immeasurable benefit for the family.
This wonderful and mutually beneficial arrangement got me thinking along economic terms. Many have thought and said much about the market value of things, even to the point of contending that the only value of a thing is the price it can command on the open market. Some even hold that unfettered market transactions are the summum bonum of human existence, and that all human efforts not only can but should be valued this way.
But a market transaction – payment for goods and services – is at the root an expression of simple justice. Insuring someone gets proper recompense for their labor is only fair. To offer less is to descend into slavery and exploitation. But we need to remember that justice is a minimum standard. We dare not give less than justice, but there are greater things. One of these is charity – agapé love, to use the Scriptural term. There is no buying charity, no talk of its market value. It is pure gift or it is nothing.
If we think about it, it is the most valuable things in life that lie in this realm. I write this on Veteran's Day, when we remember those who sacrificed their freedom to preserve ours. Oh, sure, they got paid, but nothing approaching the value of what they willingly offered when they raised their right hand and took that oath. What they risked and sacrificed was pure gift to the rest of us. Another example is marriage. The mutual gift of self that should lie at the heart of the marriage covenant is of such high value that it seems repulsive to even consider market transactions in the same context (this is one reason why prostitution is always wrong – it takes a human interaction that should be pure gift of charity and reduces it to a market transaction.)
Gifts of charity are always greater things than market transactions. When my daughter moved in with this family, she offered to pay what rent she could for the benefit of living there. The husband literally laughed. He assured her that every penny of her salary could barely make a dent in the mortgage payment for the house, and while that was true, I'm sure that was mostly a façade. They wanted to give her the gift of caring for her, helping her get on her feet. In like manner, were they to offer her payment for the help around the house or child care, she'd laugh right back at them. It's all gift.
Their relationship lies above the realm of market transactions. The charity the family is extending to my daughter is making a huge difference in her present and future life. And the love she is pouring into their young son's life could not be purchased on any market at any price. She's like an aunt to him, and her influence will help him all his life.
It's all gift. That's the kind of life the Lord wants us to live. That's the Kingdom we're supposed to be bringing to earth while we wait our King's return. Would that we had the courage to live it more fully, more often – to give and receive the gift we should be to one another.
Friday, October 29, 2010
I'm not a big one on hanging onto childhood art projects. Don't get me wrong – I loved looking over projects brought home from school, but multiply six kids by at least six productive project-years each by forty weeks per year by one project per week, and the volume gets overwhelming. Add to that the ad-hoc kitchen table projects that occur throughout a creative childhood, and you've got the potential for construction-paper-and-Elmer's-glue overload. So, outside of a handful of projects that go up every Christmas season, our unwritten policy was to quietly and tactfully broom the artwork once interest faded.
With one exception.
It's sitting on my dresser in a 5x7 picture frame, and it has an interesting history. I think it was about Valentine's day, and one of my daughters set out to make a card for me to express her love. She got off to a good start, but muffed part of it along the way. Disappointed and discouraged that she'd “ruined” her card for me, she was about to throw it away when Ellen stopped her. Knowing that fathers have different standards for such things, Ellen assured my daughter that even a flawed card would be appreciated. So it was saved from the trash, and presented to me, and I'm sure at the time I gave it the usual “that's lovely, sweetheart” before tucking it in my drawer.
Some time later I came across the card while I was having a tidy fit over my cluttered dresser. Recognizing it as a childhood art project and wondering why I'd hung on to that one, I was about to pitch it when Ellen stopped me. She told me of my daughter's work to make it, of her crushing disappointment at “ruining” it, and how she'd been encouraged to present it anyway. Hearing that, I looked at the card in a new light. This was a hand made expression of love to me from one of my darling children, and in a way stood for all the birthday and Father's Day and Christmas and whatever cards they'd all made for me over the over the years that we simply hadn't been able to keep. It wasn't perfect, but it was all the more charming for that. A purchased card, no matter how elaborate and eloquent, couldn't have begun to touch the simple expression of love that the smeared paint represented. I decided that this one I'd keep, and found a frame for it. Now it sits on my dresser, where I can see it every morning as I get ready for the day. Over the years of mishaps the glass has cracked, but the frame still perches there, holding the card. And as I've been reminded every morning of my children's love for me, a deeper meaning has become more apparent.
