Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Church of St Elsewhere

Mont Saint Michel in Normandy is about as other-worldly as a church can get. It is an island in the sea, one kilometer from shore.  Mont Saint Michel is a monument to wars between kings, kingdoms, and religions. It is a crumbling fortress against the outside world that must constantly be shored up against rising tides (and sea levels).

Mont Saint Michel is among the great church buildings of the world I hope to see: Notre Dame in Paris (though now all that remains are the stone walls), Westminster Abbey in London, and St. Peter's in Rome. For some reason I have a fascination with centuries old church buildings. It would seem to be an odd fascination since I rarely attend a church service these days.

Maintaining these physical structures of the church is a never-ending battle against time, nature, and changing human sensibilities. Hundreds of years ago, wealthy noblemen and kings commissioned the building of these structures to the "Glory of God". Artisans and laborers devoted their energies to buildings that would inspire wonder and awe from both  inside and out. Perhaps this is the all too human response to our mortality. We want to build something that will outlive us, though Jesus warned us, "Not one stone will be left upon another."

We humans are not satisfied with physical structures. We want organizational structure. Jesus exhorted us to gather for fellowship at the table, but we want to know which end of the table is the head. In the Gospel of Mark, James and John decided they want to be in charge. Not only did they want to form a hierarchy, they wanted to be the head of it!
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Mark 10:35-43
Although Jesus told his disciples that  to "lord over" and to "exercise authority over" others was not to be the pattern for his followers, they began to adopt the world's structures of hierarchy. Most of the centuries of church conflict and turmoil was not so much about what the belief was as who was in charge.

A few centuries after Jesus had left this earth, the Roman model of diocese and archdiocese had been fully integrated into church governance, with bishops and archbishops as the heads. In the centuries which followed, the line between government and church were indistinguishable. The combination grew increasingly powerful, leading to the Crusades in the eleventh century. Over time, as nation-states formed, the influence of the church waned, but never completely abated.

Whatever its degree of influence on temporal affairs, the church knew that it was operating against the explicit direction of its Master.  Allowing space for monastic orders was a tacit admission of this truth. Most of the saints designated by the church, were either from monastic orders, founded orders, or otherwise operated at the fringes of the church. It was necessary to put some distance from the structures of power for people to even attempt to follow Jesus.

Jesus never left explicit directions on how to organize the nascent group of believers he was leaving behind, but he was very explicit about what structures and behaviors to avoid. Throughout history, Jesus' wisdom on these matters had to be rediscovered:
“the "small goodness" from one person to his fellowman is lost and deformed as soon as it seeks organization and universality and system, as soon as it opts for doctrine, a treatise of politics and theology, a party, a state, and even a church. Yet it remains the sole refuge of the good in being. ”― Emmanuel Levinas
This is why attempts to evangelize the world end up being an evangelization of the structures of power. The most notable example is the Roman Catholic church and its "Doctrine of Discovery." This gave European colonialists the moral cover to displace and enslave indigenous peoples. A number of non-denominational American churches have picked up on this as they setup satellite churches under the administration of one senior pastor. But truth is not found at the centers of power:
"If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the center, because the center is based on existing knowledge. The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach centers of power, and they tend to filter out carriers of disturbing, unconventional ideas." ―Yuval Noah Harari
Centralized power was always going to be a problem for the church. It's a place to hide all sorts of evil. It's why Jesus operated at the periphery. The margins are where he built his church. Father Oscar Romero realized this in the most trying of places, El Salvador in the late nineteen seventies.

Oscar Romero was appointed and installed as the Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977. He was placed as the head of the Catholic church in El Salvador. His position naturally overlapped with the centers of power at the time, the wealthy landowners and the government. A number of events, culminating with the assassination of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, changed his perspective about the center of power and moved him to the periphery, the poor laborers of El Salvador. He began to voice the sufferings of the poor and painted a vision of what the Church could be:
"God wants to save us as a people. He does not want to save us in isolation. That is why the church today, more than ever before emphasizes what it means to be a 'people'. And that is why the church experiences conflicts: the church does not want just crowds; she wants a people. A crowd is a bunch of individuals, and the more lethargic they are, the better; the more conformist they are, the better." - St. Oscar Romero 
The "church" Romero speaks of, the communion of life, the church which forms a people, is alien to the concept of "church" in middle America. I have read many of  Romero's words. As I did so, I was saddened by the vast gulf, a great chasm, between the Church Romero speaks of and the church we have today. Romero was martyred as he tried to live out this vision of what the church could be.