We adults think we can do so much for God. In fact, we're so great that sometimes we wonder how He'd get along without us. But the truth is that we can't bring anything before Him but our own weakness and humility – our broken hearts. That's what He really wants of us, and that's all we can bring. Of course, we don't want to bring them, because they're smeared and smudged and imperfect and not at all as good as He deserves. But that's what He wants, because it's the intention behind the smeared and damaged work that interests Him.
Yet how often do we keep away from Him, not wanting to draw near because the project that is our life isn't ready yet? We keep Him waiting for us while we take another stab at it, because this time we're sure to get it right. We can't conceive of a love so deep that even our failures are precious to Him if we bring them in love. We scramble and scurry and hang back because He's so important that we want everything to be perfect for Him – even though He's assured us that we'll never be perfect, but that's okay, because He loves us and treasures even the smallest, most damaged things we do for Him.
It's a lesson I'm still learning. As a reminder, I keep on my dresser a Broken Heart that was given to me by one of my precious children. It isn't perfect, or expensive, or even impressive art. But I treasure it because it is a gift of love. I try to let it remind me that my Heavenly Father wants my imperfection, and my poverty, and my emptiness. He wants my heart, even though it's broken. That's the only treasure I can give Him.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Our culture seems enamored of the achievements of youth. We see them hailed in newspaper articles and human interest featurettes, written up everywhere from websites to snack food bags. The basic framework of the story is fairly standard, with particulars mutable: some young man or woman sees or experiences a medical tragedy, or a community problem, or some other lamentable circumstance, and decides to Take Action. The Action taken might be raising funds, or directly assisting, or making some personal heroic effort (though it inevitably involves that most precious of modern activities: Raising Awareness.)
These Actions are lauded, since everyone agrees that Young People should be encouraged to do Good Things, but I've noticed that the actions by themselves are never enough. What garners most applause and attention is that the young person starts some group, or foundation, or initiative through which the Good Things take place. So it's not enough that young Johnny Smith wanted to help poor downtown youth so he went down and organized a weekend basketball tournament. What really matters is that Johnny founded the Poor Downtown Youths Basketball Organization to organize tournaments. Questions of how many others are involved with the PDYBO, or how effective its efforts are in addressing the problems of PDYs, are secondary to the fact that the organization was started, and its intentions were Very Good.
I've pondered this phenomenon and what it says about our day and age. To begin with, I'm sure I'm not the only one who wonders how long these organizations survive the departure or loss of interest of their founders. But to me the question of enduring effectiveness is less interesting than that of the initial interest, indeed almost obsession, with the founding of organizations. This seems to say much about where we place our trust these days.
It wasn't all that long ago that heroic people were held up for emulation. Young people were told of athletes or pioneers or scientists or whoever that accomplished notable feats. The young were assured that they, too, could attain greatness with enough effort, learning, courage, or whatever. But now that seems passé. In our time, The Hero seems to be mistrusted, almost deprecated. People are not to be trusted, for they will inevitably fail in some way.
In what, then, should we trust? The ready answer offered by our culture seems to be The Institution. Institutions are the essential entities, so it is the founding of them which is the Best Thing. Regardless of how compassionate Johnny might be, or how motivated he might be to help, that won't really matter until Johnny subordinates his compassion and motivation to an institution, with its boards and bylaws and policies. Only then will Johnny have done something truly notable.
Of course this is pure folly. Anyone with a shred of life experience knows that any institution is only as good as the people running it. At best an institution is a formalized wrapper to focus and coordinate the efforts of individuals. Why would anyone consider the wrapper more important than the contents?
I think part of it springs from the "leveling" mindset which C.S. Lewis describes so well in works such as Screwtape Proposes a Toast. Heroes are not just suspect because they might have feet of clay, but also (and probably primarily) because they show up everyone else. They are to be torn down, or encouraged to tear themselves down, in favor of impersonal entities which are nonthreatening and, above all, Fair.
While that's part of the answer, I think there's more. Another aspect seems to be the inversion of thinking expected from a materialistic culture. Again, Lewis - drawing on others - observed that the materialist sees the individual as the temporary and transient thing, while governments, corporations, and other institutions are more enduring. Those trusting God's revelation understand that everything of this world will pass away while human souls endure eternally.