Yet I remain hopeful. I see stirrings among the people who want to follow Jesus, who see the truth of his life and teachings. They are tired of living a lie, of putting on a smiling face when inside they are grieving. I am one of those people. I know there are others. Perhaps you are one of them. We can all lament and grieve the state of the church and we probably need to do that. But we also need to realize that the baton has been dropped in front of us. At some point we are going to have to pick it up and "run the race set before us" (Heb 12:1). We cannot run this race alone. We must nurture a hopeful expectancy to find others on the same journey, those who are heading in the same direction. We must learn to recognize the presence of God in people and places where we did not expect to find him. Quite often those places are at the margins of society. We should try to be more spiritually aware, living with a Jesuit expectancy to look for "God in all things." Let us try to learn from those times when we look back, kick ourselves and say "God was in this place and I did not realize it!" (Gen 28:16).

The church we seek, the people that follow Jesus, is the fellowship of saints and the body of Christ. It does not necessarily meet in a building, although it sometimes does. It is a people who will live and speak the truth, however imperfectly. It is a people who have come to terms with their own mistakes, sufferings, denials, and sins. It is a place where people can rejoice, but also grieve together. It is a place where people will bear with one another in all their frail humanity.

It meets at the Church of St. Elsewhere. Service times to be announced.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Space to be Human

Weedpatch Migrant Camp - Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri Wikimedia
I never read The Grapes of Wrath in high school or college. Recently, I decided to dive into this quintessentially American classic. John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" was published in 1939 and yet as I read it, I found the story profoundly relevant.

(Spoilers Ahead)

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of a family displaced by natural disaster and the relentless math of capitalism. We encounter the Joad family after they have been reduced to tenant farmers on what had once been their own land. They had mortgaged their land to cover losses from past years' crop failures. The drought continued, the crops failed again, and the Joads, along with their neighbors, were in default:
"A man can hold the land if he can just eat and pay taxes. Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank. But you see, a bank can't do that... They breathe profits, they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die..".
Now the days of reckoning were at hand.  The land owners ("owner men") have come to evict them off the land. The mathematics of finance, banking, and money-lending created an unseen force that drove them away:
"All of them [owner men] were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provide a refuge from thought and from feeling."
The Joads loaded everything they owned into a truck and began living as nomads. Then, as now, people resorted to living in their vehicles and encampments. In today's parlance, they were homeless. Steinbeck takes us on their journey to California as they burn through cash and fall into increasingly desperate straights. They wander around the state believing that a good-paying job is just around the corner, but there are no good-paying jobs. All the while their economic reality became bleaker. The locals treat them as pariahs. Law officers force them to move from their encampments. They hurry to arrive at orchards and fields only to find out that they can't, as an entire family, pick enough to feed themselves for a day.

You cannot read this book and fail to see today's economic refugees, sleeping in cars, in parks or under bridges, driving ride-shares as second (and possibly third) gigs, trying to survive on stagnant wages as gentrification raises rents and drives people to living on the streets.

The unseen force was mathematics, the equations of finance and capitalism. Mathematics played an important role, and now technology amplifies the power of mathematics a thousand-fold. Scheduling software has wrung out all the "wasted time" out of human labor. Service and retail jobs are scheduled on-demand. Employees are required to drop everything, come to work, or risk losing their job. Second jobs or educational pursuits are put on hold because, on a moments' notice, you can be called in and you dare not refuse.

Employees who are lucky enough to find full or near full-time employment are subject to "strict performance" (KPI) metrics. The relentless math of waste reduction squeezes out the last seconds of idle time in a workers life. In factories and warehouses employees are tracked. In an effort to prevent employee illness from dehydration, urine color charts are conveniently posted in restrooms.  Delivery vehicles are tracked as well as delivery drivers. I've seen delivery persons sprint from their trucks to front doors and back. In the end, desperate employees relieve themselves in bottles or in hidden corners to avoid being penalized for not making quota.

Service clerks are graded by their survey results. Many clerks look at me desperately. "Will you please fill out this survey?" they ask. Now that I am more aware of the possible effects on their employment, I take the time to fill them out. Ride-share apps require you to "grade your driver" on safety, cleanliness, and conversation. I once had a Lyft driver preface his answer to my question about the city with: "I won't answer unless you promise to give me a good grade on my conversation".