While these are certainly major factors, I'm coming to believe that there's yet another motive behind this cultural attitude - a motive so subtle as to pass nearly unnoticed but more sinister than any. It is the oldest and most tempting of perversions: that of bowing down before the works of our own hands. Yes, the same phenomenon so wickedly denounced in the Bible - idolatry. But as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in his book Introduction to Christianity, since the Incarnation the temptation to idolatry seems to have turned away from that of physical images such as described in Isaiah 44 and Wisdom 13 and more toward the worship of ideas. This can be seen from the heresies that threatened early Christianity to the varied forms of statism that plague modern times. The core is the same: man subjugating himself to something he has created, either a work of the hand or of the mind.
Small wonder the Hero himself is set aside in favor of the institution, to the point where the founding of the institution becomes the truly heroic work. In our hearts, we know that to honor a man is to honor something that was made by God. To make it worse, truly heroic men have this irritating habit of deprecating themselves, instead thanking all those who assisted and encouraged them, giving credit to other people, and even (gasp!) God Himself. It is far less embarrassing and humbling to honor an institution, and its founders indirectly through that.
Does this mean that to recognize Johnny and the PYDBO is to commit idolatry? Of course not - but I do think the obsession with the founding of organizations reflects an interesting and disturbing change in our mindset. To me, this change seems to have largely happened during my lifetime, which makes me wonder where things will go in the next 50 years.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
He was just my biological father, he explained, and that didn't count for much. My real Father was my Father in Heaven, and it was His love that gave the life that really mattered. The biological life my earthly father gave me would run out in at most 80 or 90 years, possibly much less, while the life that my Heavenly Father could bestow would last forever. My Heavenly Father was the source and supply of all good things in my life, and the most loving thing my earthly father could do was put me in touch with my Heavenly Father.
(For the record, my mother totally agreed with this, and reinforced what my father said.)
This is a lesson I remembered, and passed along to my children in turn. And helpful as the lesson was to me when I was young (once I eventually learned it), the it was even more helpful when I had children of my own. It helped me keep my task in perspective: my role as father was important, but ultimately I was merely their earthly father, and the most important thing I could do was put my children in touch with their heavenly father.
Another bit of fatherly advice I got was from a kind evangelical gentleman with whom I became acquainted toward the end of my Coast Guard years. I hung out with his two sons, so he sort of took me under his fatherly wing. One time he was talking about principles that guided his raising of his sons, and I've never forgotten it.
He told me that when he had to discipline his sons, especially as they approached adulthood, he made clear to them that they were only under his authority for a short period. As their earthly father he had responsibility for them for a while, but in time they would pass out from under his authority and be directly responsible to their Heavenly Father. His tutelage over them was like "training wheels", to get them accustomed to fatherly discipline, but the day would come when it would end.
Because of this, his discipline was not arbitrary: he didn't just order them to do this or not do that because of what he felt like, but because he wanted them to get used to being responsible to their Real Father. He also made clear that even just because he, the father, didn't have an earthly father ordering him around, that didn't mean that he could just do as he pleased - he was directly responsible to his Heavenly Father, as his sons soon would be.
This helped me clarify my task as a parent. When we have children under our control, it can be very tempting to exercise power arbitrarily. Raising children is troublesome, and sometimes the easiest immediate path is to say "no". Also, life can be difficult and even abusive, and it's tempting to lash out in frustration. Since we can't lash out at our boss or the grocery store clerk, we're tempted to lash out at those over whom we have power: our children. Whenever those responses tempted me, I remembered my friend's lesson that his fatherly authority was not arbitrary, but entrusted to him by Someone Else, to whom he would be responsible for its use. It was useful ballast to keep in mind that my parental authority was temporary and provisional, and the goal of its exercise was to get my children to a point where they could step out from beneath it and be directly responsible to their Real Father.
I'm immensely grateful for the wisdom of the fathers in my life, both my biological father and my fathers in the Church. Their advice helped me, and I only hope it helps others.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Then again, I suppose fish don't know they're wet.
I've been getting a lesson recently in my own pettiness and covetousness thanks to reconnecting with a high school friend through a social networking site. We don't interact much, but she uses her presence there mostly as a personal blog, with lengthy posts about her life and circumstances. Through these posts I learned that shortly after high school she married a man who worked for an auto company. They raised three children, and he is now retired.