I was lucky enough to have a "white collar" office job. Towards the end I noticed the annual reviews were getting harsher. If you fell into the bottom third of rankings, you were out, no matter how long you had been at the company. I watched colleagues fired because they had the lowest ranking.

In all this, what is being squeezed out? The time and space to be human.

We need time and space to live beyond service to employers. "Full Employment" simply means we can obtain the 16 hours of work per day to subsist. Do that for six or seven days, and the other requirements of life (sleeping, eating) are cut to a barest minimum. That bit of left-over time at the end of the day leaves little room for relationships, family life, or parenting.

The relentless math of extraction at every level concentrates the wealth from productivity gains into the hands of a small group of capital owners:


The scenario set in Steinbeck's novel is being repeated today. We have again come to a point of precarity teetering on desperation. Today, the total of what many people can earn in a day is not enough to shelter and feed themselves and their families. At a time of record low unemployment, people are defaulting on car loans, falling behind in their student loan payments, and losing their domiciles at an increasing rate. What will happen in the inevitable downturn comes?

What is needed is a morality to balance out the mathematics. A morality that says we will not tolerate that people being homeless, children starving, or the sick dying for lack of funds is an acceptable price of American capitalism. As a society, as an electorate, we need to call in the debt of those who have prospered so much at the expense of everyone else. A debt is owed to society, to all of us who maintain society: the rule of law, the roads and highways, the power grid, communications, who care for our sick and injured. We owe a debt to those who fought for our nations’ survival and those who protect us every day. How is it that those who have risen in power and wealth in this country seem to think they owe nothing to anyone?

Progressive taxation was the norm during the post-WWII golden age that actually had a middle class. The Interstate highway system, Medicare, and Medicaid made life better for most Americans. A successful public space program put men on the moon. Now our roads and water systems are crumbling, healthcare for the aged and poor is under attack, and space exploration is the playground of a few wealthy billionaires. What we are doing now is not sustainable. Every day more people find themselves in precarity, on the edge of an abyss. Just enough crumbs are falling off the edge of the tables of capitalism for people to survive, but just barely. What will happen when the economy contracts? There will be:
"... in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."



Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Fourteenth Station

One day I chanced to hear about an exhibit at a church I passed by regularly. It was titled "Migration: Stations of the Cross". The intersection of the "Stations of the Cross" and "Migration" resonated with my Catholic upbringing and my immigrant heritage. I had to check it out. Moreover, I lamented the President's harsh treatment of migrants and immigrants, I was hoping to understand these things in a new light.

I was on my way home from the office so I decided to stop by the church. It was a large building, so I asked a lady who happened to be standing in the hallway for directions to the exhibit, and she graciously pointed me in the right direction. I entered a large room that looked to be a meeting room, which was empty except for displays around the perimeter. Each display highlighted an aspect of human migration and matched it with Jesus' journey of suffering, the "Stations of the Cross". At the Fourteenth Station, where "Jesus Died", was a prayer written by a prisoner of the Ravensbrück concentration camp:
“Oh Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not remember only the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember too the fruits we brought forth thanks to this suffering-our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all of this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.”
I read it and I remained there, transfixed. Tears welled up in my eyes. I thought about the context in which these words were written, a concentration camp. The summation of every evil humanity was capable of was distilled in that one place. How someone subjected to cruelties of that space could pen such words and pray such a prayer was beyond me. It was akin to the words Jesus prayed when he was being crucified:
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)
It seems only a saint or superhuman could utter a prayer like that. Or perhaps it is the quintessentially human thing to do. Only a human has the possibility of rising above the fight-or-flight response, the "lizard brain" if you will. It would seem the advice given to Job in his suffering, "curse God and die", is more along the lines of what we would expect in this situation.

Though I didn't fathom the depths of forgiveness required to pray a prayer like that, I knew I had read words of transformation. I feared losing these words, so  I took a picture with my phone. From time to time, I look at these words. It is my recurring devotional. It seems that if one could pray this prayer, even in the face of harsh realities and vicious evil, one could be healed of anger and bitterness.  However, this prayer also raises some hard questions.