I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to pay for next month. I have a paltry retirement fund into which I haven't been able to put a cent in over two years. I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to retire, and here one of my high school classmates ALREADY IS! On top of that, one of the hobbies she and her husband enjoy is taking cruises. That's right - cruises on liners to places like the Caribbean and Alaska and Spain. They do at least two of these a year, and sometimes more if they catch a good deal. I've never been on a cruise, and consider myself lucky if someone asks me out for a ride on their boat.
How does she rate? That's what the covetous part of me growls - that covetous part that I wasn't aware of.
Of course, her posts also intimate that she has experienced a good deal of relational turmoil in her life. She's still happily married, but apparently there have been problems with the children, and painful rifts with siblings and cousins.
Ahh, so that's it! She might be retired and enjoying ocean cruises, but she's paying for it with relational pain of the sort I haven't had! At least that's how the covetous Roger reasons, with an outlook that would do credit to an author of Greek tragedies. The great cosmic pan-scales will be balanced, so though she's retired while I have to work for the living into the foreseeable future, she's having to PAY for that!
Pretty ugly stuff, eh?
Of course, I don't really wish any of that on her. She's an old friend and sister in Christ, and I pray that her family relationships heal and bring her no more pain. What I really want, when I give the Redeemed Roger a chance, is that she enjoy the blessings of the life God has for her - the retirement, the cruises, the seemingly good relationship with her husband, and God's grace in the places which aren't what they should be. I don't want her to suffer as some kind of metaphysical payment for marrying a guy who got a retirement package.
So I guess I'm not as free from covetousness as I thought. In fact, it seems I'm shot through with it, waiting just below the surface, waiting to emerge in the proper circumstances. I covet her early retirement and ocean cruises, and it's astonishing how quickly that covetousness eclipses all the blessings God has given me. When I'm coveting, I don't think about the wonderful Stratford weeks that God has given us, or the generosity of friends, or the blessing of our children. I don't even think about the blessings in Heaven that I consciously and deliberately chose to build up, over blessings on this earth. I just think about what I don't have. And the next step beyond that is envy - the part that would gloat if she had to post "my husband's retirement has been impacted by changes in the auto industry, and it looks like he'll have to go back to work." It shames me to admit that there is part of me that would be gratified to see that.
Clearly, I need a lot more work. I don't want those covetous and envious parts. I want all of me to be generous and rejoicing when good happens to others. How can I reflect Christ to the world if I'm full of covetousness and envy?
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
As a father, I'd like to express my appreciation for my children. Father's Day is usually when children express appreciation for the guidance and counsel of their fathers. This is appropriate, but I also want to take a minute to express how much I appreciate my children: their character and integrity, and the soundness of the choices they've made. If I deserve any credit for raising them well, then they deserve at least as much credit for letting themselves be raised, and for making good choices in the long haul of their lives. They are all now adults, and I'm proud of them all.
Since correction is part of parenthood, especially fatherhood, parents can be prone to focus on the shortcomings of their children. They are (or should be) naturally attuned to when they make poor choices, in order to guide them in the right direction. I know full well that my children made some poor choices while growing up, sometimes directly contrary to instructions and advice meant to head off just those choices. But here's the important thing: they didn't make many poor choices, and they didn't keep making them. They learned from them, and corrected their choices to be ones that honoured God, themselves, and their fellow men. And that's what really mattered: the choices they made once they'd left home.
Some years ago, in the midst of trying to teach my children important life lessons, it was very liberating for me to realize that it didn't really matter how poorly my children learned them while they lived at home. The important thing was that they remembered the lessons once they left. Sure, it could be trying if they didn't learn earlier, but the critical goal was prepare them for what happened when they walked out the door. Fortunately, I had a handy example of someone who "learned late": myself. My father and mother tried to teach me a lot of things while I still lived at home, but I wasn't learning. When I got out into the real world, I remembered very quickly, and then I was extremely glad that they'd been so persistent. My children were wiser than I, and mostly made good choices even while they lived at home. By the time they reached adulthood, I can say without reservation that they've made choices that have made me proud to be their father.
So here's my Father's Day meditation: I have wonderful children who have made good choices. Sure, sound parenting has its place, but lots of better parents than I have had children who have turned away and chosen folly. If I deserve credit for my work in raising my children, they deserve at least as much credit for making good choices in life. God bless you, my precious children. I'm so proud of you.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
I wasn't thinking about the Church as an institution, or as a social phenomenon, or even as a spiritual entity. We take the Church for granted, assuming its presence and going on from there. But my recent Scripture study and meditation have had me considering the question at a more fundamental level: specifically, why would God entrust such a vital thing as His entire plan of salvation to such frail and untrustworthy messengers? Why did He involve the Church at all? From a purely practical standpoint, wouldn't angels have been at least more reliable messengers?
To the modern skeptic, and certain Christians, the answer seems obvious: God didn't. The Church is a man-made institution, constructed to exert political power and best understood when viewed through that lens. Many interpretations of history presume that understanding. But over against that are Jesus' words: "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me." (Luke 10:16), or "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matt 28:19,20a) The connection between the Lord's message and the messengers is clear, firm, and even frightening.
To those with a more modern humanist outlook, the answer also seems obvious: we're such Wonderful People, why wouldn't God choose us? But all anyone has to do is look at themselves realistically to see the folly of this. We may bear the image of God even after the Fall, and still be loved by Him, but that's despite what we are, not because of it. Sober self-examination of our own behaviour, especially under difficult life circumstances, betrays the truth: within each of us lies the potential to do horrible, despicable things, and usually it doesn't take much to bring that part of us to the surface. We don't have to go reaching for tyrants or sadists to use as examples. An honest evaluation of our own hearts will reveal that we are the most faulty and unreliable of materials for anyone to build with.
That being the case, why would God choose to build His Church with us? With salvation and damnation of eternal souls at stake, one would think He'd want a more secure foundation. Yet He does choose us, and the more I ponder it the more mysterious it seems. I know there are plenty of glib answers to this, and all of them contain some truth, but to me it seems a deep mystery.
One aspect I'm pondering that I've never considered before: I wonder if part of this has to do with humility? Pride is our deepest sin, our greatest enemy, and the surest path to hell - and we've all got far too much of it. I can't help but wonder if having salvation ministered to us by means of other weak, sinful humans isn't the first dose of the "humility prescription" which we all need. After all, wouldn't it be a nice salve to our vanity if we were all knocked to the ground, Damascus-road style? Or at least had the message of salvation delivered by a noble and impressive messenger? (It's worth noting that two of the most prominent and dangerous heresies of our time, Mormonism and Islam, were both started by men who claimed to receive revelation directly from angels.)
I know this urge from my own experience. I know of two parishes: at one, the pastor is devout, inspiring, liturgically careful, and even funny. I love going to his Masses, because I feel uplifted and blessed. At the other parish, one of the assistant priests is rambling, repetitive, sloppy with the liturgy, and forgetful. I tend to heave a little sigh when I see him processing in as celebrant. I'd much rather be ministered to by the first priest. I feel like I deserve better than what the assistant priest provides - and therein lie the problem.
What I deserve from God is damnation. That's what my actions and attitudes have earned me. His saving grace is a free gift, and I should be thankful to get it on any terms. If I have even a shred of humility, I'll thank God for the gift of Himself which comes through the hands of that assistant priest. If I have more, I'll pray for him. A bit more humility, and I'll be rejoicing in that servant of God and appreciating him, quirks and all.
I know someone who is filled with sputtering indignation at the Church, dogmatically proclaiming that the bishops forfeited all claim to moral authority when any of them allowed any sexual abuse to continue under their leadership. Leaving aside sacramental theology of how it's always Christ who administers grace, or the question of balancing the good done by Church members against the evil done by them, the thing that strikes me most about this person's blanket indictment of the Church is the inherent pride. What he is saying is: "I will not be served by such as those! I deserve better!" And though it's sure that all of us who minister in Christ's name should seek to live in such a way to bring honor to the noble message we bear, it's also certain that being who we are, we will fail in that trust at some point. I wonder what this person would say if the Lord were to reply to him, "Those are the ministers I have sent to you. You take My saving grace from them, or from nobody." Would he be too proud to accept it?
And, perhaps, might that be the very strategy?
Monday, April 12, 2010
The last time I drove by, when I saw the windows were out, I stopped and walked around the old place one last time. The siding had been stripped, leaving the charcoal gray asphalt shingles that had lay under the siding. The rooms were open to the elements, window frames gaping holes and the back door missing. Even the lovely deck had been sawn off and taken away. I resisted the temptation to walk up the outside steps and enter by the upper back door for a last walk-through, reasoning that it might be unsafe with the house in the condition it was in. I did peek in one of the ground floor windows into what had once been a bedroom, in which the kids had slept and played, and the ordinary days of ordinary life had unfolded in that good old house. I felt a pang of loss then, a bit of the nostalgia that I'd been expecting much more of much sooner.