Was this a prayer of reconciliation? Certainly. But reconciliation requires confession and mutual understanding. The perpetrator and the victim must face the truth together. But at moment this was written, the perpetrators were quite busy with their their murderous work, eliminating what they saw as sub-human vermin. The victims had no way of knowing if the cosmic scales of justice would ever be balanced.

Does this prayer give evil a pass because the victims forgave their tormentors? Even if that were so, does that balance the scales for all of humanity?
“When history looks back, I want people to know that the Nazis could not kill millions of people with impunity." Simon Wiesenthal
In passing judgement on all the perpetrators of the Nazi extermination program during the trials at Nuremberg and Jerusalem, humanity established that mass murder is evil and those who participate in it must be called to account. 

Nevertheless, we remain with the challenge and question of how to make sense, or better yet, meaning, out of the evils and tragedies of life that we have experienced personally. The challenge is to choose what our response will be:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. - Viktor Frankl
Ultimately, there are the questions of forgiveness and redemption. The author of the prayer chose to forgive and redeem. It was a response in the face of an evil that could not be undone:
“The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility - of being unable to undo what one has done - is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. Both faculties depend upon plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no man can forgive himself and no one can be bound by a promise made only to himself.” - Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
If all the evil that was perpetrated and all the lives that were lost were to have any meaning, somehow it must all be redeemed from the past for the present and the future. For the past up to the present, all we can do is to come to terms with the evil done against us, by forgiving:
"Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past."  Gerald G. Jampolsky
Forgiveness is not passivity. Forgiveness is a response to the truth of evil and the harm it has done. It is also a decision not to let evil adhere to our souls.

For the future we must promise to respond to evil and not to passively look away. A promise not to forget how the evil took root and manifested itself. And a promise not to let it gain a foothold in the future. 

As Hannah Arendt points out, these acts of forgiveness and promise are meaningless in isolation. The commitment of forgiveness and the commitment of promise must be made in the presence of others. The fruits of forgiveness and promise can only take root in the fertile soil of community as it did that day in Ravensbrück.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Journey of Faith into Politics


My first vague awareness of politics was November of 1963. I was sent home early from school. All I knew was that something bad had happened. When I got home, the news of the JFK assassination was playing on all the major networks. While I didn't understand the gravity of the event, the solemnity lingered.

I don't remember growing up in a particularly political household but it was a union household. I remember going to union picnics. I remember going to the plant where my dad worked when there was a strike. I didn't know why he was on strike. As I got older, I learned the issue was health care. I remember that my dad was frequently laid off. My other distinct memory of those times were the green painted walls of the Michigan Employment Security Commission. No mailed checks or electronic deposits back then. You went and you waited. All day. My mother worked, so I had to go. I don't recall how I passed the time. I might have brought a book. Or stared at the drab green walls. As a child, I did not understand the intersectional relationship of unions, economic justice, and politics.

I lived in Detroit in 1967 when the city exploded in violence and flame. The air was filled with the smell of burning wood. National Guard personnel carriers drove down my street while helicopters flew overhead. When the riots were over, for-sale signs sprouted up and down our street. We moved to an adjacent suburb. Meanwhile, images of Vietnam flashed across the evening news. I had a growing awareness of politics and how it might affect me directly. In 1968 I had a hope, an idealism that men like MLK and RFK would lead to a better, more hopeful future. Their assassinations were a gut punch to me. I was totally undone.

I was not raised in a particularly religious household either. My maternal grandparents made sure I was raised Catholic. I grew up going to Mass, Catechism, and Confession. I learned the creeds, the Commandments, and the Stations of the Cross. I was confirmed when I was 10 years old. As I grew into my teen years, I drifted away from the Catholic Church. Just before I turned 20, I had an Evangelical conversion experience. I met my wife in church and for the next 30 years we attended various Evangelical churches together. For most of those years, I focused on trying to balance work, family life, and church. The church we married in went though periods of turmoil with two pastors leaving in quick succession. That sent us on our spiritual road trip through a number of churches. Each change was made in the hope of finding a church where there was true grace and acceptance. Of course each expectation was met by disappointment.

The last church we attended was the smaller plant of a larger church. We were attracted because of the small church's outreach into the community and its acceptance of people who did not traditionally attend the denomination: homeless, alcoholics, addicts, single moms, and people of color. We threw ourselves into the work. For a time all was good, but trouble was brewing. A number of people were uncomfortable with the new direction the church was taking and with the associate minister who was leading the charge. Ultimately he was driven out. The church went back to its old ways. In the end, we left.

This led me to deconstruct my faith. I did not lose my faith, but I had to understand how faith, if it was valid at all, would lead me to live in the world. Specifically, what did the words of Jesus mean for me today and how was I to follow his teachings? While groping in the darkness I chanced to start reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer. Mother Teresa. and Dorothy Day. Each of these people brought me back to the Gospels, the "red letters", the words of Jesus. This was my pivot into a different understanding of faith, a faith lived out. Along the way I found and joined a team of believers who formed a non-profit providing semi-independent housing to young people transitioning out of foster care. I became a mentor, tutor, and driving instructor to young men in the program.

I began to understand that the lot of the poor was not because they were not "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps." I learned that some people don't even have "boot straps" to pull themselves up by. I learned what generational poverty does to people and how hard it is to break out of the cycle.  I also learned that poverty is entrenched by systemic factors: red-lining, inadequate schooling, poisoned water, a dearth of financial services, and lack of transportation. On top of all this, predatory capitalism swoops in like a vulture into poor neighborhoods and entraps people.  Payday loans, exorbitant auto financing, and overpriced insurance to extract the last drop of life out of people for profit. I learned that a lot of this was the product of public policy and that could only be changed through the political process.

Engaging politics would force me to take sides. Up to this point, I could remain publicly apolitical. Church life did not encourage open political advocacy, except to always vote for the "pro-life" candidate. Nearly all the sermons had to do with personal piety and "getting right with God", but only personally and spiritually. Rarely, if ever, did I hear systemic injustices addressed. At most, I might be encouraged to give and participate in a charity, to, in MLK's words, "fling a coin at a beggar" but not critically examine the system that produced beggars. Moreover I was living a relatively comfortable life, so why take sides? Then 2016 happened.

A man was nominated by his party and ultimately elected as President who was an anathema to my growing awareness of systemic injustice. He based his campaign on oppressing the marginalized even more than they were oppressed already. I was stunned. How could the political process allow a man like this to become President? Then it occurred to me: I wasn't participating in the process! I had allowed my relatively comfortable life to lull me into apathy. I barely knew what congressional district I lived in, much less my state house and senate districts.

In early 2017 we knew we needed to do something, but were unsure what was to be done. We walked in our first MLK Day march, our first political rally ever, in the bitter January cold. We met some nice, like-minded people in the church we gathered in to warm up, but were unsure what good our action did. We didn't see any press. Besides ourselves, who knew what statement we were making?

Meanwhile we learned about a new organization that was forming in response to the new political reality: Indivisible. We read their brochure. A chapter formed in a nearby town and we joined it. We were encouraged to see that, contrary to what we believed, this very red district had other like-minded people. We learned how politics leads to policy, how to take meaningful action, and how action changes political realities.

In 2017, the GOP controlled congress was trying to kill the Affordable Care Act. Our congressman, who we later learned had cashed in on foreclosures in private life, opposed the ACA, despite the wishes of his constituents. We started calling and writing letters, the first time we ever tried to communicate with our representative. Indivisible and other organizations made themselves heard at his office. Ultimately he decided to retire. In time, a number of candidates threw their hat in the ring to run for the newly vacated seat. We attended our Congressional district's candidate forum. We threw our support behind a promising candidate who helped save the industry I worked in. I signed up to run as a Democratic Precinct Delegate. In the primary election, I won my first elected office! Shortly after that, I attended my first state-wide political convention. We hosted canvassing drives out of our home and knocked on doors. Our congressional candidate won! Not all the candidates down-ballot won, but we moved the needle. We began to see the effect of involvement.

My faith journey took me into politics because I came to understand the primacy of Jesus teaching:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
 Matthew 25:35-40
In this passage, Jesus taught that any good I would do for another human being, I have done for Him. I also learned that any good I could accomplish on an individual basis was limited. To do any real good for many people, a change in policy and governance was required. I must advocate for people who will advocate for others. A failure to do so leaves people at the mercy of evil men: 
“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” 
Plato
So I have become a card-carrying member of the Democratic party. I admit that I am a reluctant party member. I have misgivings about large organizations. Nevertheless, as long as the Democrats remain an advocate for working people, the sick, the poor, the aged, people of color, LGBTQ, and refugees, I will remain a member. Some who know me from conservative church circles will see this as a denial of my faith. I see it as a living out of my faith. I used to be blind, color-blind that is, and now I see....the "red letters" of Jesus' words.

