Perhaps expectably, along with it came flitting through my head something that hadn't even enough coherence to be called a thought -- an imaginative impulse, if you will. It cried as it passed, "Wait! We could still do something! We could... we could make some arrangements with the state, and get the house back, and fix all this up, and move back in, and live here again! This could be home once more!" The impulse turned my head, but only for a moment, before I shook myself and turned away, returning to the car to drive back to the lovely new home which was a gift from God and our children. But I thought as I drove, and I've been thinking ever since: from what part of me did that impulse come, and what does it say about me?
Needless to say, such an impulse hadn't the slightest connection to any kind of reality, but it's easy to understand why it would occur. After all, the house had been our home for over two decades, and we'd lived a lot of life within those walls. It's only reasonable to expect an emotional tie to the place, and the accompanying urges to preserve it, no matter how irrational. But the extremity of the circumstances, and resulting absurdity of the impulse, got me wondering: are there other things in this life which I cling to long after I should be letting them go?
One of the clearest things Jesus has to say is that this life is transient, full of temporary goods, and we shouldn't let things here distract us from the greater and more permanent goods of heaven. In a way, our lives on this earth, in which we invest so much, are like our family's last months on Scott Avenue: we knew we were moving, we even knew where we'd be going, we knew the old place would be coming down, that not only our days there but the days of its very existence were numbered. There was nothing further for us there, it wasn't even worth fixing the dripping faucets, it was time to move on to a better, more suitable house. Yet if I can feel an urge to try to cling to something like the old house, in the teeth of all reason, what other earthly things might I be holding on to long past the time God would have me move on from them? If my instincts to cling to the the passing good can make themselves heard even under such extreme circumstances, where else might they be governing my thoughts without my even knowing?
My spiritual reading lately has been an excellent book* summarizing and distilling the teachings of great saints like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. One common thread in all their teachings is that the things of this world, even the very good things like familial love, pale in comparison to the goods which God offers us when we devote our entire life to Him. The writings of these spiritual giants makes me long for these great spiritual goods - or at least to long to long for them. Perhaps little incidents like the irrational impulse to try to resuscitate the stripped hulk of an old house to try to make it a home again are reminders to me of just how attached I am to worldly goods, and how far I have to go to attain true detachment.
I don't know - perhaps the days are coming when I'll be asked to give up all earthly goods to gain heavenly ones. Perhaps those days are sooner than I think. Perhaps I'm just being offered an opportunity for a little warm-up.
* The Fulfilment of All Desire, by Ralph Martin
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
But I'm not going to give up on it - I have a bookmark on my browser, and I check my own blog from time to time, if only to remind me that I haven't done anything with it. I do get ideas for posts from time to time, but am rarely near a keyboard to take for action on them. Also, I've this compulsion to try to make posts perfect: thoroughly considered, completely addressed, and well written. It's a tall order to do that all the time.
One of the major things that has happened since I last posted has been the death of a dear friend. Fr. Paul Higdon was close to many in our community here, and he finally passed away at age 90 on Feb 20th, 2010. I was not only his financial power of attorney prior to his death but am the executor of his will. He was a dear friend whom I miss.
Though Fr. Paul had a lot of friends, a good measure of his practical care fell to me after he stopped driving in 2007. He'd call me for runs to the doctors office or drugstore, most of the time ending up with a good coffee at the cafe in the local bookstore. At the beginning, when he started calling me regularly for rides, I bridled a bit, wondering, "doesn't he have anyone else to call?" (Particularly because he'd call on very short notice.) I was careful to hide any hint of resentment, since he was hypersensitive to such things and would stop calling altogether if he thought he was imposing, but I did wonder. Then the Lord spoke quietly to me, informing me that this servant of His had sacrificed his entire life to the Kingdom, including a wife and the possibility of sons of his own. Now, in his waning days, I was to be the son he'd never had. I was to attend to his practical needs and insure he was never alone and ease the burden of his old age and close his eyes in death.
I didn't know that God meant that quite literally.
With that understanding, I welcomed the minor inconveniences that came with being Fr. Paul's surrogate son. Not that I was the only person who cared for him - far from it. He had scores of close friends who loved him dearly, and many would take him places and enjoy time with him. But nearly all of the others were women, and as dear as their friendship was, I think he appreciated masculine company at times. For one thing, he didn't like being fussed over, and unfortunately, even the most well-intended women can have mother hen tendencies. As a guy I instinctively understood that still being able to do a little bit for himself was important to him - so I let him do it as long as he was able.
His decline really began in late January. His care facility called me to give him a ride to the doctor's office for a respiratory condition. Though he was in touchy condition - gasping for breath and barely able to walk - he wanted to return to his apartment anyway. But it was too much for him, and the next day he was in the hospital. That stay lasted only the weekend (and, amazingly, he shook the respiratory infection), but then the doctor sent him home. The rationale was that he could get care of equal or better quality at the assisted living home as at the hospital. That was a message right there.
Fr. Paul stopped eating in the hospital - food just lost its taste for him - and never picked it up again. Despite encouragement, cajoling, badgering, and pleading, he didn't resume regular meals. He'd sip water and Ensure, and occasionally some bites of broth, but he didn't even eat the blueberry pie my wife and daughter made for him. Naturally, nobody can survive long under such conditions, least of all a sickly 90-year-old. He declined steadily, and was put under hospice care in mid February.
Two of his nieces came during his final week - one from Kalamazoo for the early part and one from Houston for the last days. We were keeping a nearly constant vigil with him during the last part of the week, only having a caregiver come in during the deepest midnight hours. Finally on the afternoon of Feb 20th, with myself and his niece Diane at his side, he breathed his last.
The archbishop said his funeral Mass and many of the community turned out to send him off. It was an honour and a privilege for me to be chosen to attend to him in his final hours. Now I'm attending to the disposition of his modest estate. He was a dear friend, and I look forward with hope to the day I might see his face again - this time unlined by care and unburdened by the long years of a hard life. Pray for me, Fr. Paul.
Sunday, January 31, 2010
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the Big Changes in life recently was moving out of our home of 25 years just before Christmas 2009. This was facilitated by the heroic efforts of our wonderful children, many of whom essentially gave up their own Advent time and Christmas preparations in order to get the new house ready and us moved into it. But that effort is now well over, and though the books need to be put back on the shelves and I've a list of petty tasks to polish off, we've been settled into the new place for over a month now.
Here's the odd thing: I consider myself a sentimental guy, with deep and lasting attachments to people, places, and things that have meant a lot to me. As such, I was bracing for a lot more emotional trauma as we moved out of the old house. It fell to me to make the final visits, to call to shut off the utilities and to be present when the workers arrived, and to make the final walk-through with MDOT agent to sign over the house. I was the last one in the family to see the rooms that were once filled with family life now empty, cold, and littered with debris.
Emotional impact on me thus far? Zero, as far as I can tell. Getting out of the old house, including those last sweeps for anything left behind and the final walk-through, were just items to be checked off the list. It's not like I was callous about the change, but there was so much to do, and closing out of the house meant we could get the ball rolling with MDOT for the moving payments, and I've still got that list of tasks on the new house, and so forth. Closing the door and walking away wasn't difficult in the least.
Oddly, part of me feels like a traitor to admit this. After all these years, and all that house has meant to us, I feel like I should feel more loss at leaving. Ellen hasn't been back, or even past the house, since we left in mid-December. A couple of my daughters have told me they don't want to go back at all, so they can preserve their memories of the house as a home, a live and welcoming abode of love. I can understand why they'd feel that way - I just can't figure why I don't. I've even driven past the old place a couple of times, and haven't felt a twinge of regret or homesickness. It stands empty in the middle of its empty neighbors, awaiting the spring when they will all be leveled. I certainly don't want to be around to watch that happening, but it surprises me that I don't feel more now.
Maybe I'm getting cold- or hard-hearted in my old age. Or maybe I'm maturing. I've always acknowledged that places and things are not as important as people and relationships, yet I've had this almost maudlin connection to things that carry significance from my past. Maybe my emotional responses are finally catching up to my understanding of things, and I'm able to detach from the things I should be detaching from so I can better cling to the things to which I should be clinging. Jesus is still the same at the new house as the old house. Not only is my wonderful family present in the new house, but they had a significant hand in turning it into our new home. At a practical level, the new house is a much better place. My reason recognizes this, and this time it seems my emotions are agreeing.