Saturday, September 1, 2018

Honest Souls

"Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and said of him, Behold a true Israelite, in whom is no guile!" Gospel of John 1:47

I've been thinking about the people I have encountered who have died in the last few years.  Somehow these people have stood out in my thoughts. I have wondered why the thought of these people sparkle in my memory. So what was it about these people that made them shine? Let's look at the stories of two.

First there's Dave. Dave was a former colleague at my office. He was a scientist at heart. Before I met him, he had worked in cardiac research at a local university. He was thoughtful, articulate, and did not fail to tell you what he thought...about anything.  Dave had a strong sense of the right thing to do in any situation. One day, when a group of us were walking in the woods, my knee went over center with a loud crack. I couldn't walk. Dave shouldered half my weight over a quarter mile to help me get out of the woods (pun intended). He then flagged down a car to get me to urgent care.

Dave was also very expressive, but he didn't always use nuanced language. One day, Dave attended my church's Christmas concert and was very impressed. He went to see the pastor afterwards to tell him, "That concert was un-f***ing-believable!" Needless to say, I heard about it.

Dave was hospitable. He invited my wife and I to his home for dinner. He and his wife were gracious hosts. We were made to feel welcome in their space. In fact, wherever Dave was, you felt welcome in his space. Not many people do that these days. 

Dave was honest to a fault. He did not fail to express his opinion. There were probably situations when it would have been better not to. If Dave thought something was screwed up, he would say so. Dave had no hidden agendas. What you saw and what you heard was what you got.

Then there was Todd. During his career, Todd had been a construction foreman on large commercial projects, including some overseas. After leaving industry, Todd operated his own plumbing business. I met Todd as the friendly greeter at our local parish.

Todd greeted us warmly when we came into the church. You always felt welcome in his space. If you asked him how he was doing, he would tell you truthfully. If he asked you how you were doing, he would listen, even if the answer wasn't the usual "fine".

From time to time, I would see Todd in other places, like the store.  The last time I saw him was at the local grocery store. He said he missed us (my wife and I) at the church we used to attend. Todd indeed made us feel welcome at that church, but too many other things let us know we did not have a place there. So we parted with a hug and a "God bless you". That was the last time I would see Todd alive.

Honest souls make this world a better place because you don't have to mask your feelings around them. You can be who you are. The problem with honest souls is that they are who they are as well. However they don't fit in a world where everyone is in denial about reality to some extent. They are just too damned honest about what they see.

While Dave was initially enthusiastic about our church at the time, he recognized that there was dysfunctional governance and a lack of transparency. He predicted a major crisis at the church and he was right. I was a little too naive to see it at the time.

Todd also saw problems at the parish where we met. He saw problems, but tried to make the best of it by serving others and being a friendly, open person. He recognized other honest souls. He told me his problems and I told him mine. We accepted each other as imperfect people, as simply human.

In a world where nearly everyone masks their true intent and feelings, honest souls are a breath of fresh air. Honest souls create an environment without pretense. In a way, honest souls are the answer to Pilate's question, "What is truth?" Honest souls don't just speak facts that are objectively true, although they do. They embody truth. That's what this world needs.








Sunday, December 31, 2017

Footholds

Most of the time we are preoccupied with the daily tasks of life. We go to work, drop our kids off at school, and think about a myriad of tasks and responsibilities. If we have time to ourselves, we usually find distractions, scrolling through social media, news posts, or watching a show. We long for downtime, but settle for distraction. Why? Why do we fear idle time? Because it is a dangerous time. A time to be totally alone in our thoughts. A time to face ourselves and reflect on who we are (or who we are not). We have an existential angst which comes to the surface when we are alone.

We are living beings, intelligent enough to be self-aware, who are aware of our own agency and actions. Mere survival is not enough. Because we have agency, we have a gift, but it is a double-edge sword. We can spiral into ourselves. To avoid this existential plunge into the abyss, we must grab footholds. What are these footholds?

Thankfulness We must recognize our circumstances and benefactors. We must understand that others have poured into us. Parents, teachers, and mentors. We did not, nor could we have, raised ourselves. The moment we think we are self-made, that the world owes us, is the moment we spiral into narcissism, a gateway to the abyss.

Own Our Decisions  We make decisions that have consequences. Some decisions will further our success, while others will lead to failure. We must own our decisions. The moment we start blaming others for our failures is the moment we begin spiraling into perdition.

Face Our Losses  We will all experience gain and loss in life. We will lose places and people. It is an inevitable part of the human experience. We must face those losses and grieve them. But we must not remain mired in grief. We must again face the world with its risks and joys. If we remain withdrawn from the world, we spiral into darkness.

Be Fully Present  We must be fully present to those around us. If we live in the past or in the future, then we are not here, in the present. As a result the people around us become irrelevant, a void in time. String these empty, distracted moments together and they become a continuous void, a path into the abyss.
"So many people have this idea: I want to achieve something great or be somebody great. And they neglect the step that leads to greatness. They don't honor this step at this moment because they have this idea of some future moment where they are going to be great." -Eckhart Tolle
Service/Care for Others  We must care for those around us. When we care for others, we illuminate our souls. If we harden our hearts, ignoring the needs of those around us, we find another path in the abyss.
“Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person”. -Tennessee Williams
Redemption   Redemption allows us to see and reclaim value in disappointments, bad experiences, human weakness, pain, and grief.
"Nothing [no life experience] is wasted" - Patrick Stewart
A redemptive view reclaims value out of what others consider a loss. The only alternative to a redemptive view is a dark nihilism and that is another path into the abyss.

Faith  Too many of us believe we can live without faith in something (or someone) outside ourselves. It seems fashionable these days to live life with no regard for the infinite or eternal.
 “I realized that no one lives without faith, not even the strictest rationalist”- Tolstoy
As a result, the moral elements of religious teaching have been discarded. The Torah teaches that we were made "Image of God". The Catholic Church teaches that human life is sacred and that the "dignity of the human person" is the foundation of a moral vision for society. A purely materialist view is "survival of the fittest" and as we have seen recently and in history, this is a path into the abyss.

Help  We will need help to find these footholds. Recently, solo climbing of Mt Everest was banned because too many people were dying in the attempt to go it alone. The same is true with us. We need help. We need each other, not just at the beginning of our lives, nor at the end, but all along the way. Let's be humble enough and brave enough to reach out for help when we need it and let's be equally humble and generous to provide the help, to be that foothold that someone else is desperately  looking for. 









Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Silencers of the Lambs

I first wrote this after  the largest (as of 2017) mass shooting in America. Since then 26 people were shot in a church in Texas, numerous schools have had shooting incidents, and now in February of 2018, 17 people have been killed in yet another mass school shooting in Florida.

After every mass shooting in this country, the usual platitudes are proffered. Elected officials call for a "moment of silence" along with "thoughts and prayers" for the victims. The President might visit to console the wounded, the survivors, and praise first-responders. It happens so often, we have memorized the script.

The media will camp out at the crime scene craving any morsel of information. Pundits will endlessly debate as to what motivated the shooter and what signs were missed. They will try to put together a story to make sense of it all, believing that as long as we have a motive, all is well with the world.

The supply chain will eventually be traced. What gun store (or stores) were the weapons purchased from? Were straw buyers involved? Did anyone flag the purchase of so many weapons or thousands of rounds of ammo? The insane amount of firepower available to average citizens is almost never questioned.

I thought about how to address this issue. The usual pro and anti gun arguments are well-worn. The sacredness of the second amendment. Registration will lead to confiscation. So let me narrow the focus down to the religious of this country, specifically Christians, those who claim Christ as their savior.

I assume that Christians would be familiar with scriptures and the oft repeated imperative to "fear not". Yet how is it that we live in an age of fear, fear of crime, fear of terrorists, fear of government tyranny? It is because we feast on media that traffics in fear and outrage. The need for insane amounts firepower is a response to insane amounts of fear and rage.

If believers in Jesus cannot lay aside their fears, then who can? Jesus told the story of a man who was fully armed to protect himself and his home. Then one day, thieves broke in and overpowered him, leading Jesus to ask, "what became of the arms in which the man trusted?". The answer is obvious; at the critical moment, they were ineffective.

It is my hope that believers can separate themselves from this fear-driven, toxic, macho gun culture and see how thoroughly incompatible it is with following Christ. Otherwise we will continue the farce of being a follower of Jesus, pro-life when it comes to the unborn and pro-death when it comes to opposing any restriction on assault weapons.