I don't know what the future will hold. Perhaps times will come when I'm swept with waves of nostalgia for the old place, especially after it is no more. Maybe part of me will yearn to come down the old steps and prepare coffee in the old kitchen just like I did thousands of times across the years. But maybe not - and if that does happen, maybe I'll have the wisdom not to nurture those feelings, wallowing in them as if that were something noble. The old house was a place, given to us for a time by God for His purposes. Now in His grace He's given us a new home. We were thankful for the old one in its time, and we're thankful for this new one as well. I hope that my thanks do not turn back in a perverse clinging to a mere thing after its time has passed.
Now, if I can only remember this lesson when it comes time to let go of the old "house" of my earthly life and move on to the "new home" the Lord has for me - whenever that move may be.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
O Happy Interruption, O Beloved Intruder -
was it because you were so tiny that you were able to slip through
the barriers we had erected around our hearts?
How was it that your little hands, with grasp so weak,
were able to grip our hearts so tightly?
How was it that your quiet sighs and gentle laughter
could cut through the clamor of our lives
and bring us to a place of stillness?
How is it that one so small
could leave such a huge void by her departure?
You brought with you obligations and responsibilities,
chaining our lives to yours.
How then is it that your absence weighs so heavily,
and without you our days seem gray and leaden?
Had we known how things would end, would we have welcomed you?
Would we have opened our arms so wide
if we'd known they would be empty again so soon?
Would we have had the courage to love so deeply
if we'd known we would lose so much?
It must have been crucial, what you were sent to teach us,
for you were given so little time to say it;
a lifetime of love packed into three short months.
What can we learn from your brief time in our midst?
What can we learn from the severe lesson of your death?
Can love live again?
Is it worth the risk of loss?
Will we again retreat behind our barriers?
What will come into the vacuum left by your departure?
May love be your legacy, little Amelia.
May we grow in love,
and make you proud,
that you will not be ashamed to say of us:
“Those are the ones who love me.”
One “death” was symbolic and sentimental, but a small death nonetheless: we moved out of the house in which we have dwelt for 25 years, the house in which we raised our family. This was not unexpected – in fact, it was so long overdue that we were getting a bit impatient for it to happen – but it was nonetheless a little death to close the door on the empty, emptied home and leave it forlorn, awaiting the crane and bulldozer. A couple of my daughters wrote their own eulogies here and here, and being the sentimental slob that I am, I'll probably have more to say about it in a later post, but for now it's enough to say that the end of 2009 brought with it the end of the Scott Avenue years, the main years of raising our family.
Another death was an acutal one, and though it was somewhat expected it was nonetheless a loss. An old friend and fellow pro-life worker passed away on January 2nd, 2010 and was buried on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. His name was Dan, and he was 90 years old and had suffered from several chronic health troubles over the years to which he finally succumbed. He was a hale and cheerful fellow, and while his health let him was a vigorous member of our Right to Life chapter. Even while his health failed he would still participate in whatever he could - daily Mass, Bible study, pro-life activities. He was a regular attendee at our banquets, and even this summer and fall I would at times see him with his rolling gait ambling along up the sidewalk near his home, getting his exercise. There was plenty of warning before his death, so his family had time to gather around him. His funeral was a true celebration of life - the life of Christian witness that he had lived, and the new life he entered into. My final impression of Dan Bradley is what I want said of me when I draw my last breath: he was found faithful at his post. God bless you, Dan.
But what cast a shadow over the whole holiday was the unexpected and tragic death of my grand-niece Amelia. I received a frantic call from my hysterical sister, Amelia's grandmother, on the morning of December 21st, just after we'd spent a busy and exhausting weekend moving into our new house. My sister had been called by her daughter, Amelia's mother, who'd gone in to get the baby for her morning feeding to find her lifeless in her crib.
Amelia was a precious child, dearly loved by her parents and relatives. Though I never had the chance to meet her, Ellen and I had plans to visit my sister that would have included visiting Amelia and her family. She was born in September and was to be baptized on Christmas day. Apparently the Lord wanted to take care of that personally, but her death left all of us devastated. Our prayers were with my sister and her family as they mourned their loss during the season which is usually full of joy.
So for me, this year's holiday season was marked by these deaths. I did a lot of thinking and praying, and will surely have more to say about them. But I did want to post a tribute to my little grand-niece, which follows